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The Roman National Character

August 1st, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 11 Comments · Feature:Nations, History

What this is about, including full list.

Long time readers will know that I extensively covered Roman games in my first ever feature series, one that did not take nine months to write because life was better then and I wrote more quickly and I played more games. The epilogue to that group of essays captured most of my general thoughts on attitudes towards Roman history and why people keep going back to that well.

I won’t repeat much of what I wrote there, since you can find it, I think it is some of my best essay work and really goes into depth on Rome and design. I wrote very little about Civilization and Rise of Nations in that block, since they’re not really ancient themed games, so it’s not like I have no other material to draw from for this piece.

There is a lot to say about Rome the culture, of course. As a Mediterranean civilization, they have a reputation as builders second only to Egypt with the difference that their reputation is for building things people actually used. Roads, aqueducts, theatres, and forums scattered the inland sea and proved to be greater in importance, if less impressive to people like Antipater of Sidon, than Pyramids, mastabas, obelisks and temple complexes.

But apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? In movies, the Romans are almost always the villains with the high class British accents, all orgies and gladiator battles and keeping the Apostles, Gauls, Britons, Slaves, freedom fighters, and women down. In games, as I’ve written before, they are a glamorous panoply of shiny marble and polished iron, but because this is a nation on the rise.

Because for Rome, it all comes down to the sword. Like the Egyptian chariot or the Mongol horseman, the Roman legion is more than iconic. For five hundred years, despite variations in training and equipment, the Roman swordsman was a member of the most powerful fighting force the world had seen. Equipped with a heavy javelin, a short stabbing sword and a big ass shield, the classic legionnaire of the Punic Wars and Wars of the Late Republic and Early Empire built roads, forts and bridges while bring new kingdoms into the protection of the Senate or Emperor.

In the classic ancient/medieval rock/paper/scissors model, ceteris paribus sword beats spear which beats horse which beats archer which beats sword. This is obviously intended as a rough reflection of the rise of the Roman legionnaire over the Greek pike phalanx model. Historically, of course, it’s not that swords are obviously better than spears or pikes as much as that once you have trained swordsmen to work together in a unit, they prove to be more tactically flexible than a group of spears that must be more tightly co-ordinated in their movement. The swordsman is integral to the evolution of ancient society, and, as Bruce Shelley notes, once you see a swordsman you know what his job is with a minimal amount of historical background.

But you have to make the Roman swords special, and Age of Empires: Rise of Rome did this by making theirs fight faster than other swords. Add on the logistics tech that was added in this expansion (half cost in population points) and you could overwhelm your enemies with a combine harvester of death. Rise of Nations made Roman Heavy Infantry stronger, cheaper, and faster plus made Roman forts super powerful (cheaper, greater border influence, free upgrades) to reflect this part of the Roman expansion. Empire Earth Roman heavy infantry cause 25% more damage and come from a cheaper barracks.

The most controversial demonstration of Roman footpower, though, has to be the Roman Praetorian in Civilization IV.

If every nation gets a unique unit, there will be debates over which are overpowered and which need to be improved. The consensus in Civ 4, I think, was that if your unit was made obsolete too early (a warrior unit, for example) or would not arrive until the game was mostly over (any American unique unit or building) then it was not really worth having. The Roman Praetorian was in a sweet spot; it was a late ancient unit and so was good for an early rush if you had iron working and iron, but most importantly was able to stand against early medieval units.

Ordinary swords had a combat value of 6 and cost 40 hammers to build.
Praetorians had a combat value of 8 and cost 45 hammers to build.
Macemen had a combat value of 8 and cost 70 hammers to build.

Two archers, by the way, cost 35 hammers, longbows cost 50 and crossbows cost 60. You would lose a lot of guys in the middle ages with the city defense bonuses, but Praetorians were a helluva deal. And arguably overpowered. If supported by a siege train, they would make short work of any nearby empire. If they had an extra movement point or could build roads (like the legions in Civ V) then you might as well quit.

Knowing that the Roman Praetorian will stomp you meant it was even more important to see to it that a neighboring Roman player didn’t have access to iron. Playing as the Romans would almost certainly mean a rapid and early expansion unless you were surrounded by Babylonian Bowmen, Chinese Cho-ko-nu and Malian Skirmishers.

