• Medieval II: Reviews of Scotland: An Alternative History by Balor and Historia Rhomaike by Roman Heritage

    Medieval II: Reviews of Scotland: An Alternative History by Balor
    and Historia Rhomaike by Roman Heritage

    By Alwyn

    Medieval II remains a very popular game for writing AARs. Even now, over a decade after its release in 2006, when a new AAR begins in the Writers' Study it's often a Medieval II tale. With so many Medieval II AARs already written, we might be tempted to believe that there is nothing interesting left to say, no way to surprise a reader. However, this review introduces two AARs which show that, if we believe that, we're making a mistake - and missing an opportunity to discover some 'hidden gems' of the Writers' Study. I am not saying that Balor's Scotland: An Alternative History and Roman Heritage's Historia Rhomaike do something which no AAR has ever done before. I am suggesting that each writer uses their own distinctive style which has the capacity to interest us, entertain us and even surprise us.

    Scotland: An Alternative History by Balor

    The year is 1276 and Gille Patraic mac Eógain is King of Scotland. He has ruled from Athens since he conquered the city in 1270. The other great families include the highland mac Broccin of Scotland, the ancient mac Amlaib clan who control the west of the British Isles and the dreaded mac Chormaic clan who dominate the eastern Baltic. - Chapter II
    In a Scotland AAR, we would not be surprised to be introduced to a King of Scotland. However, I would not have expected him to be ruling from Athens! Here, Balor demonstrates a great way to engage readers: give them something familiar and then add a twist, something unexpected. AARs often start at the beginning of the campaign. While there is nothing wrong with this, Balor chose another option: to begin at a time when his Scotland has already built an empire across a large span of territory.

    Starting an AAR when your faction has an empire might cause your tale to lose tension. The fight for survival of a small nation can be exciting; can the same tension be achieved when the player's faction has an empire? Yes, it can: Balor used the game-play before the AAR begins to create a challenging strategic situation. His Scottish empire has far-flung colonies which face the threat of invasion from Lithuania to Venice and (potentially) Mongol hordes. Starting at this stage of the campaign also provides for a good mix of defensive and offensive battles, as Scotland's armies fight to hold onto their new possessions as well as to expand.

    Since Scotland starts with an empire, readers might wonder which nation (or nations) will be the chief rivals of the Scots. In early chapters, several candidates are mentioned - perhaps it will be the Mongols, or the Lithuanians, or the English. As you can see from the campaign map in Chapter V, England as acquired its own empire - and might threaten Scotland's independence - but, in this AAR as in history, sometimes events go in an unexpected direction. Even if the player knows how history will develop (because you have played ahead of the current chapter of your AAR), uncertainty about what will happen next can get your readers thinking and speculating. By showing us developments on the campaign map as well as the battle-field, Balor got me interested in the fortunes of other factions, as well as his Scotland.

    Of course, AARs don't have to focus only on grand strategy. Highlighting the turning points and dilemmas which individual characters face can be a good way to engage readers and Balor does this well:-

    After an ambitious yet surprisingly uncontested crusade against Mongol held settlements in eastern Anatolia, Prince Gille Eogan reached Quarisiya on the border with Baghdad. The French had captured the city a year previously and the Prince had a decision to make: move east to help defend Baghdad from the hordes now pouring through the Zagros mountains or march his army to the coast.- Chapter III
    As well as deciding to start his AAR at an interesting point in his campaign, Balor has varies the level of detail in his story-telling. Not every battle will be reported in full (or at all). For example, some parts of the campaign are covered briefly and efficiently:-

    Prince Gille Eogan quite rightly believed that marching to the aid of Baghdad would be folly and instead moved west to take Damascus and Tortosa on the coast. Damascus he gave to the Seljuks whereas Tortosas he kept, intending to hold it as a base for future endeavors in the area. - Chapter III
    I see this as good technique; as Balor is selective about the level of detail he provides, he maintains the momentum of his story. When Balor reports on battles, the images and text make the action easy to follow. As you can see from the example below, Balor sets up the camera well for screenshots, showing us a good view of the unfolding action. Unusually, he often doesn't cut out the user interface in the lower part of the screen. Some AAR writers like to crop out the user interface, to immerse the reader more in the image. Of course, this is something about which writers can reasonably disagree. Keeping the user interface in screenshots provides additional information to the reader about the units involved in the battle. Readers of these reviews might want to comment (at the end of this review) on which option you prefer and why.

