Medieval games, part II: turn-based strategy

About 2 weeks ago, I started my series on games with a medieval military theme by looking at a supposedly realistic Role-Playing Game called Kingdom Come: Deliverance. The Kickstarter for that game was quite a success (it took them only a few days to reach the intended sum). Of course, the game’s popularity will surely be caused by the similarities between the many and overwhelming popular fantasy games, which have an overall medieval ‘feel’, but which have nothing to do with medieval military history whatsoever, aside from certain characteristics of armour and weapons (more on that in a later blog).

That said, I hardly think that the popularity of the game – so far before completion, and for a game which doesn’t have a successful predecessor – is solely caused by a link with more popular fantasy games (after all, they could just as easily focus on the fantasy games themselves), which leads me to believe that there must be a lot of demand for medieval military-themed games which are not only fun to play, but historically accurate as well. 

I can surely understand such a demand. I certainly don’t count myself an expert in the field of historically-themed videogames, but I have played my fair share of games, many of them indeed focused on history and warfare. Only a small portion of these historical games takes place in a world older than WWII, and an even smaller part has the Middle Ages as a setting (fantasy games aside, of course). It’s not my intent to give an overview of all medieval-themed games available. I don’t have first-hand knowledge of all of them, and discussing them all might only result in me repeating myself. A lot! So, if you’re looking for a full list of games with a medieval setting, I suggest you start your search somewhere else, and return to this blog-series if you’re looking for some info on the combat/warfare related aspects of some of those games, as well as their link with actual history. 

Civilization

Let’s start with what some may call the mother of all strategy games: Civilization. The very first installment was released in 1991, with the latest title, Civilization V, made available in 2010. For those of you who are not familiar with the game, Civilization is a turn-based strategy game in which the player takes up the role of ruler of a certain civilization (ranging from ancient Babylonians to modern Americans) and builds an empire by defeating other civilizations (either another player or controlled by the AI) who try to do the same. A regular game starts around 4000 BC and ends sometime in the near future, though there are many variations, mods  and scenarios. Sophistication and strength of cities, culture, economics and units depend on where a civilizations stands in a research tree, which consists of many technologies (like ‘The Wheel’, ‘Iron making’, ‘Gunpowder’ or ‘Nuclear fission’) which can be acquired by assigning production-points of cities to science advancement (instead of things like buildings, population growth, or units). 

There are several ways to win the game (especially in later installments), but I think that, for many, the conquest victory condition has, in its essence, always been the core of the game. Of course, many players will have won by pursuing any of the other conditions, which could be equally challenging but a faster route to victory, but one always had to take care to be able to defend one’s realm against the mighty armies of his/her opponents. This is not an easy task: one has to find a suitable balance between research and number of units. Larger armies are more expensive and leaves less money/production for research, but it slowly becomes impossible to defeat a more advanced adversary, no matter how many units you may have available. 

Civilization can never be characterized as being historically accurate. It certainly has links with history; technologies, units, improvements, buildings, etc are directly based on actual historical examples. That said, the main goal of the game is to build a non-existing empire which lasts some 6000 years (give or take). The idea of a science tree is ridiculous; as if historical technological advancement was a carefully (and consciously) followed sequence of steps, with our own advanced society as an end result. In the game, this may create situations in which your French musketeer can be attacked by a German Panzer tank (it might even win, in earlier installments of the game). In addition, there is not much room for the nuances of history; after all, in a 6000-year-spanning, turn-based game, one cannot avoid to generalize considerably. That said, for most players, this mix of historical ties without a real historical setting is quite fun. It can be very addictive trying to reach a certain technology first and to best an aggressive opponents’ huge army of swordsmen with your 6 newly developed knights, no matter what how many hardcore historians will shake their head in desperation.

Luckily, for those nerds among you who, like me, are looking for closer ties with historic events, there are also the scenarios. Starting with Civilization III: Conquests, the developers have created some historically accurate (if still generalized) environments, in which the map, conditions, tech tree, units and sometimes even gameplay are adjusted according to the period and area of the time. Civ III started with a general scenario about the Middle Ages, simply recreating a rough political outline of Europe around the year 1000. Civ IV provided some more detail, with the ‘Age of the Vikings’, ‘Genghis Khan’, and the ‘Age of Charlemagne’, while Civ V has the ‘1066’, ‘Rise of the Mongols’, ‘Conquest of the New World’ and ‘Into the Renaissance’ scenarios. These are only the official ones; there are many more unofficial scenarios available on the web. While these scenarios allow a player to take command of some cities set within a historical context, most scenarios still rely on the same game’s mechanics of the original, often with the conventional tech tree, and always with the same turn-based gameplay. 

Before we continue with combat mechanics in the game, I’d first like to mention some of the available medieval units. As is to be expected of a game covering 6000 years of history, the units available are relatively few and generalized considerably. In the first installments, the number of medieval units was relatively limited compared to all the other periods. The first game had the knight and that was it (aside from the ancient spearman/phalanx and the more classical catapult). The second en third game added pikemen, longbowmen, and medieval infantry (and the samurai, but we’ll leave such characteristically Asian units aside for now). Only in the fourth and fifth game did we see some proper (though still limited) diversity, with additions like the Viking berserker, the Byzantine cataphract, crossbowmen, the Spanish conquistador, the trebuchet, the Ottoman jannisary, the HRE landsknecht, the Mongol keshik horse-archer, and the macemen and/or (long)swordsmen. This diversity at least made for a game which pitted units against enemy warriors which they may have actually encountered in the Middle Ages, with knights charging pikemen or longbowmen defeating a unit of attacking knights. Again, this only happens when two civilizations are roughly equally advanced, but it certainly happens. In the scenarios, the units are adjustments based on the original game’s units, with, for example, divisions between light, heavy or mounted infantry and light and heavy cavalry. The Civ IV ‘Charlemagne’ scenario even has a supply train, which heals units in enemy territory. The tech tree enables the use of more powerful units later on, just like with the regular game, but since the scenario only entails a defined period and region, differences in strength and technological advancement were limited, making it much more historically accurate than the original game. 

In a few days, I’ll continue this blog by looking at the combat system of Civilization, and at how characteristics of medieval military history are incorporated into the available units.

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