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The English National Character

January 12th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 38 Comments · Design, Feature:Nations, History

What this is about, including full list.

It’s a hoary old cliche, but one worth repeating. A tiny island of the northern coast of Europe was once master of the world. As a Canadian living in America, the legacy of England and the United Kingdom looms large in my life, from approaches and attitudes to law, politics, civility, beer, language and art.

For a long lived empire that stretches into the very recent past, England is relatively easy to typecast. It was a nation whose size and isolation from the European continent meant that it, like ancient Athens, would build an empire via the wooden walls of her ships. Once England established her naval dominance at the Battle of the Armada in 1588, the Royal Navy would be the first line of defense against invaders and the vanguard of any international incursion. The navy protected the East India Company, deterred Napoleon, made the Crimean War possible and retook the Falkland Islands a hemisphere away long after anyone took the Royal Navy seriously.

In some ways this makes England unique for game designers. How many other nations can be so easily pigeonholed with a strategy as a characteristic? Other nations are more easily identified with attributes or units or structures, but England gives you a strategy you have to emulate, a strategy born out of her unique geographic situation that defined a nation for centuries.

It is a strategy, however, that proves to be problematic for game designers. Strategy games suck at anything naval. Yes, wargames that are explicitly naval can work but once you try to translate control of the sea lanes to a larger grand strategy, then game designers are at sea.


Look at the Civilization series. Civ 3 gave the English a powerful ship as their unique unit, but the wars were always won on land so the unique unit was pretty useless. Civ 4 gave the English a unique rifleman, but only us Yanks really see the British redcoat as something imposing and special. Civ 5 gives the English a longbowman (very useful and historical) and a ship that cruises mostly empty seas because the AI can’t use boats well.

So, the factor that made England’s empire possible ends up being unimpressive because strategy game designers cannot make the sea and land work together the way they often have historically. I’ve discussed a lot of the reasons for this before. If your game doesn’t have a good trade model, then using a navy to cut off your opponent’s finances doesn’t make sense. If your game doesn’t have an AI that values the sea then you don’t really need to center your national power around a strong navy since one is never needed. Sea warfare is less interesting than land warfare because you don’t have terrain or forced marches or encirclements. England is a nation with a clear national character that has proven resistant to good game translation.

There are always other things to grab onto. Colonization, which captures the English American experience, gave England bonuses to colonial emigration to mirror the settler colony idea that took hold in England more deeply than it had in other countries. Age of Empires III did something similar by giving England a free citizen with every new house, leading to rapid population growth. You can have longbows and maybe some bonus to represent the power of trade without the navy. But they don’t speak to the English strategy or English history in the same way. Trafalgar casts a long shadow.


Ironically, the most British strategy that finds its way into strategy gaming isn’t one that we’ve come to see as quintessentially Anglo. Some time in the 18th century, English diplomats got it into their heads that England’s role on the continent was to be a balance against any rising hegemonic power in Europe. The fact that England’s empire itself proved to be unbalancing on a world scale was irrelevant since England’s security rested keeping no one in Europe strong enough to cross the Channel.

We’ve come to believe that “balance of power” is a natural and ironclad rule of history, partly because historians and political scientists keep looking at Europe between 1648 and 1945 and finding rules that they think apply to everything. England’s conscious terminology of keeping a finger on the scales to keep everything safe for England can’t blind us to the fact that nations bandwagon as often as the balance, people bet on the winning side to protect themselves and sometimes you will side with a nation or against them because how you feel about them, regardless of their strength. The line that nations have no friends, only interests, stands in the face of millennia of nations acting as human as their leaders do.

In a game, though, balance of power is what keeps the mid and end game challenging. Though we like to complain when the AI just gangs up on you for no reason, we’ve been trained to accept that the mere fact we are getting larger and more powerful is a good reason for betrayal. The AI is trying to win, we tell ourselves.

It is good game design, sure. You want something to put a brake on players who are running away with it, and somehow penalize exploits that lead to a human breaking the system in dramatic ways. But it’s amazing how many strategy game players convince themselves that it is good history. It is rarely clear who the aspirant to hegemony was, and in a classic essay on the origins of World War I, Joachim Remak notes that it was Britain that almost always ended up with a concession after an international crisis, not Germany or Russia.

