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No King But Caesar – An Epilogue

April 30th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 20 Comments · Ancients, Design, Feature:Anc

I wish I had time to dwell on all the dud Roman themed games that have passed in front of me. The half finished Pax Romana and Great Invasions, the laughable Legions, the boring Hannibal: Master of the Beast, Haemimont’s Roman city builders, Haemimont’s RTSes. Most of these games aren’t very interesting as reflections on or of the Roman world and their failings are the failings of every bad game. Buggy, poorly paced, duller than dirt…. I’ve written about some of them elsewhere. Of those duds, only Pax Romana comes close to having a good idea (its political system) and not even EU:Rome bothered to copy it.

Here are a few thoughts that occurred to me as I worked through the “significant” titles.

1. BC beats AD: My friend and colleague Brett Todd is an “empire guy”. He’s really into the history of the mid and late empire, the story of keeping a major enterprise going and the constant wars over who should run it. I’m a “republic guy”. For me it’s all about the expansion and the politics and the crises of winning the world while maintaining a regime based on power sharing. Game designers agree with me. Caesar is more popular than Vespasian, Hannibal more popular than Zenobia, Spartacus more compelling than Attila. This is largely because building is more fun than holding your own. So setting a game in a time frame where things keep growing gives you a better narrative to work with. Annals of Rome gives you both the rise and fall. Rome: Total War had an Imperial expansion pack. But for the most part, we want to see the city on the Tiber be the Little Village That Could.

2. Spectacle Trumps History: This shouldn’t be a surprise. Gladiators and rampaging elephants and exploding catapult shells look great on screen, so you might as well use them to sell. These are video games, so visuals matter. But I think the problem with this is that even though spectacle can be fun, it is not inherently fun. I would have traded fireballing onagers in Rome: Total War for a better way to control squalor than mass crucifixion. I would have traded chariot races in Centurion for a better diplomatic model. I would have given up the funny voices in Caesar III for less emphasis on puzzle maps. But remember that…

3. History is not gameplay: You can’t just add history and stir to make a good game, and sometimes the best games fly boldly in the face of history. Rome: Total War, Age of Empires, and Praetorians are all very good and all raise the hackles of those pedants that insist that realism is always more fun. Yes, Annals of Rome and the Great Battles series embraced history completely. The former’s legacy is more conceptual, however and the latter was the first and last we’d see of GMT in electronic gaming.

4. Rome beats Greece: I couldn’t do a Ten Significant Greek Games, at least not without repeating two or three of the games already on this list. Rome holds our imagination in large part because of the spectacle. Red robed legions marching. Gladiators killing each other. Marble temples and fights for the purple. And it’s not simply because Rome “won”, it’s because our popular culture, from Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur to the present, has used Rome as a proxy for our own interests and worries. The decadent Rome of mid-century sword and sandal movies, redeemed by Christianity or slave rebellion. The imperial overstretch of Rome as a warning to contemporary America. The stoic Roman as the model of masculinity and duty. Greece may have laid the foundation of Western Civilization, but for game designers it is the imagined Rome that they rely on for instant recognition. Plus, in most of these games, your average Roman general could sleep through a battle with a Macedonian army. Nerf Metellus.

5. Swords Beats Plowshares: None of the strategy games has a good diplomatic model. The ancient Roman world is seen as one of continual war or planning for war. You could call it the William Harris model if you were confident that anyone who made these games had read the book. This is, to be fair, a problem with many strategy games; peace is what you do while you decide whom to kill next. But the focus on legions and triremes obscures many of the reasons for war in the ancient world and how important (if individualized) negotiations were.

So where does the recently released Europa Universalis: Rome fit on this list? It’s not a top ten list (though I did one of those recently) and even if it were, I’m not sure EU:R would make it. Rome is clearly the star of Paradox’s efforts (it’s big, rich and unstoppable unless the AI is in command), but the Roman world is not. For a developer so keen on approximating history there are no pirates, minimal class conflict, minor differences between how you manage a Republic and an Oriental Despotism. Barbarians are constantly on the move and never settle on their own. Diplomacy is always conducted at sword point and you need total victory to get a minor peace. There are friends and rivals but no easy way to track how they stack up against each other. Historically, religion should not be the big deal that it is made out to be.

The game issues are different from the historical ones. The AI is too weak at war and too hardass in peace negotiations. The hundreds of characters means hundreds of character events, too many to follow, and there are no shortcuts from the event to the character profile. Only a couple of the omens are even worthwhile using, and are too chancy for anyone but the Greeks early on.

