by Greg Costikyan
Two streams precede and inform the digital games revolution: the arcade, and hobby games. Curiously, most historical works on the field discuss the first but rarely the second, perhaps betraying the console orientation of most gamers: console games grew out of the arcade game phenomenon of the 80s, and arcade games were closely linked in their early days with pinball, exploiting the same distribution channels and basic business model. Computer games, in their infancy, were more strongly influenced by hobby games, because most computer game developers had previously played roleplaying games, wargames, or both. Hobby games and programming are alike, in that they attract the kind of geeky intellect fascinated by rules-based complexity.
As a consequence, early computer games often sought to model complex phenomena – games like Balance of Power or SimCity or Civilization; games that viewed the opportunity offered by computers not as a way to create another form of the deratiocinated, mass-market pabulum that dominates other entertainment industries, but as a means of bringing deeper, more meaningful engagement to the world. The proud boast of the Avalon Hill boardgame catalog had been that they offered “games for smart people;” computers, by hiding the complexity of deep games in code, offered a way to create games for smart people that could reach a wider audience. While others were hammering on arcade buttons and watching little sprites go “bloop” and “bleep,” computer gamers were plotting world conquest, trying to control nuclear reactors on the verge of meltdown, and building cities.
Serious simulation and strategy games have been marginalized as the industry has come to focus relentlessly on best-selling genres and the lowest common denominator, but they retain a fanatical if limited following, and are now sold mainly via direct download online. Among the best is Europa Universalis, now
in version III.
EU III is not a simple game. It is not for those whose idea of complexity is a game that uses the shoulder buttons. Indeed, it seemingly defies many of the assumptions most have about the nature of “videogames” – that they have something to do with the visuals, for a start. EU III does have animated little soldiers that move about the map, and provinces you can click on, and a visual representation of the capital city of each province that shows the constructions it contains, but fundamentally, the heart of the game is in text and numbers. As a player, you spend your time monitoring your stability, displayed as a number from -3 to +3 at the top of the screen; checking how you are investing your tax revenues, and adjusting sliders to spend more or less on different things; pondering your domestic policy sliders and which to adjust next, and considering your relationship rating (a number from -200 to +200) with other powers, and whether it’s worth trying to change it. You’re always aware of your income, your rate of inflation, and your maximum manpower, and you’re juggling many different factors, trying to keep any one from spinning out of control.
EU III makes few concessions to its complexity, either; although it has a “tutorial,” this is little more than a set of paragraphs you page through, with various control features being circled as you do. It may teach you the bare bones of the game’s interface, but good luck trying to run a country after going through it. EU III is a game where you do have to “read the fucking manual;” and if it were a person, it would have a chip on its shoulder about that: any idiot can play Zelda, it takes a real gamer to play a game like EU. The manual is only a start, in fact; if you want to play it well, you’re well advised to spend some time prowling the developer’s forums for strategy advice. Civilization, which is about as hardcore a simulation game as most gamers experience, a game of fair depth and complexity, is as transparent as cubic zirconium by comparison to EU.
And yet for those who trouble to master its complexities, EU is an utterly fascinating game, one of the best of its type ever developed — infinitely replayable, enormously diverse, supporting a huge range of viable strategies, and with a deep and deeply enjoyable connection to history.
EU runs from 1453 to 1789 — from the fall of Constantinople to the French Revolution — though expansions have increased its scope from 1399 to 1821, to take in the tag end of the Hundred Years’ War and the Napoleonic Era. You can start on any date in between, though the interface presents you with a series of set dates for interesting eras. You can play literally any country in existence in the period, from large powers like France or the Ottomans to the Cherokee or Congolese — albeit you probably won’t get very far with one of the latter.
Perhaps the best way to give a sense of the depth of the game is to show it in action. Let’s start as Austria in 1453; Austria’s a good choice for a new player, it’s not so large as to be overwhelming, but also not so small as to be a huge challenge.
Your monarch at start is Ladislas Posthumus; at least with the expansions, you receive historical monarchs on an historical schedule. Ladislas has two stars in military, making him competent on that score, and three in diplomacy and administration, which is quite good. In general, Austria tends to have good diplomats as its rulers, which is important for its survival and growth.
