The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

The Marines in the original Half-Life are the classic example of a challenging enemy and, with the possible exception of the Replicant soldiers in FEAR, have never really been superseded. What made them such outstanding enemies was the fact that they were hell to defeat while remaining entirely fair. After all, the Marines were effective because they used the same weapons and tactics that players were used to exploiting. They tossed grenades to flush you out of cover, they unleashed nonstop gunfire when you came within sight, they ran for cover when they were exposed, and they tried to find good flanking positions where they could trap and kill you.

Unlike the zombies and aliens you encountered earlier in the game, you could not march up to these guys and shotgun them at close range, nor could you simply pick them off from a moderate distance. You had to actually fight, burning up ammo just to hold them at bay, maneuvering the moment your position was compromised, and listening closely for the sound of a frag grenade bouncing at your feet. You had to improve your twitch-shooter skills, but also start thinking like a tactician. However, “twitchier” players could lean on those skills and power through the ambushes, while slower, more thoughtful players could make up for lagging reflexes with a good plan and smart use of the available tools. There was more than one way to handle the Marines, and between the three difficulty levels, anyone could get past them with a little effort. Better still, making the effort was actually enjoyable.

Valve left enough room for players to find an approach that worked for them. Also, the Marines were not so overpowering that a single slip-up would result in instant death. Players had a fair chance in almost each and every encounter. It was the kind of challenge that was fun to encounter and rewarding to overcome.

It’s difficult to choose a single example of frustrating, challenge-free difficulty from all the choics that bad shooter design has given us. However, since it is cloudy and rainy outside my upper-story window, I find myself thinking about Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and its ghastly “Sniper Town” level.

The sniper level was inspired by the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the squad is ambushed by a German sniper in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. The American sniper engages the German in a brief duel, and unforgettably shoots the German through his scope. The scene was so good that the MOH:AA team made an entire level out of it, but what worked as a ten-minute movie sequence was utterly excruciating as an hour-long shooter level.

In the sniper level, you are given a scoped rifle and have to travel through a French town that’s been infested by enemy snipers. There’s probably about 20 of them, all hanging out along your route just waiting to shoot you. Unfortunately, there’s no way to locate them until they’ve already taken a shot. Since you are the only person they’re going to be shooting at, this means that you have draw their fire. However, they can also kill you in one shot.

So what the player has to do is lean on the quicksave / quickload buttons. You shuffle along for a few steps until you hear a rifle shot and fall down dead. Then you reload, take the same few steps, and get killed again. But this time you think you saw where the sniper was. Reload. Die again. Yep, he was definitely hiding in that attic. Reload. Look through your scope and train it roughly where the sniper will be. Step sideways out of cover, duck back in just before you get shot. Now you know exactly where he will be when you step out of cover again. Step out, shoot as the crosshairs glide over him, and you’ve defeated the sniper.

Now repeat twenty times.

There’s no skill involved. The enemy snipers always see you first and kill you before you’re aware they are there. So you just repeat until you’ve memorized where they will appear. You aren’t improving and you aren’t being clever. You’re just taking advantage of the save / reload feature to overcome a roadblock the designers put in front of you. It’s not there to challenge you, because there are no tactics or skills that can see you through. There is only rote memorization.

Bad adventure game puzzles are similar in that they are wholly illogical even by the genre’s wacky standards. Gabriel Knight needs to create a fake mustache out of cat hair and maple syrup in order to disguise himself as a man who actually does not have a mustache in order to fool a moped rental clerk? No gamer is ever going to deduce that this is the correct course of action, so all this puzzle wants from players is their endless patience as they flail at item and object combinations until they begin making progress.

The bottom line is that a game can be tough as hell, but all is forgiven provided it remains stimulating and doesn’t make players feel like they it is rigged against them. The Myth series was savage on its highest difficult levels, reducing me to a sense of despair on more than one occasion, but I always had the sense that if I was just a little better with my formation management, and if I just found a slightly better piece of terrain to defend, I could get through it. To the game’s credit, I always could.

