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Europa Universalis IV

Europa Universalis IV: The Two Year War

It's happy birthday EU, as we consider the past two years and look forward to the future.

Europa Universalis IV turns two today, and to mark the occasion we've taken a look back over twenty-four months of trying to take over the world.

We reviewed EUIV when it first landed back in August 2013, and what we discovered then more or less remains true to this day (you can read our initial review here - and perhaps, upon reflection, the title above reveals some insight into how we play the game). It followed not long after the excellent Crusader Kings II, not just in terms of release dates, but in terms of the period of history that it explores. EU is focussed (mainly) on Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe, and the pivotal role that European countries played in shaping the modern world as we know it today. It's a game about conquest and diplomacy, about building a nation and preserving its interests in the face of turbulent history. In all of these aspects, it is a resounding success.

We're not the only people who thought so, and along with the success of Crusader Kings II, the game has done very well for Paradox. Sales continue to be strong, and both games enjoy regular expansions and updates. Some may prefer the more personable and anecdotal CKII, but for the rest it's EUIV all the way. While the turn-based Civ series has that "one more turn" mantra that sees players losing track of time, EUIV and its stablemates have real-time gameplay that can be paused, which instead translates to "one more year" - it's a similar feeling though, one that keeps people up into the wee small hours. These are the players who've dumped hundreds of hours into conquering the world (we've heard of addictions to this game that surpass nearly all others), and they're the same players that lap up every update and expansion.

It's not that simple though, because with each new shot of content comes a rebalancing act and changes to what people know and, in some cases, love. With revisions and alterations, there's always going to be some people who are left unhappy. This is certainly the case with the game's most recent expansion, Common Sense, which proved more divisive than usual, though discontent is mostly because there was some features added in the free content update that accompanied the DLC, and these changes benefitted from the paid-for expansion while those who didn't buy it were left feeling disadvantaged.

During the the preceding two years, a series of minor tweaks and adjustments have, over time, changed the game considerably, and while it's most certainly the same EUIV that we played back in 2013, there's still a tangible difference. Whether it's a seemingly more aggressive enemy AI at your borders, or revisions to the UI that make for a more cluttered and confusing game space, there's something different about the game when compared to its younger self. Whether the changes are for better or for worse, that's a matter of perspective, but it's certainly different.

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As the map expands and grows richer on the fringes, the Euro-centric approach dissolves into a more holistic global simulation. A strategy sandbox it might be, but there's elements that don't ring true even today. Mercenaries are a case in point; they're often employed by players (we're guilty of this) to soften up the opposition in a war before one's own troops are raised and the war is already well on the way to being won. Another example is enemy AI, and often the computer-controlled states can be a touch too predictable.

On the other hand, to call EUIV predictable would be to do it a disservice, because there's a huge wealth of potential gameplay experiences on offer. Start in the Nordics or Russia and build an empire to stand the test of time, control the seas with England, conquer the Americas with Portugal, go into the interior of the continent a carve out a nation next door to the Holy Roman Empire, venture down to Africa or head to the Middle East. The same game plays host to a plethora of different starting points, and each of them will feel different from the last. It's hard to think of a game that offers more longevity or variety.

Looking back, there's been plenty of changes ushered in over the previous two years. Conquest of Paradise did a great job in making the colonial game much, much more interesting. Our very first game - you always remember your first - saw us playing as Spain and sending over colonists to settle the Americas, which was certainly entertaining, but perhaps in that first iteration lacked a dynamic edge; it certainly has that now. Of course, the expansion also opened up opportunities for players to take control of some of the native states and replay history from a very different perspective, another element that subsequent content drops has further improved. There was also the option to randomise the American map and spice up exploration, although for some - us included - that just wasn't cricket and having the continent look totally different was a jarring experience.

Wealth of Nations was a more modest offering, and brought with it tweaks to the trade side of the game (in our opinion, the least interesting of the main pillars on which the game is built). Res Publica was similarly focussed, and brought with it a revised and improved range of governmental systems for players to explore. Art of War was perhaps the most significant of the expansions, as it fleshed out the map, added new nations, revisited trade and plenty more besides. Then we're back up-to-date with Common Sense, the fifth major expansion, which brings with it new mechanics relating to, among other things, government (the changes are particularly interesting if you like playing as England).

