I consider myself a reasonably astute gamer, and I’m no stranger to games of strategy. I’ve been playing Monopoly since I could count. I’ve played dozens of tactical JRPGs, and a smattering of titles from both the Age of Empires and Civilization franchises. I spent many weeks worth of hours in my youth playing more esoteric titles, like Sierra’s Lords of Magic (which is, by some unknown magic, available via Steam). Each one works much the same way for me. There’s an initial learning curve, and then once I get the hang of the mechanics, and figure out which systems are the most exploitable, the haughty AI opponents are no match for me.
But not so fast. Imagine for a moment a historical civilization simulation that is as complex and sophisticated as you possibly can muster. Then multiply that by a few powers, and you’ll have something along the lines of Europa Universalis IV. The grand strategy historical simulator offers players a mature and often educational challenge far beyond anything else I’ve played in the genre. And the recent Mandate of Heaven expansion adds fuel to the fire.
In Europa Universalis IV, travel back in time and play as the nation of your choice, however obscure and insignificant they may be. Of course, you can also play as, say, the Ming in 1444, who have a sturdy claim over large swaths of Asia and have brought many other nations under their banner as tributaries. The challenge there is not letting the empire slip through your fingers.
After trying out various scenarios and starting points, the place I settled my focus upon was feudal Japan. Since the Mandate of Heaven expansion, Japan is an intricate, complicated, and violent collection of warring Daimyo, held loosely under the banner of Ashikaga amidst the Sengoku period. You can choose to play as Ashikaga, who control the capital seat of Kyoto and thus claim allegiance over all daimyo. This presents an interesting and dynamic situation from which to play. Your immediate goal is to unify Japan, but you will suffer immense (campaign-ending, to be sure) penalties if you declare war on one of your subjects. Utilize the diplomatic and administrative tools at your disposal, fashioning the right alliances and annexing key territories. And if one of your daimyo is particularly out of line, you can force the shameful warmonger to commit seppuku. You’ll want to be in the best position possible when one of the daimyo becomes strong enough to challenge your rule. And rest assured, the challenge will come (I’m looking at you, Hosokawa).
Fashion yourself more of a scrappy underdog? Try your hand at playing as one of the daimyo, your fealty begrudgingly sworn to Ashikaga until you and your allies are strong enough to revolt. The daimyo can, and very often do, declare war on each other, battling for provinces, prestige, and power. But between your economy, your military, your diplomatic relationships between the other daimyo, your standing with Ashikaga, overseas trade, and technological development, it certainly is a lot to handle. That translates into a game with a bit of a higher learning curve than some of those other strategy sims, but it is also what makes Europa Universalis IV so compelling.
Paradox has managed to create so many avenues to increase your strength as a nation that they have seemingly broken through the concept of granular paths to victory. This is not the type of game where you can invest everything in military and crush your opponents, or forsake military in favor of pure diplomatic relations and convince your way to world domination. The game is about balance, about thinking of every detail, and about planning and foresight. It is at once the most challenging and most rewarding grand strategy title I’ve had the pleasure of playing. Because at the same time that I’m floundering inside the microcosm of Japan, Ming is exerting its control over the rest of east Asia, the Renaissance is beginning in Europe, Spain is setting sail for the new world, and people are giving birth to the conquistadors that will ravage Mesoamerica. And all of that is playable as well.
Europa Universalis IV and the recent expansion, Mandate of Heaven, are available for PC via Steam. Developed by Paradox Development Studio and published by Paradox Interactive, the base game was originally released in 2013. Since then, it has gone on to sell over 1 million copies, and received critical acclaim for its sophisticated depth of strategy. Paradox is responsible for developing other major titles such as Stellaris and Crusader Kings, as well as publishing Colossal Order’s Cities: Skylines.