We sent Brendan to a castle in Poland to witness a giant session of strategy game Europa Universalis IV [official site]. In the first of a two-part report, he tells us of war-hungry Germans, scheming Saxons and unlucky Irish - the victims and villains of an epic four-day LAN party
I wake up to the sound of muskets. Outside, the ministers of France, Japan and Hanover are shooting 17th century flintlock rifles at nothing in particular. Two helpers, holding belts of wooden jars strung together like sausages, refill the guns of the world leaders with an eardrum-shattering amount of gunpowder. I plug my ears as they fire into the air. I want to ask the ministers from Hanover about the war. One million people have died - 292,000 from starvation and freezing, the rest from bullets and sabers. But all talk of treaties, battles, deals and diplomacy has been put to one side, replaced with deafening bangs and childish giggles. I stuff my hands in my pockets and walk back to the castle. Welcome to the strangest game of Europa Universalis IV ever played.
For those who don’t follow this genre of war-mongering, Europa Universalis is a series of grand strategy games in which players lead a single nation to either greatness or ruin. And because it spans 400 years of history (1444-1821) nations sometimes experience both. For many, it is an impenetrable interface of maps and menus, but for lovers of micro-managing cannons and colonies (like Fraser) it is an unparalleled simulation of history and geo-politics.
It’s also a favourite of Dziobak LARP Studios, who have gathered 40 players from around the world and brought them to a real castle in Poland called Zamek Czocha, where their chosen nations will clash, parley and, inevitably, stab each other in the back, all using computers set up throughout the castle’s libraries and ostentatious bed chambers. Here's how they sold it to the participants.
In short, it’s a four-day marathon of wars and negotiations, mixed with special real-life events like musket-firing and bird falconry, all of which will result in a very different world from our own - an alternate history where “Irish Cuba” will fall to Malaysian invaders, where the British Empire is nowhere to be seen, and where a great Indian civilisation has achieved a seemingly endless ascendancy.
Friends and enemies
The diplomat from Brunswick is cleaning up broken glass. His name is Jack, a 25-year-old from York, and he’s just dropped a half-filled glass of beer on the antique floorboards of a beautiful bed chamber called the “Prince of Aragon’s room”. He brushes up the shards and explains to me the intricacies of his team’s latest alliance. In reality, Jack works for the accounting department of Coca-cola (“you don’t get free coke”). This week, he’s a politician.
“I’m the diplomat,” he tells me. “They send the biggest dickhead on the team to do the diplomacy.”
Who else is in the room with him?
“Bavaria and Brunswick are holed up together. We’re forming a new German Federation. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t write that down.”
I don’t know it yet, but Jack and his fellow Brunswickers, Stewart and Rob, will become some of my best sources of information for the upcoming wars of Europe. Mostly because they are often the belligerents of said wars. Right now they are expanding their territory by sniping weak provinces controlled by the game’s AI, a typical tactic at this early stage of the game. They seize a coastal territory weakened by another team. Suddenly, one of their roommate allies playing as Bavaria, a tall Austrian in a beret, stands and approaches their table.
“The Bavarian people congratulate the Brunswick nation on their great conquest of...”
He hesitates and darts back to his computer screen, before standing upright once more.
But Oldenburg is a boring name for the Brunswick boys, who boast openly about their new “seaside resort”. They soon rename the province “Neu Skegness”. In Europa Universalis IV you spend a lot of time moving small soldier figures around on a map, but there are administrative tasks too. You can invest money in a particular region, for example, making it wealthier, stronger and more appealing.
Brunswick will never develop Neu Skegness.
I sit down next to their friends, the Bavarians, one of whom explains to me what he’s doing in-game, in a succinct and direct manner.
“So now I’m poisoning a bishop.”
It is, perhaps, an early sign of the treachery to come.
