The Joy of Controlling a Nation
Maybe you play strategy games. Maybe you have a friend who does. Either way, you probably know that the strategy genre, when done well, is the most addictive kind of video game. To the uninitiated, this seems quite weird. How can someone take such pleasure in moving units around a map, or, even worse, going through countless menus? Well, the answer is simple. Control.
Let’s take, for example, Grand Strategy games. These are the games that studios like Paradox make and include series such as Europa Universalis, Sins of a Solar Empire, Crusader Kings and Hearts of Iron. In most of these games you never get to actually command troops. Instead, you spend all your time looking at a map, clicking buttons and browsing through tons of information. And, to the surprise of pretty much everyone, this is not boring. Me wasting half my morning trying to set up my army properly and make battle plans in Hearts of Iron is, for some reason, so much fun (Paradox, if you are reading this, send me a code for HOI IV pls). The reason I believe people find what otherwise might be a chore to be an enjoyable experience is the stakes behind it. In these games, you are King/Khan/Dictator/God-Emperor. You are what moves an entire nation, be it a real or a fictional one. The slides that you just moved indicates how many of your workers will be able to buy food today. That button you just pressed just triggered World War II.
In strategy games, you control an army, or even an entire kingdom. Your decisions, your war declarations, your trade treaties, everything, has an impact in people’s lives. This feeling of power is what makes strategy games so appealing. Strategy games take ordinary people like me and you and turn them into digital leaders. And the great thing is, in games, you don’t need to behave like the real you. So, with the power strategy games grant you, you can do anything. If I was actually Karl Franz, the human emperor, in Total War Warhammer, I’m pretty sure I’d try to get along with everyone and just make friends. Instead, since I’m not Franz but the guy who controls him, I have burnt half the settlemens in the world of Warhammer to the ground and made necklaces out of the heads of my enemies.
For me, the most appealing strategy games are not the ones that are based in fantasy, but rather, the ones that take place in the real world. These games not only give you control, they give you control of a timeline. They give you the ability to change the past. This is something everyone has dreamt of at some point, especially history buffs. Historical Strategy games help you experience events that altered the course of history and allow you to temper with that course. In Rome II Total War you take control of a nation in 272 BC, the time that Rome started to rise and take its place in history. Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if that never happened? How would the world look if, for example, the Seleucid Empire had gotten its shit together and conquered everything? Well, now you can find out. The mark of a great historical strategy game is knowing that the above is one of the reasons people play those games and rewarding that. For example, in Shogun II Total War, when you beat a campaign, you get a nice little cutscene that shows your nation’s seal in a building in current day Japan. It’s a small detail, but it is really satisfying. Of course, some games play up that what if? subject even more. Paradox games have converters (either official or unofficial) that allow you to take your save file and move it to another game. This essentialy allows you to craft a whole other history, since you can play from 769 to 1948 AD. Chances are, by the end of 1948, the world will look nothing like ours.
Another factor that makes strategy games so appealing is the underdog factor. Take any strategy game and open up the faction select screen. There’s two things that are there. The easy tutorial nation that eveybody plays as the first time, and the Underdog. The Underdog comes in many different shapes. The Underdog can be a faction that is currently huge but has tons of issues that, if not dealt with, will destroy the nation. Or, it can be more traditional and be a tin faction squeezed between two empires. If this was not a game, the Underdog would be dead in a few short years. However, it is a game, which is why the Underdog can triumph. Strategy game allow you to play the same event again and again and again, enabling you to make use of the knowledge you gained from previous attempts in order to overcome any difficulties you face. When you finally suceed in making the Underdog a force to be reckoned with, the satisfaction you’ll get is unparalleled.
Lastly, strategy games have HUGE replayability. A couple days ago, I was talking with a friend from Sweden. We were talking about Europa Universalis IV. You know what he said? “Oh, I’m still a noob at that game, I only have 500 hours“. 500 hours is more than 20 days of continuous play. The reason most people who play strategy games play them for so long is the sandboxy feel in them. What happens in one game will never happen again. Either by your actions or those of the AI something will change, leading to something else changing. It’s essentialy the butterfly effect increased a hundred times. Also, most strategy games offer variety in the factions you can play. The larger the scope of the game, the more variety it has. There are so many different factions, with different advantages, disadvantages and specialties. This means that you have all the tools to alter everything in the game from run to run. Bonus points if you can change the map every time you play, a la Civilization.
I hope that, with this humble article, I’ve made some of you change their opinions about strategy games. If that’s true, then consider getting one to try. be careful though: It might steal your life.
-Philip “Snowchill” Alexandris