A History Primer on Naval Warfare as Portrayed on Hillside

  • As a history buff with a strong interest in the medieval period and other pre-modern eras, I was a huge fan of the original Age of Chivalry mod. It was the only first-person game I had ever played set in a pre-modern era that I felt to be truly immersive and engaging. Naturally, I became like a little kid at Christmastime when Chivalry was released – while the mod was fun, I knew there was so much more that could be done with the idea and I had eagerly awaited the new version.

    And I have to say, you guys at Torn Banner have created an OUTSTANDING game. You have surpassed the work you did for Age of Chivalry by leaps and bounds. Every time I play I am still stunned by its unique, immersive, and visceral qualities. Not to mention the fun factor, of course – and on top of that the many laughs I get out of the game from dying in humiliating ways or watching others suffer the same.

    And while the game has its own fictional backstory, I can sense that the creators really know their stuff about medieval warfare and it shows in the quality of the combat and the level of detail. This is first and foremost a game about bashing each other to death with medieval weaponry in land-based warfare, and in this it surpasses any other game out there.

    Combat aside, I was also struck by the quality of the environments and battlegrounds. The levels are gorgeous, and for the most part convincing and realistically portrayed. I was awed by the background trebuchet action on Battlegrounds and loved the design of Stoneshill, especially the area directly in front of the gate where the fighting is most brutal. So when I got the chance to play Hillside for the first time, I was amazed that Torn Banner had incorporated naval warfare into the environment and objectives (something that hadn’t been done in Age of Chivalry). Again, the level of detail and immersion here is top-notch, and the first time I played Hillside I remember standing on the shore for five minutes just watching the ships sailing around and thinking “Sweet!”

    It was shortly afterwards, though, that it occurred to me: “Wait a minute… sailing ships?” I didn’t give it much more thought but then about two weeks later, during a brief conversation with another player, I mentioned that the ballistas would be incapable of sinking a wooden battleship. The reply I got (“wow I need to Wikipedia this later!”) suddenly made me realize that a lot of Chivalry players out there may not be aware of the nature of naval warfare in the medieval period. Whereas the creators of Chivalry are clearly very knowledgeable about land-based medieval combat, their portrayal of naval warfare in a game set in the medieval period is actually quite anachronistic.

    I don’t intend for this post to be a critique of Chivalry; on the contrary, it is an excellent game and I would have given it a 10 out of 10. I have simply written a history primer for those medieval history enthusiasts out there that might be interested in learning a bit about the real nature of naval warfare in the medieval period. For other readers, I am simply interested in correcting assumptions that might be made upon witnessing the naval combat of Hillside.



    The wooden sailing vessels portrayed on Hillside are large men-of-war that are a product of the 16th and 17th centuries rather than the Middle Ages. They are depicted as powered completely by sail, and are loaded with cannon capable of devastating broadsides. This type of vessel ruled the seas during the Age of Sail, and the gradual advances in sailing that allowed ships to eventually rely completely on wind power were what enabled the colonization of the New World. Before this time, ships had to sail close to land and feared venturing into the deep ocean lest they get caught in a storm, lose their bearings, or run out of provisions. While ships have been powered by sails since ancient times, the art of sailing did not improve to the point where trans-oceanic crossings were possible until the time of Columbus’ voyage. Furthermore, naval warfare up until the Age of Sail consisted of close-range fighting and ramming between oared triremes and galleys powered by human rowers. Since ships could not sail far from land, these sleek warships were ideal for patrolling the coasts quickly and dealing damage at great speeds. Up until the end of the medieval period, galleys were the principal warships of most European and Mediterranean kingdoms. In fact, as late as the year 1571, a decisive battle was fought between roughly 400 oared galleys in the Battle of Lepanto, when allied Christian forces defeated an Ottoman fleet and ended the threat of a Muslim invasion of Italy.

    Thus, the sailing ships depicted on Hillside would fit better in a game depicting the battles fought on the high seas during the time of the Spanish Armada, or the European wars of later centuries. In order to accurately depict naval warfare of the medieval period, Hillside could show dozens of oared galleys rowing in from the distance, or making a landing near the area of fighting. This is not to say that there would not be ships powered by sail in a medieval naval engagement; however, the wooden battleships as currently depicted on Hillside would not have existed in the medieval period, as they are too large and carry cannon.


    Ships powered completely by wind can turn only at very slow speeds. The process of altering a ship’s direction does not simply involve turning a ship’s wheel – sails must be furled or unfurled by sailors climbing up and down the masts. In addition, sailing ships cannot sail directly into the wind (as there is a danger of stopping or moving backwards) but instead must ‘tack’ into the wind by sailing in a zig-zag motion, catching the wind in the sails at just the right angles and then turning to sail in another diagonal direction after a certain distance.

