Conquest Timers: The Artificial Padding of Grand Strategy Games

by northernbeholder

As a gamer, I’m a fan of a good grand strategy game.  While their universal ability to consume whole days of time means they don’t form a regular part of my gaming schedule purely for reasons of self-preservation, every now and again I will indulge and sink my teeth into a meaty title just long enough to conquer whichever slice of the world (or galaxy) is on offer today.  Such games come in both turn-based (Civilization, Total War) and real-time (Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings) offerings, and they key differences between them and other titles is the way in which their gameplay represents the passage of years of time, and the available playing field spans continents or whole worlds.  In a grand strategy game, you do not control an army, but whole nations – and the depth of the game systems from cultural to economic to diplomatic reflects it.  The scale on which the player operates is such that individual armies and battles are often abstracted away with unit markers and dice rolls, rather than being the focus (the famous exception being the Total War games, which offer both a turn-based grand strategy map and the ability to directly control your armies in real-time combat).

No matter which style of gameplay they fall into, however, all grand strategy games face the same problem: How to stop a player from simply overrunning their opponents and bringing the game to a close quickly once they begin to gain an advantage.  The solutions vary, and some are far, far worse than others.

The root of the problem lays in logistics.  Whatever sort of marker is used to denote territory – whether cities, provinces, or star systems – the economic systems of the game invariably depend heavily upon controlling them. Control of territory allows for resources to be exploited, taxes to be collected, and infrastructure to be constructed.  Because territorial control is a zero-sum game, some participants will inevitably become more powerful than others, allowing them to more easily conquer more territory, making them even more powerful, and so on in a ‘snowballing’ effect (so named for the manner in which a snowball will accrue more and more snow to itself if rolled along the ground).  While both AI and human players can find themselves in such a position (with Europa Universalis III infamous for AI-controlled France forming the ‘big bleu blob’), it’s the human player who inevitably has both the smarts and the will to not only fully exploit their new advantage, but find ways in which to start the feedback loop earlier and earlier into the game,  ultimately trivializing the experience.  Attempting to counter or slow this exponential rate of expansion is what has led to game designers introducing various systems to roadblock rapid conquests and extend play-time for individual campaigns.

It is the Europa Universalis series which has developed what I find to be the most refined and least irritating approach to containing the rapid expansion of successful nations, and it centers around the diplomacy systems.  Every nation, whether player or AI, has a statistic called ‘infamy’.  It is, as the name suggests, a measure of how much of an evil warmonger you are perceived to be.  The higher your infamy score, the more difficult it is to retain positive relations, the more your nation’s prestige (another metric) suffers, the more unrest your provinces experience, and the more likely you are to have alliances form against you.  If your infamy crosses a certain threshold (the height of which can be modified by various player-controlled mechanics) provinces will begin to openly revolt and all other nations have free cause to declare war, until your infamy drops down once more.

Infamy is controlled by player actions, chiefly revolving around warfare.  If a nation does not have what is considered by the others to be a valid casus belli (cause for war), attacking another nation immediately incurs infamy.  Depending on which casus belli (if any) was used to justify a war and whether or not the provinces which changed hands were considered ‘core’ to the aggressor nation by the others, demanding lands during a peace treaty can swiftly spike infamy upwards, as can other terms of settlement.  Assorted unwholesome actions such as espionage and assassination can also incur infamy costs, if the party is caught in the act.  These factors, combined with the fact that territory conquered in war is merely ‘occupied’ with only a fraction of the benefits of true ownership unless and until it can be formally signed over in a peace treaty, mean that a nation’s aggression and expansion need to be carefully measured lest they wish to face all their neighbours united against them.  Conversely, and key to the system, losing a war, losing or giving away territory, releasing vassals, and so forth all contribute to actively lowering a nation’s infamy score much faster than its natural slow degradation over time, so a nation on the back foot can get back into the fight more quickly.  Also key to the system is the AI behaving rationally in diplomacy and particularly in signing peace agreements, not forcing a player to acquire huge amounts of infamy just to get a quiet moment.

In contrast, I have recently found the artificial limitations used by Empire: Total War (a 2009 release to the series which moved the depicted era from medieval times to the 18th century) to be by far the most irritating. Empire has two systems it uses to slow expansion: Unrest, and diplomatic reputation.  Unrest is both a passive setting that increases with population, kept in control through tax policy, policing garrisons and certain infrastructure, and an active one which arises when conquering a new territory.  It is in the latter context which unrest becomes an impediment to enjoying gameplay, because Empire’s design is such that any new conquered territory will be in a state of revolt for anywhere from five to ten turns after conquest (longer if it was a former capital).  Being in a state of revolt means that free armies will spawn and attempt to take back the territory.  The existence of such an army prevents unrest from lowering, will gather further units to its banner as long as it exists, will destroy infrastructure in the territory until hunted down, and if it successfully conquers the territory will immediately return it to the original nation’s control (with some exceptions; certain areas such as North America or France will spawn revolutionary armies, who will form their own, new faction if they conquer a territory).  This can be a tremendous drain on the economy for the player, though as the AI will simply cheat itself more money, it doesn’t get affected.

