If I were to think of a short list of the greatest strategy games ever made, the first thing I would do is rule out real-time strategy games, because they’re their own beast. Get out of here, RTSs. Go get your own list! The next thing I would do is write down titles such as X-Com, Civilization IV, and Alpha Centauri. But the ultimate thing I would do is circle the name of Frog City’s 1999 masterpiece, Imperialism II. There is no strategy game as good as Imperialism II.
After the jump, don’t even bring up chess.
Imperialism II is a pointed historical opinion. The game design — what you do, how you do it, and why you do it — is a distinct perspective on the discovery and exploitation of the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries and how this affected the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a gameplay editorial. Not to say it’s preachy. It’s not. It’s entirely dispassionate. There is no penalty for killing natives. Slavery is a non-issue. No one will rebel against you for being a dick. But it suggests a specific idea, without judgment or comment. It is game design as an opinion about history rather than a simulation of it.
This isn’t inherently better or worse than tactical combat about fending off alien invaders, growing a civilization over the course of 5000 years, or surviving pink fungus on a distant planet. But it is different. It has a historical relevance unlike Civilization IV’s safely sandbox non-opinions on history.
Imperialism II’s opinion about history, the specific idea, is very simply that Europe used the resources of the New World to get ahead and then it spent those resources to beat itself up. To win in Imperialism II, you have to control a certain number of territories in Europe, here called the Old World and randomly generated as a patchwork of provinces divvied up under names like Switzerland, France, and Scotland, with each nation getting a handful of territories to call its own. When you control over half of all the Old World territories, taking them from the other nations, you win. There is no other way to win. There is no other goal. Ultimately, there is only the act of gaining a controlling interest in Europe.
You can earn territories through diplomacy, and you can snatch territories away from the minor powers, who will be helpless after history has progressed (i.e. given some nations the really good artillery that decides battles). But what will always eventually happen is that you must go to war with the other global superpowers, on their own turf, to seize enough of the Old World to win. Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, and Denmark are minor powers who don’t stand a chance. Why? Glad you asked, Imperialism II says. Because they didn’t go overseas. There is no way to win the game of imperialism or the game of Imperialism II without partaking of the New World’s riches. The only eligible players are the great powers who drank deeply from America to enrich themselves. Namely, England, France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden.
(Yes, Sweden. I had no idea Sweden’s overseas adventures belonged alongside those of England, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from years of playing Paradox’s historical games, it’s never to underestimate Sweden’s capacity for historical badassery.)
So as you might have already guessed from the name of the game, if not the picture of the scowling conquistador on the box, you can’t just stay at home. Besides, that would be boring. So you send out wooden ships until they bump into previously undiscovered lands, at which point you send explorers ashore to look for valuable goods unavailable in Europe. Sugar, tobacco, furs. Spice, silver, gold, gems, diamonds. Mountains rich with copper, tin, and iron ore you previously had to buy from your stingy neighbors.
Land your army to call dibbs on the good parts. Or partner with the people who already live there and develop it for them, which is another way of calling dibbs. Here, let me. Either way, it will be yours. Now the New World enriches you in powerful new ways, affording your people new prosperities, more powerful armies, bigger navies, more money for more advanced technology. You drink the New World up, scooting out of the way the people you find. You were here first? How nice. Step aside, son, you’re bothering me.
You might think the complete lack of pushback from the native populations is an oversight in Imperialism II. Shouldn’t they fight for their land? Shouldn’t they rebel? Shouldn’t they sometimes attack your colonists? You can ask yourself the same questions reading about actual imperialism. Uprisings were rare and ineffectual. Europe and her ships and horses and firepower won the realworld game of civilization handily. Part of the sick fascination I feel playing Imperialism II, which plays on a scale too large for tactical concepts like raiding and colonial outposts, is how matter-of-factly the natives are swept aside and even wiped out. There goes the last scrap of Iroquois land because I want to make sure I control that buffer zone between my sugar plantations and France’s holdings. There go the Iroquois as a political entity, without even a message in the turn log. Their name is wiped off the map. They are no longer — and arguably never were — players in the game of imperialism. Their name on the map was as meaningless as whether a given square in chess is black or white.
