For me, one of the perennial pleasures in PC gaming is clicking ‘new game’ on a fresh Paradox grand strategy game, and having that big ol’ map unrolled before me, freighted with promise and overwhelming complexity.
If you’ve not played one of these before – and for all its glories, Imperator: Rome is very much an iteration of the formula established by Europa Universalis in 2000 – the premise of the game is as simple as playing it isn’t: you’re presented with a map of the world at a given point in history, where you can browse every single discrete political entity that existed in that moment, before choosing one to pilot onwards through time.
You don’t even need to do that. Paradox’s Clausewitz engine runs such a juggernaut of a simulation that you can just choose to watch if you like, letting the game run through the centuries by itself and seeing what sort of geopolitical landscape it spits out. That’s the beauty of these games – they make it very clear that the world isn’t about you. You’re allowed to participate, but you’re not special, and every other state on the map will carry on prosecuting their own struggles, with you, without you, or over your rubble, unless you’ve got the nous to step in and stamp a big hobnailed bootprint on history.
And in Europe’s history at least, there are few bootprints deeper or more widely spread than Rome’s. Still, when the game opens in 304BCE, 450 years after the Eternal City’s founding, it’s just one of the hundreds of civilisational mould patches in Paradox’s big bad petri dish. The starting date is brilliantly chosen, as it was a moment in history when anything could happen, and any number of powers could have ended up defining the culture of a continent. To be able to intervene in that moment, from anywhere I wanted, gave me a serious shiver of excitement.
Ghoastus: Ave, citizens! It is I – Ghoastus, the famous Roman ghost! And indeed, it was not just excitement making Nate shiver: it was my presence. You see, as a friend to both Romans and humans alike, I watch over all those who play videogames about Rome, offering spectral assistance: a rattling of a coffee mug to suggest the fortification of borders, or a gust of my elysian breath to suggest it might be time to stop playing for a bit and spend some time with the family. So too shall I watch over this review, offering my ghostly perspective on all things Roman.
And firstly, citizens, allow me to lend my voice to Nate’s: what a time the year 304BCE was! Alexander’s empire had collapsed into squabbling successor states, Western Europe was a patchwork of feuding barbarian tribes, and those naughty Carthaginians were just beginning their romp across the Mediterranean. Hellenic relics such as the Spartans were still knocking around, and even the Phoenicians still clung on, in the city-state of Byblos. And as for Rome… ah, the grand experiment of the republic had just begun, and anything seemed possible. But what would Nate choose?
Of course, like I do the first time I play every Paradox game, I completely squandered the promise offered by the opening map, and elected to play as a bunch of dogshit nobodies living in a swamp at the edge of the map.
I can’t help it: it’s in my nature. When I play D&D, I’m that guy, who joyfully ignores the quest the GM has painstakingly prepared, and instead spends hours building a meaningful relationship with Buggins the ape-seller, an NPC in the starting town who the GM has been forced to improvise in response to my incessant examination of generic shopfronts.
And so it was in Imperator: Rome. Or in my case, Imperator: Icenia, as I chose to let the legions of the Republic do their own thing elsewhere, and play as a Britonnic tribe hailing from the marshy plains of Norfolk. They didn’t seem much to start with, but given the Iceni were the tribe who eventually rebelled against the Romans under Boudicca and failed, I thought I’d give them a second bite of the cherry. My plan was to spend the game unifying Britain and prepping for the Roman invasion, so when the eagle banners finally arrived, I could drive them back into the sea.
Ghoastus: Of course Nate – lacking the foresight of a Roman ghost such as myself – didn’t realise that Imperator: Rome’s play period ends in 27BCE (when Augustus proclaimed himself the first Emperor), and that Rome would not invade the British Isles until 43AD. “But Ghoastus,” I hear you cry from the stands of this digital amphitheatre, “Why, pray, is the game called Imperator, if it ends when Rome becomes an Empire?” Well, citizens, did you know the term ‘Imperator’ was used to refer to victorious generals during the time of the Republic? You do now, thanks to your friend Ghoastus.
