This article originally appeared in issue 244 of PC Gamer UK.
Sweden's time as a European superpower was both relatively brief and slightly improbable. In the latter half of the 17th century, when larger neighbours were putting their military faith in massed muskets and newfangled bayonets, the Swedes were carving out spectacular victories with a combination of old-fashioned pikes and death-or-glory charges.
Blending the bold and the archaic is something Swedish strategy gaming superpower Paradox know all about. While they weren't the first developer to present super-studious gamers with super-detailed grand strategic sandboxes, they did fracture the mould by freeing history-wallowers from the tyranny of turns, adding plausible inertia to national change, and sprinkling Renaissance reenactments with events plucked directly from the pages of history books.
A dozen years on from the boardgame conversion that spawned the Europa Universalis dynasty and paved the way for sibling franchises such as Hearts of Iron, Crusader Kings and Victoria, the scholarly Stockholmites are in the early stages of fashioning a fourth EU. As lead designer Chris King confessed to me, this time out the burden of history is weighing on the team in more ways than one.
“Making a sequel is never easy, and when the third version received four expansions, a fourth instalment is an added challenge. You are always aware of the danger that you'll change the things that made the game great, and leave the things that weren't so good.”
So why not keep churning out adjuncts like Divine Wind and Napoleon's Ambition? “The biggest reason, and our first pillar of our design, is the interface,” says King. “With each successive expansion we have gradually sought to cram more and more information into the same interface. With a new game, and the freedom it offers, we can start from square one with the UI.”
It's an encouraging declaration. Despite effective tutorials, a strong manual and helpful tooltips, EU3 – with its lacy profusion of interface tabs, sliders and map modes – was a game guaranteed to make a Total War tourist gulp and glance at the door.
Complementing the added friendliness should be plenty of additional period flavour. “We know some players thought that the countries felt too similar in EU3. Through expansions we were able to differentiate countries more, but with EU4 we are going to make sure this is in the game from the start.”
The plan is to create nation-specific 'national ideas'. Instead of nudging your country in specific directions by selecting up to ten generic national ideas (the current palette includes things like 'Quest for the New World' and 'Smithian economics') in EU4 a portion of the buffs available will be unique, designed to lure you down avenues abuzz with historical echoes.
The details are still being nailed down, but plumping for The Big Island Just To The Left Of France should lead to subtle inducements to kickstart the Industrial Revolution. Pick a country like Brandenburg-Prussia and you'll be encouraged to ape Frederick the Great.
Considering the number of happy monarch mollycoddlers it has generated, it doesn't come as much of a surprise to hear Chris admit that Crusader Kings II has influenced the EU4 blueprint. The constantly changing – and therefore hard to monitor – relationships system from EU will be replaced by CK2's more manageable and static mechanism. Similarly, the EU team are hoping to include a dash of dynastic roller coaster through a radical new approach to national rulers.
Where previously a ruler's administrative, military and diplomatic ratings gently massaged chances of success and performance in relevant areas, in the coming episode they'll be converted into a form of currency (monarch points) that will actively determine how many actions you can take in a given period. Just splashed all your diplo MPs on winding up a costly war? Don't expect to be able to forge a new alliance the day after.
Paradox want us to grapple with the inadequacies of our figureheads. They want the accession of a new ruler to be a moment of genuine importance – a time to pause and ponder, 'How am I going to get the most out of this bumbling buffoon?' It's not the full-blown CK2 genetic lottery, but it is a scratchcard or two in that direction.
If the regal revolution doesn't come to define EU4, then the root-and-branch trade reforms surely will. “We now have a system of routes that trade flows along,” says Chris proudly. “The routes split and merge, and your goal is firstly to steer the trade to you, and secondly to take as much as you can as it goes by. Players do this through a combination of merchants, fleets and territorial control.”
The days when empires spread like aimless lichen rosettes seem numbered. Where the riverine stream of commodities splash and surge, that's where the canny countries will be casting their greedy glances. “The historical choices of Venice and Portugal – to expand along the major trade routes – behaviour like that will become an integral part of game play. Our goal is make trade integral to core gameplay, making a trade empire just as much of an option as a land empire.”
Intriguingly, although the trade routes themselves will be essentially static, some may develop forks as time rolls by. For example, initially when trade from the East reaches the Red Sea it will flow up into Egypt; but once the European powers have discovered the trade route around Africa, it will divide, cascading in two directions.
Hand-placing merchants remains an important element in building a trading superpower, which may leave some EU players feeling that the commerce changes don't go far enough. When I put it to Chris that period rulers would have influenced trade primarily through tax and tariffs, he counters with the examples of the East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company – occasions where rulers did in effect personally set specific destinations for traders to use.
You've probably noticed that there's been no mention of 'spectacular 3D battle layers' or 'hexy combat mini-games' yet. That's because, when it comes to warfare, Paradox's plans are – depending on your perspective – either eminently sensible or dishearteningly complacent.
“The core military system will be much the same, because it was one of those things that we felt worked very well in EU3,” declares an overreach-wary Chris.
Dramatic changes on the map front also seem to have been ruled out. Although the provincial patchwork quilt will be re-stitched here and there, and the move to the Clausewitz 2.5 engine lead to much prettier cartography and units, glimpses of pre-alpha screenshots suggest distinguishing EU4 from CK2 at distance might be difficult. Is that something worth worrying about? Probably not, when you consider the game will be as ridiculously mod-amenable as its three forebears.
Some big questions about AI improvements remain unanswered, and unanswerable, at this point. The team are bullish when the talk turns to the CPU's ability to exploit new diplomatic options like the negotiation of fleet-basing rights, and nuanced support for rebels. A generous schedule and the luxury of self-publishing possibly explain their level of confidence.
With a year to go before this colossal grand strategic flagship sets sail, the shipwrights have plenty of time to ensure the timbers are well caulked, crews well drilled, and that one of gaming's most passionate and knowledgeable communities end up well satisfied.