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Europa Universalis series (2000-2008)

May 15th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Feature:Map, Paradox

What this is about.

More than probably any other major recent strategy series, the Europa Universalis games are about maps. You have maps of territorial control. Maps of religious influence. Maps of cultural extent. Maps of what you haven’t found yet. And every choice that Paradox Studios makes in ascribing a characteristic to a province determines how every surrounding nation will make use of that province. Where most strategy games have maps with maybe a couple of features in a territory – wealth, natural resources, etc. – the EU games have always seen maps as most of us see history. They are physical representations of how people see the world. Maps look tidy from one perspective, but moving to another perspective reveals how poorly political boundaries overlap other divisions.


As the series has evolved – and the engine updated and exported to other games – the maps have gotten larger and more detailed. More rivers, more provinces, more nations, more starting options. In the first Europa Universalis game you were limited to the great powers (or the major actors in an historical scenario). Now you can choose any nation from any date between the beginning of the 15th century to the early 19th.

Like other games in this series of articles, EU is largely an exploration game. Long term success often lies down the road of geographic knowledge. Exploring the “terra incognita” gives you access to new colonies, new targets of conquest, new high value resources and new centers of trade. Johan Andersson says that terra incognita serves two game design purposes.

First of all, it creates a factor of the unknown so that your strategy is not easily predetermined. Secondly it also limits information, and eases the learning curve when you at the start only have a limited set of the map to deal with.

This latter point is central to making the games manageable. Though people like to imply you need some special super brain to play these games, the way the maps balance how much you know with how much you can control makes the learning curve quite reasonable. For example, by the time you actually have to understand colonization, missionaries and conquistadors you will have already mastered two or three other systems – naval movement, taxation, diplomacy, etc.

I am not sure I agree with Andersson’s first point, however, because there is a limit on how much unknown there actually is.

The big thing working in favor of alternate strategies is the sheer size of the map. If you get to the Caribbean and find that the Spanish have already set up shop, there is still Brazil or the East Indies. Maybe. As the series began adding newer powerful nations to regions it had previously relegated to “natives” (adding to Africa, India, Indochina and the Americas), the options for conquest and exploitation became even more varied. Failure to colonize New England could be mitigated by conquering the Lenape or Iroquois, giving you a platform for striking at your enemies.


But these are history games, so everything is historical. That means the maps are fixed, giving the player a distinct advantage over his/her AI opponents. As a player, I know where the Aztec gold is. I know where the tobacco fields of Virginia are. I know how far I have to go to get to the Cape of Good Hope. I know which Philippine islands are easiest to colonize. The original EU left the Indian subcontinent mostly empty of opposition. (Provinces can have “natives” that are not really a threat and require no more than extermination or assimilation.) There is little sense of the unknown for a player that takes the overseas empire route.

Andersson is aware of the problems caused by player certainty, but alternatives don’t fit with how he sees the series.

We’ve had plans for randomized new worlds and such things, but those detract from the “play in the real world” gameplay we want. When we design the games it is through a lengthy process of discussion about what decisions and possibilities will create the best feeling of a “suspension of disbelief” and the best “feeling” of history. We also look quite a lot at what is possible to do when it comes to interface as well, as there has been countless of ideas we’ve had that is great for balance, but have not really been feasible to interact with for a player.

The primary design decision is history, so history becomes the trap that subsumes all other design choices. When this works, it works brilliantly. Borders are negotiated, so you can’t simply conquer a territory – you have to win it in a peace treaty. Multi-faith empires in this period can be unstable, so it costs you more to recover from a stability hit. Technology spreads slowly, so you get the game gives research bonuses depending on how advanced your neighbors are.

The beauty of this is that there is an instant pull for those masses of gamers who do enjoy history as history. Forcing open the trade ports of Japan is more appealing to this audience than, say, forcing open the trade ports of Zergdovia. Creating a greater Balkan empire is more appealing than uniting the tribes of Dipboboland. The portrayal of the setting is an integral part of why the EU games work. They might work with more random elements, of course. But it had to be done this way first.

But history is messy. And no game map can possibly reflect what actually was; mostly because what actually was is a matter of great dispute. Few other game studios have spawned as many forum debates on medieval Balkan politics, defining the proper relationship between Britain and her Indian colonies, the technology level of 17th century Poland or the religious leanings of Mameluke Egypt. The People’s Republic of China banned Hearts of Iron II, a sister game to the EU series, because it dared to interpret pre-Communist China as anything other than a single Chinese state.

For Andersson, the questions of historical debates are pointless.

People get too much obsessed with borders and who owns what. Our games are not political statements, they are GAMES. We abstract maps to improve gameplay. Of course getting banned in China was not something we planned, but being banned in a dictatorship is something I’m proud of now.

And we all know how seriously I take the “it’s just a game” defense.

Andersson is certainly correct that abstracting the maps means abstracting the historical claims. If you want the borders to line up perfectly, you would need to have different base maps for every historical date, and that is clearly unfeasible.

But there are political implications to every map choice, even abstracted ones, and I think you can clearly see this in the evolution of the non-European regions from hordes of easily quelled natives to nations in their own right. The first interpretation was derived from the original Europa Universalis board game – the rest of the world was there for European players to exploit and little else. But as players began agitating to play non-great power or non-European nations, the game had to adapt. (The most popular mod for the first EU game opened up every nation to player control.)

Though this may seem like a simple matter of getting history more accurate for their fan base, it is also a political statement – that these nations (now with fleshed out monarch and leader lists) are also a part of history. In a sense, this puts the Universalis over the Europa. The idea of India as a united nation is a contingent one, the game says. African empires jockeyed for power just as their European counterparts did. Though some game mechanics don’t work so well as history when translated to these parts of the world (Chinese missionary policy, for example), things are happening and moving on without European input. The gameplay consequences are huge – where the first EU game had the East Indies as a money tree ready for development, the newest version means that the greedy player might encounter an Indonesian superpower by the time his/her fleets arrive. Or you can build that great Meso-American and wait for Cortes.


