At this point I feel like I have to concede that Europa Universalis IV is quite probably my favorite PC strategy game of all time. Understand that when I say that, I am comparing it to classic games like Master of Orion II, Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword, Fallout 2, XCOM, Warcraft II and other such hallowed games of old, games that have camped out in the golden palaces of my nostalgia for, in some cases, decades. This is not ground those games are quick to cede, and their jealous seneschals would quickly poison the idea that any new game be viewed equal to the imaginary perfection of these great nobles.
So it brings a sad tear to my eye when I tell others of this great game, even if what they really wish I would do is shut up about it, and they respond that it is just too daunting, too impenetrable, too complex and downright too scary to play. I can’t fault the response, as it’s been my response to virtually every grand strategy game that came before, and it’s easy enough to imagine opening up Paradox’s masterpiece, looking at the screen, and reacting like this or this.
Much as I may be inclined to now spend the day surfing “nope” gifs, I’ll move on. For science!
I offer this missive not as an exhaustive explanation of the mechanics of the game, but as a primer for those of you whose fingers hesitate over the launch button, who picked EUIV up on a whim during a Steam Sale, or who’ve dared only as far as the title screen and then scuttled away like a timid octopus along the floor of the ocean. Here are a few things that will get you started.
The tragedy, as many players of Europa Universalis eventually realize, is that at any time you only need to actually know or understand a fraction of what you’re looking at to have a manageable game. You can happily play a full, complete and successful game without ever messing with cardinal elections in the Holy See, directing a single fraction of trade through the game’s nodes or sending a single colonist to die of starvation in the inhospitable wilds of the New World. Like any nation, you really only have to choose a few things you want to be good at and focus your attention on those things.
I’ve tried to avoid talking about specific game mechanics here, because a lot of what prevents people from getting into these games comes more from the learned approach we have as gamers approaching a strategy game than some arcane complexity in a game system. Arguably, this game is at its best when you just unpause and see what happens next.
Here are five tips to get you started.
1) Don’t pick a small country your first time out. It’s natural, I suppose, to look at a complex thing and decide to start with some small segment where you can get comfortable in the system before branching out to bigger and better things. All that ends up happening is that you still don’t understand the systems, but now even if you did, you’re too small to actually do anything more than paint yourself red and dance around in the street shouting “Hey, France, come invade my tiny country and absorb our biological and technical distinctiveness into your collective!”
If the goal of your game is to be invaded by a large country while the rest of the world actively engages in a not-caring-about-you-at-all form of diplomacy, this is indeed a good strategy with a high success rate.
2) Instead, pick a strong, established, Westernized nation to play. There’s a reason nations like England and France are still kicking around to this very day, and its because for the little problems that plague any nation throughout the great breadth of time, they were in a very strong position to last the centuries. Look, these countries had a lot of kings that were a lot worse than you’re going to be — no matter how hard you may try to fly these behemoths into a mountainside — and they survived anyway. Figure out how to do the basic stuff you’d do in any strategy game (raise an army, move that army around, smash that army into much smaller armies, laugh at the lamentations of their populations) and that will get you through at least 100 years of game time.
3) You don’t always have to be doing something. You can actually do worse than start the game, choose a nation, load it up and let time fly to just see what happens to your nation. For a while, until you know what you want to do, you can just react. When the game sees something happening it thinks you should know about or do something about, it will either call up a dialog box with choices you can make, or it will drop down a little flag under the top left resource bar. An easy way to simply learn how different mechanics work is by clicking those flags, seeing where they take you, and just trying to figure out that thing for a little while.
If, after a minute or two of considering tooltips, you’re thinking “Man, I don’t get what this thing is,” then just toss it away for now and know that if it’s really important it’ll make itself clearer at some point. Call it roleplaying if you want, because Kings probably did this all the time. Otherwise people probably would have stopped invading Russia in the winter a lot sooner than they did. Note -- invading Russia in winter remains a bad idea in this game.
