Developer Paradox Interactive is gearing up for round three of its Europa Universalis grand strategy series, and we had a chance to take an up-close look. Like the previous games in the series, Europa III will be a real-time game (with the ability to pause at any time) with the strategic sensibilities of a classic turn-based game. You'll be able to play through more than three centuries of world history, from the years 1453 through 1789, as almost any world nation that existed then. Rather than break up the game into individual scenarios, Paradox has opted to make Europa III a more open-ended game with no real set beginning or end--you can start a new game more or less anywhere within the game's 300-year time frame and play to reach whichever goals you prefer, whether that's conquering Europe, unifying the Holy Roman Empire by attaining the rank of emperor, or just becoming an economic superpower.
Despite this shift in focus, development head Johan Andersson explains that Europa III is intended to be much more welcoming for new players, while still providing experienced fans all the options they need. Part of making the game more inviting for beginners was the process of "pruning the interface" to nest the game's many options in menus, rather than overwhelming players at the start. Also, the game will ship with numerous historical "bookmarks" set around key moments in world history that can be used as a reference point, and it will also suggest specific countries to play at those specific times, even though you can start a new game anywhere and anytime in history you wish, and you're still free to cast your lot with any nation you want.
Naturally, not all nations are created equal--many enjoy specific advantages provided by their populations, their global locations, their technological advancement, and the loyalty and happiness of their people. To help you choose your nation during your selected time period, Europa III will offer a quick-reference menu that shows each nation's vital statistics, such as its military strength or economic power, rated on a scale of 1 to 6 (to stay true to the Europa series' board-game roots). Depending on the country and the time period, nations will be divided into individual city-states with their own levels of technological, financial, and martial development.
Each city-state will have its own infrastructure, represented by 15 different types of buildings (such as barracks and granaries) which can be upgraded to improve their contribution to your country's strength, as well as its earning power in taxes. Thankfully, you won't have to fuss with each individual building in every province, because Europa III's research system will simply unlock various building improvements with every development you successfully fund and see through to completion. The game won't force you to micromanage tax rates or the attendant effects that taxation can have on your country's morale, either (the game assumes that as an effective ruler, you'd already be levying as heavy a tax as possible within reason). But it will offer a brand-new national rating to encourage players to do more than simply build up a powerful economy, which fans of the previous series tended to do. The new "military tradition" rating will increase the standing of your nation based on how many military skirmishes your nation has been in and how many wars it has won.
Europa III will give players a good number of options for fighting battles, but because it's a grand strategy game with tabletop roots, there won't be any kind of large-scale tactical battles between mobs of soldiers. Instead, you'll make high-level decisions, such as either conscripting your nation's citizens into the armed forces, which means drafted citizens can't contribute to your economy, or recruiting mercenary companies, which are considerably more expensive and not as loyal. The game will offer several varieties of soldiers and weaponry at a technology appropriate for 15th- to 18th-century warfare, such as cavalry, muskets, and cannons, as well as four different types of naval ships. Attacking is simply a matter of declaring war on your enemies, then moving troops into position and initiating combat.
Should you decide against going the violent route, you can also use the game's many diplomatic options (which understandably become much more limited when treating with a sworn enemy), including military alliances and trade embargoes. You'll also want to put both the church and the state on your side by championing the cause of religion (you can choose from Catholicism, Islam, "Eastern," Pagan, and Orthodoxy--the latter becomes Protestantism after a certain activist nails a certain set of theses to the doors of a certain church), and by managing your nation's current form of government from one of six different types, each with advantages and disadvantages. Theocracies, for instance, don't have to deal with pesky bills of rights, though if they're Catholic, they may have to contend with the whims of the Vatican. Then again, if you subscribe to the Machiavellian school of thought, you might even try to play a political game with the papacy by "sponsoring" specific cardinals in their quests to ascend to the rank of pontiff--but you'll need to spend your tithes carefully, since cardinals will tend to be elderly men who may expire before they can take over the church in your favor.
Europa Universalis III seems to be making some bold changes to the series' deep strategic formula. Assuming everything falls into place, the game's streamlined interface and in-game help options should be more accessible to new players, while the highly open-ended, historical campaign structure may just swallow expert players whole for countless hours. The game is scheduled for release early next year.