The Epic Battle of Varna

As promised here is the full write-up of our recent Battle of Varna 1444 by gaming pal and fellow Ottoman enthusiast Sam Marks. Sam created this excellent scenario and we used the Father Tilly rules for the game. We also went all out using 28mm miniatures! Over to you Sam…

You will doubtless have seen from this venerable blog in December, our fight of the excellent Battle of Oldendorf (excellent from the Protestant perspective, that is!) using Father Tilly. In that scenario, the Protestant forces have the possibility of committing a flanking force on a circuitous manoeuvre, made more difficult by the rough terrain that protects the Catholic wings, but ultimately with the chance that they might seize a favourable tactical position.

As anyone who has played Father Tilly knows, command points are the beating heart of the game – an indispensable, but finite resource. As Protestant commander, I ultimately decided not to commit to the flanking manoeuvre, so high a cost in command points it would have been; a decision to the fair consternation of the flanking player! As overall commander, I had the all-important control of the command points allocation – so, mysteriously, my centre was lavished with command points and war tokens; the flank, meanwhile, had to do more with less. Needless to say, from my perspective, this was highly amusing – to the point where the theatrical reaction of denying my fellow commander was more rewarding than actually trying to win the field.

This fractious interplay between commanders who were supposedly on the same sides was the source of inspiration for my recreation of the Battle of Varna, 10th November 1444. This pivotal battle in the story of the Ottoman expansion into Europe was fought between the Crusading forces of King Władysław III of Hungary and Poland, and the Ottoman Sultan, Murad II, and represented the final chance to aid the withering Byzantine Empire.

Not that refighting Varna needed much inspiring; war wagons – tick; janissaries – tick; a cardinal, a King, and a glorious and vain charge onto (into and through!) defensive stakes – tick. Nuff said.

In the historical battle, the Crusaders, caught with their backs to the Black Sea, without the assistance of the Venetian flight, and fighting an enemy that they hoped was in Asia, not Europe, were unsurprisingly divided in their approach at the counsel of war on the eve of the battle. From a wargaming perspective, this seemed like an opportune moment to allow for some (un)Christian skulduggery on the battlefield. First, each Christian player had an individual briefing. Vlad II Dracul, father of the more infamous Vlad the Impaler, was more concerned with surviving and punching through the Ottoman flank to safety. The overall Christian commander was the able strategist and general, János Hunyadi, whose objective was to use his superior cavalry to outmanoeuvre the Ottoman defences, and encircle the Sultan, as historically. But, unbeknownst to the Hunyadi player, once King Władysław took the field, his overall command would be stripped from him, and given to Cardinal Julian Cesarini, whose strong advocacy for the Crusade had encouraged the then 19 year old King Władysław to rip up his treaty with Murad, and invade the Ottoman Empire once again. The King’s plan, lacking the tactical finesse of Hunyadi’s, was, once again, dictated by the historical battle – to administer the word of the God to Murad II up close and personal.

This, anyway, was my theory; and it was interesting to see how it survived contact with our characterful coterie of gamers and the fickle dice gods.

The first part of the battle was thus directed by János Hunyadi, and the Christians advanced on both flanks. Cardinal Cesarini’s German Rytířs, who historically fought in a deeper formation, easily dispatched the Tartars opposite them. Their success was matched by that the Țărani, Romanian peasantry who had flocked to the Crusade, whose morale held under withering bowfire from harassing Akinjis, and Tufenki-handguns.

On the left flank, Serbian Plaiesi, woodsmen clad in black hoods and carrying double-handed axes, had infiltrated the wooded flank of the Ottoman forces. Springing from the woods, Vlad Dracul urged them to charge into the vulnerable flanks of the Timarli Sipahi… a command they promptly refused. This fickle turn of bad luck prevented the Christians from delivering a decisive blow to the Ottoman left, with a bloody and swirling cavalry engagement dominating the action for the remainder of the battle.

In the centre, Hunyadi committed his Hungarian Knights to support the Christian right. Ottoman Tufenkis caught in the open by such cavalry stand little hope of survival, except perhaps with their closing fire (more on that later). Racing round the Ottoman stakes, the lead cavalry unit swept into the Tufenkis. Seeing their morale waver, Murad II himself rode forwards to steady the line, using his once per game ability to ensure the line held.

In a bizarre series of rolls, Murad’s success turned sour, and in the confusion of the melee, he had been captured by Hunyadi’s knights! At this point, if the King had been on the field and had he been able to reach Murad, he would automatically have won. However, as Hunyadi’s objective had no bearing on Murad’s person, the differing Crusader victory conditions meant that this miraculous deliverance for the Crusaders went unrealised. Charging out from the Ottoman stakes, the Solaks, the highest-ranking division of the Janissaries, rescued their, presumably rather grateful, Padişah.

Almost simultaneously, the person of Cardinal Cesarini was in grave danger, his powerful Rytíř still absent from the field pursuing the fleeing Tartars.

This act provided the final impetus for the King and his Polish Retainers to take to the field, seizing control from Hunyadi, stripping him of all four of his command tokens, and implementing a rather different plan.

Władysław’s glorious reign was like a flash of lightning, energising and terrible, but gone in a flash.

Quickly the King gathered his retainers, the most elite and best equipped of the Crusading forces, to make for Murad himself.

En route to Murad however, the King decided to have a pit stop and a warm-up act with some Azabs who found themselves isolated and separated from their companions, having only just recovered from the onslaught of Cardinal Cesarini’s peasant hordes. As expected, the Azabs were sent packing, inflicting no less than 9 casualties upon the Azabs in a single charge – ouch!

The Crusaders’ elation quickly turned to despair. In the confusion of the charge, the King had disappeared – his body was tragically discovered a few yards back. Before the lances hit home, the Azabs had managed to fire a final shot – and a solitary lead shot had pierced the polished plate armour of Wladyslaw.

With Wladyslaw dead, and Murad alive (if still smarting from his capture), I felt the game had reached a position which reflected the historical outcome – an Ottoman victory.

It was also historical in one other sense – the final victory total stood at 64 Crusader dead (starting from 500), whilst the Ottomans lost 113 (of 600). As fellow player Graeme noted yesterday, it took Murad 24 hours to realise that he was actually the victor of the day, so severe were the Ottoman casualties and the difficult terrain preventing a clear picture of the battle from emerging. So ultimately, a bloody, hard-fought Ottoman victory.

Thanks for the write-up and the excellent well thought out scenario – terrific fun!

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