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As you can tell from all that, there's now a lot of layers on top of what was already a complicated and demanding game. Paradox are getting better at introducing new players to the complex arrangement of tools and features that their audience needs to get to grips with if they're to get into the game, but there's still more that can be done to ease players into the saddle, and perhaps with a future expansion the studio might even turn their attention to revising their tutorials and improving that aspect of the game. There's nothing in any expansion to stop a seasoned player from getting to grips with what's new, but newcomers will be finding the barrier to entry getting higher and higher with every subsequent content drop.

Even if they don't do anything and newcomers are made to work for their supper, they're still going to find a strategy feast waiting for them once they've emerged into the light. Complex and cluttered it may be, Europa Universalis IV is still an excellent strategy game. We'd even go so far as to venture that it's one of the very best that's ever been made. If you've not checked it out yet, and you don't mind puzzling your way through the first few hours with the game, we'd still absolutely recommend it to any fan of the strategy genre.

As for its expansions, it is worth noting that you don't need to buy them all, and even if you do, you don't need to switch them on for every game (although the link between free update and paid-for content can sometimes be unclear, as demonstrated during Common Sense). That said, each one brings with it something new to the table, and for a player prepared to invest hour upon hour of their time into the game, they're certainly worth serious consideration (though if you want to buy them in bulk, perhaps wait on the next sale - they come about regularly and you can generally buy the base game along with all but the most recent expansion for a very reasonable price).

All things considered, EUIV still holds up incredibly well, even after two years of waging war. Paradox's approach to DLC is, for the most part, to be commended, and the support they show their games means that they don't sit still, and new systems keeps things fresh, forcing players to evolve their strategies over time. The Clausewitz engine that powers this latest round of strategy games from the studio is still doing the business (which is why they're using it when making their recently announced sci-fi offering, Stellaris), and there's still room for it to grow. At some point the studio are going to have to draw a line under the game and start working on the fifth entry of the series, but that's not on the horizon just yet, and there's still plenty of avenues open to exploration.

Head to the next page to read our interview with Paradox's Johan Andersson, who recently talked with us about the ongoing development of EUIV and its future looking ahead:

What do you think is the reason for Europa Universalis IV's success, what do you consider the main thing that has kept players coming back for more?

Johan Andersson: I think you can condense it down to one thing. Me, the project lead, a few of the QAs, a few of the others on the dev team; we play the game ourselves. We play single-player, we play multiplayer, we basically play the game an insane amount. We just want to keep improving, and that's like... we're making the game for our own enjoyment, and I think that's what people see.

As a team, how do you go about balancing so many different systems, and how do you go about introducing new features into an already complicated web of ideas?

Not everyone keeps everything in their head or plan. It's mostly that I have the vision in my head, I'm thinking about and keeping stuff together, and there's people like Martin [Anward] (the project lead) and some of the QA guys like Jake and Carsten and Jesper, and they really know the gameplay inside out. And we keep discussing things. Basically, when we make a design, or when I make a design idea, I write it, we iterate on it, we discuss it, we implement it, we test it, we play. It's an iterative process I'd say.

When you're planning an expansion what's the process, and how do you decide what needs attention?

First of all we think that the Europa Universalis series is about your pillars. You have trade, you have war, you have religion, you have diplomacy, etc. We sketch out like four or five areas, like the next expansion should be war-focussed, then an expansion should be naval-focussed. The next should be trade-focussed, or like our last one, Common Sense, there's an element of government. And then we figure out that we want to have... since we come up with ideas all the time, we put these ideas in a huge document, like "this is an idea that fits warfare, this is an idea that fits trade or government."

