From the dusty antiquity of video gaming (April 2008), I bring you a review of Europa Universalis: Rome! Produced by the Swedish company Paradox Interactive, it is grand strategy in the grandest sense.
A spin-off of the acclaimed Europa Universalis 3 game, placed in the Renaissance and Colonial era, Rome’s main focus lies on the Mediterranean between 280 BC and 27 BC. As usual with Paradox’ grand strategy games, you’ll spend most of your time staring at colorful maps, running your wanna-be empire on a macro-level, ordering around armies and navies, establishing trade routes, building province improvements, and colonizing barbarian lands (i.e. all lands that you do not own at the start of the game).
But you surely cannot do everything from a map based perspective? No, otherwise the map-fetishists at Paradox would have opted for that long ago. A basic non-map interface gives you access to important aspects of your realm: economic overview, religious omens that may be invoked, army expenses, and laws that can be enacted by the senate (in case of playing Rome) or its equivalent in the other playable powers. The game plays out in real-time, with an option to alter the speed in which time progresses or pausing altogether.
Then there is a totally different layer in the game. The way your republic/empire functions depends on the abilities of the guys in charge. In case of the traditional Roman Republic, you’ve got a consul, whose skills at martial, charisma, and finesse directly influence the quality of your armies, diplomacy, economic prosperity, and technological progress. The in-game consuls are bi-annually selected from a pool of senator-characters. These senators are divided in factions (Civic, Military, Populist, to name a few). Every character has its own ambitions, quirks, hatreds, and reasons to be either loyal or disloyal to the consuls in charge.
Aside from the Consuls, you have a load of historically accurate positions like Censors, Praetors, Prefects and Governors. You usually may select characters for those posts yourself, constantly balancing your choice for the best guy for the job, and the most loyal guy for the job. Giving a disloyal yet very skillful person an important position may result in civil war by the time he has grown tired of the blabbering consuls above him (which, knowing consuls, will take no more than 5 minutes of exposure). If the rebellious politician has a power base in the form of loyal troops, he may actively choose to cross the virtual Rubicon, and make a bid for emperor.
The balancing act
While keeping your senators at least moderately happy, and attempting to crush Carthage, you will constantly be bombarded by ‘events’. These pop-up screens will usually ask you to make a decision from the perspective of the main consul. Personal petitions, orders from the senate, pedagogical issues with raising your children, everyone begs for your attention, and they want it now. In some cases, the interface has disloyalty issues of its own, when not sharing the results of your decision, nor telling what a certain outcome means. Knowing that you absolutely need to keep balancing the factions in the senate, you’d sometimes wish the interface, paraphrasing Caligula, had a neck.
Be prepared for this game. Your first play through will probably be a catastrophe not unlike the Battle of Cannae. You will have to learn to take things slow, to make long term goals, and adjust them if necessary. During my first attempt at this game, after a couple of initially successful skirmishes with Greeks, Carthaginians, and other unroman barbarians, I discovered that my most important general, leading my largest army, had become disloyal. To my horror I noticed that his troops had formed an unbreakable bond with this general during their years of happily slapping non-Romans about all around the western Mediterranean. Suddenly I was confronted with a Julius Caesar-like scenario, with my consul on the losing Pompey-side.
Off to the edge of the map
No time to waste! Since the general was no longer listening to perfectly rational orders like ‘stand down’, ‘disband your troops’ and ‘report to your nearest prison’, I spend most of the hard-earned-tax gold in the treasury to bribe him to the level where I could at least ask him one last thing: to punish those barbarians hiding up in northern Denmark (the Roman self defense excuse pushed to the limit). The 20k army dutifully plodded up the barbarian Alps, all the while succumbing to attrition and barbarian attacks. Finally, the army was annihilated in central Germany, mimicking the Battle of the Teutoburger Forest, its general lying dead in the mud (a poetic image I project in my mind’s eye, since the game only shows a map). A true Pyrrhic Victory, that one. I may have avoided a nasty Civil War, yet it took a long time before the Roman manpower pool had replenished enough to continue stomping Greeks and Carthaginians around the Mediterranean.
A better solution is not to let the situation snowball out of control in the first place. And that is precisely the challenge of Europa Universalis: Rome. That, and the charm of seeing the map of Europe gradually changing in the color of your faction. Knowing that it made you bleed for every single province, this truly feels as a mighty accomplishment!
This game is for you if you are:
- fan of Romans or the classical world in general
- fan of Paradox Interactive (or Crusader Kings 2, Europa Universalis 3/4)
- fan of grand strategy games
- not afraid of obscure complexity, a sometimes unclear interface, and a bit outdated graphics (as far as map-graphics get outdated at all)
If you are aching to fight historical battles or construct Roman cities, then Europa Universalis: Rome is not your game. Fortunately, there are other games that fit that role.
And if you do like these kinds of games… who am I kidding? You probably own it already! (Just in case, you can buy it at the Paradox Webshop)