May 23, 1618 was not a good day for Count von Martinitz. Neither was it for Count Slavata, nor for Councillor Fabricius. The three were assailed by an angry mob of the Bohemian Estates and thrown out of a window of Prague Castle. Miraculously, all three of them survived the fall of about 20 meters. European peace, however, did not survive. The Thirty Years’ War which resulted from the attempted lynching ranks high among the bloodiest conflicts in European history. This article will take examine how this relatively small act of violence could trigger such a long and intense war and what made this war different from others before and after. All the while, games about the Thirty Years’ War will be discussed.
The Tensions at Work
Generally, the late 16th century had been a period of Catholic counter-reformation and power centralization. Interestingly enough, things had gone the other way in Bohemia. Protestantism had grown in strength, and the Estates had gained some independence from the Emperor. However, in the years leading up to 1618, the Austrian Hapsburg Emperors began to roll these developments back. The Emperors’ hardline approach led to the uprising of the Estates after the aforementioned Prague Defenestration.
As the Emperor was, among his many other titles, also King of Bohemia, the Estates declared him to be deposed and proclaimed the (Protestant) Elector of the Palatinate king instead. The Bohemians had some initial success, but the Empire struck back: Imperial forces invaded Bohemia and won a decisive victory in the Battle of White Mountain. The battle with its asymmetric matchup (the Bohemians enjoyed a strong defensive position but suffered from bad leadership, the Hapsburg forces had to assault said position but were competently led by Count Tilly) inspired Christmas at White Mountain (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele), the first installment in the Table Battles system. After the re-conquest of Bohemia, Hapsburg forces mounted a similarly successful punitive expedition against the Palatinate, whose elector had been King of Bohemia for a winter. But despite all those successes for the Hapsburg-Imperial-Catholic side, the war was not over.
Instead, it grew. Other European tensions were thrown into the mix, beginning with Hapsburg Spain’s conflicts with both the Dutch and France. The Dutch had been in an on-and-off struggle for independence against their Spanish overlords since 1568 already, and France always felt encircled by the string of Hapsburg possessions at their borders (the Low Countries and Northern Italy in addition to Spain proper). When the truce between Spain and the Dutch expired in 1621, the Hapsburg King of Spain called in the favor he had lent to his cousin, the Hapsburg Emperor, in quelling the Bohemian-Palatinate revolt.
Another Hapsburg ally to the north was the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, one of the dominating powers in the Baltic in the 17th century. Poland’s position, however, was challenged by both Denmark and Sweden, who hoped to expand their influence in the Baltic and prevent the Polish (and, by extension, their Hapsburg allies) Catholics from becoming too strong in the north. After the initial Imperial success in Bohemia and the Palatinate, this concern only grew.
Which brings us to the last, least tangible, but probably most important factor in the widening of the war: Hapsburg hegemony over Europe seemed – not for the first time – a real possibility. Within the next years and decades, Denmark, England, Sweden, and France would all intervene in the war to prevent the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs from dominating Europe.
All of these conflicts had been going on for decades and escalating before 1618. However, the changed balance of power since the 16th century meant that no quasi-hegemon (like Hapsburg Spain before) could enforce their preferred solution to most conflicts. The indecisive leadership on all sides in the twenty years leading up to the war failed to resolve any of them, so when open hostilities commenced, all individual conflicts were drawn into one giant struggle. There is no game yet to deal with these complex, intertwined conflicts, but many times, I’ve read the wish that Ed Beach would make them the subject of a new epic game following what he did for the century before with Here I Stand and Virgin Queen (both published by GMT Games). As to my knowledge, he has not ruled making a new game in the style of the two mentioned, but seems rather busy right now as lead designer of the Civilization VI computer game.
The Ravaging of Central Europe
The Thirty Years’ War remains the most destructive war ever fought in Central Europe. In addition to damages done by battles and sieges, cities and villages were repeatedly plundered and burned down. Armies usually lived off the land, requisitioning food and coin as they marched. As the war progressed, more and more small bands of mercenaries and ex-soldiers pillaged on their own, far from any superior authority. As a result, Central Europe’s population dropped by a third during the war, and in some especially ravaged areas (for example, in southern Germany), population losses exceeded 70%.
From a purely military standpoint, the Thirty Years’ War was a prolonged sequence of many campaigns and battles. It is therefore not surprising that there are many tactical- or operational-level wargames dealing with them, for example Sweden Fights On (Ben Hull, GMT Games) which consists of four scenarios depicting battles of the Swedish Army after the death of their warrior king Gustavus Adolphus. The same author has also tackled the subject from an operational perspective with his Won by the Sword that offers maneuver warfare in the heavily contested area of southern Germany.
One characteristic trait of the Thirty Years’ War is that military successes were barely ever turned into diplomatic gains. The losers often expected outside help (which they usually received, be it financial subsidies or allied military interventions) to turn the tide, whereas the winners (especially the successive Emperors) were often unwilling to make even the smallest concession to close a favorable settlement. This is something one would expect as an important theme in a strategic treatment of the war – such as Thirty Years’ War: Europe in Agony (David A. Fox/Michael Welker, GMT Games). The game borrows many of its rules from other games, which gives interesting hints about what the designers thought the Thirty Years’ War was like. Sieges, for example, work similar to those in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (Mark Simonitch, Valley Games), field battles alike to those in Paths of Glory (Ted Raicer, GMT Games) – a game about the notoriously sluggishly fought First World War! Those design choices make for slow sieges and field battles infamous for being inconsequential (except for the occasional death of a leader in battle, as it happened in real history to Count Tilly or Gustavus Adolphus). Eventually, however, victory in Thirty Years’ War: Europe in Agony does come down to military success (mostly measured by control over terrain).
Lastly, the Thirty Years’ War saw the erosion of centralized power. The German princes held out against the mighty Emperor. Soldiers broke from their units and formed their own pillaging bands. And war-fighting was largely wrested from the hands of the states and instead became the domain of private war-entrepreneurs who paid their mercenary armies with loot. The most famous of these was Albrecht von Wallenstein, after whom the board game Wallenstein (Dirk Henn, Queen Games) is named. Wallenstein is more of a Eurogame than a war game or even a simulation, so the game allows for historically unthinkable options – every player can attack any other. However, this nicely shows the mercurial nature of these leaders and their allegiances. After all, Wallenstein himself was always viewed with suspicion by his imperial superiors who feared he might become too powerful and carve out an independent dominion for himself. These suspicions led to him being dismissed as a general, and, after he had been recalled to deal with the Swedish intervention, he pondered switching sides and was subsequently murdered with the Emperor’s approval.
What is your favorite treatment of the Thirty Years’ War in a board game? And what kind of game about it would you like to see developed? Let me know in the comments?
Christmas at White Mountain (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele)
Sweden Fights On (Ben Hull, GMT Games)
Won by the Sword (Ben Hull, GMT Games)
Thirty Years’ War: Europe in Agony (David A. Fox/Michael Welker, GMT Games)
Wallenstein (Dirk Henn, Queen Games)
A magisterial monography on the entire war including a detailed discussion of its origins is Wilson, Peter H.: Europe’s Tragedy. A New History of the Thirty Years’ War, Penguin, London 2009.
You’ll find a short discussion of the various origins of the war in Gutmann, Myron P.: The Origins of the Thirty Years‘ War, in: Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, 4, 1988, p. 749—770, online here (free registration required).
1. The Estates represented the Bohemian landed gentry and cities.
2. You can find a bit more on the counter-reformation here.
3. That’s the fancy term for throwing somebody out of a window.