Feature Article

Europa Universalis IV and the Border Between Complex and Complicated

EUIV project lead Thomas Johansson explains how this strategy series avoids buckling under the weight of its own ambitions.

In the world of Europa Universalis, players are often faced with challenging questions. How much can I raise taxes before my citizens revolt? Which of my vassals is most likely to stage a rebellion? What in the hell is a Latin Cuirassier? It's questions like these that drive Paradox Development Studio's historical strategy series, in which players are given a broad range of tools to expand their global empire and an equally broad assortment of political responsibilities to manage along the way

On the surface, the Europa Universalis games bear a strong resemblance to Civilization, that king of the historical strategy genre. But whereas a typical Civilization game can stretch from the creation of the wheel to the advancement of nanotechnology, Europa Universalis is all about digging deep into one specific era in history: the Age of Discovery. As a result, Europa Universalis games tend to be a little, shall we say, complex. It's a series that speaks in terms like cassus belli and papal curia, featuring a map crammed full of long-forgotten nations where every last political maneuver is an opportunity to broker a deal that might someday come back to haunt you.

So with Europa Universalis IV on the horizon, we got to wondering: how exactly does a developer take a series this complex and add more features to it without having the whole thing collapse under its own weight? There is, after all, a fine line between a game that's deep and one that's bloated. To find out, we caught up with EUIV project lead Thomas Johansson to answer a few of our questions.

No Caption Provided

"As you can imagine, this is something we consider a lot at Paradox Development Studio since we create grand strategy games," says Johansson. "With Europa Universalis IV, we decided early on that this was not going to be a radical new game. Instead, we decided to focus on enhancing and polishing what we thought was immensely fun to play in previous games. We wanted to remove or rework features that did not work quite as intended, and make new features like monarch points and the trade system really infiltrate every single aspect of the game."

These new features, monarch points and trade, make for an interesting side-by-side comparison of the different sources of inspiration Paradox looks to for new gameplay systems. The trade system is classic Europa Universalis: a way to dig even deeper into the nuts and bolts of empire-building by manipulating global trade networks. It allows players to send merchants across oceans and seas to do your bidding, exploiting the subtle contours of international geography for economic gain.

How does a developer take a series this complex and add more features to it without having the whole thing collapse under its own weight?

But you can trace the origin of monarch points to another game in the Paradox catalog: Crusader Kings II. Where Europa Universalis focuses on nations, Crusader Kings focuses on people. Each ruler in that series has his or her own laundry list of strengths (a brilliant military strategist with a gift for poetry, for example) and weaknesses (a clubfooted dwarf with a case of the measles, let's say), and it's how you deal with those traits that determines the rise and fall of your empire.

The monarch points system in Europa Universalis borrows slightly from Crusader Kings by giving each head of state an assortment of innate leadership skills in areas such as diplomacy and militarism. Depending on how great your skill is in a certain area, you'll have more monarch points added to a given pool at the end of each month. It's those pools that you dip into when pursuing actions such as stabilizing cities and researching new technologies. When that head of state dies, another comes along with his or her own unique skillset.

"Monarch points started off with the realization that the way you got income and invested in technology was overcomplicated in the previous game," says Johansson. "But once we replaced all the gradual stuff with a monthly income, we found there was a big hole in the game that needed to be replaced. The solution came through inspiration from Crusader Kings II and how that game managed to create a perfectly natural ebb and flow when your character died and was replaced by a new one with different strengths and weaknesses."

No Caption Provided

Using this character-driven system in Europa Universalis made sense for Paradox because it already proved successful in Crusader Kings II. Beyond that, it also managed to humanize the grand strategy genre in a way that previous EU games were never quite able to do.

"I think what Crusader Kings II managed to do was reach a lot of gamers outside of the usual strategy fans and make them realize they can create their own stories in a grand strategy game," Johansson says. "People were taken by the dramatic events, the intrigue, and the romances. It's the same with all our grand strategy games, but it became so much clearer with the character-driven Crusader Kings II."

But what about a new feature like trade networks? Without the luxury of having that feature beta-tested in a previous game, how does the studio decide whether it can work? The answer, according to Johansson, lies in the distinction between "complex" and "complicated."

"We want complex, but not complicated," says Johansson. "A complex feature has a lot of factors that influence it, and you will discover that when you thought you mastered it, there is a sudden a shift in dynamics that forces you to reevaluate your strategy. Complex features are what make games fun in the long run."

I think Crusader Kings II reached a lot of gamers outside of the usual strategy fans and made them realize they can create their own stories.

Thomas Johansson

How does that definition apply to trade routes in EUIV? "The trade route system is complex in the sense that it ties into all the other parts of the game like diplomacy, war, colonization and developing your nation peacefully," Johansson says. "To use this system, however, the tools are fairly simple. Collect and steer your goods, compete with others, and build up the trade network."

"Complicated features, however, are features that are hard to do anything with. You have to figure out all the mechanics to do anything at all, and the interface doesn't let you know what you are doing wrong."

In other words, a complicated feature is an overwhelming feature. That's what Johansson and his team are trying to avoid.

"Personally I've always been of the opinion that our games tend to feel more complicated than they actually are," Johansson says. "As a gamer you don't need to know everything to be able to play and enjoy the games."

No Caption Provided

"I think one of the strengths of the Civilization series of games is that it is a very easy ride to start the game--it is initially limited in what you can do, and you have the time to learn the features one at a time. When you play the Europa Universalis series, you begin in the middle of history and you immediately have all these tools and choices at your disposal--but you don't have to learn them all at once. Our games are sandboxes; it's up to you as a player to set your own goals and choose your own destiny."

Convincing players to take things one step at a time is something that Johansson and his team have spent a lot of time doing. "The tutorial will not cover everything in the game, because that is one mistake we have made--to try and explain everything and give the player a massive brain freeze," says Johansson. "So instead we tried to use the tutorial to explain the basic tools you need to play. After that, the hint system will be your little guardian when playing. We are still learning, we are doing playtesting much more and trying to view our games with new eyes."

But just as Johansson encourages players to take things one step at a time, he also realizes that his team could benefit from that same type of approach. "We had ideas about an even deeper religion system and an even deeper modeling of different government types, but we felt that we can’t dig down in all directions at once," he says. "Our goal was to make it more accessible without dumbing it down or compromising on the gameplay that we love."

"Complexity has