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.