Tag Archives: Book

Book Review – Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons

As an aside, I realize that my book reviews, are more like book recommendations. I don’t plan on writing reviews of books that I don’t like. So, if a book appears here, expect it to be a positive review.
Book CoverSieges played a huge role in medieval and ancient warfare, but I realized that I didn’t know that much about them. I had seen various documentaries that covered a siege engine or two and I knew the difference between the major types of siege engine (or so I thought), but I didn’t really know the details. Who used what? What were the strategic and technological reasons for the development of different siege engines? Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons: A Fully Illustrated Guide to Siege Weapons and Tactics by Konstantin Nossov is an excellent introduction to the history of siege warfare from the earliest known examples through the introduction of cannons.

Overall, the writing style is what I like in a historical book. The author presents the information in a straightfoward manner, without too many diversions or minutiae. Even though I only have the Kindle version, I recommend getting the print version. The color plates are not inline with the text. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I knew where the images were and could flip back and forth, but the Kindle version didn’t have any crosslinks. In fact, I didn’t know that the color plates existed until I bumped into them in the middle of the section on throwing machines. There are plenty of black-and-white illustrations peppered throughout the book to illustrate key ideas.

The first section of the book is dedicated to the history of siege warfare.  Nossov uses this historical overview to provide context for the machines and tactics that he will discuss later. For example, battering rams and borers are used against different types of walls.

The second section is dedicated to different types of siege engines.  The author groups siege engines together by broad types such as “Scaling Ladders” and “Battering Rams” and then goes on to provide specific examples within each category. He discusses the tactical uses of each machine, how they were built, and how defenders would try to destroy or disrupt them. Some measurements are provided, and the drawings are quite detailed, a creative builder could reconstruct from this information, but that is not the goal of the book.

This section on seige engines is the meat of the book and probably the main reason why people will be interested in it. The book focuses on well established machines, instead of getting distracted by failed inventions and obscure flights of fancy. Even so, you will find a lot to learn here. As you would expect, it covers catapults, battering rams, and siege towers, but it also covers mobile sheds, borers and sambucas (which I never heard of before this book). There are plenty of illustrations to help you understand these machines and how they were used.

A small, but important, detail that he cover is how certain terms (such as “catapult” and “ballista”) were applied to very different machines at different times. This helps prevent a lot of confusion.

The third section builds upon the first two sections to discuss siege tactics. This includes tactics of both the besieger and the besieged. By the time you reach this point in the book, many of the ideas will be familiar, but Nossov brings it all together to paint a picture of a siege. He does not limit his discussion to which machines to use, he discusses many of the other gambits that armies took to claim a city.

I realized that I have been a fantasy roleplayer for over 30 years and not once have I played a siege. Sieges tend to go against the “epic quest” model of fantasy role-playing, but this book has motivated me to find a way to work it into a game. If you have any interest in siege engines or warfare, this is a great book to start with.

Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle

Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas J. EmlenI just got back from vacation. The book I took with me was Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle by Douglas J. Emlem, a professor of biology from the University of Montana. This is a book that explores an interesting question for world builders and gamers: “why do some, but not all, animals develop weapons of ridiculous size?” Emlem’s book examines creatures with enormous horns, antlers and teeth and shows how special circumstances leads to an “arms race” between members of the species. He also draws a comparison to the development of arms in human history.

The comparison to human history is the low point of the book. Emlem is not a military historian (and doesn’t claim to be one) and the analogies are pretty loose and a few are based on common misconceptions (such as the mobility of a knight in full plate armor). If you plan on buying this book to gain new insight into human warfare (like I did), you will be disappointed. However, the bulk of the book is spent on the animals and the evolution of their weapons and there are some great lessons there about the development of extreme weapons.

