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The Mongol National Character

July 30th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 18 Comments · Feature:Nations, History

What this is about, including full list.

Genghis Khan was dude who, 700 years ago, totally ravaged China, and who, we were told, 2 hours ago, totally ravaged Oshman’s Sporting Goods. So Sid Meier had to make him and his furry hat one of the iconic Civs in his classic game.

The Mongols did, after all, conquer half the known world and throw the other half into a righteous panic. Genghis was an illiterate military genius with great political savvy, who didn’t believe in the glory of a heroic resistance. If you surrendered your city, you were rewarded and treated well. If you were a patriot who fought to be free, you and your fellow citizens would be collected into a mountain of skulls outside what was left of your city walls within a few weeks. A master of open field warfare who once did a flanking maneuver over hundreds of miles, he soon picked up siege warfare like a natural. His dominant legacy is still a matter of great debate – bloodthirsty conqueror who retarded Asian progress or effective ruler who ensured the security of the Silk Road? Sure, it all ended up with the sacking of the libraries of Baghdad, and eventually the pointless destruction of Timur, who claimed descent from the Great Khan. I suppose you could see the Mughals as an extension of Mongol rule, but they pretty much settled down once Babur took Delhi.

For game designers, the Mongols are the conquerors on horseback. Horse archers and other mounted warriors are the key things that strategy games take away from Mongol history. After all, there’s really not a lot else that holds them together, right? Their horsemen are to be feared in Civilization 3, 4, and 5 and in Age of Empires 2 and in Rise of Nations. Other traits that are ascribed are designed to make them speedy conquerors and little else. The Aggressive trait in Civ 4 means an instant promotion for melee units. In Civ 5, city-states fall faster and the great generals are stronger. Age of Empires 2 has faster siege units. The Mongols in Rise of Nations suffer less attrition in enemy territory.

The horse power is universal. Though other nations have had great horseback cultures (France and Russia especially), it is the light Mongol archer that has survived as a unique national emblem. The horse archer is not how we are generally raised to see cavalry power. The charge of the armored knight or the companion at Alexander’s side is how horses are epitomized in the west, and charges are more dramatic than the advance and retreat of the horseborne archer. Yes, the addition of the Keshik unit (these were bodyguard lancers for the Khan) muddles things a bit but Mongol mounted warfare was largely a matter of hit and run – well over half of the Mongol army were horse archers, and AoE2 and RoN reflect this very well. But all these games emphasize mobility and speed. In a turn based game, power is power more often than not, but in an RTS the difference between a mounted archer and a lancer is the difference between life and death.

And with this speed and the expansion power, you go out and kill everything.

So, in games where Mongols are just another faction, it is so simple. They are the fast moving, mobile assault team that can reduce your cities to rubble and ride circles around you. In an historical RTS, playing the Mongols well take a bit of art as you dance your archers in and out of range, taking advantage of their speed and power while still moving your siege engines forward.

There’s something archetypal about this, of course. The Mongols weren’t the first mounted invaders to threaten “civilization”. They are a stand in for the Scythians and the Alans and the Huns and the Parthians and pretty much any culture that rode in and destroyed less mobile armies and either settled down, moved on, or exacted tribute. They aren’t quite noble savages, and they aren’t quite barbarians. They are the whirlwind, I guess.

It is in other more historically centered strategy games that the Mongols become something truly meaningful, even from a design perspective. The Mongols are, of course, the destroyers of civilization, and you see this best in games like Medieval: Total War and Crusader Kings. Remember that, for medieval Europeans, the advance of the Mongols was like the End Times. Say what you will about God saving Christendom from the Ottomans at the Gates of Vienna in 1529, he did a damned better trick turning Batu around in 1241 for a funeral after the general scattered European armies in Hungary. Before that time, the Mongols represented something like Communism, Satan, Hitler, and the Spice Girls – no property will be respected, God will be defiled, the Khan will have control over your life, and there will be no culture worth saving.

