I don’t necessarily believe in us all having past lives – but, if it’s true, I may have been a Roman. I have always felt a pull towards the Roman empire, problematic though elements of it might have been. The strength of its armies, its grandiose architecture, its push for betterment through technology, and a general desire to value and improve all areas of civilization always stuck with me.
My interest also drew me towards 4x strategy games. Rome is often used as a key player in games like Civilization, or as a backdrop, such as in Jon Shafer’s At the Gates, and that appealed to me. Now, Kubat Software has decided that Rome is the perfect setting to start a new franchise. Aggressors: Ancient Rome is the first game in that new endeavor.
Inspiration in all the right places
AAR has been in some form of development since the mid-’90s, when the developer, Pavel Kubat, intended it to be a board game set in World War II. It didn’t work quite as well as he hoped — apparently a game could last days — but the mechanics of the idea stayed in his mind. He started digitally coding the rules, turning his passion project into a full time job.
And Kubat truly is passionate about this game; development would not have lasted this long without it. In the developer diary, he talks about being inspired by other strategy games, such as Civilization IV and Colonization. This is no clearer than in the art style, as AAR would not look out of place if it had been released in the mid-2000s.
In fact, on first inspection, AAR doesn’t seem particularly special or different from its predecessors. Civilization clearly influenced the gameplay significantly, and that’s not a bad thing. You start your empire at the grass roots and look to dominate the world over the length of an age. Conquest is the obvious and most used method, but other ways exist. Different tiles on the map provide resources, which you can use to develop and sustain your empire. Cities produce units that can be used for fighting, cultivating land or building … uh, buildings.
So far, so familiar.
Adding some spice into the mix
But Kubat has also added some new mechanics into the gameplay that may not be groundbreaking, but are certainly an advancement on how other 4x strategy games require you to manage your empire.
For example, unit morale affects how well it fights. Thus, battles and wars feel more like campaigns needing management than races to build the most advanced soldiers. It is quite possible for a lesser unit to defeat a modern force in the right circumstances.
Units and cities also have loyalty ratings. If too low, they may seek out a new ruler and claim independence from your empire. Therefore, keeping a close eye on the needs and wants of the people are important. As are the political regime you are using and the prioritization of your building queue.
Indeed, resource management is key and each of 10 different resource types need to be secured or traded in order to survive and thrive. This will also affect the timing at which you build new units and cities to ensure that you stay solvent. Slipping into the red in even one resource can cripple your empire.
And where other games in this genre may make you feel all builds are possible, AAR reminds you that resources are king. More than once I built a new unit only to realize I had exhausted a resource and had no way to replenish it.
Where the magic happens
But it is not in AAR’s aesthetics or in a particular aspect of its gameplay that makes this game work as well as it does. Individually, each aspect of this game has been done before and, arguably, has been done better. Together, though, each component adds up to something greater than its parts.
It isn’t some divine intervention or inspiration that has made this happen, but pacing. Pacing in a 4x game is supremely important. This is not a genre for mad dashing your way through. This type of game should take time, but not too much. You need to feel that your actions have weight and that you have earned your achievements. Yet it can’t be a grind. AAR understands that better than any other 4x game I have played, and I include Civilization on that list.
Whether it is the need to consider each action for its effect on resource levels, the political decisions on regime type or birth rate policies, or the increased strategy involved in military campaigns, AAR truly makes you feel you are ruling a fledgling empire. But you don’t feel too bombarded either.
This game is deep and controlled and considered. Every element has been chosen for a reason and implemented with care. The result: a game that makes you learn through doing, but comes with a 247-page manual. This combination works – setting you loose on a world but with a support mechanism in place. The pacing is key.
Nobody is perfect
AAR does have issues that grate over time, however. The tech tree is rather linear. Each country has its own path, but each discovery happens in roughly the same order. You can’t forgo, say, navigation or galleys to purely focus on land military units. Perhaps then I should not have been given the choice. Instead, the game might have flowed better if I had just been given a new technology at the appropriate time.
Also, workers, as opposed to military units, appear to be pretty much restricted to building farms, roads and cities. Some additional options, such as the ability to build tree farms or hunting lodges in forests, could make these units more interesting. Such options could also allow for greater customization in the way I wish my empire to grow. For example, hill landscapes appear to be just about useless, except for as a forest. But perhaps sheep farms could be cultivated? Otherwise, animals roaming around have little to no affect on the map.
Perhaps I’m not far enough into the game to understand the full potential of these units or landscape tiles. But if these kinds of options are available later, things would appear a bit backward in this world. Surely humans were farming animals long before we were using advanced irrigation techniques?
However, these are reasonably minor issues that I am sure could be modded away or changed for future titles.
For the glory of Rome
Despite its flaws, AAR is a really good game.
You might not be wowed by your immediate impressions, but the intangible details make this game. It is not a masterpiece but it doesn’t need to be. Kubat Software has shown that it understands what makes a 4x strategy game work and cares about how you feel while playing it. They understand that you want to feel like you built an empire without all the blood, sweat and tears that were involved in the real world.
I grew up interested in and feeling a connection with Rome and this blossomed into a love of 4x strategy games. AAR has reignited that and reminded me of my youth and, lets be honest, adulthood in front of a screen trying to emulate that most powerful of empires. Because of that, I hope there is more to come from Kubat and the Aggressors franchise. AAR was built as a starting spot. It was designed to coalesce a community and a following that cares about it — that loves it. And I am starting to fall.
*The Mommy Gamers received a copy of the game for review purposes. This article also includes an affiliate link.