Beware the gods, for they will have arbitrary gameplay mechanics!
I’d completely forgotten about this game and its improved sequel Zeus (I never got to play Pharaoh or Cleopatra) until I recently went through GOG.COM again looking for old titles I’d played but had since forgotten. I’d also completely forgotten how much of a time sink the game is, as well as why it happens to shit me to tears at times. Caesar 3 recalls a forgotten age of games where you’d build a city with an attention to looking after the citizens and the production that kept the game going. It’s sort of in the same category as The Settlers series, or maybe even Stronghold. There’s a lot to keep track of and a lot of planning to do. The idea is to build a Roman city from the ground up, ensuring that you’re keeping a handle on safety, unemployment, entertainment, manufacturing, religion, and dispatching shipments of random goods to Rome every so often. It’s a fairly simple premise.
C3’s greatest achievement is that it’s easy to grasp most of the concepts of the game just by looking at them. This was the transition period when games had a nice dose of in-game help combined with a decent manual to help you along. Getting into the game is ridiculously easy. Playing it well can be fairly frustrating for reasons we’ll get into soon. For the most part your first priorities are to drop down housing and basic facilities to keep the populace fed and safe. This includes putting down farms, water supplies, prefectures to fight crime and fires, engineer’s huts to prevent building collapses, granaries to store food, and marketplaces to distribute goods to houses. Housing slowly improves from piddly little tents to palatial quarters as you provide more luxury items to the area. The lower tiers just need water and food, but the higher tiers need beautiful environments, good access to entertainment and healthcare, and a boatload of goods like pottery, oils, and furniture.
There’s a whole stack of commodities to keep a watchful eye over, all of which often go into producing other items which you either use for your citizens or trade for more money. The issue of supply plays heavily here; it’s up to you to ensure your chain of production is working efficiently so that your citizens turn wood into furniture, and then actually get it distributed to the houses that need it the most. Occasionally, the Emperor will bitch that he wants some amount of something, like 20 units of Weapons or 15 units of pottery, at which point you’ve got to fulfill it within 24 or so months or you’ll take a reputation hit.
Winning the game involves meeting a set of criteria, like population size and political favour. It can be very challenging as the population grows because you’ve got to find jobs for everyone, put them in locations where they have access to work but also aren’t living right next to industrial areas (prevents them from expanding) and have continual access to the required amenities. It’s a real pain to set up unless you know far in advance exactly what it is that you need to do and where you’re going to put it, for reasons which we will now get into.
The worst part about this game (and most of them in the series for that matter) is the way that some of the buildings function. On first inspection of the gameplay mechanics you’d expect that a building exerts a “sphere of influence” around it which means that anything within its influence gains the benefits from it. This works for some buildings, like fountains. Drop a fountain near a building and it gets watered if it’s in range. The vast majority of buildings do NOT function like this however. Instead, they spawn a little worker who then travels along roads, and if they pass by a residence, that residence is affected by the building. In other words, say you’ve got a lovely Market, stocked up with furniture. There are some middle-class buildings that demand furniture. A lovely lady in a green dress walks from the Market, and passes by these buildings. These buildings now get furniture, provided there was some available at the Market as she walked by them.
Seems like a pretty good system, but it runs into ridiculous problems because the AI that controls these people insists on doing annoying things. For example, you can have houses maybe one or two tiles away from the Market, but this does absolutely no good if the Market lady decides to walk up the opposite end of the street. When they come to an intersection, they must choose which way to go, and often times they won’t go anywhere useful. Interestingly these little AI people apparently do have a maximum zone in which they’ll service the area. For example dropping down a new Farm will send out a guy to look for employees. On one map I played, he would walk from the farm and proceed down the road towards a dead end. This happened about 5 times before he walked off in the direction of the nearest housing… and then promptly stopped and disappeared. Until he reaches housing, nobody becomes employed.
Roads are the biggest issue with the game and basically have to be designed around a glaring AI flaw where the AI just picks a random direction to walk instead of going to areas where they actually need to go to. Much of the game’s planning involves making entirely straight roads with as few intersections as possible, so the AI can’t escape and go off in a direction that is not beneficial to your city. You basically do your best to box them in. Of course they might still walk off in a useless direction and do nothing of value, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, you just have to put up with it. Don’t like it? Stiff shit. Pretty much most of the game’s planning lies in setting up city blocks, which amount to big squares with housing and services. This solves some of the issues with supply but doesn’t really help all that much in the long run. Also the game practically recommends straight roads without any intersections to minimise walkers taking stupid routes, but this is practically impossible beyond the first level or so. And then there are the goddamn fires. FIRES EVERYWHERE. I can have a building burn down right next to a Prefecture (the building responsible for crime and fire patrols) which has a low fire risk and has recently been visited by a patrol. What the hell, man?
It never ends. Just when you think you’re getting ahead, something goes wrong because something rolled a 6 and you go backwards. The supply issues are the most frustrating though. Your population yo-yos up and down because a Marketplace worker hasn’t visited a building for some ridiculous reason, kicking out residents as the building devolves into a lesser one with a smaller occupancy size. It just keeps on going on and on and frustrating the shit out of you. But such is the game, I guess! Annoying, infuriating, but still ridiculously addictive. When you get it to work, there’s a real sense of achievement. It’s a challenging title at times, but it’s also fairly rewarding and fun.
Caesar 3 can be found at Good Old Games for cheap. The others in the series are still missing in copyright action.