In some ways, Imperialism II isn’t realistic because it’s not trying to be. The minor powers in Europe exist only as spoils for the Great Powers. You probably won’t directly attack the main players like France or England until late in the game. Until then, you can nibble away at minor powers like Denmark and Scotland. But in the actual time period, some of Europe’s most formidable powers didn’t go abroad, or did so half-heartedly. Germany stayed home, hunkered down, and consolidated a bunch of smaller countries, all without the benefit of a meaningful colonial effort. France was always a major player in Europe without caring much for colonial development. The Ottoman Empire never reached America and didn’t seem to suffer for it. There were other ways for European powers to play and even win the game of civilization.
But Imperialism II isn’t about those other ways, so it represents Germany as a minor power who can not only never win, but who can’t even play. If France proceeds with an actual French disregard for her overseas holdings, she will quickly fall behind and eventually lose. The Ottomans, a significant factor on the east side of Europe and along her Mediterranean underbelly, aren’t even in this game. Imperialism II is not realistic.
Instead, Imperialism II is a historical opinion about how the Old World used the New World to fuel its wars at home, to drive technological advancement, to appease hungrier and more enlightened populations with new luxuries, to wean itself off dependence on its neighbors. The New World was a way around the interdependencies that prevented war at home. If Spain doesn’t need English wool because it has Virginia cotton, it can fight England freely. If I’m getting iron ore from the Andes, I sure don’t need to keep propping up Switzerland to buy iron ore from her. The New World gave Europe the freedom to eventually destroy herself.
Sid Meier’s Civilization is a gameplay system, based loosely on historical realities, but based first and foremost on the demands of gameplay. It’s no surprise the Civilization system has informed so many strategy games since then. It is a broad and effective formula that can be adapted to all sort of settings. In fact, Brian Reynolds’ Colonization is an adaptation of Civilization to the same subject matter as the Imperialism games, with its own opinions about that time in history (it imagines colonialism as an exercise in killing your parents). But Imperialism II is a historical opinion through and through, designed around a specific concept of what happened, completely in service of that model, even when that model doesn’t apply. The developers didn’t care about the local German empire, France’s imperial nonchalance, or the threat of the Ottomans. They made an interactive editorial about history that puts simulation second, which is the complete inversion of Paradox’s dispassionate math-based historical spreadsheets. For this reason, for its canny insistence on expressing an opinion that doesn’t easily translate to other games, Imperialism II is one of my favorite strategy games.
So that’s one reason, and it’s a big one. Here are nine other things that come together to make Imperialism II my favorite strategy game.
9) Run away!
The combat model is simple, but not simplistic. When you send your precious units into battle — every one of them matters, which is why you won’t catch me wasting my population on peasant levies — you play a tactical chess-like match. Move, attack, move, attack, move, attack. It’ll look familiar if you’ve ever played a game with tactical combat. And it’s all very straight-up mathy, without special rules for cavalry or artillery or formations or even flanking. Units just have an attack strength, defense strength, range of attack, and movement value. Different units favor different stats. Infantry have higher defense values, artillery has greater ranges, cavalry moves faster. Pretty straightforward stuff.
But the actual fighting involves separate values for health and morale. When morale depletes, the unit just runs for the exit on its side of the map. Often, a unit will retreat before it can be killed, which is a rare concept in simple combat systems. But combat in this era rarely destroyed entire armies. Instead, it was about seizing territory and driving the other guy away. Imperialism II’s tactical combat allows for battles where no one takes any losses (except the money the attacker spent to launch the attack). In fact, when you’re expanding your holdings in the New World, you’ll fight battles specifically to kill the native defenders instead of just drive them away. Because if they escape, they’ll just run to a neighboring province and you’ll have to fight them again when you attack that province. Conquest isn’t pretty.
And speaking of not pretty, artillery in Imperialism II is downright “this game is broken!” brutal. When you factor in the rules for opportunity fire — did I mention there’s opportunity fire? — battles are often a matter of “he who has the best ranged units wins”. It’s one thing to beat up on the native defenders. It’s something else entirely to try to take a fort with gun emplacements. Rarely has the term cannon fodder been so literal. And the AI knows it. It’s so encouraging to play a game in which the tactical AI not only knows how to defend a fort, but how to besiege one.
8) Magic armies are magic for a reason
Simplified army management isn’t cheating. The naval model in Imperialism II is sometimes criticized for how how you can “teleport” your armies overseas. But this is a misrepresentation of how the game models the scope of naval warfare in that era. It didn’t often (ever?) happen that an entire nation’s army was lost at sea because their transports were ambushed. Naval warfare was more about interrupting the flow of goods and therefore a nation’s economy. But when it comes to moving your land army around, as long as you control a substantial patch of land on a continent, it’s relatively easy to get your army there. At which point you can move out and expand your holdings.
