Spreadin’ the Colors: a Total alternative to campaign-style strategy gaming

In my most recent post I made some gripes about the Total War franchise’s inability to fix it’s woefully pedestrian diplomacy model. Frankly, it’s a tired complaint. One so repeated I have come to the earth-shattering conclusion that maybe Total War just isn’t the answer.

Don’t get me wrong, I will always love the franchise. What we have together is special. Those real-time battles are just plain sexy. But a long term relationship needs substance. Does a lifetime of mornings sitting around the breakfast table discussing that epic showdown from the night before that when you break it down was pretty much like every other epic showdown you’ve experienced sound like the recipe for a long and beautiful relationship? Don’t answer that.

Have you ever played Risk, the Game of Global Domination? Do you now? Do you still enjoy it? Would you like to go on enjoying it? If you answered yes to all these questions, and you are the sort of person who appreciates nuance, sophistication and complexity, then by all means, stop reading now.

The problem with being an all encompassing nerd is the insatiable desire for my nerdy interests to coincide. I’m a history buff. I’m also a gamer. So shouldn’t I be excited about any game set in a period I’ve read a great deal about? Aye. And a as a wise and mysterious masked man once said: “Get used to disappointment.”

I can’t play Risk anymore. The reason: Axis and Allies exists. Yeah, it’s awesome. Let’s face it… wouldn’t you find dating difficult after Scarlett Johansson dumped you?* Okay… well what about Risk: Lord of the Rings edition? Well then there’s The War of the Ring. The reality of our cruel world is every mainstream strategy game out there has a nerd-alicious alternative that’s just… well… more interesting.

So in this nerd’s analogy where Total War is the Risk standard of campaign map strategy games, let me introduce you to a couple titles by Paradox Development Studios sure to ruin you. “And he was the same again.”

Victoria II

Victoria II's map reads like... an actual map. Shifting boarders reflect a constant changing political landscape.
Victoria II’s map reads like… an actual map. Shifting boarders reflect a constant changing political landscape.

First off, you should know there are no real-time battles in either of these titles. That’s not what Paradox is after. These are strictly strategy games designed to give you the best of the campaign experience. Instead of a turn-based system, time is continuous, with adjustable speeds and the ability to pause.

Where Victoria II shines is in diplomacy and economic structure. The Grand Campaign begins in 1836 and runs one hundred years, and you can play as any nation on the world map. Listing them all is an almost impossible task, as new states are always cropping up via revolutions, liberations, and reinstations throughout the game. Various political structures, from absolute monarchies to republics, effect one’s autonomy over their nation, though the people’s will is often the loudest governing voice.

Nations are ranked in three areas: Prestige, Military, and Industrialization. The goal of the game is simple: to take your nation as high up the national rankings as possible while preserving your state’s autonomy. This is much easier said than done, as there are innumerable obstacles in your path, both from within and without your nation. A successful economy and infrastructure are vital, and being a colonial power helps a lot.

Your nation will be granted certain privileges based on their rank. For instance: ranking in the top 16 will designate you as a secondary power, granting you the ability to colonize. A top 8 ranking will designate you as a Great Power, enabling you to take lesser nations under your sphere of influence and conduct great wars.

There is a real balance of power too. Nations need to establish a Cassus Belli before going to war. A nation that manufactures too many war goals will become infamous, granting other nations the chance to cut them down to size. Alliances make and break you, and great wars are epic, exciting events that can take the better part of an afternoon if you’re not paying attention.

The mechanics that govern these diplomatic, economic, and political structures are simple and straightforward(not shrouded in frustrating mystery like Total War) but they are layered in a way that makes the game feel nuanced and authentic. What’s more, the A.I. is no dummy. Nations make (for the most part) intelligent, measured decisions in their best interest. (And this includes ending a 2 year war before total and complete annihilation.)

Crusader Kings II

What Victoria does for diplomacy, Crusader Kings does for politics. The magnificence of this game lies in its splendid recreation of feudal Europe. You choose not to play as a nation, but as a dynasty. This could mean playing as a nation, if the leader of your family is a monarch. But where’s the fun in that?

Start as a two-bit Barron in command of one county. Through politicking, favors, wars, and marriages, you can lie, cheat, steal, and sleep your way to the top. Family relations, loyalties, and religion play big roles in determining national allegiances. Even as king, your immediate control is still limited to your demesne, or counties you can directly control. You will still have to divide other counties among other vassals. Often your most powerful servant is also your most formidable problem child. You must be careful to divide their holdings to limit their ability to make a conciliated strike against you.

After a several hours playing as the Byzantines, you realize you have spent the better part of an afternoon essentially coloring a map purple. Something my 4 year old nephew and a crayon could have accomplished in about 5 minutes.
After a several hours playing as the Byzantines, you realize you have spent the better part of an afternoon essentially coloring a map purple. Something my 4 year old nephew and a crayon could have accomplished in about 5 minutes.

There are so many possible scenarios. In one game, I played as a lowly Irish lord in contest with an island full of wanna-be kings. Through a series of wars, and manufactured claims, I was able establish the Irish crown, unseat rivals and put loyal vassals in their place. In no time at all, I was allied with France invading England, and sending crusades off to the Holy Land. In another, I played as the waning Byzantines. After successfully fending off the Ottoman invasion, I reconquered Italy and the coastal Mediterranean in a nearly successful bid at recreating the Roman Empire. The possibilities are endless, and alternate histories abound.

I know what you’re thinking: why can’t I have the nuance of games like this with the sex appeal of Total War’s real-time battles? I just don’t know how realistic that is. Let’s face it: by the time a game’s released, they’re always a couple years behind the processors that run them… I just don’t think developers have that much time. But we can dream, can’t we? And until that fateful day when all we want in a campaign map strategy game comes wound up in one title, we’ll just have to content ourselves with playing the field.

*Yes, I did in fact compare Scarlett Johannson to a board game. The profundity of my nerddom knows no bounds.

One thought on “Spreadin’ the Colors: a Total alternative to campaign-style strategy gaming

  1. Brtanica says:

    My ex loved games like this but I could never get into them myself. I am not sure what it was but it seemed too time consuming for such little pay off. I get the idea behind it but if I am going to play a war style game, I would much rather play a fantasy one.

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