The date is November 11th in the year of our lord 1444, and Western Europe is on the move. Intrigants run the land and mercenary lords plan their next move behind closed doors. The King of Scotland had annexed Tyrone and Ulster, then summarily captured Munster and turned it into a vassal in 1452. Norway colonized Canada in 1513 before Austria’s king died in 1549 giving rise to Russian rule over the country in a personal union. Poland forced the Catholic religion on the Swedish in 1633. The Aztecs invaded Spain in 1711. Welcome to Europa Universalis IV (EU IV) and a history lesson of a very different kind.
EU IV fits into a long line of Paradox Development Studio games with similar themes. Like other titles from the same publisher (Paradox Interactive), it is not for the faint of heart. EU IV picks up where Crusader Kings 2 left off, immediately at the onset of the European Renaissance. The goals of the game are set by the player, but there is much to be done. A robust empire manager, a global trade simulator and a war game, EU IV has it all. For those that dare challenge the various mechanics the game includes, a newly written 400 year history of the world awaits.
eXplore: In EU IV, covering the aspects of the game’s geography is quite easy. The game takes place on a geographically-accurate equivalent of Earth with the option to play any country of your choice including France, the Aztec nation, Japan, the Ottoman Empire,an African tribe or almost any other country (with the right DLC/Expansion). The choice is ultimately yours and it will determine the difficulty of your playthrough.
The world map is segmented into historically accurate regions where geographic landmarks are recognizable in the various provinces. You begin the game in 1444 A.D. (at the earliest), so large parts of the map are still to be uncovered leaving players some room to explore or rely on hearsay until the game ends in 1821 A.D. Depending on your style of play, uncovering and exploring the undiscovered lands beyond the Atlantic, colonizing the wide wastes of Siberia or looking for promising trade routes along the coast of Africa can be rewarding activities, if you can get away with them. In EU IV, there are a multitude of obstacles to your ambitions.
Jean-Paul Sartre once said: “Hell is other people.” The EU IV equivalent is: “Hell is other countries.” Each country has its own set of specialties that are unlocked by developing national ideas throughout the game. France and Brandenburg excel at fielding a land-based military force, while England and Portugal are perfect for dominating the seas of the world. Other nations, such as Austria with it’s diplomatic bonuses or Venice with it’s superior trade abilities, fill other niche roles. EU IV is full of diversity.
You advance through the linear “tech tree” by spending diplomatic, military or administrative points (let’s call them ADS) that you get each month in game time from the ruler of your country and his costly advisors (if you choose to hire some). Ideas are distinctly small technology branches that you can choose every few administrative technological advances to unlock bonuses. For example, when you unlock a quality idea and spend a lump sum of military points, you further your knowledge in that particular branch upgrading one type of military unit. As a reward, your country’s National Ideas progress and you can get these added bonuses.
In EU IV, unlocking two idea branches results in further synergy. Each couple of fully implemented ideas enables you to enact a nationwide policy that vastly improves one aspect of your country for a regular cost of ADS. Since these points are in short supply, such policies incur a constant cost, and implementing such a policy becomes a 10-year commitment. That said, game time is measured in days and proceeds at adjustable speeds with optional pauses at a simple press of the space bar, so this may not be as restrictive as one might think.
One thing that comes to mind when looking at this peculiar construct of linear technological progression is the free choice of ideas. Do the countries really play differently? In fact, they do. Even if you are similarly technologically advanced with a bigger army size and the advantage of familiar territory, you will still lose against a country specialized in ground warfare when fighting on land. I endured such an experience when I fought in vain on the British Isles, playing as Ireland against the French, my ex-allies, who were set on claiming my throne, once my king and heir had died in rapid succession. To remedy an issue like this one, you can ally with a country that has expertise in ground combat and hope they keep to the terms of your alliance, but more on that later.
eXpand: Geographic expansion in EU IV is difficult at best. Your neighbors do not appreciate that type of attention. In a typical game, every region of the world has an initial culture. All alien cultures to your governance make it less effective and unruly, slowing your expansion. You can spend time, effort and diplomatic points on changing that, though.
Expansion is a delicate work of careful manipulation, war-profiteering and treading the fine line between merely angering your neighbours and inciting them to full-blown war. If you end up as the one under attack, taking a few territories in retaliation won’t be frowned upon as much. If you manage to ally with your neighbours and attack their enemies, your new allies will cheer you on as you take the lands of your common enemy! Then, you can send one diplomat to mollify a worried neighbour that might otherwise intervene while forging claims on territories you desire. That’s the typical way to expand efficiently.
There is an inherent problem with getting fat on provinces in this way because of overexpansion penalties. When you acquire a province through a peace treaty, you have no effective rule in that area. It costs a large sum of administrative points to install your government there and extend your rule. Until such a time, nationalist rebels, severely diminished tax incomes and an overall smoldering dissatisfaction will ail your country. Another example of over-expansion is when your allies engage in war and gift you their newly acquired provinces. Such acts add to your burden and can push you beyond the 100% expansion threshold. I still curse the Swedish for doing that to my Prussian playthrough to this day. Suppressing the rebellions that followed and incorporating those gifted provinces into my empire took 10 years of gameplay time and almost bankrupted me.