There are other political statements here. Missionaries are unwelcome intrusions (higher chance of revolt). Multicultural empires are hard to control. The introduction of policy sliders in EU2 led of a series of debates over what Narrowminded really meant, and the new understanding of history in EU3: In Nomine has centralization always being the best choice. Interpreting history is inescapably political. And this is far beyond whether Kosovo was a independent vassal.

A lot can be said about how Paradox’s other games have used maps. The division between Wars and Colonial Wars in Victoria, or how it adds political/class divisions to territory. How Hearts of Iron tries to recreate frontal warfare and will now have 10,000 provinces. How my dearly beloved Crusader Kings tries to capture the incomprehensible multiple loyalties of feudal Europe. How the still only average Europa Universalis: Rome and the upcoming Hearts of Iron 3 show the way forward with two tiered province structure.

You need to design the game so that you do not have to do management of the minor entities. If you are forced to do constant decisions in a lot of provinces then that is not good, nor if you have to make decisions about the details of them. A lot of provinces are good for warfare and manoeuvre though, so for the next game we do, I’m thinking of having about 10-20k provinces for manoeuvre/warfare, while having maybe 2-3k super-provinces for decisions and economy.

Ultimately, the EU games are about one studio’s love of atlases. These are bookish games, but not in the sense that they are for the learned. They are bookish in the sense that they reveal a deep love of the things that draw me to nonfiction and the romance of the past.

Coming up soon, how The Sims is also a game about maps. And not just blueprints.

(Thanks to Paradox’s Johan Andersson for his comments.)


10 Comments so far ↓

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  • Macguffin

    Great, thoughtful post. Made me realize how integral the maps are to these Paradox games, and put words to some of the reasons I love them. Thanks.

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  • Gunner

    Great post Troy.

    My roomate and I have both gone through long phases of Paradox game addiction. To our friends and parents they are collectively known as “The Map Game.” Its what I immediately thought of when you outlined this map feature series.

    Its been such a great ride over the past few years watching EU3 evolve through its expansions and mods into being for me one of the best games of all time. It would have been so easy for Paradox and its community to leave it in its initial worse-than-EU2 state.

  • Neil

    You’ve hit on the biggest flaw of the series. Games that focus on exploring and expanding your empire to the unknown reaches of the world need to have that incomplete information. If the designer wants to focus on those game elements, then maps, resources, etc. definitely need to change from one game to the next. It is certainly possible to make a game focusing on other gameplay elements (politics, diplomacy, trade, etc.) that does not suffer from the information problem, but the EU series isn’t it.

    It is also odd for a game of empire creation to have have management tools that scale so poorly to large empires.

  • skshrews

    EU is always at its best within the limited borders of “Europe”. The historical events, the intricasies of trade, diplomacy, and economics, are best played out on the map of the classic kingdoms of Europe.

    Just having to move back and forth across the epic world map of EU makes one dread the exploration process. While it’s relatively easy to manage an army of 30,000 in central Europe. Having to control a detachment of 2,000 stumbling through Africa or Siberia means constant “map hopping”, far away from the heart of the action in Europe. Indeed, the computer may have the advantage in patience for this process over the human player.

  • Dave

    I’ll echo the “bigger empires become unmanageable” meme.

    But given the timeframe, wasn’t that true in reality? It *was* hard to maintain a global empire– which is why so few nations successfully did it.

    Anyway, I’ve only played EU2, but I played it into the ground. LOVED the game. EU3 always intimidated me, and knowing Paradox– any release takes, what, three years of patching/improvements to become fully playable?– I figured I could wait.

    So, is EU3 worth picking up now?

    BTW, I still nominate Victoria as the most essential game executed in the worst way possible. A great time period nearly completely neglected finally gets a game that was, IMHO, utterly unplayable. I know Vicky has its fans, but the complexity of it turned me off (EU2 and HOI2 are really my upper scale of preference).

    Anyway, I like Paradox, I admire their creativity, but they don’t at all understand the concept of “less is more.” Why must every sequel feature-bloat?

  • Icegrin

    Interesting series. I remember seeing screenshots of the EU1 map in a magazine and I instantly knew – this is my game! Even though the reviewer didn’t seem to quite like it.

    On the subject of EU3: Yes, Dave, I’d say it is. It’s finished now, at least. There’s an EU3: Complete box in stores with the two expansions, and a very good mod, Magna Mundi (the counterpart of EU2’s AGCEEP, basically) to expand on the game content.

    As for the set map and sense of discovery, I believe there is actually a mod/program project in the works that can generate random maps to play on for EU3.

  • Nodrownboy

    Just a couple of comments on some other posts. Regarding exploration, some of the mods for EU3(Magna Mundi for example) have randomized resources for provinces that aren’t revealed until you colonize. While not a perfect system, it definitely changes that portion of the game.

    Second, I thought Vicky was unplayable too, but the Revolutions expansion turned a bad Vicky into a Ricky that has become easily my favorite Paradox game.

  • Troy

    Though the Revolutions expansion helped a lot, it still didn’t do enough to make a cumbersome brute of a game much more than an interesting experiment. Victoria has many great parts, but as a whole it never really comes together for me. And it is still the game that requires the most buy-in from newcomers; unless you are really invested in learning it, Victoria never gets rewarding. The other major titles from P’dox – even Rome, which is a slightly lesser game – have something for dabblers. Victoria doesn’t.