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Imperialism series (1997, 1999)

April 14th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 17 Comments · Feature:Map

What this is about.

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.

Imperialsm 1 map

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.

Imp 1 resource

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.

Imperialism 2 map

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.

Imp 2 resource

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.)


17 Comments so far ↓

  • drcorday

    I love Imperialism and Imperialism II. These games pay attention to detail and are fun to play. I use the present tense because I still play them. It’s great to hear from Bill Spieth! I hope he’s working on a new project.

  • Jimmy Brown

    Excellent column. Imperialism is one of my favorite games, and this article really explains why it was such a rewarding game to play. Where Civilization concentrates on the rise of technology (which is great fun too), Imperialism gave a better reason to really engage with neighboring nations and fostered a sense of real relationship with them. The decision to give the countries invented names rather than burden those relationships with a real-world history, even if only in the player’s mind, was an inspiration.

    You’ve given me a desire to play it again. If only it would install in Vista–maybe GOG will come to my rescue soon.

  • Primemover

    I have been wanting to play this game since I read the T v B from a previous CGM/GFW. I have it sitting in my Amazon cart, but have not ordered it for fear of the “Vista” issue mentioned above. Has anyone got this game working on Vista?

    Also, thanks Troy for the great column on this game series.

  • John Michael

    It is a fascinating read and makes me want to IMP1. I have been a dedicated IMP2 for years. Until relativley recently, I hadn’t realised the great regard it was held in. I just thought I was impossibly old fashioned. And yes, I play it on Vista.

  • drcorday

    I currently run both versions on Vista (32bit) with absolutely no problems. I still have the original CDs and user manuals. I even recently found a copy of the excellent strategy guide. I also have a couple of graphics mods for Imp1 at my website (click my name and go to the forums).

    I also want to say thanks for this great series on maps! Nice idea and well written.

  • Primemover

    Having not played the game: Are there random maps in IMP2, or is it the “Old” and “New” world as we know?

  • Troy

    Random maps, Primemover. You can play with an historical Old World, IIRC, but the New World is always random.

  • Joe Mithiran

    Imperialism I is my all time favourite game and Imperialism II comes a close second. I love the tactical battles in both games, knowing how the computer works you can destroy enemy forces at will if you act correctly.

  • Clotario

    Bought it in 1999, still come back and blow a few days on it every now and again.

    Would love to see a newer game that could compare, because I’ve got Imp II down pat.
    As far as the tactical simulations go I love them, and always get dismal results from using the automatic battle option (most situations the AI would deem hopeless are easily manageable by a sentient being). Anyway, for most of the game you’re thinking on a high level and it’s nice to stretch the brain out a bit and do some pure tactical military maneuvers.
    Although it’s been a long time since I played Imp I, I recall being very confused regarding the utility of the engineer (Digging holes?) – though I tried mightily I could never make them good for anything, as the action would be over by the time they could even reach the battlements. If anyone is still monitoring this post I’d be interested in hearing what they’re for.

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  • daka dave

    played Imp2 years ago, bought again and now trying to make work on a Mac with OSX.2. Errors at end of first turn. Any one know what I should do?

  • Troy

    The Gamespy Imperialist group has links to no-cd files that may fix your problem. The CDs don’t cooperate well with newer OSes. But I’m not familiar enough with the Mac systems to be of much help.

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  • Athos Faria

    Hi guys,

    this is the best estratagy game ever released.

    i play until today, and tomorow hehehe.

    I mind if you want to paly on line.

    who wants to play online pls send me an e-mail, so we can start a multiplayer game.

    I have de manual, so we can find a map that is possible to play with 2 great powers, without advantageless


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  • Jan

    Imp1 is one of the best game ever no doubt!
    Can anyone send me the strategy guide!?
    If you wanna play online: