Goonhammer Historicals: Getting Started in Ye Olden Medieval Times

Getting started with a new historicals project can be daunting, especially if you don’t have a handy degree in history or any previous knowledge on what the exact color of a lance in 1421 is. The Goonhammer Historicals Team is happy to help, emerging from the office basement as a groggy Kraken with a range ruler that’s both metric and imperial. 

What exactly are we covering here when talking about “medieval” times?

Lenoon: Out of every common wargaming period, it’s probably most important with “Medieval” to get this right before you buy miniatures. Medieval means many things to many people, and turning up with your Battle of Pavia (1525) army to fight your opponent’s Merovingians (5th-7th centuries) is going to be a disappointment for everyone involved!

Peri: I honestly would play the hell out of a game that let you go Carolingians VS Tercios, but yeah, there are a lot of sub-periods within the Middle Ages, because it is generally speaking a much larger period and topic than most people give it credit for. It’s kinda weird that 1000 years of history get crammed into one little box. The Medieval Period is generally agreed to stretch from somewhere around Odoacer’s conquest of the Italian Peninsula and destruction of one of the Roman Empires in 476 all the way to 1453, when the Ottomans finally got around to finishing the job of the last guy with a name starting in O and ended the other Roman Empire. That said, you could argue for a variety of different starts and ends. Any given point in the timeline would give you a very different wargame, with early medieval games (600ish-900ish) fixating on shieldwalls, high/mid medieval ones (1000ish-1300ish) being very cavalry focused, and late medieval games (1400ish-1600ish)  being right in the middle of the infantry revolution and having a pretty big range of units and tactics compared to earlier periods.

Ilor: It’s also worth pointing out that a lot depends on where you are in the region. For instance in the Baltic/Northwestern Europe, 793 CE starts what is commonly referred to as “The Viking Age.” Scandinavian raiders (and their descendants) would influence a lot of conflicts throughout Europe in the middle ages – for instance with the Normans (themselves descended from vikings who conquered parts of what is now France) establishing their own kingdom in Sicily between 1061 and 1194. And it’s worth noting that when the Normans first got there, Sicily was a Muslim emirate state. That’s before you even get to anything dealing with the Crusades (which ran on and off from 1095 to 1291).

Finished Victrix Norman Warriors
Normans. These dudes got around, and were involved in conflicts all over Europe and the near east. (credit: Ilor)

Zuul: Yeah, Medieval wargaming is a big beast, both regionally and temporal. To me, and this is a very rough outline, I think there are really three main areas of the Middle Ages – Early, High and Late. With the Early Middle Ages, you’re coming out of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the huge amount of societal change and upheaval resulting in lots of small (and very large) wars with factions many of us are familiar with – the Saxons, Franks, Goths of all sorts, the Huns, etc. As that turmoil begins to settle down and you have centralized regional power structures, you begin to see the rise of vast kingdoms with rapidly rising populations and urbanization. Finally, in the Late Middle Ages you have a shift from prosperity to struggle. The Black Death hit in the early 14th century and depopulated Europe to half of what it had been before. It led to more social unrest and wars. 

Foot Serjeants raid a small village. (Credit: Zuul the Cat).

In gaming terms, this short recap of the period means that you can go from Romanesque battles, such as the Gothic peoples coming into clashes with Roman remnants as they search for new lands to settle, to the War of the Roses as the Plantagenet and Yorkist forces battle for the crown. You can field armies of Knights, Saracens, Vikings and more.  It’s important to remember that this period doesn’t have to be Western-eurocentric. Create a force of Saracens to fight in the Middle East, North Africa and even Western Europe (The Battle of Tours in 732).

Enzo: Others have hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the Medieval Era is huge. My favorite joke is that it runs from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in AD 476 to the fall of the Roman Empire in the East in AD 1453. And in that period you have the rise of the Holy Roman Empire in AD 800. It’s a term that has European connotations, but it absolutely stretches into the Levant and North Africa as you include the Crusades and Reconquista. For the most part, the same sort of Norman forces who won at Hastings also fought for Jerusalem and attacked the Byzantine Romans across the Levant and Anatolia.

