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Deriving Game Mechanics From History

We often design "historical" games as games first, and historical second. But is would game designs be more engaging for players if we start with the specifics of history?

Kevin Hassall, Blogger

June 10, 2022

6 Min Read

Teams often talk of making historical games, yet approach the game design starting, not from the historical period in question, but from assumptions about what game mechanics should be. What do we, as players as well as developers, expect a historical game to look like? What are our assumptions about history, and what conventions have we taken for granted from all the other games that we have played? If we are making a strategy game, for example, will it be more like a 4x or an RTS? And do we have an existing game engine which we are adapting, which comes with its own built-in assumptions?

Is this a problem? Put another way, is there an advantage to be had from starting a game design, not from our own assumptions or existing gaming conventions, but from the reality of the historical setting?

This was the question we started with when we began the indie project, Queen’s Rule. For this game (a simple mobile strategy game built with Unity) we took the notion of matrilineal medieval societies (in this case, looking at South East Asia in the early middle ages) and extracted a game mechanic from the society’s conventions.

Of course we still had to adopt certain gameplay conventions to make the game comprehensible, and boardgame fans will recognize unit movement and conflict from games like Britannia and History of the World. In other words, even when we “started from history” we were actually fusing history with established assumptions about what games should be like and what people will find accessible.

But the historical start did give us a very fresh set of mechanics. A “matrilineal” society is one in which inherence passes not through the male line (as we would expect if we have studied “patrilineal” settings, as in most of the European, Middle Eastern, Chinese or Japanese middle ages) but through the female line. Simplistically, Kings still wield power, but inheritance and authority come through Queens.

In Queen’s Rule this switch, and building game mechanics around it, completely changes the way that players view their characters/tokens in the game, creates an unexpected set of gameplay challenges, and leads players to plan new strategies. Swiftly, players come to see their King as a kind of strategic peace-maker; the physical location of the Queen on the map becomes a key consideration; and the Prince is an unreliable and almost disposable asset. Compare this with how one might approach a game based on the European high middle ages – where the King would probably be your strategic spearhead, the Queen would be at best an advisor or deputy, and the Prince would be a figure you develop and protect for the future.

Starting from a historical reality led directly to new set of strategic challenges for the player. We might also hope that the game expands the player’s world view of the real world and of history, broadening imaginative horizons. But at the very least it creates a fresh gameplay experience.

So, is this something that developers in general should do? Should we start with the setting, with the world, and derive mechanics from that? Rather than starting from mechanics and hanging the setting on those?

Firstly, it is clear that it is not necessary to create history-based mechanics in order to give an honest and engaging experience of a historical period. The Expeditions series, for example, uses abstract turn-based strategy mechanics to tell a story which respectfully engages with the historical period to create compelling settings and stories. So, other approaches are possible.

Secondly, there is something dangerously alluring about talking of “new” and “fresh” gameplay experiences. Many of us like to think that originality and innovation are great, so if we read that Queen’s Rule “creates a fresh gameplay experience” then we assume that that is a good thing. But is it? Tom Stoppard wrote in one of his plays,”the audience knows what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to accept.” If we offer something original and new, will the players really thank us?

Consider, as an example, the excellent Crusader Kings franchise. Its developers have spoken of it as a “historical culture simulator” but one might doubt whether their player-base would remain loyal if they really did build a culture simulator, throwing away the game’s conventions and reconsidering everything from a historical base. Many CK players are strategy fans, who expect the conventions of military-focused strategy games to be respected; many play CK as a kind of roleplaying soap-opera, and would not appreciate anything that interfered with their ability to invest in their characters; and the distinctive mechanics of Paradox games are now familiar to many players who might balk at having to learn a whole new set of conventions, quite aside from the cost of building new gameplay engines. With CK3, therefore, we have an example of an outstanding historical game which benefits, commercially and in terms of popularity, by respecting the conventions of strategy gaming and the desires of its players.

Thirdly, a focus on history assumes that players actually want history in games. The paragraphs above betray our assumptions, when we created Queen’s Rule, that showing players an unusual setting, getting away from our own narrow assumptions about what the world has been like historically, feeding players’ imaginations from a real-world starting point, respecting history and historical cultures… that these are all good things. They may be. We can take the moral high ground here and start talking about how as creators we have a duty to tell the truth… but the reality is that most players probably don’t care about any of these things, and focusing on these may not be commercially prudent.

Just consider the success of all of the games which claim to be “historical” while having little actual consideration for history or truth. The games which do seem respectful of our human past (the Expeditions series, CK3, Kingdom Come Deliverance, etc.) may be outliers. It is easy for someone making a little indie game – hoping that people enjoy it but ultimately not worrying too much about its commercial success – to take an idealistic approach. But if someone has a studio to maintain, dozens or hundreds of team-mates relying on them being able to pay salaries, investors wanting a return, then it might be sensible to say “history sounds fun, but we’re going to use it as window-dressing in a fantasy world; we’re going to reinforce assumptions, not offer fresh perspectives – because that is what players will pay us for.”

As we hit the end of “alpha” for Queen’s Rule, and step back to consider how we are now going to polish it before release, we’d like to think that it demonstrates the gameplay advantages of starting from real history, rather than just defaulting to our assumptions. But what is not clear is whether this history-focused approach is generally useful across all “historical” game developments.

We’d like to think that more developers could usefully take advantage this as a tool to craft more engaging games. But like any tool, it may not be appropriate for all projects.

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