The Mongols in many strategy games are a force of nature, and as a force of nature cannot be controlled. Crusader Kings won’t let you play any non-Christian state, so this is not necessarily a big deal, but in Medieval: Total War 2, neither the Mongols nor the Timurids can be played in the campaign. In both of these games, the Mongol nations just show up and proceed to wreck everything. The clock strikes midnight, thousands and thousands of horsemen arrive from the east, provinces begin to fall and, if you are anywhere nearby, you begin to panic. All of your opponents are blobs and markers, but the Mongols in Russia and Iran are different. They appear in numbers that dwarf anything you have ever seen before, appear to ignore any rules about attrition or supply, come fully stocked with good leaders and cavalry and even strong AI states will fail to be an adequate buffer zone.

It’s telling that official guides on how to deal with the Mongols in both of these games often recommend assassination. If you can decapitate their generals and best leaders, you have a chance of crippling them before they start carving out a real empire. Maybe (in Crusader Kings) you can start getting vassals fighting lieges. Still, the assumption is that the Mongols are just too big to take on in a fair fight. They may exhaust themselves or fight among themselves. But they will kill you with numbers and mobility if you try to be a hero.

But it’s not just that the Mongol hordes is large and invincible, both Crusader Kings and Medieval: Total War accept the incursions as inevitable. Both as historical sandboxes that give you a wide playground, but require the Mongol invasion to make the Middle Ages feel right. And, since you as the monarch have this basic historical knowledge, there comes a point in the game where your strategy and planning takes a turn and is no longer about doing what is best for your empire at the moment, but how you will prepare for the storm that is two decades away.

The Mongol inevitability epitomizes the great challenge for historical game designers. You can’t ignore the invasions, since they transformed Eastern Europe and the Near East in very important ways. But the player knows they are on the way. If they are too powerful, then the fun might stop and you will discourage anyone from playing Novgorod, Ryazan, Georgia or Trebizond. But the threat has to be real in order to really capture the fear. And how regular should these invasions be? If you stop one, do you stop them all? A player’s foreknowledge of Mongol power means that they can prepare to fight a mass mobile platform or let it exhaust itself. This doesn’t remove the threat, but it tames it. Gamer precognition tames the horde as effectively as Kublai Khan’s stately pleasure dome.

Next up, the Romans. I promise to not go on too long.


18 Comments so far ↓

  • Shaun

    Troy you’ve got to publish these. It’s not up for debate anymore.

  • Troy

    Because publishing is easy. ;)

    I am looking at writing an e-book of strategy game essays, because what the hell – I have to fill the four free hours in my week with something. And it will be a good test bed for a larger properly published book.

    Need to talk to some friends who have gone that route.

  • Niklas

    > Sure, it all ended up with the sacking of the libraries of Baghdad, and eventually the pointless destruction of Timur, who claimed descent from the Great Khan.

    That’s not an outlandish claim, testing of Y-chromosomes has shown that 8% of all males in the old Mongolian empire (or some 16 million people) are direct male line descendants of Genghis, making him world leader in that stat. That’s a bit of trivia that boggled my mind, but I guess it’s achievable with 500 wives and plenty of stamina.

  • Troy

    Well, he had a lot of sons with lots of concubines, too. I imagine they did quite a bit of work.

    The difference with Timur was that he was only a few generations later, and was probably a cousin of an offshoot at best. His blood ties to Genghis and his clan were very thin in all likelihood.

  • Josh (preciousgollum)

    Truely the Mongols were the biker gangs of the middle-ages (only, with horse, of course), claiming ownership of territory and controlling it predominantly through the use of fear and intimidation.

    The golden horde, it has been estimated, killed around 40 million people, back when 40 million people was a much bigger deal in relation to the percentage of global human population. To put it in perspective, as late as 1810, the population of the UK was only at around 12 million and, in the same year, China’s population was at around 200 million.

    Before he died, Genghis completely destroyed nearly all aspects of the more cultured Tangut civilisation.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Troy – I have some experience with publishing an ebook on Smashwords and Amazon, so please let me know if I can help!

  • Elijah Meeks

    I really love this series, so I hate to be the pedantic academic, but it was Tamerlane who made the mountains of skulls. Also, there’s less of a debate about Ghengis Khan, his grandsons and his legacy and no one who has actually looked at modern scholarship on the subject would agree with Josh’s concept of a biker gang killing “more cultured” civilizations. Ghengis just forgot to get embedded into a national narrative so that later historians would look kindly upon him. Instead, everything written about the Mongols was written by folks who got beat up by them. Baghdad was actually in very bad shape by the time they pushed it over the edge, and the ilKhanate did more for Islam and civilization than it did against it (which was noted by contemporary Muslim scholars). Probably the worst thing the Mongols could be blamed for is the spread of Plague from southeast Asia all the way to Europe due to their failed attempts to conquer Vietnam coupled with creating wide-ranging and safe trade routes (and infectious disease vectors) due to the Pax Mongolica.

