[A note on the format: Our reviews usually have two parts. First, the site’s editor Andreas Kjeldsen will consider the game’s qualities in itself. Second, we turn to Marc Bloch’s analysis of the game’s historical content, this time in a conversation with the editor.]

Gentle reader, let me transport you back to the halcyon days of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. At that time there existed a German game developer by the name of Ascaron. The company developed a large number of games, but was perhaps best known for its historical business simulators The Patrician and Port Royale, as well as other games in the same genre that have since been mostly forgotten, such as The Hanse, Elizabeth and Vermeer.

Unfortunately, Ascaron went bankrupt in April 2009, mostly because of the cost of developing Sacred 2, but from its ashes arose Gaming Minds Studios under publisher Kalypso Media, dedicated to carrying on the flame of its ancestor. Unfortunately, however, something crucial was lost in the transition, because unlike Ascaron’s earlier games, GMS’s products have for the most part been rather workmanlike, uninspired, and mediocre: Patrician 4, Port Royale 3, and the particularly dire Rise of Venice.

HumbleBeginnings

Grand Ages: Medieval – the seed of an empire is sown…

Now then comes the economic strategy game Grand Ages: Medieval, Gaming Minds’ first attempt to break the mold of Ascaron-remakes. There was reason to be hopeful. And the game does have some good ideas. But ultimately, it is still, I am sorry to say, workmanlike, uninspired, and mediocre.

The game sets you in, allegedly (more on this later), Europe in the year 1050. You are the mayor of a small village in one of fourteen different regions, such as England, Germany or Asia Minor. From these humble beginnings, you must build manufactories to exploit natural resources, accumulate money through commerce, and expand your empire, whether by taking over nearby villages or founding new ones, until you ultimately become Emperor of All Europe.

"I wanted to see the Grand Prince of Kiev! Why am I talking to this minor official?"

Managing expectations: “I wanted to see the Grand Prince of Kiev! Why am I talking to this minor official?”

The basic building block of your empire-to-be is the village. Depending on the geography, each village has access to a number of natural resources such as coal, wheat, honey, or salt. These can either be sold to other villages directly, or they can be turned into more profitable manufactured goods such as cloth, tools, or delicious pastries, all of which must be unlocked through research.

The villages are supported by your trader units, of which you are limited to one per village you own. These travel back and forth between your villages and your neighbours, buying and selling and keeping your economic engine running. You can do these trade runs manually, but you will soon want to automate the process, creating trade routes that maximise your income and ensure a steady supply of the materials you need in your different villages.

Managing your production facilities and your traders is by far the most important part of the game, and it is a solid enough system. But the problem is that this is more or less all the game has to offer.

As your profits and treasury grow, so too you will want to grow your empire. One way of doing this is by founding new villages. I had the hardest time doing this at first, because it did not seem like the game was giving me any information about where to find the different raw materials I needed.

At one point, I wanted to settle a new village because I needed coal and iron to make tools. Off my little settler unit went to the mountains – where, I reasoned, such things would logically be found – whereupon I proceeded to search around for my iron and coal; but with little luck. One spot had coal, but no iron. Another had iron, but no coal. A third had neither. I saw no method in the madness.

After a while, I accidentally discovered that you can hold down the Alt key, which will change the map to show contextual information for your selected unit, such as resources and suggested village locations for settlers, or maximum range and supply line for military units. This is a fine system, and it solved my problem with my settlers, but the problem is that as far as I can tell, the game never actually informs you that you can do this, except in a tiny “Game Hint” that you might be lucky enough to get and might be lucky enough to notice. It is baffling that this crucial function is not better explained; or for that matter that it is not active all the time, because there is literally no point at which you do not need this information. This is somewhat symptomatic of the UI as a whole, which does give you a decent amount of information, but often makes it very hard to access this information.

The alternative to settling new villages is of course taking over the ones that already exist. This you can do either by besieging them or by means of an extremely bare-bones diplomacy system, which allows you to make various trade deals with neutral villages (as well as treaties with your opponents). If you trade with a village long enough and give the village chief enough money, eventually it will agree to join your empire. That is literally the extent of the diplomatic system. I do not feel that I am an unreasonable person. I do not expect a diplomacy system on the scale of, say, Europa Universalis IV or even Civilisation V. I would just like something a little more inspired than “give me money and I will like you”.

The diplomacy system in action: "Well, I would like to double my offer, but apparently I have to wait another 9 weeks before I can speak to you again."

