Lore and History: Ships on The Great Whale Road

Combining historical facts with the lore of a game world which we want to be historically accurate is not always straight forward. Gameplay cannot be sacrificed on the altar of historicity (and vice versa). A game which lets the player explore historical seafaring has to find many a compromise and solutions to marry game design with the historical background.

Ships are a good example for this conundrum. When I started the research for the game I knew a fair bit about Roman shipping and medieval ships of later periods, but I only had some general ideas about the ships used during the Dark Ages. So I started off with Viking longships and felt my way back to the handful of archaeological finds from our period, the mid-seventh century.

ship 1 brown.jpg

Little did I know that I would have to make a lot of assumptions and guesses due to the limited number of historical sources and conflicting scholarly opinions. Starting with the Sutton Hoo ship I was not surprised by the 'heated' discussion if this ship (and other Anglo-Saxon ships) had a sail. Luckily some folks in Suffolk decided to just build a replica. Not only was it easy to add a sail, but the ship also proved to be an excellent sailing vessel.

The Sutton Hoo ship is an example for larger boats and ships used by Germanic tribes across Europe for hundreds of years and their next evolutionary step would be the longships of the pirates and traders of the Viking age. These ships were seaworthy enough for the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to reach Britain as well as regular trade and travel along the Atlantic coast from the lands of the Picts to the Merovingian kingdom, Frisia and Scandinavia. I have lived close to the North Sea long enough to know that any ship used to travel along its coastline must have been very seaworthy and robust. Other examples for this type are the Kvalsund ship, also from the seventh century, and the first (found) clinker built in history, the Nydam boat, dated to the early fourth century.

In addition to Germanic style ships I am certain that Celtic designs - with Roman additions - continued to be in use. The Guernsey ship is the best example for this tradition of Gallic shipbuilding already described in Caesar's Bellum Gallicum. Similar ships have been found in the UK as well - the Blackfriars I and the Barland's Farm Romano-Celtic Boat. The same type of ships were still in use in the seventh century and they will have certainly influenced later medieval designs like cogs and carracks. These ship designs didn't appear out of nowhere, they were just an evolution of ships that existed for centuries.

The third main ship design tradition around at the time were skin boats, used mainly by Picts and Scots (Celtic tribes from Ireland). These were not small boats, were able to carry around 20 warriors, and were propelled by oars and sails. Currachs or curraghs, lightweight construction of cattle skins over wooden frames, were used for long-distance travel, trading as well as less peacefully to raid and pirate.

Our goal is to implement all three types of ships with different attributes like crew size, seaworthiness and travelling speed. We haven't decided on how we will visually represent them in the game. I would like to have different ships on the combat screens, but we might have to abstract that - at least to start with.

Joachim @ Sunburned Games