Builders Take a Back Seat to Conquerors in 'Imperator: Rome'

Rome wasn't built in a day. Most of it was stolen.

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Apr 30 2019, 7:19pm

'Imperator: Rome' art by Gökberk Kaya / credit Paradox Interactive

Much later, Alexander finally had to explain why. He had brought his army into India, the last stop on this bloody journey, and if the story is true that he wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, it is no less true that his army finally understood how much larger the world is than a single man's ambition or understanding. They knew little about the country and people they were attempting to conquer, but they had an inkling how vast and dangerous the undertaking would be, and so they started organizing in protest of Alexander's plans.

He attempted to rekindle the fire of his invincible army by listing all the conquests and victories that had gone before, and wondered why here, now, they would balk. Then, to give his army purpose, he said to them: "I, for my part, think, that to a brave man there is no end to labors except the labors themselves." For Alexander, India was not worth conquering for its territory, or for its resources, or because the gods had willed it. Conquering was the thing itself.

Which brings us to Imperator.

Imperator: Rome is the latest historical grand strategy game from Paradox Development Studio, and takes as its subject the later years of the Roman Republic through its transformation into the Roman Empire under the rule of the dynastic Principate.

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screenshots courtesy of Paradox Interactive

It does not merely cover Rome, but every kingdom, tribe, empire, and clan from Northern Europe to India. You can practically go anywhere and play as anyone you like in this historical setting, but that variety never feels quite like it amounts to the flexibility and freedom—and also the trade-offs—I associate with other Paradox games. You don't have to march your armies to the ends of the earth as your people know it, but neither does it feel like you have much else to do with your time.

With the Paradox community there is always talk about “broad / wide” vs. “tall” styles of play. Do you expand your empire, amassing territory and resources, crushing your neighbors through sheer brute force? Or do you build “tall,” developing a smaller country, and using that focus to achieve a higher level of infrastructure, economic production, technology, and internal stability. In Civilization terms, conquering every enemy capital probably means playing “wide” while going for a culture of science win is roughly parallel to a “tall” strategy.

But I’ve always felt that tall is only really fun when you have a lot of options to customize and find efficiencies in your development program, and can even achieve definitions of power and success that don’t necessarily mean military domination. Does “tall” mean being able to punch way above your weight as a military power? Dominating trade around the world? Having so much diplomatic pull that you can basically dictate foreign policy to other nations? In Imperator you can develop into an advanced empire that is pound-for-pound more efficient than others, but the mechanisms by which you do that are fairly passive and coarse. Development is mostly a matter of running the clock and reacting to things. Only conquest promises agency.

The result is a game that still feels like history, but only history as told through the shaded maps in a textbook. This is how we measure ancient civilizations: how far did their rule extend? What were their first great conquests, and when did they reach their zenith? The last question always contains within it another: why did they stop, and resign themselves to decline? You've seen the map of the Empire under Trajan, you've seen the hard line drawn across Britain by the Emperor Hadrian. Empires grow until they won't or can't, and then they begin to die. That's what those laughably incomplete maps tell you, shaded in a single color and everything and everyone else feathered out of the picture until they're just part of the bare geography beyond imperial borders.

That's kind of what Imperator feels like, and I don't necessarily mean that as a condemnation. Rather, whoever you are playing as in any given game, becomes the protagonist of your alternate history. There is a map crammed with other colors, and then there is yours, and it is almost endlessly satisfying to see that map begin to fall under your dominion and assume your factional color. In fact, if you're not used to Paradox games, it will probably feel like Imperator gives you loads to do and manage.

This isn't Risk, where armies just go and seize a new patch of the map. There are games of diplomacy to be played, to ensure you don't end up on the wrong side of a coalition war. You have to give plausible reasons for your conquests, usually through "forging claims" on foreign territory, that you can then use to justify launching a war. After each seizure of territory, you earn "aggressive expansion" penalties that damage your relations with every other country and leave you with an increasingly furious populace of involuntary subjects, and have to invest time and national resources in rebuilding your good reputation and enticing people to share your religion and culture.