Is Passivity Ever Good?

Lewis Pulsipher would still consider these games self-defeatingly challenging. By his reasoning, the notion that games should challenge players, should actually demand something of them, is outmoded. The sooner we hurl that notion overboard, the sooner games can become as big a medium as they deserve to be.

After all, he writes, “Viewers of movies, which are passive experiences, are rarely challenged.” The same cultural and commercial ubiquity is within gaming’s reach, if only they stop being so damned challenging and embrace the non-gamers who find games too frustrating to play.

I must be watching movies incorrectly, or perhaps I am just watching the wrong ones. While movies are passive insofar as I do not have to do anything in order to get through to the end, my mental engagement with movies is quite active. I contemplate characters, judge performances, notice shot composition and editing, and identify cinematic influences. If I cannot engage with a movie on most or any of these levels, it’s probably a crap movie.

Furthermore, anyone who actually likes movies (rather than the revenue figures that have such a mesmerizing effect on Pulsipher) would argue that movies can be and frequently are challenging. It is painful to watch the series of misunderstandings and the bone-deep desire for vengeance that culminate in a tragic killing in Mystic River. Watch Dave Boyle beg for his life and try to explain the truth through a psychosis that has finally broken him. Watch how Jimmy Markum reveals that he is past caring, and that he will forever be settling scores with a world that keeps taking from him. That’s powerful, challenging filmmaking, and it’s why film is a great medium. No one is ever going to point to Terminator Salvation as a reason why he watches movies.

Pulsipher doesn’t really care, though. His attitude is that big, dumb movies like Terminator Salvation make a lot of money, therefore they are a role model. Games should also be big, dumb, and easy so that the same people who love watching battling robots will play videogames. You cannot argue with commercial success.

On the other hand, as a gamer and a cinephile, I’m at a loss as to why I should care. As long as Pulsipher was looking to Roger Ebert for insight into the nature of entertainment, he would have done well to read what Ebert had to say about the arguments people made in defense of Transformers 2:

Do I ever have one of those days when, the hell with it, all I want to do is eat popcorn and watch explosions? I haven’t had one of those days for a long time. There are too many other films to see. I’ve had experiences at the movies so rich, so deep–and yes, so funny and exciting–that I don’t want to water the soup. I went to “Transformers” with an open mind (I gave a passing grade to the first one). But if I despised the film and it goes on to break box office records, will I care? No. I’ll hope however that everyone who paid for a ticket thought they had a good time, because it was their time and their money.

The opening grosses are a tribute to a marketing campaign, not to a movie no one had seen. If two studios spend a ton of money on a film, scare away the competition, and open in 4,234 theaters before the Fourth of July, of course they do blockbuster business. The test is: Does the film have legs?

Pulsipher’s argument might provide a roadmap to more lucrative games, but it has absolutely no relevance to anyone interested in better games. Pulsipher conflates them and is careful to present a dismissive, inaccurate view of what gamers get out of challenging games, but the bottom line is that he cares about audience share and not quality.

concludes with Part 3

The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 1

When did Game, Set, Watch declare war on difficult videogames?

At the start of September, GSW published a piece by Lewis Pulsipher which argued that gaming’s great failing¬† is that people actually have to play games in order to enjoy them. If only we could make “play” optional, we’d be as big as the movie industry, a goal whose worth is self-evident to Pulsipher.

Last week, Lewis Denby wrote about his lamentable ineptitude in most games, and how they do not adequately provide for the extreme left tail of the “skill” bell curve.

These two arguments share the belief that games need to stop persuading people that they are not worth the bother, but are otherwise very different. Pulsipher’s argument veers into the realm of absurdity when he quotes from noted videogame expert Roger Ebert’s review of Terminator Salvation: “Movies that resemble video games are often panned by film critics, but recently the well-known critic Roger Ebert said, about the movie Terminator Salvation, ‘It gives you all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it.’ (He gave it three stars out of four, quite a bit better than the Metacritic average — this was not a criticism.)” Pulsipher thinks he has found our Northwest Passage.

