Playing with Empire

I've been playing Empire: Total War (read the review at GameSpot) since Christmas. Almost for an hour every day. No surprises therefore if I am getting bored of it now. I'm playing as Great Britain and am now master of almost all of mainland Europe and a considerable part of America. I've been putting off my invasion of India even though the year is very near 1757 (when the historical Battle of Plassey happened) but I'm not sure whether it is because I am reluctant to attack my country (in real life) or whether things haven't just been expedient enough. Britain, under me, is as strong a power on land as on the sea and I've been able to march my armies into most places so far making sea landings unnecessary. That is not to say that I neglect the naval side of things as I've got a powerful flotilla of all kinds of ships and various fleets sailing the different oceans. The navy, however, is mostly busy fighting other navies and raiding trade routes - hence, the deviation of historical fact. I've not attacked India and I'm already too bored to play any more.

Screenshot from Empire: Total War. Note how a large chunk of Europe is now part of the British Empire (the red colour on the map at the bottom-left). The open window shows the basics stats that are needed to keep the population of Dublin happy. Empire, here, is about a statistical balance and a rule-bound game. I am surprised that it is possible to think of it in these terms about real empires.

As I ponder what it would have been like if this version of alternative history were to have happened (after all talking about games and temporality is my hobbyhorse), it is hard to shake off what I know had happened in reality. Playing with Empire can be an intriguing experience for someone who comes from a country that was colonised for over 250 years. This is as much because of what the game does as because of what it misses. A few days ago, I was reading Plain Tales from the British Raj and watching an old TV serial called The Jewel in the Crown (for the uninitiated, this the name for India in the days of the Raj). These popular attempts to describe Empire are obviously depictions of the Raj as seen by coloniser - albeit sometimes in retrospect. Despite the best intentions of portraying the less visible aspects of Empire, these accounts miss the voice of the subaltern (if the subaltern can speak at all, that is). It is not surprising that games based on empire miss much of what it was all about.

Obviously, the people, both individuals and the collective social sectors, are discounted. The intricacies of commerce and of supplanting the extant system of government with a foreign one are not reflected or greatly simplified. However, I believe that even the perhaps all too simplistic presentation of the workings of Empire is nonetheless of vital importance to any reading of imperialism. Age of Empires (similar title to E.J. Hobsbawm's book) is one of the older examples of games based on Empire. There have been many similar games before it but it is one that I keep returning to since it was amongst the first computer games that I played. The demo version which had reached me through a friend ran with some hiccups on Pentium 1 pc and I was trying to build the Hittite empire in Kadesh with a god's-eye view of my part of the world. The reality of the game consisted of armies, some key buildings and resources such as stone, gold and food. With stone I could build walls to keep out enemies while food and gold gave me my army. In the first sections of the game, I needed these to keep others from destroying me while in the subsequent sections, the main purpose was to capture other people's resources and increase my line of sight over the map. What I could see also , therefore, became a source of my power in a somewhat Foucauldian sense. As the Age of Empires series matured, the armies and their capabilties grew and so did the historical grasp of the games. Soon Kadesh was replaced by William Wallace or the armies of Genghiz Khan. The importance of trade increased and the buildings grew more and more complex in their types and functions. There were civilians in the games but they served mostly to chop wood, farm and mine stone or gold. Governance was mostly a military preserve and although the clergy was an important unit, its purpose was to heal soldiers and convert enemy soldiers. Conversion was accompanied by audio sounding like incantations and happened almost like magic. Entertaining as the games were, they were like huge databases involving micromanagement. Adding bits of data and destroying others' access to the data was the strategy for winning the game. While these games highlighted the perspective of viewing empires as giant databases and large armies as the means of maintaining access to resources and land, the association of empire with the control over rock , food and stone made empire seem like a simple resource-management game. There was one clear omission: no allowance was made for dissent from those captured or converted. So in a sense, an empire once established would remain forever.

Empire: Total War is different. As a turn-based game, it lets the player see the world as a flat navigable map on which it is possible to play on the 'macro' level in deciding troop and resource deployment, researching technology and having the computer 'autoresolve' battles. Conquered sections of the map get coloured by your nations colour. Under me (well the king is George III, the game says), almost the whole of Europe is a big red blur: England has her European empire at last! Unlike in Age of Empires, this game is turn-based and therefore, there is more of a sense of time --- and of history. Armies and navies can move only a certain distance during a turn, research takes a number of turns to complete and the mood of the populace can swing after a turn. There is resistance from the colonised peoples, armies run away without fighting to the end and diplomacy can tilt fortune in your favour. An elected parliament governs England and the fortunes of its empire but beyond the traits of the individual ministers influencing some set policy outlines, the government doesn't seem to matter. Most of the game concentrates on the army and the navy. Although, there is a 'philosophy' tab in the section where the empire researches its technology, most of the philosophical advancements are detrimental to the maintenance of empire and there is little incentive to research them: I am currently having my 'gentleman scientists' research the 'light infantry doctrine'. Very sound for an aspiring imperialist. Cities and towns are important for their special attributes and are places that form the hubs of trade and popular activity. Having certain buildings, some specific levels of taxes and popular satisfaction (these being interlinked) and of course, a garrison will keep conquered areas under control. If these are altered due to other circumstances (such as having to move an army away from its barracks in the city), disruptions may occur in the empire. Other nations also constantly threaten the balance.

There are obvious areas where the developers could improve the game: diplomacy, trade and economics still remain quite rudimentary. One significant omission would be any method creating alliances whereby allies could agree to share their spoils; another one, would be ways to implement realpolitik or divide et impera and the list goes on. However, instead of what the game doesn't do, let's focus on what it does.