My current Medieval interests lie at the end of the era, specifically the Italian Wars. While these conflicts are significant for the rise of gunpowder armies, the wars 1494–95 and 1499–1504 still feature classic medieval imagery of knights in full plate armor, armed with lance and sword. I’m painting up some of Perry’s miniatures now. I grabbed a book on the history of the Normans from my local library, so that’ll probably be my next obsession.

What kind of books, podcasts or documentaries  would you recommend to get into the period? 

Lenoon: If you’re looking for a later history of the period, I don’t think you can go wrong with A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. It’s a fantastic read of the Late Middle Age Crisis, a widespread economic, political and religious calamity that arguably led to the transition to the Early Modern world. A lot of the criticisms of it’s scholarly credentials point to why it’s a good intro – it’s blood and guts, corpses and politics. On the other end of the timescale, Tom Holland’s Millennium takes you through 800-1100 and the bridge between early/middle/late Medieval in western Europe at pace and with a real eye for interesting detail.

Ilor: For a more basic and down-to-earth approach, Gies & Gies’ Life in a Medieval Castle and Life in a Medieval Village outline some of the basic concepts that inform how warfare was handled in the middle ages. Understanding feudalism, fealty, peasant levies, etc give you insight into why wars were fought the way they were. Spoiler: it’s good to be the king! I also found Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine fascinating as well, and wargamers will find its bits on architecture, construction, and siege engines interesting.

Zuul: For me the main reason I’m interested in the Early & High Middle Ages all comes down to painting. I love heraldry, so I have many books on the subject. I can recommend the following (Links to AbeBooks): The Flowering of the Middle Ages by Joan Evans, The Complete Book of Heraldry: An International History of Heraldry and Its Contemporary Uses by Stephen Slater, A Complete Guide to Heraldry by Arthur C. Fox-Davies, The Dictionary of Heraldry: Feudal Coats of Arms and Pedigress by Jospeh Foster (I recommend spending the money on the large one with the blue cover – it’s full of illustrations of coat of arms – perfect for inspiration).

Heraldry is a lot of fun to paint. (Credit: Zuul the Cat)

Enzo: Lots of great recommendations. I’ll through out the History of the Crusades podcast and its sister, the Reconquista. The host takes a good overall look at the history of the Crusades from 1095 and Pope Urban’s first call to take up the Cross, through the later Crusades into Eastern Europe. The Reconquista covers the Iberian Peninsula, starting with the the Umayyad conquest of Hispania from the Visigoths.

What kind of models fit the time period?

Lenoon: Who doesn’t make “Medieval” models! My favourites are the Viking range from Bad Squiddo – plausible in the most part all the way through the early half of the Medieval – and the slowly increasing number of late medieval models Annie is selling. There’s “historical” and slightly fantasy-inspired versions of Aethelflaed (9th century) and Caterina Sforza and Lucretia Borgia (15th century), but the best is Jeanne de Clisson, an absolutely wonderful sculpt of everyone’s favourite Hundred Years War pirate

Jean de Clisson, Bad Squiddo. Credit: Lenoon

Peri: Buy Perry Miniatures Agincourt Foot Knights. It’s the best box I have found for armored infantry, and it is pretty cheap. I am generally a huge fan of the Perry Miniatures late medieval models, their Mercenaries, Agincourt, and Hundred Years War lines have some really nice plastics.

Lenoon: Total agreement there, the Perry plastics are fantastic and there are late medieval versions too! I’ve just bought a box to go with Jeanne up there.

Ilor: Victrix makes great Saxons (early medieval), Vikings (Viking age), and Normans (High Medieval). I’ve reviewed their kits for the site and I am a huge fan of their stuff. If you want to field some stuff that’s different, Fireforge Games puts out a nice range of medieval figures ranging from Spanish Almughavars to Berber infantry to Byzantine cataphract heavy cavalry. Finally, Gripping Beast (publishers of the popular SAGA ruleset) have a wide range of figures for much of the medieval period.

Victrix Normans and Vikings in action!
On the tabletop, some Norman warriors face off against marauding Vikings. (credit: Ilor)

Zuul: My recommendations most revolve around feudal knights since that’s what I’m currently painting, but I really love the character in the Foostore Miniature’s models (also their US supplier, Special Artizan Service Miniatures) .They have an entire Welsh range for Early Middle Ages along with the range I have the most experience with, their Baron’s War range (soon to expand into the Crusades following their successful kickstarter!).

