The Simulation Wargame

In theory, the kind of historical simulations pioneered by SPI should feel right at home as computer games. As wargames evolved, there was a trend toward great and greater scope and complexity, culmination in things like Campaign for North Africa, where you kept track of individual fighter pilots and jerrycans of fuel, and wound up a game considered unplayable, even lauaghably so. On the other hand, if you could automate all of that data and as much of the gruntwork of play as possible…

Despite some early attempts at adaptation, however, true historical simulation has never seen much traction in the video game world. There are plenty of games with themes that are military or historical of both… but mostly they’re shooters like, say, Day of Defeat, or vaguely historically themed RTS titles like Company of Heroes that don’t pretend to be authentic and which aren’t simulations or even strategy games, really.

There are exceptions, though, and the biggest one is the line of strategy games from Paradox Interactive. These are the heirs of the SPI line in computer game form, grand strategy simulations where you can play (in most cases) as any nation in the world, at any time in the relevant period, and they can almost, at least superficially, play themselves. They are, unsurprisingly, still pretty challenging to play, especially with an unfriendly interface, massive amounts of information and sketchy tutorials. But they’re not insurmountable.

I’ve been futzing of late with Crusader Kings II, the least military-oriented of the Paradox strategy games (Hearts of Iron being the most.) CK2 runs basically like a dynasty simulator, where a major focus is marrying off your family members is such a way as to build the proper alliances and ensure that your descendants (who you’ll play) are in better positions than you. You can expand your realm by military conquest but it’s a bit of a pain in the ass and seldom as simple as raising an army and marching it on in. And you don’t have unlimited freedom to do it; you need a claim on a neighbor’s province to make war over it, although such a claim can be fabricated.

It is difficult — my first game playing as the Petty King (Duke) of Gwynnedd ended with me dying in prison. But it’s pretty compelling. My second and third games, as Munster and Gwynnedd again, are still ongoing, and I’ve finally started feeling like I’m playing the game rather than letting it play itself.

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