Breaking the Game or Beating the Game: What Happens When You Get Too Powerful


It’s June 1808 and, in perhaps the greatest comeback of human history, the Byzantine Empire is the foremost world power. Having nearly succumbed to the ravages of the younger and more powerful Ottomans way back in the middle of the 15th century, Byzantium somehow survived. Then it thrived. Its borders stretch from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It lays claim not only to Constantinople but to Cairo and to Rome. It holds colonies in Africa and in East Asia. Its standing army alone numbers nearly half a million men. Its citizens are the freest, richest and most enlightened in the known world.

The story of how it got there is a gripping one to be sure, full of daring military manoeuvres, desperate alliances and strokes of economic brilliance…

But what now?

As I played through my Europa Universalis III Byzantium game I was treated to one of the most exciting and intriguing strategy experiences in my gaming life. There were several moments across the nearly four hundred years of game-play when it all looked like it was going to collapse. Dealing with the Ottomans at the very beginning was hugely precarious, requiring every dirty trick in my arsenal just to survive. Even once I’d put them out of the running I faced a bleak strategic reality. I was a weakened Orthodox power with vengeful followers of Islam to the east and greedy Catholics to the west. I had few friends, a backward army and an even more backward attitude to science and technology. The experience of pulling my people out of that miasma of hopelessness and re-forging the greatness of the Roman Empire was tremendously rewarding.

Fast forward a few hundred years and I’ve just beaten the Spanish in yet another continental war, forcing them to release Portugal from their Iberian stranglehold and gobbling up more of their territory. Meanwhile I’ve been slapping around the Holy Roman Empire for the last few decades. Apparently they objected to my unseating the Pope from Rome. As I watch yet another Austrian army retreat from me, bloody and battered, I realise that I’m just not having fun any more. I’ve reached the singularity. In fact I probably reached it a while ago and I’ve just been in denial.

You see, there came a point, probably in about the mid 18th century, when my empire went from being an emerging world power to being a juggernaut that absolutely could not be stopped. Once there, there was just no shifting it from this lofty vantage point of economic, political and military dominance. The rest of the game was a formality. I finally realised this in 1808 and just stopped playing. Oh sure, I could have gone and finished Spain off. I could have back-stabbed my Prussian allies just for the hell of it. I could have even helped Britain stop those alarmingly successful Cornish rebels they seemed to be having trouble with. But there was no point.

Unlike the famous victories in the early and mid game where there was everything to play for and everything to lose, the end game had none of that mouse gripping tension. Each action had a foregone conclusion. I could crush those Cornish Rebels but the act would have been hollow because there was no risk. In a game like Europa Universalis, defined as it is by its emergent game-play, there always comes a point when you reach that difficulty singularity. It’s a point of no return past which the game will offer you no further challenges.

It is, of course, possible to invent your own challenges once you’re past the singularity. I could have sent a simultaneous declaration of war to every other nation on Earth. I could have released all the nations under my control or ramped up taxes and war weariness until every single citizen was a rebel. I could have done that, but these are hardly the acts of a rational and competent administration — something that (for the most part) I’d been for the entire game.

It’s not just EU3 that suffers under the yoke of the difficulty singularity. Total War is another example. There always comes a point when you realise that the Empire you’ve worked so hard to build is a self-perpetuating model of success. It doesn’t need your guiding hand any more. Just build endless troops with the endless supply of money from that incredibly well crafted economy and steam roll your way to world domination.

To their infinite credit, the designers of these games are always trying to come up with new ways to challenge the unstoppable Empire and to delay the singularity. Creative Assembly introduced the hordes in Rome: Barbarian Invasion, which were occasionally scary enough to put a serious dent in your plans. They expanded on this in Medieval 2, with the Mongol and Timurid hordes that turn up at a random place and time with a nigh unstoppable force to which several provinces must usually be sacrificed. They went even further in Total War: Shogun 2, with the entire nation of Japan turning against you once you reached a certain level of success.

