The worst of Total War: Rome II’s many problems is its failure to explain its mechanics clearly and especially how they interact. The internal politics of Rome – something critical to why the Rome: Total War was good – are a particularly badly represented mess: a variety of bars and numbers move around the politics screen without explaining themselves or what they mean in relation to the rest of the game. The food system, newly introduced in this iteration of Total War, is not necessarily the worst offender but it is the one I’ve had the best luck untangling and so it provides a good case study for why Rome II’s obscure, badly implemented mechanics utterly rob the campaign of its joy.
Food is a critical statistic in Rome II. It represents an empire wide total of your surplus food, to be used raising advanced buildings. Having a larger total passively increases the rate at which your armies replenish damaged units and cities grow. If the total slips below zero, though, you’ve got a food shortage; your settlements require more food than is currently being produced. In this state settlements do not grow, public order is reduced and standing armies suffer attrition which diminishes and ultimately destroys their units. It is, as I have mentioned, a new introduction to Rome II and it might even have worthwhile had it evolved, as it was presumably intended, to make players consider the viability of sustaining conquests. Food might have made the classic strategy tactic of ‘blobbing’ (that is, expanding thoughtlessly in all directions) difficult since players would avoid overburdening their empire with cities too quickly. Instead, thanks largely to how poorly explained the mechanic is, it’s an endless frustration rather than an interesting concern.
The most obvious problem is how settlements in Rome II expand. Every settlement has a certain maximum number of building slots (four for most towns, six for cities), but those slots can only be unlocked as the population expands. To build a food producing building (usually a farm, but you can also build fishing ports or specialised markets) you unlock a slot and set the building to be produced. Existing buildings can also be upgraded: in the case of farms and fishing ports, this allows them to produce more food but in almost every other case buildings consume food beyond the first level. Barracks are upgraded to unlock more advanced units and require ever more food as you build them towards their highest level. Similarly provincial capitals and villages provide wealth and garrisoned units for your settlement and when upgraded remove some food from your pool. The central issue with the whole system is that a bonus or malus to your food pool is only applied when a building is completed, making your pool unpredictable. You might begin upgrading a series of buildings in one turn when you’ve got extra cash and an apparently healthy food surplus and find yourself in debt only several turns later when they finish together. This is a bizarre bit of design since it forces you, before you construct anything, to know if you’ll have a food surplus several turns later. The total on screen is worse than useless, since it only shows your total for the current turn and not for subsequent turns when your food consuming buildings are completed. That is, when it’ll really be critical to know if the building you’ve started will push you into a food shortage. Inevitably you will control many provinces and to cycle through all of them, find out what’s being built and mentally calculate if you will have a food surplus at the end of the constructions is tedious. A conservative estimate of how many settlements you’ll need before finishing Rome II’s campaign is fifty, and to win a military victory you’ll need ninety. There is no menu which lists all your active construction projects so you really do have to pan around the European campaign map and look at every settlement (or have a perfect memory) before choosing what to build if you have only a narrow surplus.
Food does not add anything interesting to the game. Far from forcing me to expand in interesting ways, I found myself conforming to an even more strict routine with my conquests. I would raze every town I encountered – which has the effect of destroying every building in the settlement and freeing up the building slots – and make every third conquered town a perfectly optimised farming settlement. The building synergy, such as the provincial capital upgrade which boosts wealth generated by agriculture, makes it shamefully easy to build to a narrow range of pre-planned designs. Farms and other food producing buildings still generate wealth (albeit less than the others options) and in the mid to late game when you’ve already got a healthy income from cities it’s easy to mindlessly build the same farming towns across Europe and Asia. The obscure food system which is really best avoided altogether by keeping your surplus extremely high only further encourages this behaviour.
If you do trigger a food shortage, there’s little you can do but dismantle newly constructed buildings which are consuming food. Frustratingly, there’s no way to downgrade a building to a lower level even if that would fix shortage issues. If, say, level two of a building gave you the effect of -2 Food and level three bumped that to -5 and so you found yourself past the threshold to trigger a shortage the logical thing would be for the game to include a button to step back. Instead you have to start again with that plot of land, wasting money and adversely affecting the settlement. If you wanted to get back to level two, you’d have to clear the plot, build to one and then build to two over several turns. I should also add that exempting a region from tax slightly reduces problems of a food shortage. There seems to be no in game reason why this should be the case – the tooltip mentions that it “removes them from the Roman food system” but how that would help a shortage in a city which produces no food whatsoever is difficult to determine. I suspect the developers noticed that it’s extremely easy to blunder into a severe shortage and cripple your whole empire so the tax exemption provides a band aid solution which might, at least, prevent you from giving them game up out of frustration.
The food system is simply awful in Rome II. It is primarily badly communicated through a poor UI which can’t tell you either what your surplus will be in several turns or even what buildings you are constructing across the empire. Also, it’s poorly implemented in other ways and rather than shaking up player tendency toward directionless conquest which has marred the Total War series, it reinforces by making settlements conform more strictly to pre-planned designs. It is not Rome II’s only frustrating and confusing element and certainly it not nearly so obscure as the internal politics system, but at least politics can be largely ignored. Food is a constant irritation from turn to turn which lacks clarity and consistency and the game is significantly worse for it.