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Caesar series (1993-2006)

April 4th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Ancients, City Builder, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review

The Caesar series is easily the most successful ancient themed brand in the gaming world. 2006 saw the release of the fourth game under that title. It also spawned a legion of other Impressions developed city builders set in Greece, Egypt and China, a legacy that spawned two new studios – Tilted Mill and Firefly.

Like many great successes, Caesar‘s was less about radical innovation than it was about being the right game in the right time. The early 1990s saw a burst of brilliant and novel strategy games, including entire genres being “born”. The 4x game. God games. Real time strategy. And, with Maxis’s still-fascinating SimCity (1990), the city builder was born.

In an email conversation, Firefly’s Simon Bradbury, lead programmer and co-designer of the three Impressions Caesar games, was very open about the game’s debt to SimCity.

SimCity was only recently out and had both David [Lester] and I enthralled. We both had an interest in Rome and the ancients and so the rest, as they say was history! Of course we couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) do a straight copy of SimCity, as by its very ‘simulation’ nature the basic mechanics were always going to change. We also had to introduce the ideas of empire and conflict which was going to make our game very different. One more goal we had, was to put a little more ‘game’ into the thing, with missions and a slower learning curve.

(And Caesar wasn’t alone. 1993 also saw the launch of the Settlers games, a classic resource chain city builder series that has, unfortunately, fallen on hard times in recent years. Moving the basic SimCity into the past seemed a natural step.)

Caesar changed things by not embracing the pure sandbox of the original SimCity. It used missions and scenarios to give the players goals beyond how big the city could get or how many hurricanes it could survive. Cities were rated along four criteria – Peace (later changed to Security), Culture, Prosperity and Empire. Each rating was dependent on a mix of city characteristics. Education and Religion would improve Culture, but also land value which would contribute to Prosperity. This structure tied nicely into the idea that you were an imperial governor being given increasingly worse jobs. The Emperor’s go to guy can’t expect to relax, right? Bradbury considers the mission structure to be one of the keys to Caesar‘s success.

“I think it helped immensely to have a structured set of increasingly difficult missions(mountains are there to be climbed kind of thing).”

One of the most interesting evolutions in the series was how it moved from radius of influence to walkers. The first two Caesar games had buildings that affected whatever was nearby, simply by their presence. This made it pretty easy to drive land values up, with your only real limitations being space, money and population.

Caesar III didn’t invent walkers; the aforementioned Settlers was all about walkers picking up and dropping off materials. But the Impressions walkers were different. They didn’t have routes or routines so much as tasks that they would perform along a certain path, assuming they had the goods to do it. You couldn’t control the path they took, so you had to either build in redundancy or add roadblocks; you’d use ad hoc obstacles in Caesar III, but eventually Impressions would add the roadblock as a construction option.

Sphere of influence was great for the earlier Caesar – it was easy to code and fitted well with the simulation. However as time moved on, we realized that part of what made this area attractive for players, was watching the little people, pick up and move goods around and to that end we needed to move to walkers, more involved but it led to a much more strategic and engaging title.

To switch genres for a moment, this desire to “watch the little people” is one reason why I never warmed to Supreme Commander as much as I respected it. Knowing that there are a bunch of robots killing each other in glorious color on the surface, it’s hard to enjoy the grand strategic perspective where everything is NATO symbols and flashing. Tapping into this wish to see what all your citizens are doing was a sensible change for the Caesar series.

My wife calls these titles “ant farm games” and there’s something to that. Though you can set the parameters for their actions, you are mostly relegated to watching the citizens go about their business. As infuriating as they could be, especially when your market lady turned the same corner for the eighth consecutive time leaving a bunch of huts unfed, the shift to walkers in Caesar III and the last few Impressions games meant greater connection to your city, even with all the lame movie star puns and terrible “British” accents.

Less successful has been the attempts to merge the military side of Rome with the city builder. It’s always been there, but it never worked quite well.

But you have to have it. A Roman city without red cloaked legionnaires is not Roman; it might as well be Syracuse or Sardis. At first the legions were pretty much there to stop barbarian pillaging of your city. By Caesar II, the legions were given more to do including suppressing provincial towns. In an effort to make this military side even more wargame like, Impressions tried to integrate Cohort, one of their woeful miniature games, as a plug in to Caesar. Caesar III just went with a pseudo-RTS unit combat model, now the default position for most games of this type.