Peel and Castlereagh and Churchill live on in strategy games because their cynical game of divide and rule worked to keep England free, and a damn fine thing they did. I doubt anything in England would be much better if it was German.

Maybe Top Gear.

The balance of power mechanic has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even see it as English even though that’s where the term comes from and even though balancing was national policy there more than anywhere else. In historical strategy games, everyone will balance. So England is left as the great imperial nation that never quite feels on the verge of greatness. Even when game designers know what to do with it (the first Europa Universalis, for example, gave the English cheaper ships) it never quite works out.

Their continental rivals pose other problems. Next up, the French.


38 Comments so far ↓

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  • Paul Montesanti

    Pun alert!

    Excellent stuff. I’ve enjoyed this series (so far! Don’t let me down with the Roman national character, which I anticipate greatly).

  • CFKane

    I have really enjoyed this series so far. I am always saddened that the naval power of the English has been difficult to implement in strategy games. Perhaps someone needs to design a game that focuses on off-shore balancing as a concept? If you made the player play England, you may be able to circumvent some of the AI problems.

    I’m thinking of something akin to Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War from Matrix games.

    I wish I had time to learn to program, design, etc…

  • Mauricio

    One thing I was surprised to learn from this is that Age of Empires 3 apparently includes capybaras, and you can slaughter them for food.

    When you are done with this series, you need to put them together in a book and publish it.

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  • frags

    England doesn’t fit in well in games that have other nations due to the geography and the challenge of coding a good naval AI. But make a game about England and you sidestep a lot of these problems. Which is why I think medieval England is way more easier to be turned into a game than say 17th century GB.

    Didn’t someone(was it Rob?) say something about Medieval Total War Viking Invasion on the podcast? Yeah it was awesome.

  • Tom Grant

    I wonder, Troy, if the lack of good naval warfare isn’t just the result of threadbare naval mechanics. In games like Civilization, Age of Empires, and (to a lesser extent) Europa Universalis, oceans are just big empty blobs. Naval “squadrons” or “fleets” are just big piles of ships, with no sense of how they fight. Naval leaders give bonuses in naval combat, but that’s about all they do.

    Lacking any further detail about maritime geography, the organization of fleets, or command, the naval game will always be pretty threadbare. While I agree that a stronger trade component might improve things, I wonder if it would make that much of a difference. Operationally, you wouldn’t get anything that feels like the most interesting episodes of naval warfare, such as the cat-and-mouse game between Nelson and Villaneuve. You certainly wouldn’t get the tactical-level exploits of a Cochrane, but of course, that’s not likely in a strategic-level game anyway.

    And here’s another reason to beat up on Empire: Total War. The naval game was all sizzle and no steak. Pretty to look at, but I’d just as soon that they spent their time making the rest of the game more solid than tacking on a blah naval component.

  • Troy

    The big difference between modeling land and sea warfare is that land combat is clearly about control of a space. You move and occupy territory, and the connection between a battle on land and the control of the land is immediately obvious.

    For sea warfare, it isn’t immediately clear. What are naval battles for? Control of the seas, which is fine, but why? You don’t own the seas or occupy them. Historically it is about protecting trade routes, the ability to reinforce imperial armies that far away without peril, and sometimes in the modern era to support land operations.

    If you don’t have any of this, then you will always fail to capture what makes the naval game important. Remember that many games never have an AI that understands why moving troops over the seas matters (Empire: Total War in large part, EU 2 before patches, Civ 5) so the sea becomes boring.

    But if you can’t make a sea powered empire interesting or viable, then you cannot capture what makes Britain and England possible.

  • Ginger Yellow

    I actually think Empire’s AI flaws made the British play much more like the real British (of the era) than most other strategy games. Because the AI couldn’t do naval invasions, the best way to play was to pretty much ignore continental Europe and seek your fortune across the ocean, dominating trade and colonising the New World. Kind of like Portugal in EU3. The sheen kind of wore off though once you realised that the reason people weren’t threatening Blighty at home wasn’t because they were scared of your navy but because they couldn’t board ships.

