Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 155 / AUGUST 1993 / PAGE 84

Wars of the distant past. (computer simulation games) (includes related article on medieval castles) (Evaluation)
by Paul C. Schuytema

An aqueduct, a castle, and a samurai sword--these three are icons of the bygone days that we can now experience on our PCs. The distant past was a time of radically different cultures, primitive technologies, and, of course, war. In the Roman Empire, cohorts (divisions of a Roman Legion) patrolled the provinces, repelling the barbarians and maintaining the emperor's sovereignty. In feudal Europe, barons battled barons for papal favors, the wealth of the land, and a chance to be crowned king. In feudal Japan, the code of honor known as Bushido governed the samurai, who fought across rice fields to strengthen the power of their lords.

We can read about distant history because the actions of the movers and shakers of the time are recorded. But what was it really like? What was it like to make decisions in a time in which values and goals were radically different from those of today? Now we can find out. Several excellent computer games take us back through the centuries and allow us to learn history through action and strategy and to struggle for success much as the royalty of the time had to struggle to obtain and maintain power. Beyond being lessons in history, the games we'll look at offer serious challenges, forcing players to adopt strategies that fit within the context of the times they simulate.


This game from Impressions takes us back to the first century B.C., when the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, came into power. You begin the game with the title of citizen. You are the governor of a remote province of the empire. You must develop and nurture the province to prosperity in order to receive a promotion and relocation to another, more valuable province. With careful planning, proper tributes, and a warlike strategy, you can achieve the ultimate goal: being crowned emperor.

You're forced to focus mostly on the capital city of the province and to guide its development. When the game begins, the province is barren; you find only a few small villages dotting the countryside. A fort rests where the capital will be built, and a cohort is ready for patrol duty. The capital is built from the ground up, with the social and political heart of all major Roman cities, the forum, at its center. Using an interface somewhat reminiscent of SimCity but far more detailed, you lay down roads and place residences, which begin as small tents. Water, certainly one of the prime requirements for any civilization, must be made accessible, and reservoirs can be built to trap the water. Aqueducts can be laid to bring water into the fledgling city, and a fountain will make the water accessible.

You continue to develop the city, enlisting the aid of your advisers at the forum. They give you advice such as which industries will likely flourish in the province and the proper allocation of the plebs in the work force. Bath houses, plazas, hippodromes, coliseums, and schools can all be built.

The city-building aspect of Caesar is a fascinating voyage into the world of the Roman Empire. Impressions has gone to great lengths to make sure that the type of structures and the development of the city are in line with the historical and archaeological facts. As the city grows, you must build larger forums to effectively govern the growing acreage. You get a real sense of being there.

However, Caesar goes far beyond the construction of a city. By utilizing the forum's advisers, you gain insight into the multitude of variables affecting life in a Roman province, from conscription service to developing stronger cohorts.

You must also develop the entire province, linking the small villages to your capital via provincial roads and linking your capital to the imperial highway system. The game allows you to construct grand, sweeping walls and battlements, and you can build additional forts that in turn create new cohorts .

Eventually, barbarians will rush in and attempt to capture your capital, and the cohorts must then be sent to attack. You control the formations of the units, and as a conflict progresses, losses in numbers as well as morale are documented.

Soon, Impressions will release Cohort II, which you will be able to link to Caesar. This will provide you with man-by-man control of the battle using Impressions' microminiatures gaming system.

As a city management program, Caesar certainly succeeds, but as an entire game of provincial management in the Roman Empire, it is exciting and addicting--not to mention exhausting.

Castles II: Siege & Conquest

A medieval simulation based on fourteenth-century France, this Interplay game begins on January 1, 1312, just after the king of Bretagne (the mythical France in the game) dies without an heir. The kingdom is divided into territories controlled by rival lords who are all vying for the throne. To become king, you must unite enough territories to secure your strength and then petition the Pope for the right to wear the crown.

Castles II is a surprisingly addicting game of logistics and aggressive acumen, making it a task-based game. This means that you initiate an action (which takes time to complete) and then wait for the results. There are three different general sets of tasks: administrative, military, and political. An example of an administrative task is gathering timber resources, while a military task might be recruiting forces, and a political task might entail sending a diplomat to demand a tithe from a rival lord.

Managing tasks may seem dry at first, but there is a real challenge inherent in the logistical distribution of task points to maintain an optimal efficiency. While tasks are the main means of controlling the game, you also have the opportunity to design, from the ground up, any of the castles you wish to build. The castle design portion of the game is intriguing, and you can place low or high walls, square or round towers, gates, moats, and keeps. You can choose to build the castle walls first or construct the keep first. If you design a truly magnificent castle, you can save the design for future use.

In Castles II, not only is a castle a defensive tool, but it also assists in nearly every aspect of the game. A large enough castle will keep neighboring territories from revolting and can double the production rate of the territory's commodity.

Combat can be handled as a computer simulation, or you can choose to make all tactical decisions on your own, controlling each knight, archer, or infantry unit individually.

Diplomacy and careful planning are the keys to victory, but your fortune may change unexpectedly due to some developing plot or rival alliance. Also, good relations with the papacy are imperative, since only the Pope can legitimize the crown.

