Hey folks! Fireside this week. Next week, we’re going to start a two-part ‘Trip Through’ looking at medieval martial poetry, first by the 12th century Occitan troubadour Bertran de Born, and then by the sixth century Arab warrior-poet Antarah Ibn Shaddad.
This week, musing on a topic I get asked about quite a lot: the potential for historically set gaming in developing a deeper understanding of history. I might delve into some aspects of this topic as full Collections later, but I figured it made a good one to ‘think aloud’ on for a week as well, given that I am both a teacher of history and a player of video games.
Let’s start with the disappointment: I don’t think games are necessarily very useful in the way that people generally think about the question, in terms of providing a way of gaining the information base to support historical analysis (the facts of history). The thing is, if you already know that information, a lot of historically set games can have an added joy – the experience, for instance, of navigating Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey‘s Athens by memory because you already know its classical layout (“ok, so I pass the monument for the eponymous heroes, then take a hard right up the Panathenaic way to reach the foot of the Acropolis…”) and so on. It’s the joy of seeing something you know in books rendered alive before your eyes – when it’s pulled off well, it really is marvelous.
But so much of that historical background data is going to be either interpolated guesswork (by non-historians, to boot) or simply made up to fit gameplay rather than historical accuracy that if you don’t know all of that background first, the amount of history you can get is pretty limited, because you just don’t know what is accurate and what is made up (a problem, I might note, with most of getting ones history from pop-culture). At best, it provides the origin point for a profitable wiki-walk or library trip. And that’s not nothing, mind you, but it hardly capitalizes on the unique interactive nature of games. A film or book can do the same.
What I think games can do well – although few try – is get a player to think deeply about the problems and potential solutions of people in the past. It’s a unique power, because a game can put you in the shoes of someone making decisions and force you to think through those same decisions as they would. But to do this, the game needs to be pretty carefully crafted and constructed (or get very lucky). One example of this is Banished, a city-builder – if you have never really considered the challenges of pre-modern agricultural subsistence, Banished will make you think about it. The yields are a bit too high (you can support too many non-farmers with too few farmers, the zone of comfort, especially for a mature town, is much too large), but they’re not as ludicrously high as most city-builders and the game can illustrate some of the low-productivity traps in a subsistence economy through the tools and education mechanics (it is possible for inexperienced players to get trapped in a situation where their farmers, lacking tools and education, are too inefficient to support the necessary surplus to support the smiths and teachers to gain tools and education. Such capital gaps are a common feature of low subsistence agriculture productivity, though the capital is typically not tools or education, but plow animals, tractors, manure/fertilizer and in dry climates, wells; the term for this is sometimes a ‘low equilibrium’ because the system is stable, but at depressed productivity). The process of getting the agriculture base to support anything that isn’t bare subsistence can bring home some of the challenges in getting the organic economy to support lots of any kind of activity that isn’t subsistence (like military activity, or lots of non-agricultural production, though, alas, Banished has little of this to do).
But I think one of the best examples of this kind of video-game learning is Europa Universalis IV (a strategy game where the player plays as an early modern state from 1450 to 1700 or so) – not for the details of the historical setting (although EU4 is actually a pretty solid introduction to the geography and major players of the early modern period, so long as it leads to further reading) – but as an introduction to systems of inter-state relations. Because – for all of its necessary simplification and gamification of early modern geopolitics – the game provides an enlightening sort of natural experiment in both systems of interstate anarchy and systems of hegemony and even balance-of-power politics.
(As an aside: I am leaning here on the work of Kenneth Waltz (esp. “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory” in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18.4 (1988), for systems of interstate anarchy and the normality of war. On these systems in the ancient world, I highly recommend A. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War and the Rise of Rome (2009) and Rome Enters the Greek East (2012); see the end of this Fireside)
In very brief, we might break down all of the possible interstate systems this way (the terminology I’m using comes from neo-realist IR theory): there is the normal system, interstate anarchy, where no outside body governs the rules between states. Anarchy is by far, above and away, the most common international system, historically. It is the default. The next most common is hegemony, where one state dominates the system and sets the rules for everyone else in its own interest. Next, you have situations of balance of power, either as a concert of many powers or a cold war between two, where the anarchy is shaped and often frozen by the interaction of several large competing blocs each centered on a great power. Finally, we might imagine a system of international law, where states collectively avoid anarchy by setting rules between them (Waltz and Eckstein are both quick to note: no such system has ever been successfully implemented, and there are no good omens for its success in the near future).
