Ancient warfare in videogames (part 2)

In the first part of this article, I set out my goal in discussing the depiction of ancient warfare in videogames and then proceeded to give a brief overview of turn-based strategy games, such as Sid Meier’s Civilization, and city-building games, as well as turn-based games that feature real-time combat. In this second part of the article, I turn to a discussion of real-time strategy games.

City-building games

The earliest city-building game set in ancient times that I played was Caesar III (1998), developed by Impressions Games and published by Sierra. In this game, players were tasked with building flourishing Roman cities by gathering raw materials and food, processing these and then distributing finished goods to the population. The better access houses had to a variety of goods, the more affluent its residents would be. Hence, it was possible to upgrade a house from a simple shack all the way to luxurious townhouses.

Combat in Caesar III was fairly simple. In order to be able to field an army, one had to build up to six forts and then staff these with soldiers trained in a barracks, with additional training provided by military academies. The units available were heavy infantry, javelin throwers (light infantry) and cavalry. In addition, you could build up your defences by constructing walls, gates and towers. Combat was most often defensive, where you had to fight off an invading army.

Impressions Games released a few other city-building games set in ancient times, including Pharaoh (1999), set in ancient Egypt, and Zeus: Master of Olympus (2000), set in a mythologized ancient Greece. Both of these games proved popular enough to warrant the release of expansion packs. They basically played similar to Caesar III, but Zeus introduced separate housing for commoners and nobles, making it slightly easier to play, and more accurately modelled Greek troops as militias. Common housing provided rabble for the armies while the houses of the nobility supplied you with hoplites and cavalry, as long as you provided the residents with armour and horses. Zeus opened up the game somewhat in that you could send out your troops to raid enemy cities elsewhere in the Aegean, as well as try to conquer them.

German developed Blue Byte created The Settlers series of games, which have enjoyed great popularity in Europe, but appear to be little known elsewhere in the world. Like most city-builders, the Settlers games emphasized indirect control over direct control of units with the exception of troops. The most popular incarnation in this series was arguably The Settlers 2: Veni, Vidi, Vici (1996), which received a remake in 2006 to mark its tenth anniversary. In this game, players take control of the Romans, even though the story was entirely fantastic.

Like city-builders, the Settlers economy is detailed with an emphasis placed not only on gathering raw materials, but also on processing these materials into finished goods. For example, in order to make weapons, you have to gather iron ore and coal and have that refined into useable iron, which is then used to make swords and shields in order to outfit your soldiers. Soldiers themselves can be trained at barracks or fortresses to have them increase in rank. The names of the ranks themselves are modern (private, private first class, sergeant, officer, general). Higher-ranked soldiers perform better on the battlefield. However, combat is simplistic and superior numbers generally carry the day.

Real-time strategy games with base building

Civilization was a big influence on the development of Age of Empires (1997), a real-time strategy game developed by Ensemble Studios and published by Microsoft. Age of Empires followed a familiar real-time strategy model, but introduced a historical setting and the use of different “ages”, whereby it became possible to advance from the stone age to the iron age, with each new period unlocking new units, buildings and technologies.

Like Civilization, a culture advanced through the deliberate action of the player, for example by paying a set number of resources to be able to research a new technology or to advance to the next age. The core of the economy is formed by the villagers (workers) that one creates at the town centre. Villagers are used to gather food, chop wood, mine gold and quarry stone. These resources are stored in granaries and storehouses and used to pay to train units, construct new buildings and perform research.

Like most other strategy games, units are represented by single figures. These generally represent ancient troop types used by the ancient civilizations represented in the game, but there are only mild attempts at differentiating the different cultures using these units. The units range from axemen and slingers to swordsmen, hoplites, bowmen, chariot archers and war elephants. Formations in this first entry to the Age of Empires series are not modelled within the game; units move in large blobs across the battlefield. Combat statistics are relatively simple, but a distinction is made between different damage types and armour, and hence some units are more effective against specific other types of units.

Age of Empires was very successful and spawned an expansion (The Rise of Rome) as well as two sequels set in medieval and early modern times, respectively. It also spawned a spin-off in the form of Age of Mythology (2002). In the latter, the amount of regular human unit types was usually distilled to a few archetypes; unit variety was introduced with the inclusion of heroes and so-called “myth” units, such as minotaurs.

Age of Empires Online was released in 2011 and developed initially by Robot Entertainment before being given to Gas Powered Games, the studio directed by Chris Taylor, famed for being the lead designer of two classic real-time strategy games, namely Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander. This is a free-to-play game where the core of the Age of Empires gameplay is wrapped in a meta-game where players can build up their capital city and perform various tasks such as kitting out their units with gear. However, a skirmish add-on is available for those who simply want to play regular skirmish games against either computer-controlled or human opponents.

Age of Empires Online saw a return to the ancient setting of the original game, yet updated the game by introducing unique civilizations with their own, culture-specific units. Groups of units now also move in formations across the battlefield, where cavalry precede melee infantry and the ranged units follow in the rear. The basic game mechanics of gathering resources, building structures and training troops with the aim of wiping any rival players from the map through combat has stayed the same.

The influence of Age of Empires is also clearly noticeable outside of that particular product line. Rick Goodman, who had worked on Age of Empires, went on to form his own studio and developed Empire Earth (2001), which covered all of human history, similarly divided into distinct ages (“epochs”). Empire Earth was popular, if somewhat messy, and did not introduce a lot of innovation. It spawned an even more complex sequel developed by Mad Doc Software and published in 2005. Both games sold enough to each get an expansion pack. The second sequel, also developed by Mad Doc and released in 2007, was critically panned and almost universally reviled by vocal fans of the previous two games; the developer soon after its release was acquired by another company and dissolved.

