Ancient warfare in videogames (part 1)

There are many computer and console games based on ancient history. Some of these titles are more historically accurate than others, and many contain quite a lot of nonsense. My goal here is to give a concise overview of some of the more important videogames that have appeared over the years that were not just set in ancient times, but also offered some kind of simulation of ancient warfare in particular.

By necessity, this excludes all games that focus on individual heroes and adventures, such as the well known God of War series of games published by Sony, Warriors: Legends of Troy (2011), and hack-and-slash games like Titan Quest (2006) and its expansion, Immortal Throne (2007), as well as the lesser-known Numen: Contest of Heroes (2010). Perhaps these and similar games can be discussed in a future blog post. But for now, the emphasis is placed on strategy games, both turn-based and real-time.

Why write about the representation of ancient warfare in games? The reason is that games, like other forms of entertainment, are a very direct way for people to interact with a particular subject, in this case ancient history. Controlling Roman soldiers in order to defeat Germanic warriors in a game like Rome: Total War is much more likely to leave a lasting impact on someone than reading about Roman tactics, and more people probably play historical games than they read history books. As such, it is of interest to see what games have to offer from the point of view of someone interested in diseminating knowledge on ancient warfare.

Turn-based strategy games

A discussion of historical strategy games almost out of necessity has to start with Sid Meier’s Civilization. The original version of the game was published in 1991; the most recent version, Civilization 5, was designed by Jon Shafer and released in 2010. In this turn-based game, the goal of the player is to create a civilization that will “stand the test of time”, guiding their culture from the early Stone Age to the near future. Victory conditions range from conquering every rival to building a space ship to reach Alpha Centauri.

Combat is an integral component of the Civilization games. You can stack multiple military units on a single tile (that is, a space on the map) and then move these stacks across the map. The exact details differ from one version of Civilization to the other, but units tend to have basic statistics that are taken into account when combat has to be resolved. Certain environmental aspects, such as elevated terrain and forests, confer bonuses on either attacking or defending troops, and combat is resolved automatically by the computer.

In battle, units take turns, fighting one after the other, although some may provide a form of support for other units in recent incarnations of the game. No attempt is made at modelling supply lines, nor is unit morale taken into account: a unit fights when ordered and as long as it still has some “health” (hit points) left. Older versions of the game were notorious for ancient spearmen sometimes being able to beat modern tanks in combat, which was considered rather silly; this has all but been eliminated from the fourth incarnation onwards.

In Civilization 5, some important changes were made with regard to combat. Units can now longer be stacked on a single tile. Instead, a tile can only be occupied by a single military unit. The aim of this was presumably to make combat more tactical and to increase the perceived value of military units, who were more or less disposable in earlier incarnations of Civilization. However, this change introduced tactical-level combat in a game that is otherwise wholly played at the strategic level: a single unit of archers takes up as much space as a single city. This creates, at least in my mind, a strange disconnect with regards to the space within the game.

The one-unit-per-tile (1UPT) rule has also been criticized by some reviewers. One problem is that computer players seem to have difficulty handling the new system. Another complaint is that the old “stacks of doom” that earlier versions of Civilization were notorious for have now been replaced by a “carpet of doom”, where large numbers of military units can quickly cover a sizeable portion of the map, making it difficult to effectively manoeuvre and position and units.

Considering its importance in the history of computer games, it is no surprise that Civilization has attracted the necessary criticism. The way that it models invention and innovation is wholly at odds with what the process must have been like in the past. In the game, you collect research points that you spend to unlock new technologies, and you can make a beeline to a desired future technology. In other words, technological progress is real within the confines of the game and entirely teleological: civilizations advance to more modern eras simply because these give you better weapons and other advantages to win the game.

According to interviews, there had originally been an attempt during the development of Civilization 4 to come up with more a realistic modelling of human history, inspired, among other things, by Jared Daimond’s influential book Guns, Germs and Steel (2nd edition; 2005). In this version, the local resources and other factors would have determined to a great extent the possibilities of one’s culture. Unfortunately, there were apparently problems with making this fun for players, and the designers hence reverted back to the original model used since the first incarnation of the game.

A spin-off of Sid Meier’s Civilization games was Call to Power (1999) and its superior sequel, Call to Power 2 (2000), both published by Activision. These games are obviously very similar to the Civilization games, but they introduced interesting changes to the combat rules. The maximum number of units on a tile was limited to twelve and combat was also played in stacks. This meant that when two opposing stacks met, combat was resolved between the armies as a whole, rather than between individual units. A small window showed the layout of your army, with ranged units at the back, cavalry at the flanks, and shock infantry at the core. This multi-unit approach to combat meant that you actually had to put some thought into which units you stacked together. In Call to Power 2, further detail was added, such as an armour attribute, which ensured that a spearman could never beat a tank.

The lead designer of Civilization 5, Jon Shafer, is currently working on a new turn-based game called At the Gates, which has the slow disintegration of the Western Roman Empire as its backdrop. Unlike Civilization 5, the game uses stacks in a manner comparable to earlier versions of Civilization, and there is supposedly some thought given to making the game as a whole more historically accurate. The game is set for release somewhere in the first half of 2014.

Turn-based strategy combined with real-time tactics

Some games separate the strategic part of the game, where players found cities, manage their economy and engage in diplomacy, from the tactical portion of the game, the actual battles. The best-known examples are the Total War-series of games developed by The Creative Assembly and published by Sega.

The first Total War game, Shogun, and the follow-up, Medieval: Total War, had a relatively simple strategic layer that featured a map divided into regions, similar to the boardgame Risk. When Rome: Total War was released, the strategic portion more closely resembled Civilization, with discrete cities and unit movement along tiles. This portion of the game became much more complex and computer players still have difficulty actually playing this portion of the game in more recent entries of the Total War series.

However, the aspect that the Total War games are especially known for is the real-time tactical portion, where you command individual military units of your army in combat. Various aspects of your troops are modelled, including morale and fatigue, and it is quite possible to force an enemy army to rout by using decent tactics. Elevation and other terrain has an effect on your units and the outcome of battle; weather effects are also taken into account. Aside from pitched battles, you can also engage in sieges, even though these always seemed a little fiddly to me and prone to strange AI behaviour.

The Creative Assembly is currently working a sequel to the original Rome: Total War, slated for release in October 2013. Apart from improved graphics, it will be interesting to see what innovations they will introduce and how close the game adheres to actual history. The developers promise improved AI with every new entry into the series, but this aspect of these games traditionally receives far less polish than the graphics. No doubt any mistakes made by the developers will be corrected by the avid modding community, provided that modifications to the game will be supported, of course.

This is the end of the first part of a series of blog entries on ancient warfare in videogames. The second part of this post will be published tomorrow and deals with real-time strategy games, so be sure to check back then. The third part will be published the day after tomorrow and will summarize core game systems and offer some thoughts as to how one could accurately model ancient warfare in computer games. In the meantime, feel free to leave any comments regarding this entry below.

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