Collections: Why Are There No Empires in Age of Empires?

At long last, Relic Entertainment has announced that Age of Empires 4 is coming. Strategy gamers rejoice! I am excited – I played the first one back in ’98 (I may be dating myself here).

But the news brought me back to a common problem with many games of this type and with Age of Empires specifically: they don’t actually have any empires in them! And I am sure that some of you are a bit confused by this statement – after all, the games are full of Romans and Mongols and Persians and Assyrians and how can I say these weren’t empires? But there’s the thing – those were peoples who had empires. And it turns out that’s a pretty important distinction.

So today, we’re going to talk about what empire is, and (on a very basic level) how they work to see how games of this sort – not just AoE, but also the Civilization series and others – don’t reflect the mechanics of actual empires and why that matters.

What Is an Empire?

Let’s not bury the lede too far: an empire is a state where the core ruling population exercises control and extracts resources from a periphery which is composed of people other than the core group (linguistically/culturally/ethnically/religiously distinct). So an empire is a state where one set of people (the core) extract resources (typically by force) from another set of people (the periphery).

That definition goes back to the root of the word in Latin: imperium, literally meaning a command or control; imperium comes from the Latin verb imperio (lit: ‘to order or command’). Thus imperium was a sphere of command over others. In Roman politics, this could mean an individual had the authority to command an army or to set up courts (consuls, praetors and dictators had this sort of imperium), but the Romans understood their empire as a sort of command exercised by the Senate and People of Rome over non-Roman people, thus they called that too imperium – an imperium of the Roman people (imperium populi Romani), crucially over the non-Roman people; once cannot, after all, have imperium over one’s self. An imperium of the Roman people must be an imperium over someone else.

Contrary to the venerable Wikipedia, empire does not require a monarchy. Rome was an empire while it was still a Republic, and France continued to hold an empire after it stopped being a monarchy. Athens, famously, converted the Delian League into an Athenian Empire (the Greek word used is ἀρχή (‘arche’), pronounced ar-KHAY) while it was still, internally, a democracy. Often, when discussing the internal politics of these states (especially for Rome and France) we will distinguish between a period of ’empire’ and ‘republic’ to note the shift from a republic to a monarchy or vice-versa, but that sort of nomenclature should not be taken to disguise the fact that, for instance, the Roman Republic in 150 B.C. was very much possessed of an empire, while still functioning as a republic.

Empire, I should note, seems to be one of – if not the – dominant form of large-scale human social organization since at least the bronze age (which is to say: since as far back as our sources let us see clearly). Ideas like loose federations of states (e.g. the EU) or nation-states are relatively new; in many cases, our modern nation-states are merely the consolidated form of what were originally empires of various sizes (e.g. China, Russia, but also France (see: Crusade, Albigensian), etc.). We don’t think about them that way anymore, because the steady application of state power created the shared culture that subsequently formed the foundation for the nation (we’ll return to this – the way that how we think about these empires often disguises their nature – in a moment). In many respects, empire is normal (which, please note, does not mean it is good), whereas this modern world composed primarily of nation-states is an unusual aberration.

(As a side note, this to a degree exposes a bit of understandable but still amusing silliness in titling anything Age of Empires. There has never been an age without empires. We are certainly not living in an age without empires even now – ask the Tibetans, the Uighyrs, the Chechens how ‘ended’ imperialism is! And that doesn’t even get into the sticky question of if we might understand the United States as an empire (my own view is that it is better understood as a hegemony – but I could hardly blame a Guamanian, Puerto Rican or Navajo who begged to differ – and that, importantly, it is also not, and has never been, a nation-state, but that’s a contentious topic for another day).

Age of No Empires?

Which brings us back to Age of Empires, but also a slew of similar games which promise something they call ’empire building.’

In a typical game of Age of Empires, you begin with a small group of settlers imagined to be founding some great empire. You begin with workers harvesting local resources, which you use to build buildings which in turn produce further workers and then military units (I am, I know, moving over a lot of complexity in terms of tech-trees, age advancements, cheeky things you can do with long-distance trade, wololo and the rest – I do promise I have played these games, but I want to keep to the relevant details).

As the player expands – pursuing one of several victory conditions – they will run into other players (or the AI simulating players). The default setting is for all players to effectively be hostile to each other. Players do not conqueror the settlements of opposing players, or reduce them to tributaries (nor – since only one player or team can ‘win’ – can they settle on mutual cooperation), instead they annihilate those settlements, replacing whatever resource production they had with villager’s of the players own culture. It is striking that villagers cannot normally be captured (we’ll get to priests in a moment!), only killed.

This is, to put it bluntly, not how empires work. The entire point of establishing an empire is to access the resources and labor of a subordinate population (the periphery) – exterminating that population defeats the very purpose! The ’empires’ in Age of Empires are not empires at all, but fanatically murderous nation-states, projected backwards in history hundreds – if not thousands – of years before any such idea of a state existed. Few states have really followed this vision of conquest, but those that have – Nazi Germany is the most obvious example – are not generally well-thought of.

