By Quintin Smith on December 14th, 2009 at 11:20 am.
Tis’ the season to be playing unwieldy grand strategy games! The Total War series has been losing my interest for a few years now (which is to say I now break for meals when playing them), but hope remains for my post-Christmas weight loss. I’ve finally found some time to check out the geektacular Europa Universalis III, and it just might just have what it takes to starve me down to size. Read about my attempt at steering the tiny Irish province of Connacht to glory, riches and global reknown after the jump. (Spoiler: It doesn’t go very well.)
Why Connacht? Well, I’ve just moved to the Irish “city” of Galway and, being English, people here keep jokily mentioning Oliver Cromwell to me. Cromwell being the gentleman who led the English invasion of Ireland in the 17th century and oversaw its subsequent brutal occupation. Between war, famine and plague /one half/ of the Irish population was killed in this period. One Catholic church in Galway even has jagged stumps where Cromwell famously shot off each of the gargoyles before throwing some hay on the floor and using the place as a stables.
But I like the Irish. As opposed to living in Scotland, where people would call me a bastard, finish their pint of Tennent’s and then call me a bastard again, in Ireland people make fun of me, moan about the price of a pint then make fun of themselves. It makes me sadder about their history and more interested in learning about it.
Despite Europa Universalis’ absurd scope (attempting to model world history from Iceland to Japan from 1399 to 1822) it has the kind of thick-glasses-and-elbow-patches approach to realism that makes it relatively educational experience. So for my first game I took control of the kingdom of Connacht, or Connaught as it was called then, of which Galway is the capital.
Let’s bring up the map.
I – okay, zoom in a bit.
There we go. Gaze upon my mighty holdings! That’s me in the upper left. You know, the mighty-looking one. It is the year of our Lord 1399. My first order of business: Stop laughing at the fact that one of the two seas I’m connected to is called Dingle Bay. Second order of business: Dislodge the English foothold in Meath! (That’s the province in the centre-right. In 1399 it’s under English control, and the game presents me with the sole mission of getting them off fair Éire.)
No problem. I’ve been playing strategy games all my life. Let’s do this.
When the game starts I’m given the chance to change one of my government sliders a touch, an opportunity that only comes about once every few years. I choose to nudge the manpower slider away from QUALITY towards QUANTITY, which in 1399 presumably means lowering the minimum age for the armed services from 11 to 9 years old. This’ll increase the rate at which I can build an army, and I get lucky too – a message pops up saying that far from making my army a “bit of a joke”, its new, larger size has “unlocked the talents of our military minds.” Presumably one of those 9 years olds was a genius we snatched off the spelling bee circuit.
But after this things start to go wrong. Maintaining the paltry 1,000 man army and single ship I started the game with is putting my monthly income into the negative, and it’s your income that determines the development of your society. It’s not that I’m exceptionally poor, I’m just a perfectly ordinary, very small kingdom in the early 15th century. There is no shunting resources into research or building ludicrous armies here. In real life those options require wealth, something Ireland was never exactly famous for. This leaves me with the unsettling realisation that unless I do something smart I’m going to become an idiot backwater.
No problem. One of the main features of Europa Universalis III is colonies, right? I’ll take my ship and start a little trading post in the new world. That’ll net me the wealth I, uh. Ah.
What you see here is my ship butting up against the edge of its range. The technology and maps required to reach the new world (or anywhere else worth colonising) simply doesn’t exist to my people. I’m stuck.
Options exhausted, I unpause the game and watch the game clock tick on. Unlike Total War, Europa models not seasons or months but individual days, and it’s oddly depressing to watch them tick past. Weeks turn to months turn to whole years, and through them all broken Éire lies sad and still, a torn painting nobody can put back together.
I watch in awe as England finishes building an army in Meath, then loads it onto a ship and carries it off to die on unfamiliar shores. There isn’t even an /garrison/ in Meath anymore. It’s a defenseless province. The gall here – they’re assuming we’ll just sit here and let the abuse of our brothers and sisters in Meath continue. But it does continue. I do nothing, and neither do the kingdoms of Munster, Leinster and Ulster around me. To upset mighty England would be to tip a bucket of horror over our heads.
In an idle October in 1402 I hire a great artist, one Jan Fryderyk Grosch, to join my board of advisors. His presence will give my Kingdom a boost in stability. Come January 1403 I notice my primitive government’s stability has been as high as it’d go for years. So I fire Grosch. Piss off, Grosch.
A messenger arrives in March that same year bringing interesting news.
Guaranteed, huh? That’s good of them, I guess. Now how can I– HEY!
Unforgivably, by the end of 1403 I find my eyes drifting towards the other miserable Irish kingdoms if I want to expand my holdings, but I quickly decide against it. The last thing this island needs is more blood spilled on it. Better to just bide my time and wait for my window of opportunity. Historically speaking, England didn’t conquer the rest of island until 1603. That’s 200 years of room for me to make my move.
OK, change of plan. If I’m playing the long game and can speed up the development of my society with money then I’m going ahead and disbanding my army. If the English are busy fighting France (among others) and I have good relations with my Irish neighbours, I’m safe.
I’m barely six months into this new, pacifist plan when everything changes. An army of Irish rebels appears in Meath and immediately sets to work sieging the capital. 12,000 men! Holy shit! This is my chance! How quickly can I get an army together? I send the order for 1,000 men to saddle up and form a regiment of cavalry, slap the button that converts my king into a general and declare war on England. My miniature force created, I march them over the border and into Meath, happy to join the siege and perhaps act as leader to this rabble. The rebels have the single trait of being Irish Culture, and were created because they were living under English Culture rule. I’m guessing that means they’ll count as allied troops to anything else with Irish Culture.
I guess wrong. My face drops everything unfolds – the rebels see my cavalry as a hostile presence, initiate a battle and butcher the outnumbered horsemen. Presumably they weren’t too keen on swapping one distant king for another, closer one. That king of mine does get home safe following the battle, but it’s for nothing. Turns out the English don’t take kindly to declarations of war.
As the game ends I’m informed that my King will be remembered for The Minor War of Connacht Aggression, 1405. Thank you for playing.
Aside from being an enjoyably bleak experience, what this got me thinking about is how grand strategy games so rarely gift us with a worthy objective when every other genre loves to. Shooters, RPGs and RTSs always seem to pit us as the underdog against a truly evil antagonist, and tease with sections where we have to run away, or protect somebody, or ask for help. By contrast, grand strategy seem heartless- we’re always tasked with conquering the entire continent, planet or galaxy, and we thrill at crushing opponents with superior numbers or technology. What on Earth is that about?
Why not take a cue from Lord of the Rings or Dragon Age and let the player try and unite a divided world against a terrifying, vast threat? Or you could borrow from Half-Life 2′s back-story, with the player needing to hold off a force of technologically advanced nation for as long as possible, always losing ground, always looking for a way to assassinate their mad leaders. It’s not asking a great deal, just something that doesn’t task us as a medieval/renaissance/space Hitler.
If anyone needs me on Boxing day you’ll find me having another shot at freeing Ireland from English oppression. In the mean time, why don’t you pick up the demo of Europa Universalis 3 and find your own worthy cause? Human history being what it is, I think there just might be enough to go around.