For me, 1997 represents a high water mark in computer gaming. Some of this is an accident of circumstance, where I had a fair amount of free time and money, and a roommate who shared my interests. But, for me, it is really hard to beat any year that sees titles like Panzer General II, Emperor of the Fading Suns, Warlords III, and Imperialism.

By 2000, the honeymoon was long over. By now, my circumstances had changed, and I was starting to drift back to my first love: board wargames. SSI was dying, and not putting out anything interesting. TalonSoft was purchased by Take Two, and stopped doing the serious wargames that had been their specialty. SSG had faded into the background where they remain. Meanwhile, ever more demanding RTS and FPS games were coming out and taking over the market, and had long since turned what had been entertaining novelty games into frustrating (and uninteresting) click-fests.

But I discovered something in a used game bin that year. If I hadn’t already been pretty seriously drifting away, I would have paid a lot more attention to the names “Strategy First” and “Paradox Interactive”. (And, sadly, the former is gone now too.)

Europa Universalis is of the grandest stripe of grand strategy games. It is what I call an “empire management game”. In it, you take charge of a country, and chart its course over three centuries of history on the world stage. EU covers from 1492 to 1792, taking it from the discovery of the New World to a little after the American Revolution. Unlike previous grand strategy games, it used a real-time format: days tick by one by one, and many actions require a certain amount of time to happen.

However, while being ‘real-time’ and ‘strategic’ it holds no real relationship with the real-time strategy genre; EU was grand strategy in scope, rather than purely tactical (‘strategy’ in the RTS name merely refers to needing strategy within the scope of the game, not to the military/wargaming idea of being ‘strategic’, which examines countries and wars, or even entire periods of history the way EU does). Beyond the scope, the game is pauseable, so you can stop and ponder the situation, and issue orders as needed. It is not designed to become a contest of who can issue orders the most efficiently, the way most RTS games do. In fact, its real time elements are more due to the game’s simulation roots, and comparison to the various games from Maxis might be a little closer to the mark. (Including the fact that few others have dared to tread on the respective ground broken by Maxis and Paradox….)

A second game dropped on me way too soon: Europa Universalis II. It is very much the same game, and there are cases where there are bigger changes caused by an expansion to a game than there are between these two games. However, there was some significant rewriting of core concepts (and presumably code), so a new full package is understandable. Notably, the event engine was completely rewritten and expanded, and made moddable. Also, the world map was redone, and the scope of the game expanded from three centuries to four (now covering 1419-1820). It markedly improved upon the original title, and the bulk of this review will be talking about EU II in particular, although most of it will apply to the original as well.


Three to four hundred years of history is a big subject, and EU has a lot of moving parts. Like many strategy games, the initial problem is that it is very hard to know what to do, or, really, what can be done. Here, the problem is all the greater because it is that rare animal: a sandbox strategy game. While it lends itself most easily to being a game of conquest and world domination, that’s not necessarily the core intent, and certainly not the only thing to do. The New World will be discovered early in the game, and it is possible to concentrate largely on colonization (…conquest with less shooting and more smallpox). In the early 16th Century religious controversy will erupt with the Reformation, forcing a reevaluation of the state’s stance on religious matters. Trade spans the globe, with money to be made wherever luxuries exist. Countries form alliances, declare war, insult each other, and issue warnings against would-be aggressors.

Of course, while all of this brings the game to life, and makes sure there is always something to be concerned with, most of it is only of interest as a means to an end, as a way of getting an advantage in other realms. And, that, generally, feeds back into the final test: the clash of arms. However, while some of the concerns above apply mainly to Europe, EU II does not have to be about Europe. The original game was very much focused on Europe, with the rest of the world mostly something to be exploited, but II expanded its scope to make most of the rest of the world come to the same vibrant life as Renaissance Europe.

While the ‘main cast’ of characters continue to be European, it is possible in EU II to play as any country in existence at the start of the scenario. You can play as the Aztecs and try to survive the coming of the colonial powers. You can play as one of the countries of India, and try to unify the subcontinent to present a united front to the Europeans. You can be one of the minor powers of the Holy Roman Empire, and try to survive the deadly politics, or perhaps, with hard work, become something much more. It is this ability to take unusual positions, and say ‘what if’ or ‘I wonder if I can…’ that makes this a true sandbox game. The fact that the world is not just what you make of it, but is also what the active agencies of the other NPC countries make of it that can make it so compelling.