  • Felix

    Civ Rev has the concept of naval support, where ships add their attack/defence strength to that of an an adjacent land army. England gets double naval support — providing a very handy bonus to land units and keeping naval units strategically relevant even if the AI isn’t using boats.

    Also, England gets unique longbowmen units, which were as good as pikemen, but cheaper to build, and extra production from hills (a hat tip to the industrial revolution perhaps).

    All up, these bonuses were good ways of making naval strength relevant to land wars and recognising some of England’s other historical strengths.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Very interesting point about the balance of power.

    I loved playing as Britain in Empire: Total War (note – this was with the final patch plus DarthMod) in large part due to the naval game. Every strategy designer should study how Empire emphasises maritime trade and seapower:

    – First, the trade routes are clearly delineated lines on the map, so anyone can cut them off at any point, but conversely, all the defender has to do is move back and forth along the line to catch the blockade fleet (it wouldn’t work if the blockader had to interdict every port on the other guy’s coastline).
    – Second, while you could get a certain amount of $$$ just from the trade routes, players who really wanted to emphasise seapower (again, like GB) could make that pay for itself by building trade ships and parking them in designated, far-flung trading ports, where they’d generate additional cash.
    – And trade of either sort was vital in order to bring in enough money to pay the bills.

    Ginger Yellow, did you have the chance to play the game after AI naval invasions had been “patched in”?

  • Ginger Yellow

    Yes, but I haven’t tried a British game since then.

  • D506

    I think a big problem in making sea power relevant to these types of strategy games is that we generally don’t differentiate between the types of costs involved in a navy and the types of cost in a army. Generally, you pay gold + production time for both, and any nation which can build a dominating navy can also build a dominating army – with considerably more dramatic results. Why would I ever build a navy sufficient to secure my costs when the same investment in the army would give me the striking power to annex the threatening power – dramatically increasing my own strength.

    In a real world context, England could build a navy powerful enough to secure the channel against all of Europe – but it could never have fielded an army that large, let alone large enough to put boots in France, Spain, etc. Further, the diplomatic and social aspects of the time meant the idea of simply annexing a threatening neighbor (and adding a large portion of their ‘power’ to yours) was simply ridiculous.

  • P. Edant

    England is an island? Really? Have you even looked at a map, ever?

  • Chris

    Great post. I’m rather interested in British history, so I was anxiously waiting for this one! (Also planning to see The King’s Speech tonight, go figure.)

    One game I fondly remember is Age of Empires II, where IIRC the English got longbowmen as a unique unit out of their castles and they utterly kicked ass. As in, they dealt so much more damage than regular archers that they could operate unsupported (unrealistic, I know).

    On the Redcoats point, I would argue that surely people other than Americans are familiar with The Thin Red Line, but since I’m an American (and a bit of an anglophile to boot) I guess I don’t actually know that.

    And of course, very good point about the balance of power.

  • D506

    @P. Edant

    Really impressed with your ability to read such a long post and then, rather than find any contribution to make at all, instead make a comment so utterly obvious, pointless and pedantic that all I can do is blink in amazement. Well done, really.

  • Chris

    D506; Disagree. His/her username makes it funny. If still immature.

  • D506

    Alright, I laughed a bit after you pointed that out… completely missed it.

  • P. Edant

    @D506 – do you think the Scots and Welsh* find it pointless to point out that, as a matter of indisputable fact, England is not an island?

    Having read the previous articles in this series and seen the standard they set, I was looking forward to the author’s take on England. “At least it won’t be full of the usual Britain/England inconsistencies,” I thought. Wrongly, as it turned out.

    The article uses England and Britain so interchangeably that it is clear the author hasn’t the faintest idea of which is which. Or, worse, he does know the difference and chose to write this garbled, confused article anyway.

    *the Scots and Welsh: inhabitants of the other two countries that make up the island of Great Britain along with England. England is not, never has been, and never will be an island.

