Sunday 1 August 2021

Tarcal, 1527

My series of games with Tom,, continued last weekend with another game using the Hungarian forces I have recently completed. We chose the battle of Tarcal, or Tokaj, which took place on 27 September 1527, between the forces of Charles V's brother Ferdinand of Habsburg and the army of John Zápolya, who were both fighting for control of Hungary in the wake of Mohacs the year before. We knew that this was fight between a large Habsburg army, which included thousands of landsknecht, and a mixed Zápolya army comprised of Hungarians, Transylvanians and Serbs. As it is hard to find many details of this encounter, especially in English, this gave us free rein to fight an engagement between two very different but interesting 16th century forces.

Tarcal, 1527

The death of Louis II King of Hungary at Mohacs in August 1526 signalled the end of the Jagiellonian dynasty. Although the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, pillaged Buda he soon withdrew his forces leaving a power vacuum in Hungary and Bohemia. John Zápolya, Voivode of Transylvania, had been on his way to Mohacs with an army at his back but had not reached the field in time for the battle. Supported by much of the lesser nobility he was proclaimed King of Hungary at the Diet of Székesfehérvár in November. 

His claim was contended by Ferdinand of Habsburg, brother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He became King of Bohemia and in line with a treaty made between his grandfather Maximilan I, Louis II's father, Vladislaus II, and Sigismund I of Poland, Ferdinand was made King of Hungary by a faction of the Hungarian greater nobility and Catholic clergy. The treaty of 1515 meant Louis II's brother-in-law, Ferdinand of Habsburg, inherited the Hungarian throne as Louis had died without an heir. The strong arguement in support of Ferdinand becoming King was that only the Habsburg's were powerful enough to defend the kingdom from further Ottoman encroachment. 

The peasantry in much of southern Hungary rebelled in 1527 and, having ignored requests from Zápolya to form an alliance against the Ottomans, Ferdinand used this opportunity to invade Hungary with a German mercenary army in the summer of 1527, quickly capturing Buda. Following desertions and defections to the Habsburgs, John Zápolya led an army of 7,000-8,000 men comprised mainly of Hungarians, Transylvanians and Serbians against Ferdinand's much larger force of around 18,000 troops made up of German mercenaries and some Hungarian troops. Ferdinand's army was under the leadership of a veteran of Pavia, Nicholas, Count of Salm, who would lead the defence of Vienna in 1529, Bálint Török, a Mohac's veteran who had commanded the late Louis II's bodyguard and would be instrumental in the Ottoman defeat at Leobersdorf in 1532, and Johann von Katzianer, a veteran Imperial commander who led much of the infantry at Tarcal and was also at Leobersdorf. With John Zápolya were Paul Bakith, a Hungarian nobleman, also a Mohacs veteran whose loyalty was suspect as he joined Ferdinand immediately after the battle, Lukács Kismarjay and Ferenc Bodó who had been a commander at Szávaszentdemeter, in 1523.

As is often the case with these battles it is hard to piece together what happened in this clash but it seems the battle was initiated by a skirmish the day before where the Habsburg forces defeated a small force of Zápolya's men at Sajólád. The following day Zápolya's commanders Lukács Kismarjay and Ferenc Bodó attacked Ferdinand's army and although they had some initial success they were soon defeated in what became a pitched battle with landsknecht defeating Zápolya's cavalry and Ferdinand's allied Hungarian hussars breaking through Zápolya's centre and pushing his army back to the river Tisza. Zápolya's camp was taken by the advancing Habsburg forces and Ferenc Bodó fought a rearguard action as Zápolya's forces attempted to cross the river to safety. The bridge accross was broken once some of the retreating troops were across leaving many to drown or be killed, Ferenc Bodó himself being wounded as the route to safety for his men and himself was gone. Ferdinand's captains estimated 2,000 of Zápolya's forces were slain whilst much of his armies equipment was lost when the camp was taken.

John Zápolya would attempt to push Ferdinand out of Hungary once again in 1528 but was defeated at Szina. This drove him firmly into the sphere of the Ottomans and a year later in 1529 Suleiman would push the Habsburgs back out of Hungary and besiege Vienna.

The two armies deployed, Ferdinand I's Imperialists are in the foreground with John Zápolya's forces in front of the village and camp.

Nicholas, Count of Salm, deploys his landsknecht in front of the Zápolya cavalry under Ferenc Bodó and Lukács Kismarjay.

The Imperial horse deploy opposing Zápolya's infantry and his camp.

The whole of John Zápolya's army comprised of Hungarians, Transylvanians and Serbians. The bridge over which they could cross the river Tisza can be seen in the top left of the picture.

The Scenario

As always we played the game using an adapted version of Lion Rampant, Renaissance Rampant.

