Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Computer Games and Crusading Birthright Kings

I don't play computer games all that much, other than those which allow you to vicariously murder your friends in interesting ways over beer and snacks. I do dabble in solo games, but my tastes in that particular hobby generally run to the obscure, arcane, and old. My main areas of interest are interactive fiction (particularly Inform 7) and roguelikes, which is pretty much the fringe of the fringe, I think, when it comes to the gaming industry. Europa Universalis II and the occasional nostalgic blast at Civilization II or III is as close as I get to the computer gaming mainstream.

Very occasionally, though, I hear about a game from somebody or other, get my hands on it, and it takes over my life for a few weeks. I'm in the middle of one of those periods right now: I only got three hours sleep last night because I was up until 4am at my computer desk, and it's all Crusader Kings' fault.

Crusader Kings comes from my favourite game company, a gang of Swedish megalomaniacs known as Paradox Entertainment. In common with all their games, its scope is incredible - real time strategy which models every single day between 1066 and 1453, in which the player takes on the role of a noble family in Europe (literally any noble family - be it William the Conqueror's, the Duke of Gwynedd's, the chief of the Lithuanians', or the Count of tiny Caithness') and tries to guide that family and its descendants to glory.

What I like about it are its role playing aspects. The thousands upon thousands of individuals generated at the start of play are all unique and many of them - the countless courtiers who attend on the noble families - are random each game. All the characters have sets of statistics and defining characteristics like 'tough soldier', 'naive puppetmaster', 'club-footed', 'leper', 'modest' or 'generous'. They have friends, rivals and bitter enemies. They are related to each other - spouses, parents and children, cousins, nieces, nephews, courtiers and lieges. They seem real.

Stop me if you've heard this before, because the game really plays and feels like I always thought the D&D campaign setting Birthright should have done. Computer roleplaying games are almost always terrible, in my opinion - linear and repetitive and in actual fact the very antithesis of what an rpg is. But Crusader Kings is the game I've found which has come closest to bucking this trend and which can be termed an actual electronic, solo role playing game - completely non-linear (because of the literally hundreds of options you have when choosing your starting noble, and the lack of scripted events) and without the shackles that, for example, those godawful Final Fantasy games have. (Your character will fall in love with that character. Your character will fight this big bad guy.) To illustrate: in my current game as Bohumund, Count of Chester (who has since died - I'm now continuing as his 14 year old son) I married off my 16 year old son to the 43 year old daughter of the Count of Shrewsbury in order to cement our relationship, and the next month tried to have the old swine assassinated so I could press a claim for inheritance. That failed and I had my ass handed to me (I believe this is the term the kids are using these days) by our mutual liege, the Duke of Norfolk, and his vassals. I've never encountered that sort of freedom in a computer game before.

It really makes me want to play Birthright. The problem with Birthright, though, was that you could never have enough people involved. Four players meant four domains, which is all very well - but what I always wanted was exactly what Crusader Kings provides - thousands of other players with which to interact. The problem with Crusader Kings, of course, is that you're dealing with an AI, which will always eventually succumb to human creativity and be beaten. What's needed really is a kind of gargantuan Birthright PBP game involving every single player under the sun. I doubt it could be done, although I suppose might be the place to start.


  1. Holy crap, that sounds amazing. I actually had an idea for a game like that a while back, so I'm glad someone who could actually, you know, program computers ran with it.

    My tastes and interests in computer games sound eerily similar to yours (Civ2 and EU2 are probably my all-time favorite games), so I guess I'll have to surrender the next month or so to playing Crusader Kings. Thanks. Thanks a lot. :P

  2. May I recommend a game called Darklands? It's an oldie (from the early 90's or so) produced by Microprose, and has some similar elements that you seem to like -- a nonlinear sandbox style game with the freedom to do whatever quests you wanted to do in a fictional 15th century Germany.

    It's abandonware nowadays, so if you do a search for it you'll be able to download it for free. You just have to use DOSbox or VDMSound to run it.

    - Matthew

  3. sirlarkins: Always good to see a fellow EUII fan. I've spent so many hours on that game down the years.

