“The best historical strategy, and the best battle simulator, together” boasts the trailer for the Crusader Blade mod, an incredibly ambitious project that allows players to fight Crusader Kings 3’s battles inside Mount and Blade: Bannerlord. It’s the sort of hyperbole that’s easy to get behind: both titles are favourite medieval games.
Crusader Kings 3’s battles occur on its grand map. They’re tiny, abstract calculations, akin to two chess pieces meeting each other on a board. Bannerlord, however, allows for the player to wield medieval weapons in real-time, third-person combat alongside horses, siege weapons, and up to 2,000 AI soldiers.
For such an impressive mod, the implementation is simple. As long as you own both games, you can download Crusader Blade via itch.io. It’s completely free, although the team has a Patreon for those wanting to support the project’s continued development. Run the mod’s launcher to specify the paths to both games, choose Bannerlord’s battle sizes, and you’re good to go.
A Frankenstein’s monster
Many of us have had nerdy fantasies about creating ideal Frankenstein’s monsters from our favourite games, and mod creator ‘CB’ was no different.
It was over a Christmas holiday, he tells me, that he “spent about 20 hours playing Crusader Kings. And when I went to bed, absolutely exhausted, I thought “it would be cool if the battles in Crusader Kings were like in Bannerlord”. It sounds familiar to any number of drowsy, nerd wish-fulfilment ideas I’ve had. The difference is, of course, that CB went and made it happen.
Crusader Kings, says CB, is a bit more difficult to work with using the intended tools than Bannerlord, which is “probably one of the easiest games to mod, thanks to the fact that it’s written in C# and libraries like Harmony.” CB’s focus has been on the technical aspects, leaving customisation open to individual players to tailor their experience.
A big factor in CK3 is character death, for example. If an important member of your family falls in battle, this can have huge repercussions for your line of succession. Currently, Crusader Blade implements a small chance of character death, with updates planned to allow players to make these clashes more or less deadly as they see fit.
CB, unsurprisingly, describes himself as a history enthusiast. “My favourite historical period is the early Middle Ages, the so-called Viking Age.” It’s an area he wants to explore in the future. “Most likely it won’t be a modification, but an independent project.”
Future planned updates to the mod include sieges, and excitingly, more accurate cultural representation. Bannerlord has six broad cultures, while Crusader Kings 3 has around 40. The grand strategy game allows players to jump in at one of two starting dates, 867 or 1066, and run up to 1453. Bannerlord, which uses fictional factions, is based on the mid-1st millennium Migration Period, sometimes called the Barbarian Invasions.
Crusader Blade versus the real thing
But how do the combined efforts of both games to represent different sides of medieval rule stack up with reality? Medieval historian, author and History Hit presenter Matt Lewis lent his expertise on the question.
Lewis was impressed with the overall visuals of both games, although pointed out “a degree of uniformity that may not always have been present on a medieval battlefield.” Lords and Knights, says Lewis, “would have been distinguishable by posh, expensive armour and bright colourful banners that helped to mark out their positions and rally points on a field.”
Livery badges, says Lewis, might have become more common as the medieval period progressed, but “those drawn from their estates to fight wouldn’t usually have had anything like a uniform, so there would have been plenty of variety in the way soldiers looked and how they were armed.”
As for the weapons on display, “the mounted knights using spears is great – there must have been a temptation to go for a lance, but they came later in the medieval period as an evolution of the spear.”
Those extra inventory slots, too, have historical precedent. “Sharp pointy things and slashy blades are great against poorly armoured opponents, but those in armour that protected them from blades were better dealt with using crushing weapons like a mace. You might not be able to cut through mail or plate, but you can break bones through it.” As plate became more prevalent, says Lewis, so did the importance of denting joints and restricting movement.
Bannerlord’s visual spectacle, of course, is all about scale. With the 10:1 abstraction in the Crusader Blade mod, which game’s battles are more representative?
“The sizes of armies during the medieval period are notoriously difficult to judge with any certainty,” says Lewis. “There were times when a few hundred would have been all that made it to a battlefield, but Charlemagne’s force at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 824 is estimated at about 3,000. At the other end of the medieval period in England, the Battle of Towton is estimated to have involved around 60,000 men.”
Despite these estimates, says Lewis, the sources are hard to rely on. “They weren’t great at counting vast numbers of people, and some were prone to exaggeration because it made a better story.”
Concerning military matters
Storytelling, of course, is what these games excel at. Realism itself isn’t always as desirable as it seems. A good developer knows to make some concessions for fun, but it’s surely a tricky balance.
“One of the most critical considerations for any ruler in the medieval period was the need to fill both the political and military roles expected of a leader,” says Lewis. “Winning battles was no good if you couldn’t win support for your regime, and being a nice ruler wouldn’t last long if you couldn’t defend your people and your position on a battlefield.”
Crusader Blade, reckons Lewis, “means that players can experience both aspects, and have to prove themselves in both arenas. No more ducking whichever you think is the hardest part.”
“Mind you,” adds Lewis “the prevalent military teaching of the period, Vegitius’s De Re Militari (Concerning Military Matters) was written around the late 4th century, and was in active use for more than a millennium. Vegetius warned that battles were to be avoided at all cost, because they were unpredictable and it was almost impossible to guarantee victory, even with larger numbers. So, players, think carefully before you gallop onto the field of battle.”