There are numerous problems with this assertion, however, not least of which is the fact that Ebert gave Terminator Salvation two stars, not three, and the text of the review is scathing. After describing the dearth of actual characters, and the hopelessly muddled plot, Ebert concludes by saying, “…most of the running time is occupied by action sequences, chase sequences, motorcycle sequences, plow-truck sequences, helicopter sequences, fighter-plane sequences, towering android sequences and fistfights. It gives you all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it.” In context, then, the line that Pulsipher offers on behalf of his argument is revealed to be a damning judgment of an inferior film. Ebert is saying that these empty pleasures, a string of action set pieces devoid of meaning, are the domain of videogames.

To which Pulsipher shouts, “Amen!”

Pulsipher wants games to get the kind of audience that big summer blockbusters enjoy, and thinks the way forward is to eliminate “the bother of having to play.” In other words, we must make videogames enjoyable for people who do not actually enjoy videogames.

Lewis Denby, on the other hand, raises an issue that every gamer has encountered at some point: games often become just too damned hard, either intentionally or through crummy, counterintuitive design. After opening with a description of the archetypal “disastrous adventure game puzzle” (although a better example can be found in Gabriel Knight 3 as told by Erik Wolpaw), Denby has examples of how gruesome difficulty spikes crop up in other genres:

Take the first-person shooter where every door is locked except the one you have to progress through, which isn’t signposted one bit. Or how about the RPG that demands hours of grinding away at repetitive side-quests before you can crack on with the story? There’s always the inevitable section in every platformer in the world where you’ve to precisely leap across tiny stepping stones above a sea of fire, where jumping just an inch too far means restarting the level for the eight hundredth time.

This might have been okay when games were purely about bettering yourself, or bettering other players. But in a climate where the medium is as much about storytelling, atmosphere and immersion as any other factors, it’s a serious issue that needs to be stamped out.

I don’t think anyone is going to stand up and say, “Wait a minute, now, I happen to like my games to be obtuse and sadistically punishing. It just makes my success on the 173rd try all the more meaningful!” Extreme examples of bad design are easily recognized as such, and won’t attract many defenders. So I have no problem agreeing with Denby that this kind of experience has to go.

Nevertheless, I have two problems with his argument. The first is that it is inherently subjective. Videogame difficulty exists on a broad spectrum, and it would be impossible to agree where games should fall. There are too many shades of gray. While there are extreme examples of bad design that no reasonable person could defend, like the “mustache for a moped” puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3, such cases are rare. Denby himself pointed out in a chat via Twitter that what one person would call patenly unfair, another would call a bracing test of skill.

My other objection is that Denby does not really make an effort to separate “fair challenge” from “excessive difficulty.” We can all agree that “excessive difficulty” is a bad thing, but we need to know where and how a game crosses that line. Otherwise we simply admonish developers to “design better games” without offering any direction about how they can do that.

Leigh Alexander suggested during a Twitter debate that we distinguish between “intentional” and “unintentional” difficulty. That would have us discussing the degree to which developers ensure that players are being challenged by only what developer intended to be challenging. Developers would have made a mistake if players get hung up by something that nobody on the development side ever expected would be problematic.

While acknowledging the merits of that approach, I still think it’s important to draw a line between what is challenging as opposed to what is merely difficult. Challenge is why I play games, and why I have never for a second felt that they waste my time. I have no problem with a game that bars my progress until I play with greater skill, or come up with a clever solution to a problem. So long as I feel that I am being forced to improve as the game raises the bar for performance, I am entirely happy to try, try again.

