The world is your playground

And what a wonderful sandbox Paradox has brought us with Europa Universalis IV! Pick a date, choose your favourite country and start your quest for, well, anything really. It’s a sandbox game after all. World domination comes to mind, but if you want to create a world where the Koreans managed to colonize most of the New World, or play as Ulm and achieve a personal union with France, go for it!

Running a country is relatively straightforward – construct buildings, train troops, engage in diplomacy and wage war – all the goodness that you might expect in a strategy game*.

But a closer look reveals the impressive list of decisions and features that you get to juggle, each impacting the consequences of your actions. When Portugal invades Morocco, they don’t simply send in the army, win, and paint some provinces with their national colour. Sunnite zealots will take up arms, the local population will refuse to pay taxes, and other Muslim countries may throw a Jihad in Portugal’s face. Ouch.

* If you’ve never played a strategy game before, it could still be pretty complicated. There’s a reasonable in-game tutorial, but expect to spend quite some effort learning the ropes.

Political Plots & Devious Diplomacy

Your nation’s actions have consequences, and this is painfully clear during diplomacy. If you constantly declare war and expand aggressively, your remaining neighbours will hate your guts. If they feel threatened enough, they might form a coalition against you. When France, the UK and Austria band up with a dozen smaller countries to wipe you off the map, that’s a problem.

Of course, there may be other warmongering assertive nations about. Spain might decide to invade France. Portugal honours their alliance with Spain, and England, ally of Portugal, joins in the fun. Austria gets caught up in a war with Hungary, presenting the perfect opportunity to push that 100% legitimate claim on, say, that funny little island that I share my sea with.

Suffice to say that diplomacy in Europa Universalis IV is a blast. Whom you choose as your friends and enemies can completely change the game. When France gets some good alliances going, the Big Blue Blob can engulf most of the world. And sometimes it’s their neighbours that get the better deal.

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Poor France, sandwiched between the armies of Spain, England and Naples (striped territories are occupied). Retreating doesn’t work when you’re surrounded…

The Noble Art of Sending Peasants to their Deaths

Combat in EUIV is pretty simple: Send your army into a province with enemies and they’ll fight until one army (usually France) loses morale and flees. Many factors influence the outcome: A much smaller army might still win if they defend in the mountains, are led by a skilled general, better paid, and use loaded dice (because at the end of the day, it’s still pretty random).

But there’s a lot more to warfare than just winning some battles. The progress of a war is measured in war score, which you get for winning battles, occupying territory and setting up blockades. Most importantly, every war has a certain goal depending on the Casus Belli – the justification for war – that was used. This may be to conquer a certain province, or to march all over the enemy’s armies to show just how superior your nation is compared to theirs.

Once you have battered your enemy into submission, they will be more than willing to accept a truce. You get to make demands depending on your war score and the enemy’s willingness to keep fighting, so blockade their ports, wipe out their armies and blow up their castles until they’ll sign whatever extortionate contract you have in mind.

Sadly the AI does not handle itself too well during wars (or diplomacy, for that matter). They will invariably lose every single war to a competent player (if I’m allowed to call myself that), unless they have a vastly superior army or catch you in the middle of a second war.
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Sending a big army to lay siege on Russian territory, during winter, might not be the best strategy ever. Also, bears.

Making Money by Means of Mercantilistic Monopolies

Taxation will bring in a fair pile of ducats, but if you really want to become filthy rich, you need to build up a trade empire. This is done by sending merchants to collect money from a trade node, which represents the market in a particular region.

Of course, you don’t need to settle for just your own trade node. Send out a merchant and some ships and you can divert trade through the network of trade nodes, right to your doorstep. This will give you additional profits, but it will also reduce the profits of any nations that are collecting money from the node. You can curb the competition by issuing an embargo on their traders. They might be upset and declare war on you. Which can be a good thing: If you beat them down, you can demand all their ducats and half their trading power in a truce. Tasty!

But money isn’t everything, because what’s money without ridiculous luxuries to spend it on? Distant colonies often contain goodies such as tobacco and sugar. Tobacco fuels the pipes of your finest investigators, and bringing it to your capital will make your country more resilient to espionage.
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Send your fleets across the sea and colonize strange lands to obtain exotic goods. You may need to kick the native savages (aka Englishmen) out, but they shouldn’t put up too much of a fight.

Glorious imbalance

EUIV features absolutely no balance between nations. If you want to completely dominate the game, pick a colossus like the Ottoman Empire or Spain. Some countries simply have bigger armies, mightier navies, a fatter treasury and a better strategic position than others.

Other nations provide somewhat more challenge, but they are no less fun to play. Poland may be caught between bigger neighbours, but forming the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and kicking Muscovite backside with your unstoppable Winged Hussars is pretty darn sweet. Venice somehow needs to survive the unwanted attention of the Turks and Austrians (plus all their Holy Roman Empire superbuddies), but you’re in the perfect position to dominate Mediterranean trade and rake in the cash.

Then there’s those little doomed countries that exist solely to be swallowed up by ambitious neighbours. With some serious luck and the guidance of an expert player, Byzantium might halt the Ottoman Empire’s onslaught and the Irish may be the ones to form Great Britain.
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Kicking the Turks out of Constantinople won’t be easy. If you pick a nation that borders the Ottoman Empire, you’d better find some powerful allies.

The huge variety in playable nations gives EUIV some serious replayability. Every time you pick another patch of land to play, you’ll have a completely different experience. But even if you always play the same country, the world won’t turn out the same. In my latest game Korea and Japan are removing China from the map, Norway lost all but two provinces but somehow took control of the Holy Roman Empire, and the AI actually managed to turn Ulm into a respectable nation.

And it’s not just the nations that shake things up. There’s a whole load of dynamically triggered and random events, such as the Russian Time of Troubles or a comet striking your lands, that add to the experience and flavour. Sadly the random events are a bit too random to my taste: The dice gods’ whims can set your progress back by several years. Fortunately you often get a choice between two boons or misfortunes, so at least you get a say in how your plans are affected.

So there you have it. Europa Universalis IV is one heck of a strategy game, one of the most epic games I’ve played in a while. Navigating the intricate web of actions and consequences, carefully managing your nation and plotting to secure its future is an absolute blast. The solid gameplay is backed by an incredible amount of depth and detail that will keep you hooked for the next 376 years. If you’re into strategy games and don’t mind taking your ambitions to a global scale, you’ll want to pick this one up.