From here, if you were to take a Gormenghast-like stroll through the innards of Zamek Czocha, you’d leave the Prince of Aragon’s quarters, walk along the upper balcony of the grand hall (all the while surveying a huge map of the world projected onto the floor below), enter the “English room”, where a foam statue of a lion evokes a kind of sickly pride, then pass down a granite stairwell normally hidden behind a polished wooden panel, and finally emerge in the library, where you would tumble out of the bookcases like a confused servant. This is where one of the nations destined to be a great power lives: Pomerania. On the map of 15th century Europe, Pomerania is a long strip of land on the Baltic coast straddling current-day Germany and Poland. Here, it is two men sitting side-by-side, leaning into a screen. They are a concern to some of the other European player-nations in the castle, but more on that later.
“Wow,” says one of the Pomeranians, squinting at something on the screen. “We can’t even pay that man.”
“We can,” says the other, a bald American in a feathered cloak, “because we can fire these three advisors.”
They continue to talk, unaware of my existence, speaking about spy networks, cavalry, Imperial votes, Teutonic threats. The cloaked player is doing most of the talking, erecting a thick wall of grand strategy jargon and medieval terminology, black feathers resting on his shoulders. It’s as if a man of the Night’s Watch got really into videogames.
I lean over them and ask a few questions. They give short answers, or cut themselves off mid-sentence at some national distraction. They never stop looking at the computer screen, engrossed in statistics, numbers, the small details of a growing kingdom. I will later learn that the cloaked man is Arumba, a Florida-based YouTuber of Paradox games who is well-known in the community. Right now, however, I get the feeling that he and his fellow Pomeranian have no time for reporters. After all, it’s the 1400s. The press doesn’t exist.
The Irish Question
Meanwhile, upstairs in what they call the “French room”, the Earl of Desmond is ruling alone. Two representatives from Moldavia look over his shoulders at a map of Ireland, where the province of Desmond resides, inspecting the emerald isle like it’s a pork belly ready to be shredded and put in a burger bun.
“You should protect trade,” says one.
“If you privateer, you’ll only piss people off,” says the other.
The Earl is alone. His name is Moises, a 27-year-old Gibraltarian with a thick black beard and a habit of injecting “pero” into sentences where you expect a “but” - a side effect of his homeland’s mixed lingo. Today he’s leading armies, acting as a regent in a game he doesn’t yet fully understand. He only bought Europa Universalis IV recently, he tells me, and was relying on his team mate to help conquer and unify the troublesome AI Irish lords. But his team mate still hasn’t shown up. The Moldavians are good people, if a little hungry for land, but they are not as helpful as a king might be.
Later in the day, this player finally shows up, escorted into the room where he is introduced by the event’s organisers. He’s a young man with long, luxurious hair, like in a shampoo advertisement – I never catch his name. He peers at the stained-glass map of Ireland as if returning from some crusade. This is it, the return of the king. I expect him to sit down, to take up mouse and keyboard and sort out the Irish Question once and for all. Instead, he vanishes out the door. He’s going to say hello to his friends in Japan, he says. Moises looks at me briefly. It seems his regency is not over yet.
'We say a lot of things'
Back in the German lands, the Brunswick boys are at war. The first player-on-player conflict took less than a few hours to erupt. The Brunswick-Bavarian alliance have taken a close look at Pomerania and decided: “No.” Their reasoning, while ruthless, seems logical. In EU IV small countries become larger and grander in many ways. Usually, this will involve reforming your hodge-podge of provinces into a new nation. If a player manages to wrangle together the warring Italian city states for example, they can form Italy. Another nation you could form, if you collected the right bits of land in Germany and fulfilled some other criteria, is Prussia. The Prussians, players of the game will tell you, are monsters. They have military modifiers that make their armies immensely strong along with other bonuses that make them a formidable threat. They are a Problem Country.
The Brunswick-Bavarians have seen that Pomerania are positioning to form this fiery world power, and they have decided to intervene. They even drag a trio of French players in charge of the small nation of Brabant into the conflict as reluctant allies. When I enter the Brunswick-Bavarian war room after hearing news of the war, they are bickering and shouting at one another. The argument is over Brabant. Their new friends expanded too quickly during the war and are now under attack from a coalition of 15 computer-controlled nations. Will they help? No, they will not.
“But we said we would help them out,” says one of the war boys, a final plea.
“Yeah,” retorts Jack of Brunswick, “but we say a lot of things, don’t we?”
