The first minutes I spent with Europa Universalis IV were a beautiful tragedy. I’d elected to start the game as Austria in 1492. Right away I was faced with a troubling situation. Some of my provinces in the western half of Europe were separated from me by the national borders of several other countries, and cut off from their motherland had forgotten the joys of living under my benevolent rule.
Nationalists had risen up and laid siege to several of my forts. They were in fact very close to forcing their demands for independence.
All that lay between my loyal subjects (For all of my subjects are loyal, even if they don’t always know it themselves. That’s why they need me, you see: because I know what’s best for them) and the purposeless ennui of independence were the sixty thousand men of the Austrian army.
But you can’t just march a doom stack of troops across five countries without permission, not unless you’re willing to fight your way through. My diplomats scurried along, carrying my will to the less enlightened segments of Europe that had not yet accepted me into their hearts.
Now they may be backwards and ignorant foreigners, but they know a good idea when they hear it, and letting thousands and thousands of foreign soldiers tramp through their fields and clog up their roads is a marvelous idea. I felt so generous not even asking for anything in return.
Not all were so wise, but enough were that I could plot a twisty route across Europe for my soldiers to go liberate the shit out of my wayward provinces. I would save them from the rising doom of independence. I would save them from themselves. So off my soldiers marched, sixty thousand of the finest conscripts my commissars could drag from under their beds.
So off my soldiers marched, sixty thousand of the finest conscripts my commissars could drag from under their beds. Five thousand made it back.
Five thousand made it back.
I couldn’t believe it. How had such a catastrophe happened? Venice took the opportunity to pounce and crossed my southern border, burning everything in their path. I couldn’t afford to replace my losses, and what replacements I could scrounge up wouldn’t be ready for months. I went back to an earlier save and tried again. Again, my army melted away like spring snow. This is how I learned about attrition.
You see every province can only support so many soldiers. If more soldiers are present in that province than can be supported, some of them start to die. The route I’d selected for My glorious march against freedom couldn’t support more than twenty thousand troops in any given province. So the army had simply died of starvation until it was down to a more manageable size.
With their morale low and their numbers depleted, they were cut to ribbons by the rebels, and only found victory by burying the enemy under mountains of corpses. Again, I reloaded an earlier save. Again I tried, but this time I broke the army into three parts, and plotted three separate routes across Europe and had them fall on three separate rebel-held provinces. Success.
From that moment on I was in love with this game. Europa Universalis IV is a pitiless tutor. There are dozens of systems to keep track of, many of which interact with each other and can create perverse cycles of dysfunction in an otherwise well-run empire. At the start of the game, troops can take months to recruit and even a small army can bankrupt a great power. Planning requires forethought measured in decades, if not centuries.
And all the while, the engines of history churn on, heedless of of the desires of rulers and peasants alike. Drifting cultural loyalties, religious insurrection, disputed lines of succession, and even simple bad luck can wreck a scheme decades in the making. Your challenge, as the kind of immortal, disembodied spirit of a country, is to withstand the onslaught of perils and misfortune and lead your country to greatness.
When any given week can bring an ill omen in the sky which leads to a drop in stability which leads to a rebellion breaking out in one corner of the empire which leads to three other rebellions in three other provinces, leading to the ruin of all you have striven for these past five decades and more, you must plan for catastrophe.
You must learn to prioritize, to put out fires quickly, and to keep your eyes on the goal. When you’re fighting three separate wars, putting down rebellions, managing a religious conversion, bringing insolent merchants to heel, and thinking “yes, it’s all going according to plan,” then you’ll have arrived. You won’t be a master, but you’ll have unlocked the secret to playing and enjoying such a gargantuan, sprawling, and fundamentally unforgiving game.
After getting Austria up to snuff as a central European powerhouse, I thought I’d try my hand at overrunning the New World as the British. As an American, I have a perverse fascination with playing as the British and trying to keep the Revolution from happening. Or, if that’s not possible, at least win it for King and Country.
So after a dicey few decades in which I cut the Hundred Year’s War short by about two thirds, I untangled myself from Continental politics and focused on rushing up the tech tree as fast as my country could go. The history of this alternate world is filled with the names of explorers I sent west, never to be heard from again. Finally, I managed to get a ship out to Labrador and back without losing it, and was able to plant the flag and start my first overseas colony.
And it’s here where things started to get a bit…fucked up. I was still having loads of fun, but suddenly I couldn’t get into playing a jovial dictator relentlessly pushing her borders back and using the bones of dead peasants as the mortar in her new palace. Somewhere, deep in my chest, a little voice was whispering this is really fucking sick.
Let’s be clear about one thing: in real life, the colonization of North America by European settlers was only possible because of the accompanying slow-motion genocide of the people who were already living here. The First Nations of the Americas did not have castles, or royal dynasties, or a continent-spanning church like the Europeans, but they did have a civilization.
They had politics, trade, cultural exchange, territorial disputes, and wars. They built cities and temples, domesticated animals, and mastered their environment just as thoroughly as any other people on the planet.
I knew going in that I’d playing a game about a topic that, in real life, is horrifying to my (white, privileged) progressive sensibilities. I thought I was prepared for it.
Then I actually saw how they treat the Americas. For reference, here is what Europe looks like about a hundred and fifty years into the game, after several of the smaller states have been gobbled up by their larger neighbors.
And here is what North America looks like, about ninety years after English settlers first landed in Canada.
Something is off. It took me a while to figure out what it was, but something felt a little strange about colonizing the Americas. It couldn’t be that I was not comfortable with playing a ruthlessly expansionary state. I mean, have you read the first part of this article?
