As your guild gains more prestige, you will attract more patrons, as well as wealthier ones who demand larger and more difficult paintings, which in turn means you need to expand the guild with new apprentices and new rooms to keep up with demand.
As time goes by, artistic tastes and fashions also change—your patrons who were perfectly content with the sfumato style last year might demand unione or chiaroscuro the next. If you paint a painting in the correct style, you earn more money, but it requires you to make a strategic decision: Do you keep your artists working in the old style, or do you invest the time and opportunity costs required to retrain them in the new ones?
Overall, Painters Guild is a beautiful game with a very strong theme supported by a tight and focused design. The one caveat I do have is that it feels like your artists are working in somewhat of a vacuum, without much sense of a broader world happening around you. Occasionally you get small missives that report historical events, such as the death of Lorenzo di Medici or Columbus’s discovery of America. But these events do not appear to have any impact on the gameplay.
This also extends to your patrons, who order paintings of various difficulty levels and styles, but are otherwise more or less interchangeable. If they were actual people that you had to develop and manage relationships with, it would add some very welcome depth to the game.
Of course there is a balance to be kept here. On the one hand, keeping the scope of the game limited contributes much to the tight design that it has achieved. But on the other, the relative lack of content in the longer run means you tend to hit a plateau after a while, at which point there simply is not that much happening in the game any more.
So Painters Guild will probably not hold your attention for days at a time, but it is good for an hour’s entertainment here and there, and what is more, it is an absolute joy simply to experience. I strongly recommend it for that alone.
And now, as usual, we turn to Marc Bloch for the historical perspectives.
The proponents of the Romanticist movement of the 19th century are responsible for a great many sins. One of these, although by no means the worst, is the notion of the master artist as a single, lonesome individual working in majestic solitude with only his or her genius as companion.
Historically speaking, nothing could of course be further from the truth. Consider, if you will, the Sistine Chapel ceiling. “Michelanglo painted it,” people say to one another. Are we to think Buonarotti painted the entire ceiling by himself, building his own scaffolding, mixing his own plaster? Please.
Likewise, no painting from the Rembrandt workshop was painted from beginning to finish entirely by Rembrandt; many not at all. Assistants and pupils prepared the canvas, applied coatings and varnish, drew outlines, and participated in the artistic process to various degrees. In the final instance, any given Rembrandt painting may, for all we know, be a ‘true Rembrandt’ without the master painter himself having so much as laid a brush on it.
In short, master artists—in the Renaissance and both before and for a long time after—were craftsmen (as well as occasionally craftswomen), had workshops with journeymen and apprentices, and were usually organised in guilds like any other profession; guilds that existed in an intensely economic and political context.
This is the point made by Painters Guild, and it makes it well. It emphasises the essentially collective and commercial nature of pre-modern art, in which painters were required to collaborate extensively in order to meet the demands of the often fickle magnate patrons upon who they depended for their livelihood—and it does so with mechanics that reinforce the theme.
However, one point where Painters Guild does fall short is by abstracting away precisely the political context of Renaissance art. Creating art is always an inherently political act, and choosing the correct patron could make or break an artistic career. A simple example: A powerful gonfaloniere wants his portrait painted. Do you paint it, knowing that his faction could be out of power by the end of the year, his supporters shunned or exiled? Or do you refuse, perhaps antagonising an important local magnate. Considerations of scope aside, this is a point that Painters Guild could have looked closer at, instead of reducing the patrons to a steady stream of anonymous figures.
But as it stands, it is a well-researched little gem; and one that should cause you to look at the paintings in a different light the next time you visit an art museum.
A lovely game that suffers somewhat from limited scope and content, but makes up with it with strong design and delightful aesthetics. Highly recommended.
High marks for a game that examines the actual processes and context of creating Renaissance art. Many other so-called ‘historical games’ could learn much from this.]]>
Ubisoft has announced Far Cry Primal, which appears to be some sort of pre-historic mammoth-hunter simulator. First, there was a long and puzzling livestream, and then, at long last, there was a trailer as well. Games marketing is so weird these days.