EU4, over the course of a few games (it is meant to be played multiple times as different early modern states) does just a brilliant job of dropping the player into these systems and forcing them to think about the priorities that states have within them. Play a game as one of the mid-sized or small European states outside the Holy Roman Empire (Burgundy, for instance, or Brittany) and the pressures of interstate anarchy hit you almost immediately. Even if you have no dreams of conquest and empire, even if the state’s only goal is to survive, you rapidly find that you have to act in certain – often quite amoral – ways. After all, you have expanding neighbors and if you don’t become more powerful, they’ll eventually expand into you (in the case of Burgundy, the game is a breakneck race against France – fall behind and you’ll be absorbed. But keeping up requires you to to conquer smaller states yourself to get the resources to fend off France – who is in turn racing to hold off England, Spain and Austria; eat or be eaten).
The irony becomes that, to merely survive in conditions of interstate anarchy, it becomes necessary to ‘get big’ and thus imperil the survival of all of your neighbors. The term in IR theory for this is the security dilemma, where actions that a state takes to try to improve its security necessarily reduce the security of its neighbors and rivals, leading them to respond the same way. In EU4, this produces an almost instinctive and brutal arms-race where every state is seeking the funnel every resource it has back into military power in order to keep enough of an advantage to stay ‘safe.’ That military power is then used to expand in order to get more resources to repeat the process (resources -> military power -> expansion -> resources -> military power, repeat) as rapidly as possible to try to ‘stay ahead.’ Which in turn, forces everyone else to do the same.
Because every innovation (technology, reform, and so on in the game) that makes a state better at this sort of warfare falls into the security dilemma, states tend to increasingly resemble their competitors in the system, what is called convergence in systems of interstate anarchy. States which fail to converge on successful models fail and are removed (see: Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of). This becomes most obvious playing as a non-European, non-Chinese middle power – survival means replicating European-style expansion in your backyard to get big enough to resist the Portuguese/Spanish/British/French/Dutch when they inevitably arrive in the mid-game.
Sheltering beneath a great power is an alternative, but that means giving up control of your destiny, and may be road to absorption anyway (through diplo-vassalization-and-annexation, or simply because it is easier for a great power to sell you to get out of a bad war than it is to give up any of their own territory). As the competition intensifies, the various evils that we generally think of in moral terms – aggression, imperialism, colonialism – may be the only route to survival.
But there are two places where the dog-eat-dog savagery of interstate anarchy doesn’t hold: the Holy Roman Empire (HRE for short), and the orbit of the Ming Dynasty. In the case of the Ming, the tributary mechanic provides a neat example of hegemony in action: the states around Ming are all (or nearly all) likely to be tributaries to the (much stronger) Ming dynasty. Because Ming will (generally) protect its tributaries, the competition is much less fierce (although tributaries can, I think, prey on each other, but Ming is likely to work to break up any tributary that gets too strong). At the same time, playing as one of these tributaries you immediately see the problem: Ming is your protector, but also itself a danger and an obstacle to increased long-term safety. Consequently, the tributaries tend to be a band of jackals, preying on each other and outsiders, but just waiting for the Ming to weaken, at which point they’ll all strike at once or in quick successions (what the community calls ‘Mingsplosion,’ – I am eliding a few more mechanics in that). Hegemony is unstable if the leading power doesn’t maintain strong military dominance.
Meanwhile, the HRE looks like a system of international law. There are rules! Wars of conquest are ‘illegal.’ But weaken the emperor (either from outside by war, or be electing a weak state as emperor) and anarchy reasserts itself (as the weak emperor can no longer maintain the system) and the dozens of small states of the empire devour each other in a desperate race to be the handful of survivors: international law is revealed as just the mask that imperial (typically Austrian-Hapsburg) power wore. A lesson, perhaps, to those who think the international system would survive in the absence of its current hegemon. Should the emperor weaken (and the mid-game Protestant Reformation is tailor-made to cause this to happen), conditions of interstate anarchy reassert themselves, resulting in an often terrifyingly rapid consolidation of the imperial states into a handful of larger powers.
As a game drags on and the European empires (I am including in that group the Ottomans) expand, anarchy is steadily replaced by a fragile balance-of-power politics: nearly all of the smaller states are attached to the major powers (with colonial subjects of European powers replacing many of the independent states of the New World) or absorbed. Those powers tend to split into alliance systems as the game goes on, which leads the chaotic free-for-all to turn into a series of longer relative peaces, punctuated by massive wars between alliance systems.
There are problems with the simulation, to be sure. The AI players don’t align away from a ‘winner’ as quickly or as strongly as they should, which means that once the balance of power becomes lopsided in the late-game, it generally doesn’t self-correct but instead snowballs into a monopolar global hegemony (which, to be fair, is a thing that happened in 1991, so it’s not unheard of, but it’s not quite common either and didn’t happen in this period). And the system really is best adapted to the realpolitik of the early modern period (you can see the same system struggle to create a convincing simulation of the both more norm-driven and also often more ‘limited’ warfare of the Middle Ages in Crusader Kings; the model just doesn’t quite fit as well for the period, though CKII is still neat, especially in how it represents medieval kingdoms not as states, but as collections of personalities). Finally, there are some troublesome assumptions being made about the nature and relative balance of European and Asian military power (though EUIV is better, in this regard, than EUIII, it still feels based on the ‘military revolution’ was it was understood about 30 years ago).