The diplomacy system in action: “Well, I would like to double my offer, but apparently I have to wait another 9 weeks before I can speak to you again.”

Gentle reader, we must now turn from diplomacy to war: the time has come at last to discuss the combat. Good heavens, the combat.

Upon encountering an enemy force, your soldiers will – with commendable warlike vigour, it must be said – charge forward and engage until one side or the other is either destroyed or routed. These battles go on forever, or so it seems, as the little units run around and hammer away at each other for months on end without any resolution. In the meantime, you can go and build some roads or something. Hardly an exhilarating experience.

The actual combat mechanics are mysterious. Each unit has a ‘combat power’, which, whilst fighting, rises and falls according to algorithms that one can only assume resembles medieval alchemical formulae or precepts from Galenian medicine. The casual observer, nor indeed the player, has very little idea what is going on and equally little opportunity to influence the outcome, beyond adding more units into the fray.

Historical facts: Leopards were an infamous threat to merchants on the Ukrainian plains in the 11th century. (PS: This battle has been going on for at least two months.)

Historical fact: Leopards were an infamous threat to merchants on the Ukrainian plains in the 11th century. (PS: This battle has been going on for at least two months.)

The game’s explanation for this lack of control is that “as the ruler of a great empire”, you cannot spare the time to involve yourself in such matters directly. Not only does this sounds like the worst excuse since Henry II claimed he “didn’t really mean what he said about the turbulent priest”, it also rings more than a little hollow when all you have to your name is a couple of tiny villages.

There is a slight strategic element in that military units draw supplies from their nearest village, but as with other parts of the game, in practice this becomes more of an inconvenience than an actual challenge. The entire military aspect of the game feels half-finished and tacked-on.

This, in fact, is the sense I get from the game as a whole: It has a decent economic system, but everything else – politics, diplomacy, research, military – is either entirely absent or feels ill-considered and tacked on in the last minute.

This also means that there is very little sense of real progress in the game. Yes, you get more villages, and yes, you get research points to unlock new resources and new military units, but ultimately, you will still be doing exactly the same thing: Ensure your villages are well supplied. Build new manufactories where needed. Ensure your trade routes are running efficiently. Repeat ad nauseam. That’s all.

If you are the type of person who really enjoys tinkering with systems and maximising efficiency, you might find Grand Ages: Medieval worthwhile. Otherwise, you will most likely just find it dull and repetitive.

 

The Impoverished World of Grand Ages: Medieval

A Conversation with Marc Bloch

Marc_BlochAndreas Kjeldsen: Good morning, Monsieur Bloch.

Marc Bloch: Good morning, Monsieur Kjeldsen.

AK: Since this is our inaugural week, I thought a brief introduction of yourself and your accomplishments might be in order.

MB: If you feel it would be worthwhile.

AK: You are perhaps best known as the founder of the journal Annales d’Histoire Economique et Sociale

MB: Alongside Lucien Febvre.

AK: Of course. The journal represented, I think everyone would agree, a major breakthrough in historiographical thinking. It gave rise to the so-called Annales School and has inspired generations of historians since. Could you briefly tell us a bit about what shaped its approach?

MB: Certainly. The Annales d’Histoire arose out of a deep dissatisfaction with how historiography was practiced at the time – this was in 1929 – with its focus on narrow political subjects and individuals from the elites, the so-called ‘Great Man Theory’. We desired a history that considered all aspects of society in is widest sense: economics, culture, mentalities, and crucially one that did so comparatively without being confined by modern national borders.

AK: And you used this approach to good effect in your magnum opus La société féodale, which precisely broke with the earlier view of ‘feudalism’ as defined in purely legalistic terms and turned it into an entire socio-political system.

MB: I think it would not be immodest of me to say that it was indeed a breakthrough in many ways, but I would also point out my other major work [Les caractères originaux de] l’histoire rurale française, which, whilst perhaps less grand in scope than La société féodale, arguably does even more to illustrate the central Annales thesis, that economic history, social history, and the history of mentalities are all to an extent different perspectives on the same thing.

AK: This gives me a convenient segue into the subject of our discussion, since Grand Ages: Medieval is of course a game about medieval economics, but it seems like there is so much missing from it. What were your initial reactions to it, as an historian of the medieval world?