    (Chapter VI)

    Balor does not only use screenshots to illustrate the story. In parts of this AAR, the images are the story. In Chapter VI, for example, two battles are reported almost entirely through screenshots. By doing this, Balor shows us that he has learned two important lessons about AAR writing. The first is that sometimes it's more effective not to tell your readers everything - by letting readers' imaginations fill in the gaps, he immerses us more deeply in his story. The second is that stories which are easy to follow keep us reading. When I think of books which kept me wanting to read 'just one more chapter', this wasn't the only method which the authors used to keep me reading on - but it was one of their methods. Of course, reporting a battle using only images is not the only way to do this, but it's a way which works.

    We learn about the challenges which Scotland faces, turning points in battles and the lessons which generals learn from their experiences. In Chapter V, Matne uses improved tactics to win another victory, causing his Lithuanian enemies to fear the Baltic Scots. In Chapter IV, we discover what turned the tide when a Scottish army came close to defeat:-

    The battle raged ferociously at the city gate - our pikemen and spearmen managing to hold the enemy while our catapults reigned fire from above. Unfortunately the inaccuracy of the catapults led to many fallen Scotsmen and the Lithuanian infantry proved stronger than our own. They were able to take the city walls and join the attack on our position at the gate. The day was almost lost until Matne committed himself and his cavalry militia to the fray. This timely intervention and the death of the enemy general led to the pagans routing and abandoning the attack. - Chapter IV
    When we write an AAR, many in-game events can occur in the time covered by a single chapter. If we include too many events, jumping from one part of the campaign map to another, then readers can find the action difficult to follow. Balor avoids this by focusing on a few significant events in each chapter. This AAR helps us to follow events by showing us the campaign map and diplomacy screen. Balor goes further than this in Chapter XVI, presenting a report on his armies, navies and the regions of Scotland's empire at this stage in his campaign. This provides a useful reference point when Scotland has many armies; it shows us the different types of units in Scotland's armies. For example, Scotland's armies in Britain rely on cannon and pikemen, while armies elsewhere have very different compositions. A couple of lines about each army adds useful details and gives us a glimpse of the personalities of Scotland's generals. To make this AAR even better, I wonder if the very different army compositions and the personalities of the generals could have been brought out more explicitly, in reports of battles. To be fair, we do see different types of armies in action, so this is not a major issue - and we do hear about unusual units in action, for example:-

    Once the first Norwegian assault failed, the ribault and main force moved on the city square. There Feradach held his line, his weathered galloglaich supported by the sharp and deadly javelins of his kerns and the expert aim of his noble highland archers. - Chapter VII

    Balor also makes good use of the family tree feature of Medieval II, with different branches of the family ruling in different parts of Europe:-

    The main ruling families are the royal mac Eogaín clan in Britain, the dreaded mac Chormaic clan in the Baltic, the loyal mac Gartnait clan of Rhodes and the martial mac Bróccín clan who have taken Antwerp, Bruges and Burgos in the space of half a decade. - Chapter IX
    Balor's AAR nicely highlights the strategic decisions which players make in an enjoyable campaign. For example, his Scotland has acquired colonies but has not unified Britain and Ireland under its rule - England remains independent. The choice of whether (and when) to invade England is clearly a significant one, particularly since Scotland has had a useful alliance with England - and since there are other significant potential threats to Scotland:-

    Our allies in England have been severely weakened and uniting Britain under the mac Eogaín dynasty is a tempting prospect. However, the mac Eogain's have ever been cautious rulers and perhaps an aggressive Papal States empire combining military and religious fervor is a bigger foreign policy concern at this time. In any case, our great project, begun under King Gille Eogan, is almost complete: a heavy pike army with powerful artillery and cavalry support. It is the greatest force we have ever fielded, perhaps even the greatest in Christendom, and a prudent King would use it wisely. - Chapter VI
    With its well-chosen time period, wise use of different levels of detail to maintain momentum and avoid overloading readers with details, its accessible style and insights into the strategic challenges which Balor's Scotland faces, this AAR has a lot to offer. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the popular Stainless Steel mod, Balor's AAR demonstrates the game-play which users of this mod can enjoy - and, in the opening post of the AAR there are useful recommendations for sub-mods to add to Stainless Steel 6.4. This AAR has been well-received by readers, who offered suggestions and expressed their appreciation for well-crafted screenshots and writing.

