There are plenty of city-builders and build-n-conquers out there set in the classical Roman era.....No-one is writing "The Grand Age of Toledo Ohio" or "The Rise and Fall of Blackburn Lancashire", so to stand out in a fairly august crowd a new game has to not only do the old things well, but it must add something to the genre.
Classic city building is definitely this game's forte. There are homes for plebs, nicer homes for the equites and palaces for the patricians. Each requires resources to build and maintain, and certain "lifestyle" resources to keep the inmates happy and working hard in their butchers' shop or salt-mines of choice. Certain really fulfilling jobs can be done by slaves without worrying too much about their happiness or nutrition.... But to do that you'll need a pool of slaves to call upon... Or some willing neighbours just begging to have their villages sacked and pillaged! Food production, building materials, trade,entertainment and religion all weave together to form the life-blood of your city. Spheres of influence are the hearts that pump that blood, and have to be layered to create the right environments for your citizens......Forget to leave space for a "Starbucks" on the Via Flaminia and your whole edifice can come crashing down amid flaming factories and packs of incensed, rioting, Grauniad-readers!
The military option grafts onto your city just like religion or entertainment......Though usually in the rougher part of town. Recruits are drawn from the equites class and to get enough of them sometimes requires judicious re-assignment of jobs. This is aided by a very slick "Employment Exchange" in the game which quickly rebalances workplaces with available workers in range to ensure the smooth operation of your burgeoning juggernaut. New squads can be trained before being tossed to the lions, and they grow in level and experience as they kick barbarian butt. Depleted units can be reinforced by means of Military Encampments. There is a morale system in play which determines when units break and run, and different armour and attack values, speeds and special abilities such as pila volleys or fire arrows for different troop types. Arrow-firing towers and walls can be built to aid your troops in defence of the Urbes. Not only will your tiny grunts defend your city, but they will also go out and meet interesting, exotic neighbours, gladius-whip them and enslave them and their families. They carry not only the time-honoured metal tools of Rome's civilizing mission and the camps mentioned above, but also "Outposts", the seeds from which new cities grow.
The game plays in classic "Build and Conquer" mode; online multiplayer mode wherein you and a few close friends can try to out-build and out-conquer each other; and the one that I found the most novel and challenging: "Campaign Mode". In this you are adressed by a distinguished Roman from antiquity who just has to have the help of your character to achieve a variety of different objectives. Usually, but not always, this involves building a certain kind of city...a trading, a shipbuilding, a patrician retreat etc. Your character progresses in skills and estates from one campain to the next. I found this fascinating and benefitted from the fresh start at each new location to refine my city-building skills......so as NEVER to forget the "Starbucks"! And was intrigued by the requirements to open up some of the bonuses. For example, one side mission was to build a stone quarry on every stone deposit on the map. Well, one was on an island! To get there I had to build a ship to get my squad with a pre-fab outpost and slave pens across the water. To build the shipyard I needed to research the technology, and build a carpenter's shop, to research the technology I had to build a school....you start to get the picture I'm sure......There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.....
Well, does "Grand Ages: Rome" stand head-and-shoulders above the ruck? Well, eyebrows maybe... As a Classic city-builder, it is all there in beautiful 3D graphic detail, with all the tools and diagnostics that you need to keep your city growing and prospering until the barbarian hordes hit town. The military angle appealed greatly to me, and initially it did an adequate job in repelling barbies and spreading the joys of civilization. But this is no "Rome Total War" the conquer bit is subordinate to the building bit. Where I started to struggle was when I had to control about 20 biremes and 5 infantry squads fighting Aeolian pirates. The interface has some annoying little quirks that normally are just that, annoying. Clicking move-to destinations for troops (and especially ships) sometimes don't "take" and have to be repeated. And rolling back on the mouse-wheel for a zoomed-out view sometimes jumps you right out to the God overview where you can see all the resource locations with little pillars of light....but not much else. Imagine my frustration when madly clicking for my life against aforementioned pirates whilest also fighting these two interface "quirks". But that was the only beef I had with "Grand Ages: Rome". Where it excels is as a lovely city builder, with enough militarism to keep the wolves from the door.