Now, there are three caveats on that rather scathing statement I want to address. First, that the game is to be understood as an abstraction and that we are to imagine all of the complexities of empire building taking place ‘behind the screen’ as it were – and that’s fair enough for many games of this type (it is surely what Civilization seems to want us to believe), but I don’t think it goes for Age of Empires, since the non-combatants are so clearly on screen and are not capturable by military units.

They are capturable by priests, which leads to the second caveat – that it is possible to forcibly convert, rather than annihilate, a people in Age of Empires. But that has three problems: first, that sort of cultural genocide is not something real empires usually (there were some exceptions) much cared about (because they do not care what the local customs are, generally, so long as the taxes get paid) and second, that shifting from genocide to ‘mere’ ethnic cleansing is not a great improvement. Third, it is clearly not expected that you will do this to most – or even very many – of your opponents. Priests capture one unit at a time with a long cooldown; the vast majority of humans on the map belonging to rival empires will be killed rather than captured in most games. Capture is merely a niche way to neutralize certain high value enemy units and thus turn battles – mechanically, it is not a real alternative to the war-of-annihilation.

It is safe to assume that, upon seeing this image, anyone who has played the original Age of Empires already has the distinctive ‘Wololo’ chant of this unit stuck in their heads.
You’re Welcome.

The third, predictable and annoying argument is “stop overthinking it, it is just a game.” Which is – if you will permit me to paraphrase C.S. Lewis – an unserious ‘boy’s philosophy’ unfit for adults. Video games are cultural products, like books or films or any other – and to say that those cultural products have no impact or importance is to argue against the historically obvious, given how frequently we find such things at the roots of important political ideologies, social movements, and wars.

Real Empires Have Peripheries

Alright, so Age of Empires falls down on this account, so what?

I think the problem on this point is that Age of Empires – and cultural products like it – can distort our understanding of what empires are, and how they work and also how our own societies work (when we analogize from past ones – one of the core uses of historical reasoning). In particular, it appears in a failure to appreciate that successful empires historically were diverse by their very nature and that being a successful empire depended on managing diversity and benefiting from it.

Let’s take Rome as an example. As an ‘Empire’ in Age of Empires, the Roman player recruits Roman units, destroys their rivals and repopulates the land with Romans (this is not unique to the Romans – all factions function like this in the game). And – I want to make clear this is not a straw-man argument – I have absolutely had well-meaning people quite confidently inform me that Roman military strength was a consequence of their cultural and ethnic cohesiveness. I am not saying they learned this from video games, but rather than their vision and that of a game like Age of Empires seem to coincide and I suspect arise from the same set of misperceptions (yet another word that spellcheck defiantly insists is not a word, even though it is (I link to Websters because the OED is behind a paywall, but rest assured, misperception is there too)).

The Age of Empire version of Rome is thus always completely Roman, through and through, and never more powerful than the number of ethnic Romans on the map.

The actual Roman Empire was fantastically diverse and more importantly, its military success hinged on its diversity at every stage of its existence. In many games and cultural products, that diversity is obscured because we lose sight of ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural divisions which were very important at the time, but no longer matter to us very much. Let’s take a snapshot of Roman territory in 218 B.C. to give a sense of this.

Roman-controlled territory, c. 218 B.C., consisting of Italy proper, along with two provinces, Sicilia (Sicily) and Corsica et Sardinia. In addition to this, Cisalpine Gaul (the bit of blue north of Ancona) had been just recently been forced under Roman control, but was not yet organized formally as an administrative province. Roman control of the Illyrian coast was, at this point, extremely limited – maps have a way of overstating the extent of imperial control.

Quite a few people look at a map like that, classify most of Rome’s territories as ‘Italian’ and assume there is a large, homogeneous ethnic core there (except, I suspect, anyone who has actually been to Italy and is aware that Italy is hardly homogeneous, even today!). But Roman Italy in 218 B.C. was nothing like that.

Peninsular Italy (which doesn’t include the Po River Valley) contained a bewildering array of cultures and peoples: at least three distinct religious systems (Roman, Etruscan, Greek), half a dozen languages (some completely unrelated to each other) and many clearly distinct cultural and ethnic groups divided into communities with strong local identities and fierce local rivalries (if you want more on this, check out Salmon, The Making of Roman Italy (1982), Fronda, Between Rome and Carthage (2010), and Keaveney, Rome and the Unification of Italy (2005)).

The Roman army was by no means entirely Roman – it was split between Roman citizens and what the Romans called the socii (lit: ‘allies’) – a polite term for the communities they had subjugated in Italy (a periphery!). Rome demanded military service – this was the resource they would extract – from these communities; the socii pretty much always made up more than half of the army. Diversity was literally the Roman strength, in terms of total military force. Without it, Rome would have remained just one city-state in Italy, and not a particularly important one besides.

