First off, let's not fall to finger-pointing of the laying of blame. It's nobody's business but your own why this article is suddenly relevant and important to your well-being. Europa Universalis IV [official site] is a game of ruthless caprice, where even slight mistakes, misjudgments, and lapses in attention can bring you to ruin.
Perhaps you declared war on someone the day before they hit a new level of military technology. Maybe you gambled that your enemy's powerful ally wouldn't actually bother to travel across Europe to fight you, but they did, and now they have arrived, unwanted and obligatory guests at your war, and they look hungry. Or maybe you just got unlucky, and your enemy had a military genius in their back pocket while you're stuck with the equivalent of Ambrose Burnside.
The point is, you're losing a major war in EUIV, and you're losing it badly. And getting out isn't going to be easy. If it were easy, if it were just a matter of agreeing to a minor settlement, you wouldn't hesitate. But no, this is a war that poses an existential threat.
It seems like all is lost. But this is why EUIV is a game where it pays to never give up, and never reload. The chances are, you can not only survive this crisis, but come out of it almost unscathed.
You might be watching a rout unfold, but here is how you turn that into a victory.
First Principle: Stay Alive
If you can't win pitched battles, you need to give up on the idea of fighting them. The most important thing you can do when a war is going wrong is to keep a credible army in existence.
It doesn't have to fight. God no. That's defeats the whole purpose. It's more like the naval strategy of keeping a "fleet in being". As long as you have an army in play, it's something that forces the enemy to stay relatively concentrated in case you decide to fight. If your enemies spread out across the countryside to start dismantling your nation, your ineffectual little army can attack the small siege detachments and start whittling down their strength. If they group up to fight, you melt away.
Remember, siege progress resets once the besieging army moves, so just forcing them to respond to your army is a victory that causes the war to drag-on.
Playing a "where's my army" shell-game is easy to do if you have a fairly extensive country. Russians can always withdraw deeper into Russia, for example. But what if you don't have enough space to protect your army?
Easy: you create some.
Second Principle: Gaining Space
You can't hold ground in battle, so you need places to run and hide. Your own territory is being overrun, so it's time to look to your neighbors.
Find neighbors who don't hate you, and ask for military access to their countries. If all your neighbors hate you (all of them?!) then we may need to talk about basic diplomacy. But chances are, you have some people next-door who are happy to lend you a cup of sugar, jump-start your car, or let you conduct guerilla warfare from their sovereign territory. In that case, you open the diplomatic relations window, go to "Access Action" and "Request military access".
The trade-off here can be significant. Agreements with other countries count as "diplomatic relationships" against your country's maximum. You can go over those limits, but each extra relationship costs you a monthly diplomatic monarch point. If the war drags on for a long time (and a long war is your best chance here), those lost points will add up, and cause you to fall behind on the naval and economic technologies that those points would have bought.
But getting military access is worth it when things are dire. The enemy can chase you and fight you on neutral ground, but they can never occupy the territory, and therefore they'll have to contend with the fog of war. Neutral territory becomes a perfect place to hide.
Or from which to launch sneak attacks. Another way to pull enemy troops off your territory is to open a circuitous passage through neutral countries from your territory to theirs. If they're running short on troops, you can usually force a significant recall of forces from your homeland simply by laying siege to their capital for a couple weeks. Even if you get caught out, your army will probably be able to retreat to safety and partially rebuild itself before the enemy's pursuit catches up.
Of course, to rebuild an army requires soldiers, and here's where we encounter some controversy.
Third Principle: Lives Are Cheap, so Buy Them
Mercenaries are as much a source of debate in EUIV as they were for statesmen in Machiavelli's day. There are players who refuse to use them except in the most dire circumstances. If you wage an extended war via mercenaries, you will end up paying off the debt for decades. They are economy-crippling, game-stifling money-sinks.
But it's all gone wrong? I love them.
There are a lot of negatives associated with mercenary troops: their upkeep is far higher than a standard national army. They cost a fortune when they're replacing losses.
But those are problems for later. In the desperate short-term, mercenaries work. They will fight for you when there are no more able-bodied soldiers to recruit in the kingdom. Mercenary regiments will form within days of hiring, making them perfect for those times when your country is being overrun by enemy armies. They are an almost-bottomless resource if you don't burn through them too quickly, and their deaths only cost you money. And even if you don't have money, you can always borrow some.