    The ships in Hillside are depicted as not only sailing at high speeds, but maneuvering around rocky obstacles in a manner similar to driving a car on a circular onramp when entering or exiting a highway. This apparently agile quality of the wooden ships of Hillside is extremely unrealistic, and no captain would have dared attempt such a maneuver anywhere in a sailing vessel of that size. In fact, simply sailing so close to shore would have been tantamount to suicide! A large wooden ship has a deep draft – meaning that the keel or bottom of the ship extends far below the waterline – and approaching so close to shore would result in a grounding of the ship, or worse, a shipwreck. (And considering that many sailors of the time did not know how to swim, usually all hands would be lost.)

    Naval Combat

    Naval combat differed greatly between oared vessels and wooden battleships loaded with cannon. When galleys engaged, fighting began with projectiles (arrows, javelins, etc.) and then as ships collided, knights and men-at-arms would swarm over the sides of ships and engage in hand-to-hand combat, in what basically became a land war on sea. Read about The Battle of Sluys for an insight into what this sort of medieval naval combat was like – the battle was fought during the Hundred Years’ War in the Late Middle Ages and was characteristic of naval warfare of the time.

    Naval combat between ships in the Age of Sail was vastly different. Ships were much larger, heavier, and had thicker wooden hulls; they had dozens of cannon from which they could deliver powerful broadsides from either side; and of course they had much greater range. Galleys were made obsolete once these deadly men-of-war began dominating the high seas, as they could not carry cannon, were not tall enough to board the high-sided wooden battleships, and would sink immediately if holed by a cannonball. Meanwhile, the design of a wooden battleship ensured that it would be incredibly difficult to sink at all, even if holed by cannonfire, since these ships were capable of plugging up holes and pumping excess water from the lower holds. When engaged in combat, these ships would pound each other with cannonfire until one side eventually surrendered or successfully made an escape. Ships of this time were more likely to surrender not because they were sinking – instead, after lengthy exchanges of gunfire (in extreme cases, lasting an entire day), ships were often forced to surrender because a majority of the crew was severely injured or dead, and the ship was rendered unnavigable.


    Finally, the topic that inspired me to write this post – the ballistas. While ballistas were used during the medieval period, in no way could they possibly take down ships of the size depicted on Hillside. This sort of artillery would simply embed itself in a ship’s hull, neither puncturing it nor presenting much of a danger to the crew aside from a lucky shot or two. Successful hits would definitely not result in the sinking or destruction of such a large ship. While it is fun to shoot the ships in Hillside with these weapons, they would not have been of any use in a similar battle against such mighty warships. (If they were aimed at galleys – now that would be a different story)

    Again, I do not wish for this post to be seen in any way as a nitpicky criticism of Chivalry. After all, this post has a narrow focus and discusses only one environment depicted in the game. I simply share a love of history and a love for Chivalry the game, and was greatly inspired to combine my love of the two to hopefully enlighten any readers interested in learning about naval warfare. I am also interested in other periods of history (ie. the Age of Sail), and at the end of my post I’ve included references for two incredible historical narratives that informed me of this subject and sparked my fascination with both periods.

    Cheers and congrats to Torn Banner for developing such a wonderful, successful medieval first-person combat game!

    • For an account of the clash between Christians and Ottomans in the Mediterranean in the 16th century, including the stories of the Battle of Lepanto and The Siege of Malta, see Roger Crowley – Empires of the Sea.

    • For a vivid retelling of the Battle of Trafalgar between Lord Admiral Nelson’s British fleet and the Combined fleets of the Spanish and French during the Napoleonic wars, see Roy Adkins – Nelson’s Trafalgar. This battle occurred at the tail end of the Age of Sail, but was still fought exclusively by wooden battleships. It resulted in the destruction of the French and Spanish fleets and ended Napoleon’s hopes of invading England.

  • The only thing that bothers me about that is that there are 3 Mason ships to about 5 Agathian ships. The Agathian ships could so take those…

  • I had the same thought about the ballistae (I don’t know anything about medieval ships, admittedly, so none of the rest of it seemed off to me) - but, I think it’s mainly just meant as an engaging objective. Sure, you could just defend some trebuchets to sink ships like the other team does, but getting to sink them yourself with the ballistae feels a lot more awesome. Kinda like how the defending team conveniently has piles of torches around their burnable objectives. It’s weird, but it makes for more interesting gameplay.

  • You know, it’s not really the kind of ships they are that bothers me, but the way they sail like super agile speedboats, and the fact you have to shoot them with a ballista. A bit like you actually.

    I think it would be easier for the attacking team and more realistic as well if they would be stationairy in some kind of blockade or defensive formation, that would look a lot better. And the ballistas, well, the Romans shot at people with ballistas with flaming projectiles in their time, why not keep the ballistas here but make the projectile flaming, the ships catch fire after a few shots so it would make more sense and wouldn’t be entirely historicaly accurate but it would make more sense atleast.

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