Where I think this is useful as a teaching tool is that it answers a lot of the ‘why don’t we all just get along’ sorts of questions as well as serving to clarify thinking about a lot of the less savory institutions (colonialism, imperialism, slavery) which existed in the brutal security dilemma of interstate anarchy (it might also make us question if these scourges are really banished, or merely sleeping until the next period of interstate anarchy). You can tell someone that non-aggression is a hard decision to make in these circumstances, but it often doesn’t sink in without experiencing the it. And, crucially, while the AI’s expansionism is effectively hard-coded, the player’s response to it is not.
(As an aside: the next chronological game, Victoria II, in its rarely played late-game, also provides an incredible counter-point to all of this as, post-1900 or so, war stops paying. It becomes so big and so destructive compared to the resource gains that assuming you already have a decently large population base, it’s better for your position to avoid as much of the big late-game mega-wars as possible. Which is, in the event, what seems to have happened historically, see Gat, War in Human Civilization (2008), war became more destructive than the potential gains – which may be why, on a per-capita basis, we have less of it now. Also, Paradox: make Victoria III you cowards!).
On to the recommendations.
First off, I want to highlight a really interesting set of inscriptions put together over at Sententiae Antiquae (who, if you are not following them on twitter, @sentantiq, you are missing out). It’s a set of Roman epitaphs to and by wives (translated by Brandon Conley). They are some of the most bittersweet readings. I suggest it because it’s a really striking reminder of everyday life and also that people in the past were human. Also – texts by and about women! This sort of material – which often lurks in collections of inscriptions that the average person has little access to – is so important for getting a real sense of the Romans (or any people in the past). Though I do wish at least one of the epitaphs for a wife had the standard Latin ‘lanam fecit’ (‘she spun wool’), as, in my experience that is easily one of the most common terms of praise for Roman wives (which should give a sense of how important that activity was for the survival and prosperity of the household; one of my commenters has rightly noted that this phrase does feature in one of the epitaphs).
Naturally the book recommendation this week is one I suggested above: Rome Enters the Greek East, by Arthur M. Eckstein. It really poses two sets of virtues, for two different readers. For the reader largely unfamiliar with the debate on the nature of Roman foreign policy, Eckstein – in the process of driving his argument – presents a fairly detailed narrative of the circumstances of Rome’s entrance into the Hellenistic state system and the diplomatic and political concerns that drove it. For the reader who is familiar with that background, Eckstein’s book is both more challenging and more fruitful, because it offers a full-throated (and I think, ultimately successful) challenge to both the classic ‘defensive imperialism’ school of Roman foreign policy (from late 19th century scholars like Theodor Mommsen) and the revised ‘exceptional aggression’ school (though this thinking is mostly commonly associated with W. V. Harris, on whom NOTE, it really permeates most Roman foreign policy thinking from the 1970s until the present, but cf. E. Wheeler, “Methodological Limits” in JMH 57.1 and .2 (1993)).
Eckstein neatly knocks down both at once, using a mix of solid classical scholarship and modern IR theory (particularly neo-realist theory) to argue that Rome was neither ‘defensive’ in its imperialism, nor exceptional in its aggression. Rather Rome was merely the most successful aggressive state in a system that – under the pressures of anarchy – consisted functionally entirely of aggressive, predatory states. I have to admit, I’m partial here (this vision is a handy foundation for my own thinking), but I am quite convinced that – some reservations aside – on the whole, Eckstein has it right. In Rome was neither the good-hearted protector, nor the sole bully in a class of harmless sheep, but just the biggest bully in a class of bullies, large and small. My impression is that Rome Enters the Greek East is more obtainable than its precursor, Mediterranean Anarchy; I think most non-specialists will be fine merely reading the former, as both books develop on substantively the same themes. Both are worth a read, for the insights into states both ancient and modern.
Next week – some poetry about fighting.
41 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: April 3, 2020”
You use the term IR Theory. The context and a quick google makes me suspect it stands for International Relations Theory. Is this correct?
Ah, yes, sorry. I just get tired of spelling it out at first reference over and over again (I’ve used the phrase before) and forgot to do so here. But yes!