What I cannot stand is a game that demands perfection, endless repetition, and blind flailing until I stumble upon a completely irrational and arbitrary way of advancing. Nor do I think these flaws solely exist in the eye of the beholder. You can recognize where a game ceases to ask for mental or physical improvement and simply bars your progress.

continues with Part 2

Highway Thoughts

I caught about ten minutes of FOX News while I was eating at a Wendy’s in central Pennsylvania. The big news they were covering was the fact that Iran was testing a missle with a 1200 mile range, which would only be mildly interesting to me if I lived within 1200 miles of Iran. Nevertheless, they brought out a shill from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who dutifully informed the anchors of what a grave and terrible threat Iran poses.

Then they cut away to talk about Bank of America distancing itself from ACORN and wondered aloud if this spells the beginning of the end for that organization. Personally I don’t read much into it. Bank of America is probably just preoccupied with making sure they’re charging their debit cardholders the full $350 of overdraft fees per day that BofA is legally entitled to. Still, FOX seems to think it’s bad news for ACORN that America’s biggest legal loan-shark is severing ties.

The final story they covered was the terrifying statistic that only 1/4 of all terrorism suspects are ever brought to trial. The anchors sounded pretty frightened of the thought that 75% of all terrorists are just going free, but their legal expert was on hand to assuage their fears. In his two minute segment, he said the figure was actually just a testament to what a great job our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are doing. He liked the way that sounded, so he repeated it about five more times until we got the right associations: law enforcement, intelligence agencies, great job.

It’s terrifying to think that people watch that network and think they’re getting the news. Someone from the Foudation for Defense of Democracies is treated as an unbiased expert, and the people watching at home have no way of knowing that this guy’s meal-ticket depends on advocating unrelenting interventionism. The only thing this guy probably ever defended was a master’s thesis. FOX tries to whip up some fear over the fact that terrorism suspects are going free, and never considers the possibility that, hey, maybe some of these guys are wrongly suspected. Nor do they even ask if 75% of terrorism cases are so weak that no prosecutor dares take them before a judge. Nope, FOX news just wants you to worry about all the terrorists that are no walking the streets, waiting to terrorize some more.

I laugh at FOX news a lot, but it scares me. It is packaged to look and sound like legitimate news coverage, but it’s a propaganda machine that attracts a vastly greater audience than real news. It’s existence is antithetical to the nature of an informed society, but it is also guaranteed by a free one. The contradiction never ceases to trouble me, and I’m not sure how it will ever be resolved.

Blueprint for a War Machine

Here’s the most important thing to remember about winning in Europa Universalis III: it’s all relative.

By which I mean that the goal is not to amass the absolute largest, wealthiest, or most powerful empire in the world. Instead, the game looks at what you started with and what you managed to do with those resources.

In my game, Austria consumed Greece, the Balkans, and southern Germany. Russia conquered the Eurasian continent. Despite their vast conquests, they were ranked in the top ten nations alongside my minuscule Brandenburg. Even though I was a lightweight, I’d performed well enough with scant resources that Brandenburg became more than the sum of its parts. I was a model of the Enlightenment, and a strong contender to win the game in the final 100 years.

Nevertheless, winning depends on survival. EU3 isn’t going to say, “Well, your cities have been burned to a cinder and your neighbors have carved up your nation like a Christmas turkey, but your education system was the envy of Europe!” Even a pacific and enlightened state needs to watch the balance of power and judiciously apply a thumb to the scales when needed, which usually requires a little fighting.

However, in the same way that performance in EU3 is measured relatively, military success depends on factors beyond numbers and technology. In games like Civilization or Total War, technology trumps numbers and technology combined with numbers trumps everything. In EU3, your military is subject to a wide variety of pressures that undercut the conventional “research, build, conquer” strategy.

For one thing, there are limits to how many men you can put in the field at any one time. Every state draws on a national manpower reserve in order to build new units and replace losses. That manpower reserve represents the total number of men presently available for military service. This is one of the ways that EU3 prevents runaway victories. Unless your nation is exceptionally populous and wealthy, you cannot use giant armies to steamroll the opposition. You will tap out your manpower reserves or break the treasury.