Austria begins with eight provinces: Wien, Linz, Steiermark, Kärnten, Krain, Tirol, Trent, and Breisgau, along with an army of 17,000 men (5000 of it cavalry), and a small fleet, in Krain, of three cogs and two galleys. Tirol and Wien are the most populous provinces, and Tirol, Krain, and Kärnten all produce gold, which gives you a nice initial tax base — but has the downside that gold production contributes
Keeping the game paused, the first thing to do is to check on the overall national aspects. Austria is a feudal monarchy, with an honorable reputation and a nice initial prestige of 27; prestige is gained mainly through conquest, and lost mainly through refusing an ally’s request to assist them. Whether or not an action affects your prestige is rarely your most important concern, but high prestige does give you bonuses to production, military morale, and so on, so it’s nice to have.
Initially, the Moslem world loathes you, the rest of the Holy Roman Empire (you are the Emperor) likes you well enough, Portugal also likes you since you have a royal marriage with them, and the rest of Christendom is lukewarm. You are at war with nobody, which is a relief.
You have three advisors, two excellent and one superb; the superb one is Nikolaus von Kues, who provides +15 to production tech advance, which is very nice indeed. Ulrich von Cilli provides +9 to government tech advance, which is also nice; and Ulrich von Eyezing provides -0.15 to reputation. (Positive “reputation” points means you are viewed as less than totally honorable, makes your diplomatic efforts more difficult, and in extreme cases causes the rest of the world to declare war on you, so reducing it is good.) The first two are advisors the like of which you will only rarely have for the rest of history; von Eyezing is run of the mill. Since you are honorable at present, you might consider firing him, and hiring someone else more likely to be immediately useful; doing so, I find Piero in my available pool, who provides +12 investment to stability, and since we are currently less than maximally stable (at +1 in the -3 to +3 range), that’s useful.
The next thing to check are the economic sliders; these are, in fact, absolutely critical, and something you will refer to constantly during play. These sliders determine how your monthly taxes are spent. You’ll see that all sliders are positioned at the same point, meaning they’re all set equally; you will most definitely not want this.
To start with, while you do have a small fleet, Austria is not a major naval power, and unless by some chance you want to participate in colonization in the late game (not an obvious strategy for Austria), you are unlikely ever to need a large fleet. So we slide “Naval” all the way to the left and fix it there (double-clicking to make sure it doesn’t change when other sliders move). Similarly, while trade income is nice and increasingly important as the game goes on, the countries that do best in trade are decentralized, plutocratic, free trade ones — and because Austria is an imperial power that depends on diplomacy and warfare for expansion, you will be playing a centralized, aristocratic, mercantilist one. Nail Trade to zero as well. Doing this doesn’t mean our Naval or Trade tech will never advance — but they will advance much more slowly. But we do free up resources to spend on the things that really matter. Obviously, if we were playing Venice, we’d make different choices.
What’s of primary importance to Austria are Land, Production, and Government. The first increases the combat ability of land units, the second your tax revenues, and the third opens up “national ideas” and technologies. Where you choose to set these sliders is largely a matter of taste — but Von Kues is giving us a nice boost to production, and von Cilli to government tech, so we may not need to spend large amounts of tax revenue on either in addition. Rolling over any of these gives us important information — including the fact that one level increase in Government will give us a “National Idea,” and one level increase in Production will allow us to build Workshops. Workshops are a critical, early game construction, vital to increasing your tax base, and a National Idea is always tasty.
The last two are “Stability” and “Treasury.” Let’s look at Stability first. Mousing over it shows us. In other words, we’re getting 12 points for free because our leader is a decent administrator, another 12 from one of our advisors — and a cool 41 points a month, because we are, by the Grace of God, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Austriae est imperare orbi universo: Screw spending any money on this; though we start off at a stability level of +1, and every increase will improve our finances, we’ll get there remarkably quickly anyway, and can use resources on other things.
Note the numbers “55.7/662.4”; that means we need to accumulate 662 points to get to +2 stability, and points accumulate every month. For us, at least in the early game, stability is hardly an issue; we can do outrageous things, and recover quickly. However, the larger your empire the more points you need to accumulate to increase stability, so by the end game, we will worry about every decision that might threaten it.