(PS: There may be certain, let us call them “people”, who might argue that a game set in pre-history – by virtue of said “pre-“ – does not belong on a site about games set in (non-pre-) history. But listen: This site is not one to busy itself with minor matters of chronology.)
A newly launched Kickstarter, Antinomy is an open-world action-adventure set in a fictionalised Middle Eastern country inspired by the Holy Land in 1892. It looks promising, so consider taking a look. The Kickstarter runs until the end of November. (Disclaimer: Your news editor has backed this game himself. Always use your best judgement plus health scepticism when deciding whether or not to back a Kickstarter project.) [Kickstarter]
Europa Universalis III Complete has been released on GOG. It’s still a good game and worthy of purchase. However, do note that, because of reasons, the “Complete” package is not actually complete with all upgrades; in order to get the complete game, you need to buy the “Complete” package as well as the “Collection Upgrade” package, which together will give you the complete… Look, just wait until they put the Chronicles package up for sale. Because that one is the cactual complete game. [GOG]
There are now 38 days to the release of Templars Templars Everywhere Assassin’s Creed Syndicate!]]>
At first glance, the answer might seem obvious, even tautological: A game is historical if it reflects history. If the game is about the Battle of Gettysburg, it needs to happen on July 1–3, 1863, the Confederate Army should be commanded by Robert E. Lee, it should consist of these particular regiments, and so on.
But this is not satisfactory. Conforming to an arbitrary set of ‘historical facts’ (to the extent that such even exist!) is at the same time neither necessary nor sufficient for being ’historically accurate’. A game can get all sorts of individual historical facts right and still be ahistorical. And on the other hand, it can be entirely fictional with no obvious connection to the real world, yet contain elements that further our understanding of history. And the very nature of games – their interactivity – means that we can even use them to play around with historical processes in order to create counter-factual history.
Ultimately, the question is about the decisions that the player is asked to make. As game developer Ananda Gupta said in an episode of the brilliant Three Moves Ahead podcast earlier this year: “I feel the game is historically accurate if the players feel like they’re in the shoes of the people that the game designers are trying to put them in…” (12:11) and “…you need to be thinking about it in terms of the emotional resonance of the decisions and the situation that you’re trying to get the player to empathise with…”
We agree wholeheartedly with this. As we said in Wednesday’s review of Grand Ages: Medieval: “…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?”
At the same time, we also need to recognise that games make use of history in different ways. For instance, compare Civilization V with Europa Universalis IV. Both are strategy games with historical elements, but they differ in that Civilization V is an historically-themed game, whilst Europa Universalis IV plays in an outright historical setting.
In other words, Civilization V draws inspiration from history, but does not try to be in any way historically accurate – both George Washington and Mahatma Gandhi appear in the game, but of course Washington did not really live for 6000 years, and Gandhi was not a nuclear-weapons-using maniac, as he is usually portrayed in the Civilization series.
Europa Universalis IV, on the other hand, does attempt to be as historical as is possible within the framework and limits of the gameplay. The nations one plays in the game, as well as their rulers, events, and decisions, are for the most drawn from either actual history or credible counterfactuals, and a significant amount of research has gone into making them factual.
And then of course there are games that outright claim to be “historically accurate” such as many war games or the upcoming role-playing game Kingdom Come: Deliverance.
This means that we can identify three different ‘degrees’, as it were, of critique for these three different types of historical games, each with their different types of questions. For instance:
This is by no means an academically rigorous theory about historical games, and there are of course are many other possible approaches to them. But it is a useful framework for our work here, and one that will continue to evolve as we go forward.]]>
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Andreas 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.
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.
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.
This game omits everything that constitutes the medieval experience and adds nothing in its place. Calling it ‘historical’ borders on the criminal.
The site will be updated three times a week with a summary of the past week’s news about historical games on Mondays, a game review on Wednesdays, and a feature article, interview, or essay on Fridays.
We also have a Steam Curator list of the best of historical games, we are working on putting a GOGmix together, and if the stars align, we might bring you a YouTube channel sometime in the future. In the meantime, go ahead and follow us on Twitter at @BlochReviews for updates, and of course, read on after the fold for all the news from the past couple of weeks.