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You also have to watch your own back. Though Imperator never quite manages to suggest the levels of treachery and machination that you find in HBO's Rome or Kubrick's Spartacus, there is nevertheless a fairly rich cast of main and supporting characters you always have to keep an eye on. Republics have political factions and noble families, all of whom have their own interests, personalities, and rivalries. Tribes are comprised of rival clans who follow their rulers not out of legal requirement but out of respect and interest. Monarchies have to worry about bloodlines and legitimacy, because there are always pretenders out there ready to seize the throne. It's not Crusader Kings 2, where the game design itself generates and endless medieval soap opera (complete with twists that are by turns tragic and laughably overdone), but it gives you a sense of their being a political inner life to each nation, and creates internal tensions and pressures that tie back to what you can achieve on the map.

Those problems can burst out into the open on that map in the form of a civil war, where a huge swath of your country can at once turn against you and effectively become a foreign power within your own territory. Rivals who were checked by agreements with your legitimate government and the unified power of your nation can pounce on the rebels (or on you) for easy conquests.

But things don't necessarily need to get to that stage: one of the best things about Imperator is the way it presents loyalty and treason as being on a continuum rather than a toggle. A great general may become disillusioned or frustrated with your government, but they won't necessarily take their army—now personally loyal to them rather than the state—and launch a rebellion. They might instead just sit sullenly, refusing to take orders but not openly turning against you. Sometimes a politician will try something similar, abruptly raising a disloyal private army… and then quietly disbanding it when they realize that they will be crushed in any kind of open warfare.

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But because of Imperator’s near-singular focus on militarism, these tensions are most interesting in the context of how they affect your expansion.

If you settle down with Imperator to create an ancient utopia, you'll find that the game presents precious few ways to express your vision. This is not the stuff of the Funeral Oration of Pericles, where you can revel in the splendor and cultural achievement of your own golden age (in his case, paid for by the tribute extorted from Athens' supposed allies, so let's not give him too much credit). Instead, you use an enjoyably straightforward trade system to provide bonuses to your empire, you appoint government officials and provincial governors and try and check to make sure they remain competent and well-intentioned, and try and sand away the friction generated by your conquered populations (most often by clicking a button to instantly convert them to your culture and faith). Beyond that it just feels like government kind of runs on autopilot while your country and its development just coast along on historical and technological momentum.

I never got a sense of who your people are or what kind of empire I'd built. Sometimes I was the warlord of a powerful Gallic tribal empire, ruling over a land of free tribesmen and a very, very small class of educated "citizens" generating commerce income and technological progress. Other times I was a consul of Rome whose conquests had sent entire armies of slaves back to my capitals, where they generated massive increases in tax income and resource production. But those two experiences didn't feel distinctive except in their machinery of governance. Paradox games always struggle to communicate the realities underlying their layers of useful abstraction, but usually they are abstracted with enough detail and flavor that you can at least infer something about the life of your nation. In Imperator, the abstractions mostly serve to change how the numbers add up.

Which makes it harder to resist the allure of imperial triumph. If Imperator struggles to tell a compelling story about what happens inside the borders of empire, there is plenty of drama as armies take the field and clash against completely different ways of fighting, in completely different types of terrain. Armies bleed out in sieges against mountain strongholds, proud legions of discipline infantry are demolishing by skirmishing cavalry on open plains and deserts, and great generals can turn the tide even when numbers, tactics, and terrain have all gone against you.

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As with all Paradox games, seeing all this unfold requires drilling down into the numbers at play in a given battle so you can see how chosen battle tactics, tech levels, bonuses, and army compositions all affect the outcome but in those piles of stats you can see why you needed to fear this enemy army, or how your general eked out an undeserved victory against the odds.

Wars eventually end, though, and Imperator struggles to find a purpose beyond them. It's the game's biggest drawback: in a surprisingly short amount of time, I often find myself secure from external attack, at peace with my political rivals, and governing over a largely tranquil and productive populace. Yet I keep going, looking for some kind of external pressure that will push against me, or hoping that my next conquest will generate so much internal tension that I can't keep a lid on it.

What Imperator offers are good, enjoyable labors to little end but themselves. It sounds like a great selling point, and if your ambition is to be Alexander, Imperator will deliver that fantasy. But people want to do other things, to leave raise different monuments and achieve other triumphs. In India, Alexander finally admitted to his army the truth: that he had no purpose to offer them other than struggle and victory. He couldn't fathom that might not be enough. To his great surprise and indignation, his army immediately went on strike.

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