As for the Treasury slider — this is a bit more complicated. In addition to your monthly taxes — affected by the sliders — you get a batch of cash at the end of each year. In an ideal world, you use your yearly taxes for all expenses, and devote the entirety of your monthly taxes to technology (and stability) investment. And yet how imperfect is this vale of tears, and how glad we are to know that when the end comes for the Emperor Ladislas he, being a faithful adherent to the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, will go to a better reward in the next one. In the early game, and in moments of stress (like wartime) throughout the game, it will be necessary, or at least useful, to dip into our monthly tax revenue, by setting this slider somewhere less than nailed to the left.
But there is a cost to doing so, because anytime you take money out of your monthly taxes — that is, take it as gold instead of investing — you produce inflation. In Figure 5, you’ll see that Austria’s inflation is 0.0; it will not long remain such. It accumulates over time, and increases the cost of everything you do — but never increases your tax revenues. Let it get out of hand, and you will be badly injured. There are ways of reducing it — one is to adopt the National Idea of a Central Bank (which, as Austria, I do early), and late in the game you can build tax collectors, which also reduce it; but still, your goal must be to minimize inflation whenever you can. Austria actually has a bad problem here, because its gold-producing provinces also increase inflation.
Austria’s yearly taxes are 61.2, at the game start, and our monthly expenses on troops and advisers is 5.2 (as figure 5 shows); 5.2 times 12 is 62.4, so we’re already spending more in a year than our yearly nut, and we definitely need some mony for, e.g., diplomacy with our neighbors. I usually set the Treasury slider so we’re losing 2 gold per month on our expenses (or, to put it another, taking 3.2 gold per month out of our monthly taxes for current expenses). If we do that, we wind up with an annual inflation of 0.23, which is too much (if you compound it over a century, say), but what’s a monarch to do? (Get a Central Bank right quick, that’s what.)
The last thing we need to check is our government sliders. Austria is positioned toward aristocracy, decentralization, narrowmindedness, mercantilism, land over naval, and serfdom; it’s in the middle on troop quality, and whether it prefers offensive or defensive military tactics. At the game start, we can adjust one slider one point in one direction; which you choose depends on your overall strategy, but mousing over anything tells you what a shift does (I’m mousing over “Aristocracy” in Figure 6). Moving in the direction of aristocracy will reduce our trade efficiency — well, we’re screwed there anyway. It will also improve our production (mmm, more taxes), give us more diplomats (which Austria can use), and reduce our cavalry cost, while increasing ship-building costs. Well, we’re not a naval power, and cavalry is the most powerful arm of the army in the early game (not later on, though), so this is good. Aristocracy it is. Making any shift, though, reduces your stability by one, so we’re down to 0; thank goodness for the Holy Roman Empire, which increases our stabiliy rapidly.
Please note I’ve yet to actually play the game; it’s been paused all this time. I’m checking up on what we’ve got to work with, and making decisions for optimal play of Austria — and I would have made different decisions with a different nation, or if my strategy wasn’t based on diplomacy and conquest, as it will be.
Now, at last, we unpause the game. Almost immediately, we will receive some invitations by people who want to ally with us; we don’t have to respond for a month of game time, and the best bet is to wait almost that full month, then pause again, and see what you’ve got. If you agree to one alliance, alliance offers from others will dry up, because you’ve already aligned yourself to some degree; there’s always a spate of diplomacy at game start, and we want to leave our options open. What I particularly want are alliance offers from nearby powers, especially smaller German petty states, because I plan to befriend, vassalize, and annex them without a war. Diplomacy is Austria’s friend.
Sure enough, by the end of the month, I have offers from a number I want — Bohemia, Bavaria, and Wurttemberg among them. I’ll take them all up on it, and Salzburg, too. Most of the rest are trash from the Eastern Med who want my help against the evil Turks, but I really don’t want a war with so major a power early in the game, so Naxos and Albania and the like can just go hang. Urbino is tempting, as they’ll wind up in an Italian war sooner or later, and that will give me a chance of picking up some rich Italian provinces — but no, not this early.
Could I be doing something else? Absolutely; at the start of the game, there’s a Venetian-Milanese war, and one strategy is to intervene immediately, in the hope of picking up an Italian province (where the populations and tax bases are high). Another is to start a war with a smaller German power, and pick up a few provinces from the start, at the cost of a “bad boy” reputation with other powers, and another stability drop (but at a boost to prestige). But I prefer diplomatic conquest, when I can get away with it, and Austrian monarchs tend to have the diplomatic chops to make it feasible.
