Rome wasn't built in a day. Setting the vast empire's boundaries took centuries of war, and at times strong foes and political wrangling seriously threatened the burgeoning republic. In an attempt to capture these dual challenges, Pax Romana ambitiously aims to combine the sort of strategic conquest common to many games with a detailed modeling of the Roman republic's inner political workings. At its best, the political model provides some insight into the inertia that can keep a great militaristic nation from expanding and also makes for a much-deserved distraction from the task of pushing legions around the map to put down rebellions and gobble up minor nations. But as intriguing as this design concept may sound, the convoluted interface is difficult to learn and navigate, bogs the political and economic game down in details, and hardly glues the political and strategic halves of the game together. And then there are the technical glitches and poorly executed graphics to deal with. The end result falls far short of being an enjoyable game.
The box proudly declares that the game is "From the creators of Europa Universalis," and whatever the details of this connection, Pax Romana's strategic approach is undeniably inspired by Paradox's ambitious historical games. As in Europa Universalis, the map is quite large and covered with dozens and dozens of competing nations--many of which have but a territory or two and can hardly field a defensive army. Rome has just a couple of historical foes that can stand up to its legions. With the real-time engine counting the days away, you might move armies around the map, adjust administrative and economic settings, raise new forces, engage in diplomacy, and go on the campaign trail. But with Pax Romana's modeling of internal politics, just because you could theoretically make the moves to lead Rome to glory doesn't mean that you yourself will actually call the shots. Specific leaders assume responsibility for each of these tasks, and unless your faction's men are in positions of leadership, your role is limited to watching others make the big decisions.
The six political scenarios let you choose from six factions, and unless you pick the weakest of them, you're practically assured--once you figure out the system's intricacies--of regularly placing faction members in at least one of the major offices open in annual elections. But fighting other factions over the four main offices--two consul posts, an economic post, and an administrative post--is just one basic step. The consuls aren't as powerful as you'd think, and the other posts give you access to a limited number of management options, some restricted to the core territories in Italy. Many critical things can only be decided in the Senate, like declaring war and peace agreements, budgeting money to raise new legions, and setting the rules for appointing governors to outlying provinces (Northern Italy, Spain, Turkey, and others, depending on the period). Getting your faction's soldiers appointed to army commands and governorships is essential to playing an active role in Rome's expansion. The faction that controls a large army and can seize upon opportunities to declare war on neighbors can benefit greatly from successful battles, which can bring in much-needed influence and popularity points, as well as funnel gold into the faction's coffers.
There's plenty of opportunity to use gold to buy bread and entertainment for citizens, bribe senators, and generally gain influence in elections and during the senate sessions. But none of this ever guarantees that things go your way, since other factions are often roughly as powerful, and factors like influence and popularity are mostly hidden by the interface. Indeed, the fiercest fight in Pax Romana is that between you and the interface. Even after going through the tutorial that walks you through the 10 basic interface modes, it can take hours to figure out how to accomplish basic tasks. Not only does the main map have four modes and many subscreens, but nearly all the political activities take place on separate screens designed more to resemble scenes in Roman life than to maintain any continuity to the interface. Inconsequential events (like the overly frequent notification that a trade route is broken and is no longer earning your faction money) regularly pop up in front of you, but there's not so much as a pause in the game for important messages, like corruption trials that can put your leaders in prison.
If you play single-player grand strategy games because you like to take your time and think about your options, the political forum screen isn't for you. Despite the fact that strategic events happen in pausable real time, only once a year (on December 31) do you get to access a half-dozen important screens, and you're limited to digesting them in just three minutes' time. This feature might make sense for multiplayer games (which are hindered by the lack of a game browser), and it can be turned off--but only if you happen to look in the game folder for a setup application that controls those settings.
Of course, it also doesn't help that the main map graphics are poorly presented, from the lack of clear national boundaries in the military view to the jumble of information surrounding the screen that covers up critical elements. For instance, a plebs score of "-40" looks just like "40" until you mouse over it, so it's quite possible to suddenly lose the game by popular rebellion without getting much of a hint, let alone any solid data on why things turned so badly just a few years into a scenario. In challenging scenarios, money is often in short supply, but there's very little to help you find profitable trade routes or manage the infrastructure investments you've made, so administering your faction's property mostly involves pausing the game and clicking through every territory. It's possible to turn on an AI manager to alleviate such micromanagement, but there are no settings to guide it and keep it from investing all your funds and starving your electoral campaign of needed bribe money. And with your attention focused on the year-to-year political events, it's tough to figure out whether you're making any progress toward the sometimes abstract victory goals--if you even remember what goals were listed on the scenario briefing screen that only comes up before a game starts.
For variety's sake, Pax Romana provides a separate strategic mode, which effectively disables all elements of the political game and puts you completely in control. This much more conventional way of playing might have obvious appeal to Europa Universalis fans with an interest in Rome--the gameplay is nearly identical--except for the fact that the four strategic scenarios generally lack polish and expose flaws in the economic and battle engine. None of the strategic scenarios features enemies that are particularly challenging, and none lasts longer than 20 years, so there isn't the freedom to engage in long-term efforts to completely rewrite history.
The combat system in Pax Romana is a bit more involved than in Europa Universalis and features a screen where you can pick tactics and see the advantages of leader and cavalry bonuses. But the actual battles are ugly, depicting one soldier repeatedly swinging a sword at another soldier. The graphics change slightly depending on the nations involved but never give a clue that tens of thousands of troops are supposedly on the field. During this gladiatorial matchup, esoteric numbers slowly, slowly appear at the bottom of the screen that don't do anything to explain the outcome in close battles. There isn't even enough information to tell for sure if it's a glitch when your superior forces are all killed by a single opposing unit.
If the interface and various scenario glitches weren't enough of an obstacle, the overall production values also aren't attractive. The 2D graphics are far from crisp, exhibiting the dots and dithering characteristic of 256-color games from an earlier decade. The fonts in some of the text boxes are so small as to be illegible, even when you're close enough to count the pixels--adding scrolling to the boxes was too much trouble, apparently. In a touch characteristic of the overall lack of polish, terra incognita is represented as a pure white space to the north and east of Europe. No one expects much from the audio in strategy games of this type, and at least Pax Romana meets these low expectations rather competently, with suitable, repetitive sound effects and a militaristic soundtrack.
Pax Romana packs a nice concept, requiring you to manage internal politics and guide political will before engaging in wars of conquest, but the execution is flawed and utterly lacking in polish. The addition of the political layer occasionally makes for interesting minor victories, and it's mostly a convenience to turn the policing of backwater territories over to AI generals. But overall there's little reward for all the indirect management you have to deal with, and the terrible interface sabotages the whole affair.