(As an aside: while citizenship is extended to nearly all of Italy in the 80s B.C., by then Rome is making extensive use of non-Italian troops in its armies. by the early empire, half of the army – the auxilia – were non-Roman citizens recruited from the provinces. Roman armies were essentially never majority ‘Roman’ in any period, save possibly for the third century. And before anyone asks what about even earlier than my snapshot – it is quite clear – both archaeologically and in the Roman’s own foundation myths – that Rome was a fusion-society, culturally diverse from the city’s foundation. Indeed, sitting at the meeting point of Latin and Etruscan cultural zones as well as upland and coastal geographic zones was one of the great advantages Rome enjoyed in its early history, as near as we can tell.)

Outside of Italy, narrowly construed, the diversity only increases. Sicily’s population included Greeks, Punic (read: Carthaginian) settlers, and the truly native non-Greeks. Sardinia and Corsica had their own local culture as well. Cisalpine Gaul – the Po River Valley – was, as the name implies, mostly Gallic! As the Romans expended into Spain during the Second Punic War, they would add Iberians, Celt-Iberians, and yet more Punic settlers to their empire. And even those descriptions mask tremendous diversity – Iberians and Celt-Iberians were about as diverse among themselves as the Italians were; a quick read of Strabo reveals a wonderful array of sub-groups in all of these regions, with their own customs, languages, and so on.

Even if the Romans didn’t raise military force directly from any one of these groups, they do need to raise revenue from them – remember, the entire point of having the empire is to raise revenue from it, to make other people do the farming and mining and other labor necessary to support your society from the proceeds of their tribute. To keep that revenue flowing – revenue that, as the Roman army professionalized in the late second century B.C., increasingly paid for Roman military activity which held the empire together – you need to be good at managing those groups. Empires that are bad at handling a wide array of different cultures/religions/languages do not long remain empires.


I bring this up not because I demand utter historical accuracy in my games – I will almost certainly happily play Age of Empires IV despite this. Instead, I bring it up because I find that this overly simplified view – sometimes, depressing, held to be the truth by some – in its errors, reveals some important things about empires, which again, I should note, seem to have been the dominant very-large-scale organization system for humans generally in the historical period.

First it tends to obscure the necessarily diverse nature of empires – as we have just laid out and perhaps more to the point, it obscures the power that empires derive from being diverse. Well-run empires were able to draw on the resources, talents and particular skills of a wide variety of cultures. For instance, the Mongol lifestyle – rooted in the subsistence patterns of the steppe – produced excellence cavalry, but poor infantry and siege skills. But facing a Mongol army often meant facing cutting-edge Chinese siege technology and effective local infantry (whatever infantry the local agrarian societies produced), along with excellent Mongol cavalry. In the same way, a Roman army taking the field at the height of the empire might include not only high quality Italic (read: Roman) infantry, but also Sarmatian or Gallic heavy cavalry, Numidian or Arab light cavalry, expert composite bowmen from the east and skilled light infantrymen from all of the rough country of the empire. I am giving military examples, but the same could be true in engineering, cultural products (which might shore up imperial legitimacy) or administration.

I will say that I find even in games that do pay some lip-service to the continued existence of subordinated peoples within large empires – I think particularly of Europa Universalis, Stellaris and Imperator – the mechanics and dynamics for managing those populations in a polyethnic, polylinguistic society are often sharply underdeveloped. In many games that don’t simply erase those populations, they are instead represented by a simple malus (e.g. “Non-primary culture, -x% production/stability/manpower/whatever). As should already be apparent from the example I gave above, it was often greatly to the advantage of the imperial state to have access to diverse peoples, cultures, climates, etc.

Second, it obscures the necessary hierarchy of empire, by indulging in a fantasy whereby the expansion of an empire means an expansion of its core, rather than the subjugation of a much larger periphery to that core. Until the Constitutio Antoniniana (212 A.D.), most people in the Roman Empire were not Romans and did not enjoy Roman citizenship – they were subjects of the populus Romanus, which was itself a minority within the empire. The dominant human experience of empire is not the experience of being the imperial conqueror – it is the experience of being the subject of empire, of having taxes and resources extracted from you, in the name of a state that likely inflicts violence on you and may care little for your safety or needs.

That’s where we’ll stop this discussion for today – there’s a lot more to talk about in terms of the actual mechanics of how empires function. I have dealt here mostly with the kind of pre-modern empires, tributary empires, and not with the modern sort that we might call mercantilist empires, though the latter are no less diverse than the former (though they could be, on the whole, more brutal and less tolerant). So don’t worry – this is a topic we’ll come back to, though not right away.

But next week, we’re leaping forward – way forward – in time, and asking what the Battlestar Galactica (no, I am not kidding) could learn from the USS South Carolina (BB-26, launched in 1908, and no I am not kidding).

27 thoughts on “Collections: Why Are There No Empires in Age of Empires?

