The Immortal Madness of Europa Universalis
Exploring the deep appeal behind the classic strategy series
I'm going to describe a something that, I'm quite sure, has happened to someone who is currently reading this: You purchased Europa Universalis IV from a Humble Bumble because, while you've never really been interested in these games, you know them by their reputation and the deal was simply too good to pass up. You wait patiently for the game and all of its DLC to download, then start up a game (Playing Castile, perhaps - it's supposed to be an easy start). Immediately, your eyes are assaulted by alerts and decisions, not helped by the ticking clock that you aren't quite sure how to pause. As you page through the dozen or so menus and try to make sense of screen-spanning tooltips throwing new terms at you, a single word enters your mind: "Nope." You promptly quit, uninstall the game and pledge to only play things that make sense from now on.
Maybe this doesn't describe you exactly. Perhaps you did buy a bundle, but it was a different game - Crusader Kings or Stellaris. Or maybe you got one of the games for free through Epic or bought an older edition for a song because you were simply curious. In any case, it was your first and last brush with Paradox Interactive's legendarily impenetrable grand strategy series.
I don't even blame you. If there has ever been a game to which the phrase "It's not for everyone" applies, it's Europa Universalis. And yet you might also know people who were made for the series, who have thousands of hours on record and write bizarrely detailed in-character descriptions of their games. Perhaps you are even familiar with someone who writes strategy guides for pulling off some of the harder achievements.
Yes, that was me. Don't judge just yet.
The secret is that I'm one of those people who was made for games like this. I can talk a big game about all the platformers I own, or how JRPGs practically raised me, or about the unheralded brilliance of some game from the 90s that was never seen outside of Japan. Look at my Steam history and you'll see the unvarnished truth - I am all about the strategy. And with Europa Universalis IV coming up on its 9th year, it's worth taking a moment to talk about it.
This isn't meant to be some sort of case for Paradox's grand strategy games - though if it does encourage one of you to give Europa Universalis another shot, then I am willing to take credit. This is more of an explanation, both of why games like this have such appeal for certain people and how Paradox has kept interest in this game so high for close to a decade.
November 11th, 1444. The Crusade of Varna has ended dismally for the forces of Christendom - the king of Poland and Hungary lies dead, while the last heirs of the Roman Empire cower within Constantinople as they await their conquest by the Ottoman Turks. Farther west, a tenuous truce between England and France - a respite in the endless brutality of the Hundred Years War - threatens to fall apart. In Iberia, the Castilians are almost finished with the Reconquista, with Tomas de Torquemada's holy terror shortly to follow. To the east, Ivan the Great, de facto ruler of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, prepares a campaign to unify the Kievan Rus' into an empire not seen in generations; even further, Emperor Yingzong of the Ming Dynasty makes a disastrous error in his campaign against the Oirat that will result in the Tumu Crisis. And yet none of them yet know of the new world waiting beyond the horizon, or the blood and treasure awaiting their arrival.
It all sounds so exciting - a world of infinite possibilities, a game with infinite replay value. Then you actually try and play it (or, God help you, read the wiki) and you get a little woozy.
There are certain games that - for lack of a more genteel phrase - are not played by "normal" people. These are titles or series that are inaccessible in some way that restricts them to a niche audience. It might be that they are seen as frustrating, owing to extreme difficulty or complex mechanics. It might be that they are seen as boring, with gameplay too slow-paced for most. Or it might be that they are just too weird, with unorthodox gameplay that drifts outside of the boundaries of what most people think of when they picture a video game.
Europa Universalis arguably ticks all of these boxes and more, especially when compared to a more accessible strategy series like Civilization. Length of play is always an issue - strategy game sessions tend to run long, but while a single game of Civilization VI might last six to eight hours, a full campaign in Europa Universalis IV can last thirty, and that assumes you have a general ideas as to what you're doing. And figuring out the basics is another challenge. While Civilization games have a convenient in-game resource - the Civilopedia - to explain game concepts, Europa Universalis instead requires the player to either depend on cryptic tooltips or consult a wiki that, while certainly thorough, also assumes that the reader already has a good hundred hours of play behind him.
All of this is rooted in a heritage of wargames, one that long preceded electronic games as a medium. It's hard to overstate the impact that these wargames have had on modern entertainment and culture. Dungeons & Dragons emerged from a wargame tradition, bringing with it the concept of the RPG as we know it. More relevantly, our entire notion of the computer strategy game, in all its diversity, comes from those early wargames.
Wargames thrived on early computer systems, going back as far as the lost 1972 game Empire but truly finding their stride in the early '90s with titles such as Steel Panthers and Panzer General. These titles were a natural fit for a computer environment - letting the machine handle the behind-the-scenes calculations meant that the human player could focus entirely on the tactics. That didn't necessary simplify things, though, as many of these games revelled in their complexity. It was an age when strategy games shipped with manuals as big as dictionaries, accompanied by wall-sized posters detailing unit interactions. And you were expected to keep those posters on the wall over your desk and that manual close at hand as you played. It was, in some sense, a commitment - to a game, maybe even a way of life.
Yet these strategy games arguably heralded the dawn of an age of accessibility. Yes, the rules were still impenetrable, but the logistics were simpler. You no longer had to spend thousands of dollars on figurines and miniatures or invest hundreds of person-hours into their construction and maintenance. And you had a means to learn those rules without having to make trips to a specialty hobby shop that might not be anywhere close to your house.
