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Decade Feature: 2002 – Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom

March 3rd, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 14 Comments · City Builder, Feature:Decade

When we think about Roman history, we generally have an idea of what we are talking about and what a game would look like. Same with Greek and Egyptian and even American. A few centuries or milennia have been compressed into cultural shorthand for a population that has only the vaguest idea that the Golden Age of Athens was not the entirety of Greek history or that Egyptians stopped building pyramids well before their Golden Age even started.

So how do you sell something like Chinese history? They don’t even have ninjas or samurai or cherry blossoms like Japan. There’s a wall and a history of warlords. And old faiths. But there is no iconic idea of the Chinese city in the Western mind, I think. Thousands of years of history with invasions and inventions and even a Western brain accustomed to think of the mysterious Orient as an exoticized other can’t really conjure what a Chinese city builder is supposed to look like.

Playing Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom convinces me that I’m not really alone fumbling for something to hang Chinese history on. Co-developed by city building masters Impressions and Maryland’s own Breakaway Studios, Emperor is a mess conceptually even if its design makes major leaps sideways in the standard Impressions mold.

Emperor is the only city builder I can think of that lets you choose from a wide range of historical starting points, each of which makes different buildings available to you. If you start in the bronze age you will have different religious and production options than you will in the steel age. From an historical perspective, this is a clever idea since it tries to capture the miliennia of Chinese history in all its variety. From a gameplay perspective, this is a mini-disaster since you don’t see much of the content unless you really commit to learning how the game changes in each era. These are, admittedly, small changes. Getting a feel for where buildings fit in the build order and which goods make for quick profits is still something that requires a significant time investment and changing the industries can disrupt that process. If the changes between the different ages are minor and cosmetic (which some people think) then the disjunction is even more curious.

Emperor‘s big innovation was multiplayer – just after the Anno games did it and before Cities XL did it. The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that multiplayer city builders are a bit of a stupid idea. The games take too long to really be competitive and in a persistent world like Cities XL you are designing against the primary appeal of city builders – being god-mayor without the interference of other pesky people. Emperor went about it in an unusual way…. Emperor’s idea of competition was to have two players isolated from each other try to complete the same objectives. It was an interesting idea, but I doubt it attracted any real player base.

Did it feel like China? I was never sure. Even though the Caesar games were not Rome, they were Roman enough to be persuasive. Pharaoh and Children of the Nile fudged a lot of stuff about Egypt, but by tying everything to the cycle of the river they made games that felt as authentically historical as any more serious wargame or simulation. Where Romance of the Three Kingdoms has a clearly historic Chinese voice, Emperor never really communicates how it sees Chinese civilization. It’s worse than an error-filled stereotype of marble filled Rome; it’s a bland melange of elements that doesn’t speak to any understanding of The Middle Kingdom.

Emperor is certainly a very good city builder, probably the best that Impressions ever made. They had perfected the template by this stage of its history, but it feels dry to me. Lifeless even, despite the Feng Shui. Where 1998’s Zeus embraced a strange mix of classical architecture and Greek myth, Emperor embraced all of Chinese history and therefore none of it.

Of course, there’s another possibility here – I’m just not interested in a Chinese city builder and am not familiar enough with that world to appreciate how Emperor represents it. We all build up cultural biases and tastes as we evolve and, being as steeped as I am in Western history and myth, there’s probably some personal baggage that has me preferring Pharaoh to Emperor, Crusader Kings to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Rome: Total War to Shogun: Total War. My wife, an expert in Asian American history, has certainly done her part in breaking the hold of the Western canonical history on my imagination and it’s still hard to undo twenty years of education that privileged certain histories over others, for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons.

I know I’m not alone in this. There has not been a flood of city builders that move out of the Mediterranean basin or Medieval castle era. SimBaghdad, SimTenochtitlan, SimKyoto…they all appeal to me as a rational historical thinker. When it comes down to it, most gamers prefer to replay stories in worlds they already know. People do Google searches for adding Hitler to Civilization 4 but not for Tang Taizong. I’m like most gamers.

Emperor stands somewhat apart from the Impressions legacy. It never quite fits even though it is, design wise, the logical conclusion of years of refinements. Part of the problem is its lack of voice. Part of the problem is me.

Next up, Bruce Geryk looks at how Soldiers of Anarchy reveals how he has changed along with games.


14 Comments so far ↓

  • Felix

    Great Article however Anno 1602 which was released almost four years earlier (at least in Europe) had multiplayer already.

