There’s a question about sports games that comes up every so often. Should a sports game attempt to be a simulation, or should it be a game about a sport?
Obviously, the answer depends on what you happen to want, but the implications of either answer are interesting to consider. If you’re just playing a game that takes football as its theme, you can take your pitiful home team to the Superbowl with an explosive running game, spectacular passing attack, and a bruising defense that leaves nothing but broken bodies in its wake. Even a Detroit Lions fan can bring the Lombardi Trophy to Motown. I suspect this is one of the reasons so many gamers of my generation have fond memories of Tecmo Bowl.
On the other hand, a game like that has very little to do with NFL football. You might be able to take an idealized version of the Lions to the championship, but you can’t play with the real article. It may not be possible for any game to make you feel like Tony Dungy or Peyton Manning, but at least a good simulation can bring that experience a little closer. Of course, it also brings the feeling of an 0-16 season a little closer, but that’s the price you pay for realism.
I mention all this because the same question applies to historical war and strategy games. There have always been those who overvalue realism and underappreciate just how a chimerical concept that is when you’re talking about modeling historical realities. So many factors are effectively unquantifiable, and it only gets more difficult the greater the game’s scale.
I remember, years and years ago, there was a minor controversy over The Operational Art of War because somebody discovered that if you put 100 jeeps up against a German Tiger tank, the game calculated that the jeeps would win. A subset of wargamers tore into the game because this outcome was clearly preposterous, and it called the entire game system into question.
The Operational Art of War was a system designed to accommodate regimental-level operations all the way up to the army group level, in clashes that could involve millions of men and thousands of tanks and aircraft. The 100 jeeps vs. a Tiger issue was a quirky micro calculation that worked as part of a system that produced convincing macro-level outcomes. But a lot of wargamers were incensed that TOAW abstracted anything. They wanted it to be accurate down to the last rifle squad.
Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Europa Universalis III, and for awhile I had my own “But you’re getting it wroooong!” temper tantrum. I decided to play a game as Brandenburg (the Hohenzollern electorate that would eventually become Prussia) starting in the early 1600s.This would put me in charge of a very small state on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War, and my goal was to recreate the rise of Prussia to Great Power status by the game’s conclusion in 1820.
One of the reasons I’ve been so curious about the Europa Universalis series was that I’ve always heard it’s “Civilization with a college degree.” In other words, where Civilization is a strategy game that simply takes human history as its theme, EU is a game that takes history as its ruleset.
Predictably, I was disappointed. For one thing, the Thirty Years’ War failed to occur, which introduced an incredible number of distortions into my game. The Habsburgs sailed smoothly through the 17th century and Reformed Protestantism never really made it off the ground in northern Europe. This in turn meant that none of the opportunities afforded Brandenburg in real life ever came my way. I sat around in a tiny four-province electorate, waiting for something to happen.
The biggest omission in Europa Universalis III seemed to the lack of subinfeudation. Subinfeudation is what gave the Middle Ages through the Early Modern era so much of their character, and not having it in the game made it impossible to faithfully recreate the period. It also made peaceful expansion nearly impossible.
Subinfeudation is a corrective applied to traditional understandings of the feudal system, which generally portray it as a pyramidal hierarchy. The problem is that the system never operated that cleanly. Noble individuals tended to wear many different titles that had different implications, because the noble houses of Europe were interwoven across political boundaries. The most famous example of subinfeudation would have to be the English kings after the Norman conquest. As the master of England, the king was a sovereign power of Europe. However, the king of England was also the Duke of Normandy, a title that granted him land in the north of France but which also made him nominally a French vassal. Now imagine that perpetuated at every level of the nobility, across Europe.
The reason I’m making such a big deal out of this is because subinfeudation was also one of the most common ways for a lord to expand his realm. The reason Prussia became Prussia and not Brandenburg is that the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg managed to marry their way into a claim on the Polish dominion of Preusse. They used this same method to acquire most of their territory prior to the 17th century. It didn’t require troops, and it didn’t require voluntary submission. If they were recognized as the proper ruling family of another territory, and a major power didn’t block the deal, then they were able to expand without a shot being fired.
EU3 doesn’t really allow you to go this route. It’s possible, but extremely unlikely, to make another state your vassal and then have it voluntarily submit to annexation, but it is totally impossible to win a dynastic claim on a territory in another state. The game doesn’t even model that kind of thing. So where Prussia managed to almost double in size through family connections, my only hope was to conquer through force. Given that I was a small player on the European stage, that wasn’t particularly likely. So I was stuck ruling a country that practically ran itself, and spent the rest of my time remaining inconspicuous. This was not really what I had signed up for.
Here is where EU3 began to get brilliant, however. If my initial experience was one of disappointment and frustration, as my state was relegated to a footnote in the history of the 17th century, it was also transformative. Like my historical counterparts, I was forced to banish dreams of territorial expansion and conquest. I couldn’t gain an inch of soil on my own strength, because my army was too small, my state too poor and underpopulated, and my connections too weak. So I began to think in character.
I became a watchful opportunist. I demobilized most of my army to build up my finances, retaining just enough troops to maintain order. I still operated with an eye toward history, so I began breaking down the power of the nobility and concentrating the power within the royal person. The result was a state that grew steadily more efficient and wealthy while my army improved its competence. Meanwhile, I relentlessly curried favor with my neighbors, becoming fast allies with the Poles and the Russians.
When opportunities finally opened up, I was ready to pounce.
Pomerania, immediately to my north, ran afoul of the Poles and came under attack. Poland requested that I honor our alliance, and I happily obliged by attacking the western half of Pomerania. Pomerania’s only ally in this war, the tiny state of Meissen to my south, declared war on me and invaded Potsdam with its tiny army. Because I was not the aggressor in either war, larger powers stayed on the sidelines as I wiped out small Meissen electorate and seized half of Pomerania. While Poland ultimately settled for an indemnity payment from Pomerania, I had managed to increase the size of my territory by a third.
While my game didn’t really resemble the historical record, it was behaving much as history behaved. The great powers steered clear of one another where possible, most wars ended with very minor adjustments to the status quo, and the small powers were slowly picked off. EU3 was not reproducing history exactly, but it was reproducing many of the major and minor events that added up to shape history. As a player, I was finding myself obsessed with minor objectives and details while the maelstrom swirled around tiny Brandburg. Within my limited horizons, I was finding as much satisfaction as I’ve had subjugating entire continents in Civilization or Total War.