It’s revealing that while I own a copy of Crusader Kings II (Paradox Entertainment), I barely ever play it, instead favouring 1991’s Medieval Lords: Soldier Kings of Europe (SSI). This isn’t knocking Crusader Kings II, which deserves all the praise it gets; I just have a fondness for older games from the DOS era that goes back to when I was a teenager (full story here). I’m also a great fan of turn-based strategy games with historical settings. I bring up Crusader Kings II because Medieval Lords covers much the same territory–you play as an advisor to a dynasty of your choosing and guide the various kingdoms of medieval Europe and the Middle East as kings, caliphs and sultans fight and die, nations rise and fall, and plague wipes out vast swathes of the population. Since the advisors have names and pass from heir to heir, and if you select the right options you can play against various AI-controlled advisors (or other people if they’re into crowding around the computer), I like to think of them as immortal vampires vying with each other for supremacy. A medieval secret vampire vizier cabal, if you will.
Medieval Lords has a development history that’s especially interesting to me. The creator, Martin Campion, is a history professor, and he initially developed the game as a learning tool for an undergraduate course in World Civilizations. According to this interview, he used Diplomacy in other courses to engage students in the vagaries of early twentieth century imperial politics. Medieval Lords does a better job than Diplomacy as a historical simulation, I think, mostly by introducing a much richer set of factors like religion, disease, and internal balances of power between nobles, towns and bureaucrats. The rule set is simple but elegant, even surprisingly so–this is chiefly what raises Medieval Lords from a purely educational experience into an enjoyable game. The limited parameters and elements work together to form a tapestry of shifting wars, alliances, and courtly intrigue, essentially re-creating a fascinating little world that does its own thing even when you’re just sitting around in your chosen kingdom building castles. Your own options, neatly grouped under domestic policies, diplomacy, and war, are limited but have immediate and sometimes far-reaching impact. Every turn (one year) has a set number of actions you can do, which puts on the pressure during extended conflicts and rebellions that can sap your final score. Simple rules thus lead to complex results because of meaningful relationships between actions on the part of both you and the computer AI. The geopolitical landscape present at the end of any one game is also–again surprisingly, for the simplicity of the game itself–a historically plausible one. Unlike Crusader Kings II, you don’t get situations like the Khanate of the Golden Horde conquering England, or the even more ridiculous Balkanization that took hold in the original Crusader Kings after a few decades went by. History comes out differently, but you can easily extrapolate why things occur the way they do. Since classroom discussions to that effect were the point of the game, I can see why so much care went into crafting rules that leaned towards such results.
I’m under no illusions that many other people would find the game as good as I do. The graphics were lacklustre even for 1991, taking place on a simplified map with all other actions occurring in textual form. But if this is your sort of thing and you have a historical bent with specific interest in the Middle Ages, I’d certainly give it a try–there are few strategy games out there even now that manage to represent their settings as well as Medieval Lords does. Not even Crusader Kings II.