A regular occurrence for the player will be message boxes popping up and telling of an event that just happened. Some of these are generic, and just randomly happen from time to time if the circumstances are right. Others are based on actual historical events with consequences that are meant to mirror actions of the real thing. All these events have in-game effects, which are spelled out in the hover over tag. At the same time, the response button itself is nicely ‘in character’.

Some events fire off, and all you can do is acknowledge it. Others present two or three options. An interesting wrinkle in the game engine/AI is that an AI nation, confronted with an event with a choice, will usually choose the first option, but has a chance of choosing the second or third options. With a historical event, the historical choice is presented first, so that when it happens to an AI nation, it will most often choose to mirror history, but they can go off on tangents….

There is an annoying UI shortcoming here. When an event pops up, it pauses the game—which is good—and keeps you from working any other controls. Many events can actually change governmental settings, but because you’re locked out of the controls, you can’t go check what the current settings are.

And at this point I should mention that the historical events demonstrate a general philosophy of the game. Events and leaders are historically based, so the entire game is built around ‘acting out’ history even while parts of that history are redefined. It is also possible for an event to have ‘triggers’ so that they only happen when appropriate. For instance, The War of the Roses resulted in large part because of dissatisfaction with English losses in France at the end of the Hundred Years War. If England does not lose its French possessions, then that event doesn’t need to fire. But these are limited to obvious historical turning points, and the real focus of the game is to mirror actual history.


The general idea of the EU series is that the player is the “Grey Eminence”, or the power behind the throne. Kings come and go, but the player remains, guiding the country to its destiny. What, precisely, this destiny is, is largely up to the player as mentioned before. Of course, the other nations around will sooner or later try to impose their goals on you, which not only means dealing with things like unwanted wars, but can also shape your goals. Getting revenge on a the stubborn AI power that keeps declaring war on you may have little to do with your initial goals, but it is by no means uncommon….

Even by the somewhat more modest standards of the 15th-18th centuries, governments are big complicated things, and in Europa Universalis, there are a lot of means at its disposal to pursue goals and dreams of glory.

In the original game, various countries had certain bonuses over others. England did better in naval matters, and Russia had lot of cheap infantry available. In EU II, this was turned into a system of policy sliders (rated from +5 to -5), where each slider represented an extreme policy on each end, and the various positions (at the ends and in between) had in-game effects, that are generally mixed, so that there is no one ‘perfect’ setting. For instance, Russia’s default high ‘Quantity’ setting allows you to buy more military units, and they are cheaper, but morale is lowered, making them less effective at winning battles. England’s high ‘Naval’ rating allows cheaper ships, with higher morale, but army expense is raised and army morale is lowered.


The modern concept of the ‘standing army’ only really got started in the mid 15th century. However, the EU series ignores this, and armies, once deployed, are intended to stand around even in peacetime, though parts of it might be disbanded to save on upkeep. Being a high-level game, there’s not a lot of detail, and there’s no units below the armies that you move around the world, but men may be consolidated or split off freely.

Armies are divided into the standard branches of infantry, cavalry and artillery. Combat has a ‘shock’ phase and a ‘fire’ phase, with an army generating losses in men and morale depending the types of troops (cavalry does better in shock than fire, for instance), and the current military technology of the nation. At the beginning of the game, artillery does not exist, and once it does, it is nearly useless in combat despite being slow to build, slow to move and very expensive. Similarly, infantry and cavalry have no ‘fire’ ratings, and don’t do any damage in that phase, but the real point of military ‘technology’ is as a gage of how much re-equipping the military has done, and as technology levels go up, so do the shock and fire ratings of the troops—shock much more slowly than fire.

Cavalry never does that well in the fire phase, so combat slowly moves from being dominated by cavalry (especially in open terrain where there is a bonus for having more cavalry), to centering on the firepower of infantry and cavalry.

When an army is by itself in enemy-held territory, it settles down to siege the province, and take control of it. There are defensive bonuses for fortifications and rough terrain, and artillery, even the early, little value in combat forms, can provide an offensive bonus, which can speed up the process immensely.

Navies are built with individual ships, split into warships, galleys and transports. Galleys are the best ships at the start of the game, but are not very safe outside the Mediterranean, while warships become more effective as naval technology rises, and of course transports are useless in battle, but are needed to ferry land units across water.

