Given its critical and commercial levels of success, Crusader Kings II might turn out to be the gateway drug people needed to get involved with Paradox strategy titles. Paradox knows it too, because Europa Universalis IV appears to be taking several user interface and design cues from that title, making it a (whisper it softly) far more intuitive game to play than some of their previous efforts. This should dramatically reduce the strain on national trauma wards, who can only look after so many patients that convulse at the sight of large, colourful maps.
I’m by no means a veteran of grand strategydom. Crusader Kings II was the first game from that stable that I’ve actually enjoyed (and enjoyed a whole lot, thanks to its familial backstabbing.) I found Victoria II to be an awkward, bloated mess of confusion, while Sengoku turned out to be a pleasant but ultimately hollow endeavour. Crusader Kings II, though, seemed to get the Paradox formula of ‘pick a fun looking country and go nuts’ just about right.
This is my first Europa Universalis title, so I’m afraid I’ll have to leave the in-depth comparisons to previous titles for others to handle. What I can say is that, despite my unfamiliarity with the series, a lot of the functionality of Europa Universalis IV comes quite naturally, and I think much of that is down to the hours I’ve put into CKII.
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In this title, the timeframe spans the mid 1400s to the early 1800s. Bridging the gap, in other words, between the medieval antics of Crusader Kings and the significant industrialisation of Victoria. The majority of powerful, Western European nations in this game are concerned with formalising the boundaries of a nation state, transitioning to a more democratic form of government, trade, influence and colonisation of the Americas.
True to form for Paradox, you can choose to play as pretty much any historic nation from Europe or Asia, with a smattering of options in North Africa and the Americas too. Opting to play as England or Spain seemed a touch on the obvious side, though. So I decided to sign on with the Ming Dynasty (effectively in control of much of the territory that forms modern day China.) Mostly because I thought it would be funny if almost-China colonised America before Europe did. Also because I covet decorative vases.
Europa Universalis IV put the breaks on that colonisation idea pretty sharpish by hitting me with some unhelpful national modifiers. The Ming Dynasty starts you off with some solid trade routes, bountiful tax income and the capability for a vast army, but it also lumbers you with something called “inward perfection.” This raises the costs of all technological research, apparently to reflect that the nation is inward-looking and views external influence with borderline xenophobia. It’s possible to ‘westernise’ and overcome this, but that brings its own troubles and stability costs.
I’m really not too sure how broadly historical “the Chinese are afraid of technology” is as a concept, but I guess those are the shortcuts you need to make when allowing people to play as almost any nation in the world ever.
Alongside tax and trade income (measured in ducats,) your most important renewable resources are ‘monarchy points.’ These are generated in three areas (administration, diplomacy and military) by the aptitude of your current ruler, the skill of his advisors and various other modifiers that may be in play at any given time. Raising your tech level is now a matter of gathering up a whole lot of these points and blowing them on a fancy new concept for your nation.
To give you an idea how handicapped the Ming Dynasty is in this respect, figuring out how to become a ‘feudal monarchy’ was going to cost me 1,600 admin points. That’s actually about 50 more than I was allowed to store at any one time. How, then, was I going to research anything of value?
Simple. Kick out the stale, boring Bureaucratic faction and let the slightly more forward-thinking Eunuchs have a go. Ming has a unique three-faction system which can help (or hinder) with certain aspects of national development. The Taoist faction, for instance, just go loopy for a decent war against some Buddhists. With deft use of your administrative points and wise decisions in some of the random events that pop up, it’s fairly straightforward to get the chaps you want in power.
Once the Eunuchs were calling the shots, research costs fell to somewhat more manageable (albeit still really expensive) levels.
Since my dreams of seeing the magnificent Ming on the western shores of the Americas were on hold for an indefinite time, I started to tackle a few of Europa Universalis IV’s national missions instead. Like the personal goals in Crusader Kings II, you can have one of these on the go at any time and the game will reward you for completing the task. In general, it’s expected that you set up your own goals and aims, but these missions are a way of adding a little more structure.
Thanks to those pointers, I expanded my army, improved relations with Korea, cemented a political marriage with Manchu and reclaimed some land from the Mongols on the grounds of religious persecution. In this game, it’s always best to have an excuse if you want to go to war with someone. It’s as if the world is an easily distracted PE Teacher, happy to wave away any concerns if you have some sort of note but wrathful if you have no good reason for skipping swimming/invading Poland this week.
In the fancy lingo of Europa Universalis IV an “excuse for war” is known as a “Casus Belli.” These aren’t too tricky to establish. You might have an age-old claim to the land, or maybe the country just insulted you. If all else fails you can always send a diplomat to just fabricate a claim. Spurious reasons for war: keeping arms dealers employed since … always.
At this point I’m going to start another sentence with “If you played Crusader Kings II …” If you played … well, you know. The system of war operates in a similar way, with the opportunity to sue for peace once your main war goal is obtained. Being victorious in battle and occupying territories will increase your overall war score and make your foes more likely to cut a deal. It’s a sensible system, and should make conflicts a little more realistic. There’ll be no more situations with (say) Spain refusing to give up a lone, distant territory until you literally have troops setting fire to Madrid.
The trade system, I must confess, was a bit more of a mystery to me. I’m sure it’ll click before too long, but during my hours with this preview code I was mostly just relying on the fact that Ming had a virtual tea monopoly and the ready-made fleets to enforce it. The trade map shows the flow of goods between the various trade ‘nodes’ around the (known) world, and owning provinces near those nodes increase your influence over the trade there. To further secure it, you can plant some light shipping in the oceans nearby. I think. Probably.
Once you’ve got a fairly solid grip on the trade in a given node, you’ll want to send a merchant to set up an office there and start skimming off some of the lovely revenue. Every nation starts with a couple of merchants, and it’s possible to increase this number through researching relevant trade-related ideas. Merchants can also sit on distant trade nodes and ‘direct’ the flow towards your nearby ports. This, I think, also helps to boost revenue.
There is (inevitably) more to it than that but, as with a lot of the features of Europa Universalis IV, you can at least engage with the trade mechanic up to the point where it’s making you a little bit of cash without needing further guidance.
That’s the attitude found throughout the rest of the game, really. The tutorial will teach you the minimal basics of how to run a nation, and the majority of features are intuitive and accessible enough to allow you to explore them a little more on your own. As you improve, you’ll probably seek to wring every last drop of efficiency from your tea-leaf trade empire. At the outset though, you can get away with leaving it be.
Having mostly played around with the Ming Dynasty, I was impressed that it felt as though I was playing a distinct nation rather than a simple palette change with some slightly different units. While I’m sure that’s not the case for every minor country in the game, it’s marvellous that the “bigger” players will each have a unique feel. I’m still not too sure why my researchers are so inept, but my dream of setting foot on the New World won’t go quietly to the grave.
If you’ve approached some of Paradox’s more recent offerings, Europa Universalis IV should have a certain familiarity about it. Interface navigation and style (sliders are out, buttons are in) are very Crusader Kings II in their execution, as is the prettier-than-ever Clausewitz Engine powered map. But even those without prior knowledge of CKII should be able to find their way around. If you’ve not dabbled with a Paradox grand strategy game before, there may be no friendlier time to try.
Europa Universalis IV will be released on 13 August.