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The word Imperium, in Latin, means the political power or authority that is held by an individual. It is also the name of the first book in a trilogy by Robert Harris which follows the career of Marcus Tullius Cicero through historical fiction.

Coincidentally, the Cicero Update is the first major overhaul of the the Paradox game of the ancient world, Imperator: Rome. I’ll return to this and a few other of the more recent developments at the tail end of this post.

But first, the serendipity of all this has made me decide it is time to do another comparative gaming exercise for the ancients PC games. In this, the first of two posts, I’ll focus on the Strategic/Operational level. I’ll take on Operational/Tactical separately so as not to compare olives to pomegranates within these overlapping scopes.

To cut to the chase, what I’m finding is a different answer than what I opined after the first two times.

Before I get into my current explorations, I want to make an honorable mention. Of all the games I’ve played, the one that has come the closest to getting the decline of the Roman Republic right (especially internal politics) is Pax Romana. So close and yet so far.

The Old Republic

Pax Romana was a 2002 title, created by a French company called Galiléa, founded by game designer Philippe Thibaut. Thibaut is the designer for the board game Europa Universalis, a 1993 title. At the end of the 90s, Thibaut worked on the Paradox team that brought the initial iteration of Europa Universalis to life on the PC. Following the completion of EU/EU2, Thibaut separated from Paradox and the turmoil surrounding collapse of Strategy First to develop a PC game based on the Roman Republic.

With the benefit of hindsight, one might see the seeds of Pax Romana‘s ultimate failure from the very beginning. Pax Romana is a computer version of the board game Republic of Rome, published by Avalon Hill in 1990. The game has been described as exemplifying some of the best and some of the worst of board gaming circa 30 years ago. Republic of Rome sports a thick rulebook, often inscrutable as a result of heavy cross referencing and vague specification. Decades of errata and user discussion have resolved most of the issues (and resulted in a reprint in 2009), leaving a game that rates pretty highly among its fans.

The strategic map from Pax Romana. Compare to the EU: Rome screen, below. [www.mobygames.com]

For a board game conversion, some things are easy and some are hard. For graphics, Thibaut had his EU experience, which had built an effective grand-strategy interface (compare the Pax Romana and EU2-era EU:Rome screenshots). Tables, charts, and die rolls all get handled by the computer and tracking the details becomes much easier. You are no longer limited 1-or-2 step armies designated by cardboard counters. Unit strengths, senatorial support, provincial income can all be tallied as fine-grained as desired without any additional computing effort. The resulting complexity growth may even be an advantage. You reach a point where a weak computer AI can derive some advantage simply by accounting for equations that are too complex for a player to follow.

What an AI is going to be disastrous at, however, is the social aspect of a game. Yet it is this, according to many, that is really the key to Republic of Rome gameplay. RoR is a six-player game where each controls a faction within the Roman Republic. Players try to increase their own power and glory with an end-game goal being to claim the role taken by Caesar thereby creating the Roman Empire. At the same time, the players must also cooperate to keep Rome from falling to ruin or being defeated by foreign forces. Over the course of the game it will be necessary to cooperate with some players in order to compete with others. Negotiation is key. The rule book says that anything is on the table, as long as it doesn’t break the rules. Deals can be public or secret with the advantage of public deals being that they are binding.

This sets up an impossible goal for the PC version programmer. The computer is never going to get the human aspects (bluffing, goodwill, etc.) of negotiation right. Furthermore, it is impossible for a computer to “think outside the box.” Negotiation with computer players all-but-requires selecting options from a finite list. Getting this balanced right was going to be difficult to impossible. Add to that the feature creep inevitable in the conversion and you’d begin to doubt that such a game could ever be completed.

Pax Romana was released in pretty rough condition. Several patches improved upon the game, but the economics of fixing a failed release is a losing one. If I recall, the CD also shipped with the hated StarForce copy protection, which I have to believe further hurt its prospects. With the project coming apart economically, a final “unofficial” patch came out of the development team. Even with that patch applied, bugs remain. Furthermore, a comparison between the manual and the gameplay demonstrates there are features of the game that were intended but never implemented. Yet, event in this fragmented state, the vision of the developer can be glimpsed through the fog. Were it all to work, this might have been the ultimate game of the Roman Republic.