I’m not horribly pleased about how sieges are handled, since for the most part they seem to last far longer than it normally took for an army to take control of a region. However, peace negotiations are fairly nice. Winning (and losing) battles, and capturing territories are added up into a war score, and various concessions (territory, money, vassalage) have a cost in war score. This gives a fair guide to the AI as to how things are going, and you can punish a recalcitrant player by low-balling your demands, forcing it to make peace or suffer internal instability. The system is by no means perfect, but does help avoid some abuses, and the fact that territory does not truly change hands until the peace treaty is signed is a nice reflection of the politics of the era.


In 1517 Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, sparking off the Protestant Reformation, and over a century of religious warfare. Naturally, one of the important themes of Europa Universalis and its sequel is religion in the state. To this end, it recognizes that each country has a religion, and then the population of each province has its own religion. If a province and state disagree about religion, there is a reduction of tax revenues and military recruiting (these are linked).

There is also a system for establishing how tolerant your government is to various religions. A series of sliders allow you to set how tolerant you are of each branch of your religion group, and every other major religion. These sliders are ‘zero sum’, so that the more tolerant a country is to one religion, the less tolerant is is of every other religion. These sliders affect both how happy the population of the provinces are, and your relations with other countries.

The original Europa Universalis only recognized Christianity and Islam, with all other religions being generically lumped together as ‘Pagan’. Within those two religions there is a fair amount of detail however, with the Moslems split between Suni and Shia, and Christianity starting out split between Catholic and Orthodox, with later events creating the Protestant and Reformed branches, and eventually allowing countries to be Counter-Reformed Catholic (which has some governmental bonuses over ‘regular’ Catholicism, but is otherwise considered identical with it). EU II, with its expanded focus on the rest of the world, introduced Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism as separate world religions.


When you start the game as any country, you can only see part of the world. (Western European powers can’t see much past Europe for instance.) Travelling off into ‘Terra Incognita’ is generally not possible; the edge of the map is the edge of the world.

The easy exception to this is taking the capital of another power in a war, which generally gets you access to their world map. There are explorer and conquistador leaders who can lead units to (slowly) explore new territory, and near the end of the game, any unit will gain the ability.

However, this is Earth, and this is history, so there are limitations keeping this from being an exploration game. The geography is always the same, so while early European explorers did not now the shape of the New World, you do. Also, the resource production of every province is fixed, so (at least after the first time) you will always know where the gold provinces are, where the rich china provinces in Asia are, and so on.

Of course, there’s an entire cast of characters (nations) in the hidden parts of the world, so when you get there, the situation can be unexpected. This is more true of Asia than of America, however, as most of the American countries do not have the power to do much to radically rearrange the map.


When Phillipe Thibault proposed doing a computer version of his boardgame, Europa Universalis, Johan Anderson quit his job to start a new company and start coding. From this beginning has grown Paradox Interactive, which has several lines of similar games, as well as publishing games from other developers. The quality of these initial games is reflected in the current size of the company.

When I first found the EU games, I fell in love with them. They were strategic, they were historical, and they were different. They aren’t perfect; a full game takes a long time to play through, and I’ve usually gotten what I want out of the game long before it’s over. But there’s always something new to do, someplace new to be. Redmond Simonsen once called wargames “paper time machines”, and Europa Universalis is a very good electronic time machine, and satisfies those cravings very well.

Playing This Game Today

This is an older game, and a bit creaky on modern systems. It was originally released for both Windows and Mac OS, but I’ve only played it on Windows. At release, EU II was plagued by ‘crash to desktop’ errors, that have been mostly dealt with during the life-cycle of patches. Currently, the loading screens flicker madly while loading occurs, but once loaded, the game looks good, and plays pretty rock-solid on my Win7 64-bit machine. As an added plus, the final version of the game does not need the CD in the drive to play, if you have an old physical copy (it is for sale in a downloadable version at GamersGate).

At one point Paradox released the source code for EU II, and the remaining community of fans that created some very extensive mods got together and reworked parts of the code, adding new features, and building the main community mod into the game. Paradox released this effort in 2009 as For the Glory. I have not played it myself, but it should be a very well-polished version of the game, with the same minimal hardware requirements. If you’re looking for a grand-strategy game for a low-power notebook, this would seem to be a great place to go.