A while back I was lamenting the state of computer games today, how they're ugly, uninteresting and desperately in need of some diversity. But I also allowed that there might be some hidden gems out there that I wouldn't have heard of since I don't follow the computer game scene anymore. So I poked around on The Underdogs to see if anything caught my eye. Something did.

So a few weeks later I ordered a copy of Europa Universalis II, a 2001 game by an outfit from Sweden. This is basically Sim History. You start in 1419 (in the main game; you can also choose smaller games that begin later) and influence the military, economic, diplomatic and religious history of the country of your choice for four full centuries. This plays out on a gorgeous antique map, with individualized pieces for different parts of the world; you can also peek at cities and potential colony sites and such. The art is fab and mercifully free of hideous 3D crap.

I say this is Sim History because it's not really a game so much as one of Maxis's "software toys," a la Sim City. Your goal is not to conquer the world, unless you want it to be, and then you're likely to fail. This is not like Risk where your armies will be sweeping across continents. The size of your army is limited by the strength of your economy and the shape of your demographics. What's more, you can't just declare war willy-nilly; if you don't have a casus belli, a recognized reason to attack someone, declaring war will seriously destabilize your society and anger other world powers. Even if you do have a casus belli — and acquiring one, however specious, is part of the strategy — long wars tend to exhaust the patience of your populace, and you may find rebellions springing up all over your empire. When you win a battle, you can't just rush onward; you have to have at least part of your battalion stick around and besiege the city or your supply lines will get cut off. And you can't actually take possession of a province except via peace treaty. All this makes for an experience that's much deeper, more realistic, and more fun than building a big army in Ireland and watching it roll all the way to Kamchatka.

So it's not Risk; it's not Civilization either. As with Civ, you're directing how your technology will advance, and different nations have different characteristics (which can be altered slowly over time or dramatically via historical events), but you don't have chieftain Abraham Lincoln building the Great Wall in 3500 BCE and going several millennia without encountering another civilization. Civilization II had 21 civilizations available, from which you selected seven. Europa Universalis II has over two hundred and at any given time most of them are active. Countries merge and fall apart, independence movements spring up, alliances and confederations are formed and broken. Monarchs, each with his or her own characteristics, rise to the throne and die at the same points they did in reality (unless you do something to really throw the timeline off... Louis XVI can last well past 1789 if things break a certain way, for instance). The same goes for generals and explorers — and yes, whom you have leading a battalion plays a role in the outcome. (So does the weather. This thing is incredibly detailed.)

However, the instructions are not very good, and while there's a tutorial that shows you how to move your ships around and send merchants to trade centers and so forth, it's still bewildering to be dropped into a campaign for the first time. My first time out I decided to try playing France, and immediately hundreds of messages were whipping by, I was being deluged with offers for trade agreements and royal marriages, I had dozens of provinces I had to tend to— eeeagh! The learning curve is really steep. It would have been nice to have some introductory levels like those in Balance of Power (which had a beginning level without the economic or diplomatic components and an intermediate level with the former but without the latter: they gave the new player a manageable amount to keep track of the first time out). I decided France was way too big a country to handle for my maiden campaign. I tried the Navajos instead. This time I had nothing to do; I was centuries away from being able to develop explorers, and was never going to be equipped to take on the few societies I knew about, like the Aztecs. I switched to Switzerland, figuring it was tiny enough to manage but smack in the middle of western Europe instead of out in the desert... and was immediately gobbled up by Austria. Ireland had the same problems, only this time England was the gobbler. Finally, I decided to try a country with only a handful of provinces, no immediately hostile neighbors, and first crack at exploring the outside world: Portugal.

Now, to an extent the exploration is a crock, because EU2 only uses a historical map and not a generated one, so you know what you're going to find and where. But hey. My first job was getting disentangled from North Africa; I quickly made peace with Fez and Morocco and Algiers, gave up my African holdings, and sent my explorers to grab some new ones. I ended up setting up trading posts from Mauritania down to Guinea; I couldn't go farther because my ships kept running out of supplies. Establishing an actual colony at Dakar gave me a port to use as a staging area for further expeditions, but that was expensive so the actual expeditions had to wait. (I also tagged the Carolinas just to say I'd reached North America in the mid-1400s.)

