Sid Meier's Pirates!

PC games are full of arcane artifacts spurring on ancient civilizations, Nazis riding dinosaurs, and Ghandi nuking the entire planet. Historical accuracy isn’t always a priority, and even the ones that try to get it right have to take some liberties with the facts modern scholarship hands down to us to be, you know, a fun game. But there is a definite divide between games that offer a mere nod to history (or use some vague, pop culture-informed stereotype of it as a jumping-off point) and those that actually put in enough research time to get at least some of the important facts straight.

It’s hard to measure a variable like “historicity” when it comes to games—and yes, that is a real word. Games that put history first tend to wind up overly complicated rather than fun, so I've highlighted genuinely great PC games that go out of their way to include some historical accuracy. In particular, I chose games that accurately and ably depict a facet of history that is often misrepresented or ignored in other, ostensibly historical games.

In chronological order based on their setting, here are the most historical PC games.

Screenshot via Steam user OriginalNickname

Total War: Attila - Most historical game about the collapse of the Western Roman Empire 

Attila pulled Total War’s tired campaign formula out of its slump and gave us a living map that portrayed the cultural, political, and environmental challenges facing Rome in her twilight years. Rather than playing into the stereotype of angry, marauding barbarians showing up out of nowhere to sew chaos, the map really put you in the middle of why these invasions were happening—the oncoming of climate change making northern regions progressively less supportive of large populations, and the migration of the Huns into Eastern Europe.

It was also the first Total War game to model the fact that not all societies have permanent cities, and how tributary relationships could form between cultures as a pressure valve against open war.

Assassin’s Creed series - Most historical depiction of ancient cities 

There is very little about the plot of any Assassin’s Creed game that could be regarded as staunchly historical (though we do get some cool nods here and there—the Siege of Masyaf in AC1 is a thing that really happened). However, they’ve gone to great lengths to depict, in full scale, what it would be like to walk the streets of Renaissance Florence or medieval Jerusalem. From the crowds, to the architecture, to the small details, there is a lot of history to experience just by wandering the environments. My personal favorite is Revelations’ post-Ottoman-conquest Constantinople, perhaps one of the most interesting cities in world history snapshotted at one of its most interesting ages.

Screenshot via Steam user Mr.Nekator

Crusader Kings 2 - Most historical modeling of medieval Western European politics 

With expansions highlighting Satanic cults and fanciful, “What if?” Aztec invasions, there is plenty of ahistorical nonsense kicking around CK2 these days. But at its core is a system that does an excellent job of modeling how politics worked in Western Europe from about 1000 to 1400 AD. We take for granted the concept of a nation state in our modern world, but if you lived in Auvergne, France in 1150, you were probably loyal to a person, not a flag or a constitution. All of CK2’s titles have holders, and it is they who interact and play the grand game against one another.

A strong realm can crumble under a weak king just as a poor realm can rise to glory under a great king. And while the hierarchical depiction of feudalism it presents is highly disputed in modern scholarship, excellent expansions like Conclave have added more weight to the lateral bonds that many historians argue were the greater driving force among the nobility of the age.

Expeditions: Viking -  Most historical Viking game

I was impressed immediately by how apparent it was that the designers of Expeditions: Viking put stereotypes out of their mind and hit the books. As my primary historical interest area, I have a high standard for games about the Viking Age, and this one really has you doing a lot of the things a viking ruler would have actually found him or herself doing.

There are kinship-based blood feuds to manage. There is the emphasis on the necessity of presenting yourself as both a strong and a just ruler, not taking for granted that people will follow you based on your name. It even models the effects those notorious raids had on Scandinavia—bringing back captives and wealth that would help build infrastructure and birth three of the most influential kingdoms in European history.

Banished - Most historical game about frontier settlement

Banished is a fairly simple game. I might even argue that it’s too simple, but the mechanics it chooses to focus on are very much the sorts of things that say, an English settler in the 17th Century Virginia Colony would have been concerned with. Keeping your people warm, fed, and healthy are your main goals. You have to use the resources in your environment and trade with distant lands to provide for a growing population. A harsh winter or a disease outbreak can be utterly disastrous and end your whole settlement—as they often did for early European settlements in the New World.