What would a properly fleshed out reading list on Roman international relations look like? So far I’ve acquired or plan to acquire the following:
* Eckstein’s “Mediterranean Anarchy” and “Rome Enters the Greek East” as recommended here for a modernist view of Roman foreign relations
* Lendon’s “Soldiers and Ghosts”, “Empire of Honour”, and “Song of Wrath” for a wider “primitivist” view of Roman politics and war
* Mattern’s “Rome and the Enemy” for a “primitivist” view of Roman foreign relations
* Fronda’s “Between Rome and Carthage” as you recommended before for Roman hegemony in Italy
* Cunliffe’s “Greece, Rome, & Barbarians” for frontier management and interaction with non-state peoples
* Terranto’s “The Early Roman Expansion into Italy” for an elite-network emphasis
* Whittaker’s “Frontiers of the Roman Empire”
I’ve read through Wheeler’s “Methodological Limitations” and Lendon’s “Primitivism and Ancient Foreign Relations”, and have been struggling to try and get a good balance of modernist and primitivist views in this area, both in inter-state relations and in state-to-non-state relations. Are there significant gaps or poorly received inclusions on this list? Any good works to flesh out frontier management and Roman interaction with non-state societies?
So, the big gap is, alas, W.V. Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome. You may gather I am both not a fan of the fellow and not convinced by the book (for unrelated reasons), but it is a very influential book whose argument sits, to a degree, outside of the narrow primitivist/modernist divide (instead focusing on aggression, albeit from a primitivist angle). The other odd omission, I think, is B. Isaac, The Limits of Empire (1992); no doubt you have read Wheeler – in Lendon’s memorable phrasing – sinking that particular dreadnought, but one ought to excavate the underwater wreck as well (even if I agree with Lendon that Wheeler breaks Limits of Empire (1992) deeply and irretrievably).
For frontier policy on non-state lines, consider J.S Richardson’s Hispanisae (1986) for a rundown of the Romans in Spain, and for frontiers in general, note Luttwak, Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (1976). The latter is a controversial book, but honestly my view on it has warmed over time, even though it has some sharp limitations (Luttwak is not a classicist, and it shows). Finally, I’d suggest just reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars, if you haven’t – it gives a real impression of the aristocrat-to-aristocrat personal nature of Roman frontier-management.
Bret, I think you missed the epitaph you’re looking for! It’s eighth in that list at Sententiae Antiquae that you posted, spelled slightly differently than what you have here (“lanam fecit” rather than “lanem fecit”).
Great post as always, my thanks as a lurker.
What is the military revolution theory of 30 years ago and how has historians’ consensus moved away from that? I only know what the former is vaguely, but not the latter. What good books/articles should I be reading about this?
Geoffrey Parker, “The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800,” 2nd. ed. 1996. Then read books by researchers who have dug into the Ottoman and Chinese archives like Gabor Agoston, Rhoads Murphy, and Tonio Andrade who have a different perspective on what the Farangi were doing and how much the serious powers cared in 1650.
Yes, to which I may add also Chase, Firearms, a Global History.
Andrade’s recent book; The Gunpowder Age is a particularly welcome update to the field.
Also, I remember that John Lynn’s “Battle” has a good summary of the changes in Indian armies 1750-1840 and how just having drilled infantry and the latest artillery was not so impressive, what won the wars as the Mughal empire collapsed was steady finances, clever diplomacy, and having an army which was more bloody-minded than the other prince’s.
>the potential for historically set gaming in developing a deeper understanding of history.
You may be a little pessimistic, though I suspect you’re meaning digital commercial gaming only. In an IR setting you may be correct, though I think it’s different in the War Studies setting. There’s a whole load of board games out there that are potentially better than AAA videos for developing a deeper understanding of history, at least military history, and also with a caveat that they can be used as a starting point for reading and historical analysis. I wouldn’t say that all are, and there are also plenty of commercial offerings that are very distorting in a pop-culture fashion – don’t get me started about Command and Colours, and Memoir ’44!
As you might guess, I’m alluding to the “simulation”, or as I prefer to call it “serious modelling” style of analogue games. There tend to be few of these (any?) in the traditional civ-building, state-competition area that you are addressing. However, at the tactical and operational military levels, there are a few. For the ancient world, the most popular (and most academically credible) has to be Lost Battles by Professor Phil Sabin, recently retired from Kings College London’s War Studies Department. This link – https://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/83325/lost-battles-forty-battles-campaigns-ancient-world – is to the game, but importantly it’s a traditional academic book as well. The game is very difficult to find now, I think, as there was only a limited print run (it’s niche!), but the book is available. He followed up with Simulating War, an academic book that argues for the efficacy of wargaming (particularly non-computerised) as a tool for the military historian / war studies specialist. It also has examples of relatively simple, instructive, analogue games for print-and-play.
For more on the professional wargaming angle, see Matt Caffrey’s On Wargaming (“how wargames have shaped history and how they may shape the future”).
There might be an interesting series on how pop wargaming has distorted the general public’s understanding of military history? Though I acknowledge that ‘pop wargaming’ may be an inaccurate designation.
then take a hard right up the Panathenaic way to read the foot of the Acropolis… ITYM “reach”
(though EUIV is better, in this regard, than EUIII, it still feels based on the ‘military revolution’ was it was understood about 30 years ago) ITYM “as”
‘defensive imperialism’ school of Roman foreign policy
Is that what CJ Cherryh is expounding here in “THE ROMANS: A SOAPBOX”?
