Decadent: The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King: Defender Of The Crown and Lords Of The Realm II

The politics of monarchy evolve in these two games of thrones.

By Drew Toal • May 23, 2012

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.  

Defender Of The Crown

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.

Defender Of The Crown

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.

Lords Of The Realm II

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.

Lords Of The Realm II

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.

Lords Of The Realm II

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.

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42 Responses to “The Man Who Would Be King: Defender Of The Crown and Lords Of The Realm II

  1. HobbesMkii says:

    Lord of the Realms II was one of my all time favorite Sierra games. We had three 2nd installment Sierra “history” games in my house around that time: LotR II, Caesar II, and the inestimable (and still top Civil War sim) Civil War Generals 2. Each of them deserved a third installment, but only Lords and Caesar got them, and both are wild departures from their predecessors.

    The best part of Lords was that you could play different countries. Once you’d exhausted the Europe map, you were able to play individual countries like England and Ireland, and even regions like New England.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      This was a fun breakdown made much more fun by the choice in games.  Like you said, people tend to focus on the other classics in the genre because the developers had a much more tumultuous relationship with their key series than their equally famous competitors.  (But, geez, Sierra published so many great teams in the 1990s.)

      I do think the best part was the theme Drew focused on: the personal element.  I highly recommend Crusader Kings I and II as their successors.

      • dreadguacamole says:

         Crusader Kings 2 looks insanely good. I’ve been warily circling around it at a distance, because I know that when I inevitably get it, I’ll be lost to the world for months.

        • HobbesMkii says:

           I’ve been playing it since its release, and I can confirm that it’s amazing.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          It’s not just that you know it’s going to be good, right?  It’s that you know there’s so much there to find.

        • dreadguacamole says:

           @GhaleonQ:disqus: Pretty much; I have a completist streak for this sort of thing, so god help me.

      • HobbesMkii says:

         I’m not sure the Crusader King games have quite that same element. I think games like Medieval II: Total War have all of the same elements (region management, battles between armies modeled separately from the strategy map) that Lords of the Realm II did, but dressed up better. That, to me, seems like the best 1:1 translation to modern gaming.

        That said, Crusader Kings certainly has a lot to recommend it. CK2 is truly one of the best strategy games ever made.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          That’s probably true in terms of gameplay.  I’m easy to bait on aesthetics and tone, though, and the historical personages hook engages me the same way for both.

          I’m always looking for more obscure, “hardcore” strategy titles to try.  I’ve really delved into the less accessible stuff these past few years.  Any recommendations?

        • HobbesMkii says:

           @GhaleonQ:disqus Off the top of my head: DEFCON, which is a nuclear war game that’s quick to learn, long to master.

          Anything else by Paradox, if you haven’t played them already. In order decreasing of accessibility (after Crusader Kings) it probably goes Victoria 2, Europa Universalis III, and then Hearts of Iron III (which, ironically, is the most popular installment). The dream is that some day there will be a save game convertor that will allow you to play ~1000 years of history: CK2->EU3->Vicky2->HOI3.

    • Electric Dragon says:

      I played a lot of Lords of the Realm I at university, as one of my housemates had it for his Amiga. Four of us playing multiplayer on the same computer, designing our own castles, peasants starving because I’ve put them on quarter rations to afford that army. There were a few nights of “I really must go to bed now, ok just one more turn, just one more turn, oh fuck it’s dawn.”

  2. caspiancomic says:

    I’ve never played this Lords of the Realm of which you speak, but any game in which accusing people of having syphilis and lying to the clergy are viable strategic avenues has my attention.

  3. Staggering Stew Bum says:

    Holy shit I remember Defender of the Crown! We had a pirated copy of it for the Atari ST. I was terrible at it (hated the jousting and was hopeless at the castle raid swordplay), but my older brother was awesome at it and I remember watching him play this for hours at a time. Thank you GS for this little bit of nostalgia. Feel free to revisit The Bard’s Tale next and I’ll probably talk about how we used graph paper to map out the dungeons. Hmmm, this all sounds very nerdy in retrospect.

    • dreadguacamole says:

        The Cinemaware games were kind of event games even before the internet. They were incredible for their time, even if they were just a collection of minigames. This and It Came from the Desert were far and away my favorites, but there was also a rocketeer-style game, a samurai one and an Arabian-nights themed one…
       There was a C64 version of Defender of the Crown, and that’s the one I played originally. Seeing the screenshots for the Amiga version prompted an (ultimately successful) years-long campaign of attrition to get an Amiga on my house.

      • Staggering Stew Bum says:

        There was always one kid in the class who owned an Amiga, the lucky bastard.

        • Enkidum says:

          Yeah, but then the early 90’s came around and you no longer felt so jealous…

        • dreadguacamole says:

          @enkin:disqus You are extremely correct. By the time I’d wore down my parents enough to get one, Wing Commander had come out. I don’t regret anything, though!

          *edit: Sorry, I meant @enkidum up there…

        • enkin says:

          what is happening in here? o.O @dreadguacamole:disqus  

      • evanwaters says:

        It Came From The Desert is desperately in need of a modern remake.

        • dreadguacamole says:

            Let it lie! You know it’d be turned into an FPS (posh british female voice on the radio: “Aim at the antennas, Kane!”) or as a casual game…

           A modern remake of Wings, however, I could get completely behind!

      • Drew Toal says:

        Totally forgot about It Came from the Desert. Great one. The Amiga might still be my favorite gaming platform of all time.

