Europa Universalis IV Review13 Aug 2013  by
Clichéd as it may be to mention that a game made me lose track of time, it’s still a guaranteed indication of a thoroughly absorbing title. I’d love to make reality more exotic by spinning you an alarming-yet-convincing tale of how Europa Universalis IV made me miss a vital job interview, or a sibling’s wedding or a once-in-a-lifetime solar event, but the truth is it just robbed my body of some nutrients for a couple of hours. I forgot to eat dinner.
However, the potential is most definitely there for Paradox’s latest Grand Strategy title to disrupt someone’s life in a more serious fashion. So if you’re the type of person who finds it difficult to extricate yourself from a game and happen to have some important life events coming up, it may be best to steer clear of global power-politics for a bit.
The thing that had kept me so distracted was the execution of a delicate and deeply selfish plot to grab the province of Liege in the name of Burgundy (a nation who are, as far as I can make out, a kind of 15th Century proto-Netherlands with a side serving of Belgium.) Europa Universalis IV had told me nabbing this former ‘core’ province was a matter of national pride. The Burgundian people considered it to be a historic part of their homeland, and Liege’s current flirtations with independence were clearly just frivolous.
Standing between Burgundy and the glorious redemption of Liege was Austria and its control over the Holy Roman Empire. The Austrians had got upset the last time I ‘borrowed’ some territory that fell under HRE protection, but had been distracted by a different war. My military might could probably match theirs, but not their whole alliance. To take Liege, a more complex plan was needed.
Looking at their diplomatic affairs revealed that Austria weren’t getting along too well with either Hungary or Bohemia, so my diplomats were sent on an urgent mission to secure military treaties with both. Once that was safely achieved, I could declare war on tiny Liege (citing the totally reasonable excuse of “well you used to belong to us”) and sit back as substantial parts of Europe honoured their alliances and set about killing each other. Thousands died so that I could take back a scrap of land.
If reading this is reminding you of the sort of inter-familial scheming that happened on a regular basis in Paradox’s Crusader Kings II, that’s not too surprising. A lot of the accessible depth to Europa Universalis IV feels informed by the success Paradox found with their medieval sequel. Where that game was about maintaining the personal glory of a bloodline, this is nation-building politics from 1444 to 1820.
Not that Europa Universalis IV does away with the importance of individual figureheads, mind you. A brilliant leader (or at least one that’s competent in certain areas) will generate more administrative, diplomatic and military ‘monarch points’ per month, which are necessary for technological research and most major actions in the game. Without administrative points, it’s impossible to (say) boost the stability of your nation and reap the related benefits.
It’s an elegant system, abstracting broad, complex decisions to three main, renewable resources. It also means a terrible monarch can lock your nation down into just getting through the decades until a better option shows up, while a specialist ruler can suddenly encourage a change of direction for your nation (perhaps from military conquest to more diplomatic means.) Economics can also mitigate the effects of a dunce figurehead, as expensive hired advisors can boost the monthly monarch points total.
If all else fails, there’s always a wonderful, nefarious option of placing idiot heirs in command of an army and hoping they have an accident. Alas, bold Prince Clueless took it upon himself to repel Spain with but a handful of men-at-arms…
Monarch points feel like a sensible evolution of systems that I’ve no doubt were more complicated and confusing in previous titles in the series. In contrast, trade in Europa Universalis IV looks more like a fresh start. The intent appears to be to give nations an option to become trade-based, as well as opening up the possibilities of wars erupting over trade disputes and the mechanics of both embargoes and blockades. Conceptually, trade is designed along the same straightforward lines as monarch points; but it’s a little rougher around the edges in implementation.
If your nation owns an important trade node (or several,) it will earn a fair amount of cash. Trade can be increased by patrolling the waters with light ships, expanding your trade influence through technological or military means (capturing provinces in the trade zone) or by having your merchants “forward” more trade to you from distant nodes.
Sounds fairly straightforward in writing, doesn’t it?
Problem is, the interface and visual feedback isn’t quite as supportive as it could be. A lot seems like it could be solved with a handy tooltip telling the player what kind of monetary trade gains would be made from moving a merchant to a certain node. Instead, you have to contend with a somewhat baffling trade overview map and a lot of scary pie charts.
That’s an outlier though, because in most areas Europa Universalis IV is either quite intuitive or at least makes reasonable efforts to tell you why you can’t yet do the thing you’re attempting. The most daunting aspect for new players will probably be the overwhelming choice of playable nations (anybody in Europe or Asia, plus a scattering of others) and the emphasis on making your own fun. Every nation is distinct, with its own set of national ideas and unique events (such as forming Spain if you’re starting as Castile,) but to get the most out of these games it’s necessary to be pro-active in your political meddling.
With so many different facets of national rule being simulated, it’s necessary for the title to make certain mechanics quite abstract. I’m not sure what kind of incredible powers my lone missionary possesses, but he’s damn good because he can convert pretty much any province to full-on Catholicism given enough time. That’s obviously not terribly realistic and it feels quite ‘gamey,’ but it slots into the other systems of unrest, stability and religion just fine.
Other areas don’t feel quite so successful. Colonisation is a lot better than it was in Victoria II, but still feels too disassociated from the historical picture it’s attempting to portray. When I’m dealing with the powers of Europe there’s a real sense of negotiating a diplomatic minefield and pulling off cunning masterstrokes. When colonising the New World or Africa it feels more like clicking on pop-ups and seeing “native” peoples reduced to caricature. I’m not exactly Ken Burns, but the Native Americans seem to get pretty short shrift.
While the game’s scope clearly can’t encompass everything, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to want (for example) the huge levels of co-operation and interdepedence that existed between the Spanish and the local populations of South America to be abstracted a little better. Expeditions: Conquistador handled this with far more skill, but, admittedly, was also a game focused entirely on that region and time period.
In part this is down to the tension between Europa Universalis IV’s desire to offer as much “what if?” freedom as possible and the adherence to a historical structure that places Western European technological concepts above all others. As I found in my preview outing as not-quite-China, nations from non-Western tech groups are at something of a disadvantage. That doesn’t stop the playthroughs from being entertaining in their own way, but it would be terrific to have avenues to removing the tech-handicaps besides “westernising.”
Still, these are the thoughts from which mods are born, and the game will no doubt attract the same kind of modding dedication that Paradox-developed titles are known for.
The development side of the studio has made great strides in retaining the breadth and scope of its grand strategy titles, while at the same time making them more accessible than ever. “More accessible” still doesn’t mean they’re for everybody, but I’d happily recommend Europa Universalis IV to anyone intrigued by abstract power politics, national maneuvering and European history circa 1450-1800. Just be prepared to bore people to tears with your tales of conquest, and potentially miss out on some life-changing events because you were too busy trying to nab control of the Papacy.