Ayep,that’s some defensive imperialism rhetoric. I’m not a fan – and Eckstein shows quite neatly why it doesn’t work (and why the reverse – the Romans as aggressors or – as the link puts it, ‘Romans as Nazis’ also doesn’t work).
Now I am curious if you ever played “King of Dragon Pass”. It is a completely non-historical game* in that it is set in a fantasy world with real gods and magic. But it can get you very anxious and obsessed with maintaining your herds and military power. If your cow herds get too small you go into a death spiral. But not having enough weaponthanes (professional warriors) is dangerous too.
It also has a lot about another thing you go on about, maintaining rituals to the gods. If you don’t stay on the good side of the gods, it will be bad, but if you build too many shrines and temples, the sacrifices make your herds unsustainable and …
(One of the best moments in the game for me was how totally outraged I got when that bastige from the Lunar Empire tries to pay you off in his stupid round bits of silver instead of the cow herd he promised.)
* Vaguely like the Gauls or Germanic tribes I think, with the Lunar Empire as the stand-ins for the Romans.
Haha, I was going to post that :-). KoDP literally measures wealth in cows, and has proper polytheism – not just contracts between you and gods, but you get to re-enact famous myths by sending people to a dangerous place beyond space and time. I don’t think it’s any good as a *simulation* of pre-modern economy, but it has an awesome atmosphere. I don’t have a gift with words, so I’m just going to paste my favorite review:
“”A girl sees a great shadow of a passing bird.”
Is this a bad omen? Can you laugh it off? What if you do and something bad happens later on, will you be blamed for inaction or can the village chief convince people it’s a coincidence? If you act, is it enough to perform a simple ritual to ward off bad spirits or is it necessary to sacrifice cows? How many cows is enough? Too many and the farmers won’t be happy then either.
And where are the explorers, shouldn’t they be back alread? Will there be enough harvest this year or should you launch a trading mission or attempt a heroquest? Do you have enough warriors patrolling your tula?
Leading a tribe in a land of mystery is inviting trouble and an experience full of depth.”
“(…)You spend far more time navigating through lengthy scripts, making decisions to hold your tribe together through difficult times without making too many enemies along the way. There’s rarely a right answer. The results often depend in part on the skills of the council members you assign to carry out your decisions. Other times, the traditions and expectations of your population stand in the way of what would otherwise be an obvious benefit to the tribe. This is a strategy game that feels less like moving tokens around a board and more like making real leadership decisions.
Like real life, some of the results are easier to predict than others. At times you will be forced to choose blindly.
Even the game’s battles take place as narrated text. You control the size and quality of your forces, as well as their objectives, but once the battle starts, you affect it by choosing how to react to key narrative moments.”
It’s a game many people, especially game developers, cite as an inspiration. Nowadays it has a modern successor – Six Ages.
Do you have any recommendations for an overview of political history for 1500-1700 or so? I’ve been working myself forwards in history, after two years of reading just reached early modern era, and given my thousands of hours in EU4 I’ve been looking forward to it a lot. Haven’t found anything that feels perfect yet, someone recommended Nexon’s Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe. I used Watts’ Making of Polities for 1300-1500, it was good but at the upper end in terms of heaviness.
So where does Switzerland fall on that spectrum? According to Wikipedia, it has maintained “armed neutrality” since 1815. Is the path only available to Swizerland because of its unique position? Mountains aid in defense and it doesn’t lie on any major transport routes.
How about the RPG genre with games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance?
You’ve inspired me to take up another game of EU4! I’ve never actually tried to deal with the HRE from the inside before (plenty of times dismantling it from the outside), so that’ll be a bit of a learning curve. 🙂
A pretty fun objective, IMO, is to take a second-tier power within the HRE (e.g., Bohemia), and try to become Emperor. Having to stay at peace with your neighbours most of the time to keep relations high is a very different play style from the “conquer all the things!” approach you normally see.
But at least when I’ve tried I needed a minimum power base to hold it for more than one election. A weak state as emperor meant going bankrupt when France, Poland or even the Scandinavians decided to press some claims on border states.
It seems to emphasize the “prudent expansion” mechanics that play a role (albeit lesser) for other states; grab provinces occasionally and gradually with enough strategic alliances that you can shore up your situation, without triggering a direct challenge.
Can you provide references to any material talking in more detail about the productivity trap issues you mentioned in the Banished section? I’ve read some grand-history books along these lines, but nothing which examines things in a very local way which you seem to be talking about here. I’d love to read more about it.
