Posts Tagged ‘ EU3

Heir to the Throne Sale

I don’t normally post about particular sales, but this seems topical. EU3: Heir to the Throne is on sale for $10 at GamersGate. For what it ads to the game, this is a pretty great price. Since EU3 Complete itself goes on sale fairly often (Direct2Drive was selling it for $7.50 only last week), you can count on getting the whole package for less than $25. This is one of the all-time great bargains in strategy gaming, and it’s worth taking a chance on even if you’re unconvinced by the various love-letters I’ve written to Paradox lately.

A New Column and Addenda

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a new column for GameSetWatch, and it went up today on Gamasutra. It will probably be appearing on GameSetWatch in the next few days. My goal is to examine how social and political issues are translated into videogame elements, and to identify the assumptions that underpin a developer’s approach to those issues.

With this first piece, I stayed on terrain I know pretty well: Europa Universalis III. It’s such a rich game that I could have focused on any number of elements, but what I really found fascinating was how it represents sociopolitical change. Here is a game that starts in the twilight of the Middle Ages and concludes on the edge of industrialization, and the player has to guide his country through all the upheavals that occurred within that historical span. How does it describe that process, and the role of government within it? That was the question I attempted to answer, and you can let me know how well I did with it.

One thing I fervently wished as I formatted the post is that EU3 screenshots did not all look so hellishly boring. While I find its aesthetics wonderful, it takes about the least interesting pictures possible: “Look at this exciting popup! Craaaazy!” The irony, of course, is that people who ignore EU3 because it looks boring are missing one of the most exciting games in strategy.

EU3 aficionados might notice that the story I tell in this column is a bit condensed. I had to cut out some of the context and some of specific events that contributed to the wave of misfortune that befell me. Early drafts read too much like, well, a blog entry. The important part was to illustrate the effects of the game’s mechanics, not give Gama/GSW a detailed after-action report.

I must also admit that my story shows EU3′s mechanics at their best. Readers and TMA listeners might recall that when we did a show on Heir to the Throne, both Tom and Troy had misgivings about how well the stability mechanic worked over the long haul. I argued that the mechanics worked fine. Having played much, much more of the game, I can see now that my fellow panelists were correct. In the end, a decent EU3 player will break the game wide open.

A full campaign in EU3 covers 421 years, but the mechanics really only work for about half that. Once the player has had some time to start working his will on the gameworld and provide the kind of strategic continuity that his state’s historical counterpart never possessed, the mechanics start to break down. They cannot overcome the money and power the player will eventually possess. The challenges stay the same, but the player’s capacity to meet them only increases.

Truthfully, I think the problem would be solved if Paradox changed the stability mechanic. Rather than having it act like a series of steps, it should be more like a steady slope. If the player wants to keep increasing stability past the level equilibrium point, he should be forced to keep putting forth effort to do so. At the highest levels of stability, the marginal cost should be dissuasive. As things stand now, once the player gets his society to the highest stability level, it stays there until something bad happens.

Anyway, during those turbulent decades that follow the beginning of a new campaign, those mechanics work well, and make some trenchant observations about just how national mismanagement can happen even under responsible rulers. EU3 does a wonderful job of puncturing the judgments of the armchair emperor. Here’s how it pulls it off.

Still Engrossed

Looking through the contents of this blog’s slender archive, Europa Universalis III seems to come up more often than any other game. If you click on the tag to the left of this post, you’ll find a bunch of posts on it that are of admittedly varying quality and interest.

I mention this because it has become undeniable that EU3 has absorbed me more completely than any strategy game since Civilization IV. In the past couple weeks I’ve been working on another EU3-related project and wound up sucked into a playthrough of the grand campaign. I only wanted to verify a few things to myself before I wrote about them, but the moment I started time moving and received a mission to start annexing French vassals, I was hooked.

Yet despite my obvious affection for EU3, I’ve always been rather qualified with my praise. This is an acquired taste. The learning curve is steep. The interface is opaque. It’s a game for people who like history.

All of that might be true, but I just don’t care, and I don’t think you should either. So what if the game is tricky to learn? I’m still learning it, but I started having a blast with it after only a few hours of play. Scores of hours later, and I’m having even more fun. I go from cheering to wailing and back again in the space of only a few minutes. I will be just about to quit for the evening when some backstabbing sonofabitch declares war on me and rolls into my territory with 30,000 men. Am I supposed to go to sleep after something like that happens? No. I drop what I’m doing until I hammer out a peace settlement. Preferably one that ends in his abject humiliation.

