Medieval Warfare and gaming

Last week, regular contributor Jean-Claude Brunner sent me a message that Robert Houghton from the University of St. Andrews would be delivering a paper entitled ‘Modelling the Middle Ages in Grand Strategy Computer Games’,  at the University of Birmingham’s History and Cultures Workshop’s seminar on 11th December 2014. It reminded us of a related post written by Robert Houghton, where the ever-present problem of accuracy in ‘historical’ computer games is being discussed.

While I do not fully agree with some of Houghton’s final assertions (i.e. that games may or may not contribute to academic historic science), he makes a good argument for the fact that historical games should be realistic, but not necessarily accurate. The latter (also discussed by myself a while back; you can read the first blogs in the game series here (part I), here (part II) and here (part III)) is naturally impossible, not in the least because our knowledge of history is full of gaps, especially in the ancient and medieval period, but also because a game should be relatively easy and fun to play, often compresses many years in a few hours, and should often (but not always) deviate from actual historical events in order to allow for a certain freedom of action and, sometimes, sufficient suspense. I surely understand that many people would like a game to be as historically accurate  as possible, but Houghton is, in my opinion, certainly correct when he says that games are not science, and should never aspire to be so. Games are meant to be played and enjoyed, not to be studied and used as grounds for scientific debates. The historic component is very important, yes, but usually by creating a (narrative) context, a world in which a certain story is set, and/or which helps to give a player a sense of worth while she/he’s pulling the strings in strategy games like Civilization and Crusader Kings, or when she/he’s walking around as an assassin in a beautifully created environment of the Middle East during the Crusaders (to name but one example). The epic character of historic events can lend a lot of weight to a story, and allow a player to feel part of events which have been rated as ‘important’ by years of historic science and storytelling. 

It’s obvious that the historical realism and accuracy are more important in grand strategy games than in, say, games like Assassins Creed. A game needs a competitive element, and simply replaying a battle, while informative, does not allow for much freedom of movement for a player. Thus, as Houghton says, the best designers can do is offer a relatively historically accurate starting point, and let things run their course from there. From that point onwards, a game should proceed in a realistic way, but any similarity with actual historic events becomes more or less incidental (unless a player tries to simulate historical events, or unless certain major events play a fixed part in the game mechanics). Houghton’s example of accuracy vs realism is a good one: Harold Godwinsson should be able to win a battle against a Norman army under William the Bastard around 1066, but not to suddenly mass an army of 100,000 men to destroy the Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle East.

A similar idea often seems to be behind the units involved in (grand) strategy games, most notably games in the Total War series (the game mechanics of which have been the basis for many later medieval strategy games, sometimes even adopted directly). A realistic game often offers many different units or groups of warriors, most of them carrying similar armour, wield similar weapons, and who operate in certain formations of a certain size, thus giving them a fixed effectiveness rating. In an accurate medieval strategy game (this varies according to period and area, of course), many such units would look much different from each other, with formations being more or less cohesive, and units carrying different pieces of equipment. The actual strength of a warrior or unit would depend on many different factors; tired and/or hungry units would be much less effective. But, for the sake of playability, realism works just as well, and allows for enough diversity and use of tactics to allow the player to think of himself as a real general commanding a real medieval army. The use of different sorts of units like axe-men, spearmen, pikemen, billmen, yeoman archers, longbowmen, mailed knights, gendarmes, hobilars, mangonels, trebuchet, cannon, culverines, etc etc already allows for some variation, and at least stimulates a player to adapt his tactics based on the general characteristics of his own units and that of the enemy. Certain special skills of certain units allow for even more depth, like the Agincourt-like stakes which help defend longbowmen against cavalry attacks (equally effective against your own units; believe me, I tried, and it lost me the battle), the Bannockburn-like schiltron by certain spear units, or (my favorite) the rather dubious practice of certain torsion siege engines to throw rotting carcasses over the walls of a besieged city in order to weaken the defenders through diseases. In fact, the designers of the second installment of the Medieval Total War series have even tried to take the diversity of equipment and weaponry within units into account, and if you look closely, you will find that not every man in a unit looks the same (up to a certain extent, of course).

That said, certain aspects of such games can be frustrating to the medieval enthusiast. I understand the need to standardize Danish units into double-handed-axe-wielding, Viking-like heavy warriors, but it remains a strange sight to see all those uniformly-clad and -armed little men advancing in such an ordered line, or to be able to actually recruit dismounted men-at-arms as if it was a fixed unit in late medieval armies. Tactics are also necessarily limited due to many factors, since a game simply cannot account for all factors without turning a battle into a hour-long ordeal which can be just as easily lost as won. Of course, the AI has always been limited by programming, and one finds him/herself using the regular formation of spearmen to bind the main enemy army, with horsemen attacking from flanks and behind, more often than not. After a while, it is rather frustrating to see the AI make another stupid decision which turns certain victory into a defeat. These issues aren’t helped by the many glitches which one can encounter in such games, such as the fact that warriors who wielded two-handed axes or bills (the effectiveness of which relied on a slow but powerful swinging motion) were too slow in swinging their weapons, thus making them practically useless aside from acting as a diversion. 

Still, the fact remains that, even despite such generalizations and standardizations, and even if one cannot effectively use billmen, the amount of realism combined with the game’s mechanics are sufficient to temporarily ‘turn’ a player into a medieval general, commanding not just the bad-ass versions of those archetypal knights we know from fairy tales and Disney stories, but also the more specialized warriors we ‘discovered’ once we turned into true adult medieval enthusiasts. 

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