Ever want to rule the world?
More specifically, ever want to rule a Renaissance-era Europe, and its accompanying New World colonies? Then Imperialism II is the game for you.
You start off in charge of one of the reigning European powers in 1500, either in a map of Europe or a random one. You have a certain number of provinces, each which contains one principle city. While you start building up your resource network at home, you also must send out a ship or two in order to explore the vast oceans in search of the New World. While your map of Europe is complete, the rest of the world is blanked out.
As you gain more knowledge of the outside world, you also use your existing resources to build roads (with Engineers) and production facilities in resource squares (with Builders). You can build up these facilities to different levels of production, but this costs proportionately more. Each square is also limited in its production capacity by how well it is connected to the capitol.
You have to decide how you want to divide your fleet. How many ships should be part of the naval defense? Which should go out and patrol? How many should help ship cargo, either from distant parts of your empire to your capitol, or to be sold on the market to other countries? Making these choices is no picnic and, in the end, I always seem to have one ship sort for what I want to do, but that’s my problem.
The market is where all of the countries in the game attempt to buy and sell their wares. The dynamics of how market activity drives the prices up or down is very complex, and gives the illusion of a genuine stock market.
The graphics and music really add to the Renaissance atmosphere that the developers were trying to create. The map is reminiscent of something a period cartographer might have made. The colors are understated, and not in the least way distracting to the player, which is actually a good thing in a turn-based strategy game.
Unlike most similar games, Imperialism II uses squares laid out in a brick pattern instead of a square grid. This way they function the same as a grid of hexagons (they just do, trust me), which makes movement more versatile, and consequently defense more difficult. It seems to work well for this game.
While most games allow you to win by concentrating on one specific area, and abandoning others, in Imperialism II you have to keep paying attention to all aspects of running your empire. For instance, you can’t afford to shirk on research in order to build up your army, or vice versa. If any of the aspects of your rule — production, military strength, naval strength — fall far enough behind, everyone will know about it. And that includes your opponents. And don’t think that they won’t descend upon you like a pack of rabid jackals if they think you are weak enough.
The interdependence of all the aspects of your empire is very elegant. New units require various finished products to be created, so you need both raw materials and workers to produce them. You can improve the production level of some of your workers, but they then require certain luxury items in addition to the food you’ve been giving them. These luxury items are made from raw materials that can only be harvested in the New World, so you either have to maintain good relationships with the natives, or gear up to conquer them.
Also, the workers can not have their production improved until you have made certain scientific advances, which can be sped up only with money. You can get more money only by selling finished products or raw materials on the market, or by harvesting spices or precious minerals that can only be found in the New World. Well, I could go on, but you get the idea.
For those not ready to jump right in, the game has a built-in tutorial, which I found to be quite informative and useful.
The only problems I had with the game could probably be filed under aesthetics, but here they are anyway. First, the computer players are usually a bit predictable. I could usually guess who was going to go to war with whom, and over what. Now, I’m not saying a human wouldn’t do the exact same thing in those circumstances, but a little randomness might have been interesting.
The other problem is a bit more substantial, and it has to deal with troop movements. You can move any units from any one of your territories to any other of your territories with very little exception. It doesn’t matter how many turns it takes to send your fastest boat there, you can move troops to your territory across the world in just one turn. While everyone, including your opponents have this capability, putting it all on even ground, I just found this sped up movement to be a bit unrealistic.
Imperialism II is a well-thought-out game, with engaging sound and graphics and a layout that makes you think a bit beyond how you are going to conquer the next city. Its many sub-systems are each thought-provoking and complex, and they all are put together like a well-oiled machine. It earns a quite admirable 4 1/2 Gems, losing a little for the slightly unrealistic troop movement capabilities.