If you don’t know what choice to make when one is presented to you, choose one and see what happens. Just roll with it, because if it’s a really bad choice, well at least now you have something to do and focus on! (And, perhaps, you'll also gain a fun story to tell in our EU4 thread.)
Great, you just chose to allow your national stability to reach -3, whatever that means, and your peasants have risen up in glorious revolution. Now you have information about what stability is and does — information that you can use in the future. As a bonus, you get the fun of crushing the revolutionary swine of your own people and reminding them that a king doesn’t need to know what stability, or admin points or overextension are; that’s what he has advisors for.
Unless he doesn’t know what advisors are for, in which case shut up anyway, peasants!
4) Whatever it is, it’s neither as good nor as bad as you think it is. You’ve somehow gotten England, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and, for no good reason at all, Denmark to organize in a coalition against you. Really, Denmark? After that summer we had together in Pomerania?
The war has not gone well. Your army is smashed, your manpower is all but gone, all of your regions have bad-guy troops standing on them, and you’re penniless. It’s game over, right?
Nope. This is what they call a "setback," but in the end what’s going to happen is you’re going to give up some territory, maybe some money, maybe some other stuff, and then it’s going to be over and people are going to leave you in peace for a while as you pick up the broken shards of your empire and rebuild.
You don’t have an army anymore, but you know what that means? You’re also not paying for an army, which means you’ve got more money coming in to direct to the things you need like raising an even bigger army with bigger guns and maybe dragons -- side note: probably not, dragons. You don’t have as big an empire, but you also don’t have the same kinds of infrastructure costs you did that leech resources from all corners. It’s funny, but countless times after a swift global beating, I’ve found myself thinking, “Oh, wait. Suddenly my country is easier to run. I know just how I’m going to get back in the game!”
And you know what’s going to happen someday? Someday Denmark is going to get in another fight with the Pomeranians who they didn’t notice are now allied with Lithuania and Poland, and when they ask if you want to come help you can answer, “actually, Denmark, what I’d really like to do is just annex Holstein from you while your army is tied up with about 100,000 Eastern European troops.”
Conversely, you should be most worried at the moments where you think you’re invincible. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it sure was burned to the ground in one.
5) Watch someone else play. I know Let’s Plays on YouTube aren’t for everyone, but the easiest way for me to finally break through understanding how this game works was just watching a few. If you’re worried that by watching you’re going to ruin the surprise, don’t be. The only thing that’s for sure is that your game, your world, your events, your troubles and your successes will be nothing like anyone else’s. When Venice suddenly annexes half of Hungary, or Sweden inherits Scotland as part of a Personal Union, or Aragon breaks free of Castile to become the main Mediterranean power, or Burgundy becomes the primary power in Central Europe, or countless other permutations of random awesomeness occur, you’re going to have plenty of surprise on your plate.
What you will get from watching someone else is a sense of how everything in the game is really tied together into a few core concepts, and the beginnings of an understanding that the game is really about manipulating the variables in the global simulation system to output a specific result. It’s a game about decision making and consequences. Where Starcraft or Civilization games are about a mechanical process to achieve an objective, Europa Universalis is more about finding a way to take advantage (or at least minimize the awfulness) of the situations you are confronted with. Defeating an enemy country isn’t about rushing to some arbitrary state of war preparedness faster than they do, it’s about recognizing and taking advantage of the moment in the game where you can exploit their weakness.
Unlike most games, it’s not your job to make things happen in Europa Universalis — though the more you play, the more you will learn how you can make things happen when the time is right. At first it’s just about surviving in a breathing world. The game will teach you in a very non-linear way about what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong.
A good place to start if you want to see someone go over the basics of the game is here . There’s also this little nugget of a document. But in the end, the best thing you can do is start up a game, start time a-rolling along at a reasonable speed, wait until something happens that seems like it requires your attention, and then see if you can figure out how to fix it.