All of these innovations show us that designers are acutely aware of the problem, but do they go far enough? The end-game of a grand strategy like the titles listed above has always fallen a little flat. These titles are great because they are so open-ended, because they are great at answering the “What ifs?” of history, but because they are open-ended they are also unfocused. There’s no real ‘ending’ that a developer can shoehorn in beyond a generic victory movie or a dry list of your achievements. How can we resolve this? Can it be resolved?

One of the interesting things about the Empires of history is that they’ve never disappeared in a slow and stately decline lasting hundreds of years. Every human Empire, from the Roman to the British, has suffered a short sharp dissolution of only years or decades. They take centuries to build and mere moments to collapse. Now I’m not suggesting that the reward for your hard work and hours of commitment should be an unavoidable and instantaneous decent back in to chaos. Indeed, those who wish to remember their Empire at it’s zenith can take their screen-shots and walk away feeling justifiably proud. What about those of us who want go further though? Are there other, more innovative ways to beat the singularity within the remit of the game? Could we see optional simulations of a couple of decades of inept rule or another similar mechanic?

We have seen this type of device before, of course. I remember playing Sim City on the Amiga and there was nothing more satisfying than building up a bustling metropolis, only to unleash Godzilla and a tornado on it just to see what happened. Perhaps it’s the same base instinct that causes us to build an intricate and grandiose sandcastle only to kick it all down again once we’ve finished admiring it.

It’s an admittedly fine line for developers to walk. Too many random empire-breaking events and the whole exercise would become frustratingly pointless. Angle the difficulty proportionally up with the player’s success and we’d just have a strategy version of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Yet I do think we’re missing a trick here. We’re missing an ending. Once past the difficulty singularity the game gives up and, consequently, so must we.

My Empire of Byzantium doesn’t have a heroic last stand. It doesn’t have an earth-shaking rebellion to contend with, a sacrificial war against an evil regime or any other suitable climax to crown it’s imperial glory. It has no end. It simply stops in June of 1808 because there is no-where else for it to go. After such a satisfying and challenging road to that day, it seems to me to be something of a shame. Where do we go from here? Is it too much to ask for something more?

I love these games, but I can’t help feeling they’d all be that bit richer if they paid as much attention to their endings as they did to their beginnings.

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[ 10 comments to read... submit another ]

  1. It’s a bit like when you finish a game and it restarts you with infinite ammo or similar (not New Game Plus). I think people WANT and are motivated to earn that level of safety and security and the end-goal is often “I have an invincible army” “I have an untouchable character” etc, but once you actually get it the game can get dull fast.
    It’s hard to introduce something appropriate to the difficulty curve that isn’t also potentially very frustrating.

  2. What about if you could have the option of taking control of another country or Empire, the AI takes over yours and you have to try and beat the army that you’ve built up?

  3. Not sure if I’d dig on that too much. It’d feel too much like crushing the sandcastle I’d just made.

    Sometimes, though, when I’ve achieved shitloads in Football Manager and have become bored, I just retire and go on ‘holiday’ and keep track of my world destroying team without me in charge, watching as it continues to rule the footballing world. Or crashes and burns without my guiding hand. Either one is kinda fun.

  4. Really well written article and I completely agree, something like this would be nice to see. Of course I’d recommend it be an on/off option as there are just times when you want to see the entire map painted in your national colour.

    This does remind me of a game I had in EU:Rome, where after building an extremely large empire, with huge amounts of troops and gold, a general declared independent (of course all his troops were loyal to him) and he was branded an enemy of the state. The problem was roughly half of my empire also declared loyalty to him, and the result was a huge series of wars and close calls.

    I would love to see for example, in Empire: TW, is the USA just to take over the 13 colonies after a decent amount of time – regardless of who controls them, and make it extremely difficult to half their expansion in america.

  5. For EUIII a simple “overextension” malus, with huge penalties will do the trick to put you down, unless you achieve several criterias in innovation/free subject and administrative skills ? Also, try to empowered a bit the muslim/chinese, they tend to get huge also, and you can start an XVIIIth century full scale war between sveral blobs, its always fun. :) .

