At the height of its powers in the early 18th century, the British Empire spanned all corners of the globe, from Brazil to Alaska, Austria to Manchuria, and... wait, what?
OK, so in actual history, it did no such thing, but in my history, the history of a nation I led through 400 years of expansion, conflict and religious turmoil, that's how it all went down. And it's that freedom, that historical sandbox, that makes Europa Universalis IV so damn good.
EUIV is Paradox's first major grand strategy release since last year's Crusader Kings II, a game I liked so much that I nominated it for our 2012 Game of the Year.
The aim of the game is to choose a nation and guide it through the end of the Middle Ages, through to the Renaissance and on to the early days of the Industrial Revolution. You're in charge of almost everything to do with the running of that nation, from trade to the economy, research to government, diplomacy to warfare. You're even in charge of colonial expansion and the church.
If that sounds like a lot to keep tabs on, or for one game to even attempt, it is. I'm not going to lie to you: this game is not for everyone. When I fell in love with CKII last year, I urged people to try it out, because its insane depth and intimidating user interface were worth learning thanks to the soap operas playing out via the game's character system.
That system doesn't exist here, because this isn't a Crusader Kings game. This is a Europa Universalis game, which trades character for added strategic depth. What this means is that, at least initially, there are more buttons, more menus, more numerical values and more sliders than you'll know what to do with. It also means stuff like character portraits, complex character relationships, dwarves and hunchbacks are out. If you're coming to the series from CKII, you'll be shocked at how much more data there is to keep track of.
If you're coming in raw, having never played one of these types of games before, well, God help you.
There is a wonderful strategy game under all these buttons, I promise you. Playing out in real-time, and with a wealth of options and possibilities at your fingertips (Convert religions! Blockade ports! Trade...slaves....), once you get your head around how it all works, you really will feel like you're at the head of an emerging global powerhouse (or, if you'd like, a minor backwater just fighting to stay alive).
What's more, because there are so many states in play - the game's focused on Europe, but you can play as anyone, from the Aztecs to African nations to Chinese dynasties - and because it spans such a length of time, EUIV is able to tell the most amazing stories, as nations clash and empires fall, each game playing out as a different experience and telling an all-new series of tales.
I'm still not sure whether I like the game's approach to history. On the one hand, you're given so much freedom. You can repel Western incursions into the Americas, or propel Japan across the Pacific centuries before Pearl Harbour. Yet the history books are always nipping at your heels, introducing important, game-changing events at their historically-accurate points in time. It's annoying to have a perfectly-run and harmonious empire start to crumble because of religious upheaval that's creeping in beyond the player's control, as I found in both my main playthroughs as England and Japan.
It's a shame that only the patient and persevering will ever get to experience just how grand a strategy game this really is. Paradox have slowly been making improvements to the accessibility of their games, to the point where EUIV comes with some mini-campaigns designed to show you the basics, but it's still not enough. The amount of menus to track and buttons to click will terrify newcomers, and explanations as to how even many fundamental tenets are usually too brief to adequately explain what's going on, leaving the community to once again step up and help introduce prospective rulers to the game's nuances.
I'll say it again, though: no matter how tough it is getting past the game's confronting first hours, it's worth it. Few games let you rule like EUIV does, and few let you rule in a world so vast in scale, so open to players writing their own histories and shaping the globe.
I guess the best way of describing the game is this: if you like Total War and/or Civilisation, and you're willing to trade those game's character and visual flair for something with more meat, this is the game for you. Just make sure you find some good YouTube tutorial videos before you start.
Note: Yes, this is a ridiculously detailed game, with complex mechanics. If veterans or specifically curious newcomers have more specific questions, drop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them!