Historical Game Spotlight: Expeditions Conquistador

by northernbeholder

So, one of the semi-regular features to appear on Northern Beholder – in between rants on game design and long essays on historical topics – is going to be the Spotlight, taking a look at a game with a historical setting (ideally, one I’ve actually played) and seeing how it matches up to my stated standards for a historical game. Our first contender is the in-development tactical RPG Expeditions: Conquistador.

Now, admittedly, this doesn’t quite meet the standards of “one I’ve actually played”, seeing as it hasn’t been released yet, but it looks promising enough that I want to get it every little bit of extra attention I can.  Part of that is motivated by my desire to see their Kickstarter project succeed – at time of writing they’re only a few hundred dollars shy of their goal.  (For those of you that haven’t heard of Kickstarter, it’s a “crowd-funding” website, where anyone with an idea can create a project page and solicit donations.  They only receive the money if they reach whatever their target goal is, so it provides incentive for potential developers to release as much information, sneak peeks, and community involvement as possible to motivate would-be backers.)

On to the game.  In gameplay terms, it’s quite a lot like King’s Bounty: The Legend.  You command a party of followers, traversing an expansive world map filled with towns, villages, enemies, secrets and sidequests. Battles take place on a separate, hex-grid map, in which you command your soldiers (who have different abilities depending on their class, armament and experience) in tactical turn-based combat.  Unlike King’s Bounty, however, each unit is not representing hundreds of men who die by their dozens in each engagement, but rather individuals who die or accumulate injuries during the course of a fight, depending on how well you command them.  You are leading a small group of adventurers rather than an army.

All that is well and good, and it seems like it’s shaping up to be a solid game mechanically speaking.  What truly excites me, however, is the manner in which they build a historical framework for the narrative and then let loose the player inside it.  The setting is 1518, but rather than Cortez landing in Central America, it’s you. From the previews the developers have released so far, the Spanish side of things seems to be modelled accurately enough, with respect to politics, architecture and equipment/technology, hitting all the right notes.  Hopefully the Aztecs and their rivals (i.e., everyone in Central America that wasn’t an Aztec) will receive equally accurate treatment – if so, they’re going to be absoutely fascinating to interact with.

There are two particularly impressive systems they have in place to both reinforce the historical themes and to allow the player to chart a course within them.  First is the quest and event system.  In addition to the “main plot”, there are a variety of sidequests issued by people, settlements and villages, as well as random events you can stumble across while travelling or exploring.  What is notable is that the developers have set up each one so that there are multiple ways to resolve a situation, whether through peaceful diplomacy, bribery, threats or outright violence.  The success of each one depends on what sorts of followers you have in your party (i.e., scholars make peaceful negotiations more likely to succeed) as well as how you’ve assigned the skills of your own character, and how you resolve a situation earlier on may have consequences later in the game.  This is quite brilliant, because it means you’re not forced into replicating history as it played out – rather than the Cortez route of murder, oppression and manipulation, you can stay uninvolved in local politics or attempt genuine negotiation and compromise.

The second system builds off the first. Each potential follower has personality traits that define how they react to your decisions, raising their morale (and thus improving their effectiveness) when you do things they like, lowering their morale (and thus degrading their effectiveness; if enough are sufficiently unhappy you may even face mutiny) if you do things they disagree with.  For instance, Pious followers are pleased when you proselytize Catholicism to the natives, diplomatically or otherwise, and become upset if you tolerate the local beliefs and customs.  Racist followers enjoy abusing the natives and attacking their culture; Open-minded followers will be horrified.  Greedy followers will cheer you on for squeezing extra payment out of quest providers, while altruistic ones will praise you for exercising restraint, and so on.  Not only does this make for an interesting gameplay mechanic of balancing the moods of your often-conflicting party members, but it provides further historical context in openly demonstrating that the parties of fortune-seekers and adventurers who pushed into South and Central America in the 16th century were not all of one mind.  Some were missionaries, some were treasure hunters, some few were truly altruistic, others were drunk on preconceptions of Spanish superiority.  It’s more context, more background, more reinforcement for the framework in which the player operates.  It also has very interesting gameplay/narrative consequences – if for whatever reason, be it lax recruitment or high casualties, an otherwise altruistic and culturally sensitive player character ends up with a party with a majority of racist or pious characters, how far will a player go to placate them and continue the adventure?  How much will they act against their principles to avoid the shame of accepting defeat and giving up their progress?  How many people in the 16th century faced a similar (if far more weighty in terms of consequences) decision?

That, right there, is what I’m on about.  That’s the framework, the contextual response, the emergent gameplay rising from player actions, that reinforces history without sitting them down and lecturing them about it.  It’s a deceptively simple set of systems, but together they can combine to create something wonderful, and may compel a great many people who would’ve otherwise remained uninformed to educate themselves regarding the history of the Conquistadores and the Spanish (as well as others) colonization of Central and South America.  I’m definitely looking forward to Expeditions: Conquistador, and you can expect to hear more on it once I’ve got my copy in hand.