Paradox can’t really be considered a ‘house name’ in computer war gaming anymore, although between third-party projects like Steel Division, BattleTech and their hardcore grand-strategy games, there’s still plenty for grogs to enjoy. Their internal titles particularly do an admirable job at portraying military challenges at the theatre and strategic levels.

This varies from game-to-game of course; Crusader Kings 2 is all about managing different personalities and the issues of collective action in early medieval warfare. Hearts of Iron 4 is all about the economic and logistical planning of large-scale wars, as well a nation’s ability to rapidly adapt/advance technology and doctrine to meet one’s needs. Europa Universalis 4 has developed a simple yet robust war-game element that has been fleshed out via DLC which focuses on national will, controlling key objectives and not over-reaching. Stellaris is an outlier, it’s sci-fi setting and specific game design imposing unique challenges on waging war.

Imperator: Rome is Paradox’s next and newest grand-strategy experience, and it takes the action to the ancient world and the rise of the Roman Republic. It’s got a lot of different facets to it: economic and trade, politics and diplomacy, the management of population… but surprisingly, it has an unexpectedly deep and tactical warfare component that may help transform it into the most compelling grand-strategy game of the bunch.

Our sister website Strategy Gamer has posted a detailed breakdown of the game’s feature, including warfare, but essentially the salient points are:

  • Armies are composed of regiments, each numbering 1,000 men.
  • Regiments can be of several different types: Heavy Infantry, Cavalry, Chariots etc…
  • Each regiment type has strong/weak modifiers against other regiment types.
  • You can set both an offensive and defensive stance.
  • You can set which units you’d prefer to attack first, second and then on the flanks (as well as designating flank size).

Essentially there is a subtle relationship between an army’s unit composition, the choices you make in terms of ‘preferred’ units and the stances you set. Stances only effect other stances in the sense that some get a bonus when fighting others. It’s a ‘soft’ counter effect and units work the same way. Heavy Cavalry, for example, gets at least a 10% boost vs everything bar Heavy Infantry and elephants (which they get a negative penalty) and other Heavy Cav, which is neutral.

Depending on the situation, at any given moment you may need to not only change your army’s composition, but also its’ unit behaviours and stances. Admittedly, composition is hard to change on the fly, but at the time of writing stances and attack orders are very flexible. In terms of intelligence you can at least see what the enemy’s army composition is, as well as their general stats.

But it still allows for a lot of operational flexibility. The yokels all using archers? Bring heavy cav. Too much cav? Bring Heavy infantry. You can never see what stance an enemy army is using unless you’re in battle with it (and it can change), but there are intuitive choices you can make and strategies to employ, like sending in a bait army and following up with a real army and setting the stance when you see what the enemy has. Also, provided you have an all-rounder army, seeing the enemy’s composition will allow you to set your attack order to try and leverage which units you think they are likely to attack with themselves.

Even Hearts of Iron lacks features that allow this kind of responsive, nearly tactical interaction between a player and his own forces. There’s an exercise in composing divisions for specific areas, fronts or roles, but that’s almost a step removed from the actual battle. Generals have a chance of using the ‘battle plans’ that you can unlock via tech, but you don’t yourself have input or choice as to what plans actually trigger.

Logistics also plays a very important role in a very abstract sense. Supply limits are back, but they are incredibly harsh – even at peace within your own borders, if you have too many units in one place you will slowly bleed away all your manpower. It makes you think very hard about where you campaign, what route you’ll take to get there, how to divide up your armies and even the place and time of battles. The larger nations, and nations in the heartland of Europe will have less to worry about in this area, but even Rome’s starting 15K army can only fit into one or two provinces at the game start – get lazy or try to brute force the situation, and even their reserves will drain soon enough. Innovations (tech) and trade goods can help with supply limits, although it’s not clear whether it’s a global buff or just making things easier within your borders.

And all this covers the mere act of fighting in the game – there’s plenty of other systems that feed into the military side of things as well. Innovations (the game’s tech), allow a player to incrementally and subtly improve their military might bit by bit – early innovations revolve around sieging (although assaulting Level 1 forts at least is far, far easier than in EU4), but you can end up getting improvements across a wide range of areas: discipline, supply limits, etc…

Each primary culture-type also gets its own ‘Military Tradition’ tree; three column representing key pillars to that culture’s military identity, allowing you to focus and customize your armies in different ways. It’s fairly linear – you have to go down a column bit by bit to unlock the better stuff, which naturally mean you will only see so much over the course of the game. Still, it can allow for some variety within a national stereotype.

All this comes together to form an deceptively subtle warfare system that can really reward a player for paying attention and learning the operational detail. Through several test campaigns (each lasting no more than a couple of years of in-game time), I was completely hooked on learning Imperator’s own art of war. As the Saxons, I favored lighter raiding armies as that’s where the military traditions mainly focused, but noticing my local rivals all did the same, I made sure to have a core of (expensive) heavy cavalry to decimate their lighter troops.

Supply limits are brutal in the less “civilized” parts of the world, which further made me think about how and where to deploy my armies. More often than not I’d bring them together for one decisive victory before splitting them apart again. During my testing with the Romans, thing weren’t nearly as restrictive but there were plenty of places that couldn’t support a single large stack.

There is a danger of even the smallest of wars devolving into a micro-fest. As your empires get larger, the bigger this problem will be as well. Imperator’s solution so far is to actually try and teach the player to ‘let go’ via assignable objectives. Essentially, you can tell an entire Army what to do via broad-behaviour toggles, which will hand them over to the AI. It could be to hold an area, or attack a specific province, or to hunt and crush rebels.

Imperator is still a fair way off (it’s not even officially in beta yet) from completion, but there’s already plenty to be optimistic about. I wasn’t expecting much more than an ancient-era EU4 with some CK2 flavour thrown in, but I ended up discovering a war game beating at the very heart of Imperator – and a surprisingly deep one at that. If the team keep working on the foundations they have built, this may become a surprise hit with ancient-era grogs.