Furthermore, the national manpower reserve is tied to a number of factors beyond population size. For instance, every state has a set of policy sliders that can be adjusted, one at a time, every ten years or so. One of them has “Serfdom” at one extreme and “Free Subjects” at the other. Moving away from serfdom and towards a universal concept of citizenship produces far more potential recruits than a medieval system, but it also introduces a backlash from the nobility and creates a more unruly populace.

There are also “National Ideas” that provide special attributes. These are the concepts and policies that give a state its non-corporeal identity. So while one country might be animated by the ideas of exploration, trade, and colonization, another believes in military service, discipline, and battlefield glory. For my game as Brandenburg, I chose national ideas that increased the manpower pool at a faster rate, and improved my troops.

Two other wrinkles affect the size and strength of your army. First, while the manpower reserve represents the theoretical limit on army size, you start suffering financial penalties if you have a disproportionately large military establishment. Up to a point, you pay the normal cost of running a military. Expand beyond that point, and you start paying cost plus an extra percentage. However, the extra percentage increases disproportionately with each new unit you build. So the first extra regiment might add a 1% charge to your military expenses, but 10 extra regiments might add 25%.

Second, the quality of your troops is influenced by your country’s military tradition. You cannot build a military from scratch an expect it to perform well. Furthermore, a military that never sees action does not make for a proud tradition. On the other hand, neither does a military that gets its ass kicked.

So you must treat your military as a long-term investment, and remember that an army with practice at winning is likely to trump one that has experienced long decades of peace. Depending on your choices and opportunities, you will see your military tradition increase at a greater or lesser rate. The higher your tradition value, the better your units.

(As an aside, I should also mention that armies and navies exist in tension with one another, so everything I’ve said applies to both branches, and improvement to one often comes at the expense of the other.)

All of this determines the institutional quality of your army, but that only goes so far. During times of war, you often need to appoint a general to lead your army in battle. Recruiting a general gives you access to a specific individual that provides bonuses to your army beyond their base values. The greater your military tradition, the better your general is likely to be. The downside is that a general consumes tradition. With less tradition, your troops are less capable. The more generals your appoint, the more tradition you lose.

This might sound arbitrary, but it’s not. Great commanders do not usually leave great militaries behind them. The Prussian army that Frederick the Great inherited from his father was a masterpiece of professionalism and military preparedness. The one that Frederick left to his successor was arrogant, only 50% Prussian, and led by men who had spent their careers following orders.

In the same vein, the Royal Navy looked to Nelson long after the admiral’s death, and long after his axioms and command style were outmoded by technology. The story of the US Army after WWII and commanders like Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and MacArthur is likewise not a happy one.

With a good army army backed by the right kind of society, and led by a good commander, even a small state can occasionally stun larger adversaries. On other hand, decades of preparation and care can be erased with a single disastrous campaign, and there are a sobering number of variables that can lay waste to a sound plan. When you only have enough manpower to field one small army, conflict of any kind is harrowing, no matter how carefully you’ve tended to these factors.

Death in Stalker, Part 2

The biggest cowards in the Zone are the Ukrainian soldiers that try to police it. They don’t go anywhere without overwhelming numbers and high-tech equipment, and they usually have attack helicopters flying cover. You can expect to see them whenever you’ve uncovered anything of value, or if you and your comrades have managed to clear a dangerous area. Then the army will swoop in and kill everyone.

They’re also corrupt. Every time I had to go through an army checkpoint, they extracted a hefty bribe at gunpoint. Meanwhile, they’ve got every exit to the Exclusion Zone mined and guarded. Anyone who tries to leave gets shot down without warning.

So even though I decided I was through with contract killing, I made an exception where the army was concerned. I can only be hassled, extorted, and nearly gunned down in free-fire zones so many times before I start taking it a little personally.

