What Mount and Blade: Warband Taught Me About Failure

By Kevin Ward

“Your enemies take you prisoner...”

 

…Is a phrase you’ll be hearing a lot if you pick up this game on Microsoft Windows, Android, macOS, Linux, Xbox One or PS4. I did back on release, September 16, 2016 for the Xbox One. It was one hell of an experience due to the time investment that was required to play the game. Steam, a game purchasing client from the Valve Corporation, tracks player time and its shown under each review. At the lowest, 35 hours, but at the top you could witness something truly mind boggling. The highest count I ever saw was 4,000 hours. Yet, what was the key lesson I had taken away from spending close to 1,000 hours of my own time playing the game?

It all starts with how the game is structured. It hardly teaches its more complex mechanics. You must in most cases figure it out yourself. Stumbling forth, you might be unable to settle party member disputes, manage your warband’s finances or command your troops into the right formation. Yet if this type of adventure is too difficult or too boring for you then you are allowed to quit at any time. Within the camping menu is an option for you to “retire from adventuring.” Slaughter and misfortune await thee! Regardless, you must rise from lone adventurer, to army/country managing king, or die trying. This is a game that pulls out all the stops. It’s clear from the start that you are beginning as an ant in a land of giants.

I started out as a young mercenary under the oath of King Harlaus of Swadia. (Mount and Blade: Warband is realistic in its RPG elements, providing kingdoms free of magic, and so forth for a more true to life representation of the days of Knights and Kings.) After having sold a regiment of Mountain Bandits to the local Ransom Broker, I soon met a man by the name of Lord Castor of Veluccia. He told of having been in line to the throne of the Rhodoks, a nearby Kingdom, of their King Graveth’s treachery, and I resolved to serve his cause as claimant and renounced my oaths to King Harlaus. We soon gathered a company of men to begin a two year (in game time) campaign of constant struggle. To no avail our seasonal assaults failed to stop the hamlets supplying the Rhodok fortresses. I asked regularly if we should halt the campaign after our causalities began to number in the thousands, but Kastor was determined. Yet, victory never came for us and soon I gave up the campaign. Lord Kastor of Veluccia faded into obscurity and I lost all my wealth and fiefs. It was soul-crushing.

The beauty and lesson of this game comes from the Turkish company’s, TaleWorlds, choices in design. Rather than make death the actual consequence of losing, instead it is your wealth, your men, your stats, on the line. It flips what most western audiences experience in an RPG completely on its head. There are no scripted events and everything occurs by natural choice of either you the player, or the artificial intelligence. It is a test of your will, of how long you can continue in a cycle of gathering supplies, men, then fighting in army sized combat, to eventually losing them and finally restarting again.

Right after losing the war with the Rhodoks, I went back to some distant hamlet. Just as destitute as them, I nonetheless recruited a few peasant farmers with the few coins that I could scrape together. There were Mountain Bandits on the prowl. We took a break on the road, camping and I went to the “retire from adventuring” option.

“We few, we happy few,” I laughed then. I took a look around at the fresh faced recruits and then proceeded to look at the grizzled visage of the monarch I once tried to dethrone.

“Maybe it was time to quit.” I said thinking of Lord Kastor of Veluccia.

Then the central message of the game dawned on me. The Kings, Peasants and I, we were all in some sense on the same journey, just at different points along the path. I couldn’t see it, the cycle of death and rebirth, when I was a self-made noble, only looking at casualty lists and trying to desperately to never lose a man. It was like looking through a dark glass, unable to see the sunlight of hope shining through. I could see it again in that moment.

With my fresh faced recruits, we set out again to the bandit camp not, but a few miles north. I chuckled at not seeing that each victory as built on the foundation of a thousand failures. It was only going to be through my own personal growth that I could become strong enough to become one of the greats. Soon thereafter the bandits, I waged my own war on the country of Vaegirs, a nation southwest of my native Swadia and the Rhodoks. In surprise I stood, then able to take my first castle, exploiting a weak spot in the nation’s distribution and allocation of troops. I became a monarch of my own then and have since added several more castles and their hamlets to my fledging empire.

In taking this message to heart, I found myself invigorated in my own real life with this ‘victory through failure” attitude. I took a more forward position with my colleagues at work and school. I began to look at everyone’s troubles, failures, and so forth not as signs of an eventual final end, but as stepping stones to a glorious victory. Of course, messages like this may seem obvious to those already in the know, but I was not. Mount and Blade: Warband was able to teach this and much more, improving my own life and hopefully now your own.