Expeditions: Conquistador is a strategy/rpg from Logic Artists, a Danish developer I’d never heard of until someone told me that I had to check out this new game on the conquest of Mexico. This is one of my favorite stories in history, and the idea of leading a band of adventurers into the unknown to find gold and glory is too much to resist.
Now I’ve never made it a huge secret that I am not all that invested in the idea of historical accuracy if a game either a) makes zero claims to historical accuracy, or b) still manages to say something interesting or get at an essential truth of the history being portrayed. I would argue that, for example, Unity of Command is an excellent “history” game because it manages to simply convey the mobility and supply issues that were crucial to the Eastern Front in WW2, even if that means abstracting a ton of things that might muddy that picture. Accuracy and truth are not the same thing, and games will always make abstractions in the name of history or gameplay. This does not necessarily justify each and every instance of historical narrative or abstraction in strategy game design; if the abstraction does violence to history, plays to harmful stereotypes or fails to convey any “truth”, then I tend to think twice. (Yes, I will be looking at the Company of Heroes 2 vs Russian War Heroes argument in a later post.)
To the historical “errors”: Expeditions: Conquistador has female conquistadors serving side by side with the men – your character may even be a woman if you so choose. Atheist or radical secular ideas are put in the mouths of characters – far beyond even what Erasmus would write at the time. The tactical battles are more akin to a brawl in an alleyway than an historical standoff between trained Spanish steel and native mass levies. In a different sort of game, these things might bother me. Well, not the woman thing; I find it pretty hard to get too exercised about a woman in command – even ahistorically.
But Conquistador works as the best game exploration of this time period since Bunten’s masterpiece Seven Cities of Gold, and it does so by using none of the gameplay elements that made that game so amazing.
Conquistador is almost more RPG than strategy game, but the RPG elements grow so naturally from the strategy that it is appropriate for this blog in any case. But, like the best party management RPG, Conquistador is about trying to get the most out of your band of soldiers, doctors and scouts without everything falling apart.
It does go down the normal RPG route of dialog trees, something which struck me as a cop-out to start until I saw how things could get messy. Each soldier in your party has traits, and many of these traits do not get along with each other or with your plans for the party. A greedy soldier will want you to exact greater tribute from the natives you encounter. A racist priest will resent the presence of any natives that join the expedition. A pacifist scholar will prefer you take the diplomatic route. Zealous party members will suspect anyone in the group with unorthodox ideas about the Catholic faith. The dialog trees force you to take stands on some of these issues and if you consistently annoy some members of your party, they could mutiny and leave you short of manpower and in great danger.
Then you have the resource management aspect. You need to feed your party, so you will need to ration food, hunt for new supplies, preserve the meat, etc and do it all with a small group that also must guard the camp (slave bearers like to run away with goods, so you’ll need guards), patrol the area for surprises, tend to any wounds and whatever else needs doing. Failure to find wealth or feed your party means that you will almost certainly face a disgruntled crew.
Anyone familiar with the expeditions of Cortes or Pizarro is familiar with these problems. (I still think Prescott’s Histories
are the best written, even if they have been overtaken regarding scholarship about the Aztecs and Inca.) The Mexican coast was littered with failed expeditions. The Pizarros were undone by an active royal assault and internal dissent. Then we have Aguirre, but the less said of that madman, the better.
In short, Expeditions: Conquistador gets the balance of the historical message completely right – the people that chose to become conquistadors were brave, foolhardy and largely doomed. Cortes is, rightfully, seen today as one of the harbingers of genocide in the Americas; his success in Mexico led to a rush of gold seekers and brutal governors. But he was also the kind of man that gets legends told about him because what he did seemed impossible.
The tactical battles in Conquistador are, unfortunately, the weakest part of the game. To their credit, they aren’t as incomprehensible as many of the battles in Omerta or as repetitive as the admittedly awesome fights in XCom. But they also don’t make a lot of sense. Why am I restricted to six fighters if I am being ambushed? Why is this jungle path so conveniently strewn with fallen logs for cover? How did that poison Taino arrow get through my armor? Why did I screw up and choose a priest instead of a hunter for this fight? (Ok, that last one is my fault.)
The battles are, thankfully, brief, but they carry a lot of weight for the game. You need success to keep morale high. Wounds will have to be treated. Winning also means experience (see, RPG!) and this is how you improve the traits of your soldiers.
And, because battle is really the only way to improve your soldiers, you will need to fight from time to time. You can’t Captain Picard your way out of every encounter and sometimes Worf is right – load the photon arquebus and raise bucklers. Fighting small threats is the best way to gain strength, put muscle behind your threats and, eventually, win the big battles in Mexico.
I am still puttering around a little with Expedition: Conquistador and I may find things that I don’t like so much down the line. I will say that the interface is still pretty rough, the pacing of the exploration part could use some work. A minimap would be appreciated for sure. And the auto-assign for camp duties is, frankly, terrible but that forces you to pay attention so maybe it’s a good thing.
Still, this is a clever game that captures the period with a charm and, if not elegance, then efficiency that a lot of period games just throw in as “colour” or “plot twists”.
Check this out.