Imperator: Rome is the latest grand strategy game from veteran design and publishing house Paradox Interactive. With a timeline beginning around 300 BC, players are tasked with managing the formation of the Roman Empire — or one of its many rivals.
Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with Imperator: Rome. Truly, there has never been a more grand undertaking among strategic simulations and I can’t even begin to imagine how I’ll find the hours to see everything that Imperator: Rome has to offer. Just looking at the raw facts and figures, the map spans from Ireland in the top left, to India and almost to China in the East. From North to South, most of Scandinavia is covered, whilst Egypt and the North Coast of Africa, almost the full extent of the Nile river is also included. Wikipedia tells me that 7,000 cities are covered in all.
Providing players with a huge map covered in significant empires is nothing special, we’ve seen that in Total War and in fairness, Europa Universalis had a larger map in terms of how much of the glove it extended to. The nuance with Imperator: Rome is how detailed these maps are. Take Britain, which is split into enough individual provinces to make any other game jealous in its own right. Broadly speaking, each province is perhaps a quarter of the size of a modern country, so when you’re looking at countries as large as Egypt, you can only imagine how much detail there is to wade through.
This would be OK, if Paradox had managed to overcome its usual challenge of providing poor tutorials. Sadly, it has not. There is a dedicated tutorial, but rather than walking the player through a series of specific tasks and informing them of their purpose, it more or less drops us into a normal game, playing as Rome, and gives us a list of objectives to achieve. Each one provides a decent insight into how it can be achieved — and we’re given loads of money — but it’s still fairly meh.
The real complexity in Imperator: Rome, much as in other Paradox titles, is only learned over the course of many, many failed attempts, and restarts. Only after the fundamentals are understood will minor tweaks to taxes, maintenance values, diplomatic actions and the many other aspects of managing an empire begin to make total sense. Playing Imperator: Rome back to back with Stellaris, I noticed immediately just how opaque the changes I was making here were by comparison to Paradox’s own space opera. There’s nothing as simple or as immediate as building a mining colony or research base in Imperator: Rome.
Instead, when a change is made, the player will need to hover over one of the key resource values along the top ribbon. Oratory, religious, military and civic power levels are all measured, as are manpower levels and, of course, the treasury. When highlighted, a summary of income and outgoings will be provided, as well as the current balance — red is bad, whilst green is good. Depending on which nation or tribe you choose to play as, you might spend more time than you were hoping keeping these values out of the red.
Of course, which nation is choose will depend on many things – personal preference, national pride, historical interest or just sheer practicality. I love playing as the Brigantes tribe personally, but choosing a tribal nation in a faraway corner of the map provides a bleak representation of what Imperator is all about. Choosing Rome, Egypt or Phrygia is much more interesting from the perspective of a newcomer to the game, and even though you’ll see your balance disappear rapidly, at least you’ll be able to fight a few wars, train a few units and build some buildings before it all comes tumbling down!
As your level of understanding of these systems increases, so too will the satisfaction that Imperator gives you. Balancing the basic bookkeeping systems is essential to drilling further into some of the other systems upon which the games intricate mesh of related features is built. Your government, for example, will be made up of various families. Some of these will be loyal, whilst others will not. Each individual will need to be managed by hook or by crook, and their personalities provide the modifiers that improve or stifle research, civic power and so on.
Buildings, trade routes, diplomatic relations and many other microsystems within the bigger picture all mesh together to further compound and multiply the various base values that sit somewhere inside the vast spreadsheet that is Paradox’s engine for these games. The key to victory at a mathematical level is all about understanding the formulae and then manipulating them with the pieces you have access to — which is often easier said than done. But what about victory on the field in the game of political power that Imperator: Rome asks us to play? Well that’s something else entirely.
Combat in Imperator: Rome feels a lot like it does in the previous grand strategy titles from Paradox, but there are a few key differences that can affect the outcome. Like a lot of the other changes in Imperator: Rome, these lie beneath the surface. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, players will need to recognise the very different styles of warfare that exist between different factions. For example, the well organised forces of the various Mediterranean and African empires differ tactically from the tribal forces of Northern Europe and Britain.
In gameplay terms, battle is the same as it always has been — if two armies meet in the same province, an unavoidable battle will occur. There are numerous modifiers that determine the winner, including army size and composition, the location of the battle, any base modifiers specific the factions involved and the current military technologies in play. In short, battles are another area where invisible spreadsheets do the heavy lifting — but the player can at least affect the outcome beforehand by specialising their force and preparing it for the kinds of enemy it is likely to face.
I’ll be honest and say that I don’t love the combat system in Imperator: Rome. I feel that it heavily advantages the more powerful, formalised military organisations more than it does the tribal nations. There’s no concept of guerilla or mobile warfare and no specific options that enable raiding or similar. In effect, this means that numerically (and technologically) inferior tribal army will always meet a more formal army (like the Romans) in open battle, whereas I think in reality such a battle would be considered suicidal.
In gameplay terms, this can mean that a player who is in control of a tribal nation must act and play more like a large empire than perhaps feels natural. There’s certainly no way that I’ve found to “behave” like a barbarian horde supposedly would have. Diplomacy is similarly focused on “proper” business, including forming defensive alliances, laying claim to provinces and paying tribute. I would have liked to see smaller nations that were considered a nuisance to their larger neighbours be paid off to stop raiding.
Similarly, I’m not sure that the idea of a Casus Belli for declaring war is as relevant to all nations as it is to those that considered themselves civilised, yet Imperator: Rome still confers the same penalty for warmongering whether you play as the unwashed barbarians of the Baltic States or the cultured and democratic Greek’s. Interestingly though, there are actual differences in the way that each nation is managed based on the kind of government (Tribal, Republic etc) it has, which include the structure of important roles, the approval (or not) of certain actions and more.
Of course, with so much data to pass on to the player, Imperator: Rome needs to have a clean, slick interface, as well as a graphics engine that is capable of presenting the world at both very high and very low levels of detail. As always, Paradox has hit the nail on the head with these things, offering a map that can be zoomed up and down to a level where each hill across The Pennines is visible or so that the player can see from as the tip of Scotland to the Himalayas in a single view. Some twelve or so different modes allow the player to observe political, economical, strategic and many other overlays, making the planning of who to attack next a doddle.
Imperator: Rome is, without a doubt, the grandest of all strategy games that I’ve played to date. If what you came here for was to be assured that no one has replicated the rise (and possible fall) of Rome in the same intricate detail, over such a vast scale, then I can confirm that you’re assumptions were correct. But on the same note, Imperator is to some extent more of the same when placed alongside Europa Universalis IV.
Yes, the setting is completely different and the map is more detailed. Yes, there are new systems and interesting buttons to fiddle with, but it does feel fundamentally the same. There is differentiation from one faction to the next, but I’d have liked to see more of it, and the warfare here is as good — or bad — as it always was, depending on your view.
When all is said and done, Imperator: Rome is a game for the purist. It’s a remarkable achievement and a superb game, but if you’ve never found the Paradox games to be to your liking before, then I don’t think there’s anything here — except perhaps the theme itself — that will change your mind. Still, I can see myself sinking 2-300 hours into all the same.
Imperator: Rome is available now on PC, Mac and Linux.