Getting into Paradox grand strategy games
I’ve been enjoying games ever since watching in awe as my father was playing Wing Commander. I must have been 6 years old. Since then, I’d tried playing pretty much all genres games had to offer, both console and PC. But never had I played a grand strategy game until hearing of a little game called Victoria. The premise immediately intrigued me: take control of any nation that existed in the 18th century and lead it politically, militarily and economically. Everything was in there. You had to handle citizens within your country of differing ideology, you had to keep an eye on the price of copper, and be careful who you were declaring war on, since you might just start a chain reaction and begin a world war. Because other countries were their own entities playing the game, with their own goals, Victoria promised so much.
I lasted one evening.
The thing with games that are so outrageously ambitious as these grand strategy games by Paradox is that there inevitably are trade-offs. No, you probably won’t get to listen to the soothing voice of an esteemed actor like Leonard Nimoy as you start a new game, and no, you won’t fight epic battles were you can take control of 50000 soldiers assaulting a castle, with realistic physics and shiny graphics. And no no no, you won’t understand all the ins and outs of this game, which really is a simulation, in your first 20-30 hours of playing time. The time it takes to complete most AAA games is hardly enough to really get a grasp on Victoria. For me, it felt like the complexity was a bouncer, standing between me and the history nerd party I just knew I would have fun with if I could ever get past that bouncer.
Then some new and shiny game came out and I forgot all about Victoria. Fast forward 3 years.
I take a look around on Steam and there is Crusader King 2, for a measly $10. A Paradox Development Studios game. It rings a bell and I take a punt. Again, a long learning process awaits, but this time, I know where to look: not the bare-bones tutorial but YouTube! And so one spends several hours worth of watching a dude play the game, like a child watches their parent how to prepare a meal. Imitating the Let’s-Player, I become a count in Ireland and set upon my journey. Every time I’m lost, I check on YouTube, but also go on the Paradox forums and ask a question. Turns out that people there are friendly and also extremely knowledgeable about the not only the game, but history in general.
So you sit there, getting into all kinds of trouble with other lords. Once, I conspired to kill a duke, and so he left this earth in a manure explosion. Another time, while I was getting my ass handed to me by the other Irish counts, the older brother-in-law of my wife passed away, so my own heir suddenly became the King of Sicily. I only married that woman for her skill in stewardship. Taking then control over Sicily as a foreigner brought with it its own challenges, but it kept me engaged for days.
Having Crusader Kings 2 installed is like having the entirety of Europe in the middle ages on your hard drive, for you to play around in. And now with the release of Europa Universalis IV, I have the entire world of the renaissance to play with too.
What’s special about these games?
Well, you kind of have to bring something with you. A motivation to sit through some time watching others play a game that doesn’t offer much in terms of spectacle. You need to have some interest in history, maybe be a little bit fascinated with it. It also helps if you have a little fascination with world maps, because that’s what you’ll be looking at in these games for the majority of your time.
What I really came to appreciate about these games is that they’re confident to stand on their own as history simulators. They’re sole purpose isn’t to be played and beaten like, say, a game like StarCraft. If you don’t do anything, the game just keeps on going. The onus is on you to keep up with it. It’s systems driven gaming at its finest. I’ve always wished for games that are not primarily about telling some specific story, or pose some specific challenge for the player to overcome. Video games are an interactive medium, and interactivity is the whole point. You do something, and it will respond. Gaming is still in its childhood. We’re learning and exploring what interactivity can offer us. I wish that at some point, the whole concept of “content” in games to plow through becomes outdated. No longer do I want to wander through an Elder Scrolls game, beating quest after quest, “consuming” story bit after story bit that the designer made for me, however skillfully made it may be.
Nope. I want, and always wanted, a world that runs on its own, systems-driven. NPCs going through their daily lives, experiencing their own little dramas and stories, others being heroes and making a name for themselves without me every needing to interfere. An autonomous game space, that doesn’t need the player to define its existence is what I believe is the holy grail of gaming.
Paradox Grand Strategy games embody this principle. Sure, there aren’t as intricate stories generated in Crusader Kings 2 as something like the single player campaign of a StarCraft, for example, but those stories are mine, and they’re unique, never to be repeated in the same fashion. I also have to use my imagination a bit, much like when reading a novel, but in turn, these stories are then added to in my head, and they become as complex and interesting as I want them to. If you go to the forums and read some of the AAR’s you’ll see how far some players will take this experience.
More than made for fun
Another aspect that is just as wonderful, if not even more so than the emergent narratives, is the idea that games can be more than just things to occupy us in order to entertain us. When playing something like a Europa Universalis, the more you learn about the game’s systems, the more you understand the abstracted model of how a system worked in reality. In Europa Universalis’ case, that would be the political, social, economical and military machinations of the world in the renaissance. For example, in my recent game as France, I was waging war against England and Portugal and soon realized that I couldn’t keep my troops up because frankly, I didn’t have enough manpower. In no other strategy game I played did I have to worry about the raw manpower of my controlled faction. In Civilization V, if you have a warrior, that’s it. You have a warrior. But in EUIV, I literally didn’t have enough young men to put on uniforms and go to the front lines for me. Thousands of families were deprived of their sons, brothers and fathers so that I could take back Caux. My war exhaustion was rising and it had a number of effects on my nation’s performance. All these causes and effects made sense from a gameplay perspective, but they also represented what would logically have happened in reality. It made sense that with increased losses revolt risk of the people would increase too. At some point, people will not agree anymore to fight for your cause, even if they’re your own people.
So with games, it’s their unique ability to model some concept of real life and make it easily to understand causes and effects, because they can let players explore them in a safe environment. Games have huge untapped potential to be educational, without being mere digital text books.
A danger of this is of course, that the abstracted models can turn out unfaithful to reality and give us a false image of how a given principle really works. If EUIV had omitted the aggressive expansion penalty to the player’s diplomatic reputation, one could falsely be led to believe that aggressive expansion was a more viable way for a country to be successful. I admit, this isn’t a perfect example to illustrate my point, but you see it all the time in “lesser” games. In so many military shooters for example, you go and shoot the brown people without any moment to think and analyze if this campaign you’re embarking on is actually worth it. The game rewards you for shooting brown people in the head with letting you progress towards the next exciting encounter, progressively getting harder and harder with each mission. I hope there aren’t any people who play these games and let them skew their idea of what real war is like. A good piece on how torture is depicted in a simplifed way which can reinforce a false viewpoint can be found here: http://gamestudies.org/0802/articles/sample
I believe in the future, we’ll see more games exploring this space and probably there will be games that people will play specifically to learn and study an aspect of life and reality, alongside with reading textbooks and discussion with peers. Games can be an integral part of future education.