Because of this, the player’s army is tied down in the new territory until such time as the period of revolt ends and a sufficiently large garrison force is ready to replace it – because even once the original revolt threshold is passed, the territory remains extremely unhappy for many more turns afterwards, and if there are insufficient soldiers in place to keep the population pacified open revolts may start again.  Now, as a reflection of how nationalist pride and scattered military units might accurately react to a foreign occupier this is all well and good; but as a gameplay mechanic it’s simply maddening.  I stopped playing my last campaign because my conquest of India was moving at a snail’s pace, not due to any resistance offered by the Maharatha Confederacy whose forces I had utterly crushed in the opening engagements, but because my four full-capacity armies of well-armed and superbly-trained infantry, cavalry and artillery had to waste anywhere from five to ten turns sitting on a city after capturing it, after which I faced the further joy of building and routing dozens of militia formations to keep the populace repressed for the next ten to fifteen turns.  The sheer amount of micro-management and artificial padding involved in dealing with the new territory sucked all the joy out of the gameplay, and although I had unequivocally won the war I lost the will to spend hours very slowly mopping up the map.

The fact that I had to engage in any such mop-up at all is due to the core issue with the second of Empire’s conquest limiters, diplomatic reputation.  The diplomatic AI in the Total War games is, and always has been, absolutely laughable.  They are at all times utterly incapable of any rational action, will never sign a reasonable peace treaty, and in fact frequently will not make any concessions whatsoever, even if you have their last city and its mighty garrison of two hundred armed peasants surrounded and besieged by thousands of professional soldiers supported by an artillery train whose total firepower is measured in megatons.  Thus, even though I had thoroughly beaten the Maharathas and they had no hope whatsoever of halting my advance, I still had to slog my way through manually besieging, capturing, and pacifying each and every city and fortress they owned rather than simply gaining the territories I desired via treaty.  Doing this of course negatively affected my diplomatic reputation, because I was being a merciless warmonger.  “Fair enough,” you might say, “You sort of are being a merciless warmonger over there.” I was!  The growing negative perception of my nation was, in fact, wholly justified in this case.  However, in Empire, your diplomatic reputation is soured by conquering territories regardless of the circumstances.  This includes not only imperialistic expansion into India, but also, say, defending yourself when France declares war.

Because the diplomatic AI will refuse to sign any sort of reasonable peace treaty (and, four times out of five, any peace at all), any war is effectively a war to the death.  This means if the French decide to attack you, you either put up with them raiding your territories and disrupting your trade routes for the rest of the game, or you conquer and absorb (Empire does not have any sort of ‘occupation’ mechanics like Europa Univeralis; win the siege, it belongs to you) their entire empire.  There is no middle ground available.  And if you take the sensible choice of dismantling their empire, you are the one to suffer massive penalties to your diplomatic reputation, even though they were the ones who started the war and refused to stop fighting.  It gets even better if you have alliances with other nations, as they will then drag you into any wars they start or have declared against them.  Naturally any actions you take to defend your ally reflect badly on you, and if you choose to break the alliance instead, you receive a whole big chunk of negative reputation immediately.  Having a poor reputation makes other nations less likely to ally with you (no big loss), trade with you (foreign trade is a huge part of the game’s economy, and this will hurt greatly), and more likely to declare war – a war which they will refuse to end, even when losing, forcing you to conquer all their territory to get peace and, of course, ruining your reputation further in the process.

Two game studios faced the same problem – limiting exponential expansion – and enacted two superficially similar but functionally radically different solutions.  Europa Universalis forces the player to be intelligent and canny with their foreign policy in order to extract the most gain out of any conflict while minimizing the impact to their reputation, encouraging the use of multiple game systems to work with and around the limiter and serving to enhance the overall experience.  Empire: Total War forces the player to  have exactly one foreign policy (‘self defense’) and then punishes them harshly for enacting it.  The failure of one central game system (diplomacy) has reverberating effects throughout the player’s economy and gameplay, ultimately serving only to detract from the experience.  My respect to Paradox Interactive for designing the one which works.