But otherwise it fits well in this list, primarily because it has drawn on many of them. Why does Paradox insist on including a “city view” that no one uses? Because people are used to being able to see their cities grow. Why does it stop in 27 BC? Because that’s when Octavian assumed the title Augustus, marking the traditional beginning of the Roman Empire. Diplomacy is so ill thought of that you can just execute ambassadors – historically a very bad action, even in the ancient world.

So what do I want to see in the Rome games of the future?

1. Remake Encyclopedia of War: Ancient Battles, with lots of different armies and a better editor.
2. An AI good enough to make Republic of Rome viable, or at least make a good MP client.
3. A good game that tells the story of Roman expansion from the point of view of the conquered. Maybe a SimCity type thing where you need to keep the proconsul or prefect happy by pacifying your people. You can call it Herod.

Feel free to fill the comments box.

I hope you enjoyed this series. If you missed it, here’s a link to beginning.

I may do another one along a different line in the future. With the summer release schedule starting up, I should have more regular opinions on games to report, so hopefully this sort of repetitive stuff won’t be necessary.


20 Comments so far ↓

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  • Jason Lefkowitz

    What I’d love to see is a developer tackle the history of Byzantium — especially the early period, when the Eastern Empire had to survive the barbarian surge, and then went on to try to reconquer the West.

    Creative Assembly took a stab at this with the “Barbarian Invasion” expansion for RTW, but IMHO they failed. While there are some nice period touches in there (like more detailed modeling of religion, and adding character traits like which chariot team the character is a fan of — which was an important political signifier in early Byzantium), there’s just so much that doesn’t feel right. For example, there’s no way to build walls as impregnable as the famous Theodosian Walls of Constantinople — walls that made it impossible for anyone to take the city by storm for nearly a thousand years. Without that, it’s impossible to recreate the way Constantinople served as a bastion for the Empire.

    Lars Brownworth’s excellent “12 Byzantine Rulers” podcast gives a great sense of how much possibility there could be in a game focusing on Byzantium; but as far as I know, nobody has really ever tried to set a game there (probably for the reasons you cite above — Republican Rome is marketable, Byzantium ain’t). Too bad.

  • Troy

    Byzantium would great. I’ve read Norwich’s history and there are a lot of wonderful moments. I think that a focus on the rulers might even be the way to go, sort of a role playing history game that didn’t depend on entropy the way that Crusader Kings does.

  • steve

    What does any of this have to do with GTA4?

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    “I think that a focus on the rulers might even be the way to go…”

    Imagine a Sims-type game where you start off with one person doing some menial task in the bowels of Constantinople, and your goal is to establish a family that breeds an Emperor.

    That would be beyond cool!

  • Gil R.

    Hey, I personally know William Harris. (Sorry, couldn’t resist name-dropping…)

  • Troy

    Tell him I like his book a lot. (My friend Art Eckstein recently wrote a book contra the Harris interpretation of Roman militarism.)

  • Michael A.

    Jsaon, it’s already been done – but for Rome. You’re thinking of something like “Rome: Pathway to Power”, but set in Byzantium. I agree, that would be a fascinating game.

    One game I would love to do one day (and which I will – alas – never get around to), would be a historical RPG based in the roman empire/byzantine era. There is so much really great, unused potential in that period. Sigh.

  • Michael A.

    Thanks for some good reading, Troy.

    On your five conclusions:

    1. It is hard to create a good game on Rome, AD. Doing so would require some innovative game mechanisms; Great Invasions tried that, of course.

    2. Always will.

    3. I agree with you, although I am one of those who get irritated by the inclusion of blatantly ahistorical elements, when they could equally well have been replaced by historical elements.

    4. It’s all about sales.

    5. That, of course, begs the question: what would make for a good diplomacy model in a game?

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    Ooh, thanks for the tip, Michael. I had never heard of “Pathway to Power” before. Guess I need to go see if it’s up on Home of the Underdogs or Abandonia…

    Oh wait, I mean, go see if I can find a copy for sale on eBay.


  • Jason Lefkowitz

    That, of course, begs the question: what would make for a good diplomacy model in a game?

    In any game with a diplomacy model that’s really good, the diplomacy model would probably be the game. Unlike a game like RTW, for example, where the combat model is essentially the game and everything else is just chrome on it.

    The problem with that, of course, is that combat is visually interesting (the aforementioned flaming catapult shots and cavalry charges), and diplomacy isn’t (elderly white men sitting around tables). And when the market puts such a premium on visuals, I imagine it’s hard to justify plowing resources into something that doesn’t “pay off” visually.

  • Paul Montesanti

    I really enjoyed reading this series, especially to learn about all those archaic games from (gasp) the 1980s that I had never heard of.