  6. Definately the “paradox” of sandbox games. Open ended means you set your own goals, and are capable of doing anything. Sandbox also means you that there is no typical conflict, climax and resolution story structure. I like how you coin the term “singularity” in here.

    However, I think that a scalable difficulty AI might help in a situation like that. The bigger you get, the more other nations try to become large behemoths. The problem is that most of the AI’s have a limited historical scope. Most nations play like real rulers, not like humans. If I was playing MP against that Byzantine I would have picked GB, dominated Scandinavia and gone for a powerful Northern navy to counter the southern.

    I used to love playing CIV IV like it was a career. The AI did a great job in that at keeping up with the human player. The best games were ones where two sides became equally powerful and huge during the cold war era. I played heavily modded (Rise of Mankind) so there were tons of unique nations and super nukes that could vaporize tiles into water filled craters. It was a “blast” to consolidate a continent and then go to nuclear war with another continental power. The result, the world becomes a radioactive wasteland. Small powers that survived or new revolters now have the chance to balloon into new empires on the ashes of the old. Then I’d go for domination or space victory.

    The coolest part about that mod though is that when your cities revolted, you could take over and play as the revolutionaries. It was hard in that game to take a few feeble new world colonies and build a continental empire to match the opposition. The old world countries had so much momentum it was really tough to keep up. But not impossible.

    So there you have it, my favorite two disruptions for sandbox gaming, colonial uprising and complete thermonuclear annihilation, lol. If only Paradox made a game that spanned all eras like civ.

  7. I would say that, to an extent, Crusader Kings II solves this kind of unstoppable power and stability. Sometimes things can go very wrong, very fast- especially in larger empires. Your desired heir unfortunately dies and puts his homosexual, arbitrary, lazy, cowardly, diff. culture (all round useless) cousin on the throne?

    You’re going to have some serious problems, this happened to me once as Scotland when some random distant and rubbish relative took over after the untimely death of my only son. The Kingdom collapsed almost immediately and I was usurped back down to Duke of Moray again!

  8. The greatest feature of these games is their mod-ability. You are not the only player who feels a lack of challenge. For EUIII there are a wide range of mods you can play to add to the vanilla game. I played more of the Magnus Mundi mod for EUIII than I ever did of the base game.
    As opposed to the vanilla game where expansion is almost always a good thing, the mods can give you harsh penalties for over-expansion and wrong culture/religion provinces. Becoming an unstoppable juggernaut is much harder when facing local unrest and an over burdened bureaucracy.

  9. @Jake In EU3 it’s actually possible to save the game and reload it as any of the other countries in the world at any time. So I could reload and play as Mali for a couple of decades and then switch back to Byzantium to see what happened. The problem is that the AI often does nothing much at all with its new game breaking empire. Either that or it goes utterly hog-wild and you’re in an even worse position than before.

    @iontom Scaling AI that tries to match you in size would be a huge help, but you’d have to be careful that such a feature didn’t remove any sense of progression. Your analogy to the multi player is a useful one though. I haven’t played it but I imagine it’s even more satisfying when several nations are controlled by people.

    @Grizz I haven’t played Crusader Kings III yet – to my eternal shame. I’ll definitely take a look at it now.

  10. Excellent post. Really good analysis of the quandary of sandbox games and the ways in which designers try to tackle the problem (or if it is tackle-able (word??) at all…).

    Most TW games I’ve played ended with similar results as the article mentions. However, in Empire:TW, if you played a European faction on hard difficulty and hadn’t made a dent in India, by about mid campaign, you’ll see the Marathas gain hegemony east of Turkey…and this is where the real fun begins.

    Trying to wage a war against the Marathas post mid-campaign becomes a real struggle as they have so many resources that you really have plan your strategy accordingly (i.e. where to strike to reduce income) as opposed to just saying “hey, there’s the enemy…let’s attack them!”

    Great post!

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