Castles II is a good-looking game in which most of the action occurs on a single screen. The only time the screen shifts views is during a tactical battle or when you choose to visit a territory to build a castle or check on its progress. The game also features a series of video clips which accompany important actions, most taken from the sweeping black-and-white epics of the 1930s and 1940s.

Conquered Kingdoms

QQP ancient history entry is a medieval war game in the same vein as the popular Perfect General series. You battle either the computer or another player (live or via a modem connection) in a game of geographical conquest.

In Conquered Kingdoms, you control units which represent a group of individuals such as archers or knights. Each scenario begins with the selection of troops, using points to buy units and place them on the multiscreen map.

The game progresses in turns, enabling each side to move. Then, the battles are resolved. At first, Conquered Kingdoms seems a cryptic and abstract war game, but after several turns, the depth truly comes through. Resources need to be captured and managed, as do castles and towns. By carefully managing resources, you can create reinforcements that can be placed in any castle you hold,

Conquered Kingdoms is a game of details and careful planning, and a single scenario can easily last many hours. The excitement of controlling an entire army, piece by piece, in a giant medieval chess match, grows with every turn, and the ability to control units in a semitactical sense allows for strategies regarding formations and the development of lines of strength. By making the scale much larger than an actual one-to-one correspondence, you have the opportunity to react to and use a myriad of terrain types and to cover a lot of land in little time.

QQP is noted for games that possess simple yet sophisticated interfaces, and Conquered Kingdoms is no exception. Virtually every action can be handled by intuitive mouse clicks, and the program takes care of all of the dirty work (like movement restrictions) by means of various terrain types and enemy lines of sight. The game truly allows you to concentrate on organic strategy rather than on rules or icon manipulation.

Because of the depth and challenge of Conquered Kingdoms, it will be a long, long time before you'll be able to master all the scenarios and the incredible complexity of the artificial intelligence of the computer opponents. Playing against a human opponent is even more rewarding, and it's especially exciting when you are playing by modem and seeing only the results of your opponent's actions (but you might want to find a local opponent or play through CompuServe's MTM service to save on phone charges for the lengthy calls). You can even play opponents by E-mail, utilizing a special save feature of the game.

Conquered Kingdoms also has an option that, while not exactly true to historical fact, allows you to control fantasy units such as trolls, dragons, and wizards.

Conquest of Japan

A tactical simulation of samurai conquest from Impressions, Conquest of Japan brings sixteenth-century Japan to life. The game consists of a battle between two daimyos (lords) on the main Japanese island of Honshu, each controlling five cities--and each wanting total control of all ten cities. One player can compete against the computer, or two players can go head to head.

The game is somewhat reminiscent of the excellent Milton Bradley board game Shogun, but it features an extremely detailed combat system. The overall strategies of the game are straightforward: The game begins with the recruiting of five armies and the decision as to what portion of the forces to leave behind to defend the cities.

Movement of the armies is a simple one-step-at-a-time sequence until two armies run into each other. During the course of the campaign, the towns collect revenues that can be used to recruit more troops.

Conquest of Japan comes alive, though, when two armies meet for battle. Utilizing Impressions' own microminiatures system, the battle is played out at a truly tactical level. The first step for a battle is to select one of the traditional troop formations, from the all-around Ganko (birds in flight) to the defensive Gyorin (fish scales). The view shifts to an overview of the battlefield, and orders can be given in nearly any combination or detail imaginable.

The interface allows commands to be given to individuals, to a group (such as a line of spearmen), or to the army as a whole. Communication is important on the battlefield, and groups of troops must have a signal-man to follow your orders. If a signal-man is killed, another must be assigned, or you risk losing the units due to noncommunication.

During the battle, all manner of information is available to you, such as morale and current attack strength. Perhaps the most powerful feature of the battlefield controls is the ability to alter, split, and regroup your forces into any of 24 formations.

The incredible depth of tactical control takes a while to get used to, but complex and effective battle strategies are the result of a little patience. You can achieve the genuine feeling of commanding a sixteenth-century samurai army.

In the Present Tense

By combining many levels of gameplay with historical accuracy, these games can truly be windows into several very exciting eras of our ancient past. Each of these games plays within the rules of its respective time period, allowing you to step back and enjoy the decisions and challenges of those times while learning about the limitations and advantages of a multitude of tactics and technologies. A weekend spent in ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or feudal Japan can become an educational addiction.

Medieval Castles

The medieval castle was not a structure meant primarily for defense; its purpose was to dominate. A castle could easily influence lands within a 25-mile radius, since 30 miles was within a day's march for the average foot soldier.

During times of attack, peasants, livestock, and property could be brought into the castle for protection. The castle walls, as well as the height advantage for archers and for dumping all nature of things upon attacking forces, meant that an attacker would need at least a four-to-one advantage to have any hope of taking a castle.

A castle was not merely the site of courtly love and stately banquets. The average castle generated the clamor that our large factories produce, and people would have to shout if they hoped to be heard over the chopping and hammering. A castle, as opposed to earlier, fortified towns, was not community property; it was a personal possession of the king, the queen, or a baron.

Contrary to what many might think, the castle was economical to build. Labor was cheap and often free, and raw materials needed only to be amassed. In building a castle, the greatest cost was time. After the plague, though, the situation changed, and labor prices rose because of the shortage of skilled craftsmen.