A few weeks ago, Paradox invited a group of journalists to Stockholm in order to see how much violence we could do to one another in a massive two-day multiplayer session of Europa Universalis IV. I packed my bags, steeled my nerves and prepared to present Rock, Paper, Shotgun the only way I know how - with fruitless acts of violence and a burning desire to reduce France to ashes. Inevitably, it transpired that I would be playing as France but I wasn't going to let that petty detail shake my resolve. Europe was about to meet its maker.
It was on the dawn of the second day that my horrific plot became fully-formed somewhere at the back of my sleep-deprived skull. Do skulls even need to sleep, I wondered, thinking of Mort, Boni and other skulls I have known in the long days of my life. Stockholm’s old town seemed as brittle as a city of glass as I walked through the streets toward the Royal Armoury, Sweden’s oldest museum and a suitably historic venue in which to play out the end of the alternate timeline we had created during several play sessions the previous day.
‘We’ were a collection of games journalists, summoned from distant lands to this place, just a few blocks from Paradox headquarters. Inside the armoury, which contains a fine and macabre collection of dead kings’ clothes, we were instructed to build and destroy nations in an enormous multiplayer event. Grand strategy games diverge from the true course of the past quite swiftly, particularly when there are twenty player-controlled entities in the game and those players have regular breaks in which to scheme together, cliques of heels murmuring over Viking beer and assorted meats afflicted with the Ikeacidic bite of lingonberry jam. Matters become more complicated still when several of the players are members of Paradox Development Studio. They are masters of the map.
Before the event, I had played for several hours alone and was pleased that, along with Crusader Kings II, I’d discovered a ‘next generation’ that I was actually interested in. That’s not to say there aren’t releases I’m looking forward to that might appear on the FourthStation and Xbone (that one will have games, right?), but this second in what will hopefully be a complete new batch of Paradox grand strategy games has the mark of a localised, PC-based generational shift. The key is in refining the core complexity that has always made the games so fascinating while attracting new players with robust code, more accessible interfaces and lovely maps to look at. EU IV should successfully bring across at least a portion of the new CK II audience, though perhaps not those who love the game purely for its family feuds, and will almost certainly please those who have been waiting for more EU since the Divine Wind blew two years ago.
The lives of feudal lords are simple, in retrospect, despite the possibility of being stabbed in the beard by your mum’s brother’s dad’s nephew, who is also your son. Don’t think about that for too long. But do think about the humans at the heart of CK II. They’re mostly gone by the time of EU, replaced by robot overlords following the final straw in social evolution that was the Hundred Years’ War. When a scrap goes on for that long, somebody is bound to take it upon themselves to build a legion of clockwork infantry and then, BOOM, it’s judgement day.
Admittedly, that last paragraph is mostly made up of half-truths, stonking great lies and fantasies about machine men, but it’s fair to say that relationships, family matters and individuals’ quirks and traits are much less important in EU. Advisors, generals and rulers have names and lifespans, but they’re really just a group of statistics, albeit statistics that can have a huge impact on the game. A terrible heir is still a problem to be solved quickly, lest a nation enters into a decade of discontent under his rule.
I had no such problems. Playing as France, a decision made for me, or more likely against me given my known preference for smaller nations, I had allied with England before the game even began. Destructoid’s Fraser Brown was the man in charge of England’s destiny. As a proud Scot, he was, like me, a victim of the event organisers’ malicious tinkering. We were out of our comfort zone and it seemed only natural to stir the pot yet more, so we put our neighbours on notice and diverted the tides of time before the first move had been made. England and France are natural enemies, each keeping the other in check, so brows, hackles and heckles were raised when the game began and a global notification told everybody in the hall that an alliance had been forged between the red and the blue.
The constant warring and bickering between the two mighty nations is natural – they have fingers in the same provincial pies when the game begins – but it’s also somewhat desirable to have the giants slogging it out. Their armies and navies require checks lest they become too powerful and they are ideally situated to chip away at one another, neither likely to become entirely dislodged. As allies, they form a formidable block between Iberia and central Europe.
The northern coast of France remained English and I quickly conquered all of the smaller independent regions within my borders, even swapping territories with what was rapidly becoming the United Kingdom. I was happy to give up the north coast as long as I controlled the west, which opened up naval trade routes in peaceful waters. In the early game, my goal was to consolidate my strength, unite France and avoid war so that I could focus on improving my economy and technology. With one eye on a future of violent conquest, I focused my national idea progression on diplomacy, which may seem a pacifist pursuit, but would actually allow me to secure more rewarding peace deals whenever conflict ceased.
While a large stack of armies is useful, cutting a path through enemy lands is only one part of any battle. To take lands, a ruler must have a reason for doing so (casus belli) - historical, cultural, personal, diplomatic, religious or forged - and must then pummel his opponent(s) into submission, wreaking enough carnage to force acquiescence to his/her demands. The AI is predictable, to a point, and the warscore is measured in numbers making it clear when the balance has tipped. Humans, contrary sods that they are, occasional require a tap on the shoulder and a lesson in the art of submission.
I’d feast on human prey later (Burgundy looked delicious). First, I devoured the small AI-led territories, ensuring that my marauding forces were occasionally visible at the borders, bristling with advanced weaponry and numbering in the tens of thousands. The show of power was expensive but keeping a large standing army seemed essential. I needed Aragorn to know that any expedition to the north would meet with fierce resistance and whatever was happening to the east, which judging by the shouts and recriminations was on the verge of becoming an unpredictable mess.
That was the immediate east, in what would one day be a big German blob. Farther still, violence had already broken out but that didn’t concern me. England concerned me. I didn’t intend to break the alliance but while I was stitching France together, the British were uniting under one king. They were screaming and dying as they did it, but Wales and Scotland were both stained red with more than blood. I was quickly becoming the weaker party.
The enormity of the world is immediately obvious when sharing a room with people battling in almost every region. Over lunch and dinner, I heard tales of conflict that I hadn’t even suspected. Africa and the Americas were still mostly untouched by human players as the day ended, but that wouldn’t last. As people took their different approaches to the problem of surviving and expanding, the possible approaches to success and experimentation became slightly bewildering. By the end of the first day there were great trading nations, warmongering emperors, a nascent British empire, and the beginnings of colonisation and subjugation.
In the middle of it all was France, no longer a royal blue block but a patchwork quilt. I screwed up. Too many months in the feudal era had made me dull to the realities of the more modern world and when my nation’s stability dropped, I created vassals, dishing out land in an effort to placate my people. Big mistake. To counter the stability hits from expansion, it’s necessary to expend diplomatic power to make regions into core assets and to convert the populace to your own culture. Vassalisation is no longer a band-aid.
As we gathered our belongings and our tales, and headed out of the Armoury en masse, I wasn’t much better off than I had been at the beginning of the day. Tomorrow, the second and final meeting, would involve repetition and regret. Or at least it might have done. Instead, I decided as I sat in the unexpectedly scorching Swedish sun that that if the game was going to end the next day, France might as well end along with it. And if France was going to end, the rest of the world was going to burn along with it.