Naval landings on hostile territory, however, are a whole other ball of wax. These sorts of risky amphibious invasions don’t involve any “teleporting”. You have to control the seas for a turn to establish a landing, at which point you can then move in a number of troops based on the controlling ships’ cargo capacity. A superior hostile navy can interdict an invasion by sea, but it can’t shut down troop movements around colonial holdings, and it’s never going to drop a nation’s entire army into the ocean. That’s a historical limitation of naval warfare. It’s not teleporting.
A more relevant complaint about Imperialism II is the absence of terrain considerations and supply lines. Armies can just as easily attack into mountains as plains. Imperialism II does nothing to evoke the images from Aguirre: Wrath of God of conquistadors dragging cannons through the jungle. It furthermore lets an army fight far from home, and even cut off from any supply source, without penalty. If you’re going to complain about abstractions in Imperialism II, it’s mystifying to me that you’d harp on teleporting armies instead of armies dancing effortlessly across mountain ranges and going unfed for years at a time. Either way, it all comes down to Imperialism II being an opinion about history and not a simulation. I consider this a strength rather than a weakness.
7) Keep your eyes on the prize
The victory requirement is singular and simple. You only ever win by controlling a certain number of territories in the Old World. The New World is your means to do this, but the ultimate goal is the Old World. You might earn considerable wealth from your tobacco plantations and gold mines, and you might rule vast swathes of overseas territory, and you might even have the mightiest navy ever seen. But until you translate your power into military force applied against the other Great Powers in Europe, you cannot win the game. There will be no culture victory, no economic victory, no wonder victory, and no space race. Imperialism II is a game about ruling Europe. Period.
6) Welcome to Gotterdammerung
The diplomacy model is based on a latticework of alliances, with a heavy emphasis on courting the minor nations of Europe and sometimes even tribes in the New World. It is mostly above board, with little of the traditional “black box” inscrutability of other games with diplomacy. Early on, there will be occasional spats, border skirmishes, and even bona fide wars. But it’s relatively easy to stay out of wars until you’re ready to fight (note that this can be a facet of the difficulty settings). However, what will eventually happen is an epic collapse in which everyone World Wars everyone else. At this point, colonial holdings are up for grabs and the New World presents itself as an entirely new set of opportunities, this time with plantations already build on the fields of sugar cane and mines already sunk into the veins of gold. Your own holdings will look just as attractive as everyone else’s. You did build forts, didn’t you? Because territories will change hands quickly, and borders will be redrawn several times over. During the chaos of the endgame, war is as fast and dramatic in the New World as it is ponderous and incremental in the Old World. Diplomacy in Imperialism II is a way to position yourself for this inevitable apocalyptic showdown.
In an article he wrote for Computer Games Magazine, my colleague Bruce Geryk describes Imperialism II as “a narrative of hours spent peering silently at a dozen spreadsheets adorned with 19th-century icons and relationship grids, followed by a furious tantrum”. A furious tantrum is a good way to put the action, but in the larger scheme of things, I like to think of it as a sort of judgment day. One of the historical opinions I really appreciate in games about this era is that there will be an accounting. After centuries of powerful nations with ships and guns sailing around the world doing whatever the fuck they wanted to do, something has to give. Whether it’s Emancipation, or World War I, or just a revolution, the terrible slow pendulum of history is going to swing in the other direction and smack someone. In Imperialism II, this is the inevitable showdown among the Great Powers. In Brian Reynold’s Colonization, this is the do-or-die war of independence from the oppressive Mother Country. In Paradox’s finest and most opinionated game, Victoria 2, this is the groundswell of demands from the masses, who expect social reforms and the rule of law and their share of the prosperity they helped create for their rulers. Slavery and emancipation, oppression and revolution, prosperity and enlightenment. They’re all points on a turning wheel. Or, to put it another way, karma’s a bitch and so is history.
5) Colonial Tycoon
I love the way you develop a transportation network in Imperialism II, with carefully plotted roads leading to ports leading to transport fleets leading to more roads winding up into the silver mines in the mountains and taking an occasional detour for spice and tobacco. It’s exploration and development at its best, with points that matter more than other points, brimming with gameplay and therefore personality. It’s an infrastructure lover’s delight. Eventually you upgrade your transportation network, which means you must invest in increasing your harvesting power to feed the network. Cotton gins, seed drills, circular saws, amalgamation techniques. And finally the railroads. Oh, those surging veins of your industrial evolution, drinking deep from the land, gulping greedily from your farms, ranches, mines, and plantations. Imperialism II is also my favorite train game.
