An RPG that has you leading armies against King Mithridates one moment and trading legal arguments with Cicero on the floor of the Roman senate the next is like catnip for a history fan like myself. I don’t tend to root for the Romans, but the appropriately challenging Expeditions: Rome doesn’t necessarily either. It’s a well-written, nuanced depiction of a tumultuous era populated by many complex figures and very few real “good guys.” It manages to capture so much of the spirit that has made the Late Republic fascinating to us for thousands of years, even if it does play fast and loose with some historical details.
With three acts that can each break 20 hours depending on how meticulous you want to be, Expeditions: Rome has a lot to sink your gladius into. Sometimes too much. It layers on so many ways to customize your Praetorian Guard, used in turn-based tactical battles, and legions, used in a semi-random mass combat system where you choose commanders and tactics to influence the outcome. You can craft single-use battle consumables and tactics cards, but there’s also traditional RPG loot, gear customization, and tactical skills to level up. Many of the army stats aren’t ever actually explained either – for example, Legion Experience says it makes you fight better, but doesn’t go into more detail than that, and I would often lose a bunch for no discernible reason even in a battle where I didn’t take many casualties. The tooltips aren’t very helpful and none of the in-game tutorials do much better.
When I wasn’t sorting through piles of mostly identical armor or trying to puzzle out how mass combat even works, though, I was generally having a great time. The tactical battles are a real highlight, presenting a significant challenge even on the default difficulty with lots of room to turn a disastrous situation into a runaway victory with clever planning and using the four character classes in unison. Shielded Principes can deflect any ranged attacks from the front while spear-wielding Triarii attack over their shoulders from the second row and nimble Velites outflank and lay down the damage. The huge variety of scenarios, including epic, multi-stage sieges where injuries and losses carry over from one map to the next, meant I never felt bored or like any given battle was a simple clean-up operation. Some maps can even be completed without fighting if you’re clever about it. I finished one in which I had to steal an Olympic trophy in two turns simply by stacking speed buffs on my fastest archer and treating it like a rushing play in a football game.
I wish the mass combat was as engrossing. There is plenty you can do to increase your chances of winning, like picking the right commanders, building bathhouses in your camp to raise morale, and best of all, drawing tactics cards to respond to situations that come up dynamically as the clash progresses. But in-between making these choices, you’ll simply see icons wiggle around and casualty numbers be applied to either side based on some kind of hidden dice rolls that I still didn’t really understand even 60 hours deep. Why does my side sometimes get handed twice as many attrition events even when we have overwhelming numerical superiority and a commander who specializes in logistics? I was satisfied by the number of levers I could pull to influence things, but that doesn’t change how frustrating it is to have no concrete understanding of how this system functions under the hood.
Screens – Expeditions Rome
Conquering first Asia Minor, then North Africa, and finally Gaul is a rousing adventure though, with plenty of exciting twists and turns to experience. Almost all of the great figures of the era, from Caesar to Pompey to Cato, make grand appearances, and you get to experience the city of Rome itself in all its colorful antique glory. It’s one of the best historical playgrounds outside of Assassin’s Creed. And while I wouldn’t call it slavishly loyal to the sources, it goes out of its way to get a lot of small details right, including the pronunciation of classical Latin.
During the campaign, you’ll have to manage considerations like keeping troop morale high even when you might need to ask them to do something very risky because it simply needs to be done. Interesting random events will also pop up as you explore – I particularly liked one where I found a village of women whose husbands had been killed by Mithridates and was able to arm them to harass his forces, which came in handy later. Various centurions will react positively or negatively to your choices, which can be stoic, warlike, merciful, or hedonistic. Many of the decisions before you are not simple A or B dialogue choices, and almost none of them have an obvious right and wrong answer. The voice acting throughout is excellent, too, with a historically accurate diverse cast including a Mauretanian ex-gladiator, an aged Greek warrior-turned-philosopher, and yes, even Caesar himself. Each of them is complex, with a fascinating backstory and meaningful character development.