Not easy; feasible. Here’s what you have to do. First, ally with someone, preferably much smaller than you, and adjoining. Second, form a royal marriage with them — a second diplomatic endeavor, and one they may refuse several times before they ultimately agree. I can only do one diplomatic endeavor with a target each month, so this could take a while — and even as Austria, I’m only producing six diplomats a year. Third, get your “relations” value with them up over 190.
Clicking on Bavaria, I see I’m 100 with them right now; I have some cash at game start, so I send them a diplomatic gift of 13.3 gold. I don’t get to choose the amount — it depends on the size and power of the recipient. Unfortunately, this only increases our relations by 1.2; the amount is semi-random, and depends largely on how good a diplomat I am. That’s a low number — sometimes Ladislas will see boosts of 20 or so with a single gift — but getting even a single power up above 190 can be an expensive proposition, and net of military expenditures, we’re only earning 30 gold per year, now.
Still, not to worry, because after I have a marriage and an alliance, I have to wait TEN YEARS. Ten whole years, before I can vassalize them. When I crank the game’s speed all the way to the max, one day passes in about one second of real time, so a year takes about 6 minutes. Ten years is a full hour of play, more or less. But taking a longer view, the game doesn’t end for almost four hundred years, so what’s a decade?
Vassalizing them will be nice, when I eventually accomplish it, because I’ll get half their taxes — and they won’t start wars on their own and drag me into them any more. In fact, between now and then, I pretty much have to fight when they do get into a war, because otherwise I lose the alliance, and even if I re-establish it later, the ten year clock starts ticking from day one. Luckily, Bavaria doesn’t tend to tangle with major powers. Bohemia could pull me into a war with the Poles, but since the Bohemians aren’t German, my diplomacy with them is a little less effective with them any way; I really want to vassalize the Bavarians, and maybe Wurttemberg, but Bohemia is third best. If I have to blow that alliance off later, well, so be it.
Ten years after I vassalize them, I can try annex them. They can refuse that, too, with a drop in relations requiring more gifts before I can try again — but if my monarch at that time is still a decent diplomat, I should pull it off eventually.
Are you getting the idea that this game isn’t a wargame as we know it? That it’s not a Risk-like game of global conquest? Good. In Europa Universalis, you almost certainly can’t avoid war forever — and if you play aggressively, you can certainly wage a good many wars, if you like that. But there are many paths to expansion, and conquest is only one.
Naturally, gamers tend to be aggressive warmongers, and like to conquer everything in sight. How does EU restrain them from doing so? Another demonstration is in order.
There’s Salzburg, just to my west. It’s a single-province country, easy meat for me to conquer. Though if I wanted to do so, I shouldn’t have allied with them; still, let me save first, so I can recover from this madness, and break the alliance, then
Declaring war on Salzburg will instantly reduce my stability from 0 all the way to -3 — two levels because I have no legitimate casus belli, and one level because Salzburg and Austria are both Catholic nations. -3 is the lowest stability of the game, so low I may start to see rebellions even in my own native provinces. Declaring war will do more; it will also reduce my reputation, and my relationship value with just about every country in the game. Still, Salzburg’s army is puny, and we conquer them readily.
And now what to do?
We could “demand tribute” and then vassalize them, but we’re showing what being an overly aggressive player is like, so the hell with it. Annexation it shall be. (Yes, the English is a little uneven in the dialog here; the developers are Swedish,
We now merely have a ‘respectable’ (rather than honorable) reputation, and have lost 20 relationship points with every power in Christendom, except for our immediately allies (with whom we’ve lost 10 points). Four or five more quick wars like this, and expect to see French, Burgundian, and/or Aragonese troops besieging Vienna. Even if you’re playing a militarily aggressive game, then, you need to spend time to take a breather — to let your bad boy points decay, and your reputation improve before the next unjustifiable war of aggression against a helpless foe.