  4. Shain Eighmey says:

    I think it’s worth considering Mount & Blade in this family of ideas. You start off as someone without any particularly special characteristics, but if you so desire you can become King of the entire country on the backs of vast peasant armies. Of course, you can also be a bandit, trader, or anything else you decide to be, but king is definitely the looming goal as the only reason you can’t become king is because you’re not trying hard enough.  

    • Effigy_Power says:

       M&B certainly has medieval combat down to a hair, as long as you leave the siege battles out of it (they are crazy… one ladder? Really?), but the political game is a big too inflexible.
      Sure, there’s a lot of things you can do behind someone’s back, but it always seems as if these things are recommended by someone else rather than your own idea.
      Then again, few strategy games have this depth of how enemy-characters react to you, so M&B probably should be mentioned in part 2 of this. It is a pretty great game.

      Incidentally, those Khergit bastards snubbed me three times now when handing out castles (which I conquered), so I packed up my stuff and took my substantial mercenary cavalry to the Nords. -shakes fist-

      • Swadian Knight says:

        The best part about the game is indeed the combat – what sets it apart from other strategic games is that it places you right there in the thick of it with your soldiers, and that is a feeling that I just don’t get when a game establishes me as a godlike entity directing the game’s events from above.

        Becoming the King of Calradia in M&B is just a goal. It’s like winning at a board game:  it’s not the fun part of the game, it’s not the reason we play. It’s just the end.

      • GhaleonQ says:

        I agree.  The series hones its gaze on the small events, not the grand strategy.

      • Shain Eighmey says:

        There are also some mods that go a great way towards helping those issues. Just looking at it, I have Native Expansion mod for Mount and Blade: Warband with the improved castles pack and Diplomacy enhancements. 

        So, I guess that’s a bit unwieldy, but it really does make for a great game. 

  5. doyourealize says:

    One of my regrets (I don’t know if that’s the right word) as a gamer is that I’ve never really been able to get into either RTS or SRPG games.  Final Fantasy Tactics, Total War, League of Legends, Might and Magic (including Clash of Heroes), King’s Bounty, Civilization (does this count?), Pirates, etc. have all been given their due time and none has captured me.  And I love strategy board games!  Reading an article like this just makes me feel even more like I’m missing something.

    • HobbesMkii says:

      I think the question to ask yourself is: What do you find lacking about those games?

      And then to look at games that address that lack. If you’re into strategy board games, then you probably aren’t far off from the target audience of most of those games, so they’re probably failing you in a way they aren’t failing me.

    • It may just be that you prefer strategy games against other human beings. Generally, the AI has one unflinching strategy (especially in scenario-based strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Starcraft), and you need to respond in a way that the developers expect you to. 

      Conversely, human beings will change their tactics on the fly. They’re unpredictable. That makes things a lot more fun. 

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

        Most recent strategy games have some form of multiplayer, usually online that should mean no shortage of human players to challenge. Especially Starcraft 2, which most people think of as a multiplayer game with a short single player component. I don’t know of anyone who just plays against the AI.

    • Effigy_Power says:

       Ah, Pirates makes me swoon… so difficult, so punishing, and yet so wonderful. The later remake is a lot more accessible and a good bit easier, so maybe you ought to give that a try?
      I do agree on Total War type games tho… I can’t think ahead for dozens of troops in real time at all… I played too much Warhammer when I was a kid.

  6. BarbleBapkins says:

    I had a version of Defender of the Crown for the NES, and as a five year-old, even a strategy game with such a limited emphasis on the “strategy” part was a little too complex for me to get a grip on. So I would mainly play it by calling as many tournaments and raiding as many castles as the game would let me before my castle was sacked. I got pretty good at the tourneys, but never could get past the second screen of the raids.

    I played it again a few years ago, and the actual strategy part was quite a bit easier than as a kid of course, but I still had no clue how to successfully fight my way into one of those stupid castles (which I guess is probably a realistic outcome for one guy just walking up to a medieval castle and impotently poking everyone with a sword).

  7. Oh man, I used to play the hell out of Lords of the Realm II. I had completely forgotten about that game. I just remembered they made a fantasy version called Lords of Magic – anybody ever play that? Was it any good?

    • HobbesMkii says:

       I did and it wasn’t, really. Its battles were turn-based with fewer units.

  8. Chris Holly says:

    I quite enjoyed Kingmaker, the PC version of the Avalon Hill boardgame. It was focused almost exclusively on your ability to weather alliances, random events, and placing the right people in charge of the right offices. There were fighty bits, but it was more of a political simulator than anything else, as I recall.

  9. I don’t think I ever won a single joust in DotC. Then again, I was always a Geoffrey Longsword man.

    Speaking of which, isn’t there one other way to gain territory in DotC? I remember getting married (another end result of a raid) and absorbing all of the territory of your new wife’s dad. Was that a different game?

    • Drew Toal says:

      That sounds possible. I was pretty young when I originally played, though, so the idea of marriage in any form was repulsive.

    • chipbunzen says:

      I grew up with DotC on the NES, on that version, I do not think I ever lost a joust with any character, just aim for the bottom left(?) of the shield if I recall correctly.

  10. huibulai says:

  11. Baramos x says:

    It’s a very simplistic game, but I always enjoyed Gemfire from Koei for my fantasy simulation games. Nowhere near as good as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games, but it was the only one with dragons and wizards.

  12. chipbunzen says:

    Man, I play the he ll out of both of these games growing up, now if they could just update the ACS (Adventure contruction set) game, I would wake up early before school and play the he ll out of that DOS game as well.

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