Medieval Time Vacuum

Computer games are a varied breed. Some will keep you occupied for a few minutes; others will demand all your available free time, and some of your work time too if you can get away with it. Which is which depends on you. The world is full of folks for whom Solitaire and Minesweeper are tantamount to crack — I just don’t get that. But give me something with a big thick manual and sub-sub-menus, and I can disappear for days.

Recently, that game for me has been Medieval: Total War. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a game about commanding massive armies on a big 3D battlefield. It is, but what really rocks about it is the campaign details between the battles — developing provinces and moving armies and diplomats and spies around a big historical map of Europe. Gameplay here will be familiar to anyone who’s played Civilization or Master of Orion. At some point, though, the designers of Medieval must have decided that those games and others of their ilk were all big wusses. So they made a tech tree that makes all other tech trees look like tech shrubberies. Then they layered in all sorts of other details above and beyond how kick-ass your armies are — the loyalty of your generals, the happiness of your populace, their religious beliefs, the vices and virtues of your rulers, the state of sea power, and so on. (This is a game for which you can download Farming Amortization Charts from fansites. I haven’t gone that far yet.)

To top it all off they decided to really hit the books in terms of historical accuracy. You start the campaign as one of a dozen or so medieval kingdoms at one of three different years, holding all the territory that that kingdom actually held at that time. Europe gets peppered with historical events, some of them mere window-dressing, but many of them having a big impact on the game. An example: Late last night, my Egyptian forces had the East sewn up as far north as Novgorod, when out of nowhere the Mongol Hordes rolled in and churned my peaceful rear provinces into butter. Smelling blood in the water, the Pope declared a Crusade against me, and Spain and France happily obliged. Hours of careful warmaking were obliterated in a few turns, but I couldn’t have been happier. If I had just remembered my medieval history a little better, I could have been ready.

This is the sort of game that demands a certain amount of mental effort and brain hurt. People who play computer games seem to be starkly divided around this issue. Some prefer games light and mindless, or that challenge their reflexes and not their planning horizon. Others, like me, dig games that are projects. I don’t have any big insights into why that is, but it does point out a point of diversity among computer gamers, and suggests that there’s a wide variety of reasons why people game. Interesting.