  • Ginger Yellow

    In a real world context, England could build a navy powerful enough to secure the channel against all of Europe – but it could never have fielded an army that large, let alone large enough to put boots in France, Spain, etc. Further, the diplomatic and social aspects of the time meant the idea of simply annexing a threatening neighbor (and adding a large portion of their ‘power’ to yours) was simply ridiculous.

    EU3 models both of these fairly well, no? Manpower constraints mean a small nation can’t raise a huge army, while the restrictions on and badboy/stability consequences of annexation make a Civ style rampage across the map impractical.

  • FhnuZoag

    @P. Edant:

    I’m sure the author knows which is which. The issue is that the nation we now know as Great Britain went through a number of iterations over its history. For a time it was England, other times it was England and Wales, other times it was England and Wales and Scotland. Ireland, too, and perhaps the colonies in America as well. Using England, and UK, and Britain now and then is not a remark on today’s politics, but an attempt to refer to a nation across history.

    I’d be similarly fine to see someone refer to Germany, and Prussia, and the Holy Roman Empire, in one article.

  • Bonedancer

    “In a real world context, England could build a navy powerful enough to secure the channel against all of Europe – but it could never have fielded an army that large, let alone large enough to put boots in France, Spain, etc.”

    Well, it did field an army large enough to put boots in Spain, and Portugal, and eventually France.


    Did you mean that Britain couldn’t have fielded an army large enough to fight the whole of Europe at once? Seems like kind of a truism.

  • Rusty

    The Peninsular War perfectly illustrates the point; the largest army ever fielded by the British was less than half of the size of the 1812 Grand Armée, and perhaps a quarter of peak total French army strength. EU3 models this terrifically well: naval emphasis leads to a tiny manpower pool and consequent heavy reliance on mercenaries and (subsidised) allies in time of war, but great strategic flexibility (and trade income) is brought by sea lane control.

    [i]Do you think the Scots and Welsh find it pointless to point out that, as a matter of indisputable fact, England is not an island?[/i]

    The article is about the ‘national characteristic’ (and we are assuming they exist) of the English empire; and the English empire was (and, indeed, still is) based on an island. In this context, it is perfectly reasonable to treat England and the UK as a continuous entity. Thus, longbowmen may be English, redcoats may be British, and both may shoot down the French, in service of the same imperial cause.

  • Morval

    The only game I have ever played that did a decent job of demonstrating the importance of control of the seas is Imperialism. If you did not have a strong navy, your merchant ships and goods could be sunk or even captured.

    At least until the colony got annex into your empire; then the goods are magically transported into your capital. Just one the reasons an otherwise great game fell apart in the endgame.

  • Cian

    If we’re taking national determinism this far then Longbowmen would be Welsh, surely? For that very reason, the English/British confusion doesn’t bother me so much, but the excuses that have been produced for it here are seriously inadequate. At no time has Britain=England except in the shorthand of foreign powers and game designers. And I think that’s pretty much it, (as was alluded to), when we play a nation who get Holy Roman Landsknecht alongside Panzer IIIs (“Germany” in Rise of Nations) we are fully aware of the inadequacies of games shorthand to represent historical or political development. My point is, let’s keep seriously considering and discussing how games portray history and politics, (which this series does excellently), but let’s not mistake those neat portrayals for an acceptable conclusion to the questions of identity and history that these representations inevitably produce.

  • Shaun

    Oh wow. I can’t wait for the article on the French. XD

  • Rusty

    Except that the classic warbow is an English development, albeit one inspired by being shot by Welsh archers using smaller bows. Whose descendants were later conscripted and equipped with longbows by the English. For whom they then went and shot people. Which was nice of them.

    The historical equivalence between English and British is far more than simple shorthand or game designer laziness. It is a widespread and longstanding assumption; global awareness of the existence of Wales is something I would wager serious money on being in the single-digit percentiles. Hell, Eurostat’s 2004 Yearbook was fronted by a map of the EU which didn’t include Wales. No-one noticed till it was published.