Mercenaries enable you to keep bleeding your adversaries, harassing them, and denying them an ultimate victory.
The alternative is capitulation. I don't recommend it.
Fourth Principle: No Surrender
If wars like this were easy to escape, we wouldn't even be discussing them. What's scary is when your enemy is coming after you and won't accept even absurdly generous peace terms. At that point, you have no idea what you'll be left with once the fighting stops.
For anyone less than a great power, a punishing peace settlement can be devastating. Your best provinces might be taken, your country split apart, and a hated, once-conquered enemy brought back to life. There are a lot of ways a peace settlement can undo hours and hours of work and deal your game a setback from which it is very hard to recover.
But you can only influence the outcome as long as you're still able to resist. If you just "think of England" and try to get your defeat over with, you are basically risking your game on a peace settlement you will not be able to affect.
Fifth Principle: Know Your Enemies… and Their Enemies
Even when you're only at war with one country (which is rare, given how often EUIV is a game of alliances), you need to identify the diplomatic weaknesses in your opponent or opponents. Check out who is fighting against you by clicking on the "war score" button the appears at the bottom of the screen when you're at war, then take a look at who is lined-up against you.
The nightmare scenario is that you've got a formal Coalition arrayed against you, because at that point a separate peace becomes impossible. Coalitions are deadly in EUIV because they are collective wars, where every member is committed until the bitter end. You just have to try and hold out until the war-leader calls it quits.
But coalitions are also rare. Most of the time, what you'll be facing is a standard set of alliances. And at that point, you need to figure out who in that alliance really hates you, who is just showing up out of obligation, and who can be made to have other problems.
Usually there are only one or two real opponents in any war. Those smaller satellite powers who send small detachments? They are good targets for your army. Give them a bloody nose and they'll probably leave you alone for a while, then come asking for a White Peace later.
The remaining enemies have to be defeated or simply exhausted. The good news is that they can become the focus of your diplomatic efforts. Or, more accurately, their neighbors can.
It's very rare that you'll be able to bring help into a war. Most AI nations are smart enough to see there's little point in joining someone else's war, especially when it's already in the process of being lost. Still, it's worth it to try. Even if you can't get a friend in the middle of the war, a postwar alliance can help you stay safe after the fighting stops.
But it's also good to just familiarize yourself with your enemies' enemies. If they have serious rivals (and the diplomacy window helpfully shows who each nation's main rivals are), then the odds are good they'll find themselves fighting another war on another front if you just hang on long enough. I've started more than a few national collapses by sucking enemy powers into an endless quagmire, then watching in glee as they get ganked by their rivals and torn to pieces. That's why you should know your enemies' diplomatic relationships as well as your own.
Sixth Principle: Picking the Time and the Place
It's important to set expectations for the rest of the war. You're probably going to lose a lot of battles. That's the whole reason you're in this mess: you can't win the fights.
So what you're trying to do is notch small, slight victories that will improve your war-score and inflict casualties on your enemy. Most siege detachments only number a few thousand men, so even a small army can usually overpower them before reinforcements arrive on the battlefield.
Usually, but not always. There will always be battles that drag on just a day too long, giving the main enemy army time to arrive and crush you. But that's a risk worth taking. Those types of battles tend to be bloody for both sides. You lose, but you had days of combat with smaller detachments to inflict casualties. Very occasionally, you'll get lucky and the enemy will feed troops into battle piecemeal, letting you defeat far superior forces. A single bloody debacle can change the entire complexion of a war, and put your foes on the back-foot.
If you can manage it, it's also worth trying to find a highly defensible province. Don't corner yourself (no matter how good the terrain, this is not a road you want to go down), but keep an eye open for provinces with mountains, rivers, or even dense forest. These are good places to bait a fight. If you can get their first, you will enjoy a huge defender's advantage.
They don't have to be your own provinces. Again, invading enemy territory can sometimes let you provoke a battle on good ground. Austria, for instance, is easy to lure into an Alpine death-trap. Will you win? Maaaaybe. Will you at least kill a lot of enemy soldiers? Absolutely.
