Epic grand historical strategy! Ugh.
Look, I'm not bashing the genre - I had to quit Crusader Kings 2 cold turkey as it took over my life - but when things become fashionable in games, we really overdo it, and something always gets lost in the desperate pursuit of the zeitgeist. Lately, it's regular old historical strategy that's felt the neglect. Not insanely complex, not gigantic in scope, not a danger to your circadian rhythm or those 'social life' things I've heard about. Just plain solid, highly playable strategy games.
So, Imperialism 2, then. Released in 1999 by Frog City Software, both it and its 1997 predecessor are far more obscure than they should be.
It's always tempting to describe unusual strategy games in terms of hybridisation, and as an economic game about conquering neutrals in order to splat rival superpowers, Imperialism 2 invites a line like "Lords of the Realm crossed with Colonization". In the original, you assumed control of a major European power on a turn-based map, alongside half a dozen neutral 'minor nations', and another handful of rival powers. The former are weak, insular, and static, while the latter are, well, imperialistic. Naturally then, the general idea is to devour the helpless neutrals until you're strong enough to directly challenge another empire.
Along the way there are armies to build, technology to research, diplomacy to conduct, and above all, infrastructure to plan. Imperialism 2 added to this with several innovations, most notably by starting 300 years earlier and adding the New World, filled with new and precious resources, and the tribal nations doomed to fall to European guns and/or mercantile exploitation. This effectively introduced a new opening chapter to the game, as empires race to explore and either conquer or assimilate their choice of tribal nations, and only then return to Europe intent on carving up the minor powers, before finally turning on each other.
While this all sounds like a fairly typical 4X game, Imperialism rather broke the mould, not least by being almost entirely about infrastructure and economics rather than stacking bonuses and multipliers atop one another. And as dry and dull as that may sound, it makes for a far better game than most, with a much more grounded atmosphere. You can see everything an empire is on the map, and almost everything an empire does has a tangible purpose. If France has a province with coal, you know they can mine it and produce steel, or choose to sell it. Portugal has no province with a tin mine? They can't produce bronze without buying tin from elsewhere, perhaps even from you - or you might try to cosy up to whoever's selling it to shut the Portuguese out of the market.
The economy is everything. It's not some fully abstracted rate of generic income or influence, it's the sum of all the tangible resources at your disposal, and whatever profit you can generate with them. A game begins with about half a dozen provinces comprised of tiles, many useless, but some with resources like farmland, pastures, or forests (ie: timber). Mineral resources must first be visited by a prospector (who doubles as an explorer overseas), but all of them are useless until they're connected to your capital by roads and/or ports.
Open conquest is certainly an option, but warfare is expensive. Standing armies require food and manpower, both of which directly deprive your workforce, without which your empire will stagnate. Attacking a nation incurs mobilisation costs that can rapidly drive even a robust economy into the ground, and however you acquire land, it's absolutely worthless without that infrastructure. Can I keep saying 'infrastructure'? It's really important.
As a result, the usual case of dashing to grab as much land as possible isn't realistic. Your empire isn't an amorphous mass pumping out numbers, but a complex engine that must be fed, and carefully balanced and expanded. Connecting resources by road is fundamental, but road construction itself requires timber and smelted metal, taking both away from producing ships and armies, or trade. And snaking a road all the way across your empire might be more expensive or vulnerable to attack than a port, which also provides vital fish to feed your expanding workforce. But then you'd need to build another ship, or divert one from the navy (any ship can serve any role, a welcome alternative to the common practice of separating military from merchant marine) or ferrying your exports and imports. And that eats up more wood and labour, too. And how do you acquire more wood and metal? You have to send that builder to upgrade a mine and forestry, and direct your workers to process them instead of producing more cloth. But now you have less cloth to sell to the Incas, so your relationship with them will stop improving, jeopardising your plans to peacefully annex them in a couple of decades, and perhaps allowing those pesky Swedes to squeeze you out as their preferred trading partner.
The challenge is in balancing all these needs and ambitions, not in choosing where to stack all your chips. You can certainly, for example, prioritise research (my usual default in 4X games, but here something I honestly forget about sometimes), but even the most pivotal technology is useless in and of itself: you might unlock that advanced infantry unit before anyone else, but you won't even be able to recruit one if you don't have enough ships to transport the iron needed to arm them, or enough lumber to build the farms needed to feed them.
It sounds overwhelming, but what's admirable about the Imperialism games is that for all their complexity, they are incredibly intuitive. Every resource has a practical, logical purpose, every decision leads naturally into contemplation of the next interdependent system.
Better yet, however big you get, there's very little of the sheer hassle of your common strategy game. To simplify matters, everything is centralised into one centre of production in your capital. There's none of the micromanagement of a dozen cities or provinces common to the 4x genre here, and even full scale military campaigns are refreshingly simple, and typically over fairly quickly, either with quick victory or obvious failure, both of which tend to be recognised as good reasons to call it quits by the AI. Individual battles play out in a small scale turn-based minigame, which repeats the clever knack of being both complex and easy to understand and manage. These can be fully simulated off-screen too, and the game (and your chances) suffers little for it.