I love exploration and colonization games, so I was having a great old time, and I liked being able to ignore all the drama happening in Europe. Slowly I built up my finances and established a vast colonial empire stretching from Newfoundland to Massachusetts, from the Chesapeake to South Carolina, from Recife to Rio de Janeiro, and from Namibia to Mozambique. (The Treaty of Tordesillas allowed me to expand my West African holdings by snatching French colonies without penalty.) Meanwhile, Castile was unable to completely annex Aragon, so Spain ended up missing a chunk of its historical territory, handicapping one of my main competitors. Whoo.

But I became a victim of my own success. I'd put at least a few hundred soldiers in each of my trading posts and colonies, and tiny Portugal couldn't support that huge a military. My economy began to tank, and to keep the soldiers paid, I took out loan after loan. Portugal went bankrupt, the government fell, and half my army deserted. And I still couldn't afford to pay the rest! I ended up disbanding almost my entire army, leaving my colonies with no protection at all. This meant I had to be sure not to make any enemies. Certainly not Spain. And not England either.

Interestingly, after Bloody Mary's short reign from 1553 to 1558, Elizabeth I took the English throne... and stayed Catholic. This meant no Anglo-Iberian tension, and thus when England offered a military alliance I accepted (couldn't afford to turn it down, lest England start grabbing all my colonies). England promptly got into a war with Denmark. Me, I decided that now that England (which controlled Maine and thus would have been able to try to grab my North American holdings) was on my side, I was free to try to seize the immensely valuable Manhattan from the Lenape. I build a fleet of warships, piled troops onto them, dropped them off in Maryland, and sent the fleet home for another pickup — where it was promptly sunk off the Portuguese coast by the Danes. Eeeagh! Denmark demanded a huge cash settlement in exchange for peace. I couldn't afford it. Denmark took over western Newfoundland. Arrr. This time I forked over the money.

I decided I'd best get my economy in gear. My main problem was that Portugal itself was so small that it didn't produce much revenue: a little fish, a little wine, but that was about it. I needed to start turning some of my many trading posts into full-fledged colonies. I started bulking up Roanoke, Charleston, Recife, Rio, Louga, Cape Town and Ciskei. (From Ciskei I explored the eastern African coast and landed in southwestern India, but never made anything much of these outposts.) I also placed merchants all over: Paris, London, Venice, Genoa, Seville. Lisbon became a huge trade center and I controlled it. Manhattan was an even bigger one and I controlled that too; I put a trade embargo on the Iroquois, Huron, Dakota and Shawnee and grabbed nearly all Western Hemisphere trade revenue for myself. I became the #1 economic power in the world, and stayed that way for the rest of the game.

Indeed, I could have just coasted for the last couple of centuries... but what fun would that have been? I could have done that as the Navajos! Instead, I found myself taking a long look at Andalusia. Just over the border from Algarve... one quick strike, and I could take over Spain's economic and naval capital... all I needed was a casus belli. Luckily, Spain had a lot of enemies. I allied with Austria and France. France and Spain got into a war. This gave me the go ahead to, er, defend my ally. Soon Seville was mine and I held the three most lucrative trade centers on the planet. Spain could no longer afford to keep up its huge empire, tried to finance it through loans, and went bankrupt. Spain's South American territories defected to Portugal and suddenly I had territory extending into Colombia, Ecuador, Peru. Extremadura defected to me as well and suddenly Portugal had doubled in width.

By contrast, Spain and especially France began to fragment. At the same time Extremadura joined up with me, Navarre declared independence, as did Catalunya — and as did Brittany and Provence. Brittany quickly swallowed most of France, leaving it as a thin rump state stretching from Lille to Bern. Brittany and Provence (and Colombia, or at least the one province of it that hadn't defected to me) declared war on Spain, and I signed up for that alliance... a couple of times... and ended up reducing Spain to Greater Madrid, where I was content to leave it. I was now the #2 power in the world, behind only Austria. Spain was #92. But...

...remember that war exhaustion I mentioned earlier? While I was busy polishing off Spain, my North American colonies had revolted... and the moment I my annexation treaty was complete, I found myself back at war — with the United States of America. New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia were now under the control of George Washington. (I would have been even more impressed if his name had been Jorge Washingtao.) Reconquering the USA became my goal for the endgame... it took a while, because first I had to reduce it to its capital (Philadelphia) and then find an excuse to declare war again. I ended up taking on the Iroquois as well. And that was that. Elapsed time in the game, 401 years; in real life, six weeks. Great fun if you like history at all, and if the openendedness of it doesn't appeal to you, you can always turn on Mission Mode and the program will give you specific things to do. My current mission is to pick a new country. Delhi, perhaps... oh, or maybe the Maya...

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