Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

Medieval farming – A little bit of bread and no cheese

Medieval Dairy Maid Milking a Cow

This is an onside report by Nick Luft of his game about medieval farming, A little bit of bread and no cheese, that he attempted to run at the CLWG meeting in June 2015.

A failed game

I regard this game as a failed game. We didn’t play the first round. I tried to explain the game so we could get the first turn done. But the players were struggling to understand the system so we moved into the discussion phase.

Even though I deem it a failure I learnt a lot. Though that still does not take away the sting of dismay I feel for putting on such a bad game after all these years of game designs. How could I do that? I should have known better.

First the excuses; then the analysis and at the very end the narrative.

Excuses for failure

I was trying to design this game whilst at the end of a four-month course. The course was stretching me. I was learning Python and Javascript and I have no real experience of either, other than tinkering with the parameters of other people’s scripts. I had already cancelled putting on my game at an earlier session and I felt like I should cancel the June game and concentrate on the work, but I knew I would not get to do it for another few months. So I thought I could do both.

I did think about the decisions the players should take and I did think about the game challenges I wanted for the players. My error was to keep a too complex model of the medieval farming that was required to carry the game. Cart before horse. Model before design.

And another thing. I still think that if I had put more effort into producing decent player aids and gaming pieces the game would have been playable. Well, nearer to playable, rather like one of Montgomery’s ninety percent successful victories.

And of course as any experienced game designer might tell you: the design process takes roughly half your time and the rest of the time is spent making the game pieces.

OK. Enough of the whining excuses.

Analysis of failure

The inspiration for this game came many years ago during James Kemp’s “Afghan Farmers” game. I wanted to use his model of a failing farming community that was forced to solve its endemic problems through growing and harvesting opium poppies. I wanted to do this in a medieval setting. I wanted a game that would provide a “normal” farming year and then follow it with a catastrophe or a problem – for example a raiding war band stealing and destroying most of the food and crops, or a new tax system being imposed.

I started by collecting data on medieval farming, village history and diet. I had a design that consisted of an order of play, a list of player roles, a list of player decisions (the so what test) and a spreadsheet with lots of data in. I put it to one side for about two years – I went travelling.

I came back to this game after playing a board game called Caverna in April this year. This is one of the many developmental board games. There are other similar games like Agricola, Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan etc. What inspired me – in a I can do that better, sort of way – was that these games are not good models of the real world and start with few resources and develop into a completely developed system by the end of the game. And they are too complicated! (Ah!)

So I dug out my game design.

Also I was thinking about my teacher training and perhaps how I could set a programming project to make a game using my model of the medieval farming system. Perhaps combine it with a history class.

Now that I write this I see the problem. Too many design aims, too long between designs, too much detail; a heady cocktail for failure.

Perhaps worth repeating the game design mantra – selection and maintenance of the game aim is the most important thing. And to come back to this throughout the design process and to ask yourself how does the current prototype meet the iterated aims.

Narrative of failure

So what was the game about.

Each player was given a role, and a household with appropriate resources. So we had the Bailiff representing His Lord, a priest, a wealthy yeoman farmer, and some poorer folk, the cottars. The resources a player had was their family – workers – an allocation of land to till, some forage in their byre and some animals in their toft.

There were rules about how planting, harrowing, ploughing, and harvesting, how many workers were required for each task and the break down of who could do what. For example only men could plough. There were rules about what the basic diet should consist of, and the risks of illness and death if enough food was not eaten. And there were rules about the weather.

The problem was there was just too much of it. I had produced a model of the system, with some interaction from the players, but too much detail to engage their interest and probably decisions that would become automatic or custom based. The real interest from the players point of view was in the interaction of their players and their economic and social interests.

Future development

The village game. The players take on a role in the village at some crisis point and attempt to resolve the issue at hand. I would be tempted to let them settle into their roles first. Perhaps a couple of turns going through a very very simple farming year, so that the players are settled in role, and perhaps shocked when something dreadful goes wrong.

There is something I find fascinating about the rituals and processes and personalities and workings of medieval village life. For this is where nearly every medieval person lived. The majority of the population lived, worked, and died in a country village.

Hopefully I will return to this game, chastened and better for it.

