Honestly, not all that grand.
I’m halfway through Imperator: Rome’s tutorial and I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I’ve followed the instructions: made some dudes, made some ships, built some buildings, invaded and annexed another country, but really couldn’t tell you what units I built, or what they’re good at, or why I can build them in some places an not others, or what the buildings I built do, or how to do much of anything really, except whatever the next thing in the tutorial menu is, because the little prompts will at least try to tell me how. But in the area between tutorials? I’m sinking fast, and Imperator: Rome either doesn’t know how to tell me how to do anything beyond the basics, or just doesn’t care.
See, there’s two theories to teaching someone to swim: you can help them out, start in shallow water, and showing them the basics until they’re ready to try on their own, or you chuck them into the deep end and hope they’ll figure it out long enough to avoid drowning. I’m not saying the fine folks at Paradox ascribe to the “throw someone into the scary end of the pool and watch them flail until they either die or don’t” mindset, but after a few hours in their tutorial, it sure felt that way.
I’m new to grand strategy titles. And, spoiler alert: I eventually do figure it out. I built the basic units because that was what I had the resources to build. The ones I could build in certain areas and not others? Well, those areas had access to resources, either naturally or via trade, that those units require, like horses, elephants, or metals for certain weapons. Learning what it took to build these units also taught me how what each unit did, what they were strong and weak against, and how to tell what my opponent had at any given time. The buildings I built? They gave me greater access to military units, boosted my economy, helped defend my cities from attack, or increased my population, and eventually I learned how to tell which was which. The game, however, didn’t teach me any of this. I had to learn it myself by clicking through menus, reading text, and a couple dozen hours of trial and error. Eventually, I figured out what I was doing, but I had to do a lot of learning on my own.
"Grand strategy games put you in command of a country and ask you to shepherd it throughout the ages, managing the economy, government, families, local factions, and war. You do all of this through a series of very complicated menus, each of which controls a specific area, such as religion, the military, the economy, etc."
If you’re new to the genre, grand strategy games put you in command of a country and ask you to shepherd it throughout the ages, managing the economy, government, families, local factions, and war. You do all of this through a series of very complex but surprisingly easy to navigate and well laid out menus, each of which controls a specific area, such as religion, the military, the economy, etc. And really, that’s about it. Imperator: Rome is enormously complex, but it doesn’t have a lot of traditional gameplay. You can make armies, sure, and send them to conquer neighboring lands (this is, after all, a game about empires), but you don’t get a battle sequence out of it. All conflict is portrayed on the world map, where your army, represented as a dude with a spear, pokes at their dude with a spear for a while, and then the one with the bigger numbers usually wins – though things like unit discipline, morale, what units your armies are made up of, the upgrades you’ve acquired along the way, and several things that are immediately apparent (but easily accessible) matter, as well. It doesn’t look fancy, but there’s a lot of strategy here, and while the game doesn’t directly tell you why you won or lost, it gives you all the information you need to figure it out for yourself.
Like most grand strategy games, you play by navigating menus and making choices, and there is intrigue to be found here, after you spend about a dozen hours (or watch several YouTube videos) learning how to play the game. A lot of what you do comes to you in individual events that pop up on your screen. Maybe a particular noble has ambitions and he feels his current office is beneath him. Do you grant him the office he wants? Perhaps you give his family a stipend. Or you smear his name so you can throw him in prison. Or maybe you exile him. Or you give him another position, just not the one he wants. Or maybe you try to win his favor with gifts, so he forgets about how mad he is. Or… well, you get the idea, yeah?
And that’s just one guy. There’s also diplomacy with nations to consider, and your standing with another power is determined by everything ranging from cultural differences to whether or not you’ve been at war a lot lately. Of course, like people, nations can be manipulated. You could bribe a nation that doesn’t like you with cash, or send diplomats to raise your standing over time. Manage enough of a standing, and you’ll be able to offer alliances, guarantee another nation’s independence, request that your armies be allowed to pass through without declaring war, make a smaller state subordinate to your empire, have them pay tribute to you, and other various nationy things. It takes a really long time, but making friends was never easy.
Because time moves so fast (an in-game day takes about a second at the default speed), it’s not uncommon to see several generations pass in a single game. While this means that stuff is always happening, it also means that it takes a long time to do anything, especially something as complicated as building a relationship with a nation that has spent the last few decades as your sworn enemy. The upside is that you get to see your nation advance. You can pass (or repeal) laws, enact reforms, implement new systems of government, handle (or enable) corrupt politicians, and a lot more. It’s also interesting to see your leaders have children, age, grow old (and have their stats suffer as a result), and die, and then watch their children grow up. One former Consul of Rome, who was my chosen guy for as long as he lived, gave birth to a lazy, crazy son who had no political ambition. I gave him a job anyway, because he inherited his daddy’s stats and I thought maybe I could force him into being ambitious. It didn’t work.
