Frog City’s Imperialism games are perennial favorites on forum lists of underrated or underappreciated strategy games. The first Imperialism game was the first game that even tried to capture the imperial dynamic of economic exploitation of small powers by larger ones. It made economic policy an important consideration in foreign policy and made your Great Power strength reliant on the development of your railroads, factories, mines and colonies.
The original Imperialism was set in the 19th century. Hundreds upon hundreds of random maps were available, each one conforming to a basic pattern. There were seven major powers, and four clusters of four minor powers each. The minor powers in each cluster were closely related, so friendship with one would increase relations with the others. Each country was broken into provinces with raw materials to exploit – an only the minor powers had gold and gems. Where other resources were used to make finished goods or arms, the precious metals and stones went straight to your treasury.
But you had to find them first. As well as the iron, oil, coal and copper. Many valuable resources were hidden from view until you sent an explorer/prospector to take a look. And you needed permission to look. Co-designer Bill Spieth says that this was integral to the period theme.
By the 19th century, the European powers were well-acquainted with the shape of the continents and in many places knew more. Still when you have an event like the 1880 Scramble for Africa, the powers didn’t know what resources they would actually be able to obtain. No one knew there were diamonds and gold in South Africa for instance. Also, in most places by the 1800s (parts of Africa are an exception I know) the Imperialist powers had to at least appear to be dealing ‘fairly’ with minor power governments to obtain resources. This was true even in India where power was cloaked with legality.
The whole “cloaked with legality” thing is important for the game, since getting into some territories would require an investment of time and money. Giving trade subsidies would lead to minor treaties and eventually you could build railroads and mines. But there was a lot of guesswork in knowing which minor state to approach first. And even your own country was largely undeveloped; you might not know that you are starving for iron until you had committed yourself to a region that turns out to be rich in copper. This is when the whole “legality” thing goes out the window and you find yourself planning aggression against a tiny neighbor and its great power sponsor.
This is how major wars start.
Where the exploration in the original Imperialism was focused on resource hunting, Imperialism II took a more traditional approach. Set in the Age of Exploration, you started with a known Old World and a lot of black map space – the New World is in there somewhere. Once again, timing is everything. If you take one or two more turns than your neighbors in grabbing (peacefully or not) rich sugar and tobacco farms then you may find yourself backed into a corner in the Old World.
Because, in both games, the Old World was entirely the point. Spieth says:
As far as I remember we just added things as part of the challenge of making a sequel. It has to supply ‘more of the same’ to players who liked the first game without becoming too complicated for new players. That applies to the research element for sure. I think what were after for production was partly that and partly an attempt to create a (again simple) model of what made a colony useful. To win you have to control the Old World. This seems correct for the time period. So what did colonies do? Well, in very simple terms their products created wealth and made European population larger, happier, more productive. So lots of the new elements in production had to do with making a set of new world resources that would satisfy this model.
Though studying the map is a minor skill set for most strategy games, it could be the difference between winning and losing in the Imperialism series. You would know quite quickly who had the best forests for logging and who had the most hills for mining. Which territory is safest from amphibious landings? Are there two related minor powers who can meet different needs you have? Where is your rival investing its money? Every turn was a matter of scanning the map, checking your needs and desires and finding a way to outbid your opponent for the loyalty of a minor.
There was also, of course, the tedious battle system – identical maps from one battle to the next, culminating in the siege of the capital city. Looking back, Spieth has some ideas about how the battles could have worked better:
For the first game the original plan and design was to have been battle on the main map almost like a war game. SSI (correctly) told us we were trying to do to much. The on the map battles would have been an entire game in themselves. This was the origin of province-control battle as in the EU games today. Probably the right solution in some sense would have been to do it just like EU2 does it now–there is no tactical battle. Just a display that shows as an ongoing fight. Players can reinforce or retreat as the battle plays out. Or we could have done even less than that. If you try Gary Grigsby’s War between the states, for instance you see that the battles just play out and give you a result at the end. You can’t even retreat during them.
The tactical battle system we ended up with was optional; and we didn’t want to put it in multiplayer because it slows the game down too much for the non-involved player. This is also the problem with doing something more ‘cool’. You are investing a lot of time and effort in a part of the game that doesn’t fit with the rest of it and that you can’t really make part of the multiplayer game. So overall, my opinion is that we should have done less, not more. Maybe the best system would have been something like the EU or perhaps like the original Warlords game if you ever tried that. In that game two ‘stacks’ meet. and the game rapidly lines up a guy from each stack and rolls the die. Players watch as one stack loses and one stack wins.
From my perspective, the battle engine didn’t work because it was so clearly an interruption of the high level map work you did at the strategic level. Though my colleague, Tom Chick, has held up Imperialism as a superior example of strategic/tactical levels in comparison to the Total War games, I would – 85% of the time – automate the battles and accept that my generals came from the 1914 British officer corps.
Then there were the colors – faded pastels in the original, deep and vibrant colors in the sequel. There is nothing not to love in how Imperialism handled its maps.
Clearly, I could go on.
The take away from Imperialism is that good game maps should be tightly integrated into both the game’s theme and core design precepts. For all the attention people pay to color or historicity or balance (Spieth says that their maps were never balanced except for making sure everyone had one iron and one coal), if your game requires competition for resources you need to make those resources challenging to get and connected to the larger victory objective. You won the first Imperialism, for example, by a world council vote. So you needed to acquire territories and colonies to get more votes. In order to do this, you needed to trade with other nations while deterring aggression. You could do this design with a different way of doing maps, but Frog City took a more creative route without losing sight of the main point of the game.
Over two months in, and this is only number five. Time to pick up the pace. In a few days, why Sid Meier’s Gettysburg is still one of the best Civil War games ever made.
(Thanks for Bill Spieth for his contributions and insight into the game.)
(All images courtesy of Mobygames.)