Veni, Vidi Vici!
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I have been playing games using the Europa Universalis engine for a very long time, which being a hardcore turn-based strategy fan, is a good thing. In fact I think it's safe to say that I think I have played every game from Paradox using this engine starting with the original Europa Universalis through EU III. And I played and loved their World War II games like Hearts of Iron and Hearts II, which used the game engine as a base. And that does not even count peripheral titles like Crusader Kings.
Over the years I have watched improvements with the engine not only in the overall mechanics governing how units move, fight and retreat from battle, but also how countries generally react to each other and what happens when say, Germany conquers a French province. There have been some amazingly high points and a few low ones when playing with the Europa Universalis game engine, but generally the trend has always been upwards.
And now I can say, with some authority, that the newest game in this turn-based series: Europa Universalis: Rome, is the pinnacle. It builds on all the lessons learned in the past to create a solid turn-based gameplay experience that is second to none. And as icing on the cake, a beautiful graphical interface was added that looks simply astonishing. I can't remember the last time I looked at a turn-based strategy game and thought how amazing everything looked. I know TBS purists will say that the prettiness of a title does not matter, but I think as long as everything else works perfectly, why not add a little eye candy?
Also, I think most people who wargame have at least a passing interest in Rome and their empire, so setting the game during the time of the Caesars should only help its popularity. Like with all the games of this type published by Paradox, you are not stuck playing only Rome. Any country or tribe that existed during the time period in the given scenarios are fair game. So you might find yourself at odds with Rome, not a position most countries wanted to be in. But then again, you might just be able to beat them at their own game.
The game takes place at all stages of the Roman Empire from its humble (somewhat) beginnings to its domination of Europe to its slow death. But again, you don't have to play Rome and in fact, I would recommend you don't at first. Like with previous Europa games, you control almost every aspect of your chosen nation both militarily and domestically, so jumping into running an empire might be a little ambitious, even for veteran players. There is a tutorial that will show you the bare minimum of what is needed to play, but don't expect it to show you everything. For that, you really need to jump in and play a few games.
I started out with Macedon in the early stages of the Roman Empire. This gave me a couple territories to manage, an adjacent barbarian territory which could eventually become a colony, and generally good relations with all my neighbors. The first thing I did was to demand tribute from two provinces which happened to be in the middle of my lands. The northern country accepted my offer, but the southern one did not. So of course I went to war with the southern one. The problem was that my new enemy happened to be allied with Sparta, so I was at war with them as well.
And while I was able to defeat my original enemy handedly with my huge Macedonian army; Sparta would not make peace and became a problem. Eventually I was able to turn back most of their thrusts and bring a new territory into my empire, but the cost was low civilian morale which lead to revolts and eventually to the shrinking of my empire. After that 300 movie I should have known to stay away from Sparta. Luckily I could simply restart and try something different.
And interestingly enough, during that first game I was just paying attention to the military angle. But that is a recipe for defeat. You also need to pay attention to your domestic policy including establishing an advantageous type of government, creating trade routes and keeping the population happy. Each of these elements is extremely complex. For example, bringing in iron will let you create heavy infantry, which in turn lets you standardize on the great idea of "professional soldiers," a big help for a military minded nation. After that, you have to be watchful of the territory that is making the iron (when using internal empire trading) and make sure it does not fall into enemy hands. Perhaps building a fort there would be a good idea, if you have the technology to do that, which means allotting enough resources to land-based military technology research. Will this leave you open to a sea invasion? When you concentrate on one area, you are leaving others less prepared.
And remember that first game where the lack of tribute had me storming across the border? Well, that was a bit short sighted. There is a highly complex diplomacy interface which if used properly will let you undermine your rivals, sometimes without spilling any blood, and sometimes with only spilling specific blood via assassinations.
In addition to the aforementioned great ideas, you can also spawn great leaders. These are men (and rarely women too) of note who can perform a special skill, like govern a province, command a legion, add research points to a specific national project or become your overall leader. And these people make a huge difference. The reason I did so well in my stupid war was because I assigned a strong leader to my legions, whereas my opponents either didn't assign anyone or didn't have anyone worthy of command. As such I was able to crush them most of the time, which increased my commander's fame and skill. The only reason I lost was because I could not be everywhere at once. The allied coalition marching against me could hit me in multiple places.
In fact, when looking at the leaders, you will see a family history, which is a lot like Crusader Kings. You can selectively marry off family members to solidify your hold on power, though you are not trying to hold power in one family here but instead to keep your nation alive, so the focus is slightly different. If one family loses power, you can simply move another one in. In most time periods you should have plenty.
So it would seem like you have a lot going on and you do, but although this is a turn-based game, it can also be played kind of like a real-time one. Well, sort of. You control how quickly time advances and can pause it at any time. So you can pause it or have it advance very slowly, perhaps having one game day pass for every ten seconds or so of real time when you have a lot going on. Or you can speed it up if you are just waiting for an event like an army or fleet to arrive somewhere. Given all you have to do, going slowly might be the best course of action most of the time.
Graphically the game looks amazing, with highly detailed units dressed in appropriate armor and carrying the right weapons. Ships are restricted to Triremes but look good nonetheless. Putting the excellent graphical touches on top of a great simulation interface really temps players to run their nation for just a few more weeks of game time, which eventually turns into months and years.
And one final note. Given all that you can do and all that the computer can do, it means that almost no games are going to be the same. This makes re-playability choices nearly infinite.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.