Sid Meier’s Pirates! - Most historical pirate game 

While Pirates! does allow itself to indulge in some buccaneer stereotypes, it also models a lot of the genuine realities a privateer captain during the Golden Age of Piracy would have to be concerned with. A crew is a ragtag collection of malcontents picked up from all across the Caribbean who will only stay with you as long as they feel like there’s a monetary reward in it. The political interplay between the Spanish, English, French, and Dutch is an ongoing conundrum, and you’ll usually be working for at least one of them. And of course, its modeling of naval combat with wind direction, hull size, decks, guns, and even shot type really gives you a glimpse of all the skills necessary to be a naval officer in that era.

Screenshot via Steam user [HWK] Turenne

Victoria 2 - Most historical game about the Industrial Revolution 

Vicky 2 is probably the most intimidating and inaccessible game on this list, but it deserves its spot for hanging its top hat on aspects of history that often get ignored. The level of literacy among your population matters. More literate societies will become more productive… but they also gain Consciousness, which can lead them towards social movements like communism and demanding an end to slavery, universal suffrage, and labor rights. You know, pesky commoner stuff. It also models industrialization, war profiteering, and the advantages and disadvantages of free markets versus command economies. If you have the patience to learn it, it's well worth the investment.

The Oregon Trail - Most historical game about the Oregon Trail 

An oldie but a goodie. The various iterations of The Oregon Trail that have been released since 1971's HP 2100 version (how’s that for some history!) have all been lauded for their educational value. And with good reason. If a modern person tries to imagine the struggles faced by an American pioneer making the journey from Independence to the Willamette Valley in the mid-1800s, they probably wouldn’t give much thought to how many spare wagon tongues you’d need to bring. But that was the reality, and The Oregon Trail put us in the middle of it. It probably also made us a little more afraid of dysentery than we have cause to be in an era of modern medicine and sanitation, but no game is perfect.

Ultimate General: Civil War - Most historical game about the Civil War  

I know I’ll take my share of hard tac for failing to call out some hex-based, in-depth wargame that features the weight and height of every soldier who fought at Gettysburg compiled from census records, but Ultimate General is the perfect midpoint between attention to historical detail, accessibility, and fun. Its combat engine realistically models terrain, movement, casualties, and morale in real time. The recently released campaign mode even gets into how generals in this era had to prove themselves to the political leadership if they wanted to be well-supplied and have weight given to their strategic advice.

Screenshot via Steam user Stuart

Steel Division: Normandy 44 - Most historical game about tactical combat in World War 2

A truly impressive feat to a military history nerd, Steel Division’s maps are built from actual aerial reconnaissance photographs taken during the Normandy invasion, down to the village layouts and placement of hedgerows. It also features realistic ranges and damage modeling for all of its vehicles and weapons, and even the relative speed and maneuverability of its air units. It limits heavier units to spawning later in a battle to simulate the simple fact that they would have taken longer to get there after first contact with the enemy.

Possibly most notable of all, though, is that it does an uncommonly good job stressing the importance of ground-based reconnaissance on the battlefields of World War 2, and the idea that engagements could be won or lost based on which side had better information.

Screenshot via Steam user 65y Afrika

IL-2 Sturmovik series - Most historical combat flight simulator 

I think most flight sim enthusiasts remember the first time they tried to do a backflip in IL-2 and saw the screen start to fade out, wondering if there was something wrong with their monitor. Not only are the controls and handling in this classic historically accurate, but it simulates the effects G-forces have on a fighter pilot maneuvering at high speeds. Force too much blood into your head and you’ll experience redout. Force too much into your feet and you’ll experience blackout. In addition, the titular IL-2 was depicted in meticulous, 3D detail and the combat missions presented plausible scenarios.

Screenshot via Steam user XaRoS

Verdun - Most historical World War I shooter 

Move over, Battlefield 1. Verdun sets out to accurately depict trench warfare on the Western Front, and does a pretty good job of it for a multiplayer shooter. Its inaccuracies are forgivable sacrifices to scale, rather than in the details. it would be very difficult to get enough players on a single server to really depict some of the bigger battles of The Great War, and a lot more time was spent waiting around hoping not to get blown up by a shell than was spent taking aim and firing at the enemy—which isn’t really fun if you just have an hour a night to jump in the mud with your buds. Particularly impressive is the detail that goes into the uniforms, with items as small as buttons being painstakingly reproduced from period photographs.

