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The Holy Roman Empire confounds one who wants an easy narrative of Medieval history. To the west of Germany, the fifteenth century saw nation building and the assembly of the world empires that would dominate the globe, well, until today really. A potential monarch could lay claim to a title and, with the right combination of bribery, warfare, and politics, become God’s designated rule of an empire. The ending of the Hundred Years’ War saw the consolidation of England and France into unified empires and in Spain, the Moors were expelled and the kingdoms united.

But what about Germany?

There was still warfare, bribery, treachery, and politics; and history is still the story of the rise and fall of dynasties, but the the story seems so much more complicated. The electoral nature of Germany’s kingdom adds a layer upon Feudalism that resulted in one modern European nation that remained a confederation of independent states, almost until the start of the First World War.

Voltaire’s remark was made much later than the fifteenth century and the reign of Sigismund, but the observation was not unique to his time.

Speaking of quotations, the one posted early from Sigismund earns some further commentary. When I googled the phrase to make sure I had my Latin right, I encountered a number of possible translations for the famous phrase. The most common one, and as far as I can tell, the one accepted as definitive, is “I am King of the Romans and above Grammar.” It is written this way in Thomas Carlyle‘s History of Freidrich II of Prussia.

But in the internet age, where anyone can be a medieval scholar, the translations and interpretations of the phrase are many and varied. One of the more common mistranslations, for example, seems to mistake the origination of the phrase for a similar story involving Roman Emperor Tiberius, and assumes that “rex Romanus” is the Roman emperor. But among those variations, one stuck in my head. The translation read “I am King of the Romans and above Grammarians.” I haven’t taken a Latin class since 8th grade, but I don’t really see how you can get there from the actual Latin quotation (which was included with the translation, and matched Carlyle’s version verbatim). Further, given that the “source” material includes the phrase in both English and Latin, it is difficult to try to legitimately read a different meaning into the text.

However, a bit later I came across another telling of the same story, from a version nearly contemporary to Carlyle’s (1858). A book, The Science of Language, published in 1899 was created from from the lectures of Max Müller from 1861 and 1863. Müller tells the Tiberius story, “Caesar, thou canst give the Roman citizenship to men, but not to words” as well as a different version of the Sigismund one. In his version, the original mistake (with the Emperor calling to eradicate the Hussite heresy);

Videte Patres, ut eradicetis schismam Hussitarum.

and the correction;

Serenissime Rex, schisma est generis neutri.

are given in Latin. The remainder of the story is told in English. Sigismund asks the interrupting monk (apparently a Bohemian schoolmaster),

‘How do you know it?’

The old Bohemian schoolmaster replied, “Alexander Gallus says so.’

‘And who is Alexander Gallus?’ the emperor rejoined.

The monk replied, ‘He was a monk.’

‘Well,’ said the emperor, ‘and I am emperor of Rome; and my word, I trust, will be as good as the word of any monk.’

The story is generally told as one of hubris. The King who believes that, by decree, he can change the rules of language to match his own whim. The other lesson in the retelling is an example of the the modern understanding that the rules of language are driven by their usage, and not the other way around. That is, a dressing down of Grammar Nazis.

Müller‘s telling actually sounds a little more realistic than the “the rules of grammar don’t apply to kings” version of Carlyle. The king is not, necessarily, arguing the grammar but rather arguing the the standing of a mere monk, expert or not, to correct a king. In Müller‘s lecture, he goes on to suggest that Sigismund’s line was delivered for the laughs that it generated. In other words, his criticism, although directed at “Alexander Gallus,” was really for the lowly schoolteacher who thought he should interrupt a king.

For a man who was king for half a century (crowned King of Hungary in 1387), isn’t it ironic that perhaps his most memorable act was a grammar argument with a teacher?

…and it’s not even the real HRE

Set around this same place and time is the game Legends of Eisenwald, or at least sort of. Or maybe not. It is hard to nail down, exactly.

The game has the trappings of the 15th century Holy Roman Empire in terms of architecture, weapons, and armor. The location is a mix of real place names and made-up (but plausible) names in a anywhere-and-nowhere map of something that could be located in eastern part of Germany. Likewise the year of the game is left vague. Mentioned is the “fall of the Teutonic Knights” which could refer to either the Peace of Thorn (1411) or the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), or even something else entirely. Likewise, the personalities are fictional, depicting some minor nobles and knights within some obscure Duchy. A number of battles preceding the 1411 date are mentioned as a background for some of the characters, but the game narrative also makes a passing reference to the Battle of Brunkeburg (1471). While this potentially nails down the timeline to the the last quarter of the 15th century, it could also be a simple mistake (or even part of that real-place-names in made-up-locations).

