It can be hard to explain the draw of the so-called Dark Ages, or the Early Medieval period (as it is now more properly known). Following the relatively well-documented Roman Empire, you have huge gaps in the historical and archaeological record, battle descriptions that are often no more than two lines in a chronicle written fifty years after the event (if you’re lucky) and often lack of clarity on who was actually fighting who! So what’s the appeal?
Well, for starters, the lack of certainty means that you have more latitude to depict your miniature warriors than you do in, say, the Napoleonic Wars. This can verge on fantasy at times but gives you substantial artistic licence in how you wish to portray Welsh warriors or Pictish raiders. That said, I have thoroughly enjoyed trying to create a ‘look’ for each of my Dark Age armies to differentiate them, sometimes doing more research than is sensible!
Secondly, I’d have to cite the fun that can be had by reading up on a period of history whose interpretation has changed so rapidly over the last fifty or sixty years. Winston Churchill, John Morris, Ken Dark and Guy Halsall (to name but a few) have all presented different theories over the years, especially concerning Early Medieval Britain. Being able to visit various hillforts and earthworks, speculating on what may or may not have happened there, is a great pleasure (although not always one that is shared by my family!)
Thirdly, let’s not deny it: Arthur! One of the most evocative names in British myth and legend, Arthur has fascinated me since I was a child. As an adult, I’ve accepted that he’s a composite figure, much embroidered by the Normans and who probably never existed in reality, but the imagery is powerful, and it’s there.
Getting back to gaming, the Dark Ages is a brilliant period for versatility. Although I spend time trying to get various factions and cultures looking different, warrior equipment is very similar over a long period, especially for the poorer warriors. This means that your 4th century Scots-Irish raiders will mostly serve quite happily in the armies of Dal Riada several centuries later, or as your ‘Blackshields’ in a Bernard Cornwell-type Arthurian force. Add some specific characters and elite units and you can cover hundreds of years of history without too much outlay.