A wee while ago, I was struggling through blizzards raging across Iceland to cover the Paradox Convention in Reykjavik, hence all the previews I've been drip feeding you over the last week or so. The greatest struggle didn't take place outside in the frosty tundra, however. It took place within an extremely warm room, in front of a PC, surrounded by fellow journalists.
I am, of course, talking about my first hands-on experience with Paradox's highly anticipated fourth iteration of its grand strategy flagship, Europa Universalis. To complicate matters, my playthrough would see me flung into the deep end, as I jumped into a multiplayer match with eight men, at least one of whom was turned into conquering, treacherous, bloodthirsty monster.
Europa Universalis IV (PC)
Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Released: Q3 2013
We started by getting assigned the nations we would lead to victory or death, but there were only eight PCs for nine players. Being a gentleman (the worst trait for an EU player), I said I'd be happy to team up with someone and share responsibility for whatever mess we found ourselves in. So I had joint command of wealthy Venice with Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Adam Smith.
Our plan was a simple one: drown in gold. That we actually ended up drowning in blood and rebellions just goes to show that no plan survives the first five minutes in EUIV, especially when other human players are thrown into the mix.
It all began so well, too. We had provinces all down the coast of the Adriatic, and further afield we had Crete under our thumb. Trade seems to have been really fine-tuned this time around, and we had no small amount of options when it came to expanding our coffers. We sent traders into markets connected to our trade network, had them send even more cash our way, and watched as we saw our wee cash counter rise -- we were rolling in it. Just to be safe, we also ordered a sizable fleet to patrol our trade route. Nobody could be allowed to threaten our lovely money.
With our financial security well in hand, Adam and I thought it was high time to expand our republic. Now, I would like to point out at this juncture that we're good guys. We aren't warmongers, we aren't conquerors, we just needed room for growth. If you choose to draw parallels with the excuses used by Germany in WWI, then that's your problem.
To give greater direction to these vast, meandering, centuries-spanning games, Paradox has implemented a mission system to allow for a more goal-orientated approach, should players wish it. Completing such missions confer extra benefits on top of the land you get for taking a province, or the money you stop your enemy from receiving when you blockade their port.
Our first mission -- the impetus for our first war -- was the conquest of Cremona, a province to the west that was under the control of Lombardia. We were hardly in a position to declare war straight away, however. Armies take a long time to raise, what with the training, outfitting, and other tomfoolery associated with gathering a bunch of rowdy men and sending them off to kill people.
Venice was famed for her great mercenary armies, though, so instead of spending most of the year turning chubby blokes into killing machines, we simply hired the finished product. Using our large cash reserves, we purchased a veritable horde of angry gentlemen, and directed them towards our new foes. War was upon us.
Things did not go quite as expected. As our mercenary force carved their way through Cremona, Lombardia called in Milan for help. We should have spent more time researching who Lombardia was friendly with. Risk assessment might sound dull, but we learned rather quickly that it's a tad important. Regardless, we had chosen our path and now we were sticking to it.
Cremona fell quickly, but we had two large enemy armies marching towards our exhausted mercenaries. At the last moment, one of them -- the Milanese force -- changed its mind and headed straight for our own provinces. We were the bloody invaders, not them, the gall!
The next ten minutes passed by slowly as we focused on chasing invaders out of our own territory, keeping the provinces we had just locked down, and pushing back two well-trained armies who weren't suffering from the morale issues that were so crippling our hired swords. Even once we had destroyed the Milanese and accepted their peace offer, the Lombards wouldn't quit. Actually, their army was growing.
After hiring all the mercenaries we could afford (and some that we could not), we were back in the game. Battle by battle, we stripped the Lombards of men and morale, but due to an unfortunate bug, they kept escaping evisceration. This led to the prolonging of a war we could ill-afford.
Eventually they were finally put down, however, and we struck a deal with our broken foe. As we had pretty much ravaged all of their provinces, we could dictate terms from a very strong position. We walked away with two new provinces, but a hell of a lot of cuts and bruises.
Nothing would have pleased me more than to put my feet up on the desk, drink some Italian wine, and toast our success. Maybe I would have even thrown some coins at a bunch of dirty peasants. This was not to be, unfortunately. The arduous war, depletion of our cash, and the introduction of new citizens who hated our guts meant that rebellions were brewing everywhere.
The Cretans and Croatians were demanding independence, peasants were demanding lower taxes, and our new Lombard population wanted revenge. Crete and our single province in Croatia were a bit too far away for us to waste time with, so we set about fixing our problems at home first. We had to disband our mercenary units after the war with Lombardia, so now we had to raise a new one. Lamentably, this was impossible due to our serious lack of money, and it would also take a bit of time to get the number of men we needed to put an end to these rebellions.
