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Unintended Consequences

October 22nd, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 7 Comments · Creative Assembly, Design, Modding

For the last week or so I’ve been playing the Europa Barbarorum mod for Rome: Total War. Like many mods, it aims for realism before anything else, even to the point of giving each faction an overly “correct” name. Greeks, for example, are the Koinon Hellenon. The “rebel” controlled cities are given the somewhat anachronistic name of Eleutheroi – a term properly used for independent Greek cities, not Numidians, Celts and Germans.

The mod is veryy good. Costs are increased so it’s harder to replace decimated armies. Instead of a single Roman military reform, there is a series of them, and the reforms change not only unit types, but which units can be built in which territories. You won’t be raising legions in 3rd century BC Qart-Hadsasht/Carthage, for example. For those of you complained about the speed of Rome‘s battles, those in EB move at a slower pace. There is enough money to do a few big things each turn, but you won’t be rolling in cash until you have a sizeable empire. And there are a lot more pacifying buildings to reduce squalor, unrest and other things that made vanilla Rome a little unsatisfying at times.

But there are a couple of unintended consequences to some of the changes that make me already a tiny bit nostalgic for vanilla Rome.

First, custom battles. I love doing custom battles. Set up the Egyptians against the Pontines and see whose chariots win out. But in EB, the custom battle menu has every conceivable unit in the menu. If I want to have a Roman army, it’s very difficult to pick out the legions I want in the mess of mercenaries, Gallic swordsmen and Greek peltasts. If I randomize the army there’s a good chance it will spend the coin on non-Roman troops because, in certain cities in the campaign, Rome will depend on local troops. I still don’t know what a good coin level is, either. With the default 10000 bucks, you’ll be lucky to get a general and three of his friends.

But this is a minor thing. EB is a campaign mod and the wide range of available units will make it easier to get the right fit in historical battles. I still have vanilla installed somewhere, so if I need a rapid battle fix, that’ll do.

A more serious unintended consequence is the AI’s new reluctance to take on the independent cities. Each of these cities starts with a good sized defense force, big enough that it’s entirely possible you will take two cracks at conquering it unless you show up with overwhelming power. In vanilla Rome, the independent cities were defended by enough soldiers to require an effort, but not so strong that the AI controlled factions won’t think about expanding at their expense.

But if you give the independent cities too many troops, they become a very risky proposition for the AI. Enemy factions will happily declare war on you – that’s their job. But by being overly cautious in attacking the independent cities, EB’s Gauls or Germans or Macedonians are at a serious disadvantage. You can easily use the independents as a buffer zone – these cities never attack you and the AI isn’t going to come through them. So instead of facing the annoying but balance inducing multi-front wars, you can plan your expansion carefully with minimal threat from an unexpected quarter.

From a pure historical standpoint I guess this makes some sense. For most of the late Republican period, the Mediterranean was dotted with small independent kingdoms and city states. To prevent the entire region from becoming a monochromatic blob you need to give these cities a chance to survive. But the cumulative effect is to neuter the enemy factions. Every city that they do not conquer is one more you can conquer and sack, every route they judge too dangerous is one more you don’t have to watch.

If you play as Rome, the game tends to unfold in a quasi-historical way. Since no faction is really a threat until you are on their doorstep, you consolidate your hold on Italy, move into Etruria and Sicily and end up nose to nose with the Gauls (here divided into two rival factions) and Carthage. Then you end up in one or two major wars.

But there is also a sense of inevitability here that goes against the grain of game design. No, the AI in the Total War games never really poses much of a long term challenge, but it could frustrate or delay you. In EB, there is little sense that your enemies are even playing the same Expand, Exploit and Exterminate game that you are. It’s a tougher opponent on the battlefield (Because some units just won’t break. Stupid naked Gauls.) but weaker on the map since it would rather attack a strongpoint of yours than one of a rich independent city like Syracuse.

That’s 10000 more minae for me.

None of this, by the way, takes away from the major accomplishment that EB is. It has new models, new loading screens, new traits, a new map…it’s huge and well worth the download. And, since it is a fan project, will probably be improved as it moves forward. Even with my misgivings, I thank the developers for reviving my interest in one of my favorite games of recent years.


7 Comments so far ↓

  • jonathanstrange

    Ain’t it always the way: you tweak the game this way, and it bulges that way, and you fiddle with this and add that and it’s close but no cigar.

    What I’m looking for now is an ancient tactical game that simulates sword and shield battles the way they probably were: confusion, limited control, sluggish melees with pushing and shoving and men getting tired or feeling defeated and running away – though I suspect these might not be so much fun to play.

    Is Punic Wars any good? Anyone? Maximus?

  • Troy

    You mean HPS Punic Wars? I’ve reviewed it here. I also had a few comments on the expansion/update. It’s quite good, probably the best ancients pure wargame since the Great Battles series.

  • jonathanstrange

    The HPS Punic Wars I do have – and it is a great game! What I was thinking of was – I’ve since Googled it – The History Channel’s Great Battles of Rome which I thought covered the Punic Wars (in fact, I thought that was the title). Anyhow, upon closer examination, it looks too much like an older version of Rome Total War. Not that I won’t buy it at some point anyway…sigh…

  • Troy

    In fact, the History Channel game is a revamp of 2005’s Legion Arena from Slitherine. Once again, the Slitherine battle engine is the main draw, but it’s tied to a very weak campaign system. The battles are more puzzle challenges than anything else.

    The HC version adds some of their documentary stylings to give a veneer of education to the product. It seems to have been successful enough to spin off a Medieval version for next year.

  • Michael A.

    EB is a great piece of work; I am constantly amazed by the many incredibly talented people who spend massive amounts of time making mods like this.

    On the flip side, just starting up a campaign keeps reminding me of the old adage: more is not necessarily better. For me, all the fun is in scrolling the map, seeing the new units and characters included and reading the many flavor texts. Playing it holds less attraction.

  • Vic Davis

    I’m going to give this a go. I’ve played Vanilla Rome:TW off and on in between Civ IV games but one thing keeps nagging at me when I play. The faction showdown seems so artificial and contrived. I wish there was a better way to approach this. I don’t really know enough about the period to have a clue as where to start. Don’t know if I want to plop down the $60 Troy just did on that book. How about a review first?

  • Troy

    You mean the Roman faction fight at the end? It’s Creative Assembly’s attempt to force a Roman civil war on the player, since the last century or so of the game’s time frame had a few of those.

    That’s nowhere to be found in the EB mod, of course, since Rome is a single faction instead of three competing ones.

    The big problem with the civil war in vanilla Rome isn’t its arbitrariness – games are full of arbitrary things and the Senate mission system is really quite good, I think. The big problem is that rarely will the AI controlled Romans make enough headway to be the factions outlawed by the Senatorial powers. You have to overthrow the Republic, not save it.

    And that just annoys my inner Cato.