By Adam Smith on June 6th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
The story so far. Twenty people gathered in Stockholm to engage in a multiplayer Europa Universalis IV session. On the first day, I made France powerful and formed an unnatural alliance with the English. And then I blew it all by misinterpreting an aspect of the game and splintering my own country. No matter. Mistakes are learning experiences and, with that in mind, I was about to make the biggest mistake of my life. By the end of the day, I had renamed Île-de-France. It was now a stain on the map by the name of ‘Mostly Corpses’.
With France dissected by my own idiotic social surgery, the second and final day of the EU IV multiplayer session was doomed to end as the first day had begun: I was going to be sensible the whole way through the game, claiming and converting AI territories in order to create a solid block of blue that would stand for centuries. Of course, it wouldn’t stand for centuries because, no matter what happened, even if I forged the greatest empire that has ever been, the game would end when the day did, and I’d never see the save game file again.
We Smiths don’t know how to go out with a whimper, or with dignity for that matter, so as the day dawned and I shook off the clinging cobwebs of the night before, I decided to reduce Europe to ashes. First of all I needed to do was find the pressure point, the cornerstone around which the whole edifice was constructed or the pulsing artery that carried its lifeblood, and then I needed to hit that part with a sword until it broke.
That’s why I decided to set the Holy Roman Empire on fire.
The HRE isn’t all powerful, its influence varying as it expands and retracts like a crusty old lung hanging over central Europe. For a human player, being the head honcho can be a terrible shock – power is the side dish and the main course is responsibility. The Emperor has many underlings and they’re a bickering, boisterous lot. Maintaining stability can feel like trying to control a particularly rowdy group of teenagers on the last lesson of a Friday afternoon at the height of summer.If they’re not fighting, they’re arranging unfortunate marriages of convenience, the hormonal scamps.
My decision is finalised just before lunch when a Paradox employee, sitting directly to my right, proudly declares that he is now the emperor. I congratulate him even as I plan to declare war as soon as I’ve eaten a sandwich. I’ll need allies though. I’m still allied with England and hopefully the mad Scot at the helm of the now United Kingdom will understand the necessity of total war. I tell him that I have seen the end written in the stars and the postscript in the entrails of a baguette. I tell him that it is our destiny to cast our combined forces into a war that will resonate throughout the known world. I tell him it’ll be a bit of a laugh and that it’ll probably surprise the eyebrows off everyone else playing.
Well, not quite everyone because I spend most of lunch on a recruitment drive. Aragon and Castille agree to help out, or at least not to strike me in the rear as soon as the fight begins. That’ll do. And then there’s Burgundy. I feel like a total arse whenever I remember what happened to Burgundy.
In the morning, before I pointed the good ship France toward the horizon called Apocalypse, I invaded Burgundy. I invaded it hard. I wanted a slice, specifically the south and the centre, which were basically all of the bits that looked like the missing pieces of the France jigsaw. I offered the top to England. It seemed like the right thing to do since we were sharing everything else. The poor chap playing as Burgundy suddenly found himself caught between a Roquefort and a hard place. We left him with a few territories, although he could have held on to a couple of extras if he hadn’t refused to surrender for so long.
To my great surprise, a few decades later, the wounds have healed and I’m on talking terms with Burgundy’s ruler. He even agrees to join the assault on the Holy Roman Empire, hoping to establish a Flemish state. I am nothing if not a gentleman and I agree that, in return for a helping hand, I will leave certain territories free for Burgundy to claim.
The final part of the plan is to recruit some folks in the east so that the HRE will be defending on two fronts. I babble at some people about the plan, those who rule distant and unknown nations, but they don’t join the attack. I think they dismissed me as a madman. They were probably right to do so.