As Zápolya's forces were clearly outnumbered by the opposing Habsburgs this game was fought as a rearguard action with Zápolya attempting to get as many of his units off the table in the face of Ferdinand's advancing forces.
The two armies were divided into two retinues. Ferdinand's men could deploy up to 8" from their table edge but all of Bálint Török's men, the Habsburg cavalry retinue, had to deploy on the half of the table by the river opposing Zápolya's infantry, who were deployed closest to the bridge. The Habsburg infantry under Nicholas, Count of Salm, were deployed further away along the other half of the table facing Lukács Kismarjay and Ferenc Bodó's retinue of Zápolya's cavalry.

Zápolya's army deployed along the centre of the table up to 24" in but no closer than 8" to their own table edge. John Zápolya and his retinue could deploy on the table half closest to the bridge whilst Lukács Kismarjay and Ferenc Bodó's retinue, comprised mainly of cavalry, deployed further away on the other half of the table. This way the cavalry of each army faced the infantry of the other.

The Bridge over the Tisza

Zápolya's objective was to get himself and as many units to safety as possible. The twist was that once he had crossed the bridge every subsequent unit that crossed had to take a courage test as it crossed and if it failed it would automatically destroy the bridge once it had crossed thus trapping the rest of the force on the other side.

The Boats

There were also be two boats on the river bank which if reached by a Zápolya unit would automatically transport that unit accross the river to safety. This would be useful if the bridge was destroyed after Zápolya had crossed it. 

The Camp

Zápolya's camp also had artillery which could automatically fire as the equivalent of an arquesbusier unit at the start of each turn at any enemy unit within 12" of the war wagons and guns. Rolling 12 dice they would hit on a 5+ with a -1 armour modifier to anyone within 6" and would hit on a 4+ for the first volley. Once a Habsburg unit reached the War Wagons the camp was considered taken and could no longer fire at the start of the turn. The Habsburg unit that achieved this was considered lost and removed from the game as they looted and took over the camp. This could affect it's retinues morale.

Victory Points

Victory Points were awarded as follows:

John Zápolya

5 points if he escaped/lived but did not rout
1 point for every unit that crossed the bridge to safety
1 point for every Habsburg unit destroyed or routed
5 points if the camp was not taken
4 points if Nicholas, Count of Salm, was killed or routed
3 points if Bálint Török was killed or routed
2 points if Johann von Katzianer was killed or routed

The Army of Ferdinand of Habsburg

5 points if John Zápolya was killed or routed
1 point for every one of John Zápolya's units that was destroyed or routed
3 points if John Zápolya's camp was taken
2 points if Ferenc Bodó was killed or routed

Turn Sequence

The turns worked by having a deck of cards with the four suits, one representing each retinue. The number of cards in the deck corresponded to the number of units in each retinue. To play out a turn these were drawn at random and each card drawn meant that the retinue it corresponded to could attempt to activate a unit. So for example, for the Habsburg player Nicholas, Count of Salm's retinue were clubs and Bálint Török's retinue were spades, whilst for Zápolya's army the hearts represented Zápolya's retinue and the diamonds the retinue of Ferenc Bodó. If two spades were pulled in a row and then a diamond this meant that the Habsburg player could attempt to activate a unit in Nicholas, Count of Salm's retinue, then another in Salm's retinue and then the Zápolya player could attempt to activate one unit in Ferenc Bodó's retinue. A failed activation did not mean the retinues turn ended. There was also one joker card which, if pulled, would immediately restart the turn and the units that had not yet activated on both sides could not activate that turn. Rallying, challenges and wild charges for both sides were resolved at the start of each turn. This system really made the game very chaotic!

The Zápolya camp near the river Tisza with the bridge over the river at the top.

A view from the camp of John Zápolya. The Imperial horse under Bálint Török can be seen in the distance. 

A view from above. Going clockwise from the top right we have the Imperial horse under Bálint Török, next we have the Imperial infantry, predominantly landsknecht, under Nicholas, Count of Salm, and Johann von Katzianer. On the other side of the field are the Zápolya cavalry under Ferenc Bodó and Lukács Kismarjay. Finally in the top left can be seen the bridge over the Tisza, John Zápolya with his gendarmes and infantry in front of his camp.

The Armies

As I have mentioned above, there is very little information available about this battle but we know that the Habsburg army was comprised largely of German mercenaries with some Hungarian allies whilst John Zápolya's army was smaller and comprised of Hungarians, Serbians and Transylvanians. For the game the Habsburg army was about a third larger.

