The Middle Ages in Modern 4X Strategy Games

“Games are a series of interesting decisions.” Such is the famous adage by legendary developer Sid Meier. Given the breadth of genres and play styles that have emerged over the decades, from the fairly fixed and linear narratives found in “walking simulators” to the emergent stories and gameplay of sandbox games, Meier’s observation may seem overly reductive of games generally, but it remains an apt descriptor of the genre he helped popularize: strategy games. 

Most games require some sort of strategic thinking on the part of the player. In a platformer like the original Super Mario Bros, whether one jumps onto or over a goomba is in some small part a strategic decision. In a first person shooter like Halo or Call of Duty, attempting to aim for the deadlier but harder to hit target of an enemy’s head instead of their torso is similarly a strategic choice. But in both cases twitch reflexes and muscle memory play a larger role in accomplishing the game’s objectives than that strategic decision. Strategy games are – broadly speaking – the genre in which the main means of achieving the game’s objectives is the ability to formulate a plan and successfully execute it in the face of ever evolving conditions via strategical, logistical, and tactical thinking. 

Strategy games are particularly adept at portraying and dramatizing the various underlying and interacting systems which inexorably drive the course of history. They are often meant to be replayed many multiple times, with different decisions made and alternate strategies pursued on subsequent playthroughs, leading to wildly divergent results. These lead to many counterfactual alternate histories than the one with which we’re familiar in our real world. At first glance, unifying the British Isles under Ivar “the Boneless” in Crusader Kings III or engaging in a thermonuclear war against a bellicose and belligerent Gandhi in Civilization VI might not seem a proper way to study history.  But what they lack in historicity, strategy games make up for in their ability to simulate the cultural, political, and religious systems of the eras they depict. How developers choose to translate these systems into game mechanics reflects not merely what they as artists believe would make for the most compelling gameplay loop, but also what they believe to be the most important and impactful factors upon history. 

For players interested in the Middle Ages, many of the most popular and critically acclaimed strategy games in recent years either depict or are set entirely in the medieval era. Subgenres include real-time strategy (as seen in the recently released Age of Empires IV), real-time tactics (as exemplified by the Total War series), and grand strategy (quintessential among which is the thoroughly medieval Crusader Kings III). But one of the earliest and perennially popular subgenres is 4X strategy, with the contemporary leaders in the field being Civilization and Humankind. Each has their own perspective on history in general and the Middle Ages in particular. 

Sid Meier’s Civilization

“Explore. Expand. Exploit. Exterminate.” These are the four “Xs” of the 4X subgenre. When the first installment of the Civilization franchise popularized the strategy genre, this was the formula that endeared players to it. Strategy games typically run a gamut from pure simulations at one end to a more artificial, gamified approach at the other, in which what is being depicted on-screen exists more for flavor than as a realistic representation. Firaxis’ Civilization franchise falls fully in the latter camp, essentially being a well-balanced board game that happens to depict the broad strokes of human history. But this is to the game’s credit; it’s approachability has made each installment an accessible entryway for players new to the strategy game genre. The most recent entries retain this accessibility while introducing small asymmetries to the way different civilizations are depicted, shifting the games slightly towards the simulation side of the scale. 

Before the game even begins, the player chooses which civilization to play as during the entirety of the playthrough, each with unique gameplay mechanics and bonuses based on their real world counterparts, and led for the full duration of the civilization by a famous figure from history. For example, the Norwegians under Harald Hardrada are able to use their Viking Longships and other naval vessels to perform coastal raids, whereas the Arabians under Saladin receive the last Great Prophet with which to found a religion.

In a standard game of Civilization, the map is procedurally generated at the start of each new playthrough, with its geography and terrain obscured behind a fog of war, necessitating the first X in 4X: exploration. Players start with no more knowledge of distant lands than Leif Erikson or Columbus had of the New World before their respective voyages to the Americas. Island-based civilizations in our world like the English, who as a consequence of their coastlines formed a strong seafaring culture, might spawn in a landlocked desert nowhere near the ocean, and thus pursue an alternate path. 

Civilization is a turn-based game covering the whole human story from the founding of the first cities to the not-too-far-off future. The most recent iteration, Civilization VI: Anthology, is broken into nine distinct eras, the third of which (situated between the Classical and the Renaissance) is the Medieval Era. Anachronistically, all civilizations, from the Americans to the Zulu, start in the Ancient Era, and those that stand the test of time (i.e. those that aren’t conquered or culturally absorbed by competing civilizations), once they have accrued enough science or culture to research a Medieval Era technology or civic, respectively, will enter the Middle Ages. 

Technology and civics, moreover, are the gameplay elements which most clearly delineate the Medieval Era from other parts of the game. Among the technological innovations which Firaxis selected as emblematic of the Middle Ages include Buttresses, Castles, and Stirrups. Each grant a small bonus or unlock the use of a new unit. Stirrups, for example, unlock Knights, with the in-game Civilopedia stating “Slamming into something with a ten-foot pole while astride a big horse was only feasible with stirrups. Especially if encased in heavy armor; indeed, medieval knights would have been hard pressed even to get mounted without stirrups. And thus was born – according to some – feudalism, notions of chivalry and other ‘advances’ that would dominate Europe for the next several centuries.” These illuminating encyclopedia entries often make explicit exactly why the developers considered their inclusions to be important to history. 

