Europa Universalis IV hands-on: an idiot's guide to founding the Netherlands

It's the early 16th century, and I've just invented the Netherlands. It's taken me six hours to do it, but it's there. It's got all the requisite Netherland-y bits: canals, beer, and impressive societal stability, and I am very proud.

The EU series of grand strategy games has long left me baffled under the sheer weight of its interlocking systems. Put at the head of one of medieval Europe's countries, players must manage cities, armies, taxes, rulers, lines of succession – and everything else the era's inbred band of kings, queens and emperors convinced of their divine right to rule had to fiddle with.

Earlier Europa Universalis titles handled this vast task-list by swaddling the game in complicated menus that gave little feedback regarding the player's actions. Europa Universalis IV keeps its predecessors' predilection for technical detail and complex strategy, but knocks a lot of the sharp edges off. I find myself learning naturally how to rule well across a vast two-day, 20-person multiplayer session

I started the game as Burgundy in 1444. Uniting the historical provinces of the Netherlands was one of the missions that EUIV flagged up as I started the game, but it required I controlled another four territories that were under independent rule. My conquest of them was slow and unsteady. A year after taking charge, I declared war on Gelre, to the north, citing reconquest as my casus belli. A casus belli is a reasoning for war, something canny rulers will want to earn – via alliances, historical border changes, or subterfuge – before starting conflicts. Wars fought without a viable casus belli negatively affect prestige and can render your country unstable, leading to armed revolts.

Immediately after declaring war on Gelre, a group of northern states rose up in union. My Burgundian army was big enough to smash through Gelre's paltry forces and lay siege to its only territory, but I was being invaded from Liège, Aachen, Köln and Friesland. Anywhere that had a lovely Christmas market was sending its forces against me, besieging my northern territories and picking me apart in five places at once – as my over-extended forces lost men to attrition.

I could've sent my men against them, mopping groups of four or five thousand up with my 20,000 troops, but Gelre's capital was falling and I wanted to sue for peace. England and France – who'd spent the last year chatting and had downgraded the Hundred Years War to the Six Month Scuffle and reached a happy alliance – saw my bruised and bloody Burgundy. They swept in and besieged any cities missed by the chocolate box axis of Gelre and pals.

War is a major part of EUIV, but it's not a wargame. England and France weren't going to crush me in one swoop – and even if they could, taking on my territories would've meant dealing with countless peasant revolts. Instead, they offered me dual peace deals: France took two of my southern lands, and England took Flanders. My attempt to expand my borders instead saw them contract.

That wasn't the end of it. EUIV has an events system, whereby history kicks up a crisis and forces the player to deal with it. I'd been dealt 'Peasant War', and spent the next decade crushing uprisings as they sprung up in my shrunken domain like a bloodier version of whack-a-mole. Five years in, my army was so beleagured it no longer had the manpower to deal with them: my only hope was to acquiesce to their demands for lowered taxes and try to regain a little stability.

Stability – like prestige, gold, and manpower – is measured along the top of EUIV's UI. The pieces interlock: gold enables you to buy regiments, which are then reinforced monthly out of your manpower allowance. Stability can range from +3 to -3: a +3 realm is content; a -3 one is always in danger of uprisings. Stability in turn can be boosted with a another set of numbers: power, which comes in administrative, diplomatic and military forms. Drop around 100 admin power on your realm and you'll solidify the government, cheering your people up, but you'll also slow down societal progress: these power points can be spent on new ideas and technology instead.

Taken alone, these elements are disparate and confusing, but EUIV's strength is in pulling them all in and tying them together, making players play to their strengths and hide their weaknesses. Feedback is not yet explicit – the build I played was missing a planned 'score' figure – but it's easy to see how a ruler is doing, and how best to adapt your approach and move forward.

After my Burgundian dark times, I spent years consolidating after being dealt a ruler who was useless on the battlefield, but incredibly gifted in the vagaries of economic management. I rebuilt and continued my assault on Gelre, this time not with sword but with pen, using diplomats to sow seeds of friendship, eventually taking the province on as a vassal, before annexing it fully under my rule half a century later. My Netherlands was complete.