But That I Loved Rome More

Back at Paradox, EU had spun off its family of strategy games; Hearts of Iron, Victoria, and Crusader Kings. The success was enough* to create a new-engine version of their line, starting with Europa Universalis III. In 2008, one year after EU3, Paradox released Europa Universalis: Rome. At the time, I was none too pleased with EU3 and, with it, Paradox. I also thought that EU: Rome looked like a cheap grab at more sales by shoehorning Roman uniforms onto the EU3 sprites. What I didn’t realize at the time was that EU: Rome was also a kind of Crusader Kings 1.5. That is, along with taking the EU format back in time it also built upon the Crusader Kings system of dynastic-based play to model the cursus honorum of the Roman Republic.

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Caesar’s forces are digging into Gaul for the long haul.

When I played the Punic Wars in EU: Rome, I found it to be a reasonable match for the period, at least at the start. Early on in her fight against Carthage, Rome demonstrated the ability to bounce back from massive losses. Even in the face of total disaster, Rome could raise new legions, build new ships, and appoint new generals so as to continue the fight. EU‘s combined economic/military simulation which allows semi-free construction of armies worked fairly well.

Loading the Roman Civil Wars scenario, though, I find it doesn’t work so well. The scenario opens with Caesar poised to cross the Rubicon, as he should be historically, but with Pompey’s armies across the river defending the “front.” Shortly after starting, I am engaged in three major battles, spread roughly across the southern border of Gaul, pitting similarly-sized armies against each other. While it’s better to win, of course, losers still live to fight another day while winners feel the toll from closely-fought combat. Unlike newer iterations of this series, depleted units do not refit in the field. To bring a damaged unit back to full strength, one must merge it with other units of the same type. Thus, the Roman Civil War quickly turns into an economic war. Caesar uses the economic power and manpower of Gaul to feed the meat grinder while (the AI) Pompey does the same using his territories. It does not feel like an accurate representation of history

The Cast of Die-hards

After the failure of Galiléa, Thibaut began afresh with AgeOD and the creation of the game Birth of America. This was one solution** to the problems of the continuous-time, grand-strategy predecessors. I’ve likened the first generation of EU and Crusader Kings to a computer version of Whack-a-Mole. Run at normal speed, the game grew tedious as one waited for something significant to happen. At high speed, the screen was bombarded by alert messages. Dismissal require quickly hitting the right button on the right message before the next one popped up. Failure to keep up meant you might race by something requiring your attention. Birth of America, to contrast, was implemented as a turn-based game. Orders are given between turns and then executed without any player intervention. The game also added innovative gameplay in terms of leader management and logistics as well as presenting a fresh-looking graphical interface.

In the years that followed, Thibaut had a hand in a number of Birth of America spin-offs.  In 2012, AgeOD took the engine to ancient Rome in the form of Alea Jacta Est, a release did not seem to include the technical involvement of Thibaut.

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Caesar prepares to cross the Rubicon.

As I stated at the beginning, when I looked at the game in the contexts of the Pyrrhic War and the Second Punic War, I was not particularly pleased with the Alea Jacta Est treatment (technically via its expansion/add-on The Birth of Rome). I found the game stuck in the dull center between the two ends that fire a gamer’s imagination about the Roman Republic. It abstracts away the strategic decisions and the politics, which Pax Romana tried to capture. It also automates the tactical details of battle. For the Pyrrhic War, the operational control armies in Southern Italy seemed like too little and too constrained to make for an entertaining game. In the Punic War, the operational nature of the game lost the connection with the decisive battles that made the campaign against Hannibal so dramatic.

For the Roman Civil War, the focus of Alea Jacta Est seems far more appropriate. When playing as Caesar or Pompey, I don’t think we want to be distracted by the details of Roman politics. Alea Jacta Est still factors in national morale and the economy, but reduces their management to a handful of major decisions (scripted so as to retain a historical connection) rather than ongoing, attention-demanding simulation. At the same time, the battlefield spans the entire Mediterranean, and so the broad, operational movement of forces is more interesting than in either the previous two examples.