I’m about to go to bed, and there should be a lot of important things on my mind. But really, tonight I’m more preoccupied with whether or not I should embrace the Counter-Reformation and start trying to quash Protestantism, or whether I should get behind the Protestants and sever my ties with the Vatican. And what should I do about the Reformed church?

On top of everything else, the Heir to the Throne expansion is just a huge win for the team at Paradox. I am so very glad they did not leave off their work with In Nomine, because Heir to the Throne just makes the entire game system more comprehensible and interesting. It takes me just a moment to check whether or not I have a plausible casus belli against another country, and how my country would react to a new war. Peace negotiations make crystal clear how much I will be feared, loved, and hated for imposing a harsher settlement on a vanquished enemy. Sometimes, even though I know it will make me a pariah, I just pile on the penalties against a country that had the audacity to make me fight a war. As my man Tiberius said: “Let them hate so long as they fear.”

So if you come to the end of this month and find some extra money burning a hole in your pocket, or if you someday see EU3 Complete on sale, I suggest you grab it along with the Heir to the Throne expansion. It might not be for everyone. Few games worth playing are. But if it turns out that you’re the kind of person who likes EU3 (and you won’t know for sure until you’ve put a few hours into the game), then you will find this is a game that fires the imagination like few others.

One Move Behind – EU3: Heir to the Throne Edition

Troy Goodfellow asked me to fill the third seat on the Three Moves Ahead podcast over the weekend, so I spent a few days furiously playing the latest expansion in order to get a feel for some of the subtle yet significant changes Paradox has made to their flagship strategy game.

I have to admit I was really apprehensive about Heir to the Throne because it seemed like a solution in search of a problem, or perhaps a glorified patch. EU3 was not a game that I felt needed significant improvement or changes, and I was a bit put out that I’d bought the “Complete” edition only to have it rendered incomplete a few months later.

By and large, I think the expansion is a significant improvement over the Edition Formerly Known as Complete. Troy and Tom both felt that the casus belli system was good except for how much easier it made prosecuting wars. Now it’s very easy to start wars without suffering the instability that usually follows a war declaration. I don’t really agree with them, but I’m afraid that might be because they understand and game EU3′s rules much more effectively than I do.

One exploit I wanted to mention on the podcast, but it slipped my mind: the AI seems not to request military access to neutral countries (who are usually very willing to grant it). This wouldn’t be such a major issue except that it makes it very easy for the player to fight wars from the safety of neutral territory while the enemy is hemmed within its national borders. As England I fought both Burgundy and France using neutral kingdoms as the jumping-off points for my attacks. Even though I was clearly using Brittany and Aragon to maneuver against France, France never did anything about it. Makes it a little too easy to kite the AI.

The other thing I noticed as we were talking about EU3 is that it’s a dangerous game to start talking about, because you could very easily never stop. Frankly, I would love to do an entire show just talking about the way EU3 models diplomacy and international relations, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game do a better job. There are so many things going on inside EU3 (especially with this expansion), and all the various components interact in such interesting ways, that there are endless nuances you could spend time dissecting. Plus, every game produces a host of, “This one time…” anecdotes.

Final caveats: my sound quality is a little dodgy on this episode, possibly because I couldn’t record in my office and had to use a laptop. So I may sound a bit like I’m podcasting from aboard the Nautilus. However, I also started coming down with a cold during the show, so if I sound a bit crummy, that probably why. As you listen to this show, you are listening to my health fail in real time.

Also, we all mostly recommended this expansion, but take Tom’s recommendation with a grain of salt. I think he may have been recommending In Nomine when he thought he was recommending Heir to the Throne.

Less Brains, More Rules

Bad artificial intelligence seems to be the most common problem afflicting strategy and wargames, at least judging by complaints I read on fora. It’s Exhibit A in my case against the Total War series, where features have long oustripped the AI’s ability to manage them. RTSs are often burdened by AI that misuses special unit abilities (or doesn’t use them at all), and cannot properly place defensive structures to save its life. If you can survive their initial rushes, victory is a foregone conclusion. Wargame AI tends to be dependent on scenario scripting to provide the illusion of a clever opponent.

I sympathize with developers who face the thankless task of creating AI for a single-player strategy game. No matter how good a job they do, gamers will find the places where the AI breaks down. It will never be as consistently clever and rational as the people it plays against, especially since many of those people have years of practice and experience under their belt.

Unfortunately, many strategy games depend on the “worthy opponent”. Without an enemy laying plans to derail yours, strategy and tactics can seem pointless. What’s the fun in out-thinking a punching bag? However, if the game is designed for solo play, then perhaps the primary challenge should be the rules of the game and the constraints placed on the player. If developers can create a situation where the player is fighting against a system rather than an AI, then enjoyment and challenge aren’t dependent on the AI passing a strategic Turing test. For instance, let’s consider Europa Universalis 3.

