This solo scenario is based on the battle of Ethandun, or Edington, as described by Bernard Cornwall in his novel ‘The Pale Horseman’. Cornwell bases his account of the battle primarily on John Peddie’s excellent ‘Alfred, Warrior King’. I’m using the fictional account because it provides lots of options for chance to intervene; in any case, like most battles of the period there are few reliable historical facts to hand.
Rather than simply re-run the sequence of events described in the novel, I’m going to plunder Cornwell’s version of the battle for a selection of random events that can be woven into a table top game. I am, however, going to begin with a layout that is pretty faithful to Cornwell’s account. I’m using the ‘Hordes of the Things’ (HoTT) rules in a house version to play out the game, but any suitable rule set will do.
The photo above shows the basic set-up.
On the Saxon side, working from left to right, we have:
i) Fyrd troops under Wiglaf (HoTT Spears plus one Blade).
ii) Alfred and his bodyguard (two HoTT Blade elements).
iii) Uhtred of Bebbanburg with Leofric, Pyrlig and Steapa (a HoTT Hero element).
iv) The Fyrds of Wiltunscir and Suth Seaxa under Osric (HoTT Spears).
Across the battlefield we have the Danes. Going from right to left this time, they comprise:
i) Svein of the White Horse, at the rear of the main line (a HoTT hero element).
ii) Svein’s Danish warbands, along with turncoat Fyrd troops commanded by the treacherous Wulfhere, who has defected to the Danes’ side (HoTT Warbands and Spears).
iii) Within the hill fort (I know, I know – it was the best I could do at short notice!), we have Guthrum the Unlucky, overall commander of the Danes and not a big fan of his ally Svein. His troops are a mix of HoTT Blade and Warband. In the photo, Guthrum’s element provides the hinge on which the line bends.
In the far left corner at the very rear is the unguarded weak point in the hill fort defences, a point from which an enterprising little band of Saxon Fyrdmen (HoTT Spears) may, as per the novel, launch a surprise attack on Guthrum’s apparently impregnable position.
The novel provides a whole skein of “what if” options for the game. One of the best things about the description of the battle is that Cornwell emphasizes the two aspects of warfare which are often downplayed – morale and chance. In theory, the Danes should win easily. In practice, a number of random events tilt the balance the other way. As options for the solo game, the following elements of the account need to be modelled as possible events:
i) The defection of Wulfhere’s Fyrd back to the Saxon side as the shield walls on the right approach each other.
ii) The positive or negative effect on the Saxons if the rogue Fyrd does rejoin them, either strengthening the Saxons or inadvertently breaking their shield wall.
iii) Single combat between Uhtred and Svein, and – depending on the outcome – the impact it has on the two sides.
iv) The decision of Guthrum to (a) reinforce Svein, (b) attack Alfred’s flank as it advances on the right, or (c) stay put and hold his troops in reserve.
v) If Guthrum does launch an attack, what will he do about the Fyrd troops facing him? Will he advance to meet them, or hold the front edge of the hill fort to keep them pinned without risking any loss?
vi) And finally, there is the possibility of a rear attack by those sneaky Fyrd troops, which could turn Guthrum’s defensive position into a death trap…
Note that to keep more or less in line with the fictional account, a number of assumptions are made here:
i) As per Alfred’s orders, the left wing of the Saxon army will not launch an attack on Guthrum’s wall until the fight on the Saxon right has been resolved. Until then it will hold a static position – unless it’s attacked.
ii) Guthrum may choose to act at any point by committing more troops to the fight, but unless he launches an all out attack right along his line he will not leave the walls of the hill fort unmanned (i.e. he won’t risk the possibility of the uncommitted Saxon left wing flanking his charging troops or taking the hill fort). In game terms, the Danes on the hill fort facing the Saxon left flank are effectively pinned by them.
iii) The rear attack on Guthrum, if it occurs at all, will not take place unless and until the Saxon right flank is victorious and Svein’s troops are destroyed.
Anyone familiar with the novel will see that I’ve fudged a couple of issues here when it comes to timing; but as I’m using the book as a source to mine for ideas I hope that is acceptable.
In my next post (after a bit of play testing!) I’ll set out some options for modelling the chance events mentioned above – and also look at what might comprise suitable “victory conditions” for each side.