Furthermore, my murder of that deserter had an interesting effect on my ethics. While it had seemed like a watershed moment of realization that would put me on the path to a more merciful journey through the Zone, it turned out to be more of a benchmark. My reasoning went like this: I might as well commit lesser evils, because I’d done worse. In for a penny and all that.

I took a job to get a tricked-out pistol from the army major who oversees a checkpoint in the Cordon. Basically, someone wanted a novelty gun and I was going to have to kill six people to get him his souveneir. But these six people were soldiers, and those guys are assholes.

I took the contract and headed down to the checkpoint, where the soldiers ripped me off for the usual fee and gave me the usual warning about shooting me if I didn’t behave myself. This time, however, I felt that “delicious coldness” that Michael Corleone felt when the police captain gave him a beating. As I forked over my cash, I knew these guys were already ghosts. I walked through the checkpoint, made a note of its layout, and headed over the nearby ridge.

The sun was going down fast and I decided to wait until it was dark to make my attack. Dusk and dawn are difficult times to operate, because neither normal eyesight nor nightvision really work. Your eyes can’t penetrate the shadows and your nightvision is blown by the fact that the sun is sitting on the horizon.

I got into position behind some shrubs and made final preparations. I loaded armor-piercing rounds into my sidearm, which I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I had three grenades, which I would need if they rushed me or if I needed to flush them out of cover. My rifle was the weak link. I was being forced to use the AN-94 assault rifle, which is the successor to the Kalashnikov line of rifles. It’s marginally more accurate, but still not a sniper’s weapon. It puts maybe one round in five in the crosshairs, while the rest of the shots fall a few degrees off-center. This means that even with a clear shot, you have to pop off several rounds to make sure your target goes down. This exposes your position to everyone else, and gives enemies more time to find cover. Not exactly the way of the ninja.

As the shadows deepened, I moved out from behind the bushes and drew a bead on the Major. The last light bled from the sky and I flipped on my night vision goggles. Now I could see him perfectly, standing on the summit of his tiny little hill and surveying his miniscule kingdom.

The first shot missed high and he made a run for it, but in the wrong direction. I caught him at the bottom of the slope with a few rounds, then took a quick look around as some wild shots started coming from the checkpoint. Another trooper was at the base of my ridge trying to find me, but he’d come too close for me to miss with a headshot.

There were four of them left and they’d taken cover from my sniper fire. I flipped the gun back to automatic for the infighting that was about to begin, then moved down the hill toward their position. I saw a flash of movement next to a shipping container and loosed a volley of shots. No more movement, but I didn’t know if that meant I’d killed my target or if he’d just gotten back in cover.

I pulled out my grenades and started flinging them into the checkpoint, spread out so that running from one would take my victims into the blast from another. As they exploded, I dashed across the road to negate their cover. I only saw one soldier hiding in the middle of the checkpoint, and took him down with the better part of a clip.

I put in a fresh clip, but there was no more shooting. I checked out the scene through my scope and counted the bodies. The Major, Headshot, Movement (I must have hit him), Coward, and someone I’d never seen. Probably killed by a grenade. One unaccounted for. I crept into the checkpoint, but soon found his body next to a supply stockpile. One of the grenades must have gotten him.

I found the special sidearm on the Major’s corpse, which was just a modified version of a lousy Soviet pistol. A collector’s item, perhaps, but not worth getting killed over. The Major should have had less gaudy tastes.

It struck me that the Zone was a strange place. Not quite a Hobbesian warzone, but definitely tribal and vicious. My character had killed a man who had done no wrong, and it was murder. But taking money to kill six people for a bauble was just, because they had attacked my kind and stolen from me when they could.

The world that Stalker portrays is one in which there is no higher authority to which a man can appeal, and the stakes are almost always mortal. So morality gets sanded down until we arrive back at Polemarchus’ straight-from-the-shoulder formulation: “Do harm to your enemies and good to your friends.” To every man his due.

A New History of Brandenburg

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.