Uniquely for a Paradox Grand Strategy (or PGS, henceforth), Imperator: Rome has a fantastic tutorial, which does a quick and neat job of making the game’s intimidating complexity accessible to first-timers. Even so, I’d recommend a Western European tribal start to new players as a next step anyway, as it offers a small nation with fairly simple rules, and not too many decisions to make in the early game.
My Iceni playthrough let me get a solid feel for a lot of Imperator’s mechanics, and where it diverged from other PGS efforts. After so many similarly structured games in the series, it’s hard to identify exactly what was new or refined for this game, but I certainly found Imperator a smoother experience than, say, Europa Universalis IV. The mind-mangling trade hub system was gone in favour of a simple import/export mechanic, for example, while diplomacy was easier to get to grips with (at least as a tribal nation) because I didn’t need to learn swathes of medieval succession law to understand it.
Speaking of succession laws, I found there was also a greater bleed-in of the character-based RPG elements that made Crusader Kings 2 so superbly weird, albeit with less of that game’s syphilis-plagued, devil-worshipping eccentricity. Every character in an Imperator nation (and there are usually dozens) has a number of idiosyncrasies and stats to keep track of, with loyalty being perhaps the most important. At one point, the spurned leader of one the Iceni’s component tribes (who also happened to be the general of my main army) got hacked off with the main chief to the point where I no longer had control of their army. She wasn’t rebelling – she just wasn’t following orders any more. This would have been fine, but we were in the middle of a war at the time, so I had to start planning troop movements around her whims – seeing where she would attack the enemy, then moving my smaller, loyal, armies in to support her.
While I can’t be certain (again) how much of the game’s combat system is new for Imperator, and how much is just inherited EU-series DNA, it’s hard to overstate how deep – and how enjoyable – it is.
For a new player, it’s easy to see military success as a matter of accumulating the biggest doomstack of Rome-mans, then battering it against the enemy’s, until only your Rome-mans remain. And to a certain extent, it’s as simple as that. But if you’re willing to look deeper, you’ll see that terrain, nearby fortifications, force composition, army formation, troop morale, leader character, time of year, military tech, and a vast number of other variables all play into the outcome of a battle.
The more of these variables you know how to look out for – and the more able you are to alter them to your advantage – the more value you can get from the troops you can field, allowing you to fight effectively against larger and larger foes. You’ll still get hammered into fishpaste by superpowers ten times your size, but in situations where you’re weighing up war against someone roughly your size, a little mastery can make a big difference.
Ghoastus: Indeed, it was Pliny the Younger – a good friend of mine – who said “the smallest evil if neglected, will reach the greatest proportions.” And so it is in Imperator, citizen. This – like all of its series which came before it – is a game of details, where tiny modifiers stack up over decades and centuries to have monumental effects.
My Iceni game was a good sandbox for learning an instinct for the many levers affecting military success, because there wasn’t very much else to do. It’ll be a familiar scenario to PGS veterans: choose a small nation in the seething mess of tiny states that comprises most of Europe, and your game is going to end up being about blobbing. And if you’re not familiar with what blobbing is, let’s jump into a metaphor together:
Picture a rowdy lad in a pub toilet cubicle, with many cubicles either side of his. He’s shoulder-barging each wall in turn, pushing off from one in order to slam into the other. Our bruiser barely has room to throw himself, but eventually he starts to crack one of the walls – and through the crack, he sees another lad, even rowdier than he. After another blow or three, he crashes through the partition entirely, and the other lad agrees to help him in his toilet-wrecking mission. Now, there are two lads barging together, with twice the run up. It doesn’t take them long to smash through into a third cubicle, and recruit yet another hooting ruffian to the cause. Soon there’s a whole pack of brutes charging up and down the row of toilets (you might want to imagine the wild saxophone from Glenn Frey’s ‘The Heat Is On’ getting louder and louder as they go), knocking partitions flat instantly, until all the cubicles are united, and everyone begins to roar.
