Fireside this week! I had hoped to have the next post in the logistics and foraging series ready to go for this week but we are also moving house next week and a number of things related to that have gotten in the way. One of those things was Ollie:
For this week’s musing, I thought it might be fun to expand on some thoughts I had briefly on Twitter about what I would do to fix Paradox’s Imperator or change for a theoretical Imperator II. Rather than doing that exactly, I thought I might thus muse a bit on the period and why it seems to be struggle to get games that deliver on it well and how I might approach it. Now to be clear here when I say ‘well’ what I really mean is games that are both enjoyable games but which also manage to capture or express something about the period. And I want to broaden the question out a bit beyond just Imperator.
We should also be clear about the period – Roman history is, as we’ve noted a few times, very big. But the time period that most games tend to target (and not unreasonably) is the Middle and Late Republic, from around 280 BC to 14 AD. That stretch covers both Rome’s expansion beyond Italy and the conquest of the Mediterranean and the collapse of the Republic and the emergence of the Empire. The date brackets matter because a lot of things that are distinctively ‘Roman’ in the popular consciousness aren’t in that period (imperial succession, the Coliseum, ‘mad’ emperors, Christians, etc.) or are only barely in that period.1 A game set in the first or second century AD would necessarily have to look very different.
Now one of these days we’ll get into more depth into Imperator (though I think Crusader Kings III is likely to get the ‘Teaching Paradox’ treatment first as my thoughts on it are more crystalized), but I think that the core of its struggle is that it tried to do everything rather than being rooted around a central theme or theory of history. The result is a game that never really figures out what it thinks is at the core of the period: is it state-vs-state politics (like EU4) or pops (like Vicky) or politics and personal relationships (like CKIII) or just the business of war (like HoI4)? Imperator ended up, it seems to me, torn between those priorities. That doesn’t make it bad mind you – I liked Imperator just fine. But I think the limitations it struggled against were foundational in the approach.
So the first question is picking a focus. You can see this to an extent in Rome: Total War and Total War: Rome II; the games core is trying to get something about ancient battles – not even wars, but battles – on the screen in an engaging way and on those limited terms to an extent they succeed. I’ve critiqued the Total War model of battles a lot here, but especially in the historical games (and especially the older historical games) it does a better job than most. Certainly the battles in Total War: Rome II have more in common with the real things than the battles in, say, Nemesis of the Roman Empire (2003) or Expeditions: Rome (2022); more still with modding. What the Total War games really struggle with is trying to model the politics of the Roman Republic, despite the fact that its collapse is their other big theme. The first game does this almost comically poorly (complete with not remembering that the plural of Scipio is Scipiones not Scipii) and while the second game makes a better attempt it really still is quite divorced from actual politics at Rome.
The challenge of this period is that most of our evidence in the broader Mediterranean and thus much of the drama that we know about is focused on a single polity: the Roman Republic. And the great irony of that story is that the Roman Republic wins all of its wars, defeats all of its external enemies and then collapses. That means a narrative of this period that captures this story has to deal with both powerful internal political factors that led the Romans towards devastating civil war, but it cannot neglect the great wars of conquest either, in no small part because those wars created the conditions for the political chaos of the first century. So the challenge for a game that wants to move beyond just the battles to deal with the broader history of the period is that it has to encompass both the internal and external threads.
Were I looking to design an outline for something like Imperator II this is where I’d focus – using the internal politics of the Roman Republic (I think that same system could also model Carthage, by the by), to contextualize the external wars of conquest. Because the focus is substantially on internal politics, we can’t have the player running the state as a unitary actor like they do in EU4 or, indeed, Imperator. Instead, I think we need to take a cue from Crusader Kings and have the player in control of a family, directly controlling its patriarch and indirectly controlling its junior members. That said, I think as soon as we choose this focus we’re looking at a game which no longer fully fits within the normal Paradox Development Studio game skeleton; we might still be able to use the engine (but maybe not) but this game probably isn’t going to look like a PDS game. Even Crusader Kings is not going to be a great fit because our families aren’t tied to specific regions; Roman senators do not get provinces as ‘fiefs’ but merely as temporary assignments.