    Crusader Kings is similar, being made by the same company, but the role playing aspects are toned up while the micromanagement is (slightly) toned down. What's best about it is that you can transfer CK save files to EUII, and then the later games Victoria and Hearts of Iron II, meaning you can play the same country right through from 1066 to 1953.

    arcona: I actually think I may have played Darklands a long time ago. I'll dig it out. I have a few abandonware games on my PC (Settlers and Pirates: Gold being favourites) - what site do you use? I was visiting home of the underdogs for a while, but I got more mileage out of, I think.

  4. Shortly after the Birthright launched, there was an attempt to start just such a game on AOL. Unfortunately, the folks running the game quickly felt overwhelmed and the entire thing collapsed shortly afterwards. Which really sucked for me because I got exactly the character I wanted, in spite of the use of random rolls.

    - Brian

  5. Brian: Crusader Kings is what you're looking for!

  6. It sounds like the game has all the parts of Rome: Total War and Medieval 2 that I liked the most and of which I said "One branch of strategy games is turning into a new branch of roleplaying games" and people looked at me funny until I showed them this.

    That your little princes and generals would turn into endless lists of traits, the result of the chances you took and the choices you made for them, made them seem quite alive. And obviously, the people in the above-linked game were able to use what was implied by those tiny conditional stat bonuses and penalties to populate an entire world's fictional history with generations of people with character details worthy of Tolstoi.

    I think the aspect of Birthright which was a detailed building up of your nations numbers has been inherited by this class of digital strategy game. The word that was used before the concept was commonplace was "Gestalt." A "Gestalt" game was one where, instead of being presented with an artificial system (move your frog icon between the car-icons according to an invisible grid) you were presented with a situation with which you could do anything. The example that I remember from an article at the time (good grief, at least twelve years ago) was "Your father was the ruler of a small kingdom before being deposed. Now you've come of age. What do you do?", where the answer presumably is "Very little that I haven't already done in the latest Grand Theft Auto." Funny how the term has passed out of existence. Now we usually say "sandbox," which doesn't sound nearly pretentious enough. I'm going to start a "Bring back Gestalt" petition.

    Anyway, I think there's another aspect to Birthright's immense and mind-blowingly great idea of "let's play folks in their castle" (and I only think, because I never got to play Birthright back in the day, just read it, agape at its coolness), a dramatic engagement, an operatic rather than historic sense that comes from a kind of personal investment that might be better served by playing an analog fiction game (read as: 'Arrpeegee'). Playing with human-moderated rules seems like it would allow/encourage a more personal and intense focus...more Anna Karenina than War & Peace? It looks like John Wick's Houses of the Blooded is at least trying to be the heir of that half of the legacy of what Birthright's premise promised (while also, I think, trying to be what Vampire: The Masquerade's premise promised, but that may not be as much of a paradox as it seems).

  7. Is there a demo of Crusader Kings?

  8. is my abandonware site of choice.


  9. Nick: It seems like you're saying Birthright has to be either Anna Karenina or War & Peace. In fact it can be both - that's the superiority of role playing games over computer ones. Both the personal and the grand strategy elements can be modeled.

    Nathan: I don't think so. It was released in 2004 so if there was it's probably not widely available now.

    arcona: Yes, I've used that site too.

  10. I don't think I agree, for two reasons.

    First, it doesn't seem particularly controversial to say that with their ability to store and calculate large numbers, computers can simulate nations better than people, and with their ability to be alive and talking with you, people can simulate people (or at least, their living, breathing presence, their reality, character, drama and import) better than computers. So if you, particular person who plays games, prefer one kind of fun over the other, or even recognize that the two types are different and cannot be had at one and the same moment, then you have a choice of mediums, each with its advantages for a certain kind of fun.

