Wes Bruce

Europa Universalis IV – Review

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[Note: Multiplayer not reviewed, it’s pretty hard to get time for a game when you live on the far side of the world from most of the players. I lose points for this one, not Paradox]

I tried to be a good ruler. I tried to be fair, efficient, and benevolent. A good king of Scotland should be victorious in war, just and wise in peace, I thought. I wanted what was best for my people, no matter what their background was, or what they believed. I was committed to tolerance and equality, and forging a future for my people through trade. So you can imagine it came as something of a shock to me when in the mid-1600s, as rebellions erupted across my empire (spread across three continents), I suddenly realized where I was and what I was doing. And how I had become a warmongering menace incapable of pleasing his citizens, my highly mercantilistic trade domination was fraying at the edges, and I had displaced indigenous peoples and obliterated ancient cultures across the entire Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico with the gun and the treaty. I was suddenly the ruler that I love to hate.

I remembered too late one of the oldest lessons of history, and it would have served me well here in Europa Universalis IV: ruling is a job that can easily run away from you. Or worse, run away with you.

So before I even try to touch this, I should put up a little disclaimer: I’m a latecomer to the Grand Strategy genre. I’d messed around with Total War more than is healthy, and devoured whole heaps of 4X games (stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate, includes series like Civilization), but they’re really only the gateway drugs, so to speak: where you cut your teeth before you’re ready to step on up to the real thing. Grand Strategy is where you zoom all the way out, abandoning the tactical level utterly in favor of the strategic. To illustrate what I mean, during a war in Civilization, you micromanage each and every one of your troops on what to do during battle, who to attack, which vantage point to do it from, etc. This is the tactical view, and I love some tactics, but that’s not what’s on offer here. The strategic view of war is that I’ve spent the last five months conscripting my standing army, and now I tell General Beaton to haul his fifteen regiments to Oxfordshire, and General McDermott to march his army on Wessex, and instruct them to give me frequent progress updates, and more or less let them figure out the nitty gritty. Grand Strategy games are firmly big-picture in nature. This isn’t to say that your involvement in military affairs is unimportant, mind. You have to figure out where troops are coming from, how they’re getting paid, who’s going to be put in charge of them, and where they’re going. But if you need to have a say in what they do once they get there, then I regret to inform you that EU4 really isn’t the game for you.

europauniversalisiv_packshotWhere was I, now? Right, as I was saying, I haven’t played any previous entries in the Europa Universalis series, and my only prior grand strategy was Crusader Kings 2, and I don’t doubt for a second that there are things hardened veterans would have to say about this game (or would be interested in hearing in a review) that I just can’t say. But really, if you’ve been enjoying grand strategy games for a bit, you probably are already playing EU4 and not reading this, so whatever. Anything I have to say at this point will be more useful for the people saying either: A) “What is this game, and also who is this person talking about it” or B) “I tried games like this before, and I played for an hour and couldn’t figure out what to do and gave up.” I hope this review serves both of these people to some extent.

Europa Universalis is a series about nation-building and international politics, basically. You pick out a country to play as starting in the 15th century (around the time of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans), and you hold the reins of power there (despite a series of alleged ‘rulers’ sitting the throne) for the next 400-ish years. If for whatever reason you’re not very familiar with those 400 years (for example, if you didn’t live in them), it would be the understatement of the millennium to say that a lot changed during that time. In military terms, 400 years made the difference between feudal knights and pikemen fighting across Europe for their kings, versus standing armies with mass-produced rifles fighting on behalf of republics, far away on other continents. In terms of borders, trade and colonial empires grew up out of small nations to span the globe, only to start crumbling by the end. 400 years is a lot of ground to cover, and you cover it day-by-day, so the game is, somewhat necessarily, not turn-based. By default, every couple seconds means the passage of a day in-game, but you can adjust this pace or even pause completely while you run around your hemisphere’s-worth of holdings to make necessary changes. I personally recommend alternating between 5x speed and full standstill, because nothing happens around here without time passing, and there’s a lot of it to pass.

Against this historical background, you play out what I’d best describe as alt-history. At the beginning of your campaign, practically as soon as you unpause the game, you have diverged from the recorded history of this era. Congratulations, you are officially engaged in making Historical Fan Fiction.

And there are lot of stories to be had here. The rise and fall of nations, especially nations you’re controlling, has always been the stuff of epics, and it’s always interesting to bust out your map and your amateur historical knowledge (read: searching Wikipedia) and compare the differences. My first playthrough, for example, saw Great Britain come into being, yes, but under a Scottish King. One of Britain’s historical enemies in the colonial periods was Spain, but they were my best friend in this run. France settled the American east coast, I settled the Caribbean and the Mississippi River region (and conquered Mexico). Portugal did not exist, and you can imagine my surprise when I finally started charting maps of East Asia in the 17th century and saw Japan with an empire stretching deep into China and Siberia. I’m very much looking forward to the outlandish maps my friends turn out in EU4.