You could make a point that games are equally good at spreading misconceptions and urban legends about history, including but not limited to:
– crossbows hit harder than bows (check Tod’s Workshop channel on youtube; long story short yes the draw weight is much higher but crossbow is not as good at passing energy to the arrow)
– everyone prefers swords
– horses are battering rams
– war elephants are great
– kiting (firing from maximum range and moving faster) is highly effective
– armor, especially plate armor, doesn’t do much
– shields are for cowards
I know, I’ve been there. I used to perceive Age of Empires as something dry and boring, now i perceive it as a grotesque collection of history factoids.
One of my pet peeves about games taking place in the past (fantasy or otherwise) is the complete and precise control you have over your subjects. Typically with a satellite view. Something Mary touched on last week.
A notable exception is Majesty. Warning, it’s a high fantasy game, with wizards, barbarians, trolls, potions etc. The intriguing thing about it is you only have indirect control. You set up goals for your people, you construct some basic infrastructure, and you watch them go. In particular you can’t drag a rectangle over people and order them, or even select anyone. If that guy got himself in trouble, he’s probably a goner. You don’t equip people, you build equipment shops.
This is RARE in games. When you build or conquer, and the territory you control expands, you typically use the same tools as in the beginning. I can’t think of a game where you delegate. It’s like you’re still micromanaging a village, but multiplied by 30. Real leadership doesn’t work like that. Part of it is choosing your advisors and representatives. It’s not humanly possible to micro-manage everything.
At least some of the 1980s Koei games like Bandit Kings of Ancient China and Genghis Khan actually got this right! You could only micromanage the province that your character was physically present in; the rest of your empire was delegated to the AI.
I suspect it’s the default because the AI is too crap to actually do what you want. For example, Rule the Waves 2(1900-1950ish naval combat) has a gameplay option where all you can do is command your flagship’s detachment and send messages to units within visual range. Which sounds awesome…except that the AI is stupid, and the orders you can send are hilariously limited. I know the visual signals of the day were bad, but they were not nearly this bad. (It’s made by like three guys, so I understand why these limits exist, but it still made the game very un-fun in the battles IMO)
One odd obsession in strategy games seems to be borders. Most of them seem to be modeled after 19 century nation states. A fascinating counterpoint to that has been made by Herodotus in his Histories. He said antique rulers were like… collectors. It went something like this: “I have Phillistines, Israelites, Hittites, Mittani. I’m still missing the Assyrians and Babylonians.”
People lived here and there, but it was pretty easy for them to get up and move. There weren’t many fixed borders, if only because population density was much lower back then.
I’m not aware of a game that models people as a force that can move. Hmm, maybe the board game Small World. In games, you tend to have an early land grab and then you’re always taking land from someone else.
The Civilization family, at least freeciv if not the official game, has some migration rules. Not part of the default ruleset, I think. You can also turn borders on and off — on creates a hard ‘space’ that’s a function of city size; countries in Peace with you can’t move military units into your space, while your own popular government doesn’t mind your units being outside of cities but within that space. Without borders, actual city or fortress tiles are the only space you fully control, and the only space that military units can be in without making your people unhappy.
Have you ever played the board game Diplomacy?
If you haven’t you should really check it out, nothing simulates the paranoid viciousness of the security dilemma better than Diplomacy.
It’s set in the early 20th century and is inspired by all of the secret alliances leading up to WW I and it does a simply masterful job of doing that. The tactical combat rules are very abstract and don’t attempt to simulate reality but do their job very well while leaving plenty of room for diplomacy to dominate the game.
Some reasons if does this so well:
-Defensive play just doesn’t work, The only way to get more powerful is to expand so generally everyone is attacking someone by the second year of play at the earliest.
-In a lot of games you can smash your way to victory by simply beating down smaller targets with a bigger army (or better tactical acumen or simply luck). That’s hard to do in Diplomacy since fair fights tend to bog down in trench warfare (hence the WW I feel). Even if you win a straightforward war it takes forever and can leave your armies badly out of position for the next war. This makes trying to engineer an unfair fight really important, generally by ganging up on people, attacking people who are already bogged down trench warfare or backstabbing people. Of course everyone playing the game knows this which sends paranoia through the roof.
-All turns are simultaneous (everyone writes down their moves and they’re resolved at the same time) which makes it VERY important to be able to guess what other people are doing. The tactical rules are pretty simple so the best way to use them to your advantage is to be better at guessing that the other player’s doing than they are. This makes misdirection and espionage (trying to figure out what one player has told others about what they’re going to do) very powerful, much more so than in a lot of games.
-People often try to get out of this dog eat dog hell by making firm alliances which then gives the game a very WW I feel as power blocks divide up Europe and then slowly grind away at each other. Being able to coordinate well with your allies is vital and then a lot of gameplay becomes about influencing alliance war plans in your favor, squabbling about spoils, trying to get allied units out of position to backstab you, trying to get your units in position to potentially backstab your ally without giving them advance warning, etc.
