I feel like I could... Like I could... Like I could... TAKE ON THE WORLD!
It's Europa Universalis IV!
Has it been a good year for strategy games? Our Calendar suggests not. Of the entries so far, only XCOM: Enemy Within looks vaguely strategic (there's a big globe) but it's a tactical combat game and an expansion to one of 2012's best. In fact, look at my most played games and you'll find two recently expanded Firaxis games riding high on the list. But right at the top is the reason that 2013 has been a great year for strategy games. It's
Europa Universalis IV still Crusader Kings II. Closely followed by Europa Universalis IV.
Paradox' latest two grand strategy titles are my DOTA 2, my Counterstrike and my Starcraft. They're my Team Fortress 2. I've never really had it before, that one game that I can (and do) resort to rain or shine. I'm a buffet rather than a banquet person, picking at the table and trying every dish, but moving on before I empty an entire plate. I've never really understood people who fill up on crabsticks when there's a whole plate full of of canapés right over there.
Until now. I sit on trains in distant cities wondering how to reform my disastrous colonial strategies. I half-listen to conversation in the pub because I'm having a conversation with myself about the possible drawbacks of starting a land war in Scandin-Asia (it's a long origin story). Europa takes the alternate history simulation of Crusader Kings II and paints it across a wider world. I don't feel like a mighty leader of men when I play. I feel like a town gossip, hanging up my bloomers on the line while I rabbit on to neighbours over the fence: "Oooooo, you'll never guess what I saw that Portugal doing yesterday. Only gone and kicked up a fuss in North Africa, haven't they? I sez to them, if you must cause all this bother, don't do it on my doorstep, but do they blinkin' listen? Do they heckers like."
In this scenario, I am Mrs Vera Trudge, a fine old Lancashire lady who wore Wellington boots and a plastic rain hat to her daughter's wedding.
Europa Universalis IV, like Crusader Kings II before it, turns me into a busybody. I want to know what's going on in everyone else's game. I watch Let's Plays as if they're television shows and take great delight in telling people about the goings-on in my own ongoing campaigns. When people attach themselves to a single game there's most often a competitive or social element - usually both - that is fundamental to the experience. I suppose there is a social aspect to Europa because I do spend a lot of time talking about it, even to people who don't seem to know exactly what I'm talking about, but I don't play out of any desire to improve. How to improve in a game that is as much about playing a role as beating a system? And, more than that, a game that is about observing a system.
Like Crusader Kings II, Europa is going to enjoy a long life of expansions. The first, with a randomly generated new world, is a major change from what has come before, deviating from the historical before the in-game history has even begun. I don't know what else 2014 will bring but the game will almost certainly be even larger and more compelling by this time next year. I very much doubt I'll have found a new obsession to stake such a large claim on my time.
As much as Crusader Kings 2 is a wonderful strategy game, it's also an RPG. The choices you make shape your family, crafting medieval melodramas as you play. It was only when I started thinking about Europa Universalis in the same way that I could overcome its mass of numbers and menus. In Europa Universalis IV, you're roleplaying a country.
It was a simple revelation, but it changed everything for me. Freed from the mental burden of thinking I needed to win, EUIV opened up, welcomed me inside, and kept me locked in its machinery of politics, trade and war for dozens of hours. I still don't fully understand all its systems, but that doesn't matter. I'm the noble nation of Austria. I've embraced Protestantism early. A long-running spat with Venice has led me to form a posse and wipe out much of would-be Italy. I'm now being harried by my neighours, and I'm not sure I'll ever feel the same way again about Hungary.
These events have begun to blur in my mind with elements of real history, introducing a new anxiety to pub conversations. 'Did this actually happen, or is it just a thing the Flemish did in my Europa Universalis game?' I doubt I'll ever find out the reality. EUIV's alternate histories are more
Beneath its pretty cartographic surface, EUIV is a robust, cannily balanced strategy game of military tactics, diplomatic maneuvering and numbers. Underneath that surface, it's a story generator.
As I've grown a little older, I've become more mercenary in my decisions about where to devote my time with games. If EUIV puts you off because it seems like a warren of menus it'll take you hours to learn, then rest easy. It will take you hours to learn, but you'll be having fun and forging your own tales of war and betrayal long before that. Furthermore, as Adam notes above, EUIV is going to have a long life of expansions. I'm excited for its future because I gave it a little investment, and it'll be paying me back for years to come.