Building the British Empire in two days
Paradox Development Studios' grand strategy titles are not known for their multiplayer, but the Swedish developer is working hard to change this. Way back in cold January, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with Europa Universalis IV -- the next installment in the studio's flagship series -- playing against, and with, several other members of the press. I came away surprised by how well the multiplayer worked and eager for more.
Fast forward to early May, and I found myself in the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Around a dozen members of the gaming press and YouTubers had gathered in the historic Royal Armory for two days of EUIV multiplayer mayhem, and while we all started off as jovial, friendly folk, by day two we would have thrown each other to the wolves for the promise of land and power.
Europa Universalis IV (PC)
I had been given control over England, as lead developer Johan Andersson thought it would be hilarious to force a Scot to play as his hated enemies. Thus, I had one goal in mind when the game began: I would unite the British Isles and create Great Britain. But that was a dream that would take a long time to make a reality -- as England needed to conquer much of the Isles and have a high level of administrative power to pull such a thing off -- and I had much more pressing issues pushing their way to the front of my mind.
England is in the unfortunate position where it starts at war with its traditional nemesis, France. Historically, England lost the Hundred Years' War and its holdings on the continent, and EUIV makes it quite tricky to win this large conflict. Paradox had given me a beta build of the game before I flew out to Stockholm, so I'd fiddled around with England beforehand, utterly failing to defeat the shifty French.
I wasn't playing against the AI this time though; instead I was facing Adam Smith of Rock, Paper, Shotgun -- my one time Venetian co-ruler from the previous multiplayer session. So we conspired and came to an accord. Not only did we end the war almost immediately, it was a white peace, where nobody had to concede anything, and as a sign of good faith we entered into a royal marriage and an alliance.
The ground trembled and hell froze over -- England and France were buddies. It was a good thing too, as no sooner as we had made peace, all of England took up arms against their brothers. The War of the Roses had begun.
For the next few years I basically ignored the rest of the world, as England was on fire. Not only was I struggling to deal with agitated nobles, the Welsh were kicking up a fuss as well. This gave me plenty of experience with EUIV's overhauled rebellion system, where rebel leaders are not merely faceless plebs, but real leaders who have demands and desires. The Welsh demanded independence and the nobles wanted to control the throne, so there was no way I was letting that happen, of course.
When the war finally ended, I was able to start looking outwards, planning my expansion and dominance of Europe. I wasn't in the best of positions, however, as I had a young, rather weak king. Monarchs play a huge role in EUIV, since their military, economic, and diplomatic statistics directly tie into the generation of Monarch Points -- the various currencies that are used to take action.
Diplomatic missions, declarations of war (and the cessation of said wars), technological upgrades, cultural shifts -- these all require a player to spend Monarch Points. There's rarely a time where there isn't something you could be spending these points on, yet saving them up allows players to unlock new ideas and other, significant, improvements.
Ideas are the tools with which one defines their nation. With them, new buildings, units, and bonuses can be obtained. My first set of ideas were from the Aristocratic Ideas row, increasing the effectiveness of my cavalry and other splendid things. By the end of the two days, I would have unlocked both the Exploration and Trade rows as well, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
With my terrible king, I wasn't exactly generating points by the boat-load. I did have a substantial amount of gold and a vast amount of manpower, though, so I certainly had options. I looked to Ireland to make myself feel better. The island was, at this point, a bunch of weak, separate kingdoms that nobody really gave two shits about, and they would be my first series of conquests.
Going to war with nations across the ocean is no small feat, and my vast army of eager conquerors needed an equally vast fleet to carry them across the choppy water of the Irish Sea. As luck would have it, England starts off with a fair few ships, and I'd continued to expand my navy due to a mission I received early on.
Missions are a cracking way to find a bit of direction in a game this open-ended. They are logical, taking into account a country's situation, often rewarding, and they can guide players through this complex grand strategy experience. Several missions are available at any one time, and I'd accepted a command to increase the size of my warships. I did so with gusto, and thus was perfectly positioned to launch an invasion into Ireland.