  1. 0 A.D. ( is a FOSS version of Age of Empires that tries to be more historically accurate.
    It features citizen-soldiers as in Greek poleis and you can capture (rather than destroy) the territory and buildings of an enemy player. Catapults are drawn by animals and can only fire after they have been unpacked. Buildings and uniforms are based on historical designs and vary in their appearance.

    Unfortunately, their approach also makes the game less fun. Among other things, realistic graphics make it harder to distinguish between different kinds of units (and require good hardware).


  2. How did tributary empires like Rome’s both maintain control of their polyethnic armies while extracting enough tribute from many of those same ethnic groups to make the imperial enterprise worthwhile (at least for the rentier state and it’s controlling elites), particularly when faced with competing imperial powera?

    An example that comes to mind is the Second Punic War in which Hannibal marched into Italy, credibly showing the ability of the rival imperial polity of. Carthage to project it’s armies into the innermost periphary of the Roman Republic’s empire. Why didn’t the socii who made up such a large proportion of the Roman military come to a agreement with the Carthaginians, getting lower tribute and more autonomy in exchange for helping Carthage defeat one of it’s great rivals? Was there a credibility problem i.e. if the Carthaginians won they would have had the power to renege on the agreement and dominate the Socii just as intensely as the Romans had and thus extract tribute up to the point where it was just equal to the military damage the Carthaginians could impose on their new subjects (as commonly frustrates peace efforts in modern civil wars since the modern centralized state can be used to crush resistance and extract rents within it’s borders far more effectively than was previously possible), or are there other dynamics at play?


    1. These are big and important questions! I hope to come back to all of them in more detail later – I think an entire series on imperial dynamics (using Rome as a primary model) is something I want to do, if I can find the time.

      In the meantime, Fronda’s Between Rome and Carthage (cited in the post) is one of the best scholarly stabs at a lot of your Second Punic War questions about Rome and its allies and I highly recommend it if you can find a copy.


  3. I was a little disappointed myself by how Imperator treated diverse cultures and religions. Instead of managing them, it’s about homogenizing your empire by converting those who are not of your dominant culture/religion.

    Now they are changing a lot about how the game works since launch, so they might change that too. It does at least have client states.

    You mentioned exceptions on empires committing cultural genocide, could you name a few? I’m trying to think of some myself, the best I can come up with is the Assyrians and I’m not sure I remember right.


  4. Problem with how people today view Roman Empire is that – at least that is what I have come across – they view it in terms of one extreme or another. Extreme 1 would be what you discussed here: that Roman Empire was monoethnic, monocultural nation-state. Extreme 2 is the idea that it was multicultural in way that e.g. modern United States are. Neither is true. What the Empire did was that it mostly left local government and cultures alone, as long as they respected and supported the overall Imperial government. There was little mixing between cultures: with the exception of important trade cities, and occasional military colony, you would not see Gauls and Latins meet and exchange experiences. Vast majority of people lived in villages. And this lack of contact is why Roman Empire cannot really be used to support the idea that modern multicultural state either works or doesn’t work.

    And this was not unique to Classical Empire. In fact, many traces of pagan cults – and even unchanged pagan cults, in fact – survived in the then-nominally-Christian Roman Empire up to 10th century at least, well into Middle Byzantine period.


    1. So, it obviously must be possible to overstate the degree of diversity within any given society. But I am not convinced that this is generally the case when the Roman Empire is treated as a potential model for modern highly diverse societies like the United States. I mean, it is obviously true that the United States is diverse in a way and to a degree that no other society has been diverse before – the United States is, as a country, unique or nearly so in a lot of ways.

      Part of what I am responding to in this post, somewhat obliquely, is the diversity-is-weakness argument I’ve seen quite a bit on social media. And while Rome was not – nor indeed, any state in history at any time – as diverse as the United States, I would still say that it was plenty diverse enough to offer no comfort to a diversity-is-weakness argument and indeed to the contrary, offers quite a deal of support to an argument that, historically speaking, diversity has often been a source of strength.

      Confining diversity in the Roman world to a handful of key trade cities or military settlements does not really conform to the evidence as we now have it. Archaeology and epigraphy have done a lot to fill in a world of cultural exchange outside of the Rome/Carthage/Corinth/Antioch/Alexandria trade-hubs. You might look at Greg Woolf’s Becoming Roman (2009) or Martin Millett’s The Romanization of Britain (1992) to see the process in two of the least urbanized parts of the empire – these are real backwaters in the first few centuries A.D. and yet the evidence for substantial cultural diversity and transmission is there (and, it should be noted – the transmission went both ways!) – and often quite removed from the frontier as well.

