Monday, 2 February 2015

As Told in the Great Hall - a review

I bought this book a couple of months ago after seeing it mentioned on a blog somewhere.

Nice horse...

The book bills itself as "A Wargamer's Guide to Dark Age Britain. I was hoping for some scenarios and insight that would enable me to play a few interesting games with an authentic Dark Age flavour and maybe teach me a few new things about the period.

What the book actually is is a rule set for Dark Age games along with some questionable history and an awful lot of opinion without many supporting facts.
I suppose I should have been alerted by the cover, which features an image of a chalk white horse. A chalk horse almost certainly carved in the C17th rather than the Dark Ages.

So to start with the history. I’m no expert on the “Dark Ages” but what I do know is that hard and fast “facts” about the period are hard to come by, and much is based on constantly shifting interpretation and evolving research. You don’t get much of that from this book. What you do get are the authors opinions expressed as fact with very few supporting secondary sources. Frequently the “primary” sources for the period are cited – Bede, Gildas the Anglo Saxon chronicle and so on, without any reference to the partial, incomplete and undoubtedly biased opinions expressed by those authors, not to mention the fact that the first two were hardly “contemporary” with much of what they describe. The author seems on stronger ground as the period progresses, but even so his reliance on primary sources leads to some outlandish claims (especially regarding army sizes) in my view.

As an example the author states, apparently without irony, as fact that the Picts are a Scythian tribe (p77),  a theory so divorced from mainstream history that I’d never heard it before. A little Google research indicated this is based upon the writings of early mediaeval scholars, attempting to make use sense of a world they barely understood, where Scythians were shorthand for “others”. In the absence of anything other than fanciful speculation I think I’ll stick with the conventional view that Picts were aboriginal British inhabitants.

Equally incredibly the author states (p.67) that the indigenous inhabitants of Britain were descended from the inhabitants of Troy. This is a theory that cheerfully ignores the wealth of evidence of continuous inhabitation of these islands that predates the foundation of Troy by several millennia. There is no historical evidence for the mythical “Brutus” who allegedly led these exiles from Troy and the view of most mainstream historians are that these “facts” were given credence by mediaeval monarchs in a search for legitimacy and to establish English links with the classical period. Unfortunately this kind of thing rather makes me question the accuracy of much of the rest of what the books presents as historical fact.

I have to confess I haven’t read the rules in any great detail. I didn’t buy it as a rulebook (that’s not how it is billed/advertised) I already have several rulesets, and as this one takes as its starting point the venerable, impenetrable and no fun WRG 6th edition rules – there’s little here to entice me. In addition, the author’s conviction that all armies of the period were essentially shieldwalls means you may find the rules unsuitable for the earlier period when less formal armies may have been the norm.

So, the rules are of no interest and the history is bunk, what of the scenarios? Well unfortunately these too are weak. They consist of a single simple line drawing of deployment and the historical (as the author interprets it) outcome of the battle and that’s it. I was hoping for suggestions of how to recreate elements of the battle on the tabletop, but no. Just line ‘em up and away you go (assuming you agree with the “shieldwall” type deployments).

Finally the whole sub-par package is wrapped up in some not very good writing. Lumpy, rambling sentences filled with sub clauses and repetition abound - the classic mistake that explaining something long-windedly automatically gives it weight and importance. To be fair the editor is as much at fault here as the writer who should have been helped to write in a more concise and engaging style. In addition the author is sometimes allowed to take flight into the realms of purple prose. I laughed out loud at the attempts to make spotting a newspaper clipping sound like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and as for this description of a river “The river here is mesmeric; she is a meandering beauty that flows as gentle as a silk scarf wrapped around the spurs of the mountains that she bisects, her pools are deep and the water clear…then she is a girl scurrying over the shingle of a broad ford…then she screams and cries with pain as she cuts her way through a gorge….” if there were a wargaming equivalent of the literary bad sex award this would be a shoo in.

All of this feels a bit unfair on the writer, who is clearly passionate about his period and merely wants to share that with readers. It seems to me that he’s rather been let down by his publishers and editors who could have helped shape this into something a bit better. Ultimately it feels to me like this really should have been a short series of articles in one of the wargames magazines, where Dan, Guy or Henry would have excised some of the poor writing, and probably insisted on a bit more evidence to back his claims. As it is, it’s an expensive (almost twenty quid) product I’m not able to recommend at all.

If you are looking for a genuinely scholarly attempt to understand some Dark Age battles and to steal some good ideas for gaming then I’d heartily recommend you spend your money instead on Peter Marren’s Battles of the Dark Ages.

Buy this, it's good

Remember, however, whichever one you buy, make sure the sellers are paying their taxes, even if it costs you a little more.


  1. Thanks for the review and saving me some money. I also agree about Battles of the Dark Ages by Peter Marren. It's a great book!

  2. Brilliant book review, I nearly fell off my chair at points!

  3. Thanks for the review Tom, saved me twenty quid, cheers.

    1. I'll bring it along to the next wargame show I'm at and when I inevitably bump into you, I'll lend it to you.

  4. Very refreshing to read a review that's honest. Shame it missed the mark - perhaps one to sit next to Van Danichen on the shelf?