In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.
Games are the great equalizer. You might be stuck in your minimum-wage job as assistant to the assistant to the intern of the head burger boy at McDonald’s, but games allow you near-infinite upward mobility. Flicking on the power button transforms you into a hero who saves the princess, a puny boxer fighting for a chance at the heavyweight title, a conquering general—or even a king. But what kind of monarch will you be? Will you be an enlightened despot, concerned with the plight of even your lowliest subjects? Or will you become drunk with power and exploit the assistant mutton-burger flippers of your kingdom? In the medieval strategy games Defender Of The Crown and Lords Of The Realm II, unpicking this Machiavellian knot may prove a more difficult task than proving the Earth is round.
George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series Game Of Thrones teaches that you can’t win a kingdom without disemboweling a few dozen pretenders to the crown. The untimely death of a monarch just brings out the worst in brazen usurpers. Both Defender Of The Crown and Lords II are zero-sum throne games. Players vie for that coveted golden hat using diplomacy, war, and a healthy amount of manure-stained, pitchfork-wielding peasants. For once, the privileged inheritor class has to earn its place in society, even though it’s the commoners who are footing the bill.
The 1986 medieval strategy game Defender Of The Crown is set in 1149. The King, fresh off a successful pillaging of the Holy Land, has bequeathed titles and wealth to his five greatest lieutenants. All but Robin Of Locksley are playable characters, each with varying levels of accomplishment in the three most important skills expected of an effective leader of men: leadership, jousting, and swordplay.
All of these skills are needed when an assassin takes the King’s life, and the crown disappears. The Normans blame the Saxons, and the Saxons likewise accuse the Normans. England is up for grabs. The game divides England into 18 contested territories, each helpfully color-coded to correspond to its current warlord.
In addition to an appalling disregard for human life, conquering England requires intangibles like guile and guts. First, one must build a campaign army. This is the unstoppable force of knights and catapult-yanking drones who will ultimately bind the island nation to your will. The battles here are a numbers game, as there isn’t even a proper “battle” screen. It’s just a ledger, with troop numbers on either side. When engaging with the enemy, you have three options: Ferocious Attack, Stand And Fight, or Wild Retreat.
So the “tactical genius” element only goes so far—you don’t exactly have to be Erwin Rommel to prevail. Whoever has the bigger army (and higher leadership rating) will generally win. You can just send wave after wave of peasants against your foes, overwhelming them with a disposable human tide. Defender is less about battlefield strategy—rather limited on the Ferocious Attack-Wild Retreat axis—than it is about maximizing comparative advantage and using your character’s particular skills to the utmost.
In addition to building and mobilizing your campaign army, each turn also allows players to hold jousting tournaments and raid castles. This is to the benefit of Wolfric The Wild, a great jouster, and Geoffrey Longsword, so formidable with a blade that his very name is a weapon. During a tourney, you either tilt for glory or for territory—the latter of which provides Wolfric with his best opportunities for quick land grabs. Longsword can fill his coffers (and deprive his enemies) by raiding neighboring castles with his superior swordplay. At the time of the game’s release, the raids were an exciting display of superior graphics on the Commodore Amiga personal computer. Today the sad 2D forays don’t have quite the same effect. Even if it’s not exactly Errol Flynn crossing rapiers with Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood, though, raiding is a quick and effective way to gain resources—and to rescue kidnapped, super-grateful Saxon maidens.
But what about Robin Of Locksley? What is he doing all this time? He’s sitting around, stuffing himself with mead and mutton, enjoying the life of a brigand prince in Sherwood Forest. He’s Switzerland in green tights. Robin does agree to get up off his arse and help you a few times in your quest to take the throne, but he’s basically content to sit back and fight a proxy war through you, hedging his bets in case you end up not being quite man enough to unite England.
The technology of 1986 limited Defender Of The Crown in many ways. There is no mechanism for resource management, an extremely limited variety of military units, and no real-time control of army sorties. The sense of accomplishment in winning the throne is muted by the knowledge that your decisions don’t have any real bearing on the outcome of individual battles. (Ferocious Attack it is.) Despite these shortcomings, Defender did lay the groundwork for many of the real-time strategy games that followed.
One of those spiritual descendants, Lords of the Realm II, was released by Sierra in 1996 and addressed many of its ancestor’s wants. Lords takes place in 1268, and this time, the war of succession occurs beyond England’s borders. Like Defender Of The Crown, you control events from afar and enjoy a god’s-eye view of the world map. Rather than recognize your obvious, rightful claim to monarchy, four staples of medieval high society, including the Countess and the Bishop, are vying to wear the crown.
This game requires leadership beyond deciding whether or not to ferociously attack. In Lords II, players must utilize raw materials by mining ore, chopping wood, and growing food. Fiscal theory comes into play, too: You need to set a progressive tax rate that won’t inspire rebellion, and the economy is run through traveling merchants who buy and sell goods. These are just the domestic concerns. Your borders are encroached upon by the other would-be kings and queens, all of them uniformly antagonistic and unpleasant.
The peasants in this game have come a long way from the voiceless, pliable multitudes of Defender. As their liege lord, you’re required to actually feed them (or sedate them with booze), or else they become unruly. Likewise, if you just draft every serf into your army and throw them straight into the meat grinder, you’ll find that your approval ratings plummet. It seems the intervening 100 years of medieval history between Defender Of The Crown and Lords Of The Realm II have improved the lot of the people substantially.
But the life of a commoner still has its risks. There are still 681 years to go before Western civilization adopts the Geneva Conventions, and peasant noncombatants are often put to the sword. Soldiers encountering workers in the field are given the prompt: “Slaughter these villagers?” This excessively low expectation of life among the poor, to paraphrase Friedrich Engels, is mitigated somewhat by new advances in weaponry. Rather than bumbling into battle with unbent ploughshares and their trusty pitchforks, your people can now be outfitted with swords, pikes, maces, bows, and crossbows. They can even be fixed up as fully armored knights. Battles still don’t require much in the way of tactics—typically, the side with the most archers and knights will triumph—but you do have to match units to the situation. The pikemen, for instance, are strong but slow defensively, and the crossbowmen deliver increased damage but lack the range of archers.
Your fellow despots won’t tolerate your warmongering for long. It’s often necessary to play them against each other. Goad the Knight into battle with a note informing him that he’s a syphilis-ridden son of a syphilitic toad. Or, if you want the Church as a temporary ally, send the Bishop a disingenuous letter detailing your utter devotion to him and the Mysteries Of The Lord. Success in this ham-fisted diplomacy mostly a matter of timing and knowing the particular tendencies of your enemies.
Using superior resource management and troop deployment, and a dash of diplomatic wiles, it’s not terribly difficult to defeat these power-mad archetypes. The real challenge in Lords Of The Realm II is internal—managing the people of your kingdom. The 13th century saw many changes in the relationships between rulers and the ruled. In 1215, the Magna Carta had established a form of constitutional law in England. Commoners were still completely subjugated by Christ’s earthly agents, but the idea of divine-right absolutism was showing the first cracks in its holy facade. Peasant life was still nasty, brutish, and short, but it was no longer completely beneath the notice of society’s elite. Keep your people fed and safe, and they’ll deliver you the kingdom. Keep their faces buried in the muck, and they’ll end up putting your crownless head on a pike next to the outhouse.