Blood and Iron and Greed, Oh My!
This is a complicated game. Imperialism by SSI intends to simulate, as near as possible, the general managing of a 19th century European-type nation. The player has two choices in this regard, to either allow the game to construct a fictional world with random countries, or to choose pre-existing scenarios of Great Power Europe at three points in the 1800's. Play is turn-based, with each turn encompassing a specific season of the year, from Spring to Winter.
One's goal is simply to become the dominant power on the globe, through a majority vote of the continent's Council of Governors, each of which controls a specific province of a certain country. The way to do this is to use your nation to exert political control over as many provinces as possible, and that can be done by economic domination or by military conquest.
However, before you can begin to act offensively, you must insure that everything at home is okay. Otherwise, your economy will go under and the bank president will foreclose on your national assets and appoint his nephew as head of the country. Trust me, this is how I lost the scenario I was working on. As a responsible and omnipotent leader, you are in charge of not only diplomacy, but also trade, and the construction of new industries and networks of communications.
The game map where it all happens is exquisite. Cities and major landforms are rendered both beautifully and realistically. One can use the mouse cursor and scan across Europe from Lisbon to Moscow, finding the major rivers, mountain ranges, and plains. Areas of production, such as ranches, mines, farms, and depots are also drawn in, but are done to seem not so much like specific game units, but elements of the world in which they are in.
To exploit these resources, each nation has manpower units that it can place in these areas and either mine for gold, raise cattle, harvest agricultural products, or build railroad tracks. Each province is also garrisoned by militia and occasionally army units that can be mobilized and sent on foreign expeditions. All of these functions are point-and-click capable, with pop-up menus that give a variety of choices and preferences as to the selected unit's capabilities.
After resources have been mobilized, the next step is to allocate on the trade market what products will be sold or bought from the rest of the continent. With enough money, you can invest in new technologies or upgrade the existing industry to produce more, and thus gain more profits. These can be invested, then, into the acquisition of foreign property, overseas colonies, or a large army that can conquer your imperial opponents.
This game can be really fun on a military level. Any army can raid and capture any country's province at any point, so long as a declaration of war has been made, and the invading army is strong enough to triumph. For instance, I was playing Russia in the 1820 scenario. Mobilizing my army, I quickly declared war on the doddering old Ottoman Empire and invaded through Turkish Moldavia. Since the campaigns are not really tests of military strategy (one can choose to let the game fight the one battle per province), you can literally roll right through a nation. It was like football; here's Russia with the ball, she charges right through the Turkish line and keeps going, she's at the Moldavia, the Bukovina, Bucharest, Bulgaria, Salonika, TOUCHDOWN! Constantinople!!
However, this is not a military game, it is one that relies almost more on economics and diplomacy than anything else. Alliances should be used, as well as non-aggression pacts and embassies. As was said before, this is a complicated game. There are plenty of warnings if something goes wrong, but the most minor setback can snowball, especially if an ally decides to launch a surprise attack during a time when the economy is going through a recession and it is impossible to purchase a strong army or navy.
I want to stay away from saying that this game is too big or too detailed. Those things only add to the overall beauty of the game, but any players should be warned, this is not a quick diplomacy game of conquest and colonies, nor is it a Civilization rip-off. Its only drawback is the fact that you simply cannot focus solely on one, favorite aspect of the game to the detriment of the others. Even if one fancies his or herself the next Bismarck, the player still needs to be Adam Smith as well. Likewise, you cannot simply win by building up your nation into the most prosperous country on the planet. You still need a strong and aggressive foreign policy.
Nevertheless, I personally would have liked to see a function that allows the player to let the computer manage a few things, at very least the product table in the world trade market. There is also no scenario editor, which might have been a welcome addition.
The only other drawback is the tactical battle sequence. This is not particularly easy or realistic, simply being a simulation of one battle for one province. It looks more like a paintball tournament at a local park than a 19th century battle, but then again, it seems to be far from the overall scope of the game. Turn the sequence off, and the game should not lose any of its appeal.
Otherwise, this remains a rather enjoyable game from SSI, though it may not appeal to the wide variety of gamers who want to build a civilization or launch Warcraft II style attacks on each other. However, if you are a person that is fascinated with all elements of 19th century European imperialism, and want to learn a few things as to how it was done, and of course have a good time doing it, then here you are. One thing to mention, if you do become attached to this game, it becomes very addicting and the hours will fly by.