      It’s also worth noting that some of the key institutions driving cultural change within the Roman Empire – especially the army – were diverse by design. Again, fully half of all ‘Roman’ soldiers in the early centuries A.D. were non-Roman, non-citizens, recruited from the provinces. They were often transported vast distances and settled in completely different parts of the periphery at the conclusion of their service. The discharge diplomata they receive often attest, when we find them, to that – we find former soldiers with strikingly ‘foreign’ names all over the place (and not just in military settlements, narrowly defined!). That this broadening of military service strengthened the Roman army is pretty much self-evident once one is familiar with the military affairs of the period. Treating these colonies as ‘occasional’ is, I think, a mistake – their influence was felt in fairly large portions of the empire.

      You are absolutely right that in many parts of the empire, this process was slow to reach the villages, but we have to note that it *did* reach the villages. Pagan survivals are worth noting to be sure, but if we’re looking at what had been the Roman Empire, as a snap-shot in say, c. 600 A.D., we’d be wrong to say that the survivals outweighed the largely Christian social tapestry they found themselves in. Likewise, the linguistic transformation – with numerous local languages dying out entirely except in place-names, to be replaced by Latin or Greek (and then local variants thereof) – speaks to the degree of both diversity and assimilation in the Roman Empire.

      I think Roman Spain is a particularly instructive example of both the fact of diversity and processes of assimilation; you might read L. Curchin’s Roman Spain: Conquest and Assimilation (1995) on the point. Spain is particularly interesting because it singularly lacks any of the major trade-hubs or a very significant military presence for much of the imperial period. Curchin notes both efforts to avoid full assimilation into Roman culture, but also the steady march of the latter and considers the contrasting experiences between the city and the countryside.

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  5. You call the Punic cities of Sicily Carthaginian. I thought that they were independently established Phoenician colonies that Carthage later had hegemony over. Or were some of them established by Carthage?

    The choice of the permanent faction leaders of games like Age of Empires and Civilization often annoy me. Especially when they pick a somewhat mythological figure like Dido for Carthage.


    1. That’s right, for the most part – they are seperate Phoecian foundations (Carthage’s direct colony, Carthago Nova, is in Spain) though by the time Rome is absorbing Phoenician settlements in Sicily, they have been under Carthaginian hegemony for quite a while; that’s the sense in which I term them ‘Carthaginian.’ I was also trying, in vain, to keep things simple and didn’t want to get into the complex history of Phoenician colonization and Carthaginian control, but did want to signal to a reader unfamiliar with the details that these communities had something culturally in common with Carthage and had – until recently – been politically under Carthaginian control.


  6. There’s a somewhat obscure game from the same era as the first Age of Empires, called Age of Wonders, where this is something that is unexpectedly exposed in the game mechanics, and it does affect gameplay substantially

    The game itself was meant to be a spiritual successor to Master of Magic, but is really more akin to Warlords and HM&M. So it’s a 4X strategy, but focused on exploration and combat rather than city- or empire-building – there’s no tech tree etc.

    It’s also a high fantasy game in a very traditional setting (which it occasionally subtly mocks), so it has fantasy races rather than human ethnicities: the usual assortment of humans, halflings, elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins, and some exotic additions such as frostlings and lizardmen. On top of that, it has a D&D-style alignment system, which is racial – so you have “neutral” humans and frostlings, “good” halflings and elves, and “evil” orcs and goblins – these define how the races see each other (mostly; there’s a bit of story-induced tweaks, but either way, this is all set in stone).

    However, it has a distinction between populations and governments. Every city on the map is populated by a specific race, but it can be under control of any of the factions – or even none at all. The factions themselves are somewhat conflated with the races – i.e. there’s the human faction, the elf faction etc – but then every faction has a distinct relation with every race on the map. The initial ones mirror race relations, so e.g. an elf faction is loved by elves, liked by halflings, the humans are indifferent, and the orcs hate it. This matters when taking cities, because e.g. an orc city taken by an elf faction, if left without enough troops (depending on its size), is going to rebel and become independent. On the other hand, when coming upon an independent city, if its population is well-disposed towards the faction, its allegiance may be bought without a fight.

    This also translates to morale of individual soldiers, which is defined both by their take on their ruler, and their mutual dislike of each other. An elvish army can recruit orcs, but preventing them from deserting is another matter, and depends on their proportion in any particular army – an army made entirely from orcs under an elvish banner will likely desert in its entirety very quickly, but when it has one orc for a dozen elves, that can at least be maintained, although the morale of that one orc is going to be terrible (which is reflected by combat mechanics), and the elves aren’t going too happy about it, either.

    On the other hand, the human faction, being “neutral”, can maintain elvish and orcish armies just fine, so long as it doesn’t mix them, causing morale problems. Thus, “neutral” races have access to a more diverse array of troops, provided that they can capture cities of other races from which to recruit them. And this can be a tremendous advantage, because the combat mechanics are very intricate, and there are numerous ways to combine units that amplify their advantages significantly – but many of the most potent combinations cut across racial lines. So the ability to combine orcish heavy infantry with human knights, or elvish marksmen with azrac war elephants, creates a powerful *incentive* to diversify. In fact, it is not uncommon to skip past the wealthier settlements to get at more far-flung ones, solely because the latter are settled by a race that would provide a more lucrative unit combo.