The matter is settled. Brunswick-Bavaria will forget their out-of-room allies and get on with the business of fighting, moving troops from one province to another, shouting directions at each other, and pushing the Pomeranians back into their grey heartland.
If you took that Gormenghast walk once more, down to the library, you’d find a couple of serious-looking men in front of a glowing screen. And that scene repeats itself in almost every room (there are no women players present at all). It’s only been one day in the castle, and tonight the diplomats and war boys will drink together in the castle’s bar, a re-purposed dungeon where a small bust of Lenin holds a candle atop his head, before finally heading off to their rooms to sleep off the eye-strain and testosterone. But in the decades that have passed in-game, the rivalry that will devastate Europe for hundreds of years to come has already been decided.
The spirit of the law
The note reads:
DEATH TO THE GERMAN 3-MAN ALLIANCE
IF YOU WANT IN
ASSEMBLE ON 3RD FLOOR
NEAR ROOM 221
I hand it back to the Moldavian minister. We are already walking up the stairs to the meeting place. When he approached me, I had been in the Knight’s Hall, inspecting the grand map and considering the future of the Papacy, which on the second day of the game was now under threat from a Protestantism far more infectious than any reformation I had learned about in history class.
“Want to see something cool?” the Moldavian had said. “Come with me. You’re neutral, right?”
Now we’re walking down the appointed hallway, eyes open for the note’s author. The Moldavian leads the way, he has a haircut like Björn Ironsides, but a better sense of humour. At first it seems like no one is present when we arrive at the meeting place. But as we pass a stone column a figure shifts from his hiding spot. It’s the Pomeranian ruler Arumba, who had been leaning there silently, arms crossed and waiting.
“So, it was you who sent the note?” he asks.
“What?” says the Moldavian. “I thought you sent it.”
Behind us, another conspirator arrives. Did he send the note? No. Another minister appears, then another and another. Finally, Claus of Saxony, one of the organisers who has decided nevertheless to get involved in the affairs of the world, enters the hallway and commands everyone's attention. Imagine if The Dude from the Big Lebowski suddenly learned to speak with clarity and purpose. This gives you a fairly good idea of Claus.
Nonetheless, that he sent the note feels disappointing to me, since he’s one of the LARPing company’s own men. It feels like the AI throwing in a pop-up, rather than an organic meeting of concerned players. But I doubt it matters to the men assembled here, all of whom have grown sick of the belligerence and heavy-handed diplomacy of the Brunswick-Bavarian boys. I look around at the representatives. Norway, Morocco, Italy, Pomerania, Moldavia, Savoy and Saxony. The king of Desmond is absent.
Soon the plotting begins in earnest. Claus of Saxony begins leading the discussion and Arumba of Pomerania, the player perhaps most embittered by the militarism of the Germans, begins talking in his own technical way. He speaks of diplo points, war-decking, primary cultures, monarch points, league wars. He is an index to which the other conspirators constantly refer when asking about possible manoeuvres against the Germans. I get the feeling, listening to him speak, that he could play Europa Universalis inside his own head, like some Zweigian chess master. Later I’ll learn that he has spent up to 4000 hours playing the game.
But it’s the representative from Savoy who takes control of the plan. His name is Benjamin, a 35-year-old from Belgium who has arrived in a finely tailored costume. His coat tails and waistcoat lend him the air of an actual world leader, circa 1800. Once or twice during the meeting, he checks a pocket watch. He’s also holding a straight, black cane that I’ll later discover has nothing at all to do with his costume and everything to do with the chronic pain he has felt in his joints since the age of 21.
He's been standing silently, listening to the plans of Arumba and Claus, then he starts to speak. By degrees, Benjamin takes charge of the conspiracy. He points out that, if there’s to be a war, it must be done correctly. There are, after all, legalities to consider.
He’s not making this up for theatrical effect – there are actual contracts, written on stained and yellowed “vellum” which bind nations to certain action (or inaction). Once agreed, these are pinned to a wall in the knight's hall. For example, if Japan wanted Malaysia to sign a non-aggression pact until the end of the day’s play, they can write this out on a paper scroll, sign it and stick it up. Several nations in the conspiracy have already signed a similar agreement with the very Germans they now want to attack. If they simply broke the contract and assaulted their victims, then all paper contracts – even the one the Saxons are now writing for the purposes of this conspiracy – would be void. Trust would mean nothing. They need to find a “legally sound” way of taking on the Brunswick-Bavarians.
