Friday, April 24, 2015

The Lions of Spain

When I first started to write this particular blog post my intent was to make it yet another entry in the reoccurring series, "It Should Have Been a Game."  The movie I was going to pick on was the 2006 Spanish film, "Alatriste" staring none other than Viggo Mortensen.  It had the second largest budget of any motion picture made in Spain at the time, and attempts to cover a long running series of novellas featuring the titular wounded war veteran turned sword-for-hire.  The problem is the books, known collectively as "the Adventures of Captain Alatriste," span years of history resulting in a disjointed narrative once compressed into a two hour film format.  Of course a video game adaptation of the property could decompress the story and more fully fleshed out characters.

This was what I intended to write about, but over the course of researching this little project of mine, I discovered that the setting is far richer than I initially assumed.  In video game terms think the best of Assassin's Creed 2 except without the need for elaborate conceits like Templar schemes, parkour assassins or a sci-fi animus.  Spain during its golden age had the Inquisition, numerous wars and every manner of courtly intrigue imaginable.  That, with just a little artistic indulgence, makes for an exciting time and place to be in itself.  Aside from naval combat during the age of sail, a topic I've already addressed extensively earlier this month, European land warfare had its own unique characteristics during the latter part of the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Often referred to as the age of "pike and shot," infantry were organized into closely knit blocks composed of a mixture of three soldier types.  First, there were the pikemen, who were the at the core, but could change formation quickly on command to a hollow square in which other troop types could take refuge.  When deployed as such, the long two-handed pikes would bristle outward creating a hedge of spikes to repulse enemy cavalry attacks.  Second were the musketeers, or harquebusiers, that stood in the wings and carried smooth-bore matchlock guns.  These soldiers gave the unit striking power at a distance and could be arrayed to unleash a single massive volley or alternatively a steady stream of gunfire depending on the desired configuration.  Lastly was a small, elite cadre of swordsmen tasked with guarding the banners.  In a pinch the could also be used for short range assaults, a tactic which proved to be effective at breaking pike-against-pike deadlocks.  It's important to note that this final group varied by nation.  In Spain they were "rodeleros" (or sword-and-buckler men), while in Germany they were "Doppelsöldners," strong men who got double pay and wielded two-handed swords called "Zweihänders."  Meanwhile the Swiss didn't use swordsmen at all, preferring instead to have halberdiers fill the role.

Regardless of the exact details, when these three types of troops worked in close collusion they were an incredibly resilient fighting force.  Units of a single type lacked their tactical flexibility, and even French heavy cavalry couldn't break them in a charge.  Artillery was still in its infancy and skirmishers such as pistoleers (horse riders bearing handguns) could at best hope only to harass the pike squares.  Even these specialists were at a a disadvantage because a swath of mounted riders presents a bigger target than compact infantry formations.  Cavalry still held an important role though, just not the dominate position on the battlefield.  Spain, in particular, excelled at this unusual form of infantry driven warfare by way of the "tercio," which in English means "third," as in "one of three."  Oddly enough the tercio wasn't named so in reference to the three types of soldiers it was made up of, but rather three tercios were needed to form a full brigade.  Ideally, each of the three tercios in a Spanish brigade could support each other which was oftentimes essential in order to compensate for their relative lack of mobility.

Getting back to video games, I think it would be cool to take the role of an alférez and command a tercio in battle.  At your side would be the alabardero and arcabucero (officers in charge of cold and hot steel respectively).  Tercios were made up of professional volunteers (sometimes pardoned criminals) and often nurtured by low ranking nobility called "hildagos."  In that sense the player could handle recruitment, equipping, training and management of his tercio.  A strong emphasis on retaining veterans meant experience and determination were extremely important, not to mention skill in combat.

There is a Steam game called none other than Pike and Shot based on this period of history, and while the A.I. is quite good the game is sorely lacking in presentation.  Worse yet, it's too detached to capture the uniqueness of the experience.  A game about this kind of thing has to let the player see the smoke and blood, feel the pride and passion, and hear the marching drums mixed with battle cries.  Otherwise it might as well remain a miniature war game.  At least then you have the amusing table banter.  Off the battlefield gameplay could consist of interludes, where the player gets wrapped up in intrigue in addition to acquiring allies and rivals.  Sword duels were common back then and could occur for all sorts of reasons.  Jilted love, drunken insults, outstanding gambling debts...the men of the tercios were obsessed with personal reputation and honor.  Unflinching bravery even in the face of almost certain injury or death was also considered a requirement of the job.  This all might sound ridiculous to the modern day reader, but remember we're talking 400 years ago...not to mention conflicts in places like Portugal, Italy and southern France.

I should end this by noting that Spain's golden age represents a country at the height of its power and decadence, not to mention wealth.  The "golden" part isn't a called so because of some sort of cultural enlightenment (although many great works of art were made then).  It's called such because huge amounts of wealth flowed from the new world into Spain, feeding corruption, decadence and petty violence at all levels of the social strata save the ever hardworking peasants at the bottom of what was a very top heavy empire.

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