Imperator: Rome Hands-On: Tribal Migrations, Deadly Forests, and Emergency Powers


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A trip back into history in Paradox’s latest deep strategy game.

Historically, the later period of the Western Roman Empire was heavily shaped by the migration of barbarian Germanic tribes into their former lands, paving the way for medieval states. Imperator: Rome, Paradox’s upcoming grand strategy game about the classical world, starts several centuries earlier than that in a time when Rome was just beginning its rise to power. But when I heard barbarian migrations had been implemented as a launch feature, I didn’t let the date on the calendar stop me from kicking the party off early.

Imperator is based around population units called pops, a concept that may be familiar to players of other Paradox games like Stellaris and Victoria II. These are the people that live in all of the thousands of cities on the map. They can be encouraged to move, they can decline and die, or they can multiply as history marches on. Germanic barbarian tribes have the ability to uproot their pops and turn them into mobile armies, leaving their former homes uninhabited and allowing them to seek new ones.

Get your Sax on

That’s exactly what I did as chieftain of the Saxons in 304 B.C., making an exodus from Northern Germany down to warmer and more fertile lands somewhere in the vicinity of modern Stuttgart, a few regions over from the Alps and Rome’s doorstep. Ending my migration resettled my Saxon pops on top of some Celtic tribesmen already living in the area who became my new subjects. The future of the new South Saxon kingdom looked bright. At least until I realized I was facing great unrest from war exhaustion because marching through hundreds of miles of undeveloped Teutonic woodlands without a clear plan is a very bad idea in Imperator.

The concept of attrition is nothing new to Paradox games, but it’s particularly brutal in this modeling of the classical world in which much of Europe and Asia are still covered by unforgiving wilderness and there are hardly any nice roads to be found until you build them. Trying to march even a modest force across the Alps or through the deserts of Arabia is likely to end with you losing more men to starvation and exposure than you might in a hard-fought battle, and it serves to significantly curb ambitious wars of conquest outside the fertile areas along the rim of the Mediterranean. This creates a definite sense that there is a civilized core to the world with imposing hinterlands encircling it on all sides, and forced me to really think through the logistical aspects of my conquests.

Within a decade or so, the Saxons weren’t doing so well. Weakened by our long journey, we didn’t have the military strength or economic base to go up against some of our new, stronger Celtic neighbors, so I decided to give Imperator’s poster child a spin.

Forum abuse

Rome is a very different animal, politically and militarily. While my Saxon leader could risk upsetting powerful clan chiefs with his actions but otherwise did as he pleased, Roman consuls during the Republican period are very much at the whims of the Senate. Senatorial seats are divided between five factions that all have tendencies to support or oppose certain kinds of actions – the Militarists like conquest, but the Mercantile faction might not be so keen on it – and each is led by a prominent Senator with whom you can interact. As consul, I found I needed the Senate’s permission to do anything so much as breathe. Certain things, like declaring war on our Italian neighbors, were fairly easy to sell. But others, like integrating our feudatory allies or passing new laws, were not so simple.

As of now, in its unfinished state, I found there wasn’t a lot I could do to sway Senatorial factions to my point of view conventionally. It’s definitely a mechanic that’s going to need some clarifying and cleaning up before launch. If my consul was friends with the leader of a faction, for instance, that faction would be more likely to support my decisions. But it’s not entirely under your control which characters end up liking each other and which don’t. Thankfully, I was able to get around this by taking a cue from real Roman history.

I am the Senate!

When at war, a consul can ask the Senate to grant them emergency powers as a Dictator. I found they were quite willing to do so as long as I kept the republic in a state of constant conflict, braying dramatically at every opportunity about the threats on our borders. Dictators still have to have the Senate’s consent for most actions, but enjoy a healthy boost to the chance that they will be given a free hand in most matters. Thus, I was able to subvert representative democracy by fostering an atmosphere of unrelenting terror and xenophobia.

When it comes to actually conducting wars, Imperator shines brighter than most of Paradox’s other recent games. The higher detail of the map and more punishing attrition encourage splitting armies up into smaller detachments, and forced me to really think through every move with careful consideration of the terrain, enemy movements, placement of fortifications, and travel times. A rock-paper-scissors-style tactics system also allows you to win some battles where you’re clearly outmatched if you manage to pick a tactic that counters the one your opponent picked, which is a nice way to make things not all about raw stats and dice rolls but also amounts to not much more than a guessing game.

I like how Imperator: Rome is shaping up so far, especially as a wargame. It’s due out in 2019, and I can imagine many long hours spent planning out detailed and intricate campaigns into foreign lands. Technology and inventions that mitigate attrition in wilderness areas is going to be hugely valuable, as will constructions like the famous Roman roads that cut down the sometimes massive travel times across the absolutely gigantic map. A lot of the internal politics and diplomacy seemed too unfinished to get a strong idea of how it will all work together, though. Knowing Paradox, I expect that to be more of a focus come release time. But they already have a very enjoyable wargame waiting to be wedded to it.

T.J. Hafer is a contributor to IGN. Talk strategy games with him on Twitter at @Asa_TJ.





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