A few years later, all of the British Isles were under my command. My hostile take over of the various Irish kingdoms had naturally led to me invading Scotland, as that kingdom had allied itself with Connacht, and even held a bit of Irish territory. I felt bad, I confess, for slaughtering thousands of my countrymen, but they should have known better than to take land I was gunning for. Cheeky buggers.
There was a moment where I was concerned that my greedy invasion of Scotland would be contested, as all of a sudden, Swedes were running around the Highlands. I called over to Paul Dean, playing Sweden, and demanded to know what the hell he thought he was doing. It turned out that he was on his own mission, but thankfully it didn't get in the way of my grand scheme, and before long he'd buggered off back to his fjords.
This long celtic war had drained my coffers considerably, especially after recruiting mercenaries to bolster my dwindling English army. So I set about spending the last of my reserves on buildings that would increase my tax revenue and trade revenue.
Trade is significantly more engaging than it's been in previous games in the series, but it can be a bit bewildering at first. Nations start off with two merchants (this number can be increased by choosing the Economic/Trade Ideas trees) and these money-minded fellows can be attached to various trade nodes all around the world. Once there, they can either maintain an office or build a transit hub.
Maintaining an office uses your trade power to keep trade in the nod and get lots of lovely gold, while building transit hubs uses the trade power to direct trade to another node. You can only maintain an office in your home trade node, so the idea is to direct trade from other nodes back there. Switching to the trade overlay gives you a clear picture of the direction of trade, and can even come in handy when selecting new places to conquer.
With my financial situation under control, it was time to throw my weight around on the continent. Under the guise of going outside for a quick cigarette, France and England strengthened their unholy union by plotting against little old Burgundy. Within a cloud of smoke, two nations who rightly should have been enemies started carving up the world.
Not long after I made my way back to my seat, a pop up informed every single player that France had declared war on Burgundy. Then, much to everyone's surprise, a second pop-up appeared: "England has declared war on Burgundy". Some might say that it was dishonorable to start a fight with a player who was struggling to deal with a bunch of rebels -- for Burgundy was infested -- but I say that I don't know the meaning of the word. Unfortunately, my limited vocabulary was shared by Burgundy's player, though his blind spot was the word "concede."
After I smashed his last army with my stupidly large force, he finally gave in to my demands. I had two more provinces to add to my continental holdings. It took longer than I had anticipated, as human opponents don't have to concede defeat when the cards are stacked against them in the way that the AI would, but I got more land out of it. Soon, I would add Iceland to the list -- just because I could.
I'd become chums with the newly independent Sweden after it had thrown off the oppressive shackles of Denmark. Sweden was now sizing up Norway, and as luck would have it, so was I. The islands of Orkney and the Hebrides were controlled by the Norwegians, and I wanted them for my empire. Thus, I agreed to join Paul Dean in his conquest of Norway, promising him that I'd leave everything but those small islands to him.
Of course, I had no intention of keeping my promise. No sooner than I was done with my primary goal, I set my sights on Iceland. You see, I'd gotten it into my head that a trip to North America sounded like a lark, but colonization has some strict rules. You need explorers and conquistadors to map out the coast and land regions -- provided by the Exploration Ideas tree -- and any potential colonies must be within a particular range of a core province. England's quite far from North America, but Iceland is a damn sight closer.
I was far from the first player to start building a colonial empire. Both Portugal and Castile had already started to "civilize" Africa and South America, but the north was ripe for domination. My first attempt at colonization was actually in West Africa, and I had been told in no uncertain terms that I should leave that continent to Castile. I was far from prepared for an armed conflict on an entirely different landmass, so I decided to pull out and focus on America.
I had to send troops along with my explorers, and they did a splendid job of slaughtering all the angry natives who took issue with my burgeoning colony. North America also has a fair few native powers that I had to contend with, but at that time they all appeared to be at war with each other, giving me lots of time to build up and prepare.
