This is part of my 2011 wrap-up series, A Few of My Favorite Things, in which I discuss what I enjoyed the past year, regardless of when it was released.
#7 Europa Universalis 3
PC game, 2007
The previous entry on this list earned about $1.4 billion. This entry probably earned about 0.1% of that.
It’s a shame that Europa Universalis 3 is not better-loved than it is. Certainly its inclusion (and frequent sales) on Steam have expanded its audience. I don’t think I would have discovered it otherwise.
The easiest way to describe this vastly complex, flexible game is that it’s a “history simulator.” It’s better and more accurate than the Civilization games, which often earn a similar descriptor.
While the Civilzation games really have little to do with history other than approximating the scientific and military development timeline and letting you play as various historical leaders, Europa Universalis attempts to represents the actual world and politics of 1399-1821.
This (poorly-named) game was the game I played most in 2011 (unless you combine NBA 2K11 and 2K12, which I do). Steam says I played more than 120 hours. It’s because there’s so much to do, so many ways to play, so much to experiment with and think about.
To give you an idea of what the gameplay is actually like, I will share a breakdown of three ways I played. When the game starts, you choose a nation to control — beginning in 1399 — and have complete control of that nation. Here are three counterfactual histories I created:
Portugal – When I became king of Portugal in 1399, my first move was to invest all spare funds into the development and improvement of our naval technology and arsenal. I decided that trans-Atlantic colonization would be the state’s priority.
By around 1470 — more than a quarter century before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue — I had the means to start hitting the seas. I started by sending a pack of 100 colonists to the Canadian coast, which required the shortest journey even if the lands are less fertile.
From there, I gradually spread south. My goal was to set up colonies up and down the coast. I’d block off the lands west of there from other European nations and claim them for myself. With a head start and an economic focus on expansion, I figured it would be no trouble.
Well, it turns out colonies are expensive and difficult to maintain. Even after they reach a point of self sufficiency, it’s expensive to keep them under your banner. Tax revenue that had, for near a century, been dumped back into Portugal’s economy through research and production soon had to be poured into colonial upkeep.
The longer colonies survived and the more their populations grew, the closer they came to paying for themselves as I collected taxes and exports.
But, much as the British eventually learned, there are perils to gaining too large a presence on a continent across the ocean. I expanded too fast and my funds dried up; I was hit with massive loan interest and major inflation, and I barely survived.
The colonies became a bit restless, too. Native American tribes proved impossible to handle in a diplomatic way. Even with more aggressive tactics (that caused a moral dilemma and a bit of self-loathing), they kept slipping through my fingers and causing small uprisings or attacking populations.
Worst of all, I’d invested so heavily in expansion that other European nations hastily exploited my thin infrastructure at home. Invaders reduced my national stability, which further reduced my hold on the colonies.
I briefly considered cutting ties with my European land and starting fresh as an independent North American nation. But most of my economic productivity still came from my populous European provinces. My colonies weren’t established enough to be considered potential capitals.
In the end, I had to pawn off many of my lands and colonies — American, European, and African — to merely survive. Despite my emphasis on expansion for 100+ years, I somehow ended up with less land, less money, less technology, less productivity, and less power than if I had stay put.
Cherokee – After utterly bombing my western domination attempt as Portugal, I decided to try something a little bit more low-key and isolated: Native America. With far fewer competitors and an untapped continent at my disposal, I figured I’d have an easy run of developing a small empire. I might even be able to take on European colonists if I prepare correctly.
Just one problem: Native American tribes are highly averse to centralization, expansion, and the development of technology. At first I pumped almost all of our resources into fruitless efforts at adopting some research. Eventually, I realized it was in vain — many years of funds went essentially down the toilet as the Cherokee made almost no progress.
Making everything more difficult were the pesky surrounding tribes. I slowly but surely eliminated the local pretenders. Then I started building wealth and armies, and waiting for the inevitable European expansion.
Two hundred years (and a few hours of gameplay) later, I had a massive army and a large fortune. I decided I was ready to hold my own when the Europeans finally colonized.
But when they finally arrived, my attempt to defy history derailed. Western weapons easily slaughtered my horde and claimed my lands. My attempts at diplomacy and bribing for peace failed. Within years, my miniature empire crumbled. Turns out I’m not smart enough to out-strategize technology.
Castille – After my failed Cherokee attempt, I decided I’d had enough of the New World. I went back to Europe and took over medieval Castille.
The nation adopted a mission of claiming lands from the heathen Grenada (that little segment of land just south of it). Sure, why not?
So I declared war with a casus belli and moved in for the kill. They only have a few provinces and a small army, so what’s the worst that could happen?
Whoops. I forgot to check their allies. Algiers (north Africa) surprised me with a sneak attack from the north, when I’d closed in on Grenada in the south.
Eventually, I occupied Grenada. But that didn’t conclude my war on the northern front. With national stability and contentment low, small groups started revolting and trying to claim independence.
But I ultimately sued Algiers for peace and recouped some stability. For awhile, all went well. But then twenty-five years later, Portugal decided my pretty and largely unprotected lands would look nice under their banner. So they invaded from the east. Then, invaders from the west decide to pile on.
Turns out world domination — or even national prosperity and peace — aren’t particularly easy commodities to acquire. But the game’s challenge is one of its greatest strengths, and that’s why I keep coming back. The game has a million different ways to play it, and each is as challenging and compelling as the last, I’ve discovered.
Previously: #8 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Up next: Welcome to guilty pleasure TV drama, bitch!