Meant to replicate the turbulent rise of the Roman Empire circa 304 BC to 26 BC, the strategy game Imperator: Rome pushes players to juggle all manner of bickering, betrayal, theft, lying, bribery and, of course, all-out war.
If that sounds pretty complicated, it is. But for those who really dig dense strategy gaming, it might be worth donning the proverbial toga and laurel wreath for. So let’s take a quick look at what you’ll encounter within this game.
The main goal of Imperator is to gaze at all the many clans, tribes and nations bunched around your budding Roman Republic, and figure out how to make all these political entities on the game’s massive historical map your own. But it’s not as simple as just unleashing the dogs of war. There’s a Senate you’ll need to manage, a national budget to maintain, populations to placate, armies to raise. And it’s never an easy go.
First of all, it should be said that the gamemakers at Paradox have not skimped on giving gamers a seemingly authentic sense, as least in this digital world, of what it must have been like to manage the growth of the Roman Empire. There are many details to keep in mind here and scores of gaming menus to keep track of.
Unfortunately, when you first jump in, the game’s tutorial system doesn’t give you much more than a cursory overview of these things. (Sorta like having to learn to speak Italian from nothing more than a recipe for spaghetti and meatballs.)
If you’re patient enough, though, there are many tabs to open and read, as well as tool tips, to guide you forward. Eventually, you’ll start to get a feel for what makes the heart of your Republic beat—and when you need to flex its muscles.
The basics, of course, involve managing money and allocating troops. Keeping the Republic’s populace happy requires finding ways to improve your commerce infrastructure and establishing trade routes to generate cash flow. Then taxes can be raised to fill your coffers.
Praying and making sacrifices to Roman gods can be part of the equation, too, since one expenditure of “religious” power might supply a boon to population growth or a better sense of public stability. We never actually witness any altar sacrifices here, but the various gods and their associated blessings are spelled out.
Along with fattening your bank account, you’ll want to build training camps to get more freemen. Then there are some dozen different types of military units you can build.
But each has its own specific resource requirements. Calvary and horse archers, for instance, need those mighty steeds. You’ll need iron for heavy infantry, etc. And if you don’t have those resources on hand, you’ll have to import them from someplace … hopefully someplace that you’re not on the outs with. Composition of your troops matters, too. If your army is just thousands of archers, you may have some tough sledding ahead.
Oh, and even if you get your armies, you still have to have permission to head out to make that land grab. The Senate will need good reasons for war. You have to come up with a cause to lay claim, and must deal diplomatically with the state you have your eyes on. And then there’s the Senate itself to navigate.
Power-hungry political rivals might need some gift (a pet tiger, maybe?) or political favors to secure their vote on an upcoming war. There are bickering aristocrats reaching for power, senators raising up personal armies, leaders dying during in flagrante affairs and out-and-out hateful people demanding their due. And you must deal with all of these internal Senate elements. (None of the nastier machinations here are ever visually on display, but you still must read about them and work out solutions.)
Then, of course, you must manage the movement of troops through perilous routes and weather fronts, all while making sure you’ve assigned appropriate army leadership to guide them on their perilous way. On-field assessment of enemy forces and orders for battle tactics must all be carefully weighed as well, and you must have the right balance of troops to back up your tactical plans. (The game’s troops are represented by supersized soldiers that clash on the map, though without any blood or mess.)
If that’s all starting to sound like quite a lot to keep track of, well, I’ve truly only scratched the surface of this game and its many strategic elements. As you dig through the multiple layers of menus and put one digital foot in front of the other, though, you start to see how it all fits together. With time you’ll begin reaching automatically for the correct building orders, the proper diplomatic courses for expansion. You’ll learn, through trial and error, the best way to deal with an angry Senate or how to take the right civic action to quell a brewing riot.
The time it takes to get to that point of understanding and control, however, is the real challenge here. It’s not something that most younger players will have the fortitude for. And even seasoned strategy maestros might have a tough slog before the risks and rewards of this gaming struggle bear lasting digital fruit within the game.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.