One of the best strategy games ever made, Imperialism is the rare turn-based game that strikes a near-perfect balance between economics, diplomacy, and military action set in a fictitious 19th century world. As in the real world, success depends on the ability to manage economics -- you can’t drive a war machine for long without a robust economy under the hood. Different natural resources -- foodstuffs, iron, coal, timber and cotton -- are essential for fueling the empire, for creating the trade goods, and cannons necessary for survival. Extracting these resources and maximizing your production is as involving and as challenging as anything this side of Capitalism; and while that may not be everyone’s cup of tea (and the learning curve can be steep), Imperialism treats its subject with such care and detail that hard-core strategy gamers can’t help but be delighted. |
Your role is directing one of the world's Great Powers eager for world domination. Your goal is to build the Empire through conquest, diplomacy, and trade (which is all-important in the game, since your country does not have the resources to be self-sufficient). The world market, of course, runs on a supply and demand system: you can only buy what other countries are willing to sell you. This makes diplomacy important -- you can use treaties, trade subsidies, and outright bribery to become the favored trade partner of suppliers of important resources. Building a strong economy, with a steady supply of resources and a steady output of finished goods and troops, is the key to world domination.
Although it looks similar to Civilization, Imperialism is a very different game that relies much more on a (very elegant) system of interdependencies of the various elements. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is by means of an example. Similar to the Settler unit in Civilization, you need non-combat units to improve productivity of your nation. These include the Miner, Forester, Prospector, and so on. In order to create one of these units, you need a highly trained worker as well as a supply of paper. But trained and expert workers are at a premium, i.e. you must first educate them, which costs money and paper. To get paper you need wood, which only comes from forests. And you need a certain number of basic necessities, e.g. grain and livestock, before you can even recruit an untrained worker who can be further educated to "trained" and "expert" levels. Military units, logically, require more advanced products such as steel and armanents. These intricate interdependencies of the various components in your industrial development machine mean that an important key to success in the game is to establish a constant flow of natural resources -- timber, coal, cotton and iron -- with which to grow your economy and build your defenses. But inevitably your productivity will outstrip the resources of your own homeland, at which point you will be in danger of invasions from aggressive rivals. The scarcity of resources is thus a powerful impetus for aggressive expansion, trade, and diplomacy, which is what the middle and end game sessions of Imperialism are all about.
The diplomacy model is elegant and well-implemented. You can subsidize trade with other nations or enact boycotts against your rivals. Monetary economic aid, subsidies, embassies, and pacts enhance your diplomatic clout with other nations, who may voluntarily join your empire once they are sufficiently impressed. The international economy is also nicely handled. You can buy and sell all the natural resources, refined products, and finished goods available, including armaments. The amount of trade you can conduct is determined by the size of your merchant fleet, and to expand your merchant fleet, you must produce sailcloth and timber. To produce adequate amounts of cotton and timber, you must have a growing economy. As mentioned above, everything in the game neatly ties into everything else.
Although it sounds complex, micromanagement is kept at a minimum in the game by an elegant system: only a few finished products (clothes, tools, and furniture) represent all commerce. All production is handled on one central screen which represents your capital. So instead of city-by-city clicking every turn, an empire-wide transport network of rails and ports moves the goods into your capital, allowing you to allocate production in one fell swoop. It’s a great system, but the drawback is that newly-created military units must all originate in your capital city and march arduously to the front lines.
If there is any weakness in the game, it probably lies in combat, although arguably that is never the game's focus. Naval combat is woefully inadequate and simplistic, especially considering that ground combat utilizes an elegant (although optional) tactical combat engine that require chess-like tactics similar to Conquest of the New World. It is turn-based with each turn equaling a season so do the math. Another weakness in the game is the simplistic technology tree -- nothing like the elaborate system of Civilization. But then again, this is not so much a weakness when taking into account the fact that the game focuses on a specific period in history, and in a fictional 19th century world at that. My biggest gripe is that the game can be over all too abruptly. Imperialism is won by the vote of a council that meets every ten years and votes on the world leader. This means that you could win the game just as your empire starts to get interesting and you are plotting a devious plan to eliminate other nations. This could happen long before the 400-turn limit is reached, and the game won't let you continue after this winning event. This is a minor nitpick, but it is worth noting that you should alienate at least a few nations for as long as possible if you want to play a longer game ;)
Overall, Imperialism is a wonderful turn-based strategy game that is unique in its elegant system of interdependent, interlocking elements. Although Imperialism II expands the concept and adds many new elements, this original game is arguably a more elegant and playable masterpiece. Never will a historical strategy game be this good until Europa Universalis. A must-have, without a doubt.
Reviewed by: Underdogs