    Historia Rhomaike by Roman Heritage

    Different AARs offer different things to their readers. Historia Rhomaike - the History of (Eastern) Rome - has much to offer. Some readers might be looking for information on the effects of mods. While many AARs for Medieval II use Stainless Steel (and sub-mods) or Third Age (and sub-mods), this AAR demonstrates another impressive mod for Medieval II, Bellum Crucis. Some readers might be interested in the history of the player's faction - the Eastern Rome Empire, also called the Byzantine Empire. As well as learning about the mod and Byzantine history, the interest of readers could be engaged by the ambitious challenge which Roman Heritage set for himself:-

    In this AAR you'll read two different accounts, both fictional: one is the medieval opera, the Historia Rhomaike, and the other is a commentary to the opera written by fictional 20th Century byzantinist Alexios Kiriopoulos. Everything you see in brackets and cursive is supposed to be an excerpt from the original opera; everything else is a modern reflection on the opera. I thought this style would allow me greater freedom, since it gives both the challenge of writing in a hopefully plausible XIVth Century style, and the occasion to analyze in depth the reasons for campaigns, battles, reforms and rebellions. - from 'About this AAR', in the Introduction
    Roman Heritage also says that he intends to role-play the actions of major characters. His Byzantine empire will struggle when led by a weak emperor, generals will not always follow orders and the empire will sometimes seek peace, not war. Role-playing can be an effective way to add drama and historical realism to an AAR. The historical realism goes further. This AAR offers, in its introduction, a guide to the historical organisation and units of the Eastern Roman Empire, in the period in which Bellum Crucis is set (1155 to 1453). In fact, Roman Heritage goes beyond this time period, commenting on developments in the Eastern Roman army in previous centuries. I see this additional historical depth as a good thing: if AAR writers want to create authentic historical stories, then we do not want readers to feel that our faction was created from nowhere at the start of the campaign. Roman Heritage's knowledge of historical developments affecting Eastern Rome before his campaign began helps to make his AAR authentic.

    As well as commenting on the general organisation of Eastern Roman armies, Roman Heritage introduces us to important units, commenting on their role and equipment. When an AAR allows factions to create units with names such as Oikeioi, Varrangoi and Vardariotai, this unit names might mean nothing to a reader who is not already familiar with the history or this mod. Roman Heritage's guide enables readers to follow the action, realising that Oikeioi are the heavy cavalry escorts of the Komnenian Emperors, the Varrangoi are the Varangian Guard with their distinctive two-handed axes and that the Vardariotai wear dark silk robes and ride ponies into battle, using composite bows and sabres. Perhaps this guide to units could have been even better with images of each unit (which would make it easier to recognise units on a screenshot of a battlefield)? However, this AAR relies much more on text than pictures, so this is not necessary.

    As well as providing a guide to Eastern Roman units, Roman Heritage provides a helpful glossary so that readers can understand the significance of titles of nobility, names used for particular peoples and other technical terms which would have been familiar to the historical Eastern Romans (or, at least, to the nobility and military officers of Eastern Rome). This glossary enables Roman Heritage to use historical terms to give his chapters authenticity, without worrying about readers being distracted or frustrated by unfamiliar words.

    In the prologue and the chapters which follow, Roman Heritage demonstrates his awareness of the influences on Byzantine culture and society as well as the organisation and membership of their armies. The focus of our attention widens and we learn about events involving other nations of this time, such as military engagements between Western European armies and Saracens. We see the conflicts between and within other factions through the eyes of the Eastern Roman leaders, and observe how Byzantine leaders such as Manuel Komnenos look for opportunities to deal with the enemies of Eastern Rome.

