Last week, I noted that one advantage computer wargames had over their cardboard cousins was the number of scenarios that came with each product, the former beefed up even more when you consider all the player modifications (Mods) that are often available. Many PC games do come with editors of various types, and when you combine this with the tech savvy genius of lads who so imbibe, wonders never cease.

Many, unfortunately, ignore this gold mine beneath the keyboard, so hopefully my contribution for this week will rectify that. The test subject is Matrix Games Pike and Shot: Campaigns (PSC), which covers European warfare from 1494 to 1698. But for the doughty legion of dedicated modders, as we shall see, time and dates mean little.

Quantity has a quality all its own

When you first crank up PSC and go to the Historical Battles landing page, there will be a small silver globe in the upper left corner of the screen, third from the left. Click here to open up several screens listing community designed custom battles and campaigns. If the little globe is glowing and bouncing like a soccer ball, it means new scenarios are available – always for free. On the resulting User Content Downloads you will find THE list of battles and campaigns, as well as a few downloads modifying the internals of the game, such as reduced firing ranges for the 30 Years War (courtesy of one Interlocuter). In almost every case the mods come doubled, in that one is for single player use, the other for multi-player engagements. Then just click the down arrow to download and install.

At the time of writing, I counted 227 + user created mods in the list, and while most are other battles from the period covered by the game, some of these are just Jim Dandy. For example, there are two different renditions of the 1683 battle of the Kahlenberg which lifted the Ottoman siege of Vienna, by two different designers, showing two unique perspectives. Then there is also a mod allowing you to play the 1571 battle of Lepanto, pitting the fleets of the Holy League against those of the Ottoman Empire. Wait a minute, fleets!? No, I didn’t forget my meds, this is a mod recreating an entire nothing but sea for terrain naval battle. So when does PSC do naval? When you have a really imaginative modder, backed up by really good software, that’s when.

What’s really special to me are the many out-of-period mods. Some are earlier than 1494, such as the English knights cleaving heads at the battle of Bannockburn, 1314. But most are battles and campaigns later than 1698 and include selections from the War of the Spanish Succession, the Great Northern War, the Wars of Frederick the Great, the American Civil War and even British Victorian battles.

Specifically, these later battle mods by era are:

  • War of the Spanish Succession – Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, Malplaquet
  • Great Northern War – Narva, Poltava, Lesnaya, Jakobstadt, Kliszow, Holowzyn, Duna, Warsaw, Systerback, Fraustadt, Poniec, Gemauerhof
  • Frederick the Great and friends – Zorndorf, Chotusitz, Kesseldorf, Soor, Lobositz, Burkersdorf, Culloden, Preslonpaus, Plassy, Falkirk Muir
  • American War of Independence – Saratoga
  • Napoleonic – Marengo, Austerlitz, Eylau, Borodino, Dresden, Ligny, Waterloo, Salamanca, Vitoria
  • Crimean War – Alma, Balaclava
  • American Civil War (plus) – 1st Manassas, Gettysburg, Little Big Horn
  • Victorian – Ulundi, Isandhlwana, Omdurman

In most cases, the mods only allow the player to command one particular side, but a few have a second or third mod that allows play for the enemy.

When no one else is looking

Henry Ford said quality is “doing it right when no one else is looking,” and IMHO this aptly describes the mods found in PSC and the brains behind them. Modders generally don’t get paid for their work, but the enormity of pride in their accomplishments shows through in the quality of the final deliverable. Oh sure, there will be some whose desire and talent may demand shortcuts such as using the original architecture, turf and troop sprites to produce new battles of a totally different time and geography. Nevertheless, the workings behind the visuals still functions like it’s supposed to, often better than the original game and that should count for something. And overall, these are understandable exceptions to the rule as the products most modders provide are exceptional.

To me, where this is least evident is under the hood, so to speak. A game like PSC runs at a battalion up to brigade scale, and this means that simple tweaks to digital die roll modifiers or changes to percentages will more than suffice to convert gameplay to an historically accurate representation of another time and place. Have rifled muskets vice arquebusiers? Just tweak the settings for range, accuracy and damage, plus when a unit will check morale and how quickly it will fail to stand.

And honestly, a lot of community mods are not that far out of period to begin with. The battle between the Swedes and their Russo-Saxon opponents at Gadabusch took place in 1712, a full 14 years after the period covered by PSC. Yet the Swedish regiments Östergötland, Hälsinge, Västgöta-Dal, Älvsborg and Västmanland still toted pikes and were so evil, wicked, mean and nasty using them that the Danish king demanded adoption for his own army (his generals smiled, nodded politely, then left them in the baggage train to be burned).

Yet even behind the monitor, the PSC modding community can still come up with a delectable surprise or two. A case in point is the 1683 battle of the Kahlenberg, the last chapter of the Ottoman siege of Vienna, deftly conjured up by a mod master named Odenathus (as in Malik or King of Palmyra perchance; I really gotta get a life). Here you play the Ottoman Turks facing the Imperial and Polish relief army descending from the Kahlenberg mountain ridge. There doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of opposition UNTIL . . . you realize that many enemy formations are hidden in the trees and you only see them when they move. If they advance into another forested area or similar defile, they disappear from view again. Whoa! Now that is both different and tough, and I like it.

Yet my guess is that the miniature or reenactment visuals of PSC is one of its strongest selling points, or the final product may have looked very hex and counter like. And visual presentation is where modders really shine, especially since I don’t have – or at least don’t know I have – the skills to reproduce such an effort myself. Nothing looks the way it does in the base PSC software, and their well-researched modded alternatives not only show immense artistic talent, but a solid eye for research.

Just a few examples out of many should suffice to make the point. Odenathus’ Gettysburg mod has enriched shadowing, with towns, buildings and farms in a unique 1860’s American style. Likewise Confederate infantry shows a variety of caps and clothing to include regulation uniform, militia attire and butternut, not to mention flags appropriate to the state the unit was recruited from. If its Hood’s Texas Brigade (or the Union’s Irish Brigade), then by Jiminy the state flag carried is the correct one. The same goes for the Crimean War battle of the Alma, and here we’re talking everybody, British, Russian and French forces. Or how about the multiple armies at the 1813 battle for Dresden or the hosts of the Teutonic Order at Tannenberg. In the latter case the mounted brothers of the order are accurately portrayed down to flag and shield level as is the foot with shield seemingly slung over their backs. Other allied retainers have their own distinctive attire and flags. But Odenathus’ best has to be the Victorian battle of Omdurman, with Gatling guns and gun boats.

My personal favorites are the mods on the Great Northern War as envisioned by Paul59, especially the winter battle of Fraustadt. These engagements are small, so most units are battalions and combined with the whacked out uniforms and flags of the Swedish army (no, Virginia, this army did not universally wear cornflower blue trimmed yellow, no matter what the movie The Sovereign’s Servant portrays) the presentation is really mind blowing. Each battalion or its cavalry equivalent is in its own distinctive uniform worn at the battle with its own regimental flag, which were varied and odd looking to say the least. Ditto for the Saxons and Russians, and with the gorgeously rendered snow covered real estate, the fact that it plays so well and realistic is a bonus.

The moral of this story

Pike & Shot Campaigns isn’t the only game with free player mods available, but its one of the best. So take a look to see what you’ve been missing and then take a peek at the same for other games as well. This stuff is professional, realistic and fun and a tribute to the efforts behind them. It’s a gratis bonus many other games exclude, so take advantage of it. If you don’t the wargaming gods may get angry. And you don’t want to make them angry. Trust me.