Demo Driver 8: Imperium Romanum Gold Edition (#374)
Before I explain what happened in Genoa, senator, I feel it’s only fair that I set the appropriate context.
When you sat me down in Genoa, I didn’t have a forum, I had a shack with a central road. There were no roads linking the forum to the fishing regions that the Senate considered so vital to restoring the town. There were no houses. You had even neglected to inform me that a warehouse had been constructed on the other side of the nearby mountain line, thereby necessitating an expensive (and troublesome) expansion to the east just so I could establish a supply of timber and stone. When I found out later that there was another deposit, I of course was overjoyed.
But the demands of the Senate in this situation were unreasonable. You have asked me to build more fine stone architecture, more homes made of stone, a monument commemorating the city’s restoration. Do you know how much stone that takes? Do you know how much stone there is around Genoa? Because I do. The answers are, in order, “a whole lot” and “not much.” Not nearly enough for the temples and the fine stone homes and the monument and the other temple.
Once you understand that, it’s a lot easier to understand how the fire got started.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from Imperium Romanum when I sat down with it. For starters, it’s a strategy game firmly set in the city-building mindset, whereas I generally trend toward something a tick higher or lower in terms of scope. It also acquired rather tepid review scores on its initial release. Grain of salt, then: it’s quite possible that my own lack of experience shows here and there are much better offerings in the same basic genre that offer something more unique.
That having been said, the demo displayed that much-desired quality wherein I sat down to start playing and then continued playing and sort of lost track of how much I was playing. This is usually a sign that I’m enjoying myself.
At its core, Imperium Romanum is a game about building and defending a Roman city. The lone scenario in the demo has you building up Genoa after the city was ravaged by the Punic Wars, tasking you with taking a greatly diminished fishing city and returning it to a position of prominence. You start with a forum, some supply depots, and nothing else; it’s your job to start giving the city a functional economy with the limited tools at your disposal. Which starts with a set of tablets.
When you start a map, you draw three tablets, each of which has some sort of requirement on it, like “build two fishing huts” or “build ten houses” or “build a barracks.” Actually, all of them involve building something, which would make this system incompatible with Super Mario Bros. but works quite nicely in the situation. So you set about achieving these smaller goals, establishing a city-wide economy and supplies. Meanwhile, you also have to keep an eye on what your citizens require from your administration. Everyone wants something, and while your citizens start out perfectly happy simply because they’re not crouching outdoors with wolves, eventually they become very Roman indeed and start getting indignant at the idea that you aren’t providing nearly enough fresh slaves and gold.
You also have to consider supply and demand closely. Every building has space for a certain number of employees and requires something to keep it functional. That means carefully spacing buildings so that they’re within walking distance of houses while considering your resources and your town structure carefully. Houses, for example, upgrade on their own when the family is prosperous enough, but that puts a renewed strain on your building materials if you’re not careful.
It’s all standard stuff for the genre, I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. On the contrary, it made for a pleasant diversion as I tried to keep my citizens happy, building roadways, stretching the aqueduct and wells far enough that everyone could have access to the water they needed while carefully considering demands. Linen wasn’t really part of the initial plan, but citizens were unhappy with the lack of cloth, so I needed those and a tailor. But that also meant that we needed more houses, since those farms don’t staff themselves. Of course, only some genders can work at certain jobs, so I needed other jobs for people…
Where the game really falls down is combat. You have virtually no control over your units; you just sort of send them to attack whatever is closest to them and hope your enemy’s morale breaks before your unit’s does. There’s a bit of fiddling with formation to provide options, but the fact is that it winds up turning into a mess of watching and hoping you get to win. Obviously that’s not the game’s primary concern, but even in that light it’s a pretty poor combat interface that sidelines the very idea.
There’s also the question of how long it takes before the game outstays its welcome. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s bad; far from it. I mean that in the sense that there’s not a great deal to the game, and once you’ve played through the scenario available in the demo it’s quite possible you’ve seen all of the game’s tricks. Then it’s just a matter of starting you further ahead or behind in given scenarios, and whether or not that’s enjoyable to you largely depends on how much you enjoyed the same basic sandbox. You’re still expanding in the same basic patterns over and over.
Oh, and it’s another game with a Roman focus, which has become something of a goldmine for strategy games over the past several years of gaming. It’s just complex enough that you can fit in some depth and just simple enough that you don’t have to worry about really advanced elements to screw up your playground. It’s hardly as ubiquitous as John Callofduty shooting ambiguously defined enemy soldiers in the face, but still.
So perhaps this is a game that shines best in the limited scope of the demo and is made somewhat weaker if you zoom in too closely. I can understand the tepid review scores in light of that. At the same time, I enjoyed the time I spent with the demo, and I do mean enjoyed. Not tolerated, not saw some fundamentally praiseworthy elements underneath, but enjoyed. So if you’re in the mood for something a little more focused on plotting and building, it’s not taxing to pick up the demo.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a monument to finish.