Perhaps it was my uneasiness with gamifying a genocide that I directly benefit from, even centuries after it started. (Yes, white Americans, you ARE the beneficiaries of genocide. Get used to it.) That’s probably part of it, but a greater part of it, I think, is how the game portrays that atrocity.
When you finally get a ship over to North America, you’ll notice that things look a little different. Europe is crammed cheek to jowl with minor duchies and single-province powers, at least in the early game. There is no square inch of territory unaccounted for. But when you get to the Americas, you’ll see a lot of “empty” territory. The provinces and territories that are not claimed by any power or nation can be colonized.
You do this by sending a colonist to that province, and watch as its population grows. Once it hits a threshold, it becomes a productive city, and you can recall your colonist to do it again elsewhere.
Except that there wasn’t any “empty” territory in real life. There were people who already lived in the Americas, and in Africa, and in Asia. Entire cultures rose and fell, for thousands of years without European involvement. But when you get to where a lot of these people lived in Europa Universalis IV, you are presented with a blank spot on the map, and a suggestion that nobody who matters lives there.
This is not to say that there is no thought given to the natives. Oh, they’re represented all right.
You can see a simplified take on their religion, a rough population estimate, and the only two stats that most indigenous peoples are allowed to have in this game: “aggressiveness” and “ferocity”. That’s right, your ancestors might have been a peaceful culture of fishermen, but in EUIV they were aggressive and ferocious. Like animals in need of taming, really.
And can you really call it aggression if they attack the colonists for taking their land? Since when does self defense, or the defense of one’s territory, become aggressive? Why, when brown people are doing it, of course!
(Speaking of which, look at how Native Americans are actually pictured here. That doesn’t strike anyone else as a bit…broad? A bit caricatured? A bit…say it with me now…racist?)
There are some indigenous cultures that are granted the dignity of being represented as actual political actors. The Creek, the Iroquois, and so on. The problem is that these countries are superficially defined, and intentionally limited. Cultures with the “new world” technology group accrue technology at a snail’s pace, and are much slower to gather resources.
This means that no matter what you do, by the time the Europeans show up, you’re facing an apocalyptic war for survival that you can’t hope to win.
While there is some effort to reflect a different culture, mainly in the names of your national leaders and the graphics used to represent the buildings in your provinces, this is clearly a halfhearted effort. For example, the advisers that you hire to gain extra administrative, diplomatic, or military resources for example are all Europeans, no matter what culture you are playing as.
Some limitations that make a bit of sense in the European setting, like the inability to explore uncharted territory without first developing your technology base, only serve to lock Native American factions into their starting area. While European cultures are allowed to expand or contract their borders in gleeful disregard of historical fact, Native American cultures are chained to a rough approximation of where they historically existed.
The national decisions and missions available for a player to select are greatly reduced as well, which means that most countries that don’t border the Mediterranean are going to be very stale and generic compared to, for example, the intrigues of the Holy Roman Empire.
And it’s hard to believe that this isn’t intentional. It’s hard to believe that the existence of the Huron and the Iroquois aren’t only there for the European player’s benefit. Having some cultures represented by countries with definable borders and a diplomacy screen allows players who are playing a European power to simulate the diplomatic relations that some colonial powers had with some of the Native Americans.
I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason why some Native Americans are given “European-style” countries in this game at all. The problem with this game is not that you can colonize the New World; the problem is that this game only includes the New World so that it can be colonized.
A pretty good piece of evidence for this theory is how trade is handled in EUIV. Trade, in Europa Universalis IV, is a one-way prospect. A province creates trade power, and that trade power is pushed up along a linear path, where it is eventually collected either at your capital or by a merchant you’ve sent to collect it.
There is no way for trade to flow “backwards,” which means it is impossible for cultures at the “upstream” end of a trade network to benefit from it. In this game, trade is only for extracting wealth from places that aren’t Europe. I haven’t played much with trying to colonize Africa. Not after I saw one of the provinces had as its trade good “slaves” with a picture of a big iron ball and chain.
For a game about creating alternate histories, Europa Universalis IV has some very firm opinions about what should happen to the peoples living in the parts of the world that aren’t Europe. None of them good. I don’t mean to say that it endorses genocide, merely that it doesn’t question it. The game accepts it as natural, inevitable, and unworthy of comment.
There’s plenty of winking humor in how it treats the various atrocities that happened in Europe during this time, so I know they are aware of how things were horrible for many Europeans during that era. But there’s no clues to indicate that they really understand the horrors of colonization, as well.
Everyone knows that religious wars and inquisitions and violently repressing your own people is wrong. But not everybody agrees that colonizing other nations is wrong, and that makes all the difference. It’s like how in Grand Theft Auto players can have a grand old time perpetrating mass murder on the streets of Liberty City, but many would have problems with a rape mini-game. We all agree murder is wrong, but rape is something people make excuses for.
We all agree that dictatorships are wrong, but colonization is something we make excuses for.
It’s an unsettled question. It’s a moral problem we have not yet agreed on an answer to. The distancing assumptions that allow us to vicariously enjoy the chaos of a 5-star rampage in downtown Los Santos are not available. Or, perhaps the assumptions are too available; perhaps the game relies on the assumption that moral question would never be asked.
And so for those of us who are aware of the question, and who care about it, it’s not a very exciting premise for a game.
It’s a fun game. A masterful game. A work of passion and talent. But I can’t enjoy it without reservations or recommend it without caveats. The moment you begin your colonization effort, the game takes a dark and troubling turn. It never really recovers from that. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be over here, attempting to unify the Holy Roman Empire into the modern state of Germany. And not doing any colonization.