Archers from the Barons’ War line. (Credit: Zuul the Cat)

If metal isn’t your thing, Fireforge Games has an incredible amount of specific Medieval miniatures that are a dream to build and paint up. One of my favorite thing about them is that they have non-western focused models, like the Mongols or the Armies of Islam. 

Lastly, it’s more a boutique shop but I absolutely adore the historical range from Antediluvian Miniatures. Many of their models revolve around The Wars of the Bruces (so you should watch Outlaw King on Netflix to get inspired) but they fit in well with really anything from the 11th century forward. The thing I love most about these models is the dynamic nature of them. Lots of life and motion in each model. Great to paint up! 

Footsore Miniatures’ Crossbowmen from the Barons’ War line. (Credit: Zuul the Cat)

Enzo: As others have said, you can more or less break up the entire era into three sections when looking at models. For the 5th to 10th Century, most mini sellers will annoying refer to them as “Dark Age” armies or such. These are your Goths and Visigoths and Mall Goths, late Western Roman Empire and early “Byzantines”, and your Vikings and occasionally Normans are listed here. Victrix makes some great kits for this. For miniatures specific to the Crusades, you’re still looking at Normans and such for the Levant Crusades, as well as forces to represent the Seljuk Turks and their allies. Perry Miniatures makes a fine collection of these. The “classic” look of the High Medieval era, in my mind, is knights in mail with great helms. To not repeat my love of Perry but to still adore their designs, check out Wargames Foundry’s line of “Early Medieval/Baron’s War” minis. For late Medieval going into the Renaissance, there’s Perry’s Foot Knights, which I reviewed for this great site. I also love their mounted knights and light cavalry kits. You can add to this with Warlord Game’s landsknecht collection.

These models are from Perry Miniatures, both their mounted men at arms and foot knights.
In the background, you an see a copy of Pope Formosus and Stephen VI. It shows how dedicated I am to medieval history and how loving my wife is. Credit: Enzo da Baker.

Which rulesets give the most bang for your buck?

Lenoon: I haven’t had the pleasure of playing it yet but I hear good things about Never Mind the Billhooks. On the “I have played it” front, Lion Rampant is an Osprey system that’s fast, flexible and relatively period-agnostic. You can use the same ruleset to play with any and all conflicts in the period, and while it lacks a lot of the character something like SAGA brings to different armies and nations, it reflects the reality that being on either side of a line defined by some guy with a crown didn’t really change that much about the way you fought. It’s a solid, fun ruleset you’ll be able to learn (but not master) in an hour. 

Lion Rampant. Credit: Osprey

Peri: I played a lot of Lion Rampant back in the day, and it is definitely a serviceable ruleset. It is agonizingly generic though, which can be a good thing but I honestly would have liked supplements for more specific conflicts/nations in there. They might exist, in which case I will look like a huge idiot for not knowing, but I haven’t read them. I recently read through Never Mind the Billhooks and it seems really good, I am currently waiting on a chance to play it. 

Nevermind the Billhooks. Credit: Wargames Illustrated

Ilor: I have played Lion Rampant and agree that it has “fast and fun” appeal, though I agree it’s pretty generic. I also found the leader traits tiresome and not terribly useful. SAGA is extremely cool from the perspective of giving different eras/forces a lot of flavor, but it is in many ways a tournament game. This can lead to some wildly ahistorical match-ups, especially if you’re using all of the expansions. But for my money, Too Fat Lardies’ Dux Britanniarum ruleset is amazing. While it’s intended to be about the Saxon conquest of England, we found it really easy to adapt to later conflicts (we were doing Viking conquest games, but even the Norman conquest would be doable with very little modification). And what really separates Dux out for me is its built-in campaign support, where you are creating a series of linked battles as the sides vie for control of territory. Finally, I haven’t played it yet, but I also hear good things about Oathmark.

Saga: Age of Crusades. Credit: Gripping Beast

The Baron’s War Ruleset, credit: Footsore

Zuul: This is mostly an echo of Ilor’s post above –  I agree that Lion Rampant is a fun beer and pretzels game, along with SAGA. SAGA is really fun because of the specific faction boards it uses to enable special abilities that are themed around each force (for example, Mongol boards have abilities that foster movement). Baron’s War from Andy Hobday is one of the rulesets I’m most excited about – they currently have 2 rulebooks out The Baron’s War and Death and Taxes, an expansion. A third rulebook, Outremer, will be coming out soon following their kickstarter that centers around The Crusades.

