Europa Universalis IV
Paradox Interactive, 2013

I play very, very few video games, but I did play Europa Universalis II and III back in the day, so I thought I'd try the update.  These games are crazy-deep simulations of world history from the mid-15th century to the early 19th; there are over four thousand provinces and over six hundred countries, and among the things you have to keep track of are:

  • Type of government:  Tribal democracy?  Merchant republic?  Celestial empire?  There are several dozen types.  In the game I played last month, I played Aragon, which started as a feudal monarchy; I switched it to a despotic one after I'd annexed Naples and no longer needed feudalism's vassal bonus.  As a monarchy, you need to make sure you always have an heir or you risk becoming the junior partner in a personal union.  I was lucky enough to get the "Talented and Ambitious Daughter" event early on and enabled female heirs, and wound up getting three successive long-lived queens (Estrella I, reigned 1486-1519; Alejandra, reigned 1519-1563; Estrella II, reigned 1563-1606), which gave my country a lot of stability; the two Estrellas even had really good stats that gave me leadership bonuses.

  • Administrative, diplomatic, and military advisors:  These guys will bump up some of your stats by a few percentage points.  Much more about this later.

  • Accepted cultures:  My stability was high enough that I didn't have to worry about ethnic uprisings as I expanded into Italy, England, Castile, and France, where culture clash could otherwise have been a problem.

  • Rivals:  This is a new wrinkle — you suffer bonuses unless you pick a specified number of countries of roughly your strength as rivals.  Designating a country as a rival guarantees poor relations but gives you bonuses for victories you score against them.  My main rivals early on were Castile, France, and England.

  • Alliances and royal marriages:  These tend to go hand in hand.  Naturally enough, your allies will generally be the enemies of your enemies, so mine were Portugal, Milan, and Scotland, and they came in very handy — while the Scots kept the English army busy along Hadrian's Wall, I could pick off provinces along the Channel coast, and while the Milanese kept the French army busy along the Rhône, I could pick off provinces along the Atlantic.  The royal marriages not only kept me from wars of succession, but my house, the Trastámaras, eventually inherited the Scottish throne.

  • Spy networks and covert actions:  I didn't use these nearly as much as the AIs did, but again, my stability was so high that the French attempts to corrupt my officials and support rebel uprisings came to nothing.  Furthermore, my economy was so strong that the trade hit I took when the French slandered my merchants was no big deal.  Which brings me to:

  • Taxation, production, and tariffs:  Keeping my revenue above my costs was a tenuous thing early on, but once my treasury had passed a few hundred ducats I never looked back — by the end of the game I had virtually infinite money, enough to build several Suez Canals if I'd had a mind to.  I never took out a loan, and inflation was never a problem, even after I colonized Australia and started receiving regular treasure fleets.  I think that adding churches and marketplaces to your provinces to add a few hundredths of a percent to your income is supposed to be a big part of the game, but I ignored it from about the year 1600 on.

  • Trade:  In EU2 and EU3, trade basically consisted of (a) capturing as many trade nodes as possible and (b) knocking rival merchants out of trade nodes both near and far and sending your own in.  This was very tedious.  EU4 replaces the musical chairs routine with a network of trade flows, and your merchants either collect from the trade in a node or steer it to another node.  I was never clear on the point of steering (collecting always seemed more lucrative) and I feel like much of this aspect of the game was lost on me.  (It was only relatively late that I discovered that there were huge bonuses for sending ships to the trade nodes, for instance.)

  • Technology and military units:  There are three types of technology (administrative, diplomatic, and military), and you can favor one type of development over others, but this isn't Civilization — development is linear along each branch and is mainly just a matter of accruing small bonuses.  Each time you bump up a level on the military scale, however, you are likely to get a chance to choose what kind of units to upgrade to: Austrian-style Grenzer infantry with its emphasis on defense?  Swedish-style Caroline infantry with its emphasis on offense?  Or regular line infantry with a balance between defense and offense, but an emphasis on firepower over shock?

  • Ideas:  You can shape your country's strength and weaknesses on a grander scale by choosing ideas to focus on.  When playing these "4X" games I am mostly interested in the first two X's, so the first two idea groups I selected were "exploration" and "expansion".  Next I added "economics" (self-explanatory), then "influence" (since it looked like it would allow me to expand faster without war), and then for my first military idea group, I wound up going with "quantity", because I happened to be next to France, the country with the most military manpower in the world at the time.  Levée en masse!

