Europa Universalis 4: behind the scenes with strategy superpower Paradox

Europa Universalis IV preview

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.”

Europa Universalis IV preview

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.

Europa Universalis IV preview

“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.