The top story from the last couple of weeks is the outrage over Playing History 2: Slave Trade, an educational game from Danish developer Serious Games Interactive, which has been roundly criticised for its frivolous and insensitive depiction of the subject.
You can watch Jim Sterling risk his sanity and possibly his immortal soul by playing it here:
Most of the anger has focused on the ‘Slave Tetris’ mini-game, which has since been removed from the game (Eurogamer, Ars Technica, TakePart).
But as Los Angeles Times’ Dexter Thomas argues, there are far more serious issues with the overall tone and context of the game than just one controversial minigame.
There is a lot to say about Slave Trade in terms of how games can and should be used to teach history, and you can be certain this site will take the subject up again sooner rather than later.
Firaxicon 2015 happened this past Saturday in Baltimore, and those of us who couldn’t be there in person can at least enjoy the VODs from the panels, courtesy of Gamespot. Don’t miss the retrospective conversation between Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley about the development of the early MicroProse games, such as Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Covert Action:
Or Dennis Shirk and Ed Beach on the development process of Civilization V and its expansions:
The much-anticipated – or at least much-hyped – economic strategy game Grand Ages: Medieval from Gaming Minds Studios was released on September 25th, and we will have a full review of it on Wednesday. (Spoiler: It’s not very good.) [Steam, GOG, GamersGate]
The superb alt-history interactive fiction/adventure/strategy game 80 Days, originally for iOS and Android, has now been released on PC and you owe yourself the pleasure of checking it out. Go on. You are worth it. [Steam, GOG]
Slitherine’s Heroes of Normandie, an adaption of the WWII-themed board game of the same name by Devil Pig, was released on October 1st. [Steam]
Cross of the Dutchman from indie developer Triangle Studios is an action-adventure game inspired by the life of the semi-legendary 16th century Frisian rebel Piers Gerlofs Donia. [Steam]
Perhaps not exactly ‘recent’ anymore, but Anno 1503, Anno 1602 and Anno 1701 were released on GOG a few months ago, and they are classic games, worthy of your attention and possibly even your money.
There are now 45 days to the release of Angry Guy Simulator Assassin’s Creed Syndicate! (Yes, on PC. “Console”? What’s that?)
Curious Expedition, the Stanley-and-Livingstone-meets-H.-P.-Lovecraft-meets-giant-freaking-dinosaurs 19th century exploration game from German indie developer Maschinen-Mensch, is now in Alpha 18. If you don’t mind the Early Access, it is as good a time as any to check it out, but if you would rather wait for the full release, it is slated for the end of the year. [Steam]
Things have been a bit quiet at Paradox recently, especially with the announcement of Stellaris as their major new title – which, as a science fiction game, we unfortunately won’t cover here – but they have revealed some new features from the upcoming expansion and patch 1.14 for Europa Universalis IV, including both some (probably much-needed) love for the steppe hordes and new mechanics for simulating political estates.
The latter seem particularly interesting, as they add three or more factions to your country, such as clergy, nobility, and burghers, or country-specific ones such as Cossacks or Dhimmi. These factions can give significant bonuses if they are kept loyal, but can also cause no end of trouble if they grow too powerful. This system seems like it could add a lot to the game, although it remains to be seen how it will be integrated with the already existing systems, something that Paradox has perhaps not always managed to do all that well.
If you like large 18th century wooden ships (and cannot lie) you might want to take a look at Hearts of Oak, an open-world Age of Sail ship simulation game currently in development by the modding community PiratesAhoy! Although still in the early stages of development, they have recently released a new tech demo. PiratesAhoy! are also looking for both testers and new contributors for the project team, should you feel so inclined.
That was all the news for this week! Thanks for reading, and if you like what you see, you can help us out a lot by liking or sharing the site, or by leaving a comment. As a very new site, we are extremely dependent on people helping us out with spreading the word!
Hope to see you back on Wednesday for our first review of Grand Ages: Medieval, and you can subscribe to us on Twitter for a reminder: @BlochReviews.]]>