    I understand you to be saying that the advantage of human-moderated games is that while both humans and computers can switch roles, running different "software," the software for humans can be written more easily and can even be switched or altered on the fly. But inasmuch as a given person or group prefers one focus of the game over the other, you'd prefer the perfect balance to be struck, rather than a large number of hypothetical balances to be available. Put another way: it doesn't help me that roleplaying games can satisfy both of those cravings, unless I am given a specific and actual game that does. Even if roleplaying games can be all things for all people, they can't be all things for all people at one and the same time. The group that prefers one aspect will change the rules to favor their preference, or ignore the rules that they're not interested in; at that point, the groups of different interests are in fact playing different games. I can imagine the continuous development and divergence of these hypothetical games resulting in things as apparently different Houses of the Blooded and Crusader Kings. In fact, I do imagine it. I think you're saying that the next step would be to play Crusader Kings with a large number of people simultaneously. I think there would be trade-offs inherent in that too, but I'm not 100% sure what they would be...I do think that coordinating everyone's disparate actions would be a strange trick. Like Will Wright says, you can't pause an online game.

  11. So if you, particular person who plays games, prefer one kind of fun over the other, or even recognize that the two types are different and cannot be had at one and the same moment, then you have a choice of mediums, each with its advantages for a certain kind of fun.

    Well, there's the rub, because I don't prefer one kind of fun over the other, or recognise that the two types are different and can't be had at one and the same moment!

    I agree that computers can probably simulate, for example, a nation's economy more quickly and accurately than a human can. But that doesn't mean it can simulate nations better than people can. A nation is run by people and so it behaves irrationally, unpredictably and intuitively. Those are qualities that a computer finds impossible to grasp or deal with (which is why computer AIs in games like Crusader Kings, Medieval: Total War II or Civ4 are childishly easy to defeat) and they can only be properly emulated by a human.

    A role playing game can simulate both the personal and the national in much more interesting and realistic ways than a computer game ever can. At most I'd say that a computer can be used as a tool to do necessary mathematical calculations, but that's all.

  12. Hmm. I admit I don't see it. I like adjusting numbers and adding swathes of new territory to my empire, but then I like reading Macbeth. I can even accept there might be a package of rules that lets me switch very rapidly between those two ways-of-doing whenever I felt like it, but it would have to be two separate systems, one for each type of interaction, with some third metasystem for negotiating their interplay and the player switching between them. I suppose a sufficiently advanced metasystem would adjust to the people who did prefer one or the other two systems, depending on their preference and mood at that moment, but the format of "Two Systems To Switch Between Under Certain Conditions" is still inevitable.

    I know that, at any given moment, I can either feel like playing a strategy game, or like watching a five-act play (or any number of other things, of course). Maybe I decide to watch a play, and I enjoy it for about half an hour, but then I start thinking about what you've said about Crusader Kings, and I can't get it out of my head. Now I decide I want to play it, so I push my way to the exit and get in the car to go home. But wait! Spotting a Denny's on the side of the road reminds me that I was going to eat dinner after the play, and for whatever reason, I salivate at the thought of a Grand Slam. I pull in, order, wait breathlessly for it to be brought out, then tear in. Picking my teeth and belching, I relax and start driving home, I start

    Of course, you can flip back and forth much faster than that. You could go from thinking about the play, to the game or the grand slam dozens of times a minute and back again, all while still in the theatre. I've certainly vacillated and ricocheted like that before. My point is only that, even when you think about more than one thing over a course of time, even when you think them very quickly, when they're sufficiently distinct goals like that (Right Brain, Left Brain, Caloric Intake), you are not thinking them at the same time, and you can't satisfy them at the same time.

    (Well, of course you could eat and do something else, but you'd still be thinking about eating when you're reaching for the food, picking it up, chewing, etc.)

    As far as computers and nations, I'm not sure what you mean. If a nation acts "irrationally," wouldn't that be against its own interests, and wouldn't that make it easier to beat? And if you feel that that any computer simulation of a nation is unconvincing because of its rationality (by which I assume you mean the predictability of the behavior of its controlling AI within given starting parameters), what makes a person more capable of convincing you?