    It gets even more interesting in that, unlike relations between races, their attitudes towards factions aren’t static – what the factions do to the cities that they capture affects it. It’s possible to raze or plunder cities, which, of course, makes the affected race hate you. Or you can expel the existing population and replace it with settlers of any race one already has in their empire – which harms relations with the expelled race almost as much as razing it, but gives a moderate boost to the colonists. And then building city improvements, like walls, gives minor boosts. Over time, the effect of those swings can easily dominate the initial effects of alignment; it takes a lot of time and effort for e.g. the elf faction to cultivate a friendly relationship with the orcs, but it’s possible – and the prize is access to their military strength (although, again, individual elves and orcs will still hate each other if in the same army).

    This presents some interesting conundrums – if you capture a city, and its population already dislikes you, that city is a burden: it will rebel eventually without a garrison of loyal units that are thus removed from the front lines or other garrisons, its economic production is hampered, and its military-industrial value is low because units you recruit there will have terrible morale. The easy solution is to plunder it or resettle it – but that will cause the relations with that race to plummet, and restoring it later, even just to the original level will require a lot more effort (negative reputation is much easier to accrue than positive). So a player thinking more long term might decide to cultivate the relationship instead – but that hampers their military efforts there and now, and for cities near the frontier, there’s a risk of losing that city, with all the newly built improvements, to another faction that doesn’t suffer any race relation penalty, and can benefit of it right away.

    This also gives rise to some, shall we say, uncomfortably familiar patterns. It’s typical for factions to resettle cities they capture early on that are populated with races that dislike them, because they just don’t have enough strength to hold them long enough to cultivate them, but they do need the immediate economic productivity. This means that *some* races, defined largely by chance, are relegated to the “eternal enemy” status, with no chance to reconcile. As the empire expands, then, it is common to use the cities of that race as, basically, gifts to buy the loyalty of other races, by settling their colonists there, and then building improvements for them. At some point it can even be profitable to specifically *capture* small cities with no strategic importance, solely for this purpose. Basically, once a race is “written off” by a faction, genocidal policies towards it become profitable.

    Oh, and then there’s magic – this is fantasy, after all, and it has spells, including “global” spells that affect the strategic map. There are some that target populations in specific cities, making them more likely to riot. And then there’s a pair of matched spells that is truly global, in that it improves or deteriorates race/faction relations for *all* factions. This complicates things even more, because it’s possible to make a long bet on them – for example, a player might struggle to build a multicultural empire, and accept considerable handicaps early on, with intent to capitalize on synergy once they get access to the spell that will drastically improve relations and thus remove the overhead. Or they can build a monoracial faction, ignoring even the multi-racial combos even within easy reach for them, planning to eventually cast the spell that makes everybody hate everybody but their own, in knowledge that they’re the only faction that is immune to this – and then strike at the multiracial empires as their cities revolt. And players who don’t plan something like this themselves, have to plan for the possibility that others might.

    All in all, it adds a lot of delightful complexity to the game, despite a fairly simple basic concept.

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    1. I also thought of Age of Wonders while reading this article. I don’t think it qualifies as “somewhat obscure”, though — it’s had four sequels, the most recent of which came out in August 2019.


  7. I think it’s mostly because computer games can’t convincingly model societies and human nature.

    You just do more of the stuff you did back when you only had a town and two squares of spearmen. There are no internal forces trying to pull your empire apart, no conspiracies, cultural tensions. As soon as you conquer a new city, it is usually instantly incorporated into a homogenous faction with no differences of opinion. Also people later can’t change their mind and want something different from what you provide them. Hell, there are plenty of strategy games which don’t even have an army upkeep cost, and I don’t think I played one where you could equip your forces with salvaged weapons.

    Computer games also struggle with indirect control. An extremely common gameplay mechanic is one where you explicitly order construction of specific buildings to gain access to a new technology or economy bonus. There’s no setting of policy that encourages people to engage in activity beneficial to the state. There was the Settlers series, and Majesty. The former was very repetitive. You can’t delegate management to your vassals or anything that would do a passable job at reducing micromanagement. If I were to change it, I would take a hint from board games and introduce some kind of action points. You would only have a limited number of order points per turn, to simulate your limited attention. Later, when your faction grows, you would still have the same number of orders so you’d have to issue more general orders and delegate smaller tasks.


    1. That’s a lot like the critique of a number of time pressure games that many women play, for example, Diner Dash. The idea is that one starts playing as a waitress and works up to owning a restaurant and then a chain of restaurants, all the while running around waiting on tables. There are a number of games like this involving beauty parlors and the like, but the game mechanic is limited. Even if you have a parlor or restaurant on every major intersection, you are still playing the same game.