The game starts, as shown in the first screenshot in this section, with Caesar poised to cross the Rubicon. The introductory text stresses the importance of taking Rome. Upon doing so, events are triggered that divide the Roman territories between the two fighting factions along historical lines. As Caesar, you then must decide whether to point your initial thrust west toward Spain or head east toward Egypt and the Levant. Again, the scenario notes helpfully explain this.

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Caesar, with the support of a second army, wrests control of Spain from Pompey.

I suspect the key to enjoying this game, much like its Paradox predecessors, lies in learning to ignore what should be ignored. The initial flood of messages as Caesar seizes control of Rome are entertaining and informative. Thirty-to-fifty new messages on each and every turn are considerable less so. What I found was that, a year or so into the scenario, most of the notices have no meaning to me as I play. At the game’s start, I needed to figure out what units are available and get them organized into command structures. After that, while the alerts do involve impacts to morale and logistics, it seems better concentrate on what I am trying to do. I know where my forces are and I kind of know from whence they are threatened. Turns can then move by pretty quickly.

Each turn is one month. During execution, turns are broken down and evaluated day-by-day. Because logistics and other details are taken into account, conquering enemy territory is a multi-turn (i.e. multi-month) prospect. To take a city, a nearby unit must be active (less commanders aren’t always available) and be superior to any enemy armies waiting to defend. After your army moves, and assuming they win any initial battles, they then must lay siege to the enemy-controlled city. After (sometimes) many months of siege, the defenses may be breached allowing an all-out assault on the city. Launching an assault too soon could reap unnecessary losses. Waiting to long means the turns tick by without making any meaningful progress toward scenario victory. After a battle/siege/assault cycle, the attacking army is likely depleted in terms of supplies and fighting power. A turn or two of refitting might be prudent to get them ready for the next operation.

Ignoring the details, as I’ve settled into doing, probably means that I’m mismanaging my logistics; either the economic acquisition of resources or the resupply process. Many a time I’ve spent months looking at an underfed army, waiting for them to refresh themselves, wondering if the reason the process is slow is because I’m not doing it right. yet, most of the time a common sense approach seems to work. Control a connected string off provinces and supplies seem to flow.

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It is left to Marc Antony to expel Pompey from Italy and pursue him into Greece.

I’ve yet to complete the scenario and I feel I’m moving too slowly to gain a victory. It took me a year or two to get a reasonable balance of size and number of armies. I made the choice have Caesar, supported by a second army, take Spain. Marc Antony, with his own full army, got the responsibility of running Pompey out of Italy. This he managed to accomplish despite Pompey having the numbers. One saving grace is that, throughout the game, scripts trigger to advance the historical narrative. You’re not left entirely to the mercy of the game engine.

As with the Second Punic War, the game tends bog down in the tedium of the siege process and chasing around enemy nuisance stacks. It fails to tell a story through the iconic battles of the war. This is less of an issue, however, in a war where the iconic battles aren’t quite so iconic.

The Memory of the Living

Returning now to Robert Harris’ Imperium, now on its second reading, wherein I found clear satisfaction to contrast with the mixed results of my gaming. The novel is a thing of beauty that I’ve enjoyed on many different levels.

They basic idea behind the novel is this. Cicero had a slave, Tiro, who accompanied him from the beginning of his political career. Tiro was an accomplished figure in his own right having, for example, developed a shorthand system (features of which are still used today) for recording speeches verbatim. Tiro was eventually freed by Cicero and lived many years after Cicero’s death when, among other occupations, he became a writer and a publisher. He put together the collected works of Cicero and penned at least four books himself. One of those was was a “biography***” of Cicero, which has not survived in any form but is referenced by Plutarch and others. Harris’ book, therefore, pretends to be that biography of Tiro’s. It is divided into “scrolls” rather than chapters and uses Tiro in first-person voice. It is also written in contemporary language.

The first book starts (some background aside) with Cicero’s entry into politics. It features three main events. Cicero’s prosecution of Gaius Verres, the installation of Pompey as supreme Roman commander, and Cicero’s election to Consul. Major events and Cicero’s speeches are preserved in scholarly history so Harris just needs to fill in the blanks with solid historical fiction. In his afterward he writes about his intent: For everything that is in the historical record, those events are accurately described in his novel. Where something is unknown to history, his version is at least plausible. In no case, he hopes, is his version of events refutable by actual, recorded history.