It creates an environment for modelling empires. As letting other nations amass resources will be detrimental to the player (as he or she will soon be attacked), the game's logic justifies empire as a necessity. Empire forms the main element of the game's title but the next part is equally important. 'Total War' is the definitive way of maintaining Empire. The two entities seem almost interdependent. As a model, although deficient, the game seems to capture some of the salient features of the mechanics of Empire. Empire depends on control of cities and towns and these are maintained by stabilising some parameters in the games database. There is a certain amount of money required to maintain control over a region and the rest goes into the imperial coffers - sometimes to be spent on creating more soldiers or technology to support more expansion. When a region is first conquered, it seems more resistant to the conquerors - over time, this resistance seems to weaken in the game. As far as research of technologies goes, it seems totally harnessed to the empire's martial needs - other developments that come with a cost to imperial stability although of huge benefits otherwise will be rejected by the ordinary player. No doubt the game does not think of how technology designed to serve Empire could be used against it - but then again, neither did the imperialist officialdom. The game also encourages the building of imperial bases or hubs and a reasonable control of the sea. Basically, the game works on the logic of the need to expand to maintain power and obviously, the need for power as the way to survive. The whole game is set on the assumption that the abovementioned parameters need to be maintained constantly and that they can be maintained by a set of corresponding processes. Empire is a rule-based system that functions only when certain assumptions are made and certain factors taken for granted. Military might is often relied on as a standing solution for all problems and nations with strong standing armies (and empires) are given nation status. Anything not corresponding to the above is legitimate territory for being carved up by empires. Finally, the game also requires a forced assumption of sameness among all the conquered nations - although there is some diversity in traits, the conquered nations are treated as one common factor. For example, anyone opposing the imperialist rule becomes a rebel and usually (not always though) has weaker forces .

As we think of Empire as a game, it might be worth thinking about whether nineteenth century politicians were also making similar assumptions and playing their politics by similar kinds of rules that we see in the empire videogames. Whether it be Metternich and Castlereagh in Europe or Richard Wellesley in India, not to mention the chain of diplomats who followed in their wake, the concept of Empire has depended on the assumptions that ignored or discounted the colonised populations except as resources and certain time-tested methods of governance supposed to be effective in administering any part of the world that came under Empire: certain practices such as the annual tour of the districts that the British developed in India were applied in very disparate conditions in regions like the Malay Peninsula. The result, obviously, was not promising but that is another story. Another key characteristic, besides the imposition of a rule-bound framework, whhich prompt a comparison of Empire with games is the competition that always marked Empire. Taking the British Empire as a case in point, we might note that its rivalry with Russia in the Eurasian region came to be known as the 'Great Game' - again, no coincidence as it was a rule-bound race for regions.

However, games are not without their problems. The essential premise of a game is that it takes place outside/alongside reality (I won't bring in the magic circle debate here but I'm sure I can make the point without it). So in playing Empire like the 'Great Game', the assumptions and the rules constantly get subverted by the diversity and the randomness of the constituents of Empire. Even in Empire: Total War , the random element constantly subverts the rule-bound strategies. As the player struggles against the game in his attempt to maintain his empire, there is a constant feeling that Empire is not as stable as it is made out to be.


  1. Wow, I've hardly played this yet - a few battles before I changed over my PC to a new OS and had other things to play (will get back to it).

    Fun overview of the game, the necessity of war and the design.

    I'm glad they concentrate on battles, armies and cleaner macro. It's Civilization Lite, or Age of Empires boiled down to large setpiece battles. It can be neither of them entirely, but does both in fun ways (I think taking some of the most fun elements of each).

    I'm actually surprised having played some fair amount of Medieval Total War 2 that they are adding more and more to the turn based part - the game started out mainly as a pure battle machine, and did it really well. The combat has improved over time, much more refined and very entertaining and dramatic, but not as much has changed as it has on the overhead stuff.

    In any case, it sounds like it was fun to conqueror most of the known world. I'll have to give this a shot again :)

    (Also, play the latest STALKER - it's excellent, I'm going to post my thoughts on the 3 games sometime).

  2. AA, I'd really love to hear your thoughts on Stalker (haven't played Call of Pripyat yet). Now to respond to Empire: Total War. I agree with the Civilization Lite + Age of Empires formula. The improvements to the turn-based part bear out the points about Empire as an institution. The battle mechanics, you are right, haven't changed much. Yes, the artillery does not exhaust its ammo as quickly as in the earlier games and cavalry needs to be used with more caution. Napoleon's dictum is very important: cavalry is less useful without artillery support whereas infantry is more self-supporting.

    Andrew, one more thing I'd like you to commment on : the naval battles. I thought it was a good concept and resonably well programmed. However, the AI for larger fleets is pretty tame. They come in single file and I line up a couple of fourth rates and second rates to stem the attack while picking off the weaker enemy ships with sixth rates and brigs. With a few enemy ships burning or retreating, I get in my fifth rate admiral's flagships and the rest of the navy into the fray. Soon I am ready for my ships to board and claim the prize.

    Looks like Activision need to up their game here. Under me, pretty much any navy would cower on its knees if it used the above set strategy..

    And mind you, empires were built on naval prowess.

  3. I recall talking to the AI developers of Empire: Total War, they patched in some improved AI but ship combat was always an issue since it was the one entirely new part of the game.

    I've not played a lot of the ship combat (I'll redo it and the tutorial I think, it was quite complicated) but it was never a strong point, I wonder if the expansion improved it (which I've not got yet).

    Also, it's a Sega published/distributed game ;) Not anything to do with Activision!

  4. I stand corrected. Sega it is!