This week we are looking at the last of the Dark Ages expansion books to date "Varjazi and Basileus", which focusses on the peoples and factions of Eastern Europe during the Dark Ages. A lot of emphasis is usually placed on the activities of the Vikings in Western Europe, but it is less well known that they also played an enormously important role in founding Russia, and in linking Western Europe with the vastly different cultures of Byzantium, the Islamic Caliphates and even beyond towards Asia. This rarely explored corner of the Dark Ages is truly fascinating, and the factions fun and challenging to play.
The Pagan Rus
The vikings who struck East instead of West in their explorations were known as the Varangians to the Slavic tribes they encountered along the Volga and Dnieper rivers. Like their Western cousins, they came to raid, to trade and finally to settle, in the process establishing vital trade routes between Europe and the great Eastern cities of Byzantium, Baghdad and their neighbours. One such group, the Rus, conquered the region of Ladoga and founded the city of Novgorod, and under the leadership of the chieftain Rurik and his successors, established the state that would eventually become Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. After Rurik's successor Oleg moved the capitol from Novgorod to the strategic city of Kiev, these Varangians came to be known as the Kievan Rus.
The Kievan Rus were Norse Pagan, and blended their culture and beliefs freely with that of the local Slavic people, with a uniquely Russian culture gradually forming in the process. They remained hungry for land and power though, and rapidly expanding their holdings, came into conflict first with the Steppe Tribes to the South, most notably the Khazars, the Bulgarian Empire, and eventually with Byzantium itself, laying siege to Constantinople in 860AD.
The Pagan Rus brought the Viking way of battle to the east, their shield walls and powerful warriors sweeping their enemies aside as they conquered the lowlands of Central Europe. They also learned quickly how best to use these brutal lands to their advantage, exhuasting their enemies across the vast frozen plains. Their battleboard reflects this tactical mindset in a number of strong defensive abilities that mercilessly punish the opponent's fatigued units.
The Rus Princes
After the Rus' attack on Constantinople in 860, the Byzantine Patriarch Photius made it his personal mission to convert them to Christianity and secure the empire's Northern neighbour as an ally. Missionaries were sent and Bible passages translated, but it would take over a century for these efforts to bear fruit.
In 988AD Prince Vladimir I of Kiev finally converted, and promptly proceeded to forcefully convert those of his people that were not yet Christian. Paganism persisted in the countryside for a long time, but the state was now firmly Christian. Under Vladimir and his son Yaroslav the Rus entered a golden age of learning and development, as Greek knowledge and Eastern Christianity were firmly established. Relations with the rest of Europe and the Muslim world improved while, monastaries and schools brought a better life to the Rus people.
The Rus Princes are a powerful cavalry army, relying on devestating charges to overwhelm their opponent's forces. As converted Christians, the elite of the Rus also have a number of powerful special abilties that reflect their zeal and determination, making an encounter with a Rus Princes Warlord or Hearthguard unit a frightening experience.
By 285AD the Roman Empire had become so vast, and the administration of it so complicated, that Rome was effectively divided in two, with one emperor ruling the Western portion, and the other the East. This arrangement persisted to varying extent for the next few decades, until it was formalised in 330AD when the Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the empire to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. When Rome fell in the West in 476AD, Constantinople endured, and the Roman Empire continued in the East for another thousand years, though it would change fundamentally in that time.
The Eastern Empire was a great power during the Dark Ages and well into the Medieval period. It linked East and West, with its capital city variously referred to as the "Queen of Cities" or the "Great City". It was a center of culture and learning, but also a center of power, with its armies amongst the most disciplined and capable in Europe.
Byzantine warbands rely on the disciplined cooperation and command that was as much the hallmark of the Roman Empire in the West. Units specialise in different tactics, weapons and roles, relying on their comrades to cover the areas where they are weak. This can make a Byzantine warband a challenge to learn to play well, but it is well worth the reward when you learn to combo your Battleboard abilities and units consistently well.
The Steppe Tribes are a collective faction representing the various nomadic tribes that originated on the central plains of Eurasia. These were expert riders who grew up in the saddle, and could fight as well from horseback as most European warriors could on foot. They include the Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, Seljuks and many others besides, who harrassed Europe and the Muslim world periodically throughout the Viking Age.
Arguably the most important and powerful of these groups were the Bulgars, who established their own state to the North of Byzantium in the 7th Century, forcing recognition from the Eastern Romans by defeating them decisively at the Battle of Ongal in 680. This defeat would later prove extremely fortunate for the Byzantines. After years of skirmishes, the Umayyad muslims laid sige to Constantinople in 717AD. The Byzantines were on the verge of defeat, but the Bulgarians, now allied to Constantinople and fearing a full-scale Ummayad invasion, were able to break the siege. The Umayyad's were soundly defeated and their fleet destroyed, buying Eastern Europe a welcome few decades of relative peace.
The Steppe Tribes are expert archers who use short composite bows designed to be shot from horseback. They tend to avoid direct engagement, instead relying on mobility and a barrage of withering ranged attacks to wear down their enemies before they move in for the final blow. Consequently the majority of their Battleboard abilities are focussed on enhancing these ranged attacks, while the balance of reaction abilities allow the Steppe Tribes warband to evade melee combat.
Please Note: The Steppe Tribes are a bonus faction that is available for download from Studio Tomahawk's website. Find it here