    Some AAR writers prefer to focus on the tactical level of the battlefield map, putting us in the middle of the melee or observing the impact of the storm of arrows or the charging horsemen. At times, Roman Heritage shows us the action on the battlefield, for example in this dramatic scene:-

    (Chapter Seven)

    As well as providing the details of battles, Roman Heritage provides a more strategic perspective, focusing on events more on the level of the campaign map than the battlefield. Instead of providing a detailed account of each battle, a AAR writer can sum up a military campaign in a short paragraph and a country can be conquered in a single sentence. For example:-

    In 1155-1157 AD Manuel personally campaigned in the Levant, invading Cilicia along with Alexios Briennios, Droungarios of the Kybirrhatoion theme, and successfully wrestled the country from Thoros II; he then proceeded to visit Antioch, where Raymond of Chatillon acted as a regent for the young Prince Bohemond III, and met with Baldwin III of Jerusalem, with whom he made an alliance which proved instrumental in the creation of a more or less united Christian front against the renewed vigour of the Islamic world. - Chapter One
    Sometimes AAR writers apologise when an update doesn't contain battles, perhaps worrying that readers will think their writing is boring. Roman Heritage skilfully keeps the interest of readers, balancing political and diplomatic intrigue, strategic and tactical movements, offering drama and variety. The writing is good; occasionally there are 'run-on' sentences which contain several ideas. Such sentences could have been separated into two (or more sentences), as in this example:-

    Through Cherson, in modern-day Crimea, in fact, flowed much of the trade with Russia, Galicia-Volynia and Khazaria; furthermore, the theme of Cherson was of fundamental importance to the Basileia, as it was both the granary of the Empire - having nonetheless been described by Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos' De Administrando Imperio as the Empire's granary, with the Eparch of Constantinopolis relying mainly on Chersonite grain and crops to feed the capital - and its outpost in the steppes, from which to keep and eye on the migrations of peoples such as the Comans themselves. - Chapter Five
    Often, political intrigue is the centre of our attention. The choices of characters, their personalities and relationships provide the drama, in place of military action. For example, instead of a speech by a commander on a battlefield, trying to inspire his troops to be brave, we might hear a speech by a family member of the Byzantine Emperor who betrayed Eastern Rome and is begging for his life to be spared:-

    and then this Tzelepes bowed, and told the Emperor: "Your Grace, know that in my veins flows the blood of the Caesars, as much as it does in yours, and though I know in your eyes I made the deadly sin of turning to the enemies of your Nation and of the Christian Name, know that I did not did this out of hate for thee, but out of love for this Nation of the Persians, which is second only to Rome herself. And know that, though I am but a traitor in your eyes, that I bring you a gift that might please your heart." - Chapter Two
    Reading this plea, a reader is naturally intrigued, wanting to know how the Emperor will respond - and what is the mysterious gift which Tzelepes has brought? Passages like this one motivate us to read on. There are additional ways to intrigue and keep the attention of readers. Historical research can lead to the use of real historical characters (or characters based on historical ones), such as use of Tzelepes, who was a historical figure. One of the distinctive features of the writing of Iain M Banks, the science-fiction author of the 'Culture' series of novels (among others) is his occasional use of obscure words. Of course, this can be overused and overuse would tend to confuse and annoy readers. Roman Heritage demonstrates the skill of using an obscure word or phrase occasionally, when he writers of a character escaping confinement and having a "a rocambolesque flight" (in Chapter One).

    We've seen that Roman Heritage has enriched Historia Rhomaike with impressive historical research into both the military and political dimensions of the Eastern Roman Empire, creating an authentic-sounding tale with dramatic events - so dramatic that it could be the basis for an opera. As we saw earlier, Roman Heritage intended this AAR to represent an "
    opera written by fictional 20th Century byzantinist Alexios Kiriopoulos", so this is a good thing! This is particularly true when a scandalous love affair between Marie and Alexios causes a crisis:-

    "...it was said amongst common folks that the Latin Empress and the protosebastos Alexios had became lovers, and had indulged in such affairs and excesses of which it is not commendable to speak of; but so disgraceful were such excesses on the Empress' behalf, that the people began to murmur against her and the protosebastos, and, believing it was due to her disgraceful influence that the Emperor neglected his duties to the people and the Empire, began invoking for a savior whom would teach him the ways of an Emperor and bring an end to this chaos the Empress had brought about to the Queen of Cities." - Chapter Seven
    One of the ways in which writing an AAR can enhance a campaign is that it can encourage us to think about the motivations for actions of AI factions. Roman Heritage cleverly connects internal political turmoil with outside threats, for example when a leader of a rival nation seizes the opportunity to attack the Eastern Roman Empire:

    The prolonged political turmoil which preceded and followed Andronikos' gruesome accession to the throne did not go unnoticed by the Empire's neighbours.