Of course, there are ways to get around such problems. You can always release countries to govern themselves (in name, at least) as your vassals. Vassals have their own standing armies and you can exploit them like colonies for tax income. It costs you one of your few precious standing diplomatic relations though. The amount of allies and vassals has a soft limit which can be breached at a steady cost of diplomatic points. But sometimes, conquering an enemy and reducing your overexpansion by creating a vassal country out of them is a valid choice. The main advantage is that you are able to absorb them into your empire after 10 years. That will just make you very unpopular for another 10 years. In a favorable scenario, you can even give your vassals provinces in peace agreements with beaten enemies and your vassals will bear the ADS costs of dealing with the provinces.
eXploit: Diplomacy is an extremely important aspect of EU IV, especially in ironman mode where the purpose is to attempt to unlock achievements. Without proper support from allies, vassals or even coalition members against a huge and aggressive foe, you’ll soon find your lands taken, your armies slain, your state religion forcefully changed and wind up a vassal state of one of your most hated opponents..
Religion and religious unity play a role in the overall efficiency of your empire’s economy, research and military as well. Countries that share your religion will see you in a more favorable light than others who practice a vastly different religion. Your choices for exploiting religious differences start with religious wars, and include proselytizing heretic provinces or developing humanistic ideas for more tolerance. You can also utilize subterfuge by financing zealots in enemy provinces to help them change the hostile country’s religion. Should all of that fail, you always have the option to occupy the enemy outright and force your religion of choice upon them in a peace agreement.
Furthermore, if exploiting your hapless neighbors is not yet satiating your hunger for power, why not negotiate with an underdeveloped populace overseas to make them into your protectorate? Then colonize and wage war all across the Caribbean and begin a monopoly over the worldwide trade network of tobacco or tea? Having a certain percentage of the world production capacities for a trade good gives your empire yet another bonus. The money generated allows you to go one of the two ways of renaissance warfare: maintain a standing army or just buy huge amounts of mercenaries when in need. I had the impression on more than one occasion that the moneylenders and their interest rates exploited me more than I ever exploited any savages.
At least, you have the opportunity to lend money to other nations as well. You can also slide into their good graces by bribing them. How do you get all the necessary money? Through taxes, war reparations and by trade. Trading republics or other trade nations open up overseas companies, use merchants to convert trade goods to money for them or steer the global trade to their ports and cities for maximum profit.
A marriage to a close ally that may initially appear harmless can end in you brashly declaring that their throne should belong to your ruling dynasty and taking over that country in a personal union if they have no clear heir. EU IV is full of opportunities to exploit the gullible nature of the A.I. and just as many opportunities for it to make use of the same mechanics against you.
eXterminate: In general, the EU IV approach to combat is “Si vis pacem, para bellum” – In peace, prepare for war. Your economy, diplomacy, technology, leadership, invasion strategy and supplies are what determines whether you succeed in war or utterly fail, more so than the missing tactical combat. Speaking of royally screwing someone as a renaissance monarch, tribal chief or republican leader, it is unlikely that you will manage to exterminate the rest of the world. Rather, the game encourages you to choose rival countries and rewards you for diminishing or inconveniencing them. You can choose one quest at a time to undertake, e.g. attacking a rival country or building a certain amount of ships, which will yield a minor reward, as well.
Once you fabricate a good reason to declare war like “You have a province I forged a claim on!”, you can engage in war without starting riots at home. Your allies might join your side, while your enemy’s allies can also join the war on their side. Just beware that there is a war score counter that tracks progress of each side accounting for all battles, naval blockades, occupied provinces and the morale of the general populace. The higher the counter (positive), the more you can force the enemy to accept during peace negotiations. If your war preparations were inadequate, this counter might drop into the negative and you could be the one getting annihilated.
Maintaining a large standing army or a sizeable fleet is directly limited by the number of your provinces and the efficiency of your economy, as well as your national ideas. Large armies and long wars need the investment of huge sums of money, sometimes requiring that you take loans until you are bankrupt, which might as well be “game over” in most cases. Furthermore, your nation has a manpower pool that refills at an excruciatingly slow rate, unless you build recruitment centers all over your empire or research quantity ideas. Without manpower, your serfs get ideas above their station and a civil war is just around the corner. The only thing worse than impending civil war is your dispatched armies not getting much needed reinforcements.
Speaking of armies, the combat system in EU IV is not tactical at all. Supplying an ideal army composition with appropriate logistical support at a crucial location at the right time equals a battle victory. You have no direct impact on the results since combat itself is statistically resolved. One good bit of advice is to always check whether you need to cross a stream or if the target province is in a swamp. Rough terrain will reduce your odds as an attacker. Basically, by luring the enemy into an almost inaccessible mountain region and forcing him to cross a river in the final approach, you can improve your odds at winning a close battle.
