I’ve written already about how playing as Austria in Europa Universalis IV successfully addresses the recurring problem of the late game in strategy and grand strategy games. That is specifically the phase of the game where you have won and yet it goes on. In Civilization V, you might reach the year 1800, find you’re vastly ahead of the AI opponents and simultaneously realise it’ll take 100 more turns to finally finish that Conquest or Science victory. In Europa Universalis IV, you might beat France in a major war and realise that all it takes to gobble up the whole continent is a series of tedious, easy conflicts. In Total War games, where the objective is to conquer a quota of provinces, usually being merely half-way to this quota is enough to be larger and stronger than all your rivals. Rome: Total War is interested in solving this problem and while it’s not wholly successful, it does mitigate the tedium which suffuses so much of the late game in strategy and grand strategy. By dividing the game into two phases, one in which you expand for the glory of the Roman Republic and another which sets you against other Roman factions and the Senate itself in your quest to become emperor, Rome: Total War makes victory difficult. It forces you to recontextualise your conquests and think again about what territory is ‘safe.’ It forces you to zoom out from small-scale, distant wars to focus on a larger conflict. Rome: Total War’s late game challenges you, a phrase we can rarely use honestly about this phase in these games.
In Rome: Total War, ‘Rome’ is divided into four factions. Three prominent families each control their own territory in southern Italy and the Roman Senate is considered a separate political entity, occupying Rome itself. You play one of the three families, and your choice determines to a large extent how you’ll expand and in what directions. The House of Julii have the most northerly Italian territory and are therefore encouraged to move toward Gaul. Scipii occupy an eastern province below Rome and one third of Sicily, thereby bringing them into conflict with the owners of the other parts: the Greek Cities and Carthage. Brutii occupy the parts of Italy closest to Greece, making control of the Aegean Sea their probable objective. Julli will need a large army to make their way into northern Italy and contend with the Gallic tribes, but not much of a navy. For Scipii, facing mighty Carthage in North Africa and Spain, naval superiority is essential. Brutii will need some navy to move into Greece and capture its surrounding islands, but their position makes them the most versatile. The Senate are not playable, but they do maintain a very large army in Rome and consequentially the player (who begins with a much smaller army) has an easy visual indication of their strength and importance.
For most of the game, their function is to provide missions for the player. These are easily mocked as arbitrary: the Senate’s textbox will appear at the start of one turn, for instance, and demand you take a city belonging to a distant empire you’re not even at war with. In my recent game as Scipii they first demanded I take the south of Sicily, occupied by the Greek Cities, and the turn immediately after I succeeded they demanded I take the west and consequentially declare war on Carthage. Alright, Senate, that’s fine. They’re only two of the largest factions in the game. Don’t worry that I’ve only three provinces, I’ll get by. These missions provide rewards, but they’re tied to the mission you complete rather than chosen by the player and so your reaction can be varied. A few thousand denarii may be critical in the early game, but if you’re primarily a land power the Senate’s free ships won’t do much good.
Illogical as this may seem, however, these missions serve the game’s purpose admirably. After just a handful you have a distaste for the Senate’s requests, which seem ill-informed by the foes you’re currently fighting and reliant instead on the whims of a tiny faction. How these missions are generated remains a mystery to me but it appears wholly unconnected to what your faction is actually good at. That is, you might be told to blockade a Carthaginian port without having a navy which can compete with theirs. Moreover the time limit for missions is so short (five or ten turns) that it’s impossible to improvise an army from nothing, for instance, and take a well defended province. There will come a point in every game of Rome: Total War where your interests diverge from the Senate’s. It could be when you’ve just negotiated trade rights with a neighbour only to be told to take their settlement, or when you’re suddenly asked to reroute your armies to face a distant enemy. They might be a useful tutorial element in the early game, serving to guide you around the otherwise overwhelming map of Europe, but by the mid game they are a nuisance to be tolerated. The genius of Rome: Total War, then, is allowing you, finally, to remove that nuisance.