Getting out and about

Lenoon: If you’re in Europe or the UK, you’re probably about ten minutes from your local castle or other fortification, most likely from the castle-building frenzy of the 12th-14th centuries. If you’re planning a big ol trip though or you’re from across the pond and you want to see some real fuckin’ awesome Medieval architecture, you can’t go wrong with going to the North Wales Castles – Conwy, Harlech, the incomparable Beaumaris, Caernafon and Criccieth. You’ll never see finer castles in closer proximity and really makes you wonder if wargaming rules are underselling the Medieval Welsh – what a people we were to need such castles to conquer us!

Impeccable perfection. Caernarfon Castle. Credit: Cadw/Visit Wales

Peri: For us godless, castle-less Americans, there are a lot less options more locally. Some of the sites around Jamestown and Williamsburg have some information and artifacts on the 1500s, and one of the two of those had a really good exhibit about life in 1500s London, I am 90% sure it is Jamestown but I am not positive anymore.

Ilor: I’m going to go a little farther afield and say that if you ever get the chance to bum around the old city of Acco (Acre) or Jerusalem in Israel, both are absolutely worth a trip. The Hospitaller castle in Acco is amazing.

Hospitaller castle Acco Israel
Support columns and vaulted ceiling of the refectory in the Hospitaller castle. The old city of Acco (Acre) in Israel is packed full of cool stuff (like the tunnel the Templars dug to connect their chapterhouse to the docks) and is definitely worth a visit!

Zuul: I have some non-traditional examples. While we do have a lack of real castles in the U.S., I definitely recommend an evening of entertainment at Medieval Times. While it’s very campy, it’s a fun night out and the costumes are fantastic. Just don’t pay too much attention to the plot. Likewise, you should check out other living history examples – check to see if the SCA is active in your area and you can attend (the SCA folks try really hard to adhere to heraldic rules) or a Ren Faire. 

Movies, shows and games

Lenoon: Play Crusader Kings 2. Or play Crusader Kings 3, but until I can finally pull off the Zoroastrian Welsh reconquista I’m not moving on to number 3.

Peri: You can not only do the Zoroastrian Welsh Reconquista, they let you create a hybrid Persio-Welsh culture now. CK3 and CK2 are both very good, but CK2 is the more complete game at the moment, but CK3 has it beat easily on playability and is probably the easiest Paradox game for new players. EU4 also covers the late medieval period in its early years, but that game is a bit more focused on the early modern period instead. Medieval 2 Total War is another pretty good medieval game, though it is showing its age now. Kingdom Come Deliverance is a fantastically well researched game about Medieval Bohemia, and I really need to finish it.

Ilor: Go watch the director’s cut of “Kingdom of Heaven.” Like now. Then go retro and see Rutger Hauer tear it up in “Flesh & Blood.” For some great siege, battle, and duel scenes “Ironclad” is surprisingly good. I’m not sure how historically accurate its retelling of the Battle of Agincourt is, but “The King” is worth watching if for nothing more than watching Robert Pattinson absolutely chew the scenery as the Dauphin of France. Then maybe watch the first couple of seasons of Vikings. I haven’t watched “The Last Kingdom” series (which already has 5 seasons on Netflix), but I’ve read all 11? 12? of Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Chronicles” books on which it is based, and while they are full of tropes they’re fun inspiration for games.

Zuul: Ilor knows what’s good. I completely endorse all his film recommendations above, plus – Knights of the Round Table from 1953 starring Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner and the 1952 film Ivanhoe featuring Robert Taylor once again alongside Elizabeth Taylor. Neither of them are particularly accurate, but they’re fun movies with wonderful costumes. 

Enzo: I’ll copy that The King (2019) is entertaining. It’s not particularly accurate to history, as its more intended to copy Shakespeare’s Henry V than the actual events. Still, it has a good battle scene. Outlaw King is about Robert the Bruce and Scottish independence. It has accuracy issues (all movies do, and it’s better to just read some good books to go along side them rather than complain while watching). It also has some pacing issues, but the climatic battle is fantastic.