Of all the periods in history, the rise of the Roman Republic is easily one of the ripest for grand strategy games to tackle. It’s incredibly evocative, from the marching armies that swept aside almost all that stood before them, to politics and acts of grand betrayal – “et tu, Brute?” and all that – and the eventual fall of one of the biggest empires in history. It provides the backdrop to a Paradox Development Studios title once more in Imperator: Rome, a sequel of sorts to Europa Universalis: Rome from way back in 2008.
The most obvious starting point, given the game’s name, is to take control of Rome, but they’ll eventually contend with Carthage, Macedon, Egypt, the Seleucid Empire and more across a huge map. It’s gorgeously stylised, as though painting the known world onto a large parchment. All of Europe is there, the coasts of North Africa, but then it stretches out to the East and across to India – if you’re a wannabe Hannibal, then visiting India first might be a good spot to pick up some war elephants – and there’s hundreds of tribes and nations to choose to play as across thousands of regions and cities.
Pick any of them, and there’s a wealth of different stats and characteristics to manage, roughly in line with what you can expect from other Paradox grand strategy games. As Rome, you’ll be convincing the senate that your course of action is right, but a tribal chiefdom gives you a lot more freedom to bring people in line, though in either case you’ll be trying to surround yourself by capable and loyal people.
There’s an element of the characters and petty politicking from Crusader Kings, with each having four stats that make them good in different scenarios, such as military leadership or zealousness as a governor. However, once entrusted with a role, their prominence, public popularity, loyalty and corruption level all come into play, potentially leading to character events that force you to make decisions, and even civil wars if you don’t stroke/forcibly remove growing egos.
Tech trees come in a few different forms, with the military traditions the most conventional – you spend military points to unlock traditions down three paths – while technologies has you spend research points on a semi-random list of option, as in Stellaris. Given the historical era, it’s no surprise that religion comes into play, occasionally letting you call upon godly omens to aid your nation, and with the occasional pig sacrifice to ease unrest amongst your pops.
While you can take a more distant view of managing these things, there’s real rewards for digging deeper into the systems and micromanaging – trade is one area that’s initially a bit too obtuse for my liking. The rough edges still in the game’s menus and windows are offset by having the wonderfully powerful macro builder that strips away a lot of complications and quite plainly shows the regions where you can recruit certain units from or add different structures.
For perhaps the first time, your default view might not be the diplomacy map, but the improved terrain view which tries to convey a bit more information than its equivalents in previous games. It lets the underlying artwork shine in what is easily the best looking PDS game, while still showing borders, cities and more. Of course, you’ll be shifting between overlays regularly to check which region has what resource, try to figure out which powers are for and against you, and so on. Right now it’s still tricky to get a handle on the alliances and flurry of war declarations that you can bring down upon yourself, especially when the aggressive AI keeps adding more and more allies to its cause.
Sending your armies marching across the map isn’t as simple as building a so-called ‘Doom Stack’ and letting them loose. An awful lot of minor considerations have to be taken into account, seeming to take a leaf out of Hearts of Iron IV’s book, but without as much of the fine grained detail. Getting a balanced composition will help you in fending off a variety of different threats, but manoeuvring your forces needs you to be aware of where you can place them and have enough supplies to support them – too big an army, and they’ll simply starve. Putting an experienced military leader in charge will help you in battle – and you can also simply set the AI to manage them in particular tasks – but so too will deciding where you want to fight and choosing offensive and defensive tactics to try and counter your opponent.
There’s really interesting possibilities in sending a smaller force to discover how an enemy army is set up and then following with the bulk of your army to catch them with a tactic to counter. On the other hand, you can set up on mountainous regions where an incoming army will start to suffer from attrition, dig in and try to whittle a much larger force down. If your morale holds for longer, you can see them off.
My biggest issue with Imperator right now is that the only real objective and goal is to grow your faction’s borders. That’s fine, in and of itself, but it can easily lead you to feeling a bit rudderless when surrounded by endless possibilities. Playing the tutorial offers the only glimpse of a kind of historical mission and structure, as you start with Rome and are tasked with growing your influence and conquering neighbours. You don’t have that with Macedon, the Vandals, the Gauls, or anyone else in the game, and that puts it on your shoulders to decide what you want to aim for, what your winning conditions will be, and how to have fun.
One of the best inclusions in the game, and one which might have been consigned to an expansion pack in another game, is that of migratory tribes in northern Europe and Scandinavia. We all know where the Angles and the Saxons ended up, while vandalism got its name from what the Vandals did in Italy. They all start cut off by a large swathe of uninhabited, heavily forested lands through modern day Germany, but can eventually spread down to the south, where the land is more hospitable and you can grow into the rabble that raided Rome.
Of course, that’s one of several ways that Imperator: Rome can grow over time. It’s a real hallmark of Paradox Interactive for their games to have room to expand, though goals and objectives hasn’t typically been one of these areas. Still, it strikes a nice balance between some of the accessibility of Stellaris and the minutiae and nuance of Hearts of Iron IV, but most importantly, once you do set your mind to a particular task, it’s fun to send your armies to conquer, your tribesman to resettle, and imprison your political enemies.