A month or so ago I attempted to immerse myself in the drama of the Second Baron’s War through using a pair of games. The connection between Lords of the Realm and the historical conflict was more than a bit of a stretch, but Field of Glory gave me some grounding in reality. In going through this exercise, I had forgotten about another game dealing with that particular period.
Unfortunately, it is a game that turned out to be fairly forgettable. The Wikipedia entry for XIII Century is only 3 paragraphs, and one of those is a single sentence. Yet back when the game came out, this is not what I expected.
XIII Century: Death or Glory was obviously intended to compete with Medieval II: Total War, following the latter by less than a year. It sported a very similar “real time tactics” battle interface where historical and historically-themed battles could be fought out on a 3D battlefield. Like Total War, but unlike the typical real time strategy (RTS), the battles do not feature resource farming or the purchasing of new units. The order of battle is set before the fight begins and ends when the available troops from one side or the other rout from the field. Unlike Total War, however, that is all there is. XIII Century features no strategic layer.
XIII Century is a release from Russian producer 1C, which is know for it’s simulators (IL-2 Sturmovik) and strategy games which mix in simulator-style mechanics (see Theater of War 3: Korea or Men of War). With this series, they brought some of that expertise to medieval warfare.
Obviously, with the strategic layer gone, the competitive advantage for XIII Century was to lie in better strategic battles. Graphically, the game is certainly comparable to Total War. The terrain, in particular, seems to be of a higher fidelity in XIII Century. The interface is similar, and should look familiar to those who have played their World War II offerings (ToW).
I can vaguely remember the pre-release articles surrounding XIII Century. I recall thinking that it looked kind of promising. However, the price point and post-release reviews deterred me from picking it up, and I mostly forgot about it. Some years later, when Strategy First was on the rocks, they had a fire sale on some of their older titles and I finally picked it up. I played through the tutorial, but it didn’t really do it for me.
Strategy and Tactics
Much of the magic of Total War is tied in with the integration of the strategic and tactical layers. As strictly a RTS game, it did not (particularly at that time) rise to the top of the genre. While the lack of typical RTS mechanics such as base-building and unit-advancement grounded Total War more in reality, the combat mechanics leaned more toward RTS than medieval combat simulator. The major complaint from players interested in a wargame was with the speed of units and the rapidity of battle. There is also the scale of the Total War armies. I’ve talked about this with respect to Cold War battles, but there is a question of what you are abstracting when fighting a battle in a tactical, and particularly a “real-time tactical,” system. The answers are probably a little different for medieval warfare.
Particularly when a game has a multi-player component, the length of battles must be managed. Both Total War and XIII Century do have multiplayer support and, for this type of game, commercial success of the franchise often seems to hinge on the success of multiplayer. So the actual duration of a game should fall into the 15-30 minute range. The moniker “real time strategy” implies a 1:1 time scale but I’m not sure the actual simulated clock time is an important parameter in anyone’s mind. I think we would all assume that time is accelerated. Real battles did not allow for multiple contests during a lunch-break. So let us assume that the clock is both abstracted and compressed.
Secondly, the size of the armies is limited by a number of factors. First, as impressive 3D rendering of the soldiers and weapons is also a key factor in commercial success, the scope of the game is limited by the ability of the graphics and how many “figures” can be rendered on the screen. Even without that being a factor, there is the issue of management of all those figures, which are often modeled (at least in some form or another) as individual soldiers. This is both in terms of computer horsepower but also in terms of the player. The RTS genre features individual control over each unit (although grouping of units is common, if not necessary). Players of the hex-and-counter board game simulators will tolerate pushing hundreds of counters per turn but, in terms of an RTS, that just isn’t feasible. So we assume also that the size of the armies must be either scaled or abstracted.
In that discussion of 1950s tank action, I explained that there are a handful of ways to make a tactical battle (in those case limited to 45 minutes to an hour-or-so of real time) out of a historical clash. You could focus on a particular limited window, in both time and space, and model that tiny piece of the battle. You might also abstract the larger battle, where instead of 50 tanks you get five, and instead of fighting all day you stop after an hour. For medieval fights, I would expect to lean toward the second choice.
