There are all sorts of Paradox games these days, which can be confusing for a fellow who is mostly looking for armies to command and maps to paint in his chosen colour. Fearful that March of the Eagles might be a Napoleonic era take on Angry Birds, I was pleased to find an internally developed strategy title, but this is a wargame rather than a historical playground. I am rubbish at war.
Anyone who has played a Paradox grand strategy, particularly the more recent releases, will recognise elements of March of the Eagles. The interface has been trimmed, with most of the unnecessary screens stripped out entirely, and members of the development team have suggested that the striding eagles are intended as a primer, a gateway game that will encourage newcomers to venture into more complex titles.
It’s a much tighter game that offers something altogether different to the campaigns of its century-swallowing brethren. When I first played the beta, I found it more intimidating than Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings, baffled by my ability to fail. Grand strategy games tend to permit the player to create goals, which means success and failure are relative. A disastrous war opens up new possibilities of play, whether recovery or recalibration of imperial expectations, and the concept of early, mid and endgames is eliminated. Start as a powerful ruler and you are in another player’s endgame already, but your own closure may involve ruin and decline.
March of the Eagles discards these ideas, instead providing players with strict goals and punishing their failures. There is a correct way to play March of the Eagles and it involves more war in its fifteen years than my cowardly Crusade-dodging Dukes usually experience in a lifetime. It might be one of those map games but compared to Victoria, EU and Crusader Kings, March of the Eagles is an action game, so blisteringly fast and vicious that I almost expected QTEs to pop up from time to time when I crossed national borders.
My idea of ‘blisteringly fast’ may differ from yours. Playing as England, a particularly large army that I’d ordered to cross France took around eight months of game time to arrive. That worked out as about an hour, give or take, during which I drank a great deal of coffee and listened to Flying Lotus, occasionally tabbing across to Chrome and shaking my fist at a picture of Napoleon that I’d saved in a tab. It was dramatic.
It really was. Although I prefer the strategic sandboxes and would even argue that they’re easier to grasp given the correct grounding, March of the Eagles whips up tension on a regular basis. Because there is always a hand at your back, pushing toward conflict, each campaign is reduced to a series of relatively simple decisions. Each of the great nations (the only ones that can win the game) has a fixed set of objectives, territories that they must capture to gain land and naval dominance. The first choice, then, is to decide which fronts you’re willing to commit your limited manpower to. History has lessons but, especially if you’re playing as an eventual historical loser, it can be sensible to tear up the past in your own particular way.
To win, a great nation must not only gain naval and land dominance, by securing a set number of the prescribed victory locations necessary for each condition, they must also ensure that whoever is currently dominant in each sphere gets knocked off their perch. In my experience, it’s dethroning the powerful that leads to more complex strategies and makes March of the Eagles something more than Total War without the tactical battles.
Mostly, it’s fairly simple. Armies are constructed and battle is pursued, all with a few clicks of the mouse. Some things still don’t make a great deal of sense to me though, particularly leaders, which complicated my campaigns without adding anything of great value. Everything should be a choice rather than a checkbox, but leaders lack meaning. If they’re not attached to armies, the armies are rubbish. It’s possibly a way of limiting the number of meaningful stacks any nation can have at any one time, but I found it to be a distraction that didn’t expand the game meaningfully.
While it’s foolish not to be at war – he who is not fighting is not playing - as the European situation becomes more complex, targets shift. Perhaps the Austrian territories that you originally planned to seize have become less desirable because there are twenty thousand soldiers guarding them, or, a better plot, perhaps France is on the verge of victory so the new plan is to ally with Austria and chip away at the Bland Armee for a while, mocking their unfashionable uniforms all the while. Adding to the tension is the fact that every nation knows the objectives of the others, which can make their plans transparent but can also allow for bluffs, double-bluffs and, God forbid, triple-bluffs.
While Crusader Kings II and EU III are capable of generating alternate histories and stories suitable for a fellow to consume in the manner of a chronicle or historical Romance (with more incest and/or oppression of native peoples), March of the Eagles is best enjoyed with other people. The best stories that develop are the ones that form between former friends as the bluffing and the bluster fades, and the angry Russian Bear descends from the north and tears the guts out of everybody. As you might imagine, this isn’t a game to enjoy with strangers – if you want to play a Napoleonic wargame that is more complex than Total War but less complex than something from Matrix or indeed Paradox, this may be the game for you and your battle-buddies.
Playing is like organising a boardgame night. Make sure everyone is actually up for it, rather than just keen on the idea of saying they’re up for it, then set times, make the purchase and see the campaign through. It won’t take more than three or four long sessions, or a couple of weeks’ worth of shorter ones, and although I’ve read reports of connectivity issues, I haven’t had a problem. You’ll have to pretend you’re in the nineties though, not by listening to Ocean Colour Scene on repeat, but by swapping IP addresses and the like, or if you’re ultra-cool, setting up a goddamn LAN party.
There’s very little wrong with the AI, but it won’t talk to you about what an idiot you are when the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won. It’d be great if it did, just as it’d be great to see its expression of anguish when you surprise the heck out of it with a huge army stack, but it doesn’t and it can’t. I’ve actually played more of the singleplayer than I have the multiplayer, and I’ve enjoyed myself well enough, but I’m back to my usual diet of grander strategy already.
There are some interface oddities because this is a Paradox grand strategy game, but March of the Eagles is on the same upward curve as the rest. It’ll still cause newcomers to bounce off with a few broken bones, but much of the data can be ignored, at least to begin with. I’d love to see more people engaging with the maps I love so dearly and if it takes a bloodthirsty wargame to bring them in, this isn’t a bad choice, but I’d definitely recommend playing with friends, as long as you don’t mind losing them.
March of the Eagles is out now.