Game title

The title for this game was inspired by the plaintive song of the Yellowhammer. In English folklore the song of the Yellowhammer is said to say “A little bit of bread and no cheese“. I have always understood that it is a sad lament that typifies the hungry country folk.

And as Milmud is now a blog I can embed a link here to the song of the Yellowhammer. See if you can hear the words in its song.


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Posts: 31
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  2. I was intrigued by the discussion about the game – rules, games etc are just ‘process’ after all, and it’s that which fascinates me (and for which, fortunately, I get paid). But in this instance FWIW I just wanted to share some ideas, CLWG-style; please ignore if off target:-

    – the discussion implies that the game involved farming communities and co-operation

    – but, like any military operation, some skill must be implicit in the game structure. They didn’t just round up some fit bods in 1944, give them a gun and drop them off in France, so these communities must have inherent farming skills; you cannot let players argue and starve to death (unless there’s a two-year blizzard etc)!

    – so, what we’re looking at is a process model which allows for degrees of success/failure within normal operating parameters, and simple but flexible deal-making? In which case, I would therefore like to suggest a card-driven game a bit like Rummy (don’t laugh). The better the co-operation the better value of the ‘sets’ (=surpluses etc) which can be built, but even a half-decent draw gets you something.

    – Once you have surplus of course, that then leads on to other arguments, family rivalry etc, but also marriage/alliances etc.

    – some commercial boardgames have used this model (Civilisation best springs to mind); hell, I even used it to do the abortive Balkans Peace Conference sub-game, as deals/favours = sets

    Anyways, that’s all for now. Just remember, in the year of Get Magna Carter, the best definition of feudalism I ever heard was: “It’s your count that votes…”

    Peter Merritt

  3. Thanks for your game review. I hope that by now you won’t regard it as a failure. As you say, this sort of agriculture is how most people have lived and died for most of history. There are still a lot of people involved even now.As I think you worked out at the end of your session the game is not so much about production of the resources but the interaction of the various people who produce and control them.

    I am just reading The City and the Country by Raymond Williams (1973 and 1985) which is really literary criticism meets history. Much of it is about the way we see the countryside (ie beauty and peace) versus what actually goes into building those great houses and cathedrals with a lot of dirty fingernails. As brought out in Adam Nicolson’s recent book Gentry, the countryside is all about a pretty grim struggle for power at various levels. Williams also touches on the idea that whilst some may regard the medieval open field system as communal (see the last such village at Laxton in Notts) he feels that actually the power relationships would really produce a society perpetually suspicious of their fellows especially in an environment over which they had very little control and were at the margins of survival. This seemed to borne borne out by my readings about rural society before the French Revolution and Zola’s very gritty novel La Terre set in the mid 19th century.

    So I think your roles would be something like the Lord’s Steward (or the ecclesistiacal equivalent) who controls resources like the mill, fishponds, access to game etc, one or two well-off families, a few more middling families and a few representative cottars. My impression from Laxton is that there would be some sort of village council between the overlord and the villagers but if they could not sort ourt disputes then the lord’s justice ran. I am not sure if there are roles for the tradesmen eg blacksmith, carter, miller etc. Potentially the miller is a big role.

    It seems to me that all these families will have land of their own and some rights on common land. All things being equal they will produce stuff – say corn or meat subject to a die roll for the weather. The other variables I imagine would be their ability to get and use resources such as ploughs and labour. Only the wealthier families will have the (one or two) ploughs and so the other families will have to pay for their use on their land by labour or possibly cash. Indebtedness was a big problem so there was clearly some form of money lending.

    People would have to pay the miller but that might be just a standard like paying the lord.

    I think the overlord would be mostly unplayed unless you really want to put in a game changing event because the village burdens would be based on custom and practice.

    Once you’ve set up the production system and tax burdens you can introduce variables such as weather: affects everyone, illness (families lose or gain people which affects their labour, animal diseases, marriages and deaths affect landholdings and so on.

    Really big random events like lords charging more rent, wanting working parties to build the castle or church, depredations brought about by war or plague can, so far as I can see, affect these villages for years and so need to be handled carefully.

    Hope these thoughts from a pseudogamer are of some help.

    All the best,

    Andy Grainger

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