    It’s a real shame games are still locked in a historical view that was cartoonish twenty years ago. If someone read Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World or checked out Google Scholar for articles on egalitarian pastoral societies, it might be a harder thing to model but it would make for a more interesting game element.

    I think the most radical aspect of the Mongols is that they were doing everything with bone-tipped arrows. Really, the Mongols upend the traditional Civ-vision of technological progress because they’re basically the barbarians in the huts defeating heavy armor and urban centers. I suppose that asymmetrical relationship with the comfortable organization of the rest of strategy/tactical game worlds is why Mongols are disproportionately gifted with special rules–as you aptly pointed out.

  • Troy


    Actually, I’ve read Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – it’s a great book that does a lot to help us re-evaluate the Mongol legacy. And yeah, we go too far in calling the Mongols a biker gang but that is how they were seen, and is the national character that prevails in games. It’s a nice analogy to the Aztecs as no more than a human sacrifice factory. The Mongols under Genghis and his sons did reorganize societies, guarantee trade and communications and (sometimes) promoted education.

    Likewise, however, Weatherford, I think protests too much. Genghis and his direct heirs did sack cities and did do so brutally. He was not an unthinking maniac like Timur (easily one of the least attractive major historical figures I have read about) but it goes too far to suggest that everything is untrue because all we know was written by enemies. The same is true of Timur. And Hannibal for that matter. (There’s a good biography of Timur, Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, that does zero to humanize him, though it tries. There’s your Mongol bastard.)

    Minor historical errors aside, Weatherford’s case that the Mongols helped spark the Renaissance is kind of a stretch. Keep in mind that he is mostly a business historian at heart, not a an authority on medieval history, and his love of the Mongol culture I think blinds him to marital slavery, town razing and the fact that not a lot of people really considered them a revolutionary option to their aristocratic rulers. The fact the Ilkhanate was a crumbling mess doesn’t ease the destruction of Baghdad at Hulagu’s hands; an empire that declines may not be one that explodes.

    It’s a very important and well written book that does make the Mongols more than a ravenous horde (which is a point that is coming in the epilogue – this series is really about stereotypes after all). Still a force of nature.

  • Fast Eddie

    It’s interesting to note the degree to which perceptions of the Mongols tend to revolve around the blind panic of contemporary Europeans. Yet Europe, aside from Rus, escaped relatively lightly. The Mongols were fundamentally a Central/Inner Asian society and most of their history concerns their development in Asia or their interaction with China. But we don’t hear about that, certainly not in games

    So, and the article hits this on the head, the Mongols have been reduced to the quintessential ‘outsiders’ in history. The equivalent of the Borg or the Dread Lords from GalCiv2

  • Elijah Meeks


    Agreed on Timur, by all accounts from everyone he was the most wretched of villains. I figured you were more ensconced in the scholarship given your Babur comment and my RTFM was directed more at game designers than those of us who view their games critically. It’s an interesting analogy to the Aztecs, since scholarship seems to be in a continuous oscillation with their take on whether they were significantly more or less savage than an equivalent culture (if there is such a thing).

    I think pastoralists are a special case, though, because they sit outside our traditional understanding of unilinear cultural evolution and show themselves throughout history to be able to best settled agricultural “civilization”.

  • Josh (preciousgollum)

    Given the notions of tolerance and, hopefully, general respect for other people that make up this planet, I find uncomforting that an organised army from central Asia, formed in the crucible moments of mongolian acention to prominence, could only be stopped from possibly ravaging Western Europe due to their leader, Ogedei Khan, having a heart attack, requiring the army to return to Mongolia in order to find a new Khan.

    It shows the dangers that individual charisma and ego can have over a society and also the importance in distinguishing between ordinary people and the political/military elite (if such a thing exists), something that the mongol hordes (comprised of many individuals who were eager for brutality and violence, or the outcome of such) did not do when deciding that entire cities full of otherwise people could be destroyed simply because they were held under juristiction by leaders that might personally have become enemies of the Khan.