The author looks at animal weapons as a cost-benefit analysis: for example, a large set of antlers is unwieldy and requires a huge amount of nutrients, however it provides critical mating opportunities. The assorted costs and benefits depend on circumstance. In many cases, the costs keep most weapons to a reasonable size, but sometimes the benefits outweigh extreme costs and an arms race develops. Emlem discusses these circumstances, and how the arms race develops and sometimes collapses.

Overall, the writing is accessible without being dumbed-down, illustrations are well-made and used appropriately to demonstrate important content, and the author is meticulous about listing sources. While I picked this book up to learn about human warfare, I recommend it for the lessons on creature design.

A Few Important Lessons for Creature Design

While I really recommend reading the book, here are a few lessons for creature designers.

  • Weapons require resources to make – a creature with extreme weapons has a stronger need for nutrients
  • Most extreme weapons are used against members of their own species. The “bigger is better” development only works when you are going up against somebody similarly armed. Prey creatures will usually have different defenses.
  • For the benefits to outweigh the cost, the weapon must provide access to a valuable resource. Usually, this is the chance to mate, but in a fantasy setting, it could be some other resource that the creature needs.
  • For a resource to be valuable, it must be rare and defendable. If a resource is common, there is no need to fight over it. If you cannot defend your resource, if it is very disperse or if others are capable of sneaking around you, then your weapons become less useful.

There are many more lessons for a creature designer to learn. This book covers a topic that is near and dear to many gamers’ hearts and is well worth the read to add depth and flavor to your fantasy fauna.

The Crystal Anvil Review, part 2

Corsair Armor Photo
The Corsair Armor is one of the patterns available.

This is a continuation of my review of The Crystal Anvil, a book on costuming, larp craft, and especially leatherwork. In part one of my review, I discussed the overviews and tutorials.  However, if you are interested in this book, it is probably because you are interested in the leathercraft patterns. So, what do I think? The patterns are a “must have” for anybody who is interested in leather armor or making leather pouches and accessories.

The book contains 50 leathercraft patterns. The patterns are in PDF format, sized for printing on A1 paper. You can either print it out across multiple sheets of paper or send it to a print shop. The files are not locked and are in vector format (not rasterized). This means that you can (and are encouraged to) edit the PDF in a vector image editor (I use Adobe Illustrator). This is a welcome change from either scanned images that are hard to manipulate or copy protections that make the product practically useless.

The patterns cover a pretty good variety of costume pieces and accessories. For costume pieces, it has:

  • Cuirasses (Chest) – Mostly for men, but one piece for women.
  • Paldrons (Shoulders)
  • Belts and tassets
  • Vambraces (Forearms)
  • Greeves (Calves)
  • Helms and headbands

And for accessories, it has quivers, bags and pouches

There are only a few areas that weren’t covered: gauntlets, footwear, and articulated pieces such as full arm pieces with an articulated elbow. They are all advanced projects and beyond the scope of this book, but I mention it only in case you want to buy the book specifically for one of those pieces.

All of the patterns are gorgeous. None of the patterns appear to be that challenging, but precision is required to get the rivet and stitching marks properly aligned otherwise the pieces will buckle when assembled. The instructions are straightfoward, the assembly isn’t that complex so you don’t need complicated instructions. Many of the pieces are made of overlapping pieces. These add dimension and interest to the finish piece, but require patience and precision to assemble correctly. Where needed, the instructions include a diagram of how the pieces all overlap. One advantage to the layered design is that you don’t need large areas of perfect leather. You can lay out the pieces to cut around imperfections in your leather.

The challenge in these patterns is fitting. Most of the costume patterns are made for men 5’10” tall. There is some discussion on how to size the pattern, but expect to make a couple of mock-ups with cardstock before cutting expensive leather. I think it would benefit a beginner to have some of the patterns provided in standard sizes, but a little courage and a lot of prototyping will take you far. I will talk more about fitting in a later post when I talk about my own armor construction. There is one set of women’s armor fitted to a female measuring 37-28-38. Altering female clothing, especially something as fitted as this, is very difficult. I believe future volumes of The Crystal Anvil will discuss this in more detail. Until then, I wouldn’t try the female cuirass unless you have experience in pattern alteration.

