While I’m a pretty big fan of strategy games in general, historical strategy games are particularly interesting, especially from a pedagogical standpoint. As I and many of the other Play the Past authors have previously discussed, these games allow us to look at the past through a different lens than we typically get through other media. Games are a particularly effective way of engaging in playful historical thinking, putting us in the same situations as our predecessors and letting us see what we can do given the same tools. Of course, some games are more effective at this than others. Risk, for example, despite being perhaps the most well-known games of this type, has never been my favorite. It’s not that it’s impossible to create interesting counterfactual histories in Risk. I once played a game where the Ottomans and Scandinavia formed a grand alliance in an attempt to hold their eastern borders against rampaging armies from Asia. Although it sounds like an interesting premise, it wasn’t as exciting as it sounds. Although my friends and I took on the names of the countries in the rough areas of where our armies started, technically, Risk players don’t really control countries. They simply control a number of generic pieces scattered randomly about the board. Though the alliance between the yellow wooden cubes and the green wooden cubes was the high point of that game, there was nothing except their position on the board that made us think at all critically about history. While geography plays a significant role in how a game of Risk plays out, there’s not really much historical context to the supposedly Napoleonic-era game.
As Trevor has previously argued, good counterfactual arguments mobilize real historical facts. I would propose a corollary to that statement, and suggest that good counterfactual gameplay requires deep, non-trivial game mechanics for modeling the past. Just as the counterfactual part of a counterfactual historical argument is really only interesting if it gets you to bring in credible historical evidence, a counterfactual game is only interesting if it gives you the tools to explore the historical space it places you in. The more tools you have, the more interesting things you can do with them. In this sense, Risk has very few tools to play with. The player has armies and territory, and that’s about it. You can play with historical events in the sense that your armies, like historical ones, are subject to world geography (or at least a loose abstraction thereof), but beyond that, it doesn’t give you very compelling historical situations.
Making a good historical game is also not merely about quantity. Different games give the player different tools that in turn make different arguments about history. Civilization, for example, eschews the reenactment of actual historical events in favor of exploring the underlying geographic, economic, and technological factors that shaped history. Axis & Allies takes a much more limited time frame than Civilization and doesn’t allow players nearly as much freedom to shape their nations, but it provides a specific historical context and well-defined goals, as well as the tools to explore the advantages and disadvantages that different countries had in industrial production, manpower, and geographic location. In sharp contrast to Axis & Allies is the game Diplomacy. Although both games have the theme of a World War, Diplomacy abstracts combat to a simple comparison of numbers while giving players numerous tools to form alliances, make deals, and backstab one another.
One title that I’ve recently been playing quite a bit is Europa Universalis IV by Paradox Interactive, specifically their most recent expansion, The Conquest of Paradise. There are a number of aspects of the game that stand out immediately (not the least of which is the huge interactive map that I spent two hours playing with the first time I played the game). Unlike Civilization, which in many ways gives you an open sandbox in which to play around with history, the world of Europa Universalis is anything but a blank slate. The game typically starts in the year 1444, just after the Battle of Varna, though you have the option to start as late as 1820. Right at the outset, certain countries are doing well and others are in serious trouble. Some are already at war when the game starts, while others may have an uneasy truce. In addition to starting territories, army strengths, and other standard strategy game elements, each country in Europa Universalis has several other attributes that set it apart from the others. Aspects such as religion, culture, technology group, and national ideas further differentiate the various playable factions that are available at the start of the game.
As with any example of a game implementing specific mechanics and algorithms to represent cultural and historical processes, each of these game systems makes implicit arguments about history. War, for instance, is framed in a very different way in Europa Universalis than in many other games. While wars tend to be some of the more influential events in history in general, in videogames, they tend to eclipse almost every other kind of historical event. While the military aspects of the game are still fairly prominent in Europa Universalis, even more so than in other Paradox games like Crusader Kings, the standard videogame imperative to conquer the world is challenged and subverted through mechanics that limit the player’s ability to mount unlimited warfare. Players cannot attack another country without a casus belli to justify the war and depending on what reasons the player chooses, the ultimate outcome of the war will change. Crushing your enemy might win the war, but may not necessarily mean the total annexation of their lands, as it does in Civ. Additionally, dealing with mechanics such as the player’s Aggression Rating and War Exhaustion means that expansion is a tricky goal that has to do almost as much with diplomacy and internal stability as it has to do with troops and battles. These mechanics in turn make implicit arguments about actual historical events, suggesting the complexity of situations that are often thought of in terms of simple martial strength.