    While Andronikos made his way to the throne, in fact, the sultan of Konya, Kilij Arslan II, seized the opportunity to free himself of vassalage to the Empire, and capture Sozopolis in Phrygia, with the surrounding towns; he then proceeded to sack and destroy Cotyaeum, ravaging the Meander Valley - Chapter Eight
    Roman Heritage said at the start that he intended to role-play his Eastern Roman Empire, so that it would struggle during bad emperors and revive under better leaders. He succeeded: we see each emperor's style of leadership through their actions, which sometimes contrast strongly with the actions of their predecessors. As in the Western Roman Empire, there is not always a single leader, for example at one point there are two leaders, both said to be "equal in rank":-

    One of the new regime's first acts was pregnant with meaning: the two Symbasilei had Andronikos' body recovered from the Hippodrome's vaults, and given Christian sepulture in the Komnenoi's burial site of the Pantokrator Monastery. A general amnesty was then proclaimed to soften the hatreds brought upon the Empire by onto those who had supported Ioannis' arch-enemy's arise, and preparations were jointly undertaken - at least in the people's eyes - for the restoration of the Empire's economic and military might, which had been wrecked by Andronikos' reign of terror and paranoia. - Chapter Nine
    As you might imagine, the presence of two equal leaders creates more opportunities for rivalry and intrigue. I don't know whether the mod allows for the Eastern Roman Empire to have two leaders at the same time in the game itself (if that is possible), but that doesn't matter. Even if the game shows that one character is the 'real' emperor, the actual power might be shared with another or held by someone else. As Caillagh de Bodemloze commented, the Constantinople of this Eastern Roman Empire is "a nest of scheming serpents". If you enjoyed the lethal political intrigue of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire (the books) or Game of Thrones (the TV series), you might well enjoy the political drama which Roman Heritage has created.

    This does not mean that Roman Heritage ignores the battles. When battles occur, Roman Heritage presents a great combination of shows us both the action on the battlefield and the strategic movements on the campaign map. He also shows us what motivates the decisions of commanders. The generals on both sides come across as realistic characters who try to seize any advantage they can, using any understanding of their enemy's style of fighting to inform their decisions. As in real-life ancient warfare, generals face problems such as low supplies and mutinous or fissiparous armies, for instance in Chapter Ten and also in this example:-

    Both commanders were experienced and commanded sizeable forces, both of which presented numerous management difficulties due to their heterogeneity. Nizam-al-Din, however, sure had an harder taks, as it was quite a burden to compose differences and quarrels between clans and ethnicities which had been rivals for decades. - Chapter Twelve
    Examples like this one add depth and realism to Roman Heritage's tale. In the game, our growing empires might casually recruit units from mutally hostile peoples and combine them in the same armies without difficulty; but Roman Heritage is thinking about the challenges which this would have created.


    Both Balor and Roman Heritage created an AAR in their own distinctive styles. Balor's Scotland: An Alternative History offers an unusual starting-point, in which Scotland already has a widely spread empire - but can Scotland's armies hold the lands which they took? Balor keeps readers informed of events on both the campaign map and battlefield, with a well-chosen level of detail to keep the action accessible and enjoyable. Roman Heritage's Historika Rhomaike shows how much historical research can add to an AAR, demonstrating an impressive command of the culture, society and military of the Byzantine Empire. Roman Heritage's story is rich in historical details and characters as well as diplomacy and political intrigue.

    As I see it, both Balor and Roman Heritage had a clear vision of the sort of AAR which they would like to write. Both succeeded magnificently. There is, of course, much more which these AARs have to offer than I have managed to explain here.

    Perhaps you would like to report on a campaign which you're playing (or part of a campaign) in the Writers' Study? Thank you for reading - see you in the Study!
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. NorseThing's Avatar
      NorseThing -
      A fabulous review and a great tutorial on the essence of writing an AAR all rolled into one. I suggest this should be in your welcome packet of links for all new members to read.
    1. Admiral Van Tromp's Avatar
      Admiral Van Tromp -
      Great reviews Alwyn! I liked way you found an interesting perspective to analyse both AARs togheter and the extensive use of quotes to illustrate your opinions.

      I need to give these a read when I have the time!