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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.

It’s like a half-dozen awkward first dates are happening at once. Nobody is sitting with their friends, because by noon on Monday there are no friends anymore. I’m speaking in an undertone to a Paradox developer who is playing the Timurids, a powerful and deadly tribe of semi-nomadic warriors, splintered off from the Mongols. He has pushed into Iraq and could help me smash the Mamluks. We agree that we should hit Ryan hard and fast. I’ll come down from the north into Lebanon and Palestine while he storms the peninsula.

The trouble is, I don’t know this guy from Adam. If he were someone I knew a bit better, I’d be happy to declare war concurrently and then reveal our alliance. But I can’t quite shake my fear that I’m the one being played here. So I ask him to sign an alliance with me, which is a bit more binding and lets me see that his soldiers are where he says they are.

This proves to be a huge mistake. Johan Andersson notices the move, and he’s playing the Timurids’ neighbor, the Uzbeks. He raises the alarm for Ryan. When our joint attack crosses the border into Mamluk territory, Ryan’s armies are already waiting.

But with my ally, this should still be easy. The Timurids cross the border with 160,000 men, enough to swamp Ryan’s army. The Mamluks fall back to Egypt while my forces start laying siege to Acre, Sidon, Aleppo, and Jerusalem. It looks to be a most splendid little war.

Except Johan quickly takes the opportunity to rip into the Timurids, who turn around and leave as quickly as they arrived. They never even really fight the Mamluks before they retreat, and they arrive back home in time to be massacred by Johan’s forces. My ally, it turns out, is kind of terrible at this.

Meanwhile, Ryan now outnumbers me by about two to one. My armies are better led, but they’re exhausted by months of sieges. One major detachment doesn’t escape Palestine in time, and the Mamluks cut it to pieces. Now the odds are closer to three to one, I’m losing money, and it would talk three months to field an army equal to the Mamluks’. That’s if I had the manpower, which I do not.

But EU IV leaves you with a great many cards to play in case of emergency. Prior EU games didn’t give you many options when you ran out cash, and your capacity to live on credit was very limited. But now, truer to life, the state can start taking out loans to finance even the most extravagant operations.

There are a lot more mercenaries lying around, too. They’re expensive to recruit and maintain, but they are a fast alternative to raising a national army. This is my last and best chance to check Ryan’s progress, so I go all-in. I recruit about 40,000 mercenary troops, sending my income spiraling further into the red, to the point where even with war taxes, I’m taking out a loan every couple weeks.

Still, Ryan is caught off-guard by the massively-strengthened army coming out Turkey, and loses a few crucial battles in short order. Once again he is driven down to Sinai, and my army fans out to begin sieging cities across the Holy Land. Acre falls, the Aleppo, then Sidon, and Jerusalem is teetering. I offer him a peace deal: just give me Aleppo and Tripoli. He takes it immediately.

He has no idea how close he was to winning everything. Johan tells me that I’m lucky to have escaped: he was approaching my border with 120,000 horsemen under an elite general. Effectively, Johan is Khal Drogo now, especially after smashing the Timurids. More important, I am being choked to death by my loans. Even after dismissing my mercenaries, I’m running major deficits tanks to loan interest, and my total debt is on the order of 5500 ducats.

This is the most dangerous part of my game. To fix my income, I have to turn myself into a paper tiger. I reduce my once-proud army to a small police force of about 27,000 men, who are scattered around Albania and Turkey putting down revolts and showing the flag on our borders. What nobody else can see is that their morale is in the gutter because I’ve cut funding for my armies, and that’s also slowing the rate at which they replace losses. I effectively have no army. All it would take is another war and I’d be finished. Just to fight it I’d have to double my debts, and would likely never escape them.

Fortunately, I’m being bailed out by the “national ideas” in EU IV. The first school of thought I embraced was economics, and so I am aided in my recovery my a 10% boost to taxes, and a well-timed reduction of interest rates. After a couple years of brutal cutbacks, I’m able to start funding my army again, and then expand it while I pay down the last of my loans. The five-year window when anyone could have crushed me is finally closed, and I turn outward for conquests.

The next phase of the game shows off the absurd volatility of a 20-person multiplayer game. One war after another escalates into general chaos as players intervene to protect the balance of power. A war between Poland and Lithuania drags in Hungary, and I have to hit them hard in order to ensure Poland continues being a thorn in their sides. That pulls in Austria, and then Brandenburg and in no time there are almost a million men fighting from the Black Sea to Venice.

Meantime, England and France have decided that since the world ends before 1600, thanks to the cut-off on our multiplayer sessions, they will unleash the apocalypse. France and Britain scythe through Northern Europe before France plummets into fin de siecle chaos. Johan has turned the Uzbeks into a Caucasian superpower, and repeatedly trolls me throughout the game. During one of our many wars, after I have finally eradicated two of his armies in a miraculous stand in Anatolia, I tell him that there’s nothing for him to win, and I can keep fighting forever.

“Let’s just be done with this. It helps no one.”

Johan looks at me from the dais where he positioned himself at the day’s start. “I never sign a White Peace [a peace with no terms or concessions],” he tells me coldly. “I win, or I lose.”

At that moment, I am wondering whether knocking Johan unconscious would constitute a valid victory over the Uzbeks.

Ironically, while everyone is busy killing one another in central and eastern Europe, Joe Robinson’s Spain has decided that there is little to be gained by joining in our deathmatch. He fortifies his frontier with France, and then turns toward the sea and the New World. When our game finally ends, and we all look up from our bloody melee, I am stunned to see that Joe has won the game. The rest of us hold this or that corner of Europe, clinging to power by the strength of our armies and alliances, beset by enemies. Spain remains master of the Iberian peninsula and, as we zoom out across the map, it has apparently become the master of the West Indies, Florida, the northern coast of South America, and swathes of Africa.

There is a lesson here. About the power of creation over destruction, about seeing the big picture, about holding yourself to your own standards and not measuring yourself against others. The rest of us clawed in the dirt to win a few patches of land while Joe won a continent. It makes me think.

Someone should have killed him.