Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: AGEOD Studios
System requirements: Windows XP/Vista/Win 7, 1.8 GHz Pentium IV or better CPU, 1 GB RAM (2 GB Vista/Win 7), 512 MB graphics card, DirectX 9.0c or better, DirectX 9.0c-compatible sound card, 3 GB hard-drive space
ESRB rating: Teen
Release date: Available now
It is, and always has been, my judgment that strategy games rise and fall on their mechanics, not their graphics. Considering the diplomatic and economic complexities of the period covering European expansion into Africa and the lead up to World War I, a game covering the 19th century can shine wonderfully when the mechanics demonstrate an understanding of all the nuances. I’m always on the lookout for the next strategy game in the hope that I’ll strike gold yet again. I was enthusiastic to get a review copy of Pride of Nations, a game that advertises itself as having ”the most original diplomacy model ever created for a grand strategy game…[and] a detailed world economy with realistic components.” After a few weeks of playing it, I can say that it certainly lives up to these claims.
PON centers itself on a grand campaign and several smaller scenarios. The campaign covers the entire historical period of the game, from 1850 to 1920, integrating diplomacy, economics and warfare, while the smaller scenarios cover specific wars, such as the Boer Wars, restricting you to merely managing the war. The campaign sets you the lofty goal of gaining the top spot in global affairs through prestige, while the smaller scenarios have historical goals that coincide with the origins of their wars. Each turn covers two weeks; in the smaller scenarios, this can give players a nice, comfortable 100 turns or so to play. The grand campaign, however, has around 1680 turns, giving players entire weeks of playing time just as a single country.
The game utilizes a model of nation management that recognizes historical realities of laissez-faire economics and multilateral diplomacy. Each turn sees you doing more than just spending money on armies and navies. Economic activity and taxation takes place between turns, generating money for both governments to spend on their military and diplomatic projects, and private capital, which is used to build up the economy and conduct civilian financial transactions. Your people buy and sell products on the open market, making economic considerations less about setting a taxes slider and more about making sure your people have enough of the consumer goods they want to forestall political unrest. A policy of imperialism might end up having less to do with your ambitions to paint the map your color than with acquiring stable markets that allow for the buying and selling of your nation’s goods.
But where PON really shines is in its diplomatic model. Most strategy games have either unilateral relations or bilateral relations between political entities. If your country hates country X, then you might end up at war. If you go to war, your allies might join in and everyone can have a jolly time killing each other. This model works well for some historical periods, but it ignores the congress system of the 19th century and the indirect influence Great Powers could exert on any kind of diplomatic situation. In PON, while war is always a possibility, the game acknowledges the reality of Great Powers and their indirect influence on major events by the crisis game mechanic. When two Great Powers come into some kind of significant diplomatic conflict about various regions of the globe, your (and the AI’s) options are not simply “to war or not to war.” Instead, the game invokes a crisis and all Great Powers get involved. A crisis might take multiple turns to resolve and has fairly complex rules. The two Great Powers each put some of their prestige at risk just by being involved, in addition to whatever region or larger issue caused it. Thus, resolving the crisis means not only deciding who gets what, but also how each Great Power’s prestige is modified after the crisis is over. To that end, each Great Power, not just the two belligerents, gets to set an agenda every turn to indicate how they want the crisis to be resolved. Some Great Powers choose to back one side or the other, while other Great Powers might instead try to mediate the dispute towards a peaceful resolution. The two powers directly involved in the dispute can try to gain the assistance of other powers, try to diplomatically resolve the crisis, delay negotiations on technicalities, or even bully the other side into a war. Crises might either resolve themselves peacefully, with one side or the other losing whatever is at stake, or they might spiral out of control into a major war. What makes this system so interesting is that the belligerent power can lose substantial prestige by forcing a war, so that even if they win and take whatever was at stake, they look bad and erode their own standing in the world. By the same token, Great Powers that act as mediators can gain substantial prestige by negotiating a peaceful resolution, even if they have nothing at stake at the outbreak of the crisis. This system allows you to model your diplomacy after historical figures such as Otto von Bismark or Woodrow Wilson, or even take a more Clausewitzian approach, with all of the attendant consequences.
For all the praise I have for PON, I have to warn prospective players that there are some issues that mar what should’ve been a five-star gaming experience. First and foremost, there are some serious optimization issues during the execution of turns. I’m not exaggerating when I say that each turn might take two to four minutes to execute after you press the end-turn button (I timed it just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating). This is usually enough time to refresh a beverage, make a sandwich, or take a bio break, so it might not seem like a big deal, but if you consider for a moment that the grand campaign has around 1680 turns, those minutes add up. Specifically, they add up to 56 hours of staring at the loading screen during a single grand campaign, and that assumes each turn only takes the minimum two minutes to execute. I know that the game is complex and that it has lots of things to compute, not to mention the AI has to issue its orders, but this optimization problem causes significant frustration. There are also some problems with odd game crashes that happen every now and then. Aside from these, I would also caution players that there’s significant micromanagement involved with certain aspects of the game (including the supply system for armies). There’s no way to significantly automate most of these things. This is not a complaint so much as it is a warning: players who hate micromanaging certain kinds of activities might want to check out the demo to determine whether PON has too much micromanagement to be a satisfactory experience.
I’m really struck by the depth of Pride of Nations. Any game that has more than 20 different map views, and that needs all of them, is the kind of game that invites real strategic thought. Any game that makes an effort to depict complex diplomatic interactions that go beyond simple binary war/no war mechanics certainly deserves a gold star. All that being said, I hope developer AGEOD Studios sorts out the optimization issues, because it would be a shame for such an ambitious and smart game not to find its way into the hands of the hardcore strategy enthusiasts for which it was made. Priced at $19.99, RTS players looking for a new game to occupy their time should definitely check out Pride of Nations.