Kerbal Space Program - Most historical game about the space program 

With its science-based modeling of orbital mechanics, propulsion, and aerodynamics, Kerbal Space Program is a great platform to teach about the history of spaceflight. In fact, the developers at Squad agree, and are working on an official Making History expansion. But if you don’t want to wait, the community has already beaten them to the punch. A number of mods, including the Historical Missions Pack, allow you to experience launches spanning from the first German V2 rocket tests all the way up to SpaceX and beyond. 

Deus Ex series - Most historical game about… the future?

So this one is mostly my own speculation based on observation of current trends, rather than anything backed up by in-depth scholarship. But I’ve always been impressed with how well Deus Ex depicts what I see as humanity’s likely next steps. Huge strides are being made in brain-computer interfaces, prosthetics, and artificial intelligence, while advancements in fields like spaceflight and laser swords are becoming increasingly hard to come by. Were I a betting man, I’d put my money on the assumption that we’ll see the world of Adam Jensen come to pass long before the world of Captain Picard.

Verdun

Before there was Battlefield 1 there was Verdun, a "realistic" First World War multiplayer FPS released in 2015 by M2H and Blackmill Games. It obviously wasn't as much of a hit as EA's big-budget shooter but its unique, unforgiving approach to online combat found an audience—enough to justify a "standalone expansion" called Tannenberg, announced today and scheduled to come to Steam later this year. 

Tannenberg brings the Russian Empire into the fight on the Eastern Front, in a very different style of fighting than that seen in Verdun. "The Russians and Austro-Hungarians played a huge part in the First World War and we're looking forward to portraying their contribution," Jos Hoebe of Blackmill Games said. "The Eastern Front didn't see the same trench warfare as in the West. In Tannenberg we offer players the experience of a more mobile side of the war which many people may be unfamiliar with." 

The game will feature a new 64-player mode that "captures this more mobile nature of battle." Squads will have access to new, highly-detailed weapons,  and there will be new landscapes to fight over as well, including snow-covered fields, forests, burned villages, and mountainside pastures. And of course, as noted in the Steam listing, there will be plenty of "horrendous gore."

Verdun's "realism" means that it's not the most accessible gaming experience you're liable to have. Most of my time with it has been spent crawling through mud toward where I think the fight is, and then getting killed by someone I didn't see. But I like that there's a place for games like this to thrive, and I hope that Tannenberg does just as well, even if I won't miss those deathtrap trenches. It's slated to come out later this year. 

PC Gamer

World War One FPS Verdun may have ceased firing over the holidays while reenacting the Christmas Truce, but it's now back to business in the bunkers. To mark the new year, M2H and Blackmill Games are adding The Highlander Squad to the battlefield—kilts and all. 

Performing an "aggressive scouting" role in Verdun, the Scots comes equipped with Pattern 1914 Enfield—a five-round 'dog-leg' bolt handle rifle, which combines elements of the infamous German Mauser and renowned Lee-Enfield, best suited to marksmen. 

"The Scots were no stranger to war, and when the call to arms came in 1914, a relatively large number of Scottish young men eagerly joined the ranks of the British in Belgium," reads an update post. "Wearing their traditional kilts, they performed many aggressive scouting maneuvers, often finding themselves in the thick of savage battles such as Loos and Arras. They suffered a staggering number of casualties as a result, but were nevertheless undeterred and soon earned the nickname the 'ladies from hell'."

I'm from Glasgow myself and while not overly fussed with kilt wearing, I know better than to take the piss out of a proud Scotsman/woman for wearing one. 

Should you wish to don the traditional tartan attire in the virtual battlegrounds of Verdun, the Highlander Squad update is out now free-of-charge via Steam. You'll of course need the base game to play, which costs £18.99/$24.99.

PC Gamer

Last Christmas, multiplayer WW1 FPS Verdun reimagined the 1914 Christmas Truce—a famous period of ceasefire during the first World War where soldiers are said to have downed tools, sang carols and played football—in-game. This year, it's doing the same, however the net profits of the three-tiered donation system will this time go to UK charity War Child. 

War Child is a UK-founded charity that offers assistance to children in the aftermath of conflict. Its latest fundraising campaign, Armistice, has already teamed up with World of Tanks, Democracy 3 and 1979 Revolution: Black Friday—each of which has created bespoke peaceful playthrough options or has donated portions of their sales to the charity. 