That’s playing as a small tribal nation in Imperator. You find your weakest neighbour, fight them on roughly equal terms, then consolidate the resources from the merged territory and find a new rival of roughly equal scale to fight. Repeat, occasionally having a civil war if you overreach yourself, and grow the size of your blob on the map. This is how I piloted Icenia to dominance: by gobbling up the other half of East Anglia, then the Southeast of England, then the West Country, and finally wolfing down everything from the Midlands to Chester.
Ghoastus: Ah, Chester, or Dewa, as I knew it: a fine Roman city. I was stationed within its walls for a while, with the II Legion, and how I enjoyed the delights of the amphitheatre there. Ten thousand people it held, would you believe – the largest of its kind in all of Britannia!
In short order I had the whole of what is now England under my thumb, turned Icenia into the new power of Pritania, and – since Rome wasn’t coming (in my playthrough it failed spectacularly, and ended up trampled, like a discarded condom, beneath a resurgent Etruria) – began to eye up mainland Europe.
But that’s where I got bored, if I’m honest. It was the curse of the PGS midgame, from which EUIV suffered fairly heavily: after a certain point, all you can see ahead of you is an interminable cycle of blobbing, ending with the defeat and absorption of the “final boss” blob (in EUIV’s case, the Ottoman Empire). In the long run, I had the genuine excitement of changing my government type to Republic to look forward to – but there was a lot of waiting to do before that could happen, largely as I had to wait for an elegant (if arbitrary) ‘civilisation’ value to tick up.
Honestly, even if this was to end up being the whole of my experience with Imperator, I still would have rated it highly, having got a grand couple of days out of the unification of England. I just wouldn’t have had much to say for the game’s replayability, or its improvement on previous PGS games.
But I felt I would be a pretty garbage reviewer if I didn’t at least try playing as the nation that was, y’know, in the title of the game. After all, if you could play Sonic the Hedgehog 2 as one of the miserable robot crabs in the first level, you wouldn’t exactly get the full flavour of the whole experience by choosing to. No: I had a strange feeling – almost a ghostly feeling – that I had to play as Rome. So it was back to that beautiful ‘new game’ screen for me, with all its promise and wonder, in order to zoom in on Italy.
Smash cut to an hour later. Etruria, my biggest regional rival, is on a massive war of expansion across Northern Italy, and while they’re an ally for now, it’s only a matter of time before we come to blows, so I’m not going out of my way to help them. Indeed, to stand a chance when the inevitable bust-up begins, I’ll need more provinces to supply my own war machine, and that means polishing off the Samnite nations to the South.
But while the military and civic factions in the senate are in favour of me starting such a conflict, they’re just short of a majority, so I can’t send in the legions without forcing the motion through the house, thus increasing my Tyranny level – the start of a slippery slope that usually ends in burning buildings and rampaging mobs.
Ghoastus: Oh-ho! Looks like Nate had discovered the glory of the senate! Ah, the oratory… the drama! Truly, it was a remarkable time.
I can wait it out, making small nudges to characters here and there, until I’ve got the majority I need. But my Praetor – a prominent senator in the military faction – is 73, and in failing health. Any minute now, he could get burst by a bad oyster, and put my support in the house back to square one. Worse still, my vassal states, less shrewd than I, are charging their legions into the meatgrinder of the Northern war on Etruria’s behalf, weakening them by the day.
Eventually, I decided to throw caution to the wind and begin the war – but the process of making the decision had been fraught with the good kind of stress, riddled with prerequisite decisions, and requiring careful consideration of multiple alternative outcomes. Blobbing, this wasn’t.