They run through some options. “Technically,” suggests the Italian minister, “we were the nation of Milan when we signed that agreement. We’re not Milan anymore.” It’s one solution, but eventually everyone settles on a plan that excludes any “tied-up” nations from committing troops while at the same time allowing them to fund their co-conspirators and sit out of the war. It's dodgy, but it breaks no explicit agreements. The 45-minute-long meeting is finally coming to a close when Benjamin of Savoy signals to the Saxon who's been writing up the new seven-nation contract. He insists upon a final point.
“Point six,” he says, raising his finger. “All signatories shall abide by the spirit of this agreement.”
He is future-proofing the contract against the same legal gymnastics they've just been performing. The “Death To The German Alliance Act of Day 2” is complete.
“WHERE ARE THE IRISH!?”
Stewart of Brunswick is livid. He is pacing around the war room. The Irish troops he was promised are nowhere to be found. He points at me, the closest real-life Irishman in the vicinity, with an accusing finger.
“You should be ashamed of your countrymen.”
The anti-German plan has been launched. Bavaria is scrambling its soldiers together, Brunswick’s northern territories have been occupied, and the treasury is running dry. Neu Skegness is in the hands of the enemy.
A huge battle breaks out in one of their provinces. Then another and another. Each time the Brunswick-Bavarians roar into the next room, shouting for the Irish to get into the fight and provide reinforcements. On-screen, a little regiment of Irish troops marches toward each battle as it comes up, always a little behind. The boys are on the ropes, diplomatically speaking, but far from being dismayed, they are strangely euphoric. Each battle ends with cheers and yells and laughs.
“This is the most fun we’ve had so far!” says one of them.
At war, the boys are in their element. This conflict appears to be exactly what they wanted from the excursion to Poland. Most of the battles I witness end in the Pomeranians and their allies running away, or sometimes even getting “stack wiped” - the term used when an entire group of soldiers is unable to retreat and gets wiped off the face of the earth. The Irish troops, fighting alongside the Germans, are having a harder time. Behind on technology, the king of Desmond and his regent currently have no muskets to bring to the fight.
“What do they have?” I ask one of the war boys.
Downstairs, the atmosphere is just as chaotic. I come across Ironsides the Moldavian standing in the middle of the ball room. He is shouting up to the balcony as loud as he can manage.
“SAXONY,” he cries. “GET IN THE FUCKING WAR.”
In the devastation of Europe’s first great war, three countries are sitting quietly in the cavernous back room of the castle, surrounded by maps and empty bookshelves. Brabant has formed the Netherlands, getting stronger and richer in the process. Italy has captured Rome and killed the Pope, effectively eliminating Catholicism from existence (even a united Ireland will eventually abandon the church of Rome). And at one table, where a growing blue nation is slowly devouring the once-powerful AI kingdom of France, Benjamin of Savoy is sitting in his coat tails, smiling. He is happy to be legally covered.
By the end of the second day, the European rivalry has come to define the game. But not all is as it seems. In my time as a videogame war correspondent, I have come to learn a truth about conflict. Behind every war there is a money man. If you back out of the cavernous room where the Savoy ministers smirk at their warring neighbours, past the shouting Moldavians and the focused Pomeranians, up the stone steps and into the room where the foam lion regards all with his sickly gaze, you will find, sitting in resplendent cloaks, hats and waistcoats, three merchant kings of India. They are the Mughals.
Atop their desk, a wooden chest of coins spills out all sorts of fictional currency, glittering in the room. One of these Mughals, a blonde-haired Dutch man called Florens, is the bearer of a permanent grin.
“These Europeans,” he says, “they give away their clay like...”
He waves his hand dismissively and trails off.
The merchant kings of India have discovered Europe. And they are going to make a killing.
Read the second part of Brendan’s report here, in which the Asian powers extend their influence, and money corrupts the world.
All photographs courtesy of Nadina Dobrowolska from Dziobak Larp Studios.