The story of William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest, like so many other stories from Medieval England, is so narratively rich it's a wonder there aren't more books and games that cover it. 1066
, a free Flash game from UK's Channel 4, engages the story with a tactical simulation of its major battles. Taken on its own merit as a tactics game, 1066
is a solid experience. As a documentary game, however, it never engages deeply enough with its history to make a meaningful impact.
Representationally, the game feels great: combat is appropriately brutal, and everything looks dirty and blood-smeared (increasingly so as your battles wear on). The Englishmen of the period were closer to Vikings than anything we imagine as "English" today, men with names like Tostig and Aethelred who fought with heavy axes
-- think Beowulf
, basically. Melee combat was more visceral, but it was also more personal, and the game gets a lot of details right about the period. Screaming insults is a major component of gameplay, for example, and you really hear the impact of arrows on flesh and bone.
Even a brilliant tactician won't be able to avoid losing hundreds of men, but the real struggle in the game is over morale: lower your opponent's morale through archer assaults, insults, and hand-to-hand combat, and their forces will slowly begin to peel off and flee. Kill their leader, and the battle may turn into a rout. This is a procedural documentary of medieval warfare: you play through the rules of an unfamiliar system, eventually making connections that reveal its hidden workings.
The moment-to-moment gameplay, however, is less authentic. There's a primary tactical component, in which you move your units around a map, but you're also asked to enact the combat, and this is where the game missteps. Each part of the battle -- the archery, the cavalry charges -- is performed by playing an arbitrary mini-game. When two units engage it melee combat, it becomes a rhythm game for you. Charging your enemies? Button-mashing. Archery? That's Tanks
. And the insults, perhaps strangest of all, are Typing Tutor
: the faster you can type the insult ("Puny potlicker!", "Low-born orc!"), the more devastating a blow it will be to your enemy's morale.
These mini-games distract from the otherwise-strong historical immersion of 1066
, and from the central tactics game. I understand the intent: an archery volley, for instance, was a difficult endeavor requiring skill, and the developers want to express that difficulty. However, abstracting the action -- having its success determined solely by unit statistics and morale -- would have been more effective than distracting players with a mini-game.
The other problem is that 1066
works best as a straightforward medieval combat simulator, and not necessarily as a re-creation of the Norman Invasion. The story is communicated primarily via skippable cut-scenes, and the battles themselves are not well differentiated. The actual history is amazing stuff (basically, the new king of England, Harold Godwinson, faced near-simultaneous invasions from the Vikings and the French Normans on opposite ends of the country; his army repelled the Vikings, marched all the way across England, and came within a hair's breadth of defeating William the Conqueror), but very little of this history comes across in the course of gameplay. Fighting the Vikings doesn't feel like fighting Vikings, but simply fighting a team that has more slow, powerful units. The Battle of Stamford Bridge, where a single Viking warrior supposedly held the bridge against forty Englishmen, is operationalized as a map with a narrow-ish passage in the middle.
In short, 1066
works fine as a tactics game (albeit with some unnecessary mini-games), but less so as a documentary game. It comes close, at times, to representing the procedural reality of medieval war, and for that alone it's worth a look. But the story of the Norman Conquest is still awaiting its great game adaptation.