Some Civ players would defend the overpowered unit with the appeal to history, in general a weak argument against balance. The thinking was that Rome was special. Rome was different and huge. A modestly better swordsmen wouldn’t make the Romans the Romans. They need something big and amazing, appropriate for their empire. Where no Civilization game really tried to fit a faction to an historical model in any true sense, for many Civ 4 players, there was an expectation that if anyone should have an overpowered unit, it’s Rome.

Another example? Look at the classic board game History of the World. If you’re not familiar with it, you play through history in different epochs, scoring points for what you control and taking over new empires in new epochs. When the Romans come along in Epoch 3, they start with 25 strength. Next strongest in that turn is Macedonia with 15. Only the Mongols (Epoch 5) and the British (Epoch 7, the final turn) even get to 20 strength. Rome’s inevitable triumph over her neighbors is written in the rule set, though, of course, Rome cannot last the entire game.

One more? In Slitherine’s Spartan, Rome plays the part that the Mongols do in Crusader Kings. They will show up on the west coast of Greece and just start inexorably marching and conquering. Rome is not all powerful, but like the medieval Mongols, is expected to cause trouble for anyone nearby. Rome is expansionist and unstoppable. They come bearing cement.

This isn’t constant, of course. Civilization 5 lets legions build roads and forts, but their all conquering prowess has been reduced a lot. (13 strength versus 11 for swords and 16 for longswords.) But including the Romans as a faction in any game with a pretense to historicity has to face the challenge of showing that something as big, long lasting and well managed as the Roman Empire can be built and more often than not will give the Romans the tools to build it.

Next up, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a mystery – Russia.


11 Comments so far ↓

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  • Hell-Mikey

    You must have had the same Latin teacher I did. I can’t count the number of times Miss Teevan rapped my knuckles because I translated “scutum” without the implied modifier “big ass.”
    Another fine article, expansionist and unstoppable.

  • Sam

    Great article but argh, you started a paragraph with a number. Come on Troy!

  • JonathanStrange

    The Romans are my favorite “gaming civilization” as well as my favorite non-fiction history subject, favorite historical fiction setting, favorite “they got a cool quote for this” resource, favorite…well you get the picture.

    It was so bad at times, all someone had to do to get me to read their book was put “legion” or “centurion” in the title.

    A great series!

  • Skyrider68

    Overpowered? Throw him to the floor!

  • Sbuiko

    Yay, grammar nazi time!

    In games, as I wrote before, they are a glamorous panoply of shiny marble and polished iron, but because this is a nation on the rise.

    Two archers, by the way, cost 35 hammers, longbows cost 50 and crossbows cost 60.

    If you’re not familiar with, you play through history in different epochs,

    Some civ players would defend the overpowered unit with the appeal to history,

    The come bearing cement.

    plz fix, kthxbye

  • Noah Patterson

    With your discussion on the troubles of balancing the Roman nation in regards to the strengths of it’s military units, I was expecting to see you use this as a segue into talking about Rome in Civ 5. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the approach that game takes to Rome with the Glory of Rome national trait, which decreases the production cost of all buildings already present in the capital.

    I think this design very nicely reflects the apparent expansionist ease enjoyed by the Roman empire along with reinforcing the absolute importance of the city of Rome itself as the seat of culture, power and dominance without lending a military imbalance design problem to the game-play.

  • Fast Eddie

    One of the things I liked about EU:Rome was that it moved beyond the whole ‘mighty legion, crush crush’ thing and provided an insight into the vicious and byzantine (hah!) world of Roman dynastic politics. Which is staple of depictions of the Roman world on TV but not something you see too much of in games

  • Elijah Meeks

    I love the in-depth comparison of stats as an example of designer intent, and the whole literary aspect of creating a game unit that was suitable for such an iconic historic state. This is a great series.

  • Erik Hanson

    I’m in the camp that believes that, while Rome was often more powerful against smaller or less trained enemies, they certainly found even matches against similarly sized empires. Parthia and the Sassanids for sure.