    And England = Britain is also a reasonably accurate representation of the historic power dynamic within the Union. The Acts of 1706-7 were a hostile takeover of a bankrupt Scotland; ‘the United Kingdom’ is the nucleus of the English Empire (in EU3 terms, it’s a peaceful annexation after a personal union and lavish gifts). Contemporaries refer interchangeably to England and Britain – and kept on doing so till English power declined to the point that the Scotch decided they’d be better off on their own again. So, if you’re writing a treatise on cultural identity and statehood, you’d want to be scrupulous in identifying your terms; but if you’re writing a sweeping account of the English empire, from longbows to HMS Hood, and how it’s treated in strategy games, not only is it fine to start with England and morph into Britain, but it probably makes sense to do so.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    @Rusty: EU3 does a good job of modelling the importance of navies to trade? Really? You can blockade a shoreline, and overseas provinces’ income will be penalised if you have insufficient ships, but I much preferred Empire’s implementation to EU3: HTTT’s.

    Admittedly, this may have changed in Divine Wind (which I haven’t played), due to the new rule limiting trade to a certain radius from a friendly port.

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  • Yann Best

    As a Welshman, all this fussing over England and Britain and islands and longbowmen can go hang. Silly P. Edant.

    What I /cannot/ abide, however, is Troy suggesting that British beer has somehow had a meaningful influence on North American (or, indeed, any other region of the world’s) tastes. If it had, I’d be able to get good ales and/or bitters outside of the UK. Can I? Can I hell. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.

  • David

    If we want to be REALLY pedantic, I suppose that one could make an argument for a separate Cornish ethnic identity. No one would buy it, but you could make a decent argument. ;)

  • the Ubbergeek

    As one of the many nations who saw british guns aimed at them ancestors, the darker sides of Britain shouldn’t set aside in design perhaps…

  • Cpt. Wow

    As a Scot I feel the need to weigh in on the England/Britain debate. Currently (and I believe historically) English and British have been pretty much interchangeable concepts. After 1707, and the creation of the British state, Scotland saw its traditional languages (Gaelic and Scots) replaced with English and the marginalisation of our cultural and historical figures*. This was mainly lead by the middle/upper classes who wanted to fit in with their new Anglo comrades. To be British was to be more English. As of today the majority of Scots would identify themselves as Scottish over British or Scottish only. Even staunch Unionist largely recognise that the idea of a single amorphous “British” culture is pretty outdated. Even in England it is generally used self referentially considering how marginalised Scottish/Welsh/Irish issues and culture are.

    *Fortunately this process was largely reversed by the mid 19th century due to the rise of popular nationalism and the increased importance of Scotland to the Empire’s industry and military.

  • Erik Hanson

    Apologies for the late comment, but when it comes to England’s empire, I think just as quickly about commerce and finance. Maybe that’s because I’ve worked at and with Lloyd’s, or watched the banker scenes of Mary Poppins too many times.

    I think that GB/UK’s naval power and quality-over-quantity nature of British troops are much more a function of size and geography than national character, which is why sea bonuses work even worse when you’re playing on a random map as in a Civ title. When it comes to British national or imperial character aside from those geographic concerns, I’m much more likely to think of banks and bows (and beers, though they certainly aren’t unique in being brewers).

    Yann, you should take a look at the US again. Bitters and sours have been popular among microbrews (which are plentiful in most major cities) for the past year or so. That said, I think we’re Germanic-influenced as brewers, apart from the true “yankee” regions.

    And yes, I take some issue with the notion that “yankee” applies outside the Atlantic coast, a hated baseball team, and -occasionally- the ACW.

  • Troy

    Good comment, Erik. But note that I am not taking National Character as a true embodiment of what the people are actually like – it’s a reference to how the nations are characterized in games. As I will note when I finally finish this series, the whole idea of “national character” is ahistorical.

  • Erik Hanson

    Not only ahistorical, but mildly racist (in that Teddy Roosevelt sort of way). ;)

  • Yann Best

    Erik: well, that’s good to hear! Though, um, I have no idea what a ‘sour’ is, unless that’s another term for a sour ale? In which case, you can thank the Belgians, not us.