EU IV also has a limited amount of combat units. There are three land unit classes (infantry, cavalry, artillery), from which you can sometimes choose a morale destroying, lethal or defensive variant. Your military technology and the provincial geography determine how many units in two rows can actually fight each other with the second row being a good choice for artillery. The first army without soldiers fails by default, but most often the army that loses its morale simply runs away.
When your forces are similar in size to the enemy, winning a war deteriorates into catching the enemy army on the run, especially when fighting huge countries. A word of advice: never follow a retreating Russian army in winter! Every winter equals losses by attrition that can be very nasty in hostile territory since you will need to stay there for quite some time. In renaissance warfare, the game forces you to besiege a province and capture the local fortifications. A direct assault on such an installation is typically suicide. Therefore, the standard decision is whether to split your army into small siege forces to occupy all hostile lands or stay strong and move ahead slowly, so you can fight back relief forces at any time.
Moreover, provinces with harbors are even harder to besiege, unless you cut off the supply lines by barricading the harbor from the sea. That brings us into the realm of naval warfare. Just like land battles, you can assign leadership to groups of ships which are available in four different variants (heavy warships, light warships, galleys and transports). Heavy warships excel against everything, but are very costly. Light warships give bonuses when policing sea trade routes and are superior when blockading harbours. Galleys rule landlocked seas like the Baltic Sea and transports should never engage in combat in the first place. Once two hostile sea forces meet in a sea province, battle ensues and you can see the dice do their arcane work. If the fancy takes you, you can always take light warships and dabble in privateering.
Still, the aim of the game is yours to choose and you can maneuver yourself into plenty of dead ends. For example, If you start as one of the countless splinter nations of the Holy Roman Empire, and attack a weaker neighbour, seizing the lands will anger sixty countries near you. Experience foretells that they feel no shame in ganging up on you en masse and reinstating the rulers you just abolished.
eXperience: In general, EU IV is very much a Paradox title with all its ups and downs. There is a huge amount of possibilities, like the Russian Empire colonizing Australia to bring vodka to the kangaroos and dingos. A multitude of harsh achievements motivates one to try some ridiculous things if one fancies that. Try conquering all of the British Isles with an Irish nation! As poor a start as you can imagine, desperation may drive you to declare war on England just to scrounge some financial subsidies from its enemies.
But this freedom comes with a price. Players will encounter only a few types of timed random events throughout gameplay. There is usually no historical course or linear story to follow, except for a few events like the French Revolution. There is no end game besides survival and self-set goals. Not every player will be comfortable with such freedom.
If you like very complex games and are not afraid to research in-game and online information from multiple sources to understand the various aspects of it, this may be a good global strategy game for you. Think of it as a grander Civilization game with fewer pretenses when it comes to tech advancement. But if you are a tactician looking for a story driven game or lack the patience to wait for your beaten populace to reproduce so that your future army may grow, this might not be your game.
The A.I. might not be the brightest in 4X gaming history, especially when it comes to waging war and attacking you in mountain provinces where superior numbers count for far less, but it will backstab you whenever it can on the diplomatic stage. In diplomacy, relations are formulated in two dimensions: relation points and a general attitude that may change depending on the circumstances. Try as you might, sometimes a nation that is out to get you will never let their opinion of you improve, unless you beat them into submission or become too scary for them to contemplate attacking you. The A.I. handles these attitudes quite realistically, but not accurately in a historical sense. In each game, the starting conditions for the attitudes of the A.I. nations are more or less random. Overall, the lapses of the combat A.I. can be annoying but there are no showstoppers, because the diplomatic A.I. makes up for it.
TL;DR: EU IV is an alternate history global strategy game which excels in diplomacy, economy, trade and war preparations. Unfortunately, it lacks on the tactical level with the absence of direct combat and limited unit types. Linear technological progression with few meaningful choices of national idea technology branches means that you have a few crucial choices to make. Do not expect any other story than the one you create yourself because there are no traditional victory conditions. Despite those caveats, it’s a lot of fun for the right person.
You might like this game if:
- You enjoy very complex games and already like other Paradox titles like Hearts of Iron, Victoria or Crusader Kings.
- You are comfortable with redefining history and making the country of your choice a world power to be reckoned with.
- You like meticulous preparations through diplomacy and economics, before officially declaring war.
You might NOT like this game if:
- You expect or need tactical battles.
- You are easily frustrated by the inevitable setbacks in almost any playthrough, especially for beginners.
- You expect all information to be easily accessible and comprehensible inside the game itself.
- Reading online fan-wikis is a chore for you.
Nosferatiel played for 252 hours on an Asus G75V with 2.4 GHz Intel Core i7, 8 GB DDR3 RAM and a Geforce GTX 670MX on Windows 7 64 bit.