A new monarch and my frugal use of administrative points had led to me upgrading my administrative technology to the point where I could finally unite the kingdoms of Britain and form Great Britain. I proudly flew the Union Flag, my empire's color changed to a deep red, and all was right with the world. My time with EUIV was coming to a close, lamentably, and while I'd achieved my initial goal, I knew I wouldn't have time to form the Thirteen Colonies or exploit Africa. What's a power-mad leader to do?
France had a suggestion, and it necessitated another cigarette break. Beneath the imposing facades of the Palace and Royal Armory, we hatched a plan to end the world with a bang. With the threat of repercussions removed by the impending end of the world, we'd become rather ballsy. With Burgundy, whom we were now pals with; Castile, who had been deceptively friendly with everyone (and I still had a grudge with); and The Ottoman Empire, whom, played by Rob Zacny, we ended up courting over lunch, we had quite an impressive force.
Calling it a plan would probably be giving us too much credit, really. We were simply going to plunge Europe into a self-destructive war for the hell of it. When you want to create a big European conflict, you might as well start with one of the biggest targets, and in our case, this meant dancing with Prussia, now the leader of the Holy Roman Empire. Not-quite-Germany-yet was played by Jakob, a producer and marketing fellow from Paradox and an all-round nice chap, but that day he would be our victim.
I started softening Prussia up by funding rebels -- a tactic Castile's Joe Robinson had used to great effect against me in our previous game. Players can send their diplomats to foreign lands, and can select potential dissidents from a list of those who hold a grudge. Conveniently, their strength and revolt risk is revealed, so choosing which rebels to support is quite easy. Unfortunately, my rebel-funding diplomat was discovered before he could do much, and Jakob was rightly suspicious. We'd have to strike fast.
And that, my friends, is where it all fell apart. The forces of Great Britain, France, and Burgundy marched into the Germanic kingdoms confidently, encountering little resistance from the likes of Saxony or the other small allies of Prussia. I even managed to annex Saxony, adding it to my empire. It was then I looked west and saw what was happening in France. Rebels had sprung up everywhere, and the nation was drowning in civil strife. An army of 30,000 angry men were also marching on Normandy, which was still under my control.
To make matters worse, Castile was nowhere to be seen, and the Ottomans were busy dealing with the Mamluks and Uzbeks. Rebellious Germans were springing up everywhere, France and Burgundy were pulling out, and the Prussians were pounding on the gates. I lost Saxony, my armies fled, and I spiraled into debt. This had a knock-on effect back home, and now British peasants were revolting. Prussia chased me all the way back to France, where my remaining, decimated forces fled onto ships and escaped back to our stalwart little island paradise.
We had not succeeded in doing very much other than ruining our economies and pissing off the plebs. When the game did end, I was clawing my way back from failure, and would have retaken Flanders -- which the Prussians stole from me and made independent. But my shot at glory had gone up in flames. The British Empire would rise again, but not that day.
The rest of the evening was spent regaling each other with the tales of our victories and failures. Europa Universalis IV inspires discussion, boasting, and lamenting. Over pitchers of mead, I learned of the continual wars in the Orient, with Johan Andersson's mighty Uzbeks terrifying everyone; the riches and amazing trade resources discovered by Castile in South America, which led to Castile being declared the winner of the game; the slow ascent of Sweden from the brow-beaten property of Denmark to an independent kingdom with holdings as far afield as Canada; and a slew of other stories from other players.
While Europa Universalis IV still has a couple of months before it launches, it feels more polished than any of Paradox's previous offerings. I don't imagine such a large multiplayer event could have worked with EUIII or even CKII before they were deemed complete. There were a few lost connection hiccups on the second day, but overall what I experienced was an extremely stable build and multiplayer shenanigans no doubt helped by the use of Steam.
Grudges are stewing, revenge is being planned, and I have no doubt that I will find myself once again going to war against dastardly human opponents when the game finally arrives, hopefully, in August. It's a strange position to be in, as excited about the multiplayer component of a grand strategy game as I am its single-player facet.