The worst thing here, though, was that three point stability drop; even a point (for being of the same religion) is bad, but three is horrible. The upshot is that you need to spend ways figuring out how to get legitimate casus belli against people you want to defeat. The easiest way is to get invited into a war by an ally, but you can’t plan that, and sometimes the invitation arrives when you’re not well placed to fight; still, at that point, it’s join in, or suffer a hit to prestige (for refusing an ally’s request for help). And as far as needing a casus belli is concerned, a request from an ally is a freebie.
Some random events will offer a casus belli. You can also gain one on any power with whom you have a marriage by claiming their throne, but this royally pisses off everyone else you have a marriage to. In addition, certain provinces are considered “core” to you, meaning you automatically have a casus belli against anyone who owns one; however, except in certain circumstances (e.g., France in 1453, since England still owns French provinces), this generally means you lost a war to them, which is how they got one of your provinces, and you may not be inclined to fight them again soon.
War in the era is not a matter of fast maneuver and reaction; except in primitive colonial areas, every province is fortified, and conquering it requires a siege. In the early game, pre-cannon, this can take a year to complete; increasingly powerful cannon over the course of the game shorten sieges, but then, nations also develop the technology to build stronger, Vaubanesque fortifications, which take longer to conquer.
A typical victorious war works like this: You send in your one big (or preferably two) armies to defeat the main enemy concentration. Behind, you have several smaller armies, each consisting of a handful of infantry regiments and a cannon or two; they besiege enemy provinces, taking them one by one. In the meantime, your big army is chasing around the enemy one — since you defeated it initially, its morale is shot, and so long as you keep defeating it handily, you’ll continue to do so, barring sudden reinforcements. Quite often, the enemy army winds up retreating back and forth between two provinces, with you following to beat them up again each time they reach their destination — EU players call this “pingponging.”
Ultimately, if all goes well, you and your allies have besieged and taken every single province in the enemy nation. At this point, have you conquered them?
Well, no. I was able to annex Salzburg, but only because it was a single-province nation. At this point, you open negotiations with the defeated enemy, and demand several of their provinces as your prize. Unless this is a one-province nation, they will not surrender their capital province, and you will rarely, if ever, walk away with more than half of what they possess — even if you’ve captured them all. If defeat is total, and you are by far the more powerful nation, you may get them to agree to vassalization — which, if you have a good diplomat ten years later, is good, since you may be able to annex them then.
Fighting a war for a long period has consequences, too. Your population becomes weary, and provinces start to rebel. You are almost certainly devoting more of your monthly taxes to coining money than normal, since you have to pay the salaries of the large army you have raised, so you are investing less in technology, and falling behind your neighbors. And every nation has a manpower cap; it replenishes slowly, but lose too many men in battle, or raise too many units, and you’ll find yourself slowly melting in the face of a more powerful enemy.
In other words, in the real world — even in the real world of the 15th Century, when the nobility, at least, considered war a glorious thing rather than a horror — you can’t just start conquering the world. Trying to do so has consequences, consequences that inevitably act to slow even the most aggressive player: war weariness, inflation, manpower loss, the disapproval of other powers, rebellion. You are, of course, an early modern monarch, and your ultimate goal is the aggrandizement of your state; world conquest would be cool, of course, if impractical. For an experienced player, EU is a flexible enough system that while actually conquering the world is pretty much out of the question, ending the game as the most powerful nation on the planet — even starting as, say, the Palatinate of the Rhine — is not. But you have to be smart about it — you can’t just start invading weaker countries right and left.
Here’s our Austria in 1540, not quite a hundred years on: As you can see, I succeeded in vassalizing and annexing Bavaria, but not with Wurttemberg, which remains independent, nor with Bohemia, which the vile Poles have annexed. A series of wars, some leading to conquests, others to vassalizations and later annexation (and aided by a random event that game me Venice as “core”, and thereby a permanent casus belli on Venice), has allowed me to unite virtually the whole of Italy — many tasty rich provinces there. A war with the Ottomans brought me a chunk of the Balkans.
However, France has turned from a tattered, divided nation into a united powerhouse, and the Burgundians (who still exist, as they did not in reality) are uncomfortably close in Switzerland; the Aragonese still hate me for taking Naples, and Poland and Lithuania — unified under a single crown — rule not only their historic territories, but most of Hungary, bits of the Balkans, and most of the Ukraine. There will be no easy wars hereon.
