The Strategy Gamer: Leadership


March, my people, into battle. Even though you are 500 miles away, and radios have not yet been invented, instantly obey my commands. It’s good to be the king.

Strategy games often put the player in the stated position of king or emperor, allowing them to guide a nation in totalitarian fashion. It is an odd paradox that while so many games put you in a position of supreme leader, so few model it with any degree of authenticity. Games like Civilization are wonderful, but having absolute control of all aspects of my empire at all times does not makes me feel like a leader. Such a state makes me feel like a god. There’s nothing wrong with that. God games, like Starcraft 2, are hugely entertaining and popular. But if I want to be a leader, really feel like it is to be in charge and yet not have total control, I have to go elsewhere.

Thankfully, in the last several years, developers have put more of a focus into what leadership in a game world should look like. Notions like challenges to your rule, relationships with other characters within your nation, and lack of absolute control are becoming more and more commonplace. Let’s look at the way leadership is modeled in the titles below.

Tropico 4

Tropico is my favorite city building sim for a variety of reasons, but the most prevalent one is this: the entire game model is built on making you feel like the dictator of a small Caribbean island. The game isn’t Sim City with a reggae beat- this is a game centered on leadership. The real-life problems of a dictator’s power struggles are your problems. If the people don’t like your rule, you can oppress them with the military. But perhaps you’ve made your military too strong: they may oust you from power. Russia and the United States getting you down? Be very careful, as they may invade and remove you from your seat.

For all its humor and island styling, Tropico 4 was an extremely detailed simulation of the limits of power. Your dictator was even depicted roaming about the island. You could supervise projects, making your people work faster. You could deliver speeches, convincing the people of the rightness of your rule. You were even forced from time to time to run for election, impressing upon your citizens the need to vote for you (though you could manipulate the result, to reflect the people’s true feelings about you). The island was split into many different factions, religious folks, environmentalist, the intelligentsia, and keeping them all in line and happy was a difficult task. Anger them, and they might not only decline to vote for you: they could rise in open rebellion. Tropico 4: the quintessential island leadership sim.

Crusader Kings 2

Paradox has taken to referring to Crusader Kings 2 as a strategy RPG. For the amount of detail placed in depicting realistic leadership in the medieval era, I think this proves an apt description. Though you do have the map overview with the ability to coordinate the movements of your armies over large spaces, you’re largely restricted by the bounds of medieval leadership. There are no standing armies (at least, not until the Legacy of Rome expansion launches later this year), and while you can call out troops from your own lands, large portions of your army will consist of troops from your vassals. While they may be sworn to defend you, their zeal is affected largely by their opinion of you. Loyal vassals will bring many more soldiers to the fight than ones who dislike your rule. And disloyalty can eventually breed rebellion.

The game forces the main problem of medieval leadership onto the player: vassal management. Awarding honorary titles, bribes, and, in some cases, additional lands to secure loyalty of vassals is necessary for your house’s survival. Too much doting on a noble, however,  can make them too strong and could result in their desire to seize your crown for themselves. It’s a classic balance issue, one at the heart of any leadership situation, be you King of England, Sultan of Persia, or the dictator of the Republic of Tropico. Additionally, you’re portrayed in the game as the head of your family, meaning you have children to raise and marry off, a line of succession to secure, and perhaps a distant relative raising arms as a pretender to the throne. The depth of the authenticity of this simulation cannot be understated, which is why CK2 is at the forefront of its genre.

Total War: Rome, Shogun 2, Empire, Medieval 2 and Napoleon

The Total War series certainly follows the god game-leadership model, at least on the surface. You tend to have total control of your units during the RTS style battles (there are rare exceptions, but for the most part you do), and control over all the cities and armies in your empire during the turn-based grand strategy portion. However, the RTS battles include some distinct leadership aspects. Your general is a presence on the battlefield, leading a small group of soldiers and inspiring the units around him to higher morale. The general is also capable of rallying soldiers when they break and run, a key factor in the on-the-battlefield leadership model. And, of course, if your general is killed, your soldiers have a tendency to collapse completely. The importance of that person in command is expressed manifold in that general unit.