  • Missions, decisions, and policies:  Most of the missions seemed to be about conquering random provinces in exchange for minor bonuses, so I passed.  Under national decisions, I went ahead with some of the obvious ones, like passing the Act of Uniformity in order to increase the strength of my missionaries, but I deliberately did not choose the option to form Spain after conquering Castile.  (Fun fact: both England and Castile had colonies at the time that all their European provinces were taken over, so instead of ceasing to exist, their capitals were simply moved to their new centers of population.  It was kind of amusing to look up England in the ledger and see it defined as a kingdom in Oceania with its capital at Hanuabada, eastern Papua.  A few years later, the capital of Castile was Yos Sudarso, southern Papua!  On the map, the western half of the island of New Guinea said "Castile" and the eastern half said "England"!  Portugal didn't have to relocate quite so far — its new capital was Mauritius.)  As for policies — I didn't even notice that button until I started this article.  Whoops.

  • Stability and war exhaustion, overexpansion, and states:  I remembered that in EU2, low stability meant spending the game chasing rebels around, so I knew going in that I would want to keep mine high.  It wasn't until halfway through the game that I discovered that war exhaustion could be reduced with diplomacy points, and since I always had lots of those, I was able to keep wars going long enough to conquer a lot of territory.  But one of the defining elements of the Europa Universalis series is that provinces are won at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield.  You can conquer half a country and find that it's only willing to part with one of the ten provinces you're occupying.  In previous installments of this series you could try to conquer the rest of the country and then annex everything but the capital — in total defeat, it had no choice but to acquiesce — but in EU4, overextension dramatically increases the likelihood of rebel factions springing up to resist incorporation into your empire.  Much of my game was spent annexing a string of provinces, using administrative points to add the new provinces to my "core" territory, watching the clock as this lengthy process unfolded, using military points to tamp down uprisings in the meantime, and then spending even more administrative points to incorporate the newly "cored" provinces into states before setting out to conquer a new string of provinces.  In North Africa, there was also the matter of converting the Sunni residents to Catholicism, which brings me to:

  • Religion:  Coptic Christian?  Ibadi Muslim?  Vajrayana Buddhist?  Tengri?  Zoroastrian?  Not only are there over two dozen religions represented in the game, but they're not interchangeable the way they are in Civilization IV — Buddhist leaders suffer military penalties if their karma is too high, and diplomatic penalties if their karma is too low; Hindu republics choose a patron deity at every election, with (e.g.) better fort defense under Vishnu but more amicable foreign relations under Ganesha; Nahuatl leaders will all find themselves sacrificed to the gods when DOOMSDAY strikes.  Aragon was Catholic, of course, meaning that I had to spend a lot of time managing my relations with the papacy.  Due to all the overseas converts I made as the leading colonial power, these relationships were usually good — at any given time I usually had half a dozen cardinals kicking around, and there were a number of Aragonese popes over the years — but Estrella I did wind up getting excommunicated due to the machinations of rival powers.  The excommunication was lifted before she died, though!

  • Estates:  And on top of all of this there's also the matter of keeping the clergy, nobility, and merchants happy, by granting them land and deciding in their favor when disputes among them crop up.  I usually favored the nobility over the clergy, because the clergy could be bought off with a "generous donation", and as noted, I had enough money for hundreds of generous donations.  Meanwhile, a suitably pampered nobility could be tapped for significantly better generals than my weak military tradition would allow.  Oh yeah — did I mention that you assign individual generals to particular armies, much as you assign individual explorers to flotillas of ships and individual conquistadors to the expeditions on those ships, each with different stats?  I managed to hire Christopher Columbus after Portugal rejected his proposal to sail for the Indies.  It occurs to me that it was around that time that Estrella I's heir was announced — I would not be totally shocked if behind the scenes the game had decided that Columbus was Princess Alejandra's daddy.

