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Retro Review: History 101 and Romance of the Three Kingdoms


Who says video games don’t teach us anything? Whether you have learned all that you know about weapons from the Call of Duty franchise or you picked up some Hindu/Japanese/Norse mythology from the Final Fantasy series, it appears we’ve possibly learned a thing or two about the world around us, if only by accident.

Romance of Three Kingdoms is one such game, where history and gaming unite to create the most unlikely of combinations. The aforementioned game is a digital representation of the book Romance of Three Kingdoms, a classic novel from Chinese literature that takes place during the Han dynasty.  The book details hundreds of characters, many with complete story arcs and are controllable in-game. Our in-game story is part history, legend, and mysticism and begins in the year 189 A.D.  Some of these characters have become larger than life in China, deified and worshiped, with replica artifacts created and dedicated to their legend (e.g. Guan Yu).

There have been many incarnations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, beginning with the NES version (in America) and finding its way onto most every system over the last 30 or so years. In 1997 the series deviated from the strategy genre into  hack and slash with Dynasty Warriors, spawning eight sequels and counting.  Though I enjoyed the first few versions of Dynasty Warriors, I digress…let us get back to Romance.

I was fortunate to find the game at a young age, but I admit that playing the game doesn’t necessarily give you much of a back story.  What I found unique was the subtlety of your in-game actions creates the narrative, which could either follow established history or create an entirely new historical China.  For example, you could decide to stunt Cao Cao’s rise to power, or decide to recruit Lu Bu early in the game (one of the most powerful and easily persuaded warriors in the game), effectively changing history.  After multiple play-throughs you would discover the personalities of each general, filling in the gaps of the anemic storyline.

The gist of game play boils down to turn based management of your province; recruit generals, garner political favor with your province, and conquer the rest of China.  Simple enough, right? Part of your turns were dedicated to recruiting soldiers and generals, both of which could be found in any of the provinces included on the map.  During your search you were likely to find a number of different “types” of generals,  including the cowardly (run from battle), disloyal (generals who might switch sides for the right price), noble but weak (great advice, but forget putting a sword in their hand) and everywhere in-between.  Romance is not a game won quickly, and it’s not even necessary to vanquish your opponent to win. It was possible to exile leaders you’d conquered, only to have them regain power and rise up against you again!  It may sound tedious, and to some players the may be too slow, especially for today’s “plug and play” games.  The learning curve on this game was steep, and there were many moving parts to worry about.  As the ruler of a province you were in charge of keeping your generals happy (give ‘em gifts!), keeping the morale high in your army (balancing war-time and peace-time), and perhaps most importantly, you were responsible for keeping the common people happy.  The common people were a key “resource”; soldiers for your army, money (taxation), and power (public opinion).  Too much taxation and their opinion of you plummets, sometimes to the point of revolt! Low morale for your soldiers can cause desertion of soldiers and Generals.

Choose your adventure:

  1. Choose your ruler

If you’re up on your Chinese history (or read the book) then you know how this story ends. However, as a player you have the power to change the course of history, beginning with your choice of province ruler. Each ruler governed a certain number of provinces, dictated by the state of the nation at that point in history.  There were many playable characters to choose from, each with their respective skill set.  Powerful leaders were helpful if they ever entered one-on-one combat, Diplomatic rulers were good at recruiting or avoiding war, and some were best to just avoid altogether.  Each province you controlled had similar requirements, and they were controlled just by passing your cursor over each province and selecting it.  Each ruler had their own strengths and weaknesses, though a few stand out as solid choices above the rest:  Liu Bei, Cao Cao, Dong Zhou, Yuan Shao and Sun Jian to name a few.

If you are not familiar with the history of the period, then choose rulers at your own peril.  For example, Sun Jian is one of the more powerful characters you can choose in the beginning.  If chosen, you may be disappointed to find that after a few years pass (12-24 turns or so…it’s a turn based strategy game remember!) Sun Jian dies from illness and must be replaced! This is where the history plays a major role in the game play.  Spoiler alert.

  1. Generals

Your generals were another important resource.  Each of your generals was placed in charge of a battalion of troops.  You always placed the most troops with your most loyal and powerful generals.  If, by chance, one general was swayed to the rival faction during battle, you didn’t want them controlling a large battalion, lest you lose before the battle even started.  Each general had certain characteristics in battle, strengths and weaknesses that you had to strategically use to win each battle.  Names I can still recite by memory I later learned were larger than life historical figures in some parts of China.

Generals could be sent as ambassadors to rival territories to negotiate treaties, barter for supplies, and even spy on foreign affairs.  It was possible to capture these generals when they visited a rival’s province, so you had to be careful who you sent to visit (and where you sent them) for fear of possibly losing a powerful ally to the enemy.

  1. Advisers

Advisers were invaluable when they were reliable. Players soon learn of an advisers worth when found with a bad adviser, or worse yet, no adviser at all. Advisers were little help as warriors, but priceless negotiating within a province as well as in diplomatic matters. A good adviser could tell you which generals you could sway during battle, when it was best to plant crops, or prevent a coming war altogether.

It was through this game that I discovered the many historical figures of this time period, and how they fit into the rich back story of Chinese history.  Learning of the novel “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and subsequent other media portraying these characters only served to deepen my interest in the characters.  After playing this game I felt like I had a connection to the characters; I imagined how they looked, what their personalities were like, and was pleased when the visual medium portrayed them as my imagination did. I learned in-game what kind of leader Cao Cao was said to be.  Without reading the book I learned how strong the bond was between Zhang Fei, Guan Yu and Liu Bei.  I learned that Lu Bu, though obscenely powerful, was not to be trusted (and could always be bested by Taishi Ci). The game gave me a greater appreciation for literature and history that I would have never been exposed to otherwise.  As time has passed I’ve sought to learn more about the history, seeking out the novels as well as movies (Red Cliff is my current favorite!) to give me a greater understanding.  If you are a fan of strategy games, Romance of the Three Kingdoms might just be worth a look.  It just goes to show you; don’t underestimate your gaming education!

Stacy Bishop

Stacy dabbles in the dark side of the force and uses science to teach students to be Batman. When not speaking science he is scouring the internet for information that will probably spoil his favorite movie before it comes out. Little happens in the respective worlds of Star Wars or Batman that he is not aware of. And Han shot first.