Ancient warfare in videogames (part 3)

This is the third and final part of a series of blog posts on the depiction of ancient warfare in videogames. In the first part, I gave a very brief overview of Civilization and Total War games, with the odd comment on similar games. In the second part, I turned my attention to real-time strategy games, including city-building games with a military component.

In this concluding part, I summarize some mechanics used in the games discussed so far and offer some thoughts as to how these system related to historical reality. Considering the scope of the subject, there is little room to go into detail, but I hope that some elements can be further elaborated upon in future blog posts. Perhaps some comments can even serve as an inspiration for (aspiring) designers!

The economic aspect

All strategy games force the player to balance the economic side of the game with the military. In a game like Praetorians, resource management is reduced simply to the capturing of settlements and population is the main resource used to “pay” for troops. Turn-based games like Civilization manage to abstract the economic system on the level of a city. Tiles beneath and around the city yield food, production and gold, which are used to determine city growth and productivity. Adding buildings to a city increases the efficiency and productivity of the city, but everything remains fairly abstract.

City-building games and the bulk of real-time strategy games provide a more finely detailed simulation of economic systems, where the gathering of raw materials and food forms a starting point. The player is always in control of every aspect of the city or cities that are being built: he or she determines where houses and other structures are built, which resources are collected, and so forth.

The result is that in-game economies in these more finely detailed games are in fact all redistributive: materials and goods are stored in a central place and then redistributed from there depending on the needs of the player. In reality, of course, ancient authorities usually only controlled a portion of the actual economy. In the ancient Near East and the Bronze-Age Aegean, palaces tended to collect only specific types of raw materials and goods; textiles, for example, were very important. Ancient Egypt, during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, was very centralized to the point that most merchants were government officials. The ancient Greek city-states were far more loosely organized, with each household striving for a high level of economic independence. People’s individual needs could be satisfied through bartering and other forms of trade, directly from their houses, at the gates of the city or in specific streets (Mesopotamia) or at a central marketplace (ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome).

Mobilizing the forces

In most strategy games, players have to “purchase” troops by paying resources. In games like Civilization, you buy troops in your cities. How long it takes to get these troops depends on the overall productivity of your city. In most real-time strategy games, like Age of Empires, you also pay for troops that you have to recruit at specific buildings, such as barracks.

Much historical detail is glossed over in most of these games. For example, social stratification is completely abstracted away. In a game like Age of Empires, troop types that would in reality have been commoners, such as axemen, are much cheaper than troops that would have been drawn from the upper classes, such as various cavalry units. Zeus: Master of Olympus changed things by allowing the player to build two different types of houses, namely common and noble, and only the latter provided hoplites and cavalry for the army.

In most early civilizations, armies consisted of conscript troops composed largely of farmers, supplemented by professional soldiers (including mercenaries), and led by officers drawn from the upper classes. Entering military service would have been a form of corvée labour for many commoners. Troops generally received some kind of brief, formal training and were often provided with equipment by the state, such as in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Sometimes, conscripts were expected to provision themselves, or a mix of private and public means was used. For example, the Mycenaean palaces called on their nobles (the heqetai) to levy troops and possibly supply them, but the palace would provide whatever the nobleman was lacking, usually horses and parts of chariots.

In Classical Greece, there were no standing armies, only militias, who were called up by a central authority when necessary and had to provide their own equipment. Since Archaic times, however, numbers of Greeks had also turned to professionally soldiery as mercenaries and fought both for other Greek city-states and tyrants, as well as for various Near-Eastern empires. Large, standing armies consisting entirely of professional soldiers were not a feature of the ancient world until the Romans.

Furthermore, an ancient army not only consisted of troops, but also of accompanying specialists such as healers and seers, and a large army would always have to be supported by some form of baggage train. Special units are indeed a feature in some strategy games, where healers, for example, have a special power to aid recovery of friendly units’ hit points. Rise of Nations included supply wagon units that prevented your troops from taking attrition damage while in enemy territory. Turn-based games often have the player pay upkeep to maintain military units.

Actual combat

Combat in most strategy games tends to consist of pitched battles or smaller skirmishes. Resolution is usually straightforward: two opposing units meet and fight until either one of the two has been killed or the player gives an order to retreat. The Total War offer a better simulation of warfare, where military units actually consist of large numbers of individual figures and other factors, such as fatigue and morale, are taken into account.

Units in games are divided into types and a rock, paper, scissors-system provides the basis for tactical considerations. Typically, missile troops have a bonus against shock infantry, which in turn have a bonus against cavalry, which have a bonus against missile troops. Archer Jones, in his The Art of War in the Western World (1987), uses schematic representations of “weapons systems” to elucidate the relations between different types of troops (for example, see the diagram on p. 144). His system is somewhat more complex: heavy cavalry, for example, is considered strong against light infantry, but weak against heavy infantry, while light cavalry is considered strong against both heavy infantry and heavy cavalry.

Carl von Clausewitz’s concept of the “fog of war” is typically given a very literal treatment in strategy games, in that whatever is beyond the line of sight of a player’s units and buildings is also hidden from view. This means that scouting out the terrain is an important part of play, just as it was and is in reality. The terrain itself often provides various tactical considerations: for example, higher elevations usually confer an attack bonus. Praetorians allowed troops to hide in forests or lie down in tall grass in order to make it possible to stage ambushes.

Battles in games tend to be all-or-nothing affairs: a unit that is defeated invariably ends up destroyed. Medieval II: Total War changed things up by including the possibility of taking captives. After a battle, the victorious players would be asked whether to release the prisoners for ransom or to put them all to the sword. In ancient times, prisoners of war could be released for ransom, sold into slavery or executed. It would be interesting to see a strategy game set in ancient times to also take these possibilities into account. Instead of having a unit automatically die when its health reaches zero, perhaps have it surrender and be taken back to base as a captive.

Victory conditions

Most strategy games tend to be rather simplistic as far as victory conditions are concerned: you win if you manage to wipe out the opposition. Sometimes, destroying the enemy base or capital city is enough to secure victory. Other times, especially in older strategy games, you have to destroy every enemy building and unit on the map, which could often lead to some frustration as you scoured every inch of the map in search of that stray mounted scout that prevented you from finishing the match. Some games allow for allied victories, which creates possibilities to engage in minor diplomacy.

Blue Byte’s The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom (2010) uses a medieval fantasy setting, but it offers a unique take as far as real-time strategy games are concerned that avoids having to completely wipe out the opposition through force. Taking a cue from German board games in particular, matches are won through the accumulation of victory points. In order to gain a point, one has to fulfil certain prerequisites. For example, one has to have conquered at least three sector and control more than any opponent, or one must have an army consisting of at least twenty units, and so forth. The game is won by the first person to have accumulated a set amount of victory points and remain the highest-scoring player for three minutes.

This is the third and final part of a series of blog posts on the depiction of ancient warfare in videogames. If you haven’t done so, feel free to read the first and second parts, which deal with various turn-based and real-time strategy games that feature combat between ancient armies. If there are certain elements you would like to see treated in more detail in future, please leave a comment below.

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