Integrating Cohort (a stand alone game in its own right) was a nightmare for us and the military side of Caesar, was always the one that provoked the greatest amount of debate internally. However it was also an area that made Caesar unique, watching elephants trample down your buildings was always fun, felt realistic in a speeded up Sim kind of way and provided a great dynamic to the rise and fall of the various suburbs of the city. That is something I think the game would always need. The problem really lies in also trying to provide for and appease the hardcore RTS players who want a fully functional fighting game, complete with realistic formations, tactics and AI. This presents 2 problems, firstly its not realistic to fight huge battles in or around a city (which is what we want for our sim to work) and secondly it blurs who we are trying to make the game appeal to. I think, with much hindsight city builders benefit greatly from conflict, but it really needs to be a grossly simplified version for it to work well in the game.

The Rome of the Impressions games bore only a passing resemblance to the real Rome, of course. Workers were called “plebs”, which is an oversimplification of the original term. There was no slavery. And the highest rank for a citizens was “patrician”, a class that historically referred to birth more than wealth, and you couldn’t build your way into it.

But they are called video games for a reason, and the visual effect of seeing tents become cottages and then apartments and then palaces makes sense if your graphical options are limited. The changes are obvious and the feedback is immediate. Caesar IV, from Tilted Mill, introduces class structure (still wildly ahistorical) but sometimes it’s hard to tell what level of villa you have reached. Big white buildings tend to look the same, especially when you have six or seven ranks of them.

As much as the Caesar games changed from the first to the fourth, there is a pervasive sense of ennui about the whole thing. Roman city builders have seemed especially played out in recent years with Haemimont, Firefly and Tilted Mill all doing variations on the theme in recent years (and Caesar IV was the best of this lot.) Of the Impressions historical city builders, Caesar III was good but clearly foreshadowing the whimsy of the Greek games (Zeus/Poseidon) and the stately pace of the Egyptian games (Pharaoh/Cleopatra). Only Caesar II really stands out from its generation because it was so much prettier and so much deeper than anything else out there at the time.

But SimRomes stick around for a reason. As much as I loved the alien nature of the Egypt in Tilted Mill’s Children of the Nile, Rome remains the most accessible ancient city. A century of movies and books have primed us for gladiators, togas, legions on the march…much moreso than, say, Sophoclean drama, chitons and peltasts. I live in the Washington, DC area where neoclassical architecture reigns supreme, alongside the concrete Federalist crap. Because Rome is a city we feel we already know, the desire to build it over and over and to sell games based on that desire is as normal as anything in the game universe.

Where Caesar depended on the pull of the familiar, our next games succeeded because they instructed on the unfamiliar. On Tuesday, I’ll deal with the best ancients wargames ever made, The Great Battles of History.

Thanks to Simon Bradbury for agreeing to contribute comments and insights on his experience.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • A History of the Ancients Game

    […] (more here) (1986) Encyclopedia of War: Ancient Battles (1988) Centurion: Defender of Rome (1990) Caesar (1993) The Great Battles series (1997-98) Age of Empires (1997) Legion (2001) Praetorians (2003) […]

  • JonathanStrange

    You know your Rome builders too!. I thought that the recent spate of these games were certainly competent but…I don’t know…not inspiring. Maybe because we’ve been there already in the earlier versions? For me, the novelty value of controlling and observing the development of the city isn’t as intriguing anymore. Oddly enough, that clunky ugly Dwarf Fortress has stolen more time from me than have my beloved Romans.

  • Troy

    You can make a very good case that Dwarf Fortress is the best city builder of the last three years – only Children of the Nile really compares as far as immersion and novelty.

    Unfortunately, the interface makes it too much trouble unless you really dedicate yourself to it. A proper GUI, better documentation and the like would go a long way to making it an even bigger triumph. I have no problem with the ASCII – but it’s just too much effort for too many gamers.

  • Michael A.

    The debate around Caesar II is fascinating, because in many ways, it is the most unique of those city builders. I suppose they took the right direction, in terms of their main demographic, but it seems to me there is an untapped potential in the genre in this field that CII almost tapped into…

    Focus on “Imperial Governor”, instead of “Imperial Mayor”, perhaps…

  • Centurion: Defender of Rome (1990)

    […] Centurion was, by any measure, a success. And it arrived in a golden age of strategy gaming. There wasn’t an explosion of other ancient titles in its wake. A few years later, a new game would also draw on lessons outside of history and historical gaming to become the most successful ancient series in gaming history. Next up, Caesar. […]