All in all, I was bloody glad I’d had a whole playthrough to get used to the basics of nation-wrangling and armying. The precarious starting position of Rome – plus the impressive modelling of its then-revolutionary political system (seriously, what a way to be made to consider what a strange concept even the most limited democracy had been in antiquity), had whacked a whole other game on top of what I had already experienced.
My previous experience of PGS games (with the exception of Crusader Kings 2) had been of a world map like a block of stone, which it was my job to carve away. To do this, I had a hundred tiny picks and scrapers – trade, diplomacy, character management, espionage – and then a massive hammer with “THE ARMY” written on it in blood.
Imperator was different. The hammer was still there – Rome is in a superbly strong position to start with, with a host of vassal states, an astonishing war machine, and a load of juicy targets which it costs nothing to declare war on – but the game was no longer just about hammering. More important than bashing away the rest of the world, was building a scaffold to keep the space I had opened up from collapsing: suddenly I needed all of those tiny tools, just to stop shit from falling apart.
Ghoastus: Again from my good friend Pliny – “As in men’s bodies, so in government, that disease is most serious which proceeds from the head”. A wise Roman!
Playing Imperator (as Rome, at least – but even that alone offers as much play time as many entire games) is not about building a massive empire, but about how you configure a nation to cope with the effects of building a massive empire. My Rome was a complex machine, full of moving parts which each affected dozens of others, and many of which were people with their own moving parts. Often, it was exhausting just to think about.
As Icenia, when a position in my government became free, I’d just appoint the character with the highest appropriate skill, after checking they weren’t a traitor or a maniac, and leave it at that. The whole business seemed pretty shallow. But as Rome, with all the intricate balances of power to maintain, every appointment became a deep act of sweat-beading study, with characters’ information sheets examined as closely as if I was interviewing them for a real job.
Conquest, it turned out, was the easiest bit of the game. Maintaining civilisation afterwards was where the real skill came in.
I’ll finish with a confession: I only played around fifty years of the game’s two hundred-odd as Rome, since I foolishly burned so much of my pre-review game time playing at druids in East Anglia. I hadn’t even begun to tangle with overseas warfare, and the Carthaginians weren’t even on my radar. There was the sprawling territory of the Seleucids to consider in the East, and titanic empires at war in India, unknown to any of my citizens.
Later in the game, as I understand it, senatorial politics become even more complicated, and even the fundamentals of combat change, with hulking doomstacks giving way to more Hearts of Iron-style front lines comprising multiple smaller units. And then there are all the random and historically timed events which Paradox tend to sew into the fabric of their grand strategy offerings, lying in wait along the way.
But to be fair, even the struggle to unify the Italian peninsula had blown my mind. And still I found myself desperate to start again once I reached the midgame – not because I was bored, but because I wanted to see all the other way things could have played out. What if I just gave into tyranny? What if I executed all my captives to increase my consul’s popularity? What if I backed different factions in the senate?
Once again, I had that feeling I had first encountered playing Europa Universalis II in 2005, when it nearly destroyed my undergrad degree, in fact. How, I had thought, can a game give you so much freedom and still stay coherent? It had felt like magic – and today, it still does. And while of course Imperator’s complexity can still be overwhelming, it’s made more of an effort than earlier installments at being approachable to newcomers.
And if Imperator’s possibilities seem dizzying now, just wait for the inevitable slow tsunami of DLC which usually follows a Paradox release, each piece adding a whole new layer of systems to the game, or extending its chronological or geographical scope.
I’m not sure whether to expect Paradox to add the option to start at dates other than the currently available 304BC, as the studio has made it clear that building these in takes a disproportionate amount of work. But I’d be surprised if we don’t see Imperator extended at least into the imperial period in future. I hope we do, anyway – even if I know the base game will keep me busy for ages.
Plutarch said of Alexander the Great: “when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” If anything, my experience of Imperator: Rome has left me feeling the exact opposite: I want to weep, as I know I will never find the time to conquer everything this game has to offer.