Final Principle: Know When to Quit
Now here's an odd phenomenon I've noticed near the end of particularly hard-fought wars in Paradox games: they get personal. Decision-making gets more and more detached from pure reason. I don't just want to win the war, I want to humiliate the make-believe person I'm playing against.
It makes sense. Fighting a war like this takes intense determination. Otherwise you'd give up, or start a new game, or go play something else. But to stick it out, for session after session of grinding attrition? That's something you do out of spite and anger.
But when it comes time to call it a day and make peace, those same feelings can start whispering bad advice: "Hey, screw those guys. You don't need to take this offer. After all the crap you've been through, they should be offering concessions to you."
But that's just Pride talking.
There are times when it's worth it to keep fighting. If your opponents are suddenly collapsing, and are beset by other enemies, it could be worth it to push your luck to try and nab some territory or financial reparations. Continuing the war also postpones the post-war, which is going to bring a lot of complications on your head.
Still, when your opponents are getting dragged into other wars and starting to teeter, and the game is swinging in your favor, you need to remember that peace is a game of musical chairs. If you press your luck, and your enemy manages to reach settlements with their other rivals, you might be right back where you started, except now you're already exhausted down to scraps. If it goes wrong again, your position is likely to be irrecoverable.
In general, if you're offered mild peace terms or a White Peace? Take it, and chalk it up as a victory.
Winning the Peace
As bad as the war might have been, the aftermath can be worse. Broke, crushed by debt, low on manpower reserves, and almost certainly with slightly less territory than you started with, it can sometimes feel like you fought an epic war just to achieve a Pyrrhic stalemate.
But don't get discouraged. You have a truce that will protect you for ten years, which should let you partially de-mobilize. Once you're not spending oceans of cash on warfare, you'll be stunned how quickly you can start paying down your national debt.
The first step is to consolidate under-strength regiments. Replenishing regiments is expensive, so if you have a bunch of units down to 10% strength, they are costing you much, much more than would one unit at full-strength. That said, don't rush to consolidate artillery or cavalry regiments. Those are expensive to establish, so it can be worth it to leave them around so they can come up to full strength without costing you the start-up costs of a new unit.
The second step, once you know how many full regiments you have, is to dismiss as many mercenaries as you safely can. Get those mercenaries off the ledgers, and that should give you a positive cash-flow.
Your biggest threat during peacetime (excluding predatory neighbors) is the unrest related to War Exhaustion, and the most extreme form of this is The Peasant's War. This is a capital-D Disaster (if you want more detail on how they work), one of only a handful in EUIV. Peasant's War is a long fuse leading to national collapse.
When your national manpower is low, the peasantry will start getting angry and a percentage will start counting up to 100. At 100, Peasant's War triggers and your national unrest goes through the roof. Progress goes faster if you have more than 10 loans (which of course, by now, you do) and high war exhaustion. Peasant's War is not a game-ender, but it does mean that you probably won't have a quiet, uneventful peace for licking your wounds and retrenching your empire.
See the problems here? On the one hand, you'll need to retain at least some of your mercenary army to quell potential revolts and discourage your neighbors from descending on you like a pack of hyenas. On the other hand, your ruined finances desperately require you to reduce your army to a shell of itself so you can pay off debt and address some of the root-causes of looming disasters.
A good compromise is opening your finances tab and reducing the funding for your armed forces. It will lower their morale and make them more brittle in battle, so I don't recommend pushing the slider lower than 33%, but it's an easy way to fix your cash-flow without dismissing all your soldiers.
Surviving peacetime after a near-miss of a war is like taking a ship through a minefield, and there's no surefire recipe for doing it successfully. But in general, you keep just enough troops around to put down revolts, and then pay off your loans as quickly as possible. You will lose years' worth of progress as you fire advisors and forgo building infrastructure. But it will help you get out from under the crushing cost of war faster.
What it's worth
So why did you go through all of this? Chances are, if you survive this war, you spent the better part of five or ten years fighting, and then another ten or twenty years dealing with the fallout. All to stay in the same place.
Except that's not really true. Europa Universalis is a game in which windows of opportunity eventually close. The person who is kicking you all around the map in 1480 is taking one of the best shots they can. They have the right alliances, the right diplomatic situation, the right technologies, and the right army and commanders. If you can survive in the face of all that, they may never again be able to pose such a threat. Especially because they will have squandered all those resources trying to break you. Yet there you stand.