We decided to field the following to represent the two forces:

The Army of Ferdinand of Habsburg

Nicholas, Count of Salm

1 Unit of Gendarmes (Nicholas, Count of Salm)
1 Unit of Foot Knights (Johann von Katzianer)
4 Units of Landsknecht Pike
2 Unit of Landsknecht Halberdiers 
3 Units of Landsknecht Arquebusiers 
1 Unit of Hungarian Pavise Arquebus Infantry

12 Units 

Bálint Török

3 Units of Gendarmes (1 is Bálint Török) 
2 Units of Hussars
3 Units of Lancers
1 Unit of Hungarian Horse Archers 

9 Units 

The Army of John Zápolya

John Zápolya

2 Units of Gendarmes (1 is John Zápolya)
3 Units of Pavise Arquebus Infantry
1 Unit of Halberdiers
3 Units of Levy Pike
1 Unit of Mercenary Shot

10 Units 

Lukács Kismarjay and Ferenc Bodó

2 Units of Lancers ( Lukács Kismarjay and Ferenc Bodó. Bodó is the retinue leader) 
2 Units of Hussars 
4 Units of Balkan Cavalry 
1 Unit of Hungarian Horse Archers  

9 Units

Tom very bravely chose to play John Zápolya's army whilst I fielded the Habsburg's. I say this as whilst the Zápolya commander was faced with the more interesting challenge, of how to get his forces off the table in the face of a very close and more powerful army, as in the real battle the odds were very much in favour of the Habsburgs. A brief description of the action follows and the photo captions also help to tell the tale of the game.

The forces of Ferdinand of Habsburg launch an attack on John Zápolya's infantry.

In the centre of the field landsknecht arquebusiers skirmish with the Serbian and Transylvanian light horse.

A mixture of German and Hungarian heavy cavalry under Bálint Török charge into Zápolya's infantry. 

John Zápolya and his gendarmes watch the oncoming Habsburg horse.

The day began with the Habsburg cavalry under the command of Bálint Török launching an all out attack on Zápolya's infantry who were defending a corridor which would allow Zápolya's horse to get to the bridge. Spearheaded by three units of gendarmes and supported by lighter armed lancers and Hungarian horse archers the Habsburg forces launched charge after charge at Zápolya's pike and pavise armed infantry. Both sides took casualties with the heavy cavalry pushing back and routing some of Zápolya's troops whilst Zápolya's men struck back with volleys of shot fired from behind the protection of the pavisiers and pikemen.

At the other end of the field Salm's landsknecht arquebusiers and halberdiers pressed forward to engage in skirmishes with the light horse of Zápolya's cavalry wing. Horse archers rode back and forth targeting the oncoming German mercenaries whilst the landsknecht in their turn fired back at the cavalry. Lukács Kismarjay with his armoured lancers fought a defensive action against the Count of Salm's men whilst Ferenc Bodó began to lead some of the cavalry behind the Zápolya infantry in an attempt to cross the river Tisza.

Zápolya's infantry are pushed back by a charge after charge from the Habsburg heavy horse.

Lukács Kismarjay and his armoured lancers charge down the oncoming landsknecht. In the distance Nicholas, Count of Salm can be seen looking on with his mounted bodyguards. 

The landsknecht advance against the Hungarian, Transylvanian and Serbian cavalry of Zápolya.
A view of the whole field with the attack being pressed by the Habsburg army.

As the Habsburg cavalry crash through his lines John Zápolya leads his Gendarmes in a charge to plug the gap...

As the Habsburg heavy horse pushed through John Zápolya's infantry disaster struck for the claimant to the Hungarian throne. Zápolya and his bodyguard charged into some of the German armoured cavalry that had broken through the lines. Initially successful Zápolya and his men then rode into a unit of lighter armed lancers who they easily scattered in a brief melee. Seeing the banner of Ferdinand's rival within reach Bálint Török led his bodyguard in an attempt to ride down Zápolya, supported by another unit of lancers. In the chaos of the cavalry melee Zápolya was brought down dashing the hopes of his supporters.

With their leader gone it was now a case of cutting their losses and attempting to flee for the rest of Zápolya's commanders. As the overwhelming Habsburg forces drew ever closer those cavalry units that could made their way to the bridge to try and reach safety. Some horsemen, including Lukács Kismarjay, found their path blocked by the advancing landsknecht and were killed or routed as they attempted to escape. The infantry were unable to disengage from the constant charges of the Habsburg cavalry and found it difficult to make an orderly withdrawal to the river bank.

...he then leads his men into another charge against Imperialist lancers...

...before being charged himself by Bálint Török and his men at arms. In the swirling cavalry melee John Zápolya is brought down and his cause is lost!

Hungarian hussars in Habsburg employ push forward aside the landsknecht. 

The landsknecht advance whilst Zápolya's cavalry attempt to make an escape.

As the landsknecht push forward skirmishes break out with the retreating light cavalry that form a large part of Zápolya's army.

Zápolya's troops fight a fierce rearguard action.

The Habsburg horse launch charge after charge at Zápolya's infantry... the Count of Salm's landsknecht move up to support the attack.