In short, Paradox titles only seem so imposing because people who never would have played them are now being exposed to them. The result has been plenty of confusion. However, by the standards of these games, Europa Universalis IV is hardly the rules nightmare that it may seem at first glance.
I've heard people say that Europa Universalis IV is, at heart, a game about managing resources. You have five critical resources (money, soldiers, and three categories of "monarch power"), and much of the game is about identifying which ones are most needed, which are less valuable, and exchanging the latter for the former whenever possible. Add one additional element - managing military alliances - and you're ready to conquer the world. In this way, it is far more refined than its forerunner, Europa Universalis III, which presented the player with a baffling array of sliders and buttons and only half a hint as to what manipulating them might do.
Maybe you aren't buying this. That's understandable - even more streamlined strategy series such as Civilization and Total War aren't going to appeal to everyone, either. But what is the appeal for people who do like them?
There's a stereotype about wargamers, that they start to believe that they really are generals. That right there speaks to the emotional power of strategy games. The magic in any game is that it enables the player to do something that he can't in real life, whether that's racing a Formula 1 car or sneaking into a secured military installation. Strategy and simulation games raise the stakes even higher, putting the fate of empire (or a planet, or a star system) in the player's hands.
It's all the more intoxicating when the planet is Earth and the empires are real. Strategy games set in historical periods offer an opportunity to completely upend history - and this is a big part of the appeal of Paradox's games.
For someone new to Europa Universalis IV, it makes sense to take the reins of a powerful state - Castile, Muscovy, the Ottoman Empire - and follow the patterns of history. The real challenge, though, comes from defying history and seeing what comes of it. What would have happened if Granada, last of the Moorish states in Iberia, had resisted the Reconquista and Islam had remained a force on the peninsula? What if the dying Malian Empire, once one of the wealthiest states on the planet, had used the last of its riches to become a colonial power? Or if one of the elector-princes of the Holy Roman Empire had stood against Hapsburg influence and unified Germany through force hundreds of years early? Or if the Khans of the northern steppes had returned from the dust of history and recreated Temujin's conquests?
All of this is part of the emergent quality that exists in many strategy games, but is key to those made by Paradox. A well-made strategy game weaves a complex and unpredictable narrative out of very simple elements. Europa Universalis really leans in to this, because there's no telling what the world will look like at the end of a 380-year campaign. The games bias their events to generally map the flow of real-world history, but introduce just enough chaos that things can get very strange, even in the absence of player interference. Perhaps France will be fully partitioned by its neighbors and cease to exist. Maybe a religious league war will mushroom into a genuine world war involving dozens of states spread across several continents, with a multitude of brand new nations carved out of the losers.
And just maybe, while trying to figure out how the tiny Republic of Lucca managed to seize control of all of northern Italy, you'll do a little research and learn about how Napoleon Bonaparte loved his sister so much that he made a country for her out of the parts of places he conquered. Interesting, no?
The most fascinating part of the Paradox grand strategy suite might be their impressive staying power. Europa Universalis IV is almost nine years old at this point. Its sister titles, Hearts of Iron IV (set in World War II - a real throwback to the golden age of strategy games) and Stellaris (a departure from Paradox's usual historical themes in favor of something with a speculative flavor) are both six years old. All three are consistently in Steam top 100 played games, with tens of thousands of people playing each of them on a daily basis.
There might be a lesson here for developers; that they should swing with the times. Europa Universalis III was presented much like other strategy games of its time - as a single game to be followed by a small number of expansions that "complete" it. This had been how Civilization V had been sold, to great acclaim and commercial success. By contrast, Europa Universalis IV (as well as most subsequent Paradox grand strategy titles) is what you might call "live service lite" - a modestly priced core game which is expanded over time by large amounts of premium DLC and a steady drip of free content updates, concluding with a battle pass-like subscription system. Living in an age of live service games, the merits here are obvious.
The constant stream of new content means that these games age very slowly, with each new expansion or major update triggering a spike in attention. It creates some degree of flexibility for the consumer as none of the content is "essential" - one can buy content packs only for countries of interest and ignore the rest. It allows the development team to be responsive to the needs of the player base so that the absolute final build is as close as possible to what the public wants. And - naturally - it's a big money maker for Paradox, blessed with an audience that will play a game for thousands of hours and pay whatever it takes to play for thousands more.
It's likely that future strategy games will increasingly adopt this style of release. There's proof enough in the interesting development of Civilization VI. Initially sold much like its predecessor with two major expansions and some small DLC that unlocked new civilizations, 2K has increasingly pushed the game in a live service direction, complete with steady balance and content updates that look suspiciously like those of Paradox. And why wouldn't they? Every big developer dreams of producing a game that keeps an audience for a decade, but strategy games seem almost uniquely built to achieve this. People are still discovering new quirks about Civilization II some 26 years later - what fresh legends might come out of a more complex game in future generations?
The "one more turn" phenomenon is well known among strategy game aficionados. Such games do not have (in the words of mothers everywhere) a "good stopping point" where things have slowed down and one can simply walk away. It seems that the developers are no different in this regard. Someday, Europa Universalis IV will be finished, replaced by - one would assume - Europa Universalis V, with another decade of content to come. But until then, why not give it one more shot? The Ottomans are eager to conquer the world with you.
Sign in or become a SUPERJUMP member to join the conversation.