The basic rhythm of politics in the Roman Republic is that elites (like the player’s family) are trying to climb the political ladder, but the rungs are not permanent posts, but rather one-year offices (extendable in some cases but not in most).2 Having the player manage a changing roster of ten quaestors, 4 aediles, 10 tribunes, 6 praetors and 2 consuls every year would be madness, so we don’t do that. By putting the player in charge of one family, the player is only concerned about the actions of a small number of these actors at any given time; the rest can be AI simulated, belonging to their own families trying to increase in power and influence (akin to how little one generally cares about the minor vassals in another kingdom in CKIII; it sometimes matters, but usually doesn’t). Treating individual politicians more as expressions of their families allows us, as a design matter, to prune the player from having to keep track of 300 senators to having to keep track of a few dozen families (to include non-related clients; I’d have no problem placing a young Tiberius Gracchus in the Scipio org-chart until the events of 133 – which we could simulate by having mechanics for characters to break out of their family political structure to found a new one; we might even simulate the contentious politics of the 133-83 era by having the populares/optimates contention expressed in part through individuals breaking out of families to pursue the opposite ideology); that’s a gross simplification but it will serve.
The next question is how the player impacts this system and here we need currencies. Players hate mana, but we can ground our currencies pretty well in actual things. The most obvious is money: these elite families are rich and money can be used to sway elections and buy favors. A core goal for the player to think about should be assembling sufficient wealth to begin self-financing military activity – that was, after all, a huge factor in the collapse of the Republic (though at game start, this should be a pipe-dream). That means it needs to be possible to convert cash into income-producing assets (estates worked by enslaved laborers, mainly) which mirrors how the actual Roman elite ‘banked’ the proceeds of conquest.
Then we need reputational currency: I might divide this as popularity (standing with the people) and honor (standing with the elite).3 I’d see these as working more like piety and prestige in CK3: not something you usually spend directly, but which mostly pools into passive bonuses the more of it you have. Nevertheless, defeats and setbacks (which should happen) and scandals (again, should happen) should make assembling large amounts of either hard. Rather than a general ‘influence’ stat, I think we ought to think in terms of ‘favors’ owed by one family to another as a currency (so not binary like in CK3) used to ‘barter’ with other families, though some UI work needs to go into making these easy to track.
Thus the player’s macro-goal is to dominate the politics of the republic, which leads to a micro-goal of converting political success into these resources which are converted into more political success. So, for instance, the player gets elected as a praetor, burns a bunch of favors to make sure they get assigned to Sicily (a wealthy province which provides them lots of opportunities for self-enrichment of various kinds) and then has to think hard about how they handle that assignment. Do they squeeze the province to increase their wealth at the cost of popularity and honor (low honor should trigger dangerous corruption prosecutions which should reward popularity for the prosecutor if a conviction is achieved) or do they send cheap grain back to Rome (popularity!) or to another theater to boost the armies there (honor, but also handy if those armies are commanded by a political ally who now owes you one!). The player’s big goals should be the goals Roman aristocrats had: secure big commands which could both improve their public standing but also bring huge windfalls of wealth to the victor which could then be reinvested in estates and silent-partner investments in Italy to create income streams for further political activity.
And this is where I think we get away from the standard PDS design frame: by limited the player’s actions to small areas (a province or two, depending on what offices their family holds) for short times, we’re not really dealing with the large-scale design focused on a big world map as our primary focus. We’re going to need a big map of the Mediterranean, but we’re not going to be focused on it all that often.
Instead, I think I’d organize the game as a series of phases in each year. Political campaigning, then elections (by the people, so popularity dominates), then province assignments (by the Senate, so favors and honor dominate), then time in those provinces. Some provinces can be in Rome (like the urban quaestors or the praetores urbanus et peregrinus), but for the ones outside of Rome that should make that character unavailable for the next year’s campaigning and election phases (so you can’t have them perform actions like giving speeches). I think you’d end up treating the provinces phase the way an RPG treats a turn-based battle in that we transition to a different screen and a different UI, giving the player new options depending on what their role is and where they are (again, including Rome which should involve both politics but also maintaining/expanding the family’s economic interests).
