5 min read

How Paradox plunders history for great gameplay mechanics

Chris King, a game designer at Paradox Development Studio, says the key to making strategy games like Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings is knowing how much history to include...and leave out.

Why were the "great powers" of Europe so hell-bent on colonizing Africa in the 19th century? Setting aside the myriad moral issues that are hard for a modern-day observer to overlook--what did colonization of Africa actually accomplish, in the most cynical and pragmatic sense?

It's clear what Spain got from colonizing the Americas--mountains of gold and silver to swell their coffers. But it's not entirely clear what it was that made the cost of subduing Africa seem worthwhile to the United Kingdom in the Victorian era. Added prestige in the pissing contest between colonial powers? A desire to distract citizens from domestic issues?

Wonkish historical questions like that are the sort of thing that bedevil Chris King. He's not a historian--he's a game designer at Paradox Development Studio, where he has worked on franchises like Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, and Crusader Kings.

Paradox specializes in what they call "historical grand strategy games," which are built around real events and eras, and play out on real maps. In a well-received GDC talk, King described the unique challenges of plundering history to create this style of game.

He began by contrasting a Paradox game like Hearts of Iron to a less historically rigorous game like Civilization, which strives to first and foremost create a balanced setup in which player skill is key. 

"In Hearts of Iron, playing as Luxembourg is not easy--you're pretty much hosed no matter what you do," said King. "In Civilization, when you lose it's more the direct result of your choices. But you can also get nuked by Gandhi, which is an immersion breaker for some people."

Paradox has built a following and a reputation for its attention to historical detail. But throughout King's talk, he pointed to the myriad tradeoffs and simplifications his team has had to make in order to create compelling play experiences. "How much history and how much game do you include?" he asked.

If you create a perfect representation of WWII, accurate in every detail and particular...then Germany will always lose. That's not fun or challenging. Also, any history game that's entirely built around a war of wits and cunning would be fundamentally  inaccurate. "History is full of stupidity," said King. "You’d think Germany would have learned from losing WWI. But no, they kept declaring war on more and more countries."

"Not all history makes for good game mechanics," King added. "Game mechanics require precision--1 or 0. Mechanics rely on logic--if A then B."

King cites an example of a historical event that offers no solid gameplay hook--the 1219 Battle of Lyndanisse, in which Denmark conquered Estonia, "bringing light of Jesus to people who were not quite ready for it." Legend has it that the Danes were spurred on to victory when a flag bearing the symbol of their nation magically fell from the sky.

How exactly would you make a strategy game out of that? "I can’t go to our programmers and tell them to make it so that IF flag falls from sky, THEN Denmark wins," said King.

King exhorts developers to ruthlessly set limits and tighten scope, and make hard decisions on what to include and what to leave out. "A game has a precise start date--your year zero--but a lot of history has gone on before that," he said. "History is a process; you can’t divide it up into nice precise eras. Ask ten historians 'What are the Middle Ages and when did they happen?' and you'll get ten different answers."

King talked his audience through several case studies of design dilemmas in specific Paradox games, like the way they were forced to drastically simplify Christianity and Islam in their game Crusader Kings 2 to avoid getting bogged down in schisms and the gradual evolution of the religions. "Trying to identify the breakage inside religions is like hitting a moving target inside of a moving target," he says.

He also describes a problem he wrestled with in Victoria II, a game about industrialization and imperialism that unfolds from 1836 to 1936. It's the question that began this article--what exactly did the United Kingdom and other "great powers" of the era get out of the colonization of Africa? What material benefit did they derive that you could build a compelling strategy game around?

"Those colonies didn’t pay," said King. "Smart players will realize this and they won’t colonize, and thus a smart AI won’t either. Which means that Africa will look rather empty on the game map."

How could the colonization of Africa be incentivized, and turned into a satisfying game mechanic? Paradox went looking for a historical interpretation or worldview that they could plug into Victoria II that would solve this dilemma.

"There is one man who can explain everything," said King, "and that man is Karl Marx."

The father of communism had a deterministic, mechanistic view of history that was perfectly suited to game mechanics. "It's all about the struggle for raw materials with him," King says. "Get goods for factories, then get people to buy your goods. That fits nicely with our game."

A slide from this portion of King's talk has been circulated widely online with no surrounding context. Many seem to assume that the talk was about how the games medium could best be leveraged to promulgate communism.

King was actually saying the exact opposite--he was exhorting designers of historical strategy games to ignore ideology, and borrow from whichever historical interpretation will help them to create a fun and engaging play experience. Marx was employed to solve a specific design problem in Victoria II, and make the game a more successful commercial product.

"Choose the historian that gives the most gameplay," King said. "It pays to shop around."

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