    Infact, if we desire to look at the mongols from a modern perspective, as opposed to retrospect, the concept of distinguishing individuals from the society that they held influence over and treating them accordingly (introduced by international summits, bolstered by the UN and not actually being a recognised concept until post WWII) appeared to be an utterly alien concept to the Khantates. For many elements of history, we look for examples of cruelty from elite-bodies in order to draw a more balanced interpretation (after all, interpreting is what every historian does). In the case of the Khantate, we have to find elements where NON-cruelty took place when talking about mongol military action. It does not appear as if the Khans were ever exceptionally interested in state-building, rather, I see very individual, carnal and personal desires apparently taking precedent. There appears to be very little consideration for military action on even the most flimsy of plausable ‘humanitarian’ or defensive grounds – particularly during the later years of the Khantate.

    Concepts of Egalitarianism and Women’s rights mean little from those that would only administer such favours to those that were favoured by a deciding elite.

    The ‘biker-gang’ reference was perhaps a little too simplistic but the notion that this phrase instills appears to be more consistent with the type of society as experienced by the men in the horde/army (and also reflective of interpretations created in games).

    Genghis Khan is often described as the instigator of the mongolian state, however, it appears that he was personally more interested purely in wealth and sex, given that it was often his advisors and court that decided such ‘innovative’ ideas which includes tax-policies and investment as opposed to pillage. Suggesting that Genghis was directly responsible for modern-mongolia is similar to suggesting that either Arminius of the Cherusci or Aleric I of the Visigoths was directly responsible for the creation of modern-day Germany. A wealth of events lay in-between.

    Nomands by their very nature are squatters who move around. More dedicated Nomads were/are often capable of protecting themselves to some degree and take interest in the settlement of lands already owned by foreign-powers. The Helvetii were determined to settle in/around northern Italy and were subsequently pushed back by Gaius Julius Caesar. There is a possibility that the Helvetii were infact refugees. There is little possibility that the Mongols shared such a distinction.

    Regarding Hannibal, it is suggested that the Roman ruling-classes actually accentuated his abilities in order to even further accentuate their own abilities. It is possibly because of the Romans that many people today would mention Hannibal when referencing a great general. I suppose it is therefore also possible that such aggrandising would make it easier for the senate and, later, the Emperors to suggest that warfare was a legitimate action for the powerful to take – thereby leading to Roman Imperialism.

  • FhnuZoag


    I think you have to see things in the historical context here. If a european king died and succession was in question you too would expect an immediate halt to whatever was planned and a messy succession struggle. What the mongol empire was, was a very efficiently and effectively run military machine. What it did was frequently immoral, but in contrast to the attitudes of the europeans at the time, it was rarely irrational. The mongols deployed fantastic logistics, delegated power to those who had merit, offered a policy on surrender that was in the end at least consistent. Calling Ghengis merely interested in sex and wealth and thanking his advisors for his good ideas misses the point, because the very quality of gathering good advisors and actually listening to them marks the mongols out as a more modern state than the supposed civilised ones they were attacking.

    You can’t look at these past societies as democratic states who are supposed to be only declaring war for humanitarian or defensive reasons.

  • Josh

    “You can’t look at these past societies as democratic states who are supposed to be only declaring war for humanitarian or defensive reasons.”

    No, I agree with you there, but it is still valid to look for rational reasons for war, as opposed to taking things that other people have or, in the case of some historical persons, playing the real world as if it were a game – maybe a business.

    If the primary reason for studying history is to learn the lessons of the past and not repeating them then we do not learn anything if we only indulge in established narrative and identification of the ‘zeitgeist of the times’.

    “because the very quality of gathering good advisors and actually listening to them marks the mongols out as a more modern state than the supposed civilised ones they were attacking.”

    The idea of selecting quality advisors suggests predominantly an interest in developing an institution, a House or a successful family rather than the development of communties – very much like the different rulers of Europe. My article above was about recognising hallmarks of an elite entity regardless of the culture that they stem from.

