I am not a history nut. I’ve never really cared for Paradox’s past grand strategy efforts. Games that need a two dozen hour investment before “the fun part” have never appealed to me. And yet, despite these expectations, I love Europa Universalis IV.
Any PC gaming diehard like myself will know Paradox Interactive for their massive grand strategy games that strictly adhere to world history, and their deep simulation that gives the player agency over *everything*. This deep simulation is both the defining characteristic and fatal flaw of past games from Paradox. With 2012’s strategy/RPG Crusader Kings II and now Europa Universalis IV, however, Paradox has shown that it is ready to bring historical grand strategy to the masses.
Europa Universalis IV is a grand strategy game that takes place in the colonial era. As the leader of an empire, the player must maintain an army for attack and defense, diplomatic relations with other nations, expeditions across the world, technological research, and an economy that keeps the whole operation afloat. If that sounds like a lot to keep track of at once, it is. While still requiring a significant time investment to understand the quirks of gameplay, Europa Universalis IV is the most accessible game of its kind.
The true genius of Europa Universalis IV is its user interface. After all, the user interface is what you play in a Paradox game, not the world map. Taking notes from the most accessible devices in technology today, Paradox has borrowed a surprising amount of design metaphors from tablet and smartphone interfaces to make their grand strategy easier to understand.
All of the administrative functions used to govern an empire are housed under a single homescreen-like button in the top left corner. When this is pressed, a drop-down menu lets players choose missions, advance technology, convert the religion of a recently conquered territory, optimize trade routes, raise taxes, and more. This menu quickly flits out of the way with a press of the same button. Smartphone-like notifications appear in the top of the screen, color-coded according to urgency, that lead directly to the applicable decision.
It’s not just the layout of the interface that reminded me of a smartphone, but the experience of using it. Like any good smarpthone operating system, Europa Universalis IV always brought important items to my attention quickly. When I decided to act on these items, making the decision took no more than three or four clicks before I was out of the menu and back in the action. Europa Universalis IV also makes the consequences of any decision crystal clear before you make it, preventing an English Major like myself from making an errant accounting error and bankrupting an empire of millions.
Further streamlining of gameplay systems helps players new to the Europa Universalis games — and grand strategy in general. One of the things that always hits me in a grand strategy game is the paralysis of choice. It’s hard for me to boot up a game like this and instantly have a goal in mind. Fortunately, Europa Universalis IV has added in a mission system that gives more guidance. These missions adapt to what is happening in the game, and scale in difficulty. As France, my first mission was to make peace with a neighboring country, which took three mouse clicks and a minute of game time. Eventually, I completed missions and built up my empire until I was tasked with conquering Italy, a goal that took me through the end of my game.
But enough about the user interface. The reason past Europa Universalis games have been worth overcoming the steep learning curve is for the emergent story possibilities and limitless replayability. It never ceased to amaze me that, after finishing an hours-long singular focus on the conquest of another country, I would zoom out to the world map view and find that the circumstances of the world at large had completely changed. The best Europa Universalis stories don’t come from directly playing the game, but from watching AI or human opponents play the game around you.
For instance, as France, I spent a hundred years, tens of thousands of men, a vast fleet, and a shady trade negotiation to conquer the United Kingdom and Ireland. When I zoomed out of my cozy nook, I noticed that the Ottomans had completely taken over the rest of Europe, and were quickly barrelling toward me, prompting a war I was not ready for. The possibilities of Europa Universalis IV are endless, not just in conquest but in diplomacy and trade, as well. Whereas games of Civilization can become predictable in their overall rhythm, Europa Universalis IV leans into the unpredictable nature of the colonial era, making each game uniquely memorable.
All this isn’t to say that Paradox has perfected the grand strategy formula. I still had to look up a YouTube video series to figure out some of the more complex gameplay systems, and sometimes the reason the player can or cannot do something is not clearly explained. However, Europa Universalis IV has taken grand strategy to the point that it doesn’t require much more time investment than other strategy games. Once players overcome the initial learning curve, Europa Universalis IV will prove a memorable strategy experience that provides as much fun stories as it does sheer tactical complexity.