  • JonathanStrange

    Thanks for the series. It’s been a great read. I’m sure I’ll be re-reading it again.

    Steve Saylor’s Roma, a novel of ancient Rome, made me wish for a Roman themed RPG in which we attempt to help a Roman family raise its economic & social status over the centuries : plebian to patrician, risking death in war, backing certain factions, making political deals, marrying for advantage, running for office, etc.

    Or failing that: make some of the nonbattle stuff in RTW more interesting. I love the battles, but come on: when you write that the nonbattle stuff is chrome, you’re too right.

    Gamers, always wanting more.

  • Troy

    That, of course, begs the question: what would make for a good diplomacy model in a game?

    That’s really the 64,000 dollar question, isn’t it? Diplomacy is hard to model because it requires an AI that can measure expectations of gain and loss better, especially one that can accept a certain short term loss for a possible long term gain.

    You can do abstract diplomacy well; I think that Civ IV has a very good model in certain respects. But I find it remarkable that little of the hardcore player driven pushes for realism and “more history” includes any effort to really capture the dynamism of classical diplomacy, both how uncertain it could be (Rome’s reluctance to do much of anything unless forced to) and how much it covered (demands for repatriation of citizens, demanding foreign hostiles like Hannibal, regime change).

  • Noah

    Thanks for the series, Troy, it’s been a fascinating read.
    I too have a great fondness for the ancient period, and in looking for a strategy game that encompasses it all, I’ve met only with total failure or “almost there” but never anything that really nails any of the periods.
    Diplomacy is my big thing, too. I want a game with a solid diplomatic model, something that makes my civilization more than just an expansionist juggernaut. I also want my civilization to feel like one, not just a set of statistics, modifiers and resources. Give the nations identity, character, personality. It’s not the wars of the ancient world that interest me, but the humanity around it all. Make me feel that the barbarians of Gaul are truly unique from the Romans, for example. Not just different units with different pixels and stats.

    Reading your retrospective outlined nicely how even the best attempts fall short.

  • Michael A.

    You’re welcome Jason. The intrigue parts in Rome (getting elected to the Senate and becoming emperor) are really the highlights of the game. It’s an excellent Roman adventure game – if one can get past the truly awful interface to enjoy it.

  • Gil R.

    “Tell him I like his book a lot. (My friend Art Eckstein recently wrote a book contra the Harris interpretation of Roman militarism.)”

    I haven’t read Eckstein’s book yet. I’d like to, but time-management dictates that I put it off until I teach a Roman history course, or WCS takes its own stab at a Rome game and I engage in some research.

  • Grant Gould

    I do think that AI is what holds back diplomacy in games. It’s easier to write an AI to move units on the battlefield — a difficult and abstract task that sets the bar low because humans are comparatively bad at it. It’s harder to write an AI that is sneaky and scheming, because human sneakiness sets the bar too high. I watched a video recently of a talk by the AI coder for Civilization IV, and he pointed out that the entire diplomatic system had to be designed to avoid letting the player sucker the AIs in certain predictable ways.

    So there are a lot more computers playing Risk than playing Diplomacy even though the latter has far simpler rules, simply because the rules focus on things that humans are really, really good at.

    Decent diplomacy in computer games really requires radical innovations that we have not yet seen. There will have to be entire new vocabulary, from ways to conduct back-and-forth conversations with the AI players along multiple axes, to ways to mark up maps and draw borders. We’re a long way off as yet.

  • Troy


    I’ve written a lot about diplomacy on this site. Check out the rest of the blog and let me know what you think.

    Sneakiness is not all there is to diplomacy, of course. It is the whole point of Diplomacy the game, which is why, as I noted in my review of the Paradox version that that particular game is probably not feasible with an AI opponent. It is entirely about trust and deceit and requires a human that understands the nature of obligation beyond a pure zero sum model. Diplomacy requires cooperation, Risk does not.

    But you can have a good diplomatic model without necessarily making the computer a good diplomat. You can use a simple like/dislike system like that in Imperialism, for example. The Civ IV diplomatic engine is quite good because the pluses and minuses are all out in the open and obvious. Soren Johnson’s argument about cheating AI in Civ notwithstanding, transparency is probably more important to the player than intelligence. I think there is a risk in adding too many variables to a diplomatic model.

    My point in this epilogue, though, is that, so far, ancient strategy games have just accepted war as the default relationship in the period which was not necessarily the case. This has been, admittedly, an issue for many strategy games. One of the beauties of RTS games is that they assume the conflict and don’t try to pretend that there are other choices.