-The game can be very unpredictable with the focus shifting from alliance blocs, to vulture play in which everyone tries to carve a piece out of the weakest player or stop the leader balance of power politics. Really helps you wrap your mind around a lot of different diplomatic situations. It also does a good job of showing how longstanding international stability can suddenly crack and shift about.
Just an absolutely wonderful game.
It’s also one of the few boardgames that plays BETTER online than face to face (better for secret negotiations etc.) as long as you have people you trust to not drop out mid-game. There are some active online communities and if you get in a game that only allows in players who have completed X number of games without dropping out it can be a draining mindfuck that I’ve never seen the like of. Had to take a break from playing, since I’d do things like wake up at 3 AM in a state of panic about how vulnerable my forces in Norway were. Never ever have I had a game sink its claws into my brain like Diplomacy.
Technically, it’s pretty easy to make a board game that works better on computer than face to face. Just make it use a cumbersome number of tokens or other elements. ‘Dominion’ is a good example. Computer takes care of all the shuffling.
Anyway, if you like this kind of games I recommend Dune (the board game) and Rising Sun. Dune is hilarious in the sense it has more traitors than players. It’s rough at edges and some design decisions could be better (bidding phase) but it does a remarkably good job at providing mechanics that fit theme very well and are fun to play. At the start of the game, each player is dealt a number of commander tokens. You can choose one of them (they usually belong to other players) and it means that commander is secretly in your pay. At any point in the game, if you fight a battle against that commander, you can reveal his token and you automatically win the battle by treason. No matter what weapons were used and how big the armies were. Naturally, Harkonnen don’t have to choose, they just keep all the leaders they draw during game setup as traitors. Savvy Harkonnen players use this to threaten other players and extort payments. They pretty much have to do it because Harkonnen troops and other bonuses are below average.
This game mechanic is why I re-read Dune (only the original book) with a piece of paper and a pen in hand. JUST to focus on loyalty. Dune is a fascinating book when you read it from loyalty point of view. There are many characters in the book which change their allegiance, and have convincing motives to do so. What faction a person nominally belongs to and where he ends can be very surprising.
Bene Gesserit have some fun mechanics, especially when playing with extended rules. First, no other faction can initiate conflict with them. They only fight when they choose to. This makes players extremely paranoid of sharing space with them. Second, their eugenics program. At the start of the game, the Bene Gesserit player writes down the name of the player and the number of turn. If the game ends, and the named player won on the predicted turn, Bene Gesserit player wins *instead*. Even if the “winner” won as a part of an alliance.
Fremen know where the storm will strike this turn. Emperor gets payments from other players when they buy something, and can use that money to bribe. All factions have mechanics which give them some sort of bargaining power. Attreides are prescient and can sell information. Also, most factions have bonuses they can share with their allies, for example The Guild can let someone transport troops from outside the planet for cheap.
Perhaps there’s no better way to prove your master of the game than to win by Guild’s special victory condition. The Guild also wins at the end of the last, 15th turn if no other player wins first. This requires full knowledge of other players’ capabilities and needs at all stages of the game. To do so The Guild must play one power against the other, and know how not to push it too far so nobody trusts you anymore. You need to avoid looking too threatening. It’s very similar to Vimes in the Discworld game.
Diplomacy very much does NOT need a computer to handle the fiddly bits since the rules are dead simple. It improves the game by making it harder to see who’s in the corner plotting with who and to give time for more complicated negotiations.
The tactical rules are really elegant as well since there’s ZERO random factor, you can’t just gamble and muddle through, everything is about second-guessing what your opponents will do. A lot of board games these days seem be more about managing your own resources so that you’re focusing more on your own widgets than what the opponents are doing.
Diplomacy is very much the opposite, there’s an almost-chess style body of theory about opening moves and gambits and so much of the game focuses on poring over every move the other players are making to try to guess what they’re doing next.
Other games are fun in different ways, but nothing I’ve ever played matches Diplomacy at, well, diplomacy and all of the plotting and negotiations that come with that.
I have to admit I was slightly taken aback by the post. This blog excels at exploding the myth that medieval and classical people were motivated solely by Machiavellian realpolitik, and showing how socially-constructed norms shaped and limited behaviour even during wartime extremity. Given this, it feels a bit odd to read this entry and suddenly find a full-throated paean to realist IR theory, with world history presented as a zero-sum clash of states in which all legal and cultural restraints are merely temporary illusions.
