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Majesty 2

(Paradox Interactive; US: 18 Sep 2009)

It is ironic that Majesty 2‘s subtitle is The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, since it simulates economy much more realistically than most games of this type often do.



The reason for the word “fantasy” in the title is, of course, not actually related to an improbable economy.  Instead it serves to describe the setting of the game as a medieval version of a real time strategy game.  In the game, the player takes on the role of the ambitious ruler of a kingdom charged with developing enough power and resources to take on a demon that has been terrorizing the land since his unfortunate release.  The player will play through a number of scenarios and maps that allow him or her to practice building an economy and developing resources to complete minor goals before taking on this central threat to the kingdom.


The game has a charming presentation in this regard.  Narrated by a Sean Connery sound-alike, fantasy inspired mission goals (build up your forces to defeat a slumbering giant before he awakens, gather enough gold from local rogues to fuel your war machine, defeat minotaurs that threaten your borders, etc.) are dictated in a whimsical way by this often pithy advisor.  The game doesn’t take itself terribly seriously and mission briefings are sometimes marked by clever bits of dialogue.  This isn’t riotously funny stuff, but it is often chuckle worthy and forcing the player to crack a smile once in awhile in a more didactic, strategic game of this sort serves as a nice break between some often challenging scenarios.


As noted, though, what is interesting about Majesty 2 is not especially its commitment to storytelling or humor but its commitment to developing the resource building mechanics that are often at the heart of combat simulations into a compelling and reasonable gameplay mechanism.  Indeed, economy is the central focus, not only in the ultimate goal of building an army sufficient to completing the goals of any given mission in the game but also in issuing orders to those minions as well.


The central conceit of majesty is that authority is derived from economy, which means that (unlike in other real time strategy games that diversify resource management and presume that once you have spent the resources to build troops that those troops will do as they are told) in this game your “loyal” followers are only loyal if you have the cash to buy those loyalties.  In other words, you don’t build a unit of rangers, clerics, or wizards and then issue them commands that they blindly follow.  Those troops must be encouraged to explore, attack specific targets, or defend specific targets by assigning those goals with “encouragements” that come in the form of the currency of adventurers of this sort: treasure.


This is an ironic means of realizing the motivations of “heroes” in a fantasy setting. What “really” motivates the legendary heroes and knights of a fantastic story, their commitment to the greater good or their loyalty to their liege? Or, is it that taking dangerous risks sometimes results in substantial material reward?  Thus, by making every element of successful troop development and management contingent on cold hard cash, the game’s mechanics are highly suggestive of that aforementioned idea that the game seems to have about the relationship between wealth and power: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”  It also means that a poorly handled economy will cause a monarch to fail miserably in any of these scenarios.


As a result, despite the whimsical, fantasy setting the game does take the business of accruing wealth and the development of a realistic economy much more seriously than a lot of real time strategy fare.  I am often struck by the almost absurdly progressive economic systems that often underlie these sorts of games.  While often starting missions in this sort of game relatively impoverished with not much access to resources, a reasonably level headed RTS player can get a pretty fearsome war machine rolling pretty quickly if they understand the right order to gather resources and the right order to create resource development buildings in and can keep that economic machinery balanced with the right types of troops to develop to keep these economic resources safe enough until a bustling if not booming economy is established. 


Indeed, the “boom” that occurs at some point in the economy of these games is wildly unbalancing and often seemingly difficult to believe.  What economy becomes so perfectly sustainable that money becomes no object, and thus, any amount of capital can be transformed into a limitless amount of troops and weapons? Basically, in a lot of RTS games, there is a point where your resource development takes off so much that building and upgrading military units is no longer difficult because you have the perfect economy underlying that development: money is no longer an object and victory is assured merely by limitless access to military power.


Majesty 2 takes an approach less American in its conception (economic progress and a sensible strategy leads inevitably to boundless wealth) but an approach to game economies that I have more often seen in European board games; reasonable limiting factors (usually some time factor that staunches the economic growth of a booming system in a board game—this usually amounts to a limited number of turns or a number of game ending factors like the depletion of a specific type or multiple types of resources that trigger a game’s ending in Eurogames) need to be in place that cause the machine of economy to eventually stall out before the player is able to just buy anything that they want.  In the case of Majesty 2, this limiter comes in the form of sometimes subtly realized “time limits” in scenarios that mean that you cannot merely hunker down in a defensive posture in one area of the map and grow the most amazing economic dynamo before releasing your limitless troops across a map. 


If there is a sleeping giant on the map in Majesty 2, he will wake up eventually and tear up your little fiefdom, so if you aren’t economically soluble enough to build a force sufficient to destroy him at that point, you aren’t going to succeed.  Additionally, if you are successful enough to build a system that can produce enough military might to challenge the giant, you can’t spend time “overbuilding” this military by simply continuing to wait until your economy blossoms into a bottomless well of war funds.  The giant’s inevitable awakening limits the economic efficiency of any system that you build by putting the kibosh on the system before it becomes unrealistically overpowering.


These mechanisms make the elements of resource development much more challenging than other RTS games, and at times, the game’s difficulty ramps up pretty quickly from scenario to scenario as factors that mitigate overpowered army building become more and more aggressive in threatening your initial set up very early on.  Often you will struggle to at least get a working economy going before some mythical beast comes tearing in to consume the market that you intended to be the bulwark of your economic development.  I grew frustrated at how quickly I was overwhelmed in some very early scenarios in the game (there are only two “novice” level scenarios that allow you to learn the basic mechanics of the game before you are launched into “advanced” scenarios”).  I suspect that as a newcomer to the series, though, that I may be missing out on not learning the system at a slower pace in the first iteration of the game.  It feels like a few additional tutorial missions might help make the game more accessible to newbies.


Nevertheless, this is a solidly designed simulation.  In particular, the idea of having to manage your “heroes” through what amounts to bribery makes this a compelling ludic satire of the romance of heroism and loyalty usually present in more fantastic stories and games.  Through the game mechanics themselves, Majesty 2 suggests that maybe we should consider myths about heroes and monsters a little more pragmatically. Our heroes may be more motivated by booty than we might like to admit.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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