Caesar III: Building a Better Rome

By: Lance Bailey


Coupling historical accuracy and computer games may seem far-fetched, considering the humble beginnings of Space Invaders and Pong, but the games have come a long way, as has the computer, allowing more complexity, just like history. One style of computer games allows the gamer to oversee an entire civilization, such as the Civilizations series, which starts the gamer with a nomadic tribe from the Stone Age and ends with the colonization of Alpha Centuari, quite a leap from Pac-Man. The gamer makes all the decisions a people's leader might be faced with: whom to make war with or make peace with, what technology to pursue, etc. Another game, the Age of Empires series, allows the gamers to choose a certain historical people such as the Britons, Franks, Mongols, or Vikings and leads them through several ages of time. The Caesar series, specifically Caesar III, lets the gamer experience the expanding Roman Empire as a city planner. All these games have quite a few lessons in history.

Caesar III starts off in a young Roman Empire, at the start of its expansion, and puts the gamer in the role of designing and running Roman cities in new territory. Every facet of city management is explored. The gamer must build housing for residents, construct a water supply system, start a farming industry for food, provide roads, build industries to make money, establish trade with other cities, build theaters and amphitheaters (and even a coliseum or hippodrome if the city is big enough) and hold festivals to entertain the people, build temples to the gods to please the people (and the gods!), provide educational facilities, keep the populace healthy and clean with doctors, barbers, and baths, build city defense and maintain an army of Legionaries to protect the city from barbarians and from other armies. All this is done by just clicking on what needs to be built and then where it needs to be built. Time passes slowly as the citizens walk around the city: markets deliver food, entertainers announce shows, guards march to towers, farmers take grain to granaries, engineers inspect buildings, prefects handle crime and fires, children go to school, etc. The gamer has advisers who explain how the city is doing, such as if the people are entertained enough, whether they have enough food, whether the people want to move in the city, what the city's finances are. The gamer can also click on the people in the city, and they will say something about what is most bothering the populace. Through the advisers and the populace, the gamers basically tries to meet the people's needs and expand the city at the same time. The goal differs from scenario to scenario, but generally a certain number in population must be achieved and defense of the city must be maintained if on a hostile frontier.

The level of accuracy in the game is surprising, even though the instruction booklet states, "(The game is) not a historical reference or educational program" and it departs from history to make certain game concepts simpler. To begin with, the rank names given to the gamer as he or she progresses through the game reflect real names of administrative offices of Rome: Quaestor, Procurator, Aedile, Praetor, Proconsul, and Consul, to name a few. Even the assignments given to the gamers for different scenarios are given out by a Proconsul because Caesar is away, a reflection of the real Pro-consular function historically, which was to act in Caesar's place while he was away.

The class struggle is also represented, though downgraded to just the luxury demands. The Plebeians don't require food from the granary; instead, they live in tents and forage for food. The Patricians, however, required a varied diet and amenities such as pottery, furniture, and wine. As they get their amenities, their housing is upgraded to more luxurious villas. Meanwhile, the Plebeians will riot if the gamer doesn't try to upgrade their quality of life, so Julius Caesar's agenda of bread and circuses to keep the mob pacified is also a good strategy for the game.

Another accurate aspect of the game is the frontier. In some scenarios, Caesar sends the gamer to build a city which establishes a Roman foothold. The gamer builds up an army to drive out the barbarians or pacify them. The Legionaries use Roman tactics such as connecting their shields in a group for protection against arrows, as they march in block formations. Caesar may also call upon the gamer to send troops for him to use in other areas, especially if the gamer's city is not close to the frontier. As the game progresses, the frontier expands, but the game doesn't get too bogged down in the empire's expansion. It stays focused mainly on the city building.

However, the game does have some gray areas. The barbarians aren't defined in much detail. None of the actual tribes are identified, such as the Gauls. The barbarians just have bushy hair and animal skins for clothes. The only way to tell the difference between barbarians is that some wear blue armbands and some wear red. Also, if Caesar were to send out an architect to build a city, an army would already be present to protect the city as it's being built, but in the game, the army is recruited and worked within the city as it is being built-not a very safe idea. Then of course there are the gods. If the gamers doesn't pacify them, they will cause "natural" disasters to befall the city, such as crop failure. But as the manual states, they weren't trying to be completely historically accurate, just to provide the gamer with fun. However, just by playing the game, people can get some good lessons in the Roman Empire and way of life, as well as kill some time.

The following books are recomnended: Stephen L.Dyson's The Creation of the Roman Frontier (Princeton, NJ Princeton UP, 1985), and David Macaulay's City: a Story of Roman Planning and Construction (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974)