Before I briefly summarise France’s final dance, it’s worth nothing that many games would have punished my blithering incompetence, as detailed at the end of the first diary. They wouldn’t punish it by having me lose or by presenting new problems to overcome, they would have become incredibly boring. Recovery from a mistake, particularly in strategy games, can be a tedious process. Too often, rebuilding is a little Tom Sawyer’s fence – a chore disguised as a game. EU III occasionally fell into that trap, inflation making the game as thin and stale as a bag full of breath, but now there are surmountable challenges at all times. Even when I brought my country to its knees, I had options. Bleak, desperate options, but no less interesting for that.
And so the attack. I told my apparent allies that I would send a message through global chat when my troops were aligned on the empire’s borders. Every player in the room would see it and know that the terror had arrived early. As I encroached on the Empire’s allies and vassals, cutting a line through toward the heart of Europe, the emperor himself turned to me.
“What are you doing?”
“Surrounding Burgundy.” It was a blatant untruth and the 90,000 men that appeared ahead showed how quickly it had been dismissed. “That’s quite the army you have there.”
“You can’t keep attacking my vassals.”
He thought I was only after his vassals and why wouldn’t he? My plan was idiotic, or at least it would have been if I was trying to succeed. I wasn’t though, not really, I was just trying to shake things up a little. For one dark moment, I wondered how many actual wars have been started under such a flimsy pretext, but I pushed such thoughts away and continued to cut my way across the continent.
“Seriously, what are you doing?” He was looking at my screen now. I looked at the chat window sheepishly and the hundreds of English ships gathering in the channel, ready to invade. “What are they doing?”
I sent the message.
SOME NATIONS JUST WANT TO WATCH THE WORLD BURN
I declared war on the Holy Roman Empire.
For a moment, I thought we might actually win. The attack was unexpected, even though my approach and been far from subtle. It was unexpected because it had no purpose, like a murder with no motive. A psychotic act that left the victim reeling for a moment but then reaching for a straitjacket – a straitjacket made out of a hundred thousand soldiers.
England joined me a few months after my first assault but by that point I was already well beaten, my armies fleeing all the way back to Paris when the first counterattack came. They ran away, at full speed, for weeks, which was amusing and disheartening at the same time. Burgundy, as far as I remember, fulfilled its own ambitions and held up its end of the bargain, supporting where possible but never over-committing. With my armies demoralised and partially decimated, and an enormous imperial force approaching, I figured the end was nigh. But no. First there would be rebels.
In fairness, they had a point. I’d just sent a generation of men to their deaths in an unwinnable war with no real purpose. Even so, destroying the entire country didn’t exactly make things better. By the time we called it a day, I had groups of 60,000 rebels hanging around, setting fire to anything that moved, probably including one another. France was in ruins but, damn, I’d had a good time. And I would have survived, somehow, because I wasn’t worth killing. Take my territories and you inherit their troubles, and I’d made enough troubles to poison the land for centuries.
In this weird world, England had been allied with France for years and now France was a much-reduced weakling. The decades of peace had allowed the English to unite their own isles and add Iceland to the kingdom as well. Castille, meanwhile, had expanded into North Africa and the Americas. People had played different games. Mine had been equal parts peaceful political consolidation, technological and ideological advancement, diplomatic devilry, and savage warfare. Others had built trade empires or colonies.
There is a huge amount of game in Europa Universalis IV and perhaps more variety than in Crusader Kings II, even after the latter’s excellent expansions. It’s already a polished game though and it disseminates important information far more intelligently than its predecessors. Single player will, inevitably, offer more lulls, as years pass without major incident, but it’ll also be possible to speed through the quiet decades.
And, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, the most entertaining moments are sometimes the result of mistakes or misunderstandings. With so much to keep track of, conquest can seem daunting, but Paradox have ensured that every complex aspect is really just one more wheel in the machine, understood in relation to its neighbours. There’s joy in keeping them oiled, interlocked and functional, but the player also has plenty of wrenches, waiting to be jammed in the works.
Europa Universalis IV is out August 13, 2013.