Verdun's Christmas Truce DLC costs either £1.99/$2.99, £5.59/$7.99 or £9.99/$12.99 (depending on which tier you vouch for), and is available to buy from now until January 2, 2017. Doing so grants you access to a "dedicated Christmas Truce winter map" within which you'll be able to have snowball fights, play football matches, sing Christmas carols, and send in-game cards to in-game loved ones. Players will also receive a special 'Christmas Truce medal' and apparently Scottish highlanders play the bagpipes. 

"War Child aims to build on this peaceful movement so it becomes an annual event where more and more gaming studios and players around the world raise of awareness and money for children living with the brutality of war," says the charity in a statement.

PC Gamer

The First World War multiplayer FPS Verdun has grown significantly with the release of the free Horrors of War expansion that brings night-time combat to the game in the Champagne region of France. There's also a new Squad Defense co-op mode that pits groups of four players against attacking waves of AI enemies, more than 40 new weapons, new squad types including the Belgians and Americans, and even gore settings.

Gore settings promises to let players experience the real horrors of WW1, which I rather strongly suspect is neither an accurate statement nor something that any sane person would ever want to live through in the name of entertainment. But to the credit of developers M2H and Blackmill Games, they do seem to be approaching the subject matter a little more sensitively than, say, Sniper Elite 4.

In order to get a more realistic war-torn feel to the game the developers have added bloody injuries such as soldiers losing limbs. This has been done in a respectful way as the developers understand that this is not an easy topic to cover, they wrote. For those that find it too realistic or even shocking, the developers have made sure that the new gore setting can be set to different levels of intensity, even allowing the players to disable it completely if they choose.

The update also adds a Belgian sentry squad, a Doughboys rifle squad, and a US Marines engineer squad to the game, along with two new German units, the Schutzen sentry squad and the Pioniere engineer squad. New weapons include the M1918 BAR, the Stielhandgranate, the Ross rifle (which you'll probably want to throw away the moment you lay eyes on a Lee-Enfield) and the C96 Mauser.

The Horrors of War update is live now. Details are on Steam.

PC Gamer

Huddled in the trenches of northern France, soldiers on both sides of World War 1 began to adopt a 'live and let live' attitude towards their enemies, agreeing informal truces to recover the dead and wounded or simply enjoy a little peace. As the story goes, on Christmas Day, 1914, occasional indifference to enemy activity culminated in a carol sing-off and an international football match amid the devastation. The scale and details of the event are contested by historians, but it's a heartwarming tale to come out of an otherwise black period, and the fantasy has made for one of the best holiday events I've seen: the Christmas Truce is in place in WW1 shooter Verdun.

Players entering a dedicated winter map will be able to throw snowballs and play football with the opposition until January 4. Apparently you can partake of carol singing, although your teammates might not thank you, and even write Christmas cards (emails) from the front lines for a chance of winning Verdun keys for your friends. For the duration of the event, Verdun will be 40% off.

Cheers, RPS!

PC Gamer

There might be a moratorium on World War 2 shooters, but developers are still allowed to make gun-'em-ups set during the First World War, which has been relatively undocumented in games. Verdun is such a game, concerning itself with "realism", tactical squad management, and "merciless trench warfare". It's been in Early Access for a while—you can read our review of the Early Access version here—but today it has been declared finished, and been released into the wilderness of Steam.

The developers plan to release free themed expansions after this main event, adding Belgian and American troops, a "gritty in-game gore system", and a new, "hardcore" game mode in addition to other stuff. There are a few more details about those expansions in the 'road map' below.

PC Gamer

In keeping with its efforts to offer an authentic WW1 trench warfare simulator, Verdun studios M2H and Blackmill Games will host special truce Christmas events in-game this month. This is in keeping with the historical truce between French, German and British troops during Christmas 1914, where soldiers downed weapons in order to share Christmas carols and, reportedly, play some friendly matches of football. 

You'll still be able to engage in bloody military warfare, but the truce scenarios will play out between matches from December 18 until Christmas day. During the scenarios players can play football or engage in jovial snowball warfare. 

The events will be complimented with a series of competitions, detailed below. 

  • 19 December; a YouTube Christmas Truce video contest for the best video about this event
  • 20 December; a Steam Hub screenshot competition for the best in-game Christmas Truce screenshot
  • 21 December; a Twitch TV giveaway for the Verdun streamers
  • 22 December; a Twitter competition for the best WW1 Christmas carol text twittered @VerdunGame
  • 23 December; a Facebook Christmas Card contest for the most entertaining Verdun best wishes card  
...

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