    Genghis Khan, always a nomadic chieftan, attacked the Tanguts six times over 22 years and, nearing the end of his life, ordered the destruction of the Tanguts because they wouldn’t follow him into yet another war. I find the idea of constantly beating-up a society of people to be irrational. Displaying examples power simply out of principle is not an action that I find to be rational. I imagine a person with an ant and a magnifying glass – the displays of abject cruelty. Mongol society has shown all the inherent problems of family feuding and violence: Genghis Khan personally killed his half-brother over a fight, clearly the actions of a brutish and ruthless person. it is perculiar that we laud or deplore people based on our percieved image with regards to violence.

    Societies that live by the strength of the leader often die by the leader, with many ugly succession-wars in-between. In my oppinion, a truely civil society should be measured by occurring actions within a society in the wake of a traditional power-vaccum.

    I generally subscribe to the idea that authoritarian rulers generally follow in the traditions of the past in order to hold on to power – meaning that they become the status quo (it is often also what an ‘Upper-House’ of a political institution does – often filled with very egotistical people). Either copying the past or justifying it in a narrative manner only serves to encourage similar events to manifest themselves in the present.

    Unfortunately, and I really didn’t want to have to bring up the Nazis, it is discinctly possible that Hitler was immitating the Khans when establishing national policies which lead to some of the most recognisably appalling events of the 20th century. Being a military person, he looked to the mongol tactics and policies of using military might and a basic disregard for human life in order to subjugate people, even referencing such plans in a speech.

    Colonel Gaddafi most likely uses these ‘lessons’ from the mongols as a justification for shelling his own innocent people in Misrata. Events and ideas from the past can reverberate through to problems sill faced in the modern world, such as the notion of a ‘sophisticated warlord’. Many military-orientated leaders appear to strive to associate themselves with such an identity.

    “delegated power to those who had merit” – I would argue that this idea is not always as inherently beneficial as some would believe.

    As a qualfier, I don’t look at these past societies as democratic states, I look the events that occurred and policies made which would have been very difficult to justify WERE these societies democratic states, or, indeed, any other form of markedly more appealing community. It’s amazing/frightening (i’m sure there’s a German word for it) how wars can be justified on the grounds of charismatic leadership when they cannot be justified on the grounds of social-reasoning.

  • random dude

    The interesting thing to me is the assumption that only Christian/European nations reviled the Mongols and painted them as bloodthirsty savages, when that’s exactly how they’re viewed in Iran. The damage the Mongols did to Persia was kind of incalculable, libraries, cities of scholars, works of art, whole population centers, decimated utterly and ruthlessly. I think there are some estimates that the population of Iran did not actually return to its original level until the 20th century. So I agree that those who stress the positive outcomes of the Mongol invasion are overcorrecting.

  • Fast Eddie


    “…but it is still valid to look for rational reasons for war, as opposed to taking things that other people have…”

    How is that not a rational reason for war? All the Inner Asian nomadic societies developed sophisticated means of mobilisation and all engaged in near permanent warfare. They did so in response to the relatively poor farming conditions of the steppe. War, ie preying off the richer sedimentary civilisations to the south, was a perfectly rational strategy for a society unable to survive on settled agriculture.

    The only thing that Genghis changed was the scale of this process. That was a product of his ability to piece together complex tribal alliances and the Mongol willingness to assimilate different tribes into their society

  • Troy

    Good point, random dude since the Chinese did not hold their Mongol rulers up as great enlightened rulers, but some of that is Han ethnocentrism.

    For the West, however, there is an element of Divine Anger in the Mongol approach that you don’t find in the Persian or Turkish literature, probably because many Mongols did convert to Islam at least.

  • kongming

    What exactly are they “overcorrecting,” random dude? I don’t think it’s actually possible to “overcorrect” the cartoonishly villainous caricature of the Mongols which has been the dominant narrative about them from the 13th century all the way to modern times. This is a narrative which persists in popular media, incidentally (as Troy’s essay aptly demonstrates), so if Weatherford, Barfield, et al portray the Mongols in a way that you might regard as too favorable, I would still consider that a legitimate antidote to the traditional narrative.

    My main problem with the “Mongols were brutal mass-murderers” narrative is that it seems to treat every other contemporaneous society as if they were modern liberal democracies, when in fact every society on Earth in the 12th/13th centuries was brutal and violent by modern standards. I’ll grant you that even in that milieu the Mongols might still stand out, but the difference is only a matter of degree rather than kind. If French crusaders had conquered an empire of the same size and scale, I’m sure the bodycount would have been similar.

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