House of Normandy: The BoardgamingLife Review

Author: Paul Comben

Designer: Tom Russell

Publisher: Hollandspiele

A Look at Hollandspiele’s Game of ‘The Anarchy’ in the UK

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In 1066, as we all know, William the Conqueror took his kingly ambitions to England, won the Battle of Hastings somewhere near where it is meant to have taken place, and then started making every Saxon’s life a complete misery. It began with his own bloody and vindictive brand of repression, continued on with ‘Fitz This’ and ‘de Something That’ lording it all over the green and pleasant, and then, some fifty years after his death in 1087, things took another and even nastier turn.

This is the bit that not a lot of English people know about – the period of our history known as ‘The Anarchy.’ True, England is not all the UK, and in the Twelfth Century that very concept was still centuries off, but what happened in those years drew in much of mainland Britain as well as its nearest continental neighbour. Dynastic tussles, the age-old story of who was entitled to what because of what title they had, and who did not want to miss out on the main chance, led England into a prolonged era of civil war and political machinations. At its centre were two figures – King Stephen and his familial rival (cousin), Matilda – both of whom felt they had the better claim to the nation’s throne.

This is the bit that not a lot of English people know about – the period of our history known as ‘The Anarchy.’

Hollandspiele’s game covers four battles from the period – Tinchebray, which was fought in Normandy, and might be seen as an early scene-setter for all the fractious and violent dispute that would occur between England and France over the centuries to come; The Standard, where the Scottish King David, keen to help his niece, Matilda, in her claim as well as helping himself to a slice of the English north, lost big against a smaller and ad hoc English host; Lincoln, where Stephen might well have thought: ‘With friends like these…’; and Wilton, which historically was another example of Stephen’s less than wonderful luck when it came to being in the right place at the wrong time.

At first sight, there is really nothing particularly special about how this design goes about its business. True, these are battles that the hobby has rarely covered (I can think of only one other design covering Lincoln – 3W’s Age of Chivalry) but most of the mechanisms feeding into the game workings are pretty familiar – there is a simple unit-type combat matrix to ascertain modifiers; command markers to be assigned to the wings an army is divided into; and rather familiar game effects such as those for heavy cavalry on the charge and archers making missile attacks. Unit quality is a blend of what a unit is (Combat Class) and who is in it – thus, mounted and dismounted knights are both presumed to hit the hardest as well as being composed of ‘the quality’ in social terms. At the other end of things, bowmen and the crudely armed infantry types, true to Falstaff’s ‘they’ll fill a hole as well as better,’ engage in the hurly-burly of hand-to-hand combat with plenty of adverse modifiers ready to strike home. They also have an alarming propensity to clear off home if things start to unwind.

Things, however, can be a little more subtle in places – the Welsh ‘mob’ that is in the fight against Stephen at Lincoln has an ‘A’ rated basic Combat Class for all its units (good), but is also categorized as levy types (bad), and will have that tendency to melt away to nothing if it becomes dispersed or simply takes one too many blows (very bad).


Lincoln, with the ‘Wild Welsh’ mustered on the flanks of the Angevin host (red, top of picture).

However, what the player is only likely to realise once he/she has played a few scenarios, is how the command marker system, coupled to what is just the slightest seasoning of battle-specific rules, will get armies made up of the same basic unit types behaving entirely differently from battle to battle. This can be appreciated if we look at two of the battles in the box – The Standard and Lincoln.

For the Scottish player in The Standard, the problem is trying to get their larger army to move or do anything else effectively. In game terms, effectiveness, outside of the processes pertaining solely to combat resolution, is a matter of having a full supply of command markers (including, being key, the ‘Bonus’ marker) plus, hopefully, scenario specific rules which permit a liberal way of dishing out those markers to wings, or sharing the same command between two different wings. But in this battle, the Scots do not have any bonus marker, nor can they get much of their multiple-winged/commanded host moving at the same time – most obviously, the inability to share the same move command between two wings means they cannot get two wings acting together for most any purpose, and as they have four wings at start, whole contingents are going to be hanging around waiting for something positive to come their way.

House of Normandy is a massively fun and thoroughly unfussy game

This situation is made even worse by the fact that the markers are double-sided, and of a purpose often have two things you are likely to want to do in tandem on opposite sides of the same marker…and in such cases you can only choose one or the other. And as one extra bit of salt to rub in in the wound, the sequence of play is very particular about the order commands are conducted in, so if you do not think ahead and plan carefully, your bowmen are not going to be able to loose off because that phase comes before movement – so if they are not already in range, tough.

The full command list is: Bonus; Archer Volley; Horse/Mounted Actions; Combat; Withdraw; Shieldwall; Move.

By contrast, the English up on that field in Yorkshire do have a ‘Bonus’ marker, and although they cannot share the same command between both of their two wings, or get both their wings moving at the same time, the fact that there are only two wings and that one them is mounted and can move by its own ‘Horse’ command marker, does make things a lot easier.

But what of the ‘Bonus’ itself – what does it do?