      I’m sure one could write a game where one moves from waiting on tables to actually operating a restaurant to dealing with bankers and suppliers and operating a chain of restaurants just as one could write a game where one moves from warlord to vizier to emperor, but the game would be quite different at each level. Interestingly, this is something that nails actual business people and politicians in real life.


  8. Even the nazis weren’t a fanatically murderous nation-state in all cases for their expansion, since they behaved like an empire for some of their conquest, like in Western Europe (Service du travail obligatoire, Organisation Todt).

    Regarding games that gets closer to the actual concept of empire, Endless Legends (Fantasy 4X) gets a little closer: even if the primary extension is still of its core (you only found new cities of your own race), you can subjugate minor races (a bit like the city states of Civ 5), which will give you access to the unique unit of that race and manpower to exploit that area.


  9. Some games actually have multiethnic empires as major gameplay part.
    In Seven Kingdoms (7kaa) there are different cultures. Each can produce one (and only one) kind of unit. Each has their own god. Villages can have multiple cultures.
    In Master of Orion 2 each of the species has their own set of strengths and weeknesses. Some of the traits are empire-wide (like government form), but some are specific to species (like ability to live underground, or in high gravity, or to eat stones). You can also have colonies with mixed population.
    In Master of Magic each race might have some unique units (like knights), different stats for some units, different economics levels, and some bonuses (e.g. halflings are great farmers). They also can like or dislike to be governed by particular race (dark elves are at odds with everybody, halflings are well-liked). So gathering various races in one empire is often important.


  10. Ironically, an Age of Empires successor game called Rise of Nations got far closer to your conception of how an empire in a game would look. In that game settlements were built around a city centre. When that was captured the game converted all buildings and civilians that belonged to it were converted into civilians of the invading force (Which I liked to imagine was just them changing the colour of their sash and getting on with their lives). While your culture is still hegemonic, it produced some interesting quirks where fighting over board lands was interesting and valuable because cities could not be moved and remained pretty productive after capture, as opposed to AoE where its cheeper to just build a new settlement.

    Civilisation 5 also tried out an interesting mechanic where you could turn captured cities into puppet city states. These were cities that were mostly under AI control but passed on their gold, science and culture back to the player in exchange for a far lower happiness problems. The mechanic was universally reviled by the actual players as the AI was invariably as dumb as rocks and actually being able to build things in the city was always worth the happiness hit. If you actually engaged in the system, though, you could build up a pretty good representation of an empire out of the puppet cities surrounding your core.

    The fact that engaging with systems designed to generate imperial territory isn’t fun is probably the biggest barrier to actually representing an empire. Having power is fun and barriers to wielding it are not. Generally speaking games only do one or two core concepts and every system that acts as a barrier to the conceit is either stripped out or minimised by the actual players. A large, unruly hinterland is complex to model and more often than not would just act as a break on the player beating their actual opponents in battle. Unless the game is actually about the nuts and bolts of managing an empire games will always simplify away these things, and the first thing to go is usually any initiative from your underlings.

    The Paradox games Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis and Imperator Rome are far more interested in the actual running of an empire. However, players are more than capable of absuing the relatively simple systems to the point where internal issues are not a problem so even they’re not perfect. At least they pay some attention to characters and culture, unlike the AoE series.


  11. Did I understand you correctly in saying that the United States has never been a Nation-State? That statement makes me wonder if I understand the term “nation-state” the same way you do. Contentious indeed! When are you going to talk about THAT?


    1. If there’s confusion, it’s probably because ‘nation-state’ sounds redundant to you. But ‘nation’ is more a synonym for ‘tribe’ than it is a synonym for ‘country.’ The French, Germans, and Japanese are nations; they begat the states France, Germany, and Japan (yes, there’s a touch of empire in there, too.)

      But ‘Americans’ don’t much exist without the United States to define them.


      1. I think you have it backwards. There was no such thing as a French nation or German nation until the state was established and concerted program was begun to create a nation through education, language standardization, culture. Even now Low German is pretty different from High German from what I understand and whole languages like Occitan are nearly extinct in France.

        So, I’m also very curious what makes United States not a nation state. I think there is such a thing as American culture and I see the state heavily involved in preserving and advancing it even if efforts are made to accomodate Spanish speakers.


        1. You will find many definitions of nation, some of which have been bent beyond all recognition to encompass countries that are very much not nations. But nation comes from French nacion, which comes from Latin natio meaning (both the French and Latin), origin or birth.

          Consequently, a ‘nation’ as usually defined is a large group sharing a common language, typically a territory and most importantly a myth of common origin, almost always a myth of common ancestry. I would go so far as to argue that the ‘ancestry’ part of that is actually mandatory. You can check out the series on the Fremen Mirage (esp. ) to see just how focused early nationalism was on myths of common ancestry, centered on a people defined through blood (and later, genes). It is a common *birth* that makes a ‘natio’ – a nation.

