T’was the year of Our Lord fifteen hundred and fifty-something-ish. The grand empire of Great Britain encompassed all of the British Isles and a wide swath of coastal mainland provinces north of France. To the east, Burgundy had recently succumbed to the newly formed Netherlands, which had consolidated around the trade center in Antwerp, and was marshalling its forces against the monstrous Denmark that had annexed the now former countries of Norway and Sweden. And finally, to the west, the four isolated provinces of Brittany across the English Channel. This was the most tantalizing of targets with few forces and only Portugal as an ally of note. The crown coveted her lands.
Everything had fallen in place for a powerful English Empire to permanently secure its presence as a continental European power and marginalize the hated French into an ever smaller box between His Royal Majesty’s Army, Spain, the HRE (Holy Roman Empire) and the ocean. As long as the civilized world didn’t rise up as one against the English conquest of the province of Armor, it seemed like a foolproof plan.
Which, as it turned out, was the moment in my fourth game of Europa Universalis IV where the world did, in fact, rise up as one against my invasion.
It’s hard to know where to start with Europa Universalis IV. I mean that in both the context of where to start talking about it as well as where to begin when you actually play it. I’ve tried to play the Grand Strategy games from Paradox in the past with little success. I don’t think I ever even managed to finish the tutorial for Hearts of Iron III. Europa Universalis III managed to hold my attention for a few hours, before I just felt too overwhelmed. Games like Victoria never even made it to the hard drive. Only Crusader Kings II had ever managed to pull me far enough through the impenetrable veil of complexity that I could begin to see what so many others seemed to see in these games. All told, even including a relatively successful run with CKII, I’ve likely spent under 20 hours total playing all of Paradox’s grand strategy titles.
In two weeks, I’ve amassed 62 hours of play time at EUIV.
If you feel like that is a ridiculous — dare I say irresponsible — amount of time to have spent with anything in that short a time, I simply cannot disagree. But this past Saturday night’s session is a good example. It began with the gamestate scenario I described above as I sat down, having settled the boys into bed. Seven hours later, I had only just fully recovered from the aftermath of that horribly failed invasion of Brittany.
When my wife appeared, bleary-eyed, in the doorway of my office, and said, “You do realize it’s four in the morning, right?” I had to come to terms with the fact that, no, I did not realize that at all. I was certain she had failed to read the clock correctly in her groggy state, and it wasn’t until I confirmed the accuracy of her statement that I realized I had just spent the entire night trying to stabilize against a world that had decided I had grown too big a threat to Europe. Worse still, I’d probably do it all again exactly the same way.
It’s taken me awhile to wrap my head around what I now believe to be the reality that Europa Universalis IV is not a strategy game. It is an exquisitely detailed and complex simulator. Certainly you apply strategy to it to be successful within the simulation, but the point of the game is not to win. It is to explore possibilities, only a limited number of which are actually owned or even impacted by you. The smaller your nation or sphere of influence, the smaller impact you have on the world simulation.
As a result, you can find yourself often just letting the history of the game take its course for a while without making any meaningful decision. It’s a game where you often drop a stone in the water and watch for the ripples. Yes, the game has an unbelievable number of systems, but you need to approach it from a context almost like playing with sliders to see what happens as opposed to making winning or losing moves. When you see that, you’re able to begin to unlock what the system is trying to show you.
The easiest way to feel like you’ve failed at a game like EUIV is to play it like a traditional strategy game. The more you force your own ideas about external goals onto the game, the more challenging and resistant the game becomes, which, to be fair, is a fairly accurate representation of history as well. There’s a reason guys like Napoleon, Hitler or Alexander never win in the long run, and it’s because the more you impart your own will of domination on the world, the harder it becomes to maintain, control and stabilize.
This game does a brilliant job of replicating that natural resistance and the entropy of empire. That’s not to say it’s impossible, because like any finite computer simulation once you understand it sufficiently you can begin to understand how to game the system to get the results you want. But it is why for my game the consolidation of European empires against my almost arbitrary attempt to subjugate another region made sense.
I am in that wonderful honeymoon phase, where I want to say the sort of things that strain credibility and completely undermine any kind of confidence you might have in my opinion. So I’ll pull it back and just say this: EUIV is one of those rare pieces of work that makes me feel like I’ve learned something after every play session, and more often I’m left wanting to know more. I want to rush out and buy a book on the Colonial Era of Europe. I want to get out my old college textbook on European history. I’ve spent a couple of hours on Wikipedia reading about the Protestant Reformation, the Counter Reformation, the Hanseatic League, Oliver Cromwell and the Habsburgs.
That’s something I can’t say about most games.
This game never lies to you, but it allows you to lie to yourself all the time. You can fool yourself, as so many tyrannical leaders have before, that you have amassed supreme power and that your ascension is a destiny and foregone conclusion, only to find yourself torn down low almost at once.
It’s an illusion fostered by so many strategy games that came before. The difference is, in other games, the bigger you are, the bigger your base of power from which to exert domination. In EUIV, being bigger makes you strong, but potentially fragile, unstable and absolutely a target.
Europa Universalis IV lures you into a path of inevitable self-destruction. It makes you think you’ve thought of everything, only to realize that when Portugal decides to side with Brittany after all, it now forces Spain (who is also allied with Portugal) to make its own choice to either honor its agreement with its direct neighbor, or to stand by the once rival nation that has been hungrily snatching up land in a slow but irrevocable drive south into the heart of Europe. And then, when Spain chooses to back Portugal and by extension Brittany, Spain’s alliance with the superpower of Denmark kicks in, to say nothing of Naples and the Papal State. At that point, France is only too happy to join in with any gang, regardless of its membership, steamroll England, and reclaim some of those core northern provinces.
As Portuguese, Spanish and French troops seethed northward, I foolishly tried to hold the line against the tide, dramatically overestimating my strength and underestimating the zeal that would be applied in the attacks. Looking to the borders of Picardie, Normandie and Calais, I barely noticed the Dutch fleet as it merged with the Spanish Armada, crushed my fleet and cut off my retreat across the Channel. When the enemy eventually began to land troops on the English home soil, every English province in Europe was under siege, and Great Britain had a couple thousand scattered active troops remaining. All the rest had been pushed back against the sea and overrun.
The war, if it could be called that, wasn’t over. Long winter sieges from foreign forces dotted the once-tranquil English countryside. By the following summer when terms for peace were finally delivered to England, there was little positive to say about my empire, an empire which had once seemed so mighty and invulnerable. The terms, which I had little choice but to agree to, would set the empire back more than a half century.
What? Like I’m supposed to just go to bed when that happens?