Grand strategy is a peculiar genre. It’s not really 4X as its scope is usually wider, not geographically speaking, but mechanics-wise. While 4X is usually restricted to the usual four basic mechanics (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate), grand strategy games is a wider (and more lax) category that encompasses a lot of different sub-genres and themes. Paradox is some sort of perfect example as its line of strategic games has always strayed from the 4X path to venture in the uncharted territories of peculiar eras and mechanics (Crusader Kings 2 being the perfect case in point here).
Ancient Rome has long been the perfect breeding ground for strategic games and, again, Paradox just released its latest take on the era with Imperator: Rome, a game that had a very mixed reception, good from critics, abysmal from players. The game is now being furiously patched to address the issues players were most vocal about.
Now enters Slitherine with its latest offer in the grand strategy genre, Field of Glory: Empires, a very interesting take on the period that has a lot to like (and some to dislike).
A strategist dream
Let’s start right away from the strategic part. Field of Glory: Empires (from now on just ‘Empires’ for the sake of brevity) divides the ancient known world (from Britannia to the Indian sub-continent) in the usual mosaic of regions and groups them in around seventy (70) historical factions. Some as small as one-region tiny realm, others as gigantic as the Carthaginian empire or the Ptolemaic Kingdom that ruled today’s Egypt. Every faction has its own peculiarities: objectives, starting position, challenges, special buildings. All of these conjure to create a very varied catalogue of plays available to the player who can read a hefty description of the particular challenges for each faction in the starting menu.
Then, once having taken possession of his land, the player can begin addressing the internal and external challenges of his empire.
In every region, you can build different buildings pertaining to four categories (food&health, military, and infrastructure, economy and culture) that are connected to seven resources (food, infrastructure, money, culture, manpower, metal, equipment). Every building has peculiar characteristics and bonus/malus structures that make them unique; they usually produce resources, cost upkeep (expressed in other resources), sometimes give access to particular goods and some other times require one or more goods to work more efficiently (and give more bonuses). Buildings unlock scores of other building BUT for every one of the four categories each region has a unique, randomly generated, building (between those available); this means that the progression tree is different for every region, posing unique problems and opportunities.
Commerce at the heart of the empire
This building system blends perfectly with the commerce system. Goods are both uniquely produced by certain lucky regions and manufactured (and used) by certain buildings; goods are traded automatically considering both the trade range of your empire (depending on your civilization score and on some buildings) and your commerce acumen (another stat increased by certain building).
This may seem intricate and convoluted, but it is a very simple and effective system at heart that produces interesting decisions and an added layer of strategy when it comes to deciding what lands to conquer or what building to queue.
The fact that certain buildings necessitate some goods to function better often dictates your strategy, meaning trying to min-max the potential of your regions. It all makes a lot of sense and blends in a never-ending and always fresh strategic puzzle.
On top of that, the final layer of strategic decision is related to the population. The player can shuffle around the population between the four building categories in order to prioritize the production he desires; but that’s not all, population comes in different ‘flavors’ and some are bound to produce more in certain categories than others. Try to put slaves in culture buildings to see the practical effect of this mechanic…
An empire to manage
Besides this mechanic related to the single regions, Empires boasts a very peculiar combination of mechanics when it comes down to the management of your empire as a whole. Expansion and achievement of particular territorial objectives net you legacy points, but this mechanic is kept in check by the fact that decadence is always lurking behind the corner. The size of your empire and the presence of non-perfectly-pacificated new lands produce decadence that is continuously taken into consideration at the end of each turn. Following your progress in this particular race you will be awarded progression or regression points and these, in turn, will make you go up and down a ladder of civilization levels. On top of that ladder, you will be rewarded with golden ages (periods with a bonanza of bonuses), while at the bottom of it your empire will be plagued by riots and civil wars aplenty.
The fact that this particular ladder is also represented in comparison with all other factions translates into a deeper competition that takes into consideration not only the sheer amount of land you own but how actually healthy is your empire compared to others. This, we feel, is the right away to make do with the old ‘blobbing’ problem, the usual one-dimensional race around which many grand strategy games flatten themselves.
Si vis pace para bellum
No grand strategy is complete without a good military department and on this side Empires not only delivers but it actually does it two times. Let’s see what we mean.
Empires come with its own tactical combat simulator. When two armies meet the game shows you a different tactical screen in which the actual units of the two armies are pitted one against each other considering their role and characteristics. Archers and ranged units act first, then we get to watch the single duels. Every duel is decided with a dice roll that is heavily modified by bonuses, maluses, rerolls available and leader modifiers; every unit provides different bonus and maluses in different terrains and the terrain, in turn, decides how many units participate in the melee (frontage). This means that every battle is actually almost completely decided in advance when the player (and the AI) decide when to combat (maybe some units are fatigued or wounded), where, with which leader and against which enemy. Still, we get to watch it in a turn-based tactical chess-like representation in which the thrill of the dice roll entertains us with some RNG old-style drama.
But that’s not all there is as Empires can blend with another very successful Slitherine game, Field of Glory 2, a very fine ancient battles turn-based tactical simulator. This means that every battle can be exported into Fields of Glory 2 and played there for some added depth. In fact, the battles in Fields of Glory 2 are bigger (every unit in Empires transform itself in several units in FOG2) and more convoluted as you have direct control on each unit in a square grid map. The battles in this game tend to be a matter of studying the abilities of every single category and pitching units in the right terrain against the right kind of enemy; It’s a very deep and rewarding system that has its own dedicated audience and proved very successful (hence a lot of DLCs are available).
The battles in this game tend to be a matter of studying the abilities of every single category and pitching units in the right terrain against the right kind of enemy
All that glitters…
Where Empires stumbles is in the aesthetical department and in the UI. The game looks and sounds like it is from another era of gaming and lacks polish in every screen. The information are almost all there (the tooltips are not 100% exhaustive) but placed with no grace and no UI design; everything is ‘in your face’ and relies on you browsing the interface to search every single piece of data. Good UI delivers data in elegant and subtle ways exactly when you need it instead.
The world map is okey-sh but the colors, the fonts, the word placement need a good look from some professional graphic designer who knows how to build a game to ease and please the human eyes and the interaction with the software. The sound design is also amateurial with musics that alternate tunes with a different mood and volume level (!); sound effects are repetitive, cheap and, in some cases, frankly wrong, like the pesky metallic loud noise that is heard when the player confirms a choice.
In this department, and only in this, Empires has still a lot to learn from Imperator.