    If I understand your criticism correctly, I think it's true of the AI routines of the specific software you mention, and even of most AI in strategy games. But just because they fail at it doesn't mean we can extrapolate all possible AI failing at it. In fact, I would certainly argue that, when set to "Intelligent," the AI in Galactic Civilizations 2 does a much more convincing job of simulating a star-faring species than I can (and a much better job of kicking ass at it). I don't even know if I could be better than it at simulating the diplomats the species sends to negotiate with the player.

    But it might be that I can tell stories better than it (though I'm not exactly sure what I mean by "better" here...more perceptive of what would entertain a larger variety of people and more adaptable to those preferences? Empathy, more simply?), and better than the vast majority of software we'll see in the next few years. I linked to the Let's Play Archive's story of a game of Total War in part to illustrate the connected-separation of imagination and computers: The story had to be produced by a person, not software, but it was mostly induced in that person by a software that was consciously designed to spark people's imaginations. So yeah, I think that computers can do that kind of thing, because they do.

    It seems as if we're in agreement that computers can provide "necessary calculations," but that we disagree on what those calculations could possibly include. I just assumed they could include anything that could be convincingly calculated, which would be everything from crop yields to tensions between religious movements to the effects of syphilis on the king's judgment to the migratory patterns of African swallows.

    The disconnect I was trying to suggest between Anna Karenina and War & Peace is that, in the latter, it's communicated to the reader that what happens between nations is not caused by anyone's "will", but is the result of uncontrolled forces and factors. It's deterministic, or even predestined: Napoleon does not choose for the French army to invade Russia, his genius does not create victory, and his distraction does not cause defeat. Rather, that's just what was going to happen, and what did happen, because this is what happened in the French army because this is what they were like because this is what France was like and what made some people join the army and so on and so forth, forever and ever, amen.. Tolstoy explains (rather dryly and pedantically) at the end that the more we know about the circumstances of a situation, the less we believe in free will. "This man stole bread...when he was hungry," that sort of thing. So the logical extension is that if we knew everything about a very complicated situation subject to all kinds of factors, like the "actions" of nations, we wouldn't mention free will ("irrationality"?) at any point.

    Whereas Karenina's scale means it is very much about people making various choices (or so it very much seems to them) and being dramatic about it.

    So, yeah. I don't believe its possible to experience a properly deterministic system that models history, like a strategy game, and a properly choice-and-sentiment-driven system that models a play, like a good rpg, at the same time.

    PS: In case you can't tell from how much I suddenly find myself having to say, your blog is super great. I'm really happy I found it, and I really enjoy reading it. Continue writing in it, please thankyou.

  13. Nick: Compliments and flattery are always welcome!

    What I meant about nations acting irrationally was that they are run by human beings, and human beings (much as we like to kid ourselves) are not rational. Take the recent war between Georgia and Russia as a very good example - what sheer lunacy possessed the Georgian leader to convince him that he could make a go of seizing South Ossetia? You don't poke bears with sticks, especially if you yourself are the size of a mouse. And yet he did it. We might compare this to the Japanese pre-emptive strike at Pearl Harbour or Hitler's many bizarre decisions during WWII. But this is also where we have the advantage, too, for irrationality is unpredictable, and AIs can't deal at all well with unpredictable things.

    Computers, on the other hand, are only generally capable of "if this, then this" reasoning - and this makes their behaviour highly predictable. There ARE difficult-to-beat strategy games out there, but their difficulty relies not on outwitting or out-strategising the human player. It relies somewhat on good resource management but, more often than not, on cheating. It is a rare game indeed in which the AI and human players are on a level playing field.

    The example you linked to is a case in point. The person who created that story took a small Scottish nobleman to world domination, simply due to his innate advantage of creative thinking and irrational, unpredictable behaviour.

    This makes human play innately superior, in my opinion. Of course, you're probably right that it would take two systems to make such a game work, but I'm not convinced that's a bad thing. Switching between the two would have to rely on the players knowing intuitively when it would be best to play the Risk-like grand strategy bit and when it would be best to go back down to the personal. But people can be trusted to be able to do that, I think.

  14. To highjack this slightly. Birthright (sans the computer game) is played quite often as an online play-by-post type game. I am indeed running one currently. Feel free to check it out if you like. Some realms are available. :)