On the surface, Europa Universalis IV is a realtime grand strategy game which simulates the political, economic and military machinations of dozens of nation states between 1444 and 1820. Below that surface, at the game’s core, mere complexity gives way to a numerical tsunami; a historian’s matrix which assigns a value to everything a person might have needed to know if they hoped to become a global ruler in the early modern era.
As a player, your enjoyment of the game is largely predicated on how comfortable you are whirling around in that flood of figures. Thankfully, fighting to reach that feeling of comfort is worthwhile due to a third layer where historical stories as vivid and exciting as a Hilary Mantel novel take shape between mouse clicks.
Start a new game and you can select your nation and starting year. Developer Paradox provides suggested scenarios, and nudges you towards countries who had an interesting role to play within those periods, but you can ignore them in favour of one of 100 other nation states. It’s perfectly valid in the game’s eyes to take control of a small region like Münster, to set yourself the goal of surviving Europe as an independent state, and to ignore bothersome events like the rush towards the New World.
It’s even wise, at first, to start small. Selecting a larger nation – the Ottoman empire, or Spain, France or England, for example – is akin to picking Manchester United in Football Manager. Whoever you select, your nation will have its own characteristics defined by a history of wars and alliances with its neighbours; by its religion and, depending on the time period, the sudden spread of Protestantism; by its population and their wealth and their predilection towards your government; in the case of major nations, by a set of unique national ideas; and by 100 other factors both seen and unseen, all of them simultaneously important and unimportant.
Play as Austria from the start of the game, for instance, and you’ll find yourself in quick conflict with the neighbouring state of Venezia. One of you will invade the other, chasing the trade power the other holds. After a few wars, you might check the Venetian opinion of your nation and find a simple number: -132. Mouse over that number though, and you’ll find the reasons why: Same religion, +10; Allied to rival, -25; Have casus belli, -15, and so on.
You don’t need to know all these figures. Having a window into the game’s innards is useful for experts looking to improve their strategy, but it also serves to erode the confidence of inexperienced players. It causes you to feel overwhelmed, and propagates the notion that grand strategy games are any more inscrutable or difficult to learn than StarCraft II.
Paradox attempts to help with a set of short, straightforward tutorials. Unfortunately they breeze over certain aspects of the game, and their brevity comes back to haunt players when you’re in the middle of a campaign and can’t work out how to do something that initially seemed so straightforward. The in-game hints system also does little to answer the often basic questions new players will have about discovering new territory or increasing trade.
Instead of relying on any of these, your best bet is to change your mindset before you start playing. Throw out any delusions you have about painting the board your colour, of winning the entire globe for Holland, of even staying alive. Think of it instead as a strategy roguelike: you’re going to fail eventually, so you might as well have fun on the way.
Once you look away from the deluge of numbers, there’s as much personality to be found in each nation as there is in the familial feuding of Paradox’s historical soap opera, Crusader Kings 2. You don’t need an integer to tell you that Venice hate you, because of course they do: they keep invading your territory and you’ve captured half of theirs. Over the hundreds of years each campaign can last, you’ll come to fear the gigantic Ottoman empire, to think of the Flemish as scrappy pests, to consider the Scots traitors.
Taken on those terms, your interactions with Europa Universalis IV become simple. Your territory is split into provinces, and a single production menu lets you use those provinces to produce military units like horsemen or boats, or buildings like marketplaces and temples. When you’ve created a unit, its information screen lets you combine it with other units inhabiting the same tile, assign it a leader from history, and you command it via the same left-click command, right-click conquer control scheme from every other strategy game. Battles can be won fairly consistently if you simply focus on accruing more units.
There’s more to the game than fighting, but you can set your own level of engagement with most of its mechanics. Clicking any nation on the board offers a menu of diplomatic actions, from sending them gifts, to requesting alliances or royal marriages. You’ll need to hire advisors also, to accrue administration, diplomatic and military points, which can then be spent to advance your technology, or to deal with revolts at home. No one expects the Spanish inquisition, but you should, if you’re playing as Spain.
Europa Universalis IV is the game you graduate to when you’re tired of Civilization. That’s ultimately also why all those numbers are there, beneath the surface: because you never graduate away from Europa Universalis IV. It drops you in the deep end before you’re ready, but if you can swim back towards the shallows during those first five hours, you’ll unlock a game so rich, it’ll be helping you tell stories for years.
Europa Universalis IV is out now on Steam.