Medieval civics include Divine Right, Guilds, and Feudalism. The last is particularly illustrative as to how some of Civilization’s depictions of historical systems can be quite shallow and largely divorced from their historical significance. As opposed to being a fusion of the political and personal by organizing society around the oaths and obligations given to one another by lords and vassals, Civilization VI’s Feudalism civic merely grants a small bonus to food production for three farms built next to one another. 

In addition to portraying the Medieval Era as described above, Civilization VI also has a mechanic portraying Dark Ages, which can take place in any era following the Ancient. But while civilizations experiencing a Dark Age will exert less loyalty from their cities and might have several break away, rarely does this result in a societal collapse or the total fracturing of an empire.

Humankind

Sega’s Amplitude Studios gained experience making science-fiction and fantasy games in the 4X genre (Endless Legend and Endless Space, respectively) before tackling their true ambition of offering a direct competitor to Firaxis’ Civilization franchise. The parallels are plentiful. Both are set in the historical genre, with Humankind even delving into recent prehistory, starting players as Neolithic tribes of hunter-gatherers. Both offer a gameflow that is turn-based as opposed to real-time, though Humankind offers simultaneous turns taking place concurrently with all opponents, greatly reducing time between turns. And both give greater emphasis to the grand strategy of the civilizations than to the tactical maneuvering of individual units, though Humankind does take inspiration from tactics games in its combat by having battles take place on a dedicated “Tactical Map” as opposed to as part of each individual’s movements on the main map.

The most significant difference between the two is in the way Humankind depicts civilizations, in their game called cultures. Instead of choosing a single culture at the start of the game, players begin as a nameless tribe, picking berries and hunting wooly mammoths for food. It is not until players enter the Ancient Era that they can select from one of the ten cultures unique to that period, such as the Harappans, Hittites, or Mycenaeans. Each of the game’s six eras similarly offer another ten cultures to choose from, or the player can continue into the next era with their culture from the prior, resulting in one million possible combinations by the Contemporary era. 

While one could proceed down a historically plausible path by playing as the Greek or Romans in the Classical Era and evolving them into the Byzantines in the Medieval, it is equally possible in the game to turn the Goths into Aztecs and then in turn the Aztecs into Edo Japan. None of this is as a result of conquest and assimilation; it happens almost automatically upon achieving the milestones for entering a new era. It speaks to a real phenomenon of human history, namely that civilizations and cultures aren’t static but change and evolve over time. The Angle tribes living on the Continent later became the Anglo-Saxons living on the Island who later became the English, to simplify the history as much as Amplitude has. But in trying to avoid the anachronism of the United States predating the written word or the wheel in Civilization, Humankind introduces its own absurdities as one turn you’re playing as the Goths and the next as the Ghanaians, and suddenly your units are looking quite different without rhyme or reason for the change. 

As with its competitor, the Medieval Era in Humankind is the third era (forth including the truncated Neolithic), though this time situated between the Ancient and the prosaically-named Early Modern period. The Medieval branches of the game’s technology tree unsurprisingly cover many of the same advancements associated with the Middle Ages, including again Guilds and Feudalism, with the latter offering nearly the same exact gameplay bonus to food production, though in Humankind Feudalism is a prerequisite for a technology called Chivalry, which unlocks Knights and Tourney Fields. 

More so than the tech tree, it is the cultures of Humankind that convey what Amplitude considered essential in their portrayal of the Middle Ages. Alongside civilizations like the Mongols, who Firaxis have included in every iteration of their franchise, Amplitude has introduced cultures such as the Franks and the Teutons. Whereas in a Civilization title these cultures would likely have been included under the French and Germans, respectively, by breaking up culture according to their eras, Humankind is able to flesh out different aspects that ancestors and their descendants have had across the centuries. 

For example, in Civilization VI, the English are much more modern than medieval in focus. Their leader is Victoria, their unique units include the Redcoat and the Sea Dog, and their abilities reference the British Museum and their role in the Industrial Revolution. Contra Humankind, whose English culture is entirely medieval. Their emblematic unit is the Longbowman, essential to the English in the Hundred Years’ War. Their emblematic district is the Stronghold, the castles and keeps built following the Norman invasion. Their cultural orientation is Agrarian, appropriate given how quickly those who conquered the land in that period, whether the Angles and Saxons at the start or the Danes and Norsemen some centuries later, so quickly transitioned from raiders to farmers in just a few generations each. But none of this is at the exclusion of England’s later empire, with a separate British culture – replete with Redcoats and Colonial Offices – appearing in the industrial era. 

One of the more novel features in Humankind with no direct analogue to any of the mechanics in Civilization is Events. These are narrative moments which are triggered as a result of certain conditions being met during the relevant era. Accompanying them are usually two or three options as to how to respond. Among the narrative events during the Medieval Era are Holy War, Bickering Lords, and Pox on the Wind. The last, in which a great plague sweeps through the player’s cities, seemingly presents three choices, allowing for either lockdowns, scientific study of the disease, or not involving the government in the intervention of the illness. The benefits outweigh the detriments for the first two options, but the third results in a follow up event that is at best neutral, or just as likely devastating. This is exemplary of similar narrative events in which Amplitude breaks the balance of the game in order to put their thumb on the scale as to which path the player should pick. Such imbalance is especially evident in the game’s Contemporary Era, which most closely simulates current political concerns. 

***

While both have their respective shortcomings, and each excels in certain respects over the other, Civilization VI and Humankind both succeed as excellent games for players of any experience level, as works of art for individuals with a passion for world and human history, and as accessible on-ramps for all those with an incipient interest in either play or the past. 

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