A civil war is bound to erupt in every game of Rome: Total War, provided you’ve played long enough. Becoming emperor and controlling fifty provinces are the conditions for victory. Even before this, though, there’s a competitive edge to your growth versus the growth of the other Roman families. You’re forced into an alliance (which can only be broken by declaring war on Rome itself and thus the other families) and often aid each other militarily, but there’s nonetheless a competition for territory. Provinces you consider core to your empire like Sardinia can be stolen early by one of the other factions and defeating an enemy in battle doesn’t necessarily guarantee control of their territory. It’s perfectly possible to fight a huge enemy army while some opportunistic force of your ‘ally’ approaches from another direction and snatches the city it was protecting. Moments like these slowly build tension, mercifully released when you can finally fight the other families and conquer the whole Italian peninsula (and beyond). Moreover, any declaration of war by any family on a foreign faction means you’re dragged to war too, and it’s delightfully aggravating. Your carefully engineered plots can be utterly ruined by some skirmish a world away. It’s a useful tool both to force the player to improvise and to make them loathe the other families. In typical Total War fashion, starting a game as any of the Roman families plays a short introductory video for that faction. They share the same warlike tone present in most introductory videos in Total War games, demonstrating contempt for your enemies and a simmering loathing of your allies. Unlike other games, though, this hatred for the enemies of Rome and especially your own internal rivals is ably supported by game mechanics.
When the player finally does have the strength to fight Rome itself it is, as I have said, a release of tension. It’s not, however, a smooth progression, but rather an exciting, jerky recontextualisation of your conquests so far. The places you assumed safest (frequently in Italy itself and bordering the other Roman families) are now the areas under threat. Your highest value provinces, likely to be those you started with, are not passive participants in your empire, supplying men and money for distant wars, they’re on the frontlines of new conflicts. Fighting Rome means taking on the combined might of the Senate and the two other families and no matter how well you’ve played to that point, it is not a trivial task. It stretches your resources as you continue to garrison rebellious and remote provinces while simultaneously moving men across Europe and North Africa to join the war. Just as you have been growing, so too have the other families and in all likelihood there’s little you can do but lose some provinces. It’s an exciting phase of the game which is happily distinct with each playthrough since no two paths of expansion will be quite the same and even the AI families will have gone their own way. Moreover, the excellent speech system which precede battles (and which not even subsequent Total War games have managed to replicate) enhance the immediacy and personality of proceedings. Your general, who always has a dynamically generated speech based on who he’s fighting, his record of wins and losses versus that faction, whether you’re attacking or defending and various other factors has brief, special lines for fighting other Romans. There is a simple pleasure in the acknowledgement that the army you’re facing was sent by the “old men of the Senate” and it’s only more delightful when it’s spoken outside the gates of Rome.
There are problems with Rome: Total War’s approach to the late game. The civil war acts more as a difficulty ‘spike’ than something continuously challenging, since you need a significant amount of provinces to begin the war which can mean a gulf between the initial difficulty and the difficulty of the civil war which, not to mention a serious lead over the other families. Much of the time between your initial weakness and your vulnerability to new, Roman attacks is filled by picking off weak enemies. Also, depending on your size when you take Rome and break the largest part of the two other families, you may have significantly more conquest to do to reach the victory quota of fifty provinces. Taking Rome will obviously be your most significant challenge. It is a natural climax to the game to be crowned emperor, and yet it doesn’t necessarily end there. This seems an oversight: it would have been more appropriate to have a quota to attack other Romans (even if it meant limiting some player freedom) so there could be a more rational endgame. As it stands, the ‘endgame’ is continuing your conquests until you reach an arbitrary number.
In a series which sometimes thoughtlessly replicates the failures of previous games, though, Rome: Total War represented a real advance and an attempt to address a serious problem with the genre. It revitalises savegames which would otherwise be nearly drained of fun and struggle. Indeed, more remarkable still is that it even achieves this in fine style with the mechanics of rebellion and transition to empire which feel appropriate to the setting and tone of the game. Becoming emperor is an achievement in Rome: Total War and the victory cinematic of your throne room, which plays at the game’s conclusion, feels wholly earned.
Note: Rome: Total War includes several non-Roman factions which I have not discussed for two reasons. First, you have to complete the game to unlock them so they’re irrelevant to the experience of most players. Second, their individual mechanics are understandably more bare-bones. Hopefully it’s not too obscure a reference to say it’s similar in scale to playing as the Green Goblin in Spider Man (the movie game) after completing it. The other factions are, in other words, a nice optional extra.