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    Guy Farrish

    About a year ago I got a burr under my saddle about the way wargames rules differentiate ‘units’ in mediaeval (inc ‘Dark Ages’) games. https://www.thewargameswebsite.com/forums/topic/armoured-men-in-units-or-not/

    On Saturday 26 January I attended Crusade in Penarth and one of the highlights, apart from my heart going into Atrial Fibrilation humping an orange box of heavy books up hill from the car park, was the talk by Rob Jones on Medieval Infantry Tactics. He has been visiting research fellow at the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds and part time lecturer in medieval history in Cardiff University. He is the author of several books and papers on medieval warfare.

    (What follows includes my interpretation of what he said. I have attempted to convey his views accurately, but if I accidentally misrepresent any of his thesis I apologise and will be happy to correct it if prodded in the right direction).

    One caveat that Rob made at the beginning I would reiterate here, particularly in the company of wargamers, is that the primary sources tell us very little about what we would like to know about medieval battle. (as Ruarigh has mentioned before I think). From where they came from in society, to who turned up, via what they were armed with and how they were armoured through to the numbers present there is a lot of ‘don’t knows’

    All of which I think we probably know, but often forget because some writers can be incredibly persuasive in extrapolating from very little.

    Beware the ‘colour artists’ striding across random pieces of moor with reenactment extras in the background declaiming ‘we can imagine the [insert preferred supertroop of choice] slicing like a butcher’s knife through the [unarmoured victim for the day] as they smashed into them’.

    The other caveat is the time span of ‘mediaeval’ warfare. Ranging from the end of the Roman Empire in the West to the Renaissance, warfare exhibits differences during this time!

    I particularly enjoyed Rob’s talk because it backed up a couple of my own beliefs about Medieval warfare in wargames terms – that there is probably too much manoeuvre by sub unit and  that it is ‘difficult’ to make an exciting game of it without ceasing to have any relevance to history. Not impossible, but the resulting game is unlikely to look a lot like a standard wargame as currently configured for the period.

    Somewhat in the face of post Verbruggen historiographical moves away from Oman’s traducing of Medieval commanders skills, Jones has quite severe doubts about the quality of skill and manoeuvre that went on in a medieval battle, particularly the foot component. His lecture particularly seemed to reference thirteenth and fourteenth century battle but did have a broad sweep referring to early twelfth century to late 15th century (with caveats).

    This doubt stemmed from a couple of points not so much about medieval commanders as with what they had to work with  – how well trained most combatants were (possibly not very, including knights – although there are conflicting hints in sources that could suggest more or less skill at arms among retinues) and how armies were organised, if that is not too strong a word, on the field of battle.

    My question a year ago on this forum was about whether we separate armoured men, knights, sergeants, esquires into discrete units away from the hoi polloi. We discussed the way wargames rules almost always separate them out, so we have small, well trained, high morale units of knight etc and larger units of spears, mixed weapons and bowmen. I felt that perhaps this was not how it always really happened but how did we make a game of the mixed units? Ruarigh suggested Poleaxed 2, which to my shame I have not pursued as yet.

    Rob Jones posited the thought that the people turning up from levies and indeed many retinues were a family (extended in the broadest sense of the word) based set of troops and amongst them would be men in full plate, some in mail, some minimally armoured. Their weaponry would also vary between some sword and axe wielding knights, spears and bows all mixed up as a response to the lord’s summons in response to the King’s orders. Did a commander at the muster, often on the field, then separate the close knit group into bowmen, spear, improvised hand weapons and swordsmen, and the differently protected groups and distribute them among the battles in similarly armed and armoured groups? Or did they use the morale and ‘buddy group’ advantages of keeping them together in mixed, kinship/locality groups?

    I read something recently about Samurai warfare ‘suffering’ a similar misrepresentation in western interpretations of battles with ‘clan’ multi-armed groups being split into ‘Yari armed ashigaru’ and ‘naginata armed groups’ whereas they may have stayed together in their multi-armed and armoured ‘mobs’. I don’t know enough about Japanese warfare to comment but it seemed reasonable and Roger Calderbank mentioned it after the talk.

    This latter idea gives us a very different kind of an army than neatly defined homogenous units and subunits of men, armed and armoured each in their own way. Rather we have Vaward, Main and Rearward battles perhaps with a reserve, each comprised of mixed groups of bowmen spears and men at arms under their own banner. This makes for great morale and possibly small group cohesion as you fight with and for your individual lord, his household and the group socially and culturally known to you and near neighbours. It does however make a large unwieldy mob of fairly lumpy proportions. Gone are homogeneous sub units zipping off on flank marches and instant reactions to small tactical gaps. We have three or four mixed ‘mobs’ advancing or holding ground.

    This may be a bit too much of a leap backwards to Oman et al for some, but for me it largely works depending on the era and the campaigns we are talking about. Later medieval battles in European theatres with professionals, and for example most of the campaigns of the Wars of the Roses, where the short campaign spans precluded calling out levies, may have had more control and unit homogeneity in armament.

    It is frequently suggested that the group turning up in response to an indenture or summons may have included multiple types of soldier: archers, spear, hobilars, men at arms in what is often called a ‘lance’ but that this was an admin unit and tactically they were separated for battle. RJ suggested that this may not have been a practical proposition in many instances where the transition from admin to tactical deployment was so rapid that it would not allow for separation and re-combination.