The key to the short assignments is going to be both giving the player a lot of ability to shape the outcomes without making it a chain of ‘dilemmas’ (though we can have those) or putting in a complex, dev-heavy real-time battle system. Here I think it might actually be useful to model the control a real general would have because it would keep battles simple, dependent on a handful of decisions. Instead, I’d focus on the player’s operational control – where the army goes and when – along with giving the player the opportunity to strengthen their force in a province by burning currency; spending favors to pull support from other provinces or elites, burn money to enlarge the army, burn popularity to enforce discipline (in the hopes you’ll win it back when you win the battle) and so on. The nice thing is if we build a good operational movement system, it can double as our screen for the player serving as a governor in a pacified province moving through major cities dealing with disputes.
Then geopolitics becomes the final layer of simulation, with external wars that Rome can lose in various theaters. As the player, do you send requested support (in exchange for favors) to a desperate rival or do you let him fall to defeat, gaining in the short term but risking long-term disaster if, you know, Carthage wins the war. Now this kind of feature is going to be very dependent on performance impact and AI-scripting, so I can’t say how much of it you could feasibly do, but my instinct would be to fully simulate (internal and external) Rome and Carthage, but handle all of the other states as unplayable unitary entities (you could then give them systems with DLC if the game proves popular, the way that CK2 added republics and so on). In terms of your state’s actual diplomacy, that should be a Senate thing, but with lots of levers the player can pull to try to create or prevent a war (and a player in a province should be able to – at considerable risk – just provoke a war with a neighbor). Part of what that would build in would be a theory of history on how Roman imperialism happened: Roman elites (and many common Romans) benefited from it, which created structural incentives for conquest.
Now I feel I have to offer a bit caveat here, which is that I have very little game design experience (no more than home-brewing a table-top RPG system) and I haven’t coded anything in almost two decades (and was never very good at it to begin with). And that means almost certainly there is a lot of complexity and difficulty in this tissue-thin design sketch that I’m simply not equipped to see. For one, it is easy to describe how currencies and outcomes should interact, but figuring out the right values to push the player just enough is really hard. But this is where I’d go in terms of trying to make a strategy game about Roman expansion, building it around a theory of Roman politics where the very structure of those politics (which is why we need to simulate a fair bit of its complexity) drove Rome towards warfare and expansion through the incentives they created.
And now on to recommendations!
First, since we’re talking Paradox, now is as good a time as any to note that I will be participating in a Historians Panel at Paradox’s annual con, PDXCON, alongside Eleanor Janega (@goingmedieval on Twitter), September 2-3 in Stockholm, Sweden. I am not sure if the event will be recorded; there was some hope of this happening but the final decision would obviously be up to Paradox. In any event, having written on their games it is pretty wild to be invited to their conference and also get a chance to play an early build of Victoria III (so I suppose expect my impressions on that also).
On the less fun ‘pillaging of the humanities’ theme I recommend “The Fall of History as a Major – and as a Part of the Humanities” by Taneer Greer. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the points here unreservedly, but I certainly see students trying to move to what they think are more marketable majors (which often aren’t actually more marketable majors) or towards area-studies fields. But fundamentally I think a lot of these concerns come back to selling the actual broad public on the value of history and historical thinking; a lot of these shifts are after all driven by students who are trying to guess at what employers want, in a lot of cases for jobs that are still relatively broad and not very technical (or where the very technical knowledge is trained in the industry not in the academy). That in turn demands public engagement, which is not the same as activism (because politicizing your field lowers its broad appeal; I say again that public engagement is how you build support for a field and activism is how you spend that support. We have far too many spenders for far too few builders these days in the humanities) as a way of pushing historians and historical thinking back into the educated public consciousness.
But most importantly this is something we have to be thinking about because the humanities have value.
Meanwhile over at War on the Rocks, fellow Tarheel Joseph Stieb has written a fascinating essay on the various ways in which the ‘war on terror’ has been understood by the American public and how those competing narratives have (or have not) shaken out subsequently. I think Stieb is right here that the legacy of the two-decade long war on terror continues to shape (misshape?) US policy, so it is important to grapple with it. I have not had a chance yet to read it, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Stieb has a book on this very topic, The Regime Change Consensus which has been well received and already occasioned a lot of discussion in the field. And don’t worry Joe, I plan to get to your book eventually, I promise!