And then when we have all these slots we're like "this is an expansion, and it's coming out there." We grab all those major ideas that fit thematically, fill it out with stuff we think of at the same time. We sit and discuss - me and Martin and sometimes other people - what do we want to have, how it should work, what stuff can we give to free for players, and what should we have in the expansion that people actually pay for? It's a little like: we write stuff, we go out for after-work beers and discuss ideas, we play the game and we talk, and then when we have stuff planned, I mean we have I think there's like four... yeah, we're working on a new expansion now, then after that one there's two more that are fully fleshed out and there's ideas for four more after that.

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Ok, something you touched on in that answer: how do you work out what's going to be free and what's going to be paid for? What do you consider when you're choosing features that are going to be eased into the base game, and what's going to be optional for players?

The stuff that will be paid is stuff that adds to the game. If we change stuff that's already in the game, that has to be free. If we change stuff or improve stuff that is already there, they have to be [in] the free patch. If there's something that adds, or a new interface or features, that we can put as paid. We have to have enough stuff in the paid that people feel they get their money's worth. We also have to have enough stuff in the free to make sure that people think it's a good deal

As you add new features over time and expand in different directions, how do you make sure that you continue to balance and refine the UI and stop it getting too busy?

That's sadly the drawback of these things is that as we add stuff that is slightly more complex, it will be screen real estate is disappearing and all of those things. There's not much that you can do about it, or basically you just think about it and sometimes it takes time to redo an interface from scratch.

Since the game first launched you've been working on making more different countries more interesting to play. How do you pick the countries and what's the process when adding in the Ideas that makes them feel unique?

How do I explain? Luck. Chance. Whatever people feel like. There's no real major plan of when we add National Ideas to countries. We're just like, if anyone has a good idea, it gets in. When it comes to features, then it tends to be whatever me and Martin thinks, that we are interested in that period of time.

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How would you say that the AI has changed and evolved when compared to its initial state at launch?

The AI has been better at, not just improving when playing the game, the most significant thing I feel is that the AI is better at giving a better suspension of disbelief, the AI is acting more as you'd expect it to act. Less of a pushover at times, but also they try to make sure that their countries survive and prosper.

Ok, on the other side of it, how do you make sure to keep it balanced when you discover the ways that your players have worked out to exploit the game? A follow up question to that would be what is your relationship like with your players and how do you communicate with them and get their feedback?

When we find exploits we try to fix them, most exploits don't even get out to the community because we've discovered them before releasing.

If I'm looking at the development team, there's three programmers, one scripter, one or two artists, and four QA, that's the team besides me. I'm just talking about for community purposes, there's three programmers currently on the game, one of them has been on our forums for like ten plus years, or twelve years I think now, before he was hired. Another guy has been active for a long time and was a famous modder, the project lead Martin. On the QA team there's one guy that's been in the community for a long time, another was around for a decade as a fan before he was hired, the other one was the most famous exploit player of EUIV that actually had multiple videos of world conquest and we hired him after that. So yes, we're very tight with the community.

I keep reading the forums every day. Most people on the team play the game and talk to people constantly and play the game with them. So you read everywhere. I read Reddit, I read the Paradox forums, I read Something Awful, I check Twitter like every day, even on occasion to the irritation of my family.

We listen and look a lot at what we're doing, but we're also looking very much at metrics. We're tracking what people are playing, how they are playing, what things they are doing or are interested in. So there's a lot of different views of how we interact with the community.

What about mods? Do you play any of the player-generated content?

No me, not personally. I've tried mods for years... but I just don't find that very fun. Secondly for mods is that well, I can already make the game into whatever I want. I kind of like it when people do total conversion mods. Yeah it was fun watching some fantasy conversion mod for Crusader Kings, that was interesting, but nah.

I spoke to one of your colleagues previously about hoping to bring Crusader Kings II to tablet, is that something you'd like to do for EUIV as well?

Yeah, we want to make tablet versions of all our games, but that's nothing that we can talk more about in detail right now. We want to do it, we're trying out stuff, but we don't know when and how.

What's next for the series? When do you stop making expansions and start making EUV?

Considering the fact that there's more people playing EUIV playing now than ever before, the sales numbers just keep increasing for every expansion that we release; I don't think we'll stop making expansions anytime soon. When we drop dramatically in sales numbers, that's when we'll stop making expansions. Or when we run out of ideas.

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