If your sole contact with the genre has been Crusader Kings, though, these stories can feel a bit dry. It’s a natural change in focus for the series and the era, however. Crusader Kings (and to a great extent, the Medieval era in general) is very much about people and dynasties, and that lends the events the feel of a drama (or as I prefer to put it, a soap opera). But people take the back seat in Europa Universalis, in more ways than one: it’s a game about nations, borders, and economics, and your country’s ruler is just a name (no portrait) in a box on your government tab, whose only stats are the three main skills, his/her age, and whether there’s an heir. He or she frankly doesn’t matter, because you’re the one making all the decisions around here. So where Crusader Kings is a soap opera, Europa Universalis is a history book.

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I loved the way Paradox brought medieval politics to life with nobles playing obscure Byzantine sports and murdering each other with exploding poop, but alas, it doesn’t fit an era where monarchs are starting down the gradual path to irrelevance. EU4 is a game that deals mainly in maps and numbers (which works for me, I’m an MBA student, but your mileage may vary), and all the excruciating detail that Paradox previously devoted to your ruler’s grandson’s military prowess, sexual orientation and precise degree of sexual activity (including diseases!) is now wholly devoted to your country’s economy and trade tabs. Precise degrees of inflation and mercantilism, trade routes, individual trade nodes, precise exertion of power over individual markets, loans, interest, pretty much everything is here. Don’t worry, I typed all that with both hands.

Which brings me to an important thing about grand strategy games: whenever I describe the things I get up to in them, there will be people saying “oh wow, that sounds fun, I’ve got to try it!” And then, two hours after the installation, they tell me they’ve given up. They can’t figure it out, they’ll say. And it is overwhelming, absolutely! The sheer granularity with which Paradox recreates history is frankly mind-boggling, and there are more statistics, numbers, and mechanics to dig into than a tutorial could teach you in five hours, and it makes for a daunting user interface as well. But it’s okay, because none of it actually matters, because included in this review I have included my new Handy Beginner’s Guide to Paradox Strategy Games:

1. Green numbers are good, make them go up.
1a. Red numbers are bad, don’t let them happen to you.
1b. Relax, you only have so much control over the above.
2. Forget about the score, just do whatever you feel like.

I can’t stress that last rule enough. Because although this genre is named Grand Strategy, a far better descriptor would be Historical Sandbox. In single player, the only person who’ll judge you at the end of a game is you, so just pick out a goal and go for it. Maybe you want to unite the British Isles? Go for it, I did it and it was great fun (and challenging). Why not fully indulge the spirit of exploration, and go for being the first nation to circumnavigate the globe? A worthy goal, and plenty of money to be made that way too. Or pick out one of the constituent states of the Holy Roman Empire to join the trainwreck that was German imperial politics. Or be Pope! Nobody’s stopping you. Do what you feel like! I even cheated like hell at one point to lead the Iroquois to the top of the global heap. Games of this type are so much better once you stop wondering what you’re supposed to do and just start doing stuff. Click on buttons and find out what they do. As I said above, it’ll sweep you away in fairly short order.

In fact, let’s come back to that stuff I mentioned to start out with. There I was, the guy who didn’t want to be that jackbooted imperialist asshole, and was in fact now romping around the North and Central Americas in my shiny jackboots, and wondering why my citizens didn’t like me so much. Well, because I was handed ultimate executive power and was a real jerk about it, frankly. But why did I do that? Well, when you get right down to it, it was that the rewards for the way I was playing were just too good. The resources in the new world were so tempting, and it was no challenge to take them from the locals. The hundreds of thousands of lives lost in my wars of expansion were just the price I paid for dominion of the British Isles and the Caribbean, which earned me infinity ducats and we just got more people anyway, right? So as I stood in my possibly-collapsing colonial empire, I had to wonder if I’d been led here by Paradox.

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Is Europa Universalis a pro-colonialist series? On reflection, I don’t think so. It’s certainly a game to a large extent about colonialism, and the parts of it that aren’t feature pretty nasty diplomatic gamesmanship and backstabbing that exists in a pretty ethics-free area. But then, that’s probably the most powerful lesson one can draw from Paradox games: this is what people get up to when they have power. Even you. Especially you. I like to see myself as the good modern liberal American, for whom feeling bad about Native American genocides is a favorite pastime. But when all I saw was a map, a ledger on my economic and military power, and some statistics about this distant continent, there was practically only one course of action I was ever going to take. I can hand-wave it as just a game in which no actual humans were killed or subjugated, but I feel pretty confident in saying that this is almost exactly how the rulers of Britain, Spain, France and other nations saw their empires. Through almost every moment of EU4, I was thinking not from the perspective of homo sapiens, but from that of a country. A nation. And that’s a fairly powerful teaching moment: a nation wants stability, territory, economy, and military dominance the way people want good food and drink, a decent place to live, financial safety, and personal freedom. And left to its own devices, as I was, it will pursue those goals, whether or not they align with those of their actual human citizens. That’s why it’s so important to make sure, at every step, that our governments represent our interests. Human interests. Because history is simply overflowing with examples of the opposite.

Maybe it’s crazy to put the above few paragraphs in a review of a strategy game. But Paradox (intentionally or not) made me think about things like this, the same way they made me think hard about family in Crusader Kings 2. For doing that, over and above the ridiculously engaging, fun, and faithful historical (or non-historical) game they created, I have to give Europa Universalis IV9/10.

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