The experience of playing a grand strategy game from Swedish developer Paradox Interactive for the first time is a distinctive one.
You pick a country, civilisation or state of some kind and dive straight into a huge real-time world map where, at first, nothing much seems to be going on.
But that is only because you have no idea how to make things happen with the 20-30 mysterious icons that pepper the game's interface as Paradox provides little to no explanation about what they are.
You spend the next five to ten hours just figuring out what you can do with your controlled nation, from diplomacy to trade to war.
Only then, if you've managed to persevere, does the game start to yield something that resembles fun.
Paradox's latest game Imperator: Rome is no different in this respect, but ends up a victim of the success of its older siblings Europa Universalis: 4 (EU4) and Crusader Kings 2 (CK2).
As its name suggests, Imperator is set in the classical era, roughly dating from Rome's emergence as a republic around 500 BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 480 AD.
- Replayability value high with hundreds of nations to choose from
- Excellent warfare mechanics
- Pretty map
- Steep learning curve
- Not much to do apart from waging war, although this could change
PRICE: From $34 (PC, version tested; macOS)
GENRE: Grand strategy
Players control the destiny of their chosen nation within that span. The game lets you choose from hundreds, including Celtic tribes in Britain and larger empires like Carthage and Egypt. But well aware of Paradox's steep learning curve, I opted for Rome first.
While there is an attempt at a tutorial in Imperator, all it does is set micro-goals like 'conquer this neighbour'. I was left to figure out most of the numerous in-game mechanics on my own.
Fortunately, the game blends together some familiar elements from EU4 and CK2.
Diplomacy and building your nation's infrastructure are broadly similar to EU4, while the personality-based political system from CK2 makes an appearance.
With Rome as backdrop, it meant putting every decision I wanted to make to a vote by the Senate.
Factions vie for power and influence within the Senate, and I had to bear the balance of power in mind whenever I chose to appoint a character to a high political position.
But, in a nod to the Roman Empire's relentless expansion in the history books, these are ultimately sideshows to Imperator's main business of making war. Combat is a significant upgrade from what previously amounted to slamming tiny unit icons labelled with numbers against each other.
Terrain plays a significant role now. The beautifully detailed Alps mountains are not only for show, but actually take longer to traverse for armies as they have to navigate narrow passes.
There are also different unit types, from infantry and cavalry to the more unorthodox camel and elephant units.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could even adjust the tactics of my armies, with the unit make-up determining a particular tactic's effectiveness.
This adds a layer of scouting out a potential enemy's tactics that I hadn't seen in a Paradox grand strategy game before.
However, Imperator's strength is also its weakness, as the focus on warfare can make gameplay feel one-dimensional, without features like the colonisation mechanics of EU4 or the character drama of CK2 to offer some contrast.
There is also far less depth to playing as a tribal nation than as Rome, which leads me to wonder if, in keeping with another distinctively Paradox tradition, a paid expansion that fleshes the game out more will be released down the road.
Paradox's business model revolves around a steady stream of paid expansions that incrementally improve upon the base game of their titles. EU4 and CK2 each have had about 15 paid expansions released with more to come and are now practically different games from what they were at launch.
Imperator will likely go down the same route, but for now, it compares less favourably to its more polished predecessors.
Patience is advised while gamers wait to see what new directions Paradox intends to take with the game. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day.