CTDEA’s top 5 historic video games
Updated: Apr 26
For all the intellectual posturing, one of the true joys of studying history is getting lost in another world. It’s pure escapism. In that respect, it’s not unlike computer games. Early games did this by taking us into space or recreating D+D tabletop fun, but since then we’ve been able to look backwards too.
And since the days of 1975’s Western-based Gun Fight, historic computer games have come along way. With graphics and controls better than ever, now’s a great time to take a time machine back to explore sprawling ancient worlds. And yes, while they're great fun, you can legitimately learn a lot too. Our episode on Sultanate of Rum wouldn't have existed without Crusader Kings 2.
So, here’s our pick of some of the best history computer games around…
1. Empire: Total War
There are no shortage of great games in the Total War series (it was a tossup between this and Medieval II), but Empire was the most ambitious of the series when it was released in 2009. Total War games were always divided between the campaign map and battlefield, but never before could you play in so many theatres of war at once.
Taking place in the age of European empire, you could doff your best powdered wig, kit out your finest Ship of the Line and try to conquer Europe, the Americas or India before your troops dropped dead of malaria.
Not only could you fight on land with firing lines and canon, but naval battles were incredibly cinematic too. And secret imperialist or not, it was hard not to leap to your feet and salute as your immaculately dressed Grenadiers marched into battle accompanied by pipe and drum.
Definitely one for fans of Sharpe and Hornblower.
2. Crusader Kings 2
Yes, we know that Crusader Kings 3 has been out for a while, but this was our first love. And by love, we mean the first time we could establish a dynasty and then breed tyrannical bastards to rule over it.
Create a character, marry wisely, develop your towns, build your army, send out your spies and then scheme and war your way up from count to emperor. It’s the Championship Manager of medieval warfare.
But it’s difficult to grasp at first. In fact, learning how to play Crusader Kings 2 is basically a PhD in itself, but put in the time and the rewards are plenty. Unless you want a relationship or a career or to have a clean house. It’s a time black hole!
3. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
When Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was released in 2018 it was met with critical acclaim, great sales and the fury of Assassin’s Creed purists. More about running around a huge map, questing and swinging a sword, it infuriated AC fanboys because there wasn’t enough sneaking around and tiresome secret society backstory. But there were no complaints from us.
The strength of AC Odyssey is exploring the epic reincarnation of Ancient Greece in all its glory. While bits of the map are inevitably samey, it was difficult to stifle the gasps when visiting The Parthenon and then (because it’s Assassin’s Creed) being able to climb it. Praise Zeus!
4. Kingdom Come: Deliverance
While we haven’t been able to play it (we’ve got a podcast to make you know) Kingdom Come: Deliverance certainly looks the business. Sort of a Medieval Grand Theft Auto, you start off as a young blacksmith before working your way up to bonafide knight.
But it’s an unforgiving path: you have to eat, drink and sleep or you’ll soon be carried off to the pearly gates. What sets it apart is the authenticity of the combat and attention to detail and clear research gone into everyday Medieval life. Re-enactors will love it.
The only thing that the developers forgot to add is the Black Death, but hopefully that’ll be a future DLC.
5. Age of Empires 2
An oldie but a goodie, Age of Empires 2 puts you in charge of a feudal village. Gather resources, farm, hunt and fish, all to level up your population and technology in preparation for conquest. Either you can play until you defeat everybody else or there are specific scenarios where you could play as historical figures such as Genghis Khan, Richard the Lionheart or Joan of Arc.
The strength of Age of Empires was the number of historically accurate units available – from seagoing trading cogs to Mongolian horse archers. That said, you could just put in a cheat code that generated missile-firing sports cars and easily mop up anything that the cream of Medieval innovation could throw against you. Less historically accurate.
Any titles that we criminally missed out? Get in touch or let us know below.