I have to admit that to a great extent this is just a repeat of my EU2 article from back in '03.  Once again, the distinctive thing about the game is the staggering amount of detail, and I haven't even mentioned other factors that come into play, like the weather (whoops! EU4 has Southern Hemisphere snowstorms in February!), and the commodities each province produces (the rise of Protestantism means less demand for fish! chocolate imports decrease citizen unrest!), and whether slavery is legal in each country, and whether divorce is legal in each country…  I've pointed out some of the changes, and I could mention a few more: for instance, the music is actually a lot worse in the new version, as the rotation is quite limited and in the many, many hours it takes to play through even a single game the soundtrack grows gratingly monotonous.  The game has upgraded to a 3D engine, which may elicit a shrug given that this is still very much a map-based game, but it is kind of fun to zoom all the way in on Australia and see the little 3D animated kangaroos.  There's more automation, some of it required: you send explorers off on missions rather than directing their ships yourself, and annoyingly, once your colonies get sufficiently large, they get assigned a viceroy and become de facto independent nations.  Fortifications now block the movement of enemy armies.  But the big change, for me, was that you can now select a random New World; one of the things that made EU2 less than wholly satisfying was that it was an exploration game in which you always knew exactly what you'd find, so it was initially thrilling to chart new islands and continents in EU4, never knowing what the next expedition would reveal.  But I soon found that fighting with rival powers over "Sorqa" and "Hollstopple" was a lot less interesting than fighting over Mexico and Argentina.  That genuinely surprised me, and I don't think it was true when I was playing similar games decades ago like Colonization and Seven Cities of Gold.  Maybe the difference is that I've spent the past ten years auditing history classes so the real-world locales have deeper associations for me now.

But I guess the main thing that struck me about Europa Universalis IV was this.  As much as I admire the depth of the EU games, in every article I've written about the series I've noted that they can actually be kind of boring.  One reason is that they're so open-ended — there's no goal, so you end up launching wars just because it's something to do.  But another reason is that so much of the game is about scratching out little marginal advantages.  It's not like Civilization in which building the Great Library means you can reroute all scientific funding because any technology developed by two other countries will be granted to you.  In EU4, I switched from a feudal to a despotic monarchy so that the autonomy of my provinces would decrease by 0.025 points per month.  I had Estrella I hire a naval advisor named Catalina Berguedà for 1.24 ducats a month in order to increase Aragon's colonial range from 412 units to 467.  I commissioned a national epic which improved the morale of my soldiers by 0.1%.  Yawn.  But all those tiny advantages added up to determine who won when my army of 143,000 fought to take Paris from 130,000 French and Mainzian troops and their morale was at 0.2% and mine was at 0.3%.  Now consider: why was I playing EU4 last month anyway?  The answer is that I thought that before diving back into working on the Photopia book I should build my savings up a bit so I wouldn't be distracted by worrying about whether I'd be able to pay my bills, and after putting in a full day of work — out of the house at 9 a.m. and home at 10 p.m., some days — I can't really focus on anything more taxing than a computer game.  EU4 seemed like less of a pure waste of time than, say, Hexxagon.  And I can't help but notice that building up my savings feels much more like EU than Civ.  As Aragon, every month I would receive my taxation income and production income and trade income, and pay out my army maintenance and fleet maintenance and colony maintenance, and occasionally a noble family would request aid and I'd hand over a couple hundred ducats, and I'd hope to come out ahead.  In real life, every month I receive my Patreon donations and my Ready, Okay! royalties and a couple of tutoring checks, and pay my rent and my Internet and power bills, and shell out for the occasional car registration renewal or unexpected hospital visit, and it really is a matter of trying to up the surplus by a few decimal points.  The office assigns me a new student, and I calculate how much more income that will bring in, and subtract the outlay for gasoline and taxes, and I say, "All right! That's an extra 1.8% in take-home! Hot diggity!"  And just like in EU4 when I set the clock to top speed and watch the months fly by until all those 1.8%s add up to enough for me to field an army that can grab another province, in real life I cross my fingers and hope that those 1.8%s eventually add up to the chance to finish another book.  The problem is that the clock in real life doesn't seem any slower than the one in EU4.  You start a book in 2009, put it down to attend to some other projects, and suddenly 2017 is in sight.  Seriously — my kingdom for a giant pause button like the one at the top right corner of this article.

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