King Stépan IV's pleasure dome at Kragoneidin, on the shores of Lake Polishov

Monday, September 28, 2009

First Despatch from Syldavia!

Welcome to Despatches From Syldavia! Will you join me for a Plate of Szlaszeck and a Glass of Szprädj?

This blog relates the infamous history and dubious future goings-on of my own Imagi-nations wargames campaign involving an un-historical milieu of fictitious mid 18th century nations set in southeastern Europe. I’ll keep the blog updated with reports when I have made progress in my project and when I have something (one hopes) moderately interesting to say. Life is quite busy, however, so I am afraid that my postings will probably come at an irregular pace.

My project represents my return to the wargaming world after several years of inactivity, during which time I finished my PhD, landed a real job, got married and started a family. Now, with all that done (or is it because sleep is in short supply?), the desire to start painting and gaming projects came back to life. I started to build a SYW army and while doing some research on the WWW, I accidentally stumbled upon EvE and a number of other excellent sites and was inspired by the vision, humour, and exuberance of the Imagi-nations projects I found. For someone who has mostly been a solo wargamer, the idea of a community is a refreshing idea. I scrapped my plans for plain old Austrians vs. Prussians to make my own Imagi-nation offering. My hope is that something fresh and fun will come of all this, and that I can humbly add a little to the energy issuing from EvE and its contributors.

This campaign is focussed on Syldavia and its arch-nemesis Borduria, two countries derived from one of Hergé's Tintin stories, “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”. This was a book I read as a child and which fired my imagination for castles and toy soldiers immediately and for years afterwards. It also anticipates the Imagi-nations idea. Tintin’s adventure begins with his stepping, unknowingly, into the midst of a plot to overthrow the monarchy of a small, obscure and conservative country. Ever the boy scout, Tintin foils the plotters who sought to create a crisis of confidence in the King and then annex Syldavia to Borduria, a neighbouring state ruled by a modernist, totalitarian (Fascist? Stalinist?) regime. The story is full of intrigue and twists and has a beguiling and plausible faux-historical and geographical setting, most of which could translate readily to the 18th century. Upon re-reading the story, it seems to me that Hergé was preoccupied with the struggle between modernity and tradition in the 20th century and places this conflict on the stage of WWII Europe. His opinions are obvious; tradition is mostly innocent and authentic while the modern is frequently monstrous and hypocritical. My own reading of history suggests that this dynamic was very much in play in the 18th century and it is something I hope to incorporate into my project as well.

The goal of this project is to imagine the 18th century antecedents of these two countries and to use these to animate a wargames campaign. I’ll have to lift some of the story’s elements and replace them in the 18th century but a large part will have to be invented anew. My Syldavia will be a bit nastier than that of Hergé (inevitably!) and Borduria might be a little more sympathetic.

A Preliminary Sketch of Syldavia

Hergé’s book is tremendously evocative (one does not need to look hard to see references to the story here and there on the WWW), but it is also a very simplistic and economical comic-book story. He really did little more than sketch out Syldavia and Borduria as two-dimensional cartoons of states with geography, culture and dialect so vague they could be placed anywhere and nowhere in the Balkans. Syldavia seems to be largely a dry and mountainous place with some fertile interior alleys and plains; it has pine forests and some coastline. Its history and culture seems to be derived from a mix of European and Turkish influences; the people speak a slavic-germanic language that is written in a Cyrillic script. There is a Christian state religion and Moslem minarets vie with simple peasant houses with plastered walls and red-tile roofs. Military dress is european but common folk wear what I would have to call a stereotype “Albanian” dress complete with brightly coloured vests and fez. It has proved to be a real challenge to put them on a real-world map and to accommodate the boundaries of pre-existing EvE states. Needing an answer, I decided to superimpose Syldavia more or less over the footprint of modern-day Montenegro, which seems to fit the geographical setting I have in my mind’s eye. In EvE terms, this would place Syldavia to the south of Cavenderia and north of Morea. I chose the western coast of the Balkans, in part, to remain closer to the active and crowded Italy-Austria corridor.

For the purposes of this scenario, I am assuming that Syldavia is composed mostly of a Slavic population, with minority Turkish, Albanian, German and Italian groups. The state religion is Roman Catholicism, but there are large Orthodox and Muslim populations as well, along with communities of German protestant farmers, derived from refugees of the Reformation. Long years of domestic peace (if sometimes fragile) were achieved through a tradition of religious tolerance. 18th century Syldavia is a quite conservative (xenophobic?) kingdom ruled by the ancient Almazoutian dynasty and a Parliament. The germanophile regime is allied with the Imperium. The country boasts a university, a rich artistic tradition (it is especially noted for its violinists) and is relatively rich in natural resources (chiefly wood, iron, copper, wheat, and horses). The Syldavian government depends on revenue gained from trade in these products to centres like Venice; this trade is hampered, however, by the presence of coastal highlands that separate the interior valleys from the country’s few ports.

Hergé gives little indication about the location or character of Borduria except that it resembles Syldavia in climate, topography and, to some degree, history. I am placing it along Syldavia’s eastern border, which is marked by a major river, mountains and a large lake, Lake Polishoff. Its population is more uniform than that of Syldavia, and consists of Slavs and Turks. A slavic dialect related to Syldavian is the dominant tongue and there are large Orthodox and Muslim religious communities. I envision Borduria as a larger and more populous country than Syldavia but poorer, with fewer natural resources and much less access to trade. It has no direct access to the Mediterranean and could really use one. Instead, Borduria is closely linked to the Ottoman Empire and its history is largely shaped by its uneven relationship with its more powerful neighbour. Where Syldavia looks at the changing outer world with scepticism, Borduria is a rather isolated backwater and is far too anxious to catch up. In the ancient past, Borduria annexed and ruled Syldavia for nearly 100 years; mutual distrust has reigned between these closely-related nations ever since. I'll post more information about these countries in future posts.

The Campaign to come

I plan to start the campaign with preliminary episodes set in the 1730’s and 1740’s and, once these are completed, the rest of the campaign will be set in the 1750’s. I have planned out armies for both Syldavia and Borduria, including their uniforms, working in so far as possible on information presented in the book. I have begun to paint units and have three regiments and artillery completed at this point. I will put these plans and units on parade for you in future posts. This project will no doubt take some time and I'll need something to talk about! To speed things along, I have purchased the services of a few hireling regiments of Austrian and Russian troops; these will arrive shortly and will be used to fill out armies in the short term. In the long term they could provide useful allies. In order to use my existing gaming resources and to cope with space available to me, I am building armies in 15mm scale. I am at the moment planning on using William Protz’s Batailles de l’Ancien Régime rule set, which I recently received in the mail (Un gros merci à vous, M. Protz!).

Many thanks to Tradgardmastare, Louys of Monte Cristo and others for encouraging me to get this project up and running.

Until next time,