MB: Alienation, as well as a deep sense of irony in the fact that a game supposedly about economy and prosperity should be so impoverished in its depiction of medieval society. It is of course trivial to point out the many historical factual errors and inconsistencies in the game, such as when one approaches the location of grand Constantinople and sees nothing there but a barren field; when one is informed that Vlorë – one of most ancient cities in Albania, dating back to the Greek colonies of the 6th century BC – was founded by Normans in the 11th century, or that Emperor Constantine X was assassinated in 1050, when in fact he only began his reign in 1059 and died of old age some eight years later.

AK: Still, we must perhaps allow some artistic freedom in the way chronology is presented.

MB: Perhaps, and it is easy to lose oneself in a litany of petty complaints anyway. So let me take a step back and be clear: The world in Grand Ages: Medieval has nothing to do with the actual high medieval world. Nothing. The complex ties of social, political, and cultural bonds that characterised the Middle Ages, that indeed made them ‘medieval’, are all absent. The role of religion and the Church, the Holy Roman Empire, the diminishment of the feudal classes and the evolution of the territorial state, the vibrant culture and arts… one could go on forever.

AK: In many ways, it feels like a capitalist’s power dream…

MB: One could say that. It depicts a world in which everything is for sale, even loyalty and sovereignty, in which everything is subordinate to manufacturing and commerce.

AK: One gets the sense that it could have been set in any other place or time, and might in fact have been better for it: The American West, modern times, the far future…

MB: Quite so. The medieval setting is mere window dressing, it is staffage. Even the medieval economy, which is what the game pretends to simulate, was vastly different in reality.

AK: In what way more specifically?

MB: What the game does is simulate a network of micro-scale economies, your trade with your neighbouring villages. But the macro-scale factors which drove much of the actual medieval economy are simply not there.

Let me explain: Because resources are distributed strictly equally, they are not differentiated in quality, nor limited in quantity. Consider how, in actual history, Lübeck built its wealth and political power on its access to the rich salt deposits around Lüneburg, which it exported to cities all around the Baltic Sea. Likewise, furs, honey, and beeswax was exported from Russia, wine from southern France, silk from the Silk Road termini in the Levant, quality cloth from England, and so on. These differences in supply and demand were what took the numerous small local trade networks and shaped them into a true network of European macro-trade.

But nothing like that happen in this game. There, the cloth that one produces in, for instance, Bavaria or Croatia, is exactly the same as the cloth that one produces in England. Likewise, the salt that one is sure to find nearby regardless of one’s locale is of the same quality as everywhere else and in unlimited supply, so there is no need to import anything from Lübeck. This repeats itself throughout the system.

The famous Moscow Wine District.

The famous Moscow Wine District.

AK: I was particularly amused by the fact that you can grow wine in the mountains near Moscow.

MB: A case in point. More than anything, one is reminded of the idealised economic models of a Johann Heinrich von Thünen or a Walter Christaller, rather than of anything found in the real world. And then we have not even begun to touch on the absence of the great merchant houses, the banks, the annual trade fairs, the unique legal frameworks… the list goes on.

AK: So acknowledging these fundamental historical accuracies, are there any broader lessons that we can draw from

MB: I think there are – and in fact, if I may venture to suggest a sort of outline of a manifesto for this site…

AK: By all means.

MB: Its stated purpose it to evaluate games – products of popular culture – on whether or not they present an accurate image of the past. Grand Ages: Medieval clearly fails in this, and we have gone into some detail on how and why. But we must also consider how these things can be done right.

Had, for example, Grand Ages: Medieval been a more ‘historically accurate’ product if it had acknowledged that Vlorë had existed for a millennium and a half before the arrival of the Normans? Surely not. Recalling the Annales methods that we discussed in the beginning, one can get any number of details correct and still end up with a completely false image of the past if one’s fundamental approach is wrong.

That means that the objective should not  necessarily be accuracy in the details – even though on a certain level, any historical production of course amounts to an aggregate of correct details – but, broadly speaking, whether the product correctly conveys the sense, the mentalité of the time period that it aims to portray? Does it leave its consumer with a higher level of understanding of the historical period? In short, what we should be looking for here is verisimilitude rather than realism. This I think would be the most productive way forward.

AK: Thank you for your time, M. Bloch.

MB: My pleasure, M. Kjeldsen.

The Verdicts:

Andreas Kjeldsen
Grand Ages: Medieval is a game of extremely limited scope. It will appeal only to players who enjoy the core activity of min-maxing a large systems. Those players, however, will find a lot to satisfy them, but don’t expect the game to do anything else than that.

Marc Bloch
This game omits everything that constitutes the medieval experience and adds nothing in its place. Calling it ‘historical’ borders on the criminal.

 

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