4) What a capital idea!
Endgame complexity is pretty much how strategy games work. As you get more powerful, you have more stuff to manage. As you have more stuff to manage, a game necessarily gets more complex. There’s no way around it. If you can’t handle it, go play checkers.
I have only ever played one strategy game — Imperialism II, of course — that almost entirely sidesteps endgame complexity. Because Imperialism II models an Old World capital as the hub into which goods flow, you manage your economy from one screen. You will send out builders to upgrade resources and engineers to lay down your transportation network, so it’s not entirely divorced from what some consider micromanagement. But the actual flow of goods, the actual economic management, the spending of resources on armies and luxuries and workers, the balancing and tuning and commerce of your empire, is all done in one place. All the things you do on every city screen in Civilization are done on one city screen in Imperialism II. And that’s the point. Paris, London, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Madrid, and Lisbon are literally the focus of this era. They are the source of all projected power, the goal of all consumed goods, the watchtowers that look out over the seas, the jostling centers of the colonial universe. This is where you sit. This is where you rule the world.
3) It’s the population, stupid
The foundation of the economy, even before you get down to the nitty-gritty of how much coal you need for steel production, is the population model. Even as you spread out into the world, population management doesn’t sprawl, Civilization style. Like the rest of the economy, it sits in one city, where you will balance population and food production. You need people for your industry and your military, but because people eat, all of them need to be fed. Imperialism II still has its share of contrivances. Every even point of labor you recruit is a vegetarian, eating only grain, and every odd point of labor is a carnivore, eating only meat. If you don’t give the richest of the rich their furry hats, they will stay home and sulk, depressing your labor force considerably. Your spy network and infrastructure and explorer parties depend almost entirely on how much raw timber you can spare to make paper. Bureaucracy likes writing stuff down.
But it’s never been so simple to decide whether to add a point of population and, if so, how to feed it. In so many areas, but particularly in its population model, Imperialism II reminds me of the sorts of Euro-boardgames that traffic in discrete points instead of amassed sums. You might as well be picking up little colored cubes, one at a time. The economy and the population model in Imperialism II is about abstraction and elegance, not number crunching.
2) 3 swamps, 2 hills, and 1 mountain left
For such an old game, Imperialism II is surprisingly current in terms of interface and documentation. It doesn’t have tooltips, but it has ample contextual help by either clicking on a consistently displayed question mark or shift-clicking directly on something you want to know about. It also has a really good printed manual since it comes from a time before the Death of Manuals. You’ll find the usual explanations for how you should do things, but they’re often followed by explanation about why you should do things. There’s even a step-by-step breakdown of the best way to siege a fort, complete with a checklist of the specific units you should have in your attacking force. And I still marvel at some of the fantastic interface touches, like the zoomed out map highlighting every sea a ship can reach or each tile clearly listing its transport capacity. Every explorer tells you exactly how many unexplored tiles there are of every terrain type. Every builder tells you exactly how many undeveloped resources there are of every type. As if that weren’t enough, you can click on these displays to cycle through all the relevant tiles.
Even the messages before turns are a helpful part of the interface. Because this is a game where every player submits his orders and then the orders are all resolved simultaneously, there’s a lot of guesswork anticipating where enemy armies will go. So when war breaks out, the messages tell you where you have enemy troops adjacent to your borders. What an incredibly helpful touch. Civilization IV has a more powerful, thorough, and flexible interface because it needs it. Imperialism II has a powerful interface and it arguably doesn’t even need it.
1) History doesn’t repeat itself
The maps of Europe and the New World are randomly generated every time you play, as is the distribution of resources. But there are some consistent elements. It might just be confirmation bias on my part, but it feels like I mostly find gold among the Aztecs and Incas (the diamonds are anyone’s guess). The nations have historical personas that lead to English naval power, Spanish ruthlessness against the natives, and Dutch trading prowess, for example. But the random map layouts are an important part of recreating the sense of exploration and discovery. As much as I enjoyed Paradox’s Europa Universalis series, it’s mind boggling to me that it took them fourteen years — fourteen years! — to add randomly generated maps. A map of the New World is not a new world. Imperialism II gets this right with its canny combination of historical familiarity and geographical randomness.
Imperialism II is available for $5.99 from Good Old Games.