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National Characters

November 5th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 31 Comments · Design, Feature:Nations, History

If this blog has a recurring motif, it is how history and strategy games are uneasy partners. Despite our tendency to look to the past for analogies and lessons, history is a mess that refuses to conform to rule sets and is constantly under reinterpretation and understanding. Even if “making history come alive” is a goal for many history themed game designers, it is a goal that must always take a seat behind the goals of balance and entertainment.

But designers and gamers bring their own knowledge and expectations about the past with them to any gaming experience. There is a growing understanding between the two groups that no grievous harm will come to history and that things look like they are supposed to.

I’ve written before about the impact that history can have on faction design. Though a lot depends on what a particular game is about, it also appears that game designers try to find a way to make a nation’s perceived character come through in a design even if the game doesn’t necessarily reward that style of play.

Civilization V is only the most recent major historical game to try to capture millenia of historical behaviors in a rule book. RTSes and 4x games alike have worked at making nations seem different from each other but still able to play on the same field. But why are Persian golden ages in Civ 5 doubled in length? The Songhai get triple the gold from capturing cities – where does this come from? When a Formspring question challenged me to design a Canadian Civilization, I immediately fell into imagining what Canada meant to me and how it would be reflected.

The upcoming Europa Universalis III expansion Divine Wind is also wrestling with these ideas. How can they reflect the court politics of China in a model designed around European government? Diplomacy with the horde nations are being entirely re-engineered to reflect that dynamic. Embodying a national history in a game is never easy.

This series of posts will look at national character as portrayed in historical strategy games. What do designers believe, what do I expect, and what do these choices tell us about what some people think is important about a nation?

I would love to write about every nation ever captured in an historical strategy game, but that isn’t really feasible. My patience for my own writing is not inexhaustible. But I need a list to work from, and I will take detours as necessary – my essays on the Aztecs and Zulus will probably include musings on African and pre-Columbian nations in general.

My list? The original canonical list of nations in the first Civilization. Though the factions in that game were interchangeable, it is a good list to start with.

1. America
2. Aztecs
3. Babylonians
4. Chinese
5. Egyptians
6. English
7. French
8. German
9. Greek
10. Indian
11. Mongolian
12. Roman
13. Russian
14. Zulu
15: The Also Rans: Arabia, Japan, and Spain
16: Epilogue

Fifteen major parts…this should be fun.

First up, the land of the free and the home of the brave, America.


31 Comments so far ↓

  • Ralph Trickey

    Wow, sounds awesome! ;)

  • Clay

    Hey, that was my question! =)

    Looking forward to the series. It’s an interesting topic, for sure.

  • Quintmorrison

    I hope that the Decades series receives some love soon. Bruce said he had an article for it written, two thousand episodes ago, on Sons of Anarchy or something.

  • Michael A.

    Glad to see another feature series, Troy – and a great topic. Looking forward to this. :-)

  • Christopher

    I’m eagerly awaiting the series, Troy. I think you covered all the big hitters, except for the Japanese (and maybe the Spanish). Will you cover them (the Japanese) with the Chinese?

    I think this would not just make for a good Three Moves Ahead topic, but it would do well as topic on a general gaming podcast, like Gamers with Jobs or Jumping the Shark, generalized to cover how all games cover different cultures in gaming.

  • Troy

    Once I finish the series, I hope we can do a TMA on it, like we did after the map series wrapped.

  • Warren

    Now that’s certainly an interesting idea for a series! I’m quite intrigued.

  • cuc

    I happened to have recently done a little analysis of the Civ series’ nation lineup. Please read it, as I’ve made some (poorly written) arguments regarding the change of Civ’s canon lineup throughout the series.


  • frags

    Some good stuff there. Looking forward to them. All the nations you’ve listed have a lot of material for strategy games to model. I think perhaps only the Zulus have been under represented(not in the many Zulu Wars wargames but in PC strategy games). Or at least represented in a more one dimensional way. Was quite surprised Civ 5 has the Soghai Empire.

  • Peter S

    Really looking forward to this series!

    Also, haha @ the original trebuchet post. I’d say the chu-ko-nu is the East Asian equivalent; how many strategy gamers had heard of repeating crossbows pre-AOE 2? Now they’re in Civilization IV, which makes them as close to ubiquitous as you can get in strategy gaming.

  • skshrews

    The original Civ I list of civilizations reminds me of how the Turks were bumped by the Germans at the last minute, just prior to the publication of the game.

    Indeed, I believe a number of rulebooks were published listing the Turks as a playable civilization. I never heard what the reason for the last minute substitution was.

    Just proves the simulation of history is as fickle as history itself.

  • cuc

    For another example of fickleness, the console versions of Civ1 developed by Asmik (a Japanese company), replaced the Zulus with the Japanese. That’s the SNES version and the Playstation and Saturn versions.

    By the way, SNES version was published in America, and was infamous for having a “goddess appears before you and teach you mining, irrigation and roadbuilding” introduction. Judging from videos on the web, the 32-bit versions are on the other extreme: entirely somber and humorless.

  • Ginger Yellow

    Some other podcast, I think Giantbomb, had a segment a month or so back where they got readers/listeners to send in fake civs. The Canada one they read out actually sounded really fun.

    “I never heard what the reason for the last minute substitution was.”

    They probably realised that Germany is the number one strategy game market in the world and Turkey isn’t.

  • cuc

    This has become increasingly off-topic, but I have added two addena to my silly little article, “Trivia” and “East Asia architecture”.


  • Miguel

    I’d like to make a pitch for the Iberian nations, Portugal and Spain, although there meteoric rise in the age of the discovery was quickly followed by a descent to the not very relevant in recent centuries, they had a great impact in the world as the fact that Spanish and Portuguese are above French and German in the spoken languages ranking proves. I understand that there presence in games is often neglected in favor of the traditional 5 Europeans civilizations making it harder to write about it but still It could be and interesting topic.

  • the Ubbergeek

    Nice ideas, fascinating..

    Ther problem with Canada lay on the Founding Nations… Which Canada you will take? The british overlords and the anglos, or the Canadiens heirs of New France? We are not… United.

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    And NO Trudeau, please, he is a … polarizing character. Even if I was a federalist, I’d never stomach playing as *him*.

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    An interesting but similar thing to look at would be the human species character from SciFi games, given that we don’t know what would be distinct about us (or even if there are other species around that would/already have achieve(d) spaceflight).

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