          The United States isn’t a nation in this sense. There is no myth of common origin (much less common birth!) – some came as colonists, some as immigrants, some as enslaved persons and of course the indigenous native Americans were already here and their part of the ‘origin’ of the country is a story of dispossession and violence usurpation. Moreover the federal system also resists this – the country is still fundamentally a union of states; not as much as it used to be, but still quite a bit. Politicians and government itself encourage people to think of themselves as Marylanders, Texans, Virginians and so on, in addition to being Americans and also typically in addition to sharing in one or several of the aforementioned origin stories. Consequently, Americans are encouraged to layer identities – state identities, ethnic identities, origin-based identities and so on (cf. the French system where all French citizens are deemed, as a matter of *law* to be French in origin and thus the French government pointedly refuses to collect statistics on things like citizens of foreign origin because the national myth is more important – you may recall this coming up in the controversy over France’s winning World Cup team).

          The national mythos in the United States doesn’t play down those differences, it does not invent a myth of common heritage (note: nearly all national myths of common heritage are just that – myths) but instead the mythos emphasizes the very non-nation elements of the American story. You are absolutely correct that the nation is a product of the state, not the other way around. But the United States doesn’t fit the definition (and also hasn’t taken the steps – schools, the most important ‘nation-building’ institution, are fiercely local). The United States occasionally calls itself a ‘nation’ as a euphemism for ‘country’ or ‘state’ but in every other way fairly proudly proclaims the facts about it that make it not a nation or nation-state.

          Thus, I tend to think that considering the USA as a nation-state or the American people as a nation misunderstands both the American project, but also the facts on the ground.


  12. One of my favorite books is a YA science fiction novel by Hillari Bell, called A Matter of Profit. It’s about a group of space-faring conquerors called the Vivitaire (humans, although that word is never used) whose most recent conquest, the multi-species T’Chin confederacy, surrendered without a fight. The main character is a member of the Vivitaire ruling elite who’s tasked with rooting out an assassination plot. In the process of his investigation, he delves into the T’Chin culture to discover the reason for their capitulation. What he eventually comes to learn is that the T’Chin — an insectile species who were the founding members of the confederacy — have been conquered a dozen times, but each time, their conquerors ended up assimilating into the confederacy, enriching it with their own cultural uniqueness.


  13. Proofreading corrections, should you want to clean things up:
    talk about what empire is -> talk about what anempire is
    once cannot, after all, have imperium -> one cannot, after all, have imperium
    question of if we might understand -> question of whether we might understand
    do not conqueror the settlements-> do not conquer the settlements
    with villager’s of the players own culture -> with villagers of the player’s own culture
    since the non-combatants are so clearly -> since the noncombatants are so clearly
    in its armies. by the early empire, -> in its armies. By the early empire,
    Romans expended into Spain -> Romans expanded into Spain
    produced excellence cavalry, but poor infantry -> produced excellent cavalry, but poor infantry


  14. The Total War series, most relevantly Rome: Total War, does a good job delivering what you’re complaining is missing from Age of Empires. Players can recruit different troop types from different parts of their empire, giving a similar “strength through diversity” imperial force to reality.


    1. More with mods like Europa Barbarorum or Divide et Impera, which put emphasis on the cultural diversity in the Mediterranean area, in the development of core vs subordinate provinces and the implementation of auxiliaries in the army. Vanilla Rome usually allows you to build advanced enough barracks and soon start spamming parthian cataphracts in Britain or praetorians in Russia.


  15. The game’s original vision actually did include some features that you might be impressed with. If you dive into the games files you can see that scouts still have the ability to garrison and convert units built into their programming. Originally, several civilizations were meant to gain most of their laborers by ‘kidnapping’ laborers from other civilizations.

    The entire diplomacy and tribute system was also supposed to be part of a larger system where a player could allow their civilization to be subjugated to another as a vassal. The vassal would control their own units while the lord would control both their own units and the vassal’s units if they wished.

    Both ideas were dramatically truncated though because they were too difficult to weave into a well-balanced multiplayer experience. If you have an 8 player match and one player suddenly changes sides its a 3 v 5 instead of a 4 v 4. For the second, the nature of an RTS means having to kidnap your villagers from other civilizations too micro-management intensive so they ditched it to prevent the game from becoming overly tedious.


  16. I think one thing that is missing from your assessment of Age of Empires and it’s lack of Empires, is that the game is focused on the beginning of an empire (at least too an extent). Your argument is that an empire must have periphery states and individuals that they govern that are not ethnically their own. This is accurate. However, in the game it is extremely rare that an opponent is entirely wiped out. Even the AI is designed to resign before that point (the GG at the end of a match). Effectively, this means that you are fighting another culture until they cease resisting and “resign” themselves to your rule, at which point it could be assumed that their remaining population and buildings would fall under the victor’s rule. At this point, by the definition you gave above, it would become an empire. During the events of the game itself you may not play as an empire, but I do believe it would not be too great of a stretch to say that the point of the game is to form one. When you have formed an empire, you have won.


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