I don’t know if I’ve said it before, but one item I’ve always found interesting about Medieval II: Total War (and its predecessor) is that the scale is actually right for some of the smaller actions that took place during the time period. Contrast with Rome: Total War, where the battles of interest tend to involve tens of thousands on each side, often exceeding the 100,000 mark combined. In the Medieval period many of the major battles that we’ve looked at recently have less than 10,000 engaged on a side. It is not impossible to find a battle of interest where sides number on the order of 1,000. That numbers is well within the range that games like Total War and XIII Century can depict directly.
Once I even considered using Medieval: Total War (the original) integrated in some way with a Role Playing Game (RPG). Essentially one could make one or more of the units into “heroes” and then create a battle that tries to model the “fighting off the hordes” that is so typical of the movies, but completely outside of the parameters of computer RPG combat. I didn’t take it very far so, I only have the vaguest of memories of that exercise. It’s probably for the best.
All that said, even in during medieval times, the most interesting battles will tend toward the large side, whether they be historical reenactments or pivotal battles in a hypothetical war. For this period, scenarios covering small portions of the battle (think of how Scourge of War handles Civil War actions) don’t seem feasible, particularly given the tools at hand. Micromanaging the mounted units supporting the right wing of an army has less meaning when the record of what the entire army did is nearly non-existent. Furthermore, such a treatment (I would think) requires a fairly realistic modeling of combat, so that the results from a hour-or-so of fighting on one wing are realistic and meaningful in the larger context. The RTS template, where units engage fast-and-furious and the body count is extremely high is the opposite of what we need.
Likewise, RTS games aren’t designed to be historically accurate as an abstraction of a battle. In fact, most “realistic” treatments of ancient and medieval warfare start with miniatures rules as a basis. That means they are, from the get-go, an abstraction where each figure represents, say, 800 men. From that angle, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to say that the units in an RTS are just “stands” that represent some unit of the army actually much larger than the graphics would suggest. Unfortunately, the way RTS games play (again faster, more maneuverable, more deadly) does exactly the wrong thing. In a set of table top rules, behind everything you do has to be the understanding that that “man” is actually 800. When the game focuses on “finishing moves,” you know the developers aren’t thinking about implications of the abstractions. Furthermore, the “scale up” varies wildly with unit type. A unit representing the nobleman and his entourage of heavy horse is probably close to a 1:1 representation in Total War. Infantry are probably close to 10:1. See Pike and Shot where the units have huge (even an order of magnitude) differences between the manpower counts represented in each maneuver unit.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what exactly it takes to get modeling of a larger-sized medieval battle just right, but I know that the scaled-down representations in Total War (or, and I’ll get to it eventually, XIII Century) just don’t feel right to me.
So that brings us back to the integration of the strategic and tactical layers in Total War. Whatever issues you have with historical accuracy, scale, or balance fall to the background. The important of a battle’s outcome is reflected back in the strategic layer and that result drives the larger game forward. So what do you need if that connection is gone?
Devil in the Details
The climb of the Total War franchise featured a number of also-rans along the way. Takeda was released at the same time as Shogun: Total War. Strength and Honour offered an alternative to Rome: Total War. XIII Century followed the release of Medieval II. Without the strategic layer, it emphasized some different features to try to capture some of that market.
Instead of the free-form strategic level, XIII Century used a campaign format, where battles are presented in order according to a historical theme. The base game campaign was focused on Eastern Europe. The expansion added five-battle campaigns for England, France, Germany, Russian, and the Mongols. These campaigns are organized around a feature that can be very annoying for the casual player. All battles are locked until played (and won) in the order presented. In the fantasy genre, it is a way to both challenge the player (rewarding them for learning the game) and guide the story-telling aspect of the campaign. In a historical game, it is considerably less welcome.
I began playing in the English campaign which starts with the Battle of Evesham. Once I completed it (and I did), I probably would have wanted to move onto the Battle of Lewes, which is the last battle of the campaign. As such, getting there requires playing and winning the three intermediary battles. Note there is no “story” involved here; Lewes precedes Evesham historically. It is merely a matter of ranking the battles in terms of their difficulty. I did move on to the second battle, at Falkirk. I did not win, which leaves me stuck on that battle until I figure it out, at least if I want to continue on as the English.
