In search of Cathay: exploring historical strategy games set in China

This post discusses some of the notable games that explore the history of China – a fascinating subject crying out for more attention.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Any discussion of strategy games set in China must begin with KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, whose first game dates to the NES.

Set amidst the civil war that followed the fall of the Han Dynasty — the same period that inspired the Chinese classic novel, the Dynasty Warriors games, and assorted movies, TV shows, and anime — these games are mechanically as well as thematically notable.

Along with KOEI stablemates such as Nobunaga’s Ambition, and Paradox’s Crusader Kings, these are some of the very few character-driven strategy games in existence. Every action in ROTK, from building a granary to leading an army, is assigned to (and performed by) named characters. ROTK’s characters form a cast of thousands, taken from history and the pages of the novel (there is also the potential to create custom officers)

Within the series, individual games vary. I have very fond memories of playing ROTK XI, a micromanagement-intensive but engaging game whose cel-shaded graphics and hand-drawn art remain lovely today.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by ROTK XIII, the latest in the series. Like some of its predecessors, XIII is a RPG/strategy hybrid that allows players to play as low-ranking officers or governors, as opposed to faction leaders, and work their way up. In theory, this is brilliant. In practice, life as a junior officer in ROTK XIII plays out as Ancient Chinese Workplace Simulator. I spent my time clicking through menus to fulfil orders, waiting for progress bars to fill up, and occasionally networking with fellow officers. (More subjectively, I didn’t like XIII’s art style compared to its predecessors, or for that matter, Nobunaga’s Ambition.)

For those interested in the ROTK series, I would recommend XI, which is available for digital purchase.

Completing a task in Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII.

Oriental Empires

Flawed and fascinating, Oriental Empires (currently in Early Access) is a bundle of interesting ideas that — based on a playthrough in late September/early October 2016 — fail to cohere into a good game. In particular, it feels caught between two conflicting paradigms. Its overall structure is that a conventional 4X game like Civilization, depicting the Warring States of pre-Imperial China. Hidden inside is a more radical idea: a game about maintaining the internal stability of an empire.

On its surface, Oriental Empires is very much about the Warring States. The map is filled with multiple civilizations, each of which represents a kingdom or tribe that existed before the unification of China. Nobles are still implied to be a powerful force within society, as they were in the Warring States. Most of the game’s tech tree is pre-imperial — a thousand years of imperial history are relegated to the final era.

The trick is that the other players aren’t the real challenge: I won a cultural victory without going to war against a single other player. Instead, Oriental Empires’ most interesting mechanic (and its greatest challenge) is the way it handles internal dissent. Each city has a separate unrest level for nobles and commoners, and while the nobles are easy to keep happy, the commoners are dangerous. Drought — a random event — produces unhappy commoners. Famine produces unhappy commoners. And crucially, whereas most 4X games encourage the player to build and improve their cities, doing this in Oriental Empires produces unhappy commoners: when tile improvements and buildings go up, Oriental Empire assumes that the work is done by commoners drafted for corvee labour.

When rebellions do break out, they can be very dangerous. The game has several types of military unit, including nobles, regulars, and militia; while militia are cheap, they tend to defect to nearby rebels. On top of that, multiple unhappy cities can set off a chain reaction. Once, I had to reload after being bankrupted by a death spiral. The parallels to history — including the fall of China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin — felt strong.

Unrest can be defused through different national policies; happiness-boosting buildings such as theatres, temples, and courthouses; favourable random events (such as good harvest); maintaining a garrison – of regular troops, not militia – assigning a city governor, or a slow cooldown. It can be better not to overbuild in the first place. The take-away is that there is a trade-off between growth and stability, and a wise ruler will avoid making the historical mistakes of the Qin.

Overall, while Oriental Empires is difficult to unconditionally recommend (unless it’s improved as a strategy game since I played it), I found it sufficiently intriguing (and aesthetically pleasing) not to regret my purchase.

Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom

Recently listed for sale on GoG, this is a charming entry in the City-Building series best known for Caesar I-IV. I’ve enjoyed the limited time I’ve spent time with it.

Mechanically, Emperor is close to what I remember of Caesar III. City-dwellers’ houses, which upgrade into progressively grander forms as citizens’ needs are met, are serviced by walkers sent out from nearby buildings. To keep the walkers on track, the player can even deploy roadblocks and walls. The city’s needs include food, water, entertainment, religion, commodities, and more – the standard building blocks of a city builder.

What lends charm is the game’s flavour. The introductory campaign begins in prehistoric China, where the player’s settlement cultivates millet. New commodities such as wheat and jade are introduced through trade with other settlements, representing the development of the material culture we think of as “Chinese”. Within the city, instead of Caesar III’s lion tamers, there are acrobats and musicians. Throwing a festival for New Year will result in a lion dance making its way around town.

From my time so far, this is a solidly executed example of the city-builder formula; worth a look for those interested in its theme.

Building a town in Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom

Also published on Medium.

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