But best of all, the focus being on infrastructure means that it's emphatically not on logistics, that dreary killer of so many needlessly long strategy campaigns. With the exception of boats, units have infinite range, and moving them couldn't be simpler: anywhere in your empire is a turn away. Anywhere you have a border or a navy beachhead is open to immediate attack. That's it.
Consequently, even if you earn the enmity of the entire world, there's no worrying about move points and terrain bonuses and tedious shunting of troops onto carriers, resentment of having those same carriers sit around uselessly for 90% of the time, and all that wearying hassle that drove you away from the last dozen 4X games you played. Admit it, you give up the instant a powerful rival arbitrarily declares war too.
The pleasure in success comes from seeing how well you've connected all your production together, how well you've organised and balanced all your needs. Growth comes not from constantly absorbing neighbours like some monolithic Blob, but from clever investment of your limited goods.
Where it falls a little short is in the AI, which is muddled. On the up side, rival empires are far less prone to the unfounded maniacal hatred of the player that characterises many similar games. Even as the sick man of Europe, many nations offered me alliances unprompted, and my English neighbours never attacked despite our minimal diplomatic relations and their double my military power. It's competition that drives war, but you're competing for tangible goods and favours that you can see on the map, not just competing for some abstract notion of winning the game. It's fun seeing these conflicts arise.
Playing as Portugal, I had no beef with the Dutch, until they suddenly attacked a Kwakiutl province I was saving up to invest in (investment is the alternative to conquest - merchant units can buy resource squares, gaining you the right to build the relevant mine or farm at a huge discount, or cut of any profits; doing this also bars rivals from invading the province without declaring war on you first), denying my chance to buy the right to mine there. Then I had a concrete reason to start a fight, and even a pretext to hold up my pretence of pacifistic defence of the Kwakiutl. That felt more meaningful than "they're nearby and we have -15 relations", you know?
But then before I could build up the fleet needed to attack the Dutch, they came to me with an alliance offer. That would put me in alliances with two powers (themselves allied with a third), a sure deterrent to any notion of the lurking French or English muscling in on my empire. So, I let the Dutch have the Kwakiutl province, and sought a mining deal elsewhere with the Huron, which would also give me a foothold on the northern continent, where everyone appeared to be scrapping over Cuba for reasons unknown. While the AI focuses on one area like this, they often leave another neglected.
For all that competition, there's usually enough to go round for everyone, if you're willing to reign in your ambitions and see the opportunities. Typically, the major powers will fight hard to conquer the New World for its untold riches and workforce-boosting luxury goods, but neglect the minor powers of the old world, whose less exotic resources are nonetheless useful and profitable to the player willing to invest in diplomacy and/or boldly open a war close to home.
But for all that, the AI is somewhat lacking in personality. However nice or mercenary you are, nobody seems to mind all that much. Which is perhaps a benefit in some ways - it's arguably preferable to those games that are constantly judging you. The game is, after all, called Imperialism, and it's really about the cold hard economic thrust of that, rather than a celebration or condemnation. The war of infrastructure and trade, where people are simply units of labour or counters on a board, not people to be despised or wiped out.
Conquests are described simply as "province changes hands", reflecting without great concern the historical reality of how meaningless and fleeting 'ownership' of land was during imperial struggles. There's no concern with de jure holdings or claims or legality here - if you can hold it, it's yours. But the downside of everyone being so pragmatic and indifferent to history is that it's hard to forget you're playing by yourself, and your rivals are just a sheet of numbers bouncing off other numbers.
The weird part though, is that signing a peace treaty dissolves all your active alliances, not only making long-term peace impossible but making all agreements feel frustratingly hollow, and leading to moments where you're considering treaties not based on what makes sense for your Empire, but on second-guessing how the game's bizarre behaviour will pan out. In one campaign, I rejected multiple peace offers from France because I only joined the war to honour my alliance with Sweden, and agreeing to peace, the game said, would have dissolved that.
I took this to mean that the war 'belonged' to my Swedish allies, and would continue until they were satisfied, and my suing for peace would be a betrayal. But then, Sweden pressed for peace themselves, and our alliance was still dissolved. In another case, I formed multiple alliances to protect myself from England, then joined a distant war against Spain to honour those alliances. When that war concluded in victory, all my alliances disappeared, leaving me helpless when England immediately attacked.
On the plus side, when I was able to surprise them by taking a few of their outlying provinces and pressganging an extra army on their border, they saw sense and accepted my peace offer. It's this tendency for the AI to calm down and see reason that keeps it from being a fatal flaw, but it's certainly frustrating that this side of things is so incoherent and undercooked. And it's a point in the game's favour that my surprise victory against the filthy English proved distinctly Pyrrhic, as conscripting so much of my workforce ground production to a halt for years. Unlike most 4X games, in Imperialism, there's simply no way to convert abstract resources back and forth, or magically buy your way out of a corner. Truth be told, I had nothing to blame but my own mismanagement.
Ultimately, then, it would be churlish to let a few oddities sour any review of Imperialism 2 (and to clarify, Imperialism 2 is overall the better game, but both are worthy purchases). It was comfortably one of the best strategy games of the 90s, and is every bit as playable today.
Both Imperialism games are available on GOG.