While the long-term view of empire building Imperator: Rome presents is cool, and it allows for interesting things, it means diplomacy takes a very long time. It’s easier to just roll several legions over anyone who tries to fight you, which is probably what you’ll do, at least at first. As mentioned earlier, you don’t get to watch the fights, but it isn’t boring. You’ve got to keep an eye on unit morale, where your other armies, if any, are, what your allies are doing, how troop morale is, the cost of war on your population and economy, and what your enemies are cooking up.
All that said, the actual act of conquering is pretty simple. Mostly you’ll capture territories (which happens when your army occupies one, unless there’s a city to siege, in which case you do that), and once you have enough, you can sue for peace, often annexing the territories you capture in the process. There’s other things that can happen in war – you and your opponent’s allies will aid their respective factions, and there’s nothing more terrifying than losing your entire army and having to tax the crap out of everyone to raise a new one – but it’s still a slow-paced method of conquering the world. But that’s fine. This is a grand strategy game, and the scope and scale of it spans hundreds of years. Its speed reflects that; it’s easy to dump dozens of hours into a single campaign and feel like the last hour or so hasn’t really changed much. But wars can take years. So can overcoming centuries of animosity between countries through diplomacy. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your empire isn’t going to be, either. It might take some time to get used to – I know it did for me – but once you recognize that you’re in this for the long haul, it’s easier to understand the game’s pace.
"Grand strategy games typically don’t have plots, and the amount of time that passes means your characters aren’t going to stick around until the end. This isn’t a bad thing, mind, but it is something to keep in mind if you’re new to the genre."
Which brings me to Imperator: Rome’s main problem: aside from expanding your empire, there really isn’t much of an inherent reason to do things. Putting the evils of colonialism and imperialism aside, this is kind of problem if you’re not good at making your own fun. Grand strategy games typically don’t have plots, and the amount of time that passes means your characters aren’t going to stick around until the end. This isn’t a bad thing, mind, but it is something to keep in mind if you’re new to the genre. Imperator: Rome gives you a huge, glorious map and a lot things to manage, but the stories you experience are the ones you make. You have to have your own reasons for wanting to expand your empire and be capable of building your own narrative. Sometimes it helps to have a silly objective known only to you, or a challenge – maybe you won’t want to conquer anyone, and just build alliances. Conquer the world with a carrot, not a stick – but how you approach this game will largely determine what you get out of it. Sure, you can just make enormous balls of troops and roll them around the map (I call this the Big Stick Strategy), but that can get boring quickly. You have to have an interest in empire building in this era to get the most out of Imperator: Rome, especially if you want to play the game for a long time.
Even the other playable civilizations, like Egypt and Carthage, don’t add much variety to the core gameplay loop of “expand, gather resources, conquer,” and while the game’s multiplayer mode probably does a lot to alleviate the “why” by allowing you to play with other people (I wasn’t able to test it), you’ll still have to have your own reasons – and make your own rules and challenges – to experience Imperator: Rome at its peak. That isn’t good or bad. It just is. There’s variety here, but the game isn’t going to make you use it. You’ll have to do that yourself, and that will turn off people who don’t find that sort of thing fun.
I’ve said in past reviews that the highest compliment I can give a game is that I want to keep playing it after I’m done. I don’t want to play Imperator: Rome again. I don’t think it’s a bad game; in fact, it’s pretty good. But if the idea of colonizing the world over several dozen years by clicking through a bunch of menus doesn’t do much for you, it’s not gonna be something you enjoy, and you should probably stay away from grand strategy games as a whole. And that’s before factoring in the abysmal tutorial and limited game modes. But if it does? You’ll be here for a long, long time. Whether you enjoy it is all going to depend on whether you want to learn to swim, and if you want to stay in this vast, deep ocean after you do.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Depth. A lot of depth. Manage just about any aspect of an empire. A huge map to play on.
The tutorial is atrocious. Not a lot of modes. Kind of repetitive, no matter who you play.
Imperator: Rome's audience is inherently limited, and it's shoddy tutorial and lack of game modes won't attract new players, but if you dig managing ancient empires through a series of menus, you'll probably have a good time.