Empire Earth III scaled down the scope of the previous games in order to make every epoch, building and unit more distinct. Instead of more than a dozen epochs, this third entry in the series featured only five (ancient, medieval, “colonial”, modern and future); civilizations were reduced to three distinct factions (Western, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern). Resource gathering was also simplified: one now gathered raw materials (by building a warehouse next to resources), wealth (through trade routes established at a market) and tech points (used for purchasing new technologies and upgrades).

Rise of Nations (2003), developed by Big Huge Games and published by Microsoft, offered a style of play that was a successful mixture of Civilization and Age of Empires. This game offered a more refined version of a multi-era historical strategy game by introducing such aspects as ramping costs (the more you build or train of something, the more expensive it gets). The military aspect was also more detailed: groups of units moved in formation and are damaged through attrition when in enemy territory, except when they were accompanied by a supply wagon. Furthermore, formations were used for more than just a way of organizing units in a seemingly ordered manner: attacks in the flanks and especially the rear did considerably more damage than a frontal assault.

After the release of the original Empire Earth, Rick Goodman turned toward creating Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War (2006), published by Midway Games. This game sticks very close to the Age of Empires model while introducing the concept of training groups of units rather than just individual units (even though you can still select single units and send them off to do something). Furthermore, naval combat in this game was fairly detailed and even allowed the ramming and boarding of enemy ships. By contrast, naval warfare in Age of Empires is very simple, with enemy ships generally shooting arrows at each other until one of them sinks.

The game also introduced heroes that the player could take control of, at which point the game turned into a third-person hack-and-slash game where you could give your troops limited commands (stay, follow, and so forth). The game received middling reviews and the closing of Goodman’s studio right before launch ensured that it never received any proper patches.

Some lesser-known real-time strategy games

The Seven Kingdoms series offers an attempt at historical war gaming oddly mixed with straight fantasy. The core of the economic system was formed by settlements. Training troops was done by recruiting peasants from a settlement (which decreased the population and the loyalty of the settlement in question), and then sending them off to forts to be trained by your king or general. This system seems slightly more accurate from a simulation point of view than directly training units at a barracks.

Sparta: Ancient Wars (2007) and its standalone “expansion pack” Fate of Hellas (2008), both developed by World Forge, were rather uninspired Warcraft III clones that nevertheless introduced a few innovative game mechanics. First of all, troops killed in battle would drop their armour and weapons, which could be collected and used to outfit your own troops. You could also rear horses and have any military unit mount them for increased speed and strength. Secondly, military units cost upkeep. This is a common mechanism in turn-based games, but rare in real-time strategy. In this case, you had to construct farms to generate food, only a portion of which could be stored. If your military units ate more than you produced, there was a risk of starvation, which would lower the health of your troops. Thirdly, the game featured a more detailed model of naval combat, similar to Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War.

Finally, there are also grand strategy games that are generally far more slowly paced than I like, and am therefore less well familiar with. These include titles like Imperium Romanum. Of particular note is Hegemony: Philip of Macedon and the later “gold” edition of this game. This is a real-time strategy game that models essentially the whole of Greece and has you manage cities as well as armies on both the micro- and macro scale of things, and puts special emphasis on securing and maintaining supply lines.

Real-time strategy games with little or no base building

For a few years now, there has been a trend among real-time strategy games to try and do away with the base-building aspects so characteristic of Age of Empires and similar games. An excellent example is Relic Entertainment’s Company of Heroes (2006), published by THQ. In this game, players fight primarily for control over victory locations (territories) on the map, some of which generate resources such as fuel, ammunition and manpower required to recruit troops or acquire vehicles.

There is to my knowledge only one comparable strategy game that is also set in ancient times, namely Praetorians (2003), developed by Pyro Studios and published by Eidos Interactive. The game is ostensibly based on Julius Caesar’s campaigns and features three factions, namely the Romans, Egyptians and “Barbarians” (mostly Gauls). Resource gathering is almost entirely eliminated: the only two resources that matter are people – from which you recruit your forces – and honour points, which you earn by fighting and killing enemy troops and are used to recruit stronger troops.

In Praetorians, single figures are limited to special units, such as commanders, healers and scouts. All other units are represented as groups of men (“troops”). There is a limited attempt at historical accuracy here as far as unit types are concerned. The basic Egyptian unit, for example, are “slaves”, which only serves to perpetuate a common misconception. Nevertheless, other aspects of the game do try to provide a more realistic simulation. For example, in order to recruit more troops, neutral or enemy villages have to be subdued. This is done by building a garrison structure next to the village and then having a military commander, such as the Roman centurion, enter the village. It is now possible to recruit military units from the local population. The number of inhabitants decreases every time you recruit a new unit, but this number is of course slowly replenished in the course of time.

Another interesting thing in Praetorians is the attempt at a more accurate representation of siege warfare; something similar was later also done in Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War. In order to besiege a fortified city, you had to order your lower-level troops to construct various types of siege equipment, such as battering rams and ladders. This makes sieges far more interesting than the simple representation in most other strategy games, where an archer can destroy a stone wall simply by shooting arrows at it.

This was the second part of a blog entry on the depiction of ancient warfare in videogames. If you haven’t already, I suggest you also read the first part of this article. The third and final part will be published tomorrow and offers an overview of game mechanics and some thoughts on modelling ancient warfare in computer games. Feel free to leave your comments below.

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