My underinvestment in Navy, and to a lesser degree Trade, is hurting me now. During the war with the Ottomans (which was damn difficult, by the way), I conquered all of Turkey-in-Europe, and was strong enough to go further — but the Ottoman fleet in the Dardenelles prevented me from crossing into Asia, and my tiny and backward navy was no match for it. My merchants are almost instantly competed away from trade centers, and I earn virtually no income from trade. One way (which I had originally banked on) to recover from this is to build “manufacturies” that provide investment income for Trade or Navy, and I now have the technology to do so. The problem is that in conquering Italy, I inherited no fewer than five universities, which contribute to Government investment — but each manufactury costs more than the previous one, so I’m essentially buying my sixth, which is prohibitively expensive. A pity, too, as I have any number of provinces that could support a refinery, and thereby help redress my deficit in Trade.
At this point, there are a variety of potential strategies I could adopt. One would be to ally with France to crush the Burgundians, which is tempting, but would end with me adjoining France, which may well be the most powerful nation in Europe for the rest of the game, unless I can surpass them — not comfortable. Or I could try to develop naval capacity to the point of participating in the colonial effort — there’s still unsettled land in the Americas, and my Italian ports give me at least some hope of participating. Or I could pursue my vendetta against the Turks (I am Armenian, you know), but I’ll either need a strong naval ally — Aragon, perhaps (the Spanish crowns have not united in this world) — or to beef up my navy quickly. Or I could push through Poland-Lithuania — they’re physically large, but backward, and over the next century I should be able to take them, barring some clever diplomacy on their part — and into the colonial lands of Siberia and beyond. Call it the Austrorussian strategy.
Or I could simply concentrate on taking over the remaining independent German states, but that strikes me as boring — and of course would reduce my stability advantage as Holy Roman Emperor; the fewer states in the HRE, the lower my stability increase from being Emperor.
Enough of Austria; one of the strengths of Europa Universalis is that even though a single system applies globally, playing different countries feels very different. Consider Portugal; considerably poorer than Austria, with powerful Castille surrounding it, but excellent naval technology — and the ability to begin exploration early. In the first few decades, naval technology limits it to exploration of the African coast, but the New World opens up soon enough. From a third rate European power, it has the potential to become a global one, participating in the riches of the Orient as well as the burgeoning prospect of the Americas. As Portugal, you hardly ever worry about diplomacy in Europe, except to try to avoid participation in wars you cannot afford — your every effort is aimed at exploration and colonization.
What differentiates the powers is not just geography — Portugal Atlantic-facing, Austria embedded in central Europe. It’s also affected by government type and economic sliders; a commercial republic like Venice is different from a feudal monarchy. Austria looks for aristocracy, centralization, and Land over Naval; Portugal looks to Naval over Land, free trade over mercantilism — and narrowmindedness over innovation, because narrowmindedness produces more colonists (fleeing oppression in their native land, presumably)
The choice of National Ideas further differentiates nations — Austria goes for ones centered on revenue and the army, Portugal for ones that assist with the colonization effort, first and foremost.
Choosing to play another nation isn’t simply deciding between vanilla and chocolate; what you think about when playing Portugal, is almost entirely different from what you think about when playing Austria. One rich, diplomatic, locked into central Europe; the other poor, peripheral, but with enormous colonial opportunities. The same can be said of almost any other power: Venice, seeking to dominate commercially. France, striving first to drive the Goddams from their soil and unify under le roi — and then to dominate and control the powers around them. Muscovy, seeking to survive, then push back the Khanates, the Lithuanians and the Poles — and then expand in the primitive lands to the east.
Or take up a greater challenge — something like Genoa, say. As Genoa, I once united Italy — then built a great colonial Empire in Central America, conquering the Aztecs.
For a real challenge, take a non-Western power. Play Delhi, the remnant of the Mughal Empire; unify India, stave off the Europeans, and develop as rapidly as you can to end as one of the top powers in the game, despite your disadvantages.
Or, as I once did, start as Bali. Take over as much of Indonesia as you can. Let in a few European powers, so their nearby presence helps your own technology advance, but keep their possessions limited. And work to get to the point where you can discover Australia on your own, before the Europeans, and settle it — ensuring that a free and never-colonized Balinese power dominates the South Pacific.
