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Digging through my old CDs to find my copy of Civil War Generals 2, I also took out Imperialism 2.

The game came out in 1999. Like Civil War Generals 2, it was a sequel. Unlike Civil War Generals 2, it came out only two years after the original, and had much the same look and feel. However, the huge difference was the focus on the exploration of the New World.

This game can be played either in a randomly-generate world, or in a “real world” where the countries of Europe correspond to their correct shape and location. In both cases, the “New World” is both randomly generated and hidden. Major and minor powers of Europe are represented (six apiece), with the play choosing one of the major powers. The player begins in 1502 with a fleet for discovery and exploration of the New World, and an Old Country which has yet to be fully developed and industrialized.

The players goal is to explore and exploit the New World for resources, and use that to build a strong economy and military. Initially the only fighting will be against the native cultures of the New World, who are technologically vastly inferior. Once the major powers become strong enough, they will begin to fight each other for dominance and the wars will move from the New World back to the Old.

Despite that theme, it would be quite a stretch to classify Imperialism 2 as a wargame. Yes, there are battles. Battles can be automatically resolved or fought on a tactical map, with up to twelve units engaged. This was a big part of the game’s appeal at the time.

Instead, the real game is an economic simulation. And by that I don’t mean a simulation of historical economies, but rather the game play is managing a simplified supply chain to build an increasing complex set of interdependencies. In this, the game probably lends as much of its lineage to the Caesar series of city builders or the early management sims like Capitalism as it would a Civilization. The idea is that the economy is created from a foundation of raw materials which can then be combined into manufactured materials. Combinations of materials, workers, and technology produce an ever more complex construction that must be carefully built up over time. It can also become a house of cards. One key resource being cut off will waterfall through the carefully balanced economy, causing a collapse that can be a great struggle to repair.

Getting out the game to play again after what has probably been 15 years, I had forgotten about the learning curve. The mechanics of the game are fairly simple, but a number of factors have to be managed in parallel – the guns versus butter element that is often a part of grand strategy games. As an example, if you don’t have enough military in the early game, you won’t be acquiring the territory to support what will eventually be a large empire. Too much military, and you won’t be investing in the industrial growth you need. Likewise the decision as to when to take your economy to the “next level” requires building up a sense how much of the basics are enough to sustain it.

Interactions with the AI powers involve both trading and a diplomacy systems. The game supported multiplayer when it came out, so playing against fellow humans probably added another unique dimension to the game. I’ve never tried it that way.

The style of game probably hit its peak in the early 2000s. It remains a great game in that there is a lot of challenge to “solving” the game’s puzzle. It takes a lot of time to learn the interactions, and that translates to many, many hours of gameplay. The game’s difficultly levels enforce ever more strict rules. For example, on the simplest setting, the food required to sustain your workers and military units is all equivalent. At higher difficulty level, the workers require a mix of meat and grain, meaning that plenty of one and a shortage of another will still impact you as a shortage. Mastering the simpler settings becomes training for trying to survive the more difficult settings. But all that “gameplay” can be a downside. It means a lot of time investment into learning (or relearning, in my case) how to juggle all the factors. Further, it means each game requires extensive building of the foundation, a foundation that may or may not be sufficient when you get towards the end. Assuming that you do get to the end. While it make take hours to get your economy functioning, it can fall apart in minutes if you hit just the right bump in the road at the right time.

I feel I’ve moved on from this level of micromanagement in games. The industry seems to, currently, support plenty of help for the player, as opposed to forcing to be constantly figuring out what the computer already knows. Game design-wise, it’s probably a subtle point. How different is a game where winning the battle involves getting everything just right versus this, a game where getting the economy is just right is necessary to have the units to win the battle?

Forks and Knives

A battle with the Incas demonstrates the tactical interface. I’ve bit off way more than I can chew here, not anticipating that somebody armed the Incas like some form of old-West light horse.

The mini-game for battles were part of the quest of that time to mix grand strategy with tactical battles. I note this was a year before the first Total War game came out which, ultimately, has become the standard. This system is just complicated enough to be somewhat interesting in its own right, but not complicated enough that you would actually play the battles on their own. I also remembered, the hard way as it turns out, that watching the strategic layer is critical. I had been rolling over the Incas in battle after battle, and figured I could do the same in the battle pictured above. Instead, they managed to best me in both numbers and technology.

Another angle I’ve remembered the hard way is that I can’t win “peacefully.” There are various options to dealing with the native nations of the New World. One can, of course, simply invade and conquer them. One can also trade with them. Any peaceful interaction builds up a relationship which might eventually be used to goad them into joining your empire. Another diplomatic route is that rights to land can be purchased, allowing the player may develop the resources as well as take a share in the proceeds from sales. The problem is, rather than being “multiple paths to victory,” the economy is going to need a certain amount of “free” resources gained through conquest to function in the later game.

One more reminder that this is not meant to be a historical simulation, it is meant to be a game.

All this criticism aside obscures how addictive this game was 18 years ago, and still is today. It can take many turns to set up a sequence of events to try to get just the right resources put together, and then many more turns to see if your plan comes to fruition. All the while, you can’t be neglecting other parts of the game. The perfect recipe to keep a fella up playing well through the night.

So I’m glad I got the game out. And I’m pleased to see it still runs on my current system, after so many years. Many older games don’t. I’ll probably even try another fresh start, incorporating what I’ve learned so far, to see if I can at least win on the easiest setting. But the exercise has also been a reminded that, sometimes, the memory of it is better than the experience ever was.