If nothing else, the book it is a great history-lite for those of us who want to understand the life and importance of Cicero, but don’t want to wade through dry history books or difficult-to-read Senate speeches. Also, by placing 2000+ year-old events into current language, the book takes on meaning for our current times.

Both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were marked by a return to classical scholarship. One result is that the structure of the Enlightenment-inspired U.S. government (and that of the several States) was based on the government of Rome in many important ways. It actually took me this second read-through to realize something important about the Roman Senate. The Senate of Rome was not a legislative body; it was an executive body. Its closest relative in modern American might be the small-town New England Board of Selectmen. The Senate of Rome had the power of the executive (typical of an American Governor or a President or, of course, a Board of Selectmen) as well as the power of the purse (usually the House in a bicameral Legislative structure). They did not, however, have the power to make laws; that right was reserved to the people in a method more akin to Constitutional amendments.

That said, Harris’ Cicero has a lot to say that is applicable to modern legistlating, politicking, and electioneering. He also has criticisms for the “Deep State” and the bankruptcy inherent giving free stuff away to win political support. In some of these cases, I wish I knew what were actual Cicero quotations versus fictive speculation; I’d hate to go around quoting Harris and claiming it to be the words of Cicero. In addition to the timeless truths, I also recognize modern personalities in these ancient personae. Despite the massive differences in the surrounding culture, I have in my head a handful of actual people from the local political scene who match very well with the book. Uncannily so, in some cases.

Cicero’s political strategy also makes me yearn for a game like Pax Romana, but one that gets it right. Military service was often critical to political success in Rome, but there were exceptions. Cicero is one. His military service was the bare minimum for a Senator and later in his career he forwent the glory that many politicians sought through military command. In fact, he tried not to leave the city of Rome if at all possible, not wanting to get too far from the halls of power.  The methods and outcomes of chasing and exercising political Imperium can be just as fascinating as Rome’s military campaigns. Pax Romana and its board game ilk tantalize us with the gaming possibilities.

Having reread the book at the same time I started in with Season 2 of Roman Empire: Reign of Blood., I find myself even more disappointing with the latter than I was before. The novel and S2:E1 cover almost exactly the same time frame, with the show focused on Julius Caesar rather than Marcus Cicero. I’m glad I looked at the two side-by-side as it makes it all the more obvious how off the rails the Netflix production has gone. Cicero (and Harris’ Tiro) are witness to the rise of Caesar in politics and the formation of the first triumvirate (not yet extant when Cicero was consul) which closes Episode 1. Harris reveals Caesar’s role to be defining despite also being subtle, conducted behind the scenes. In Roman Empire, the second season is in some ways a little better quality than the first. There is less narrative repetition and more content in the acted-out portions of the show. The accuracy of those reenactments, however, has taken a turn for the worse. On screen we have Caesar leading one of Crassus’ legions to defeat Spartacus. Caesar then resolves the conflict over credit for that victory via a back-alley deal (literally a back alley meeting is portrayed on screen) to divide power between them. One wonders what’s the point of including obviously inaccurate details. Wouldn’t it have been just as easy (and just as dramatic) to be accurate?

To Be Continued

More to come as I continue on with both the Harris trilogy and, with trepidation,the second season of Roman Empire. I’ll also want to look at some of the Operational/Tactical games that cover this same period of warfare.

Beyond that, there are also some games I want to mention. While they fit in with those above, I haven’t played them in this go around. I’ve deliberately left out the various incarnations of Rome: Total War. The newest Rome 2 (already more than six years old) did update the political aspects of the game. Rome (Carthage as well) has three factions with which a Roman player must compete. However, when I’ve decided to dig out a Total War game for a historical experience, I am typically left disappointed. This time, I pass.

For me, the most obvious omission is the “sequel” to EU:Rome, Imperator: Rome. As EU:Rome was a practice run for Crusader Kings II, so Imperator: Rome appears to be a prelude to the release of Crusader Kings III. Imperator adds a new 64-bit component to the Crusader Kings II/EU4/HoI4 engine and, presumably, adds new style and functionality to the previous generation of games. However, like the Crusader Kings II initial release, the Imperator seems to have been pushed out in an unsatisfactory state. The original version prompted many complaints about both bugs and play issues. After some major updates, the buzz is that the game is far more stable and sensible, but still lacks the breadth and depth that one would expect from a Crusader Kings cousin. Someday, I expect to get this but that day is not today. When I do, I fully expect there will be a Roman Civil War scenario**** that will make a nice substitute for my EU:Rome section, above. I hope and expect that my verdict will be better with the newer game.

