What is it that makes a game meaningful? Must it say something about human nature? Are the workings of the world made clear by playing?
Or is does it have to come in the form of a heavily-stylized 2-D platformer with reality-altering mechanics and an ambiguous, metaphorical narrative?
It often seems like it’s the pixelated platformers or the pieces of interactive theater that get labeled as “serious.” These can be great, certainly, but I’ve found myself more affected by strategy games. While many of the most artistic games derive their power from the adaptation of the best of other media (visuals, sound, writing), a strategy game like Fate Of The World or Crusader Kings II can use transparent mechanics to create its meaning in a way that only video games can.
The most obvious example of a meaningful strategy game is Fate Of The World, thanks to its realistic near-future premise of fighting climate change, as well as its winning of awards at the Games For Change Festival. Climate change and its negative effects are countered by building infrastructure, keeping citizens happy, encouraging technological growth, banning negative behavior, and maintaining stability – all recognizable strategy game elements.
Fate Of The World uses its mechanics and core difficulty to achieve its emotional effect, instead of its presentation (which is somewhere between ‘neutral’ and ‘mildly ominous’). Success in any scenario save the tutorial is extraordinarily difficult, and it’s difficult in a way where the key issues—people resisting changes in lifestyle, or scientific answers leading to unintended consequences—seems depressingly plausible. Fate Of The World presents climate change as a system to be understood through its mechanics, and once you start to understand that system, you start to understand how dangerous it is, and how difficult it will be to change it.
However, as a game, Fate Of The World struggles to present its mechanics in a transparent or simple fashion. Predicting the implications of your actions is difficult, largely because the statistics the game publishes are complex to the point of meaninglessness. That isn’t the case with Crusader Kings II, a strategy game that I find as, or even more meaningful than Fate Of The World because it is so clear what’s happening within the game.
Crusader Kings II is a Paradox game, using the same real-time, grand strategy engine as their Europa Universalis and Victoria games. You control the head of a dynastic family, attempting to increase the family’s power, land, and prestige in the Middle Ages (from 1066-1453, to be precise). This is fairly conventional strategy game fare on the surface, but Crusader Kings II derives great power from its family-based mechanics.
By positioning the player as a lord or lady within the feudal system of Europe in the Middle Ages, the game shifts the focus from the normal national model of building an empire to a personal one, where increasing power is done for a character’s personal power, instead of the national good. What’s good for the player may not be good for the player’s country.
For example, if you’re playing a French duke, your goal is probably to become the king of France yourself. But unless you get amazingly lucky, this will lead to a civil war. Two separate mechanics, both transparent, mean that while this might be good for you in the short term, it’s bad for France in the long term. First, when you declare a civil war, you and all of your allies split away from your country. France’s neighbors, like England or the Holy Roman Empire, can and will take advantage of civil wars to try to bite off chunks of land. Second, Crusader Kings II has a set of laws for each kingdom, which include “Crown Authority.” Successful civil wars lower crown authority, making it easier for all the nobles of the realm to fight their petty wars, weakening the kingdom.
This is all good game design, balancing player decisions with advantages and disadvantages. What makes Crusader Kings II meaningful is it uses mechanics and decisions like this to examine human nature. Because it’s not just the player making these decisions, it’s every character in the game—and there are thousands of nobles in Europe. Nobles want to be barons, wives want to kill their husbands, counts want to assassinate their brothers to take their lands, dukes want to steal kingdoms, and empires scramble to remain stable.
Each character has a relationship with each other character, rated from -100 to 100. Each character has a set of clearly defined traits which help determine those relationships. If a duke possesses the “Gluttonous” trait (gained in childhood usually), everyone has a negative reaction to that. If a vassal possesses the “Ambitious” trait, he or she automatically has a 30-point dislike of his or her ruler. More than that, ambitious characters can develop and launch Plots, an in-game mechanic, that will accomplish goals like building a consensus to overthrow a ruler, which is more dangerous than a conventional civil war.
Naturally, you want to keep your vassals happy. In one situation, you may be a king with a powerful, ambitious younger brother. You have an open duchy, which you give to him. That usually will keep vassals happy for decades. But if you take ill and die, and power passes your young son, the brother loses all the loyalty gained from the gift of land, because it wasn’t the new you who gave him that land. More than that, characters with longevity get a relationship bonus with their vassals for a Long Reign—and new rulers have a negative.
You can buy off unhappy lords with gold or ceremonial titles, but those have limited uses compared to land: a grant of a title plus gold is worth 35 relationship points maximum, a county is worth 40 on its own, and duchies with vassals can be worth hundreds of points. This leaves you with difficult long-term choices: grant a second duchy to your ambitious uncle and he doubles his power, and may rebel anyway. Or you can wait for his rebellion and hope you can survive it.
This is where Crusader Kings II transcends its type: it models human behavior around power. First of all, it models historical behavior remarkably well—the scenario of the two ambitious brothers mirrors Richard III of England for one. Dynastic struggles of the medieval period make sense through the lens of the game. But Crusader Kings II’s game engine makes a broader claim about the nature of power and ambition.
In one game, over the course of two centuries, I had slowly expanded the power of a Duke in Russia to create a reasonably large Kingdom of Rus. The Mongol invasions were pressuring me from the east, but I had successfully stabilized the kingdom to the point where I could go toe-to-toe with the Mongols in a fair fight, one of my proudest achievements in Crusader Kings II. And when a weak king took power, four different nobles all decided to try to seize the kingdom in a civil war. I never had a chance.
The victor of the civil war had his crown authority lowered automatically, and then attempted to maintain his throne by relaxing other laws. In addition to the crown authority, there are also laws which govern what percentage of local armies and taxes can be accessed by the crown. Increasing these laws makes vassals dislike the king or queen, but decreasing them weakens the kingdom’s armies, both by clearly defined amounts. The gamble failed: the new king was threatened by another batch of civil wars, and Mongols invaded the take more and more of my once-proud kingdom.
“How could you be so short-sighted?” I demanded of the Russian nobles. “How could you be so petty as to put your own personal ambitions ahead of the good of the kingdom? The Mongols will have the whole thing conquered in a matter of years!” It was like watching Game Of Thrones and seeing the petty would-be kings ruining their kingdom despite the external threats, or watching Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and watching Rome collapse into civil war.
Here’s the thing that makes Crusader Kings II special: Even as I saw the nobles of Russia put their personal goals ahead of the realm’s needs, I was doing the same thing myself. I wanted my crown back. I was actively plotting to build the alliances would need to declare and win that civil war. My short-term ambition was my dominant motivator in the game. I wasn’t only unhappy with my rivals for ruining Russia. I was unhappy because they’d beaten me to it. Crusader Kings II had built a system that effectively simulated the power dynamics of medieval dynastic politics, and then forced me to engage with and learn just how destructive those systems could be.
Through creating systems of interlocking mechanics, strategy games can build meaning in a way that only games can. Fate Of The World’s difficulty makes the dangers of climate change possible to understand, as saddening as that may be. Crusader Kings II uses simple relationship mechanics to demonstrate the perils of ambition and compromises of hierarchical feudal society. They’ve both affected me, both intellectually and emotionally, more than any other game I’ve played recently, and they do it as games with remarkable systems and mechanics.
About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.