  • Troy

    Argh. I forgot about 1602’s MP. Thanks Felix. Edited to account for the error.

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  • Chris Floyd

    Troy — I’m always looking forward to the next of these decade features. I have to say, I was not expecting Emperor to come up! It’s kinda the red-headed stepchild of the Impressions series–a series I dearly, dearly love–and frequently forgotten.

    I agree with a lot of what you have said. Mechanically speaking, the series got more and more polished, especially with regard to the walker model. Zeus was almost certainly the peak, and Emperor inherited most of its refinements. (Feng Shui just didn’t convince me, and I don’t think it’s a good addition/elaboration on property value.) What makes it “Chinese” is not much more than some tweaks to the religion model and the specific resources and goods.

    I could see this being unsatisfying to a history buff. Even if you don’t know much about Chinese history, I think it’s pretty clear Emperor’s model is a gloss. Maybe even a bastardization. Were the earlier Impressions games much different? What is unique about each of the settings is usually a gross generalization: big monuments and flood farming in Pharaoh, gods and heroes in Zeus, etc. Everything else just follows the template. The goal is certainly that it “feels” like Egypt or China, not that it truly simulates life in those places.

    I never thought of Emperor’s introduction of new goods based off historical period as particularly unique. I think it’s really about introducing more complex resource chains as the player gets deeper into the game, and that just happens to mesh well with the scope of the Chinese setting. I think the other games do it the same way, but without as good of a rationale. Sounds to me like you’re wanting to sample the different historical periods in an order of your choosing. That’s reasonable, but it would be like saying, “I want to start building Giza!” in your first few hours in Pharaoh. There are good reasons they don’t let you.

    Finally, multiplayer. Oh, multiplayer. I’m curious to see what Anno 1404 has done with this, but I really don’t see any existing city-builder model successfully being translated into multiplayer. Most of them are about overwhelming (to just the right degree) the player with micromanagement, optimization, and expansion. How does that accommodate meaningful multiplayer interaction? I don’t think it does, so I think the best foundation for a multiplayer city-builder wouldn’t be any existing single-player game, but Euro-boardgames like Puerto Rico, Race for the Galaxy, or Endeavor.

    Gah. I feel like I’ve said a lot and added very little to the conversation. Sorry if that’s the case. I’ll be done now.

  • Alan Au

    I have a soft spot for Emperor, but it’s primarily because of the game mechanics and has less to do with the setting. I agree that there’s no real sense of “history” in the campaign. Sure, there’s the usual system of unlocking new buildings and industries, but these feel more like a gameplay contrivance than a reflection of the passage time. Each sub-campaign is supposed to represent a different dynastic period, but they lack the mythological storytelling aspect of Zeus, and so the missions feel very generic.

    It isn’t all bad, and as mentioned, I think that the game mechanics are excellent. Multiplayer was a bit wonky, and I admittedly only tinkered with it briefly. Basically there was a “competitive” mode which was pretty much a race to attack first, and “cooperative” mode which was basically trying to get both players’ economy running smoothly enough to exchange the materials required for a joint wonder (like the Great Wall or Grand Canal).

    I guess my ideal Impressions city-builder would be a multiplayer game built on Emperor’s game mechanics, where some people could build Caesar 3-style cities while others built Pharaoh, Zeus, or Emperor-style cities. Ultimately, it’s telling that I find myself wanting to play in the older settings, but with the newer game improvements.

  • Chris Floyd

    Agreed, Alan. Pharaoh redone with the Zeus/Emperor mechanical refinements would be awesome.

    (I like Children of the Nile, in it’s way, but it’s a totally different game.)

  • Javier-de-Ass

    hey troy. just a random question unrelated to this article (sorry), will you guys be writing anything about achtung panzer kharkov 1943 or maybe talk about it on a podcast in the near future? would really love to read/hear what you guys have to say on this game. I’m having somewhat of a tough time wrapping my head around it

  • Quinten

    I read the review on “Real & Simulated Wars” and they made it look/sound like a Combat Mission game sort of. The demo doesn’t work right on my laptop, but I think it could be something Bruce would like, or absolutely hate.

  • moromete

    I certainly liked Emperor more than Zeus and Children of the Nile, although my favorite of the series is actually Caesar II, the first city builder I ever played.

  • Chris Floyd

    “Plebs are needed!”

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  • Jenn

    moromete : Caesar II ftw!

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