Review: Imperator: Rome25 Apr 2019 2
Review: Imperator: Rome
Released 25 Apr 2019
Imperator: Rome is the latest grand-strategy game from Paradox Interactive. It is their seventeenth such title, but only the second time they’ve delved into the classical era of history. As the successor to the cult-hit EU: Rome -- and something that’s benefiting from nearly twenty years of learning and design -- it’s hard not to have high-hopes. It also doesn’t help that I happen to be a big fan of Roman history.
It’s worth stating right off the bat that there’s just as much about Imperator that will likely disappoint, as will excite. The game has its moments, and waging war has certainly been the highlight for me (as well as building a good, functional road network). Further to that you can tell the dev team have laid a lot of foundations for post-release support. But in their quest to offer breadth and an even playing experience throughout the ancient world, I fear Paradox have perhaps overlooked the need to bring out the character & flavour of the era to help mask the blanks that have yet to be filled.
Imperator kick-starts the game at an earlier point in history than would be considered ‘mainstream’. In 304 BC (or 450 AUC using the game’s official calendar), Alexander the Great’s Empire has only recently fragmented as the successor Kingdoms fight between themselves to take up his legacy. Rome has yet to take its place as the dominant power in the Italian peninsular, let alone the Mediterranean. Carthage is sitting pretty, blissfully unaware of the term ‘Punic War’, and you have countless tribes and minor kingdoms filling in most of the rest of the world. There are some blank spaces to provide gaps for colonisation and migration, and to keep some of the tribal groups separate.
It is the perfect sandbox and provides a lot of potential for widely varying outcomes: One of the Diadochi might actually reunite Alexander’s empire, or a different successor Kingdom may end up being dominant. Rome may not even unite Italy at all, giving rise to some other kind of Italian power, and that’s not to mention any of the countless outcomes that could happen in Gaul, Eastern Europe or elsewhere. I’m not yet convinced the scale that the game offers is necessary or really helps things in the long-term. At some point one tribe is much like another (and very likely made-up in some cases) and while the vast sea of differing names looks impressive, there’s something to be said about the phrase “less is more”.
There are several flavours of factions – Republics, Monarchies & Tribes - and they all have subtly different ways to play. Republics typically involve a senate, elected leaders and several political factions which must be appeased to make changes to Laws or enact Foreign Policy. Pushing things through regardless can generate tyranny, which can hasten Civil Wars, although it’s also necessary for proclaiming dictatorships. Monarchies are perhaps the most recognisable government type from EU4, with legitimacy, family politics over who’s going to be the Heir etc… Tribes come in a couple of flavours – they can be Settled Tribes, which essentially makes them similar to monarchies (and there are distinct 'Tribal Kingdoms'), but they can also be migratory tribes.
Tribes and migratory tribes main concerns are how civilised they are and how centralised their society is, with the latter able to up-sticks and move their entire population somewhere else. I would say these are probably the most fun to play around with as they really make you engage with the population mechanics and provide the most moment-to-moment interaction. In both cases, Tribal politics revolves around the Clan Chiefs, who always have their own personal army on the map that can grow in size. It makes character relationships very important, as civil wars represent a very real threat when a disloyal Chief has a 20K stack at his personal command.
Functions of State
In terms of realm management, EU4 is definitely the main inspiration. There’s gold of course but there are also four different ‘power’ pools, some more useful/used than others, and then there’s ancillary concerns such as Tyranny and Aggressive Expansion. EU4 generally struggled to find uses for the Monarch Points in the early days, and the same is true here. For example, apart from activating certain army abilities (which you don’t do often, and not everyone has access to the same ones), the only purpose for ‘Military’ power is to save it up to unlock the next military tradition. Or build roads. Religious power is also somewhat underused, where-as Oratory Power is needed for a lot of diplomatic and population functions. Civic Power is mainly used for tech advances, but you also need it to move your population around. Generally, once you get rolling with your empire, you’ll find yourself swimming in points with little to spend it on.
Like other grand-strategy games, there’s a lot of sub-menus which can initially seem intimidating. By and large you won’t need to look at most of them most of the time, with usual suspects like Government, Diplomacy, Technology etc… being frequently browsed. It’s worth paying attention as some interfaces have tabs for different sections; in ‘Government’, there’s a tab to look at laws, while under ‘Military Traditions’ there’s a tab to see what buffs/debuffs you have for each of the game’s available troop types. It’s a handy reference if you’re trying to figure out what kind of army you want to build.
The game’s basic geographical unit is the city. Your city can have pops of four different types: Slaves generate tax income; Freeman provide manpower for the state. Tribesman do both, but not as well, and Citizens generate research. A city will produce a trade good which will give that city’s province a bonus. More slaves will eventually allow for an extra unit of that trade good, which can be traded externally for money, or internally to give another state the same benefit. Excess trade goods in your capital province provide nation-wide benefits, so you want to be steering as many resources there as possible once you’ve taken care of your initial needs.
Cities can have one of four buildings, but to be honest the only one you’re going to pay any attention to is the Fort - The rest can be easily ignored. A city is part of a pre-defined ‘province’, which in turn is part of a pre-defined region which will need a Governor to run. A Governor can have a specific policy they are following in each individual province within their region, which offers a little bit of interaction but can also generate tyranny. There’s nothing really interesting about Governors right now, and the scaling is weird as only Regions have Governors, but regions contain several provinces which each have their own resource economy. Provincial management in general doesn’t draw your attention as much it should: moving Slaves around can be considered important if you want to try and generate more of a specific resource, but it’s a bit clunky. Ultimately, the larger your empire gets, the less attention you end up paying to this area of the game.
Imperator has more than a touch of ‘war game’ in it, so the military mechanics a bit more involved than they are in EU4 or CK2. We’re not talking Hearts of Iron levels, but there are definitely some nice touches and this currently the strongest part of the game. In fact, dev diaries have hinted that one of the reasons that there’s so many cities is to provide an interesting military landscape for fighting wars in different parts of the world.
I would agree that the room available to manoeuvre makes waging wars strategically and tactically fulfilling, but the peace-time management and administration of those same areas isn’t nearly as fun. Still, this is primarily a game about painting the map, and there’s plenty of tools to make that happen.
For starters, there’s a lot of unit types – nine in total. Some of these are fringe units for specific areas of the world, like Camels and War Elephants, but you also have light/heavy Infantry and Cavalry, Archers, Horse Archers and Chariots. Armies are permanent bodies on the map a la EU4, and many units need specific resources to be present in a province for you to be able to build them. Heavy Infantry needs Iron, for example, both horse units need Horses, while Horse Archers need ‘Steppe Horses’. You also need Wood to build the only type of boat currently available, the Trireme.
Armies can be given a tactic – tactics give a boost versus other tactics (or penalties, If you’re countered), but the efficiency of that tactic is also determined by troop composition. For example, the ‘Envelopment’ tactic gets 100% efficiency from having all light horse units, but that efficiency starts to drop when you include other units. If your army is too diverse in its unit composition most tactics won’t be that efficient to use at all, so it’s worth specialising.
You need to have a casus belli to be able to declare any type of war which is disappointing. Once war is declared though, things start to get a bit more interesting. Forts play a key role in defending your polity, so placing them is key. Sieges are brutal and can sap your manpower, but there are plenty of techs and bonuses available to help this along. Supply is the most important factor – supply limits in Imperator are quite harsh, so you will need to be careful about how large you make your armies. Be wary of winter as well.
There’s almost always a point where you find yourself expanding for the sake of it, and so far, it appears like you can hit this point a bit too early in Imperator. Sure, you can absolutely set your own goals, but the game isn’t that great at drawing you into the wider world. As Rome, I had an event pop-up that gave me casus bellis on a couple of Greek territories, which was certainly useful but I struggled to find a reason for doing so other than “because I could”. I didn’t particularly have any quarrel with the emerging Greek powers: I didn’t need any extra resources and no one was calling for help… There’s some promise in the systems Imperator has in trying to build a story, but things are not quite there yet.