Glancing through some of the developer blogs, the goal was to put effort into providing a historically-correct look and feel into the game. It is not, however, meant to be a simulation of history or of medieval combat. The developers, themselves, describe it as reality as the people of that time would have perceived reality. Thus, the blessing of priests and the healing of herbalists are truly effective in battle. Sorcerers and witches may channel the powers of evil or cause the dead to rise.

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The graphics are a nice, and believable, depiction of 15th century Germany.

The game is by no means breaking new ground. It borrows heavily from the fantasy strategy games of years past. It is a product of a small development team in Belarus and is their second game. Their first effort was called Discord Times and was released in 2004. They describe Legends of Eisenwald as both an evolution and a rethinking of that earlier game.

Reviews of the game almost always mention Heroes of Might and Magic as the comparison for this game. In part, that is because HOMM itself was originally to be a hybrid strategy game derived from an RPG and that role-playing focus is clearly a part of Legends. The comparison may also come from the fact that Discord Times looks very much like a Heroes 2 game.

To me, however, the first comparison for this game is Disciples (particularly Disciples 2). While the battle is a hex grid, and thus comparable to the later games of the HOMM series, functionally it is a lot closer to the Disciples model. While the figures, which unlike HOMM represent individual characters, can move around the battle map, movement is restricted. If there is an enemy in front of you, you are often required to attack that present threat rather than maneuver about the field. Likewise, it seems that, given two possible foes, you are required to deal with the more threatening (the guy with the ax or the spear) rather than the easy target (the archer or the healer). It is therefore similar to Disciples, which freezes the positions of all its units, but with a bit more tactical nuance.

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My fellas will quickly dispatch this group of bandits.

That includes additional complexities. The facing of the characters is meaningful when it comes to calculating damage. There is also a fatigue factor – the effect of a healer’s spell is dependent on the remaining “spiritual” strength of that healer. Ranged weapons’ effectiveness is dependent on the range. All of these complexities, however, seem mitigated by the tool tips that tell you how much damage each unit will do. A player can calculate each factor and craft the perfect strategy based on the units involved, or just hover-choose whatever looks like it will be effective. Those results, like Disciples, seem to be a fixed quantity. I don’t see the use of “die rolling” in this game. Variation seems to depend purely on the choices the player makes, rather than having him hope that “critical hit” will pull him through a sticky situation.

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The character and army management screens are very much like Disciples II, and then some.

The strategic level, also, has improved upon the good old days of Heroes III and Disciples II. I have not kept up on the state of the art, so I can’t say what is innovative in this particular game versus other twenty-teens offerings, but the state-of-the-art has certainly come along well. The strategic map is very attractive with nice 3D animated terrain, which can be displayed without bringing my aging computer to its knees. The “fog of war” concept has been greatly improved. Instead of blacking out areas of the map the player hasn’t been, the game uses a clever combination of the mini-map and main map. Anything the player doesn’t know is there will not show up on either map. Once something is spotted on the main map, you can see parts of it, but if you haven’t come close enough to identify it, it will still remain hidden on the mini-map. Getting close enough to identify it places the name on both the main and the mini-map. The mini-map also tracks moving characters and colors them according to disposition, but again only if you can see them. It probably sounds complicated as I describe it, but it has a very natural feel. I can enjoy the view of the 3D terrain and do occasionally have to hunt through it for hidden artifacts, but for the most part I can just watch for the approach of the little red icons on the mini-map and thus avoid being surprised by my enemies.

The game also cycles through day and night, and that transition can be important in terms of game play. The aforementioned line of sight changes depending on whether the sun is up. Also, certain enemies (and, perhaps, friends) only come out at night. The “clock” can be paused, so that time only passes while your character is executing an action, or it can be left on continuous, so that the hours while away as you stare at the screen. It does seem a bit strange that you never sleep. An occasional event aside, you have no down time. Day and night, you move about the map, fighting and conversing and then hitting up a church for some healing whenever you get worn down.

This is obviously not any kind of medieval battle simulator. In fact, even more so than its spiritual ancestors, the game functions as much or more as a role-playing game than as a “strategy” game. Taking your “army” into battle occupies much of your game time, but the questions of battle strategy and tactics don’t seem to be the main drivers in the game’s narrative. Instead, the key to advancing is the completing quests, usually involving more than just “defeat all the enemies.”

The marketing blurb calls the game “an adventure game with tactical battles, RPG and strategy elements.” The more I play it, the more I understand and appreciate that description. Despite the trappings of strategy and tactics, the purpose of the game is the story narrative. I’m not going to analyze how much the story branches – that is, if I chose not to ally with a particular character, could that dramatically change where the story goes? Or, do you simply get some minor side paths leading you back to the story’s main road? Gut feel says the latter because otherwise the player is going to miss out on the game’s content.

All in all, this is an unexpected, in more ways the one, addition to my game playing. It really combines tactics, history, graphics, and an engaging story to combine the familiar into something fresh and new.