At times you seem to suggest that this situation was principally an Early Modern phenomenon, but I wonder if your characterisation of that period (which I appreciate isn’t your specialism) might overemphasise the supposed contrast with the “more norm-driven… more ‘limited’ warfare of the Middle Ages”. I noticed this a bit in the articles on GoT, which showed very effectively that the armies on screen aren’t especially medieval, but then went on to place them within the period c1500-1650, when the existence of 100,000-strong standing state armies in uniforms was almost equally unfeasible! I think the thrust of a lot of recent historiography has actually been to downplay the rupture between the Middle Ages and Early Modernity, and to emphasise how many of the things we think of as typically medieval (e.g. religious universalism, weak state-formation, polities as dynastic conglomerates, decentralised and semi-feudal military organisation) continued for a long, long time after 1500. My field, the Holy Roman Empire, is a classic example of this; far from the Reformation dealing a death blow to its rules-based approach to conflict, it continued as a reasonably successful peacekeeping system until long after 1648 (the date still sometimes cited by IR realists as the origin point of a ‘Westphalian System’ of sovereign states locked in Darwinian struggle, to the bewilderment of HRE specialists).
On this note, I wonder if an additional problem with strategy games as a learning tool is that they tend to railroad the player into thinking inside a ruthless realist framework. Games like EUIV do this much less crudely than Age of Empires (which you effectively criticised previously) does, but players are still taking a state’s-eye view and trying to ‘win’ at the expense of all their neighbours. There’s limited scope for the other objectives (such as achieving personal salvation or maintaining their family’s reputation for honour) that could and did dictate the actions of Early Modern rulers.
Anyhow, I don’t mean to be overly critical of either game-designers or you, because I know it’s difficult to do popular history on a grand scale without brushing over some nuances. Nonetheless, if you ever feel like dipping a bit more deeply into Early Modern HRE history, that would be great! Duncan Hardy’s recent book on ‘Associative Political Culture in the HRE 1346-1521’ might be a good place to start, as he makes a conscious effort to look beyond the periodisation boundary and compare some medieval and early modern military developments.
IR theory tends to under-rate the normative element to interstate conflict, probably because it’s hard to make universal judgements. As examples, the norm of local political independence (the freedom of the polis) made lasting conquest hard for classical Greek states (not impossible – but Athens and Sparta were exceptions, and only Athens was a unitary state. Also both were very small by contemporary state standards). Only once this was overcome – by confederacies, leagues, external forces – was the conquest ball able to start rolling. In China the norm of a united state made any long period of division next to impossible – everyone agreed that China should be united; they just disagreed on how. In Europe the founding of legitimacy in local elite acquiescence expressed through parliaments, oaths, laws and hereditary office-holding again made conquest very difficult. It’s been a while since I looked at the IR literature, but I think this aspect still does not get a lot of coverage.
It also tends to under-rate the importance of internal politics. Many actions rulers take, even ones ostensibly dealing with external matters, are actually aimed at getting (public) support inside the country. Examples: 1) not letting migrants in, 2) when China turned itself inward, banning ships with more than 1 mast (because bureaucrats and court dwellers had little to gain from geographic discoveries), 3) insulting an unpopular foreign politician
True for the Realist school. Graeme Allison’s Essence of Decision put internal affairs back into the picture in 1971, and it’s still there in most IR thought.
EUIV sounds very realistic. There was a reason why aggressive warlike rulers were both the norm and admired. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan may look genocidal to us but in the eyes of their own people they were doing exactly what a Good Ruler should do, making their people stronger and more powerful.
I wouldn’t call Romans the biggest bullies in a world of same, I’d call them the best organized and most effective bullies. In their defense it should be added that Romans conferred some positive benefits along with their taxes: law, literature, art, running water, indoor plumbing… Roman citizenship was achievable by formerly conquered people and well worth having, ask St. Paul about that. And the Pax Romana was a thing and led to a rise in standards of living throughout the empire. There’s a reason successor states tried to emphasize their tie to the Roman system and try to immitate it.
Sure there was plenty wrong with Rome, by modern standards, but it’s positive contribution is quite real.
I’m not sure this is a good line to take, historically. I don’t buy it. There’s no necessity to use “positive” and “negative” moral value judgements or weigh things in the balance. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the Romans, all took genocidal actions to set up their Empires. The fact the Romans built aqueducts (etc etc) should not be offered as any form of excuse for genocide and slavery. I suspect the Third Reich and the Soviet Union would both have built lands of milk and honey on the backs of their particular genocidal actions.
“Roman citizenship was achievable by formerly conquered people and well worth having”: for those that lived, or were not slaves. For example and with only slight exaggeration, the average conquered Gaul during and immediately after the Roman conquest was either dead or a slave.
These are moral and philosophical questions, rather than historical ones, I think. There are interesting historical questions around the extermination of groups of people by other groups of people, as well as around how and why the social, political, cultural contributions were made, and their longer term impact. Problems arise when these poles are linked. I’m not in favour of the idea of “balance” – it’s the old “at least Mussoluni made the trains run on time” caricature; I think that it’s not helpful to suggest that positive contributions excuse the negatives.
Great and very informative read, thanks!