My invincible French army has just massacred the English Royal Army.

My invincible French army has just massacred the English Royal Army.

I have no idea whether or not Europa Universalis 3 features good AI, crazyAI, or stupid AI. Given that I can only ever see about a hundredth of what is happening in the game, I never get a good sense of what the AI really up to. I’ve suffered perfectly timed sneak attacks that leave me devastated. I’ve also seen the AI disperse its armies haphazardly across the countryside, letting a superior force get snapped up piece by piece. Perhaps there’s a logic to that, perhaps not. All I can say with certainty is that EU3′s AI seems competent. It won’t give the game away.

In the context of the game, however, this makes it a perfectly good opponent, because the challenge in EU3 is not your opposition. It is the status quo, and the force it exerts against all efforts to overturn it. All factions struggle against systems that resist change and reduce the effectiveness of brilliant tactics and strategic opportunism.

For instance, I just started playing a game as France and, on the second day of the game, I received a “national mission” to take the Aquitaine, which was occupied by the English. This seems like an eminently sensible, doable objective. The English holdings on the west coast of France are an annoying little toehold surrounded by French territories. The English can only reinforce by sea, while I can build entirely new armies on the doorstep of the Aquitaine. So I wasted no time in putting a large army together and declaring war.

The war began in 1400 and by 1405 it seemed to be over. I had captured both English provinces, fended off relief armies and repelled a counterattack in Normandie. I had even gone ahead and occupied Calais. So I offered the English peace in exchange for their recognition that I was now the rightful owner of the Aquitaine provinces.

My victory is less impressive than it appears on the map.

My victory is less impressive than it appears on the map.

The English, however, were undaunted. Then things began to get ugly, because they were able to launch nuisance invasions via the sea, while my armies raced from the Mediterranean to the Channel and back again. As years of nonstop fighting took their toll, my national manpower reserve drained until my armies could no longer replenish their losses. Plus, I could not hold onto the Aquitaine. It started changing hands every few years as the English would swoop in, retake it, and push into southern France. I would then roll them back. This meant that by 1425, I was still nowhere near being able to annex the province.

This is because EU3 doesn’t really want provinces to change hands through military conquest. Rather, all gains must be recognized by the international order, through a peace treaty, or as a fait accompli. If you can occupy and hang onto a province for a generation, it’s yours. But that’s a tall order, because you have an entire kingdom to defend in addition to your latest conquest (which is likely to rebel against an occupation). So the smart play was to try and get peace with the English but, as I realized too late, there was no reason for them to sign a treaty. They were safe on their island. They had lost the war on the Continent but could still contest the outcome indefinitely.

All of this is more a product of rules than the vagaries of AI. The AI responds to peace offers through rote calculations. What has each side gained and lost weighed against the offer you are putting on the table. Provinces are weighted very heavily, so it’s very much a “from my cold, dead hand” situation. Even decisive defeats in a war rarely yield the victor more than a couple border provinces.

Believe it or not, it took a bloody war to reach this settlement with Champagne.

Believe it or not, it took a bloody war to reach this settlement with Champagne.

So the stage is set for indecisive wars with trifling settlements. Even when you have pounded an adversary into dust, as long as he still exists as a political entity (which does not require an army or even a free territory) he can still resist by refusing to recognize your gains. You could try and wait it out, but the nature of EU3 is that other problems will arise for you in the meantime. For instance, I was waiting for England to give up the Aquitaine in the 1450s when Castille, Burgundy, and Brittany attacked my from every side. 50 years of warfare had done nothing but make me vulnerable to other powers. I ended up settling with the English on the basis of the prewar status quo, and turned my attention to escaping the triple alliance with some of my kingdom.

Superficially, I was fighting against England and, later, three other states. To their credit, they all acted fairly rationally. England used its navy to harass me and wait me out. Castille and its allies reached a point where I was diplomatically isolated between them, and capitalized on the opportunity. However, the rules of the game governed how events would play out more than anything the AI did. Because the game does not equate conquest with ownership, I could never use occupied territories to expand my power. Because war destabilizes countries, especially long wars, I was faced ever-increasing chances of revolt within France. Because I could only field as many troops as there are service-eligible men in my kingdom, I could not indefinitely sustain a large army and major battles. England was incidental to these problems.

Which is probably for the best. My hands are so full of upstart nobles, nationalist rebels, and runaway inflation that the AI factions are just more icebergs menacing the ship of state. My first enemy, always, is circumstance.

