‘Europa Universalis IV’: Playing with the World

There is almost no point in explaining how you play Europa Universalis. The crushing complexity means that only the most detailed explanation of several thousand upon thousands of words could possibly explain all the mechanics, where they intersect and how they interact. At the same time, any explanation on my part to describe the output of a play session will read like a world history fanfiction novella. Europa Universalis IV is a world history simulator set in the age when nations were replacing feudal lords, a sort of soiree of proto-nationalism as the age of exploration began.

The elephant in the room is Paradox’s reputation for impenetrable systems and the need for decades worth of strategy game literacy that most simply never acquired in order to tackle one of their titles. I am one such person. I like strategy games, though my interaction with them is limited. For quite a long time, the entire genre was dominated by the high end, complex games that Paradox built its name on. Even Crusader Kings II took a long time and hours upon hours of Let’s Plays to get a handle on it. Thankfully, this time out Paradox has provided a tutorial that isn’t an utter waste of time and lets you get a handle on the functional basics of this newest game.

I didn’t have any real trouble with Europa Universalis IV because a lot of the systems in the game duplicate those of Crusader Kings II. I could point to certain UI elements lifted wholesale from that other title. As a result, the transition from playing one game to the other was very smooth. It’s very appropriate that Paradox released a converter so you can take your Crusader Kings II save into Europa Universalis IV and continue your version of history from there.

This change in the nature of the world is reflected in a movement forward in history from Paradox’s previous game. Crusader Kings II was all about the personal ambitions of powerful men driving historical change. As history changed, so has the focus of the game. In Europa Universalis IV, we aren’t managing what individuals think of us anymore. The various thoughts and opinions of others have been abstracted into the vague will of the masses.

As Europe moved out of the Middle Ages, it left behind a world based on the local interests of local men and shifted to a world view that viewed the lives of men as a more abstract idea: that the collective, the people of a region, were now a nation. The land may look the same, but the world had changed. Thus, in the game, the feel of how a world runs is different. The people are not property of the local lord, but now part of a collective actionable identity. It isn’t about loyalty to dukes or kings anymore, but loyalty to the abstract concept of a nation-state.

Unlike Crusader Kings II, I find Europa Universalis difficult to convey in concept and that difficulty has to do with the very advances in thinking that lead Europe out of the Middle Ages. We aren’t controlling or dealing with individuals, their wants, needs, or power anymore. That is a concept that people can immediately understand and relate to. Instead, we personify nations and their wants, needs, and power. We are playing as an abstract concept, an identity, something we still have trouble dealing with to this day. We aren’t a nation’s leader. He or she provides benefits, but that is not the driving force of control in the shaping of a more recent history.

But ultimately, the game is a toy box in which to enact the complexities that lead to what was written in the history books. The player will write a new history. The goal isn’t complete conquest and to beat all the other entities out there. Your agency and effect on the rest of the world is limited wholly by the agency and will of every other nation in the world. The conquest of a single province may cause repercussions throughout a continent or in how other sovereign states view you that in turn tightens the noose and limits what you can do. Take a province of another country, and they will hate you for it. Push too far and the surrounding countries will get understandably nervous.

Despite its complexity, the narrative woven by the interactions of different countries is ironically simplified. It almost mirrors the uncomplicated nature of the people’s final verdict. Whatever reasoning that may have gone into any one choice, the final outcome are relations as between children. Only these children are entities in command of armies thousands strong. It seems that the further out you pull from the identifiable individual with agency, the simpler political motivations and political reasoning become. Guile and subterfuge has been replaced with forthrightness. The intimate nature of courtly politics in Crusader Kings II has given way to archetypal personifications in Europa Universalis IV.

As a result the game is less driven by what type of person you are or are roleplaying as and instead becomes a lesson in consequences for one’s base desires. The nations are children gaining their footing in a new world order. While there are many options, actions are simplified, excuses simplified, and are driven by an egotistical id seeking world power. As a toddler learns to control their base impulses of want only to be rebuffed by the realities of the world, so are the consequences of the world stage. You want that province and its trade hub. Well, you’re going to have to work for it. Should it be your third province in a row, your neighbors as a coalition will descend to punish you for your bullying. Take care of what provinces you do have or they will break. A stitch in time saves nine. Ignore insults in times of difficulty. Patience is a virtue.

These are lessons that a third grader should be learning and the game treats the player like they are in need of the same education. But the player isn’t a person. They are a nation, and it has to learn to control itself. Interesting that most of the major problems in the world seem to stem from the actions taken in this era. The damage remains from our childhood mistakes and continue from clinging to that time of infancy. Europa Universalis IV’s creed is to let the player do what they will in the toy box of global politics. They can fix the mistakes of history, recreate them, or go in a completely different direction. Losing is fun, making mistakes is fun, tearing the world asunder leaving social scars that will last for centuries is fun.

RATING 10 / 10