A Failed Diplomacy

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  • I’m considering naming the gate at Iconium.

    It’s starting to feel like home now, you see. I’ve been playing a lot of Medieval II: Total War lately, ‘cause any game that gives you things like horse archers and landsknechts and schiltrons is a game I’m keen on playing. The Total War series is guaranteed to have those things in various combinations, so every few years I pick up a new incarnation and pander to my inner Black Prince for a bit.

    [pullquote]the most I can do is replace my losses during the two-or-three turn downtime until another army ambles up the road to its doom. I have no idea how Egypt keeps this up.[/pullquote]

    This time around, I’m rocking the Bosphorous as the Turks. They’re a fun faction to play, if a bit slow to get going, but if you manage to consolidate things and not overextend yourself, you’re in good shape once you move up the tech tree and start pumping out janissaries.

    My plan was to grab a few rebel territories, ally with Egypt to the south, and prepare for an assault on Constantinople that would cripple the hated Byzantine Empire to the north.

    That all went belly-up when Egypt betrayed me.

    In and of itself, this isn’t a big deal. You expect these things from time to time – it makes the game more interesting and challenging. Mixes things up a bit.

    Here’s how the Turko-Egyptian war has played itself out so far:

    1) Egypt sends a full-stack army to siege my nearest city – in this case, Iconium.

    2) Several turns pass while Egypt builds siege towers, ladders, and rams. I used to send a relief force at this point, but I don’t bother anymore.

    3) Egypt attacks.

    4) The attack falters. Iconium’s walls are thick, and I’ve covered them with archers. Swordsmen meet any poor saps who try to assault the walls proper, spearmen blunt any charge through the gates, and catapults that try to move into range are slaughtered wholesale outside the gates by hundreds of Wild Weasel Turkoman horse archers I keep in reserve for just such an eventuality.

    5) Every single soldier in the besieging army dies.

    6) No, really – I used to let a few escape, but the hell with that. Now I make it a point to hunt down every straggler. Two thousand-ish men, dead or captured beneath the gates of Iconium.

    7) I offer to ransom the prisoners, but Egypt is bankrupt and can’t afford it, so they all get the axe. Oh well!

    8) Egypt’s ambassador, stationed next to my capital city, demands that I become Egypt’s vassal.

    9) Repeat.

    I’ve spent the past 20 years of in-game time staring at this stupid gate, watching yet another wave of Egyptian conscripts gradually realize that they’re all going to die for nothing. My economy is in shambles – the most I can do is replace my losses during the two-or-three turn downtime until another army ambles up the road to its doom. I have no idea how Egypt keeps this up.

    There is a realistic possibility that I’ve killed every military-aged male the Sultan can muster, and he can’t have any money* left, but that doesn’t seem to stop him. He’s not even expanding elsewhere. The sole focus of the reborn Egyptian dynasty is on this one city that I happen to own, and they seem to think that their death spiral of crushing defeats are somehow a sign of progress.

    *There is a possibility that the game is cheating.

    If there isn’t a better video game representation of the underlying philosophy behind Monty Python’s Black Knight, I’d like to see it. Would the “Just A Flesh Wound Gate” be too on the nose? “Gate of Broken Dreams”, or “Argument For Uninstallation Gate” are starting to sound appealing.

    It’s not reasonable to expect the AI in any game to be perfect, but the war Egypt has declared on me has only had the effect of causing both sides to lose. Just now, the Mongols invaded, which is very bad for both sides considering we’re the first two major civilizations in their way.

    Egypt has completely abandoned the defense of its Western provinces, merrily sending another army of soon-to-be-dead men at me while tens of thousands of Mongol horsemen led by guys named “Batu the Cruel” and “Asudai the Mauler” rampage throughout the Middle East. I’m about to be run over by the Horde, whose troops are better and more numerous than mine, but they’re going to kill Egypt first, a fact which doesn’t seem to bother Egypt in the slightest.

    Egypt cares more about me losing than it does about Egypt winning.

    This isn’t a problem unique to Medieval II – you could argue it’s present to some degree in most games. The player’s experience is paramount, because it’s up to her whether or not she keeps playing the game. Zachary Comstock can’t ragequit in Bioshock: Infinite, Arcturus Mengsk will never disconnect when you’re pounding on him in Starcraft. You don’t have to account for their egos by giving them a surmountable challenge or a reward system – they’re just there to get in the player’s way.

    Big-picture strategy games have a built-in solution to this problem in that AI factions can present a challenge and even win the game without directly confronting the player. I’ve had games of Medieval II where I’ve had to scramble because a distant faction was approaching a win condition – a faction I didn’t even bother to engage in diplomatic relations with. If said faction is even within spitting distance of me, however, the AI seems to be programmed to think of itself as Ramsay Bolton and me as Reek.

    Anyone who’s played Civilization 5 and has tried to trade luxuries has experienced this weird minor insanity – propose a fair one-for-one deal of ivory for gems, for instance, and the sociopath on the other end of the deal is likely to counter with something like “I’ll give you gems, if you give me ivory, cotton, gold, more money per turn than is actually mathematically possible, all your children, and military access.” Then he (usually Gandhi, for some inexplicable reason) will get offended when you refuse and denounce you to the world.

    In practice, this leads to some self-defeating behavior. You can wage economic warfare in Medieval II by way of merchants, who can be sent to exploit tradable resources on the world map. If you spot an enemy merchant, you can suffer a short-term loss in profit by having your merchant leave his own resource and try to put the other merchant out of business. What generally happens is that the moment you send out a merchant pretty much anywhere, he’ll shortly be subject to a parade of enemy (and allied – this is a cold war) merchants trying to seize his assets.

    I had one poor guy once trying to trade timber for a measly five florins a turn set upon by an allied merchant who had left his two-hundred florin a turn wine trade to try to send my guy to the poorhouse. The worst part is, he failed, so now my merchant is importing wine and the other faction lost out on guaranteed income out of… what? Spite?

    I’m trying to imagine a game where the AI just plain doesn’t care about the player until the player actually warrants its attention. It’s not that I don’t want to be attacked. One of the best battles I ever fought was a siege in which I was forced to pull back to the city square, pumping round after round of explosive cannon fire into the advancing enemy while my men plugged a breach. The issue is when I have to fight battles like that all the time because one faction went crazy and declared Forever War on me. The programming challenges here must be immense, because it happens in game after game after game.

    The Mongols are advancing. I’ve decided that I’m going to bleed them every step of the way. The Byzantines may be a bunch of jerks, but their wars against me were limited, almost polite. I’ll give them a fighting chance – the chance Egypt (which is now probably renamed “Southwestern Mongolia”) never gave to me.

    What a world we could have built. Oh, well. The Mongols approach the Gate of Screw You, Sultan Jerkface. I mean to do everything possible to make them lose.