All This Has Happened Before
It’s worth reiterating something I’ve said in past coverage – Rome wasn’t built in a day, and in hindsight neither is a grand-strategy game. If you’ve been playing these kinds of games for a while, you'll remember what Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4 were like when they first launched; they were a bit lacking. Imperator is in a similar situation – there’s nothing bad about it and there is fun to be had, but you’re in this for the DLC/patch-fuelled long-haul.
But the one thing that has genuinely disappointed me about Imperator so far is that it lacks a level of character or flavour that I was expecting. History in game design is abstraction; it’s basically impossible to get everything accurate, especially this far back in time. Instead, one can strive for authenticity and a distillation of known facts to give a faction or group of factions some flavour to them. I’m not sure Imperator really succeeds here.
For example, I am not bothered that Rome only has one Consul (something which is already slated to be changed in the first Patch anyway), but I am however a tad disappointed that Rome starts the game with standing armies. Crusader Kings 2 lacked standing armies for years until they decided to include personal retinues, so this wouldn’t be a new thing. The social and military history of the Republics’ evolution from a citizen militia to a professional war machine is actually a very interesting transition that deserves more than relegation to a series of tick boxes and one-off events.
This feeling isn’t limited to Rome either; Raiding was a common and accepted facet of Tribal life, even at the fringes of Rome’s influence, and yet there’s no representation of small scale warfare at all. As Sarmatia, I really wanted to just get some slaves, but I had to save up Oratory power to lay a claim to an entire province (which I don’t really want, being a migratory tribe) before I could wage any type of war without penalty including ‘Show Superiority’.
Imperator’s mistake, perhaps, is making it too much a game about ‘painting the map’ when plenty of events in this era weren’t about literal conquest or occupation. In 133 BC the last King of Pergamum, one of Rome’s key allies in Asia Minor, simply bequeathed his entire Kingdom to Rome in his will. After a brief war with a rival claimant, the Province of Asia was officially created. In the 140’s BC, Macedonia by and large gave up looking after itself after yet another barbarian invasion, and so Rome took over their defence instead. There was no conquest, no spamming the relationship metre so that they would accept your vassal offer. By all accounts they kind of just accepted Rome’s help permanently, and in turn Rome left them to their own devices. There was still a short war to enforce this new status quo, but by and large more people wanted Rome’s help than not. You can be sure Rome had way more than 4 Diplomatic Relation Slots with which to assume this mantle of responsibility.
These kinds of narratives, while theoretically possible in Imperator through various Diplomatic options, are clunky and essentially hamstrung by mechanics that are designed to pace a player’s ability to paint the map their colour. That’s good for the long-term integrity of the game, but it severely diminishes much about what made this era interesting.
The fact that Paradox has a proven track record of continued support – both free and paid – for all of their modern grand-strategy games is not something one can ignore. As game writers we like to try and create rules and standards with which to judge each game equally, but to be honest the evolving nature of the industry means that 'exceptions' are becoming more and more frequent. You could quite easily judge Imperator on its first impression and find it wanting, but unless Paradox suddenly collapses after a series of bizarre gardening accidents, we also know that the blanks are going to be filled in eventually.
There is an argument then, that Imperator’s initial release is not necessarily meant to provide a complete & fulfilling experience right out of the box – it is to lay the foundations for things to come. Whether that’s an agreeable design philosophy from the consumer stand-point is a discussion for another time and if you’re a fan of Paradox games, you’ve probably already made up your mind about how you feel about this.
As stated above, many grand-strategy games were flawed when they launched, but they all had something to make-up for it in the interim. Hearts of Iron 4 had a specific military focus where you spent most of your time fighting WW2; Stellaris had the fact that it was science-fiction and filled with imagination & character. Even EU4 had its own mini-games, like the HRE or Exploration/Colonisation to tide you over. I fear Imperator has no such shield to hide behind, and so long-term replayability is going to be difficult until the updates start rolling out.
Imperator: Rome is a promising sandbox, but also an investment. You’re unlikely to regret your purchase and, if it gets the same care and attention that EU4 et al has had, this could become the greatest grand-strategy game of them all. But until that happens, it’s going to be a long-struggle to establish its own Imperium.