If you’re a history nerd like me, games are kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s super awesome to be able to play out famous historical battles or roleplay as historical figures, but on the other hand, you pretty much have to live with really, really, terrible history – like, National Treasure bad. There aren’t a lot of games that really do history right, but there are some that are better than others — and that have a lot to offer history buffs. Here’s my list of the five best video games to fulfill your historical desires with:
5. Age of Empires
The only reason that this game isn’t in the number one spot is because there hasn’t been a new installment in over a decade. Even so, it was tempting to place this higher. The Age of Empires series, especially Age of Kings, is one of the most historically accurate and lovingly detailed historical game series ever made, and playing through the campaign as a historical conquerer is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences you can find in an RTS.
With unit types that are at least somewhat accurate (I don’t think that Mamelukes threw their scimitars all that often, but I’m willing to let it slide.) and deep tech trees that reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the respective civilization, this is a great game to immerse yourself in if you’re feeling like playing out your dreams of historical conquest.
The second installment, Age of Kings, is — by all reckonings — the best. The first still holds up and the third is plenty of fun, if somewhat more historically questionable (Templar? The Fountain of Youth? Really?).
4. Assassin’s Creed
I’m aware that this might be controversial, but hear me out — the Assassin’s Creed series, for all its flaws, is still one of the best and most faithful historical representations you’re likely to find. Ignore all the stuff about space aliens and memory devices and just look around! The architecture, at the very least, has been rendered in loving detail and is for the most part, pretty accurate. Plus, at least in the first few games, each of the big assassinations corresponds to an actual person and their actual death (though the circumstances have been fudged, somewhat).
Some games are significantly better than others. The first and second Assassin’s Creed games are more faithful to the history than later installments, and, by many accounts, are better games.
3. Total War
An amazing grand strategy series, the Total War series — which includes games that take place in ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Japan, and the Age of Sail, among others — allows you to run a kingdom or an empire from the ground up, managing everything from individual battles to political alliances and weddings. It can be a little overwhelming at times, and some parts are better than others, but if you want the experience of commanding an actual pre-modern army, you can’t do better. The Total War games even let you play out famous battles from history like Hastings and Agincourt, so you can see just how well you’d do as a general.
I debated whether or not to put Civilization on the list, because while the games are ostensibly historical, any game where you’re likely to end up fighting Iroquois death robots is really straining the definition of “historical”.
Still, the game has tons of actual historical units, buildings, wonders, and leaders from which it draws inspiration, so while it might not be very historical to be facing down a nuke-happy Ghandi while racing to put a generation ship in the sky as Attila the Hun in the year 2024, it’s not ALL fiction, it’s just really aggressive alternative history.
1. Crusader Kings/Europa Universalis
If you’re serious about history, it doesn’t get any better than this. Crusader Kings and Europa Unversalis are the holy grail of history games — you can play as just about any nation, no matter how small or insignificant, at any time in the game’s scope, and you’re not given any help or any bonuses. If you want to try to survive to the end of the game as Navarra or Riga or Byzantium, you have to really earn it.
Every detail of your kingdom is obsessively modeled, from income to unrest to manpower, and you need to be seriously on top of your game if you want to survive. You can break away from history and try to forge a new path for your kingdom, but the game heavily favors the nations that end up on top, so if you are trying to do something crazy and ahistorical, like building a Serbian kingdom in England, you have an uphill battle, which is what makes it so rewarding.
These are just my five favorites, and it was hard to narrow it down. Did I leave anything out? What are your favorite historical games? Let me know!