Going Medieval on Medieval
Ralph Shelton’s Medieval, a reimplementation of Richard Berg’s Medieval, knows enough about Medieval life to understand that it was crummy, capricious, and lasted at least three centuries too long.
What neither Medieval understands is that none of these attributes are desirable in a game.
If you were designing a game about Medieval politics — think high-stakes court intrigues, religious infighting, crusades, plagues, and a very motivated band of horsemen rampaging across the eastern half of the known world — what role would you assign your players? If your answer is “shadowy secret societies,” then you’re sharing company with both Medieval and the set-just-a-scooch-later banking houses of Pax Renaissance.
In both games, the foremost advantage of this historical jiggery-pokery is that there’s no need to shackle yourself to a doomed ship. Not only are heavy hitters like Spain, France, and the Holy Roman Empire more renowned than Polovtsy, the Bulgars, or the Latin Kingdom, they’re also less likely to be burnt to cinders by passing Mongols. As a shorthand for why you’re unifying England one minute and launching a naval invasion of Venice the next, it’s perfectly functional. There’s no need to worry about logistics, the difficulty of spanning great distances, or hereditary succession preventing certain countries from ever congealing when your answer for everything is “Something something Knights Templar something.”
Yet Medieval fumbles where Pax Renaissance set itself apart as a surprisingly insightful portrayal of Europe cartwheeling through an era of change. And it’s all because of a little thing we like to call control.
To illustrate my point, let me take you on a tour of the decisions you’ll make during your average turn of Medieval.
First, the map of Europe is divided into rectangular zones. At the outset, a number of these zones are shadowed beneath inaccessible tiles. In order to access them — and chances are that you’ll want to, since living in the cracks between blocked-off zones becomes rather claustrophobic — you can opt to draw a map card at the expense of some of that turn’s upcoming actions. Then you either take your turn as normal or collect income from the territories you’ve put under your sway.
The main portion of each turn is dominated by two different types of decisions: attacks and cards. The attacks are boilerplate. You pick an origin, a destination, and then invest some coins into helping the invasion succeed. There are some eccentricities to parse, like whether somebody can intercept a naval invasion or when certain cards activate, but the process is clear, leads up to a climactic roll of dice, and leaves somebody disappointed and somebody else elated.
Cards, on the other hand, represent many of Medieval’s more intricate possibilities. The Knights of Christ can invade far-off lands, while having the ear of the Pope can mean excommunicating a rival or gambling on a crusade. An Assassin can take out a rival leader, or a Civil War can plunge a disaster-ridden country into further decay. And playing a card matching one of the map’s countries can give you total control over it, along with its income, geographical position, and a generous heap of victory points.
Wait. What was that? Never mind, we’ll circle around.
Lastly, you’ll draw more cards and immediately play any that are earmarked as mandatory. Disasters, rulers dying of old age or hunting accidents, the Mongols getting bold and spilling into Russia — you slap down the card, resolve its table of dice results, and there you have it. A turn.
Okay. Let’s get back to control.
I’ve always had a deep fondness for games that force tactical play over long-term perfect manipulation of information, engines, or resource conversion. And a not-insignificant aspect of tactical play is randomness. When each turn provides different options, whether a flowing selection of market cards, changing diplomatic realities, a new hand drawn from a deck, or even something as crass as an event system, players are forced to make do with what they can accomplish that turn under those conditions. Done well, this is a balancing act between long-term planning and moment-to-moment adaptability. There’s nothing wrong with forcing a card pull, die roll, or event resolution, provided the player can enter into those moments with a broad awareness of their repercussions — and potentially back out to perform some other action if they decide that the risks outweigh the potential rewards. Control isn’t about having perfect knowledge that action A will always lead to outcome B; it’s about being able to enter into an action with eyes open, aware of where that action’s success or failure will deposit you as a player.
Not to keep singing praises for Pax Renaissance, but it’s a perfect example. Every turn’s options are largely refreshed from previous turns, but the individual outcomes of each option are easy to parse, feed into the game’s various avenues to victory, and, crucially, do exactly what you’d expect. A crusade will use these pieces, while a conspiracy will use these ones. Conquering the Holy Roman Empire will leave your armies depleted; a Reformation in England can destabilize a theocracy elsewhere; raising Islamic troops for defense may leave you open to a jihad.
Another example is found in Inis, which revels in what can be accomplished with carefully-tuned control. The cards in your hand are only partially under your sway. But because the selection is so compact, the import of every card is readily apparent. Battles can be mitigated or swayed, territories are lost or gained after distinct sequences of rising action, and every bid for victory is accompanied by clear stakes, often after everybody has voluntarily exhausted themselves by focusing their attentions elsewhere.
Of course, not every game needs strict control. Greenland and Neanderthal are about the capriciousness of weather and society and even genetics. Fief: France 1429 succeeds in highlighting the hellishness of living in a century when unexpected bumps on one’s genitals could signal the end of a royal family.
But some measure of control would seem to feed well into the whole secret society angle. And in Medieval? Shit just sorta happens. And often to a degree of volatility that even those other games would stare numbly at.
Take those country cards, for instance. Playing one of these babies can result in a contest to seize that country’s provinces. But that’s only if they’ve already been claimed. If even a single province is open, the person who played the card takes automatic command. If the entire country is bare, that player gets it all. And in a game where the only measure of success is how much geography you’ve put your stamp on, claiming a country can represent an enormous swing in points.
Similarly, those mandatory cards I mentioned? Picking up one means immediately playing it, which means your hand will be one card smaller next turn. Picking up four? The math isn’t difficult. Worse, other than the Mongol cards, which you can nudge in the direction of your rivals, most mandatory cards select their targets at random. In theory these random events might average out over time, but in practice even a single rotten hand can represent a non-trivial setback, especially since collecting taxes effectively skips the meat of a turn. Add in the random map cards, the uncertain outcome of battles, and the odds of not being struck dumb by every passing event and you have a game that slaps a saddle upon your back rather than the other way around.
Of course, diving in headfirst can provide something resembling a good time, provided everybody is onboard with the fact that success or failure has very little to do with their choices. I could raise the problem of the downtime between turns, but those are usually the moments when somebody else is suffering worse than you. There are occasional sparkles of greatness, especially once the Mongols begin chewing through Central Europe and everybody claws for space farther west. But all it takes is a single naysayer to complain the game back into staleness. At that point, you’ll practically cheer when the Mongols use Hungary to bake their s’mores. After all, once those ragamuffins appear seven times the game is finally concluded.
Medieval evokes Medieval life. Traveling across the sea is dangerous. Religious wars occur for ambiguous reasons. Your fate is rarely in your own hands.
Unfortunately, that sense of accuracy does little to make Medieval a worthwhile play experience. Like a life of splendor in the thirteenth century, even its triumphs are hounded by the possibility of pooping yourself to death.
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