The turn-based leadership side of the Total War series has evolved considerably over the years, culminating in the expansive loyalty model in Total War: Shogun 2. Non-faction leader generals are rated for loyalty- meaning that ignoring their needs could lead to dangerous rebellions, at the head of your own well-trained troops. Loyalty must be managed, through the awarding of titles, through marriage or even through adoption. The notion of vassal management is not confined solely to CK2, but is also deeply involved in Total War. Total War: Rome 2 was recently announced, and I’m sure we can look forward to additional tweaks to the loyalty interface. Rebellion and civil war was a defining characteristic of both the Roman Republic and the Empire. It should surely be present, and portrayed in a significant and interesting fashion.

Majesty 2

What better way to break the god-game aspect of RTS games than removing control over units from the player? Majesty 2 does just that. As a leader, you make choices, favoring one guild over another, hiring units, and placing bounties and flags. But here, your units do all of the work for you. You’re not going to be out there ordering four knights to attack the troll. You’ll be making suggestions and hoping your units behave as ordered. That may sound frustrating to some, but it’s a really compelling premise, and creates a unique RTS experience.

And really, what sort of leader has total control over their units? Most RTS games allow you to build up huge armies, sending them out en masse. With a couple of key strokes, you can focus the fire of 30 units on one enemy, instantly destroying them. Majesty 2 goes to a bit of an extreme in the other direction, but provides a more true-to-life experience. Leaders don’t have absolute control over their minions. Ordering someone to sacrifice themselves for the cause is one thing, but will that person actually do that? Walking into the cave and fighting the monster is a terrifying prospect. The lack of total control makes it an even more difficult one.

Leadership is a compelling balancing act. Gaining and maintaining power is a very difficult thing, and when games portray it well, it can be a very entertaining process. Next year should see a host of entirely new leadership simulators (Europa Universalis 4, Total War: Rome 2, Tropico 5). I can’t wait to get my empire on.


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Author: Tony Odett View all posts by
A member of the Perfectly Sane Show crew and's Features Editor, Tony brings the smart and funny (and the rapine and pillage...). Also known as The Strategy Gamer, Tony declares it his duty to get as much coverage as possible for what should be everyone's most loved genre.
  • Bediende

    I really appreciate the author’s perspective on the genre. The strategy game industry does best when it at least tries to grapple with concept of realism.

  • Luaan

    So… Did you love Master of Orion 3? I mean, except for the fact that a lot of it was not exactly well polished (and the combat was bad IMO). I loved it exactly for this reason – you were supposed to play a leader of a nation, not a god. You delegated. Things happened not just based on your input, but also because of things you’ve done a hundred turns ago, based on loyalty and such. I’d like to have that explored further, it’s a shame the game was not well received.

  • Napoleon1066

    I think the big issue with MoO3 was a lack of developer support. The game launched with issues, sure, but after a few bad reviews, they pulled support, and left so many problems unfixed.

    Every time someone says Masters of Orion, I tell them to look at Stardock’s Galactic Civilization 2. Give that game a shot. Tends to be really cheap on Steam.

  • Thanks for the good will!

  • Luaan

    Yeah, that’s what I thought as well. The game suffered from a huge backlash, IMO mostly based on it’s dissimilarity to the previous MoO games.

    And yup, I like GC2 🙂 And a lot of other games in the genre, like Space Empires V.

    And if you think about it, a lot of games make you play “god” in some form – be it precise control over every aspect of your fake civilization, or shooting thousands of aliens who are completely powerless against the size of your EGO, Inc. And of course, I like those games too – it’s just that there is a distinct lack of games that allow (or require) you to delegate. You don’t (usually) order individual dwarves around in Dwarf Fortress – but even then, you just assign them jobs to do for the rest of their life. Do we really like playing gods so much? 😀 (of *course* we do :P)