    So what happened? Well the mob stood there with possibly each group’s archers stepping forward to shoot until it was time to retire into the protection of the pointy stick mob, shooting perhaps at point blank range for maximum effect as the enemy mob arrived and then leaving the spears to hold the enemy off. Then perhaps the armoured men with axes, morningstars, swords and falchions sallied forth to have a hack and do the real damage. Spears are often characterised as being VERY tightly packed but people wielding two handed swords, axes and poleaxes must have required considerably more space per person to be effective.

    How to turn this into a wargame?

    We ran out time before detailed thoughts could be exchanged, but I suspect a leadership game of managing an aggression/fear continuum of your minimobs within each battle, timing of change between archers, spear and armoured types as the principal combatants at particular moments and some sort of loss of cohesion of the whole might work. But it isn’t going to involve galloping around the scenery much.

    How do cavalry fit? Do they get to do the exciting flank marches? What do they do to our three/four mobs? Are they in the mobs? If so how? Rob doesn’t think the distinctions between ‘cavalry’ and ‘infantry’ existed quite so clearly as those nineteenth century military types who started military history studies of the period believed.

    How many mounted people fought on horseback? How many light horse were really fully armoured? How many infantry rode to battle and dismounted?

    Different periods, different theatres and different campaigns probably all answer these questions slightly differently.

    I may be pootling about with figures in differing configurations to see if anything can emerge that makes me feel historically happier while not being bored in game terms.

    Don’t hold your breath though – in the meantime I shall go and hunt down Poleaxed 2.

    Mike Headden

    I’ve read the same about Samurai forces, two or three times recently. It makes a lot of sense to me. Whatever combined arms training both western and far eastern forces of the time got would be in their “familial” groups. Would you really parcel them out among strangers to face the stress of battle?

    Currently twiddling about with a system using 3mm O8 Samurai mounted on rows that fit in a movement frame.

    Units consists of some or all of – front rank of missile Ashigaru, second rank of melee Ashigaru, third rank of melee samurai, fourth rank is the lord and his retinue, fifth and final rank of cavalry. The actual position of the ranks in the real world is not modelled.

    Each troop type adds something to the unit’s offence/ defence/ cohesion. Losses remove a row at a time, chosen by the owning player if engaged frontally or in the flank and by the opposing player if hit in the rear. Each loss reduces one or more of the three stats.

    Currently it’s a mish-mash of badly coordinated rules but it may eventually become something worth using for solo games, at least.

    Perhaps I should consider a Dark Age version while watching “Vikings” 🙂


    Growing old is mandatory, growing up is entirely optional!

    Not Connard Sage

    Nice, tidy, differentiated ‘units’ are a wargames conceit, it makes rules writing easier. Until properly organised standing armies (re)appeared I don’t think they existed in real life. How the differently armed odds and sods sorted themselves out on the battlefield is another question though.

    Japan, with its even more strictly delineated feudal hierarchies, is a bigger nightmare.

    And did someone mention the renaissance? No-one today can really explain how pike and shot formations worked either…

    I think I’ll stick to horse and musket, but I’ll be watching this thread with interest 🙂


    "I go online sometimes, but everyone's spelling is really bad. It's... depressing."


    I suspect mobs are more like it once the professional armies of the classical age are gone. According to Oman, Simon de Monfort’s (senior) big trick was keeping a fourth battle in reserve. This would appear and fall on the Albigensian flank. They were always in three battles and hung out to dry by the unfair intervention of the fourth battle.


    If they were mobs, then the activation system of DBA is probably a better fit than most others. There was also a free set called Saxon Dogs that consisted of getting your shield wall worked up enough to charge.

    This too shall pass


    IMHO there was no separation if the actual tactical role was not really different. For example, in the HYW you’d have some light bidauts running around in front; large unit(s) of bowmen or crossbowmen; perhaps sometimes one unit with a special role (lancers with pavises etc) depending on what was available… and the famous large “battles” with men-at-arms in the first rank and all their other less armoured followers stuck very closely behind their back (“bite à cul” as I heard it say in the 20th C. French army, pardon my Klatchian) and totally unable to act separately as a sub-unit or whatever. Cavalry would follow a similar pattern.


    Roger Calderbank

    Thank you, Guy, for a very good and complete summary of Rob Jones’s talk, and the problems of translating mediaeval battles to the wargame table. I fear you may be right that it is difficult to make a good game that keeps close to history. Mind you, probably the same is true for lots of other periods. I suspect I have far more control over my Ancients troops than any general could ever hope to have.

    For samurai, the idea of ‘mobs’ seems strong, if you look at any of the battle depictions (and there is a question how representative they are, of course). There tends to be just a scrum of men, with all possible weapons mixed together. In general, there is very little other information available (particularly in English) that goes beyond identification of clan leaders and the approximate size of the force they led. That chimes with Rob Jones’s comments about mediaeval sources not telling us what we (as gamers) want to know.

    On the Renaissance part of this forum, Usagitsuki has posted his use of adapted boardgame rules to play samurai battles. https://www.thewargameswebsite.com/forums/topic/6mm-sengoku-jidai-game/ The game has blocks of troops with varying shooting/elan/mass values representing different mixes of missile troops, samurai and ashigaru (spear or pike armed). Effectively, each block is a mob, with the troops in the mob varying somewhat depending on their clan origin. The game itself seems to provide interest by the way the order system works, which probably isn’t appropriate for mediaeval games. The origin in a boardgame also means it uses a grid, which I know you have said you don’t like. But at least it is a step away from ‘units’ characterised by their armour and weapons.

    Best of luck with your attempts to find a way of making mob fights interesting.



    I was wondering if a DBA-type system, but with indivisible groups, might work.  Or double/triple the PIPs required to move individual bases, so armies would have to  operate in only a few groups to be effective.


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