Some of Zápolya's forces make an escape with his hussars crossing the river to safety.

The landsknecht advance on Zápolya's camp as his light horse make a fighting retreat.

Ferenc Bodó is charged by Habsburg cavalry as he attempts to reach the bridge. He succesfully fights them off and retreats over the bridge along with the arquebusiers, the only infantry unit to escape the field.

All of the hussars from Zápolya's army made it over the Tisza. As John Zápolya had never crossed in person there was no chance that any of the retreating units would stop and destroy the wooden bridge as they crossed, blocking the path of the pursuers but also dooming their comrades who had not yet reached the river. Ferenc Bodó was charged by the German lancers as he tried to reach safety and he successfully fought them off being able to escape with a group of mercenary arquebusiers. These infantrymen had fired numerous volleys of shot into the Habsburg cavalry and were the only infantry unit in Zápolya's army that made it accross the Tisza.

The last infantry and light horse of Zápolya's army made valiant last stands as they were now heavily outnumbered by the mercenaries of Ferdinand's army. Sensing it was about to be stormed the defenders of Zápolya's camp fired light guns and arquebus at the advancing enemy. A lucky shot from one of these camp defenders caught Bálint Török, souring the Habsburg victory. Minutes later the landsknecht  stormed the camp sending the camp followers fleeing towards the river. It had been a bloody fight but the battle of Tarcal was over.

A view from Zápolya's camp, a unit of Serbian horse is attempting to escape in the face of Bálint Török's hussars.

In the distance one of Zápolya's infantry units makes a last stand against the overwhelming Habsburg forces.

Zápolya's army has one last sting in its tail, a lucky shot from one of the guns in the camp brings down Bálint Török souring the Habsburg victory.  

Landsknecht storm and sack the Zápolya camp, taking much of the rival Hungarian King's artillery. 

Another absorbing and exciting game. The card method for activations meant that we were really involved in each turn as there was no "I go, you go" formula. Admittedly it got a bit confusing at times but it made for a really exciting back and forth clash. The death of Zápolya relatively early in the game did kill the tension a little. He fell victim to endless wild charges once his unit of gendarmes was involved with the Habsburg cavalry.

That being said it was still a really close game. Using the victory point method detailed above we worked out that Tom scored 4 victory points for getting both Hussar units, 
Ferenc Bodó's lancers and the mercenary arquebusiers to safety, 3 victory points for bringing down Bálint Török with the shot from the camp and 10 points for destroying or routing 10 Habsburg units, making a total of 17 victory points. I scored 5 victory points for John Zápolya's untimely death, 3 points for storming the camp and 13 points for units routed or destroyed, making a total of 21 victory points. Considering the disparity in forces this was a very close result, in fact one that may even warrant a replay one day. I would quite like to try the challenge of getting the units to safety as the Habsburgs advance. 

Before any replays there are still plenty of other scenarios we are keen to try in this theatre of warfare. The second large clash between 
Zápolya and Ferdinand's armies at Szina in 1528 would be an obvious game to try next. I think we may move forward a little further in time for our next game though and try the disastrous Habsburg siege of Buda in 1541.


  1. Thanks for the write up Oli, great to see the game so carefully recorded and bought to life. Really good pictures as well, the sky board did some good work!

    On retrospect it may have been better for me just to go all out for the bridge with everything, but then again my lines might have collapsed faster without the defence I put up. It's a tough scenario for the Hungarians without a doubt.

    I think we discussed that if replayed it would be good to have Zápolya as a non wild charge unit, otherwise it's very difficult to keep him far enough away from the enemy whilst also making use of his command radius. It was funny to watch him charge off in game though!

    1. Cheers Tom, yes Stuart's sky board worked really well for the photos.

      It was a tricky scenario for the Hungarians but I think that only added to the entertainment value. I agree having John Zápolya with wild charge was probably a mistake!

      I am looking forward to a Buda 1541 refight!

  2. Always interesting to see your games unfold in such detail.

    1. Thank you David, this was an unsual and fun game to play out.

  3. Fabulous photos Oli, what a collection! Looks like an epic game too.

    1. Cheers Stuart - the excellent sky board has really changed the game when it comes to the photos. It is going to get a lot of use I feel!

  4. I am sure that your posts set a standard that I can never match! Epic game. I love those Landsknechts!

    1. Thank you John, I think it is just the dedication to one period alone that's all!

      It was an epic battle - and you can never have enough landsknecht.

  5. A fantastic looking game with outstanding figures and scenery. Your pictures really do justice to the epic nature of this encounter.

    1. Cheers rross, I have been enjoying wargaming these Eastern European battles and they do create a very spectacular look on the gaming table.

  6. Splendid looking game and suitably chaotic!
    Best Iain

    1. Thank you Iain, there certainly was a lot going on in this one!