Although these patterns are made for leather, you could use craft foam instead. As I write this, it occurs to me that you could make some really cool sci-fi armor with these patterns and different colored foam . . . I may have to try that.

Patterns for armor are incredibly rare. Just studying these patterns taught me a lot about armor design and assembly. Having this book is like having access to a leatherworkers shop and being able to take apart finished pieces to see how they were made. It is a very welcome insider view for those of us who have no other access to a professional costumer. If you are interested in making your own armor, even if it is out of a different material, add The Crystal Anvil to your library. Even if you never plan on making one of its designs, the patterns can easily form a starting point for your own creation.

The Crystal Anvil Review, part 1

The Crystal Anvil CoverI collect a lot of books relating to my hobbies. It is hard to find good books that fit your needs. I plan on reviewing some of my favorites so you can see if they’ll work for you. I wanted to do a review of this book quickly since the author is starting to take pre-orders for the second volume and this is a book that I have found very helpful.

Early this year, a leathercrafting company, Lederkraft, offered the patterns for two of their leather cuirasses for free. Once I snagged the first pattern, I studied it to figure out how to build my armor. I’ll have more discussion on the building of my armor in later posts. The owner of Lederkraft, Alex Agricola, decided to close shop on Lederkraft and publish a collection of patterns, with other LARP crafting tips, in The Crystal Anvil series. While it is available in print, I own the ebook version, so that is going to be the basis of my review.

The book starts with an overview of costume, LARP, and cosplay.  These are fairly broad overviews, and you might be tempted to skip it  and jump ahead to the “meat” of the book. However, the author sprinkles bits of insight that he has gathered over his time working in the field and that makes it worth the time.

The next section of the book is dedicated to three fabrication methods: sewing, leathercraft, and 3D printing. Each section is a broad overview. Although he goes into details about specific techniques, do not expect this book to teach you everything you need to know about these methods. However, I do think that an overview like this is useful for a beginner. It provides enough guidance that you can think about the process of costume making which is a very important piece that many books and tutorials don’t cover. If you are new to costume making, reading this book early will help you identify gaps in your knowledge that you can research further.

The third section is dedicated to specific tutorials, they are:

  • Introduction to Cosplay – Mostly this focuses on the technical aspects of costume design, such as patterning and working with toiles.
  • Making Creature Ears
  • Leather Forming
  • Instructions for Making Leather “Weave” Armour
  • Building a LARP Sword
  • Painting and Modifying Nerf Guns

Some of these articles are written by guest authors. All of them are clear, concise, and well-documented with photos and diagrams. The Introduction to Cosplay covers the basics of design and fitting. This is the best description of it that I have seen outside of specialty books on the topic and is a topic that seems to get overlooked in other cosplay tutorials.

The section on leather forming takes you through the process of wet forming leather (fitting a wet piece of leather to a form so that it will maintain that shape when dry). I have a lot of books on leathercraft and I picked up a lot of ideas from here that I hadn’t heard before.

I have been researching LARP swords and this tutorial covers a lot of the same techniques that other tutorials cover. However, they discuss a sealing technique that is easier to work with and does not have the same problems as Isoflex or Tool Dip. I have yet to try it out, but if it works, it is a piece of golden advice. The rest of the tutorials are outside of my immediate interest, so I can’t speak too deeply about them.

Up until this point, The Crystal Anvil is a solid book. The overviews and tutorials are well crafted and are peppered with little pieces of advice that comes from years of experience. It’s those little nuggets of information that make the book so useful to me. There is a subtle difference between “teaching” and “sharing experience” – while many books do the former, few do the latter as well as this book.

However, the reason that I picked up the book was for the leather patterns. I’ll leave that for the second part of this review, because that is where this book really stands out. . .