Following shortly after the release of Paradox’s Imperator: Rome, AgeOD’s challenger Field of Glory: Empires hit the streets. This one had a much better initial reception and I, in fact, have already purchased it but not got in much in the way of play. FoG: Empires is in something of an upgrade to the Alea Jacta Est family, almost seeming to respond to my original criticism of that game. It de-emphisizes the operational/logistics focus of the older series and adds layers both above and below. There is more of the grand strategy of empire building as you must manage the culture and finances of your nation. FoG: Empires also adds the ability to export battles into the Field of Glory II for a tactical resolution. In addition to that, it adds in another feature taken from my above history-of-the-genre.

After Philippe Thibaut was, more or less, forced away from the development of Pax Romana by the various business pressures, he focused on a sequel. Instead of the focusing on the creation of the Roman Empire, moved on to its fall. Great Invasions was in may ways similar to Pax Romana, but the focus was on the many “barbarian” nations that chipped away at Rome’s power. One unique feature was that the rise and collapse of these factions was part and parcel of the game. In nearly any other grand-strategic game, you needed to lead your nation (be it Greece, Rome, or the Visigoths) to world domination and cause it to “stand the test of time.” In Great Invasions, by contrast, the scoring took into account that most of the warring tribes of Europe were destined to fall into obscurity. Similarly, Field of Glory: Empires adapts a version of this natural course of an empire within its game mechanics.

I also note that Field of Glory: Empires ships with a Pyrrhic War scenario in addition to its grand campaign start point. One of these days I’ve really got to compare and contrast it to my earlier ancients lineup. Beyond those two, however, Field of Glory: Empires lacks any focused scenarios. It would surprise me if either the developers or fans don’t, someday soon, create a series of scenarios based upon interesting periods of Roman history. As of yet, though, nothing appears close to available (on the forums, there is a Europa Barbarorum total conversion, a reference to the Total War version of Great Invasions). Were there a Roman Civil War scenario for Field of Glory: Empires, it would be a great comparison to the above. But, alas, there is not.

On the near horizon, newish developer Avalon Digital is about to release a computer version of the Columbia block-game Julius Caesar. Although the game is targeted for release within the next few days, I don’t see myself purchasing it in the very near term. If I had it, it would make a great contrast to Alea Jacta Est. The games are at a nearly identical scale but the block version strips away all the numbers and complexity. In this version of the war you get right down to moving your armies and fighting your battles. Clean and to the point.

Coincidentally, Avalon Digital has a handful of both digital and board games in development, often launching them via Kickstarter campaigns. Among their list of existing products, they sell Pax Romana as a download for just 1 Euro. Besides the problems I mention above, they point out that the game doesn’t work on any system newer than Windows 7. So for anyone wishing to kick the tires on that old title, there is another strike against it.

The board games at the Avalon link are sold through what appears to be a sister company, Wisdom Owl. Philippe Thibaut, via Kickstarter and Wisdom Owl, is taking his Great Invasions into the land of cardboard. I don’t see any listing of the management behind the Avalon and Wisdom Owl effort but something tells me that Thibaut must be a key player.

So much seems to be going on in the penumbra of a dead, 17-year-old game.

*Hearts of Iron II released before EU3. While the first of the “sequels” (not counting the mostly-similar EU/EU2), it was created in parallel with but not on top of the new Clausewitz Engine.

**Pax Romana also attempted to work around the same flaw. While most of the year executed in a continuous-time mode, much the same as EU, election time was different. When it came time to take action in the Senate, you were kicked out of the “real time” mode and into more of a turn-based paradigm.

***In Roman time, a biography was a specific form of literature. While it told the life story of its subject, it was not a scholarly work. It was written for a more mass consumption and typically featured gossip as well as facts. The expression of this biography in contemporary English makes more sense in this context.

****Already, a Punic Wars DLC is on the near horizon and is intended to be offered for no extra charge.