Blueprint for a War Machine

Here’s the most important thing to remember about winning in Europa Universalis III: it’s all relative.

By which I mean that the goal is not to amass the absolute largest, wealthiest, or most powerful empire in the world. Instead, the game looks at what you started with and what you managed to do with those resources.

In my game, Austria consumed Greece, the Balkans, and southern Germany. Russia conquered the Eurasian continent. Despite their vast conquests, they were ranked in the top ten nations alongside my minuscule Brandenburg. Even though I was a lightweight, I’d performed well enough with scant resources that Brandenburg became more than the sum of its parts. I was a model of the Enlightenment, and a strong contender to win the game in the final 100 years.

Nevertheless, winning depends on survival. EU3 isn’t going to say, “Well, your cities have been burned to a cinder and your neighbors have carved up your nation like a Christmas turkey, but your education system was the envy of Europe!” Even a pacific and enlightened state needs to watch the balance of power and judiciously apply a thumb to the scales when needed, which usually requires a little fighting.

However, in the same way that performance in EU3 is measured relatively, military success depends on factors beyond numbers and technology. In games like Civilization or Total War, technology trumps numbers and technology combined with numbers trumps everything. In EU3, your military is subject to a wide variety of pressures that undercut the conventional “research, build, conquer” strategy.

For one thing, there are limits to how many men you can put in the field at any one time. Every state draws on a national manpower reserve in order to build new units and replace losses. That manpower reserve represents the total number of men presently available for military service. This is one of the ways that EU3 prevents runaway victories. Unless your nation is exceptionally populous and wealthy, you cannot use giant armies to steamroll the opposition. You will tap out your manpower reserves or break the treasury.

Furthermore, the national manpower reserve is tied to a number of factors beyond population size. For instance, every state has a set of policy sliders that can be adjusted, one at a time, every ten years or so. One of them has “Serfdom” at one extreme and “Free Subjects” at the other. Moving away from serfdom and towards a universal concept of citizenship produces far more potential recruits than a medieval system, but it also introduces a backlash from the nobility and creates a more unruly populace.

There are also “National Ideas” that provide special attributes. These are the concepts and policies that give a state its non-corporeal identity. So while one country might be animated by the ideas of exploration, trade, and colonization, another believes in military service, discipline, and battlefield glory. For my game as Brandenburg, I chose national ideas that increased the manpower pool at a faster rate, and improved my troops.

Two other wrinkles affect the size and strength of your army. First, while the manpower reserve represents the theoretical limit on army size, you start suffering financial penalties if you have a disproportionately large military establishment. Up to a point, you pay the normal cost of running a military. Expand beyond that point, and you start paying cost plus an extra percentage. However, the extra percentage increases disproportionately with each new unit you build. So the first extra regiment might add a 1% charge to your military expenses, but 10 extra regiments might add 25%.

Second, the quality of your troops is influenced by your country’s military tradition. You cannot build a military from scratch an expect it to perform well. Furthermore, a military that never sees action does not make for a proud tradition. On the other hand, neither does a military that gets its ass kicked.

So you must treat your military as a long-term investment, and remember that an army with practice at winning is likely to trump one that has experienced long decades of peace. Depending on your choices and opportunities, you will see your military tradition increase at a greater or lesser rate. The higher your tradition value, the better your units.

(As an aside, I should also mention that armies and navies exist in tension with one another, so everything I’ve said applies to both branches, and improvement to one often comes at the expense of the other.)

All of this determines the institutional quality of your army, but that only goes so far. During times of war, you often need to appoint a general to lead your army in battle. Recruiting a general gives you access to a specific individual that provides bonuses to your army beyond their base values. The greater your military tradition, the better your general is likely to be. The downside is that a general consumes tradition. With less tradition, your troops are less capable. The more generals your appoint, the more tradition you lose.

This might sound arbitrary, but it’s not. Great commanders do not usually leave great militaries behind them. The Prussian army that Frederick the Great inherited from his father was a masterpiece of professionalism and military preparedness. The one that Frederick left to his successor was arrogant, only 50% Prussian, and led by men who had spent their careers following orders.

In the same vein, the Royal Navy looked to Nelson long after the admiral’s death, and long after his axioms and command style were outmoded by technology. The story of the US Army after WWII and commanders like Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and MacArthur is likewise not a happy one.

With a good army army backed by the right kind of society, and led by a good commander, even a small state can occasionally stun larger adversaries. On other hand, decades of preparation and care can be erased with a single disastrous campaign, and there are a sobering number of variables that can lay waste to a sound plan. When you only have enough manpower to field one small army, conflict of any kind is harrowing, no matter how carefully you’ve tended to these factors.