And more public history, The Great War YouTube channel put out this 30-minute long summary of the July Crisis that led to the First World War. The July Crisis is pretty complex, but I think the video does a good job of walking through it for someone who might be unfamiliar and also gives a good sense of both the forces that impelled Europe towards a disastrous (and probably unnecessary) war, but also the real contingency in that process – the ways and moments that the war could have been kept limited or avoided but wasn’t.
For this week’s book recommendation, I want to pick out a book I’ve been using for the current series on logistics, John A. Lynn, Women, Armies and Warfare in Early Modern Europe (2008). Our narratives about warfare tend to focus on combatants, the vast majority of whom were men. In my own period (the Middle and Late Roman Republic) the sources that survive intensify that effect, rendering women in the ‘campaign community’ (one of Lynn’s terms which I found very useful) effectively invisible.4 Lynn is able to take advantage of a much better documented period (albeit not without its own evidentiary limitations) to create a fairly comprehensive sketch of the role of women in early modern warfare in Europe and that is quite valuable both for understanding the armies of these periods but also as a comparative tool with which to think about other periods that are less well evidenced.
Lynn also manages to walk the tightrope quite well between a book that is scholarly (it has footnotes!) and careful with one that explains enough of the basics that a reader relatively unfamiliar with the period or the evidence can follow the arguments and get a sense of the topic. The opening chapter does the job very well of explaining the factors in these early modern armies with shape the role that women take in their ‘campaign communities,’ which is also handy for those of us thinking from a comparative framework since the role of women in this period is unusually broad for European armies before the 1900s. But that situating also puts the reader’s feet firmly on the ground as to what kind of armies these are and how they are organized and how that led to them being defined by their “hunt for pillage” which in turn conditions many of the ways women were involved with them. It also help for the lay reader that Lynn writes clearly and without much jargon.
Lynn goes on to discuss the types and status of women in army camps and then the kind of work they did, each in its own chapter. The last full chapter (before a conclusion) discusses the role of women in combat in these armies, because of course the early modern period is the age of Molly Pitcher, Hannah Snell and Deborah Sampson, women who participated in combat, often disguised as men. It is a topic that gets a lot of sensationalism, but Lynn’s approach is sober and rooted to the evidence: such women existed and Lynn supposes we can document “a few hundred” through military records and other evidence between 1500 and 1815, but they were extremely rare given the many hundreds of thousands of men under arms in the same period. Women who fought in those roles made a big impression in the popular culture, the topic of songs and plays, precisely because they were so unusual and so striking. More common, as Lynn notes and discusses, were women compelled into combat because their homes were placed under siege, participating in the defense of their communities in both combat and non-combat roles.5
An excellent starting point for readers looking to begin to get a sense of this badly under-discussed topic.
- For the latter I think especially of the image of the city of Rome itself that is often offered, complete with all of the Big, Expensive Building Projects like the imperial fora, the Pantheon or the Domus Flavia. Only the first few of these are being constructed at the very, very tail end of this period, mostly by Augustus.
- Carthage is a bit different here in that generals tend to serve for as long as the political system tolerates them. On the other hand, the Carthaginians tend to be brutally execute failed generals, rather than just letting them cycle out of office, which would make Carthage a challenging game. Lose a battle – even in a winning campaign – and you might find your family patriarch crucified and the command reallocated to someone else.
- Initially these shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but maybe post 133 they become so, with high honor imposing penalties to popularity and vice versa.
- We are, as an aside, rather better informed about women in and around the permanent Roman forts of the imperial period because those forts leave all sorts of archaeological evidence and records. It thus almost looks like such women poof into existence in the first century AD; clearly that cannot have entirely been the case (though of course the creation of permanent legions by Augustus with long service terms is also a factor here) and there must have been some women in the ‘campaign communities’ of the Roman Republic, though not under arms. If any woman ever served in the Roman army, we do not know about it.
- We know this happened in the ancient world too, by the by, though our sources leave us only infrequent mention of what seems like it must have been a frequent occurrence.