With the addition of The Conquest of Paradise, the developers at Paradox have given players a whole new set of tools with which to experiment with history from the perspective of Native American cultures. Significantly, and somewhat in contrast to what one might expect in more Civ-style games, this usually doesn’t result in an Aztec player sailing across the Atlantic with her massive war fleet. Although The Conquest of Paradise gives players the ability to play as American nations, these nations start out, like their European counterparts, with the advantages and disadvantages they had in the mid-fifteenth century. This means that although the Americas may not be discovered in 1492, it certainly won’t be long before Europeans are landing along the coasts of Brazil and Florida and setting up colonies. While even a powerful American player probably won’t be able to hold off all of Europe with military might alone, the game offers some interesting tools to explore counterfactual histories. North American nations can form federations to fight off invading Europeans and have access to different kinds of infrastructure that suits small and often migratory peoples. Playing as the Huron or the Maya certainly won’t yield the same world-conquering experience as playing as England or Spain, but that’s kind of the point.
Despite the inherent difficulties of starting in the New World, I decided that I would have a go at rewriting history. I started up a game playing as the Inca, who start off with a decent empire that is largely isolated from other civilizations. After consolidating my empire and dealing with a few peasant rebellions that tended to pop up every now and then when the emperor died, I started slowly colonizing the western coasts of South America. I eventually made my way to Panama and encountered the Maya and Aztecs, who were engaged in a long and bloody war. I ended up arranging a political marriage with a Mayan princess, but eventually found myself unable to influence Mesoamerican affairs in any meaningful way.
As I continued to explore around the coast of South America, I discovered that the Portuguese had begun establishing colonies in Argentina (or as it was known in my alternate timeline, Rio da Prata). I grabbed as much land as I could, but soon found myself surrounded by both the French, who colonized Guiana, and Spain, which settled in the West Indies. Surprisingly, the next hundred years or so after colonization were actually a pretty good time for the Incan Empire. My diplomats kept good relations with the French and Portuguese, while my shared border with Guiana gave me a considerable amount of cultural exchange with the French, which helped my people advance more quickly. Ultimately, however, it became apparent that there was no way I could keep up with the Europeans without westernizing my country. It was a fairly difficult process, marked by revolts and repeated attempts to convert the country to Catholicism, but eventually, I was able to become a fully westernized empire.
Just when things were looking up, however, tragedy struck. In the early 1600s, Spain conquered Portugal, taking control of its colonies in South America. The newly Spanish colonies began expanding aggressively toward me while Spain herself attacked the Aztecs to the north. Eventually, I was surrounded by Spain on all sides and became the target of an all-out attack. I had chosen poorly in my alliance with the Maya, as they had long since fallen to their Aztec neighbors. France was still fairly friendly, but wasn’t about to go to war with Spain to help their casual acquaintances on the other side of the world. The modernization of my armies had come too late, and the Incan Empire eventually fell to the Spanish. Although history ended up largely repeating itself, it made for some interesting speculations about the past. What if the Inca had expanded their empire all the way to Panama? Would they have really lasted until the 17th century? Or what if instead of moving into Panama, they had taken the east coast of Argentina before the Portuguese? Would converting to Catholicism have made it more difficult for the Spanish to wage war, or would it have merely enraged the populace, hastening the empire’s collapse? Although many of these scenarios seem quite far-fetched, when compared to the actual events of the Battle of Cajamarca, some actually sound quite a bit more plausible.
In the end, what we’re left with pedagogically after a game of Europa Universalis is an argument for a different way history could have been. It’s not always the most plausible history, but it’s always a well-thought-out argument based on a combination of hundreds of smaller procedural arguments built into the game’s code. It’s also a much more sophisticated argument than the kind made by Risk. Although an Ottoman-Scandinavian alliance is certainly possible in Europa Universalis, such an event would never form out of simple military convenience, but would be complicated by religious differences, prior diplomatic ties, and dozens of other factors. While possible, it’s not the most likely scenario. Still, in a game where I once saw North America dominated by Norwegian Mexico, I’ve come to expect the unexpected.
It’s also worth noting that the next expansion for Europa Universalis IV, Wealth of Nations, comes out in two days. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when some new tools are thrown into the mix.