The Standard

The Standard

Stuck Scots (top) getting stuck into…

Essentially, the ‘Bonus’ marker is an enhancer for any other command marker it is played with. Among its more notable benefits, it supplies an extra movement phase if played with the movement command marker and transforms a mounted ‘move to contact’ (my term) into a full-blown cavalry charge (more hitting power). Clearly, the Scots would benefit greatly from a ‘Bonus’ marker – only thanks to the internal politics of their army, they have not got one. Nor do they have much chance of retaining the other key chit, which is for holding the initiative. Certain qualities of this marker pertain to whichever battle it is being used in, but at The Standard its benefit is its base ability – to bestow, by ‘spending it,’ a second Player Turn immediately after that player has completed their first one. If the English player wants to be aggressive and sees any kind of viable opportunity, he will launch his army forward (forfeiting the 8VP for keeping his mounted wing unused) against any straggling advance of Scots and thump into them twice before they can do much of anything in return. Of course, the Scots will then get the Initiative marker handed to them, but such is the disjointed nature of their army that they can only hope to respond effectively by handing it back themselves in order to facilitate any sort of viable counter-play.

Back where we started

Back Where He Started…

This King Davey doesn’t get the North of England; neither does he get to gift his niece what’s left.

It is a different matter again at Lincoln. Although there are a fair number of units per side, it is worth noting that a very mutable time and unit scale means that each unit waiting to swap blows in the northern part of East Anglia represents rather less men than at The Standard – both armies at Lincoln were probably only about 1,500 to 2,000 strong. And as they set up virtually on top of each other, there is no real struggle to make the shift towards the enemy. This in turn highlights one small issue with The Standard – the Scots are likely to be in at least some trouble and feeling vulnerable the moment they start moving the fair old distance towards the enemy host, and this while the English are initially on the high ground, with a swamp protecting one flank and their bowmen ready to shower woe on anyone or anything that approaches. The problem is: it is therefore hard to see why either player would want to be the first to do anything, and so you just have to rely on player eagerness to get things going and play the game. Perhaps the scenario specific rules could have done with some kind of ‘prod’ in them – e.g. if the Scottish player does not move at least one wing nearer the enemy each turn until contact, they lose automatically. Not unrealistic, seeing as how they were in one almighty muddle to begin with.

But at Lincoln there are all kinds of good reasons for both sides to get stuck in straightaway. For a start, as the scenario instructions make very clear, King Stephen’s army is an accident simply waiting to happen. Owing to the highly dubious loyalties of some of his subordinates, from the moment one of his wings (save that green beast of a wing Stephen is standing in) takes a loss, that affected wing and possibly much of everything else can quit the field owing to a mass defection. This, potentially, can end the battle very quickly – but then, there is no guarantee at all that anything will quit; indeed, what are described as the ‘Unendurable Welsh’ might well depart from the other side as their wing integrity is about as strong as a wet piece of carboard.

Lincoln Pell Mell


Getting into the Pell-Mell

It is important to stress that despite having much the same kind of units fighting it out on just one of the two small maps, the battles all do have their own feel. The English have a reserve to introduce via surrendering the initiative at Tinchebray, while at Wilton there is the wait for sunset and a possible rear guard action in its aftermath. Such things lend a variety to the overall challenge of each battle, but that is not quite the same as saying that the battles therefore feel ‘right.’

Regarding that aspect, and irrespective of what is happening with the sun going down or the Welsh or the Scots or Stephen’s barons playing up, any sense of the system having a fundamental validity to it as a presentation of medieval combat has got to come from those fundamental mechanisms that all four battles share. And let us be honest about it – medieval combat was a big, bloody, brawling mess. Once lines engaged there was precious little a commander could do about what happened – as like as not no one could hear him, he could not see what was going on just a few feet in front of him, and even if he had a reserve to throw in, someone else had to be thrown out first in order to make room for it

Once lines engaged there was precious little a commander could do about what happened

Therefore, although it might sound a little odd, I was delighted to see the two battles I concentrated on degenerating into a ‘mess’ of counters that were busy exchanging blows until one side or the other simply folded up. It did not become tedious because there is not a huge amount unit-wise to work through, and in the context of the design’s fast-moving turns, the tangle of clumped units stuck in each other’s zone of control only took two or three turns to resolve. And one thing else that was very nice – no plethora of status markers for this or for that cluttering up the map. Units simply flip to show reduced strength, and just plain retreat to represent nerve lost or force overwhelmed. Units that are hit by effective archery do take a suppression marker which hobbles them through their own player turn, but that is about it.

A player wins by accruing a certain level of victory points, which is largely about eliminated units – quality is worth more than the rabble, and King Stephen can do no end of harm to his prospects by being captured. Note that units removed via defections and the loss of wing integrity do count as eliminated for victory purposes.

House of Normandy is a massively fun and thoroughly unfussy game but is also one with depth in the places where it really matters. I am rather tempted to say that it is a medieval combat game (note: it is part of the Shields and Swords II series) that has built itself around what the medieval warlord would himself have considered important – make the right initial moves, seek to get the first major blows in, and be the last one standing when the day closes. It is not really rocket science…rather, it is all largely about bashing things up.

About the Author


Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.

Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.

Related Articles:

The Last Vikings – A BoardgamingLife Review

878 Vikings: Ragnar Comes a Callin’ – A BoardgamingLife Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s