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Not here to make friends (Part 2) - Europa Universalis IV with 20 people

It’s fairly early in the morning when a bunch of jet-lagged journalists walk through the hush of Sweden’s Royal Armory towards the war room. Since King Gustavus Adolphus’ time, the Armory has been a museum showcasing the history of Sweden’s royalty. We file past old uniforms, antique swords, and crude firelock infantry weapons, the very tools of war that would have been used in the era of Europa Universalis IV.

[Read part 1 here]

We’re fighting a war of our own here today. Paradox have assembled about a dozen or so strategy writers and Youtubers to take part in a mammoth session of Europa Universalis IV multiplayer. Several members of the development team, including series designer Johan Andersson, are also playing with us, though they have taken lesser European powers in an attempt to give the rest of us a sporting chance. It amounts to an enormous LAN party, a game of Risk or Diplomacy on steroids, the kind of thing that’s near impossible to organize with friends. Here we have two days to just focus on the game, and see who will be master of Europe.

Europa Universalis is the flagship of Paradox Development Studio, and remains their purest strategy game. It doesn’t have Crusader Kings’ complicated dynastic politics and randomness, nor Victoria 2’s focus on demographics and internal politics. EU IV is chess with nations and armies.

Players control a single nation from the end of the late Middle Ages through to the end of the Napoleonic Era. It’s open-ended, lacking any real victory conditions except the goals you set for yourself. You can try and conquer the entire world with a great power like France or Russia, or you can see whether a tiny Indian statelet can unite the subcontinent and hold out against European imperialism.

For today, however, we’re all titans of Europe. I’m playing the Ottomans, who have a lot going for them. They’ve got a foothold in Europe and total control of modern Turkey, and most of their neighbors are fractured and weak. They also start with a brilliant ruler, Mehmet II, who is as talented an administrator as he is a diplomat and warrior. His stats in those areas mean that the Ottomans will make very good progress with their technology and infrastructure. They also have a ton of good options: they can easily take Constantinople from the teetering Byzantines, and with their position astride the Bosphorus Strait, they can become a major trade power.

On the other hand, the Ottomans rule a restive empire of Bulgarians, Greeks, and Albanians. They face frequent rebellions, and consolidating their territory is slow work. More troubling is the fact that they are not a Western power. This is something that matters more as the game goes on. Western nations get bonuses to technology research, which means that my proud Ottoman armies will slowly fall behind, and Europe may become closed to me. You can Westernize non-Western nations, but it is a costly and incredibly disruptive process. There never really is a perfect time to overturn your culture and way of life.

Finally, there are the Mamluks. They are the other major Islamic power, with control of most of Arabia and the Holy Land. They have a powerful trade network and are positioned across most of the routes coming from the east. We both have room to grow, but we can never quite turn our backs on each other.

Playing a Paradox game where almost every major power is controlled by a human, in the same room, is like a poker tournament meets Dune. The first players to outpace the rest are bound to create a deadly coalition against themselves. So I must keep a low-profile. Ideally, the way I like to play is create a compact, powerful state. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, surprise everyone and gouge them for as much territory and concessions as I can.

This is far, far trickier with 20 people to play against. AI cannot ape the long-term evaluation of benefits that people perform instinctively. With humans, coalitions form and collapse from pure opportunism, and wars escalate dramatically as players from around the world realize their interests are jeopardized by the outcome.

So as much as I’d like to keep the ball rolling, I decide to start my game off softly. Fortunately, EU IV lets you choose from a number of reasonable national missions that suit where you’re at in the game. I spend a few years quietly completing missions to annex friendly vassals and allies. Meanwhile, I invest heavily in trade, building harbors and markets that will steer more wealth into Byzantine Constantinople, where my traders are making huge profits. It will stand me in good stead when I start spending a ton of money on wars.

But while I’ve been slowly consolidating territory in northern Greece and across modern Turkey, the Mamluks player Ryan Latourneau (NorthernLion on Youtube) has gone on a tear. He now controls Egypt and much of Libya, and his troops are as far south as Somalia and the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. I start to wonder: when Ryan was being sheepish about the fact that he doesn’t know Paradox games very well, was he playing me?

By lunchtime I’ve turned into a Poe villain, stewing over perceived slights, envisioning Ryan at the center of a web of betrayal and manipulation against me. I keep glancing down the rows of players at his maddeningly expressionless face and his stupid, lying bald head. How dare he try and marginalize the Ottomans? Oh, I will show him. Yes, I will.

But first, lunch.

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