XIII Century does try to improve upon the Total War experience at the tactical level. In addition to the graphics, which I mentioned above, it models some of the battle elements differently. Like the terrain graphics, the effect of the terrain seems to be raised in importance. Not that I tried to quantify the difference, but bad terrain seems to be much more important to the battles than in Total War. The games marketing material boasts higher fidelity in the modelling of combat, with each figure shown on the screen graphically being accounted for separately in combat. Whether that improves realism is a study unto itself. The interface is also different, matching that of Theatre of War. Again, I’m not sure whether it is an improvement or not. For someone only used to Total War, it is new functionality to be learned and, until one climbs that learning curve, it is hard to predict what one might prefer.
As for how the battle is represented, the scenario’s battlefield seems to be done at least as well as in the Field of Glory version. The hills and river look to be all placed correctly and, unlike Field of Glory (and Total War for that matter), bridges seem to be properly represented. In this scenario, the choice for the Abbey itself is to simply ignore it as not relevant to the battle. That’s aesthetically a superior choice to Field of Glory‘s ridges. Also a reasonable choice to prevent the AI from gravitating to an ahistorical house-to-house fight through the buildings surrounding the abbey.
Relative to the Field of Glory scenario, the player is restricted to taking the side of Prince Edward’s royalists. Also, the fight starts just a little bit earlier. The initial instructions suggest I send a portion of my army to block Montfort’s route of retreat across the bridge near the abbey. I do so, and then move my army forward.
The battle itself was fairly easy, and I won despite still trying to get a handle on the interface. Of course, given the structure of the campaigns, one would probably expect the opening battle of the sequence to be pretty winnable. The second battle, a depiction of Falkirk, is not so easy. As of this writing, I still haven’t cracked that nut.
The Falkirk battle does not have the same accuracy as Evesham when it comes to terrain. And of course in both battles, the armies are considerably smaller than in the actual engagement by about an order of magnitude. The terrain in the XIII Century scenario has the Scots defending a series of hills surrounded by swampland such that there is no direct approach for the English attackers. As my armies try to assault the the Scottish position by winding around to their rear, they are hit in the flanks by Scottish reserves – both the schiltrons and the Scottish horse. It’s a considerable departure from the Battle of Falkirk as I recognize it.
Stymied as I am with the campaign, I tried the random battle feature. As is typical, it is a points-based system. Points can buy you either more units or they can be used to upgrade the units, giving you a smaller but higher-quality mix in your army. You can build the armies manually or let the computer auto-select the composition. Maps can be chosen from those shipping with the game or can be auto-generated. I will say that auto-generating maps produces something much more like the Total War maps with, I would say, a less realistic-looking terrain.
In playing with the random battle function, I noticed something that I’ve yet to see in another game. When passing friendly units through the ranks of other friendly units, the stationary units actually move into columns to allow the advancing units to pass through. Once done, they reform into rank and file. Definitely a big plus, in my book.
I also notice that the battles, which presumably present the proverbial “level playing field,” are no pushovers. Given the typical AI, I would expect an easy victory unless I give the computer some kind of advantage. Yet, even with an even match-up in points, I managed to lose to the AI in the game captured in the previous screenshot. I think the AI was better able to take advantage of terrain than I was.
The existence of a decent auto-battle function might be the hook on which this game could hang its hat. However, what keeps it from being a genuinely effective portrayal of even smaller-sized battles (1000-2000 per side) is that it relies too much on RTS-style gameplay. The battles must be fought to the finish (or to a time limit) rather than having an army morale level. In this, I get the sense that XIII Century is even more so than Total War. In Total War, it seems not entirely uncommon for large chunks of the army to flee the field relatively intact. In fact, you can even force your own unit to break in an attempt to reduce losses. This leads to a choice for the victor “Do you want to continue” which, if you’re trying to maximize your strategic position, must always be selected as “Yes” so that you can slaughter as much of the retreating army as possible. Not that this is significantly more accurate, but I think that without the motivation to preserve an army in defeat, XIII Century rarely decides it should live to fight another day.
At the end of this day, I give some credit to XIII Century for the improvements it did make to the Total War formula. However, it is not enough to make up for the loss of “meaning” that a strategic layer would have provided. It is a bit sad to see what is, by most measures, a decent game all but forgotten, but the reasons aren’t that hard to understand.