Playing a non-Western nation is challenging because their technology advances much more slowly than European ones. Basically, technology investments are much more costly for non-Christians, and also for the only government types available to pagans initially (Tribal Despotism, Tribal Democracy, etc.). Except for China — vast and rich, even if non-Christian — all are at a great disadvantage. Even ones close to Europe, and powerful, like the Ottomans, tend to lag behind over time. Yet with commitment and energy, you can still triumph.
It’s even possible to do well with something like the Incas, pagan and tribal though they are. You devote all investment to Government until you get one “national idea,” and take “exploration of the New World.” This allows you to recruit Conquistadors, who can explore new areas; explore South and Central America before the Europeans arrive, shift your sliders toward intolerance (to get more colonists) and colonize as many provinces as possible. Try to annex the Central American powers, make sure to give plenty of gifts to Europeans who set up near you to keep them from trying to conquer you, and build a city next to a European-owned province. Once you’ve done so, your technology will gain more quickly (there’s a bonus for being adjacent to someone with better tech than you), and also a random event will eventually, with luck, occur allowing you to adopt western technology. Doing so is a big stability hit, and you’ll have to change your government type too, for additional hits — but you’re now in the position of being a vast, backward, and impoverished European-style power, instead of a no-hope primitive one, and in the remaining centuries, have a real shot of becoming the dominant power in the Americas, and reasonably respected by the Europeans.
In short “infinite replayability” isn’t a mere boast here; there are so many different playable countries, and so many strategies, and random events to ensure that no two playings are alike, that you could, if you wished, play no other game for the rest of your life, and find something new every time. Even by comparison to Civilization, it’s far more variable; in Civ, the differences between civilizations are minor, and the technology tree ensures that games play out much the same way every time.
In some ways, however, EU II was a better game, at least for some kinds of players. The major difference between the two games is this: in EU II, almost all events were specifically tied to certain countries, triggered when appropriate. Thus, for example, Austria would ultimately receive claims to Bohemia and Hungary, and inheritance of Burgundy, as they did historically, unless history evolved in a way to make those events irrelevant. EU III, by contrast, has genericized all events, so that the kinds of things that happen in EU II can still happen, but to any power.
The advantage of this is that there’s less of a feeling that the game locks players into historical paths; EU III is, in a way, a better game for gamers qua gamers. But there’s a downside, too; by genericizing random events, EU III loses the specificity and deep historical connection of EU II. If I were teaching a college-level course in Early Modern History, I would require my students to play Europa Universalis — but II, not III. The events they’d see would leap from the texts they were reading, they’d learn a great deal of history by playing. This is less true of III. If III is a better gamer’s game, II is the better historian’s game.
The music in II is also amazing; somehow, Paradox got an obscure classical music label to let them include virtually their entire catalog in the game. As a result, playing EU II, you’re listening to classical music that’s tied to the era in which you are playing — early music at the beginning of the game, the Romantics by the end game. Playing EU II is an eye-opening education in classical music as well. Apparently they weren’t able to renew the deal, because III’s music is the game industry norm — decent but unremarkable commissioned music.
In general, the treatment of history by digital games is shameful. Age of Empires is basically a thin historical veneer on the same gameplay offered by every other real-time strategy title; Battlefield 1942 is a team-based shooter with World War II equipment, but teaches little or nothing about the period. While computer wargames still exist — like other strategy games, at the fringes, and mainly for sale via download — and they do pay due heed to the realities of the conflicts they simulate, war is of course only one human endeavor. We need games like EU, which treat history with respect; consider the sheer effort involved in creating a year-by-year political map of the entire globe.
More than that, we need more “games for smart people,” games that don’t dumb down their subject material in pursuit of the million-unit best-seller that every major publisher chases today. And we need a way to create what the industry once had and has lost: viable distribution channels for games, like this one, that are created on lower budgets than mass-market titles, but can appeal to an enthusiastic niche audience. The question of whether or not the game industry will become, like every other form, a fountain of brainless, lowest-common-denominator pabulum has been answered; it has. Our solace must be that, just as the existence of Hollywood does not prevent the creation of the occasional, thoughtful independent film, so the existence of Redwood Shores does not prevent the creation of games like Europa Universalis.