To speed up recruitment, we selected our first "National Idea." These concepts help players define their nation and contain lots of individual bonuses, from economic boons to religious benefits. The first part of the Plutocracy Idea allows for faster recruitment of mercenaries, making it absolutely perfect for Venice. One loan later and we even had enough currency to purchase them.
We were still in a lot of trouble, though, and our lands were in complete disarray. It was time to ask for help from another player. Throughout much of the game, Joe Robinson (you can read his perspective over at Strategy Informer) had been offering us an alliance. He was playing as Austria, leader of the powerhouse known as the Holy Roman Empire. It was time for us to put aside our pride, accepting this new ally into our wine-soaked bosom.
Joe was a fantastic ally at first. He quickly rushed in to aid us with our rebel infestation, taking on armies that were far too large for us to handle on our own. He did so freely, and without complaint, despite the border disputes and petulant members of the HRE causing him no amount of stress.
This gave Adam and I time consolidate our trade routes once more, start recruiting new troops to augment our mercenary forces, and try to find a peaceful solution to some of our rebellions. One of the new features in EUIV allows players to quickly see why, exactly, rebels are getting up in arms. Frequently, there's even an option to solve the issue immediately by offering them what they want. We managed to put down one rebellion this way, but the demands made by the others were simply too costly.
The constant battles were also playing havoc with both our stability and war exhaustion, and raising the former meant that we didn't have enough to lower the latter. It was a tense juggling act. We were also dealing with elections and selecting new technologies. Due to our conflict-ridden state, we were pleased to be able to advance our arms due to new technological improvements, but the aforementioned election didn't please us nearly as much.
We'd been previously supporting a Doge with quite a bit of skill when it came to military matters, but electing the same leader over and over again pushed us ever closer to a monarchy, which is the last thing you want to do if you are trying to manage a republic. To stop further problems down the line, we had to choose a new Doge, and our military campaign suffered.
Things were going from bad to worse, with nations now declaring war on us. For some reason, Bosnia wanted a piece of the action, and our fellow Italians had stopped circling like carrion birds and were now coming in for the kill. Crete had successfully gained independence at the point of a sword, and now had its own monarch, while our solitary Croation province had seceded from the republic, as well. At this point, Joe decided to pull out, ordering his forces back to Austria to deal with his own domestic issues. We were alone, and completely surrounded by enemies.
That's when the bloody Lollards struck. I can't even begin to describe how much I hate the Lollards. At the time, I didn't have a clue who the hell they were. They simply appeared out of the blue, with several armies, and proceeded to decimate our scattered forces. Their shield icon was a pentagram, so naturally I assumed we were being invaded by Satanists. This was when I started openly shouting, all pretense of "playing a game" for "fun" were flung out the window. This was serious business.
I won't even bother listing all of the factions who were slaughtering Venetians, it would simply take too long. It felt like the whole world was out to get us. We had more debt than men, and every few minutes another province would fall to either a rebel army or a foreign aggressor. Where was our Austrian ally during all of this, you ask? Well, we thought he was dealing with his own problems, but no, he was very, very interested in what was going on just south of his border.
Austria was a wolf in sheep's clothing. The whole time we thought that we were defending our lands against rebels who had no just cause to go to war, we were actually playing right into a shadowy figure's hands. Some of the rebels had a master, you see, and that master was Joe Robinson, a truly evil man.
At our lowest point, when it seemed like things could not possibly get any worse, we received a notification: "Austria has declared war on you." War. With the leader of the Holy Roman Empire. We were absolutely buggered. Not acknowledging the threat of Austria earlier made me feel like Chamberlain waving that piece of paper in 1938. There will be peace for our time -- not bloody likely.
We did what we could, getting more and more into debt, hiring every single mercenary throughout the land, but we had lost before the first Austrian soldier crossed the border. Despite our dire situation, we still put up a noble fight. Thousands of men threw themselves onto the pikes of the Austrian aggressors. If we couldn't kill them, we'd make a wall with the corpses of our mercenaries. Operation Corpse Wall was not a success.
Joe's terms could have been a lot worse -- he only wanted one province. It was his mission, apparently; one that he was so dedicated to that he betrayed his ally and slaughtered countless men. I'm definitely not still bitter.
Even with the end of the war, Venice's trials were far from over. Rebels continued to run riot in all of our remaining provinces, our people were exhausted and miserable, and to add insult to injury, one of the provinces taken by the rebels ended up getting snatched by Austria. In total, we'd lost half of our provinces. Before long, all of our surviving holdings were surrounded by our one time ally turned despised enemy. It was a tragedy.
It was then that the game ended. Plans were being formulated which may have allowed Venice to reclaim some of her former glory. Old lands would be taken back, Serbia and Bosnia would be conquered, the Adriatic would once again be dominated by our fleets, and wine would flow freely. It never happened, of course, but it could have. And it would have been amazing.