For a long time now I have been meaning to write something combining my two favourite things, History and Videogames. So here I’m starting a new series of posts reviewing historical games. Now seems like a good time to start, as there have been quite a few significant historical games in recent years, and there are many more coming soon!
Since I started studying history at university, I have been constantly seeking out historical games, and at this point a few years on, my taste has almost entirely changed to favour any style of game with a solid historical representation, or even a loose inspiration. The first game I’m going to look at however, won’t be one of the more recent games to come out, not by a long shot. I’m going right back to the start, at least the start for me, to a game that was released in 1999… when I was only 5. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.
Developed by Ensemble studios, it was the second game in the series after the initial release of Age of Empire in 1997. While I did also play the first game extensively, I played the second game first, so I will be primarily talking about that. As you can imagine, I didn’t exactly know how to play this game when I was very young, but I did continue to mess around with it for years until I finally understood how you’re actually supposed to play. Sadly, playing the proper way didn’t involve building nice towns, taking time to read every bit of information, and trying to avoid getting anybody killed. However playing this way did allow me to experience the history included in this game, which eventually became my main focus.
Jumping into the history of the game, it’s pretty obvious that the main setting is Medieval period, with a focus on Europe for the most part. The first game covered the ancient and classical periods, which probably makes more sense when considering the name ‘Age of Empires’. Although the Age of Kings is mainly medieval, there are some playable civilizations featured in the game which spill over either side of that vague period of time.
The game features a decent amount of historical material, but you would mostly need to seek it out for yourself. For example, there is a large history page in the main menu of the game with plenty to read, but this is separate from the game, and seems to be there for those interested in learning more about the setting they are playing in.
This section is quite good though, and covers various topics such as background on all the playable civilizations, development of weapons, tactics and castles, and an explanation of the different ‘ages’ of the medieval period. There are a few pieces of inaccurate information here or there, but for the most part it holds up well for something written in the 90s.
History Conveyed Through Gameplay
With the game being fairly old at this point, it’s quite a surprise to see that the core gameplay still holds up very well. This is probably because this and the original AoE have heavily influenced strategy games to this day. For example Starcraft 2, a more recent real-time strategy with one of the largest competitive and eSports scenes around, uses the exact same model. The basic gist of the game is to collect resources, construct production buildings and defences, and produce units and upgrades that are used to battle other players and assault their base.
So this style of gameplay lends itself quite well to exploring certain historical themes. At the very start of a match you are given a few villagers and you are in the ‘Dark Age’. Your first goal will be to build up your settlement until you can advance to the ‘Feudal Age’. These ‘ages’ are a core part of the game that indicate the advancement of your civilization, and as you progress through them eventually reaching the Imperial Age you will unlock a lot of technology and new capabilities. But we’ll start at the beginning first, in the Dark Age. To advance to the next age you need to construct one of the key buildings and collect a certain amount of resources, which in this case is food. At this point the player is beginning to explore the basic needs of settlement growth, as more villagers are needed to gather wood for buildings, more food is required, and more houses are needed for them. Each thing must be kept in balance or else production comes to a halt. Once this is achieved properly, and you reach the Feudal age, you see a change in the settlement. Temporary tents become permanent wooden buildings, you start being able to assign your villagers to work on farms to produce food more efficiently, and allowing your population to increase more rapidly. This is just a small example of how the ‘economy’ gameplay can give an interesting, if simplified view on how settlements can start, then expand and develop in different ways.
The use of upgrades in the game can also convey some historical concepts. For example, your basic units such as the spearman and archer can be upgraded to become a pikeman and crossbowman, and then halberdier and arbalester. All units in the game feature upgrades such as this, including different infantry, cavalry and siege weapons. There are aslo the minor upgrades in the game, of which there are many. Once a blacksmith building is constructed you are able to develop, based on the current age, different types of armour starting with padded, then chain, and then plate. This shows yet again a basic, but useful representation of weapon and armour development in history. There is a lot of other research included in the game, which would take far too long to go through, but it covers the development of fortifications, of tools, of religion, of farming and other working methods, and different strategies of warfare.
The combat in the game has some interesting touches and unexpected details, despite the battles mostly consisting of whichever player with the most resources throwing endless hordes at their foes. In a balanced fight, there is an advantage to using certain unit types, as for example your cavalry may be useful for their speed to use hit and run tactics, your archers do considerable damage to infantry, and spearmen have a bonus against enemy cavalry. These types of factors, paired with the use of unique units and bonuses given to each culture, can generate some interesting engagements. For example, if the Britons and the Franks cultures are in play (representing the English and the French in the later ‘ages’) they have certain advantages. The Britons can use longbowmen, and have several upgrades to their archers which give them greater range and quicker production rate. Whereas the Franks have better upgrades for their knights. These are fairly accurate representations in a broad sense, and if you are playing against either of these, there are accurate ways to counter their advantages.
Looking at a larger scale rather than the minute gameplay details, there are other ways the game conveys history though play. What I mean here mostly is the ‘campaigns’. Each campaign is set around a historical event or series of events. The gameplay in the multiple missions of these campaigns can vary in a few ways, with some starting you with a large army to engage in battle, some starting you at the end of a battle as a lone survivor, or as a famous historical figure recruiting allies to join their small band of men. The game leads you through a story with different objectives changing as you go, you usually traverse a large map and encounter many different scripted events, but there is also the freedom to go off the rails and explore, which you are also rewarded for. These stories have a lot of historical content, but of course with a fair amount of embellishment delivered via some lovely cheesy voice acting and supplemented by some written background information and hints.
Before I go on any longer, I should conclude. I could talk for a long time about this game, as it is still one of my favourites. It was probably one of the first things to ever get me properly interested in either gaming or history, and I still think it does it will. There are some flaws in the history of the game. It is often very simple, due to the nature of games in 1999 there wasn’t a lot of room for them to include too much detail, and game mechanics at this time couldn’t allow for decent simulation style games in real-time. But for the most part, it does a good job with what was available, opting for a more simple and representative approach rather than a completely accurate sim. This allowed the game to be better balanced, which probably helped it gain most of its popularity and influence in the years after its release.
So the game offers some interesting representations of historical events, cultures, economy and warfare. While looking back on it now after having studied history, it clearly offers only a basic understanding of these concepts. However, it conveys these concepts in such and engaging and fun way, that it could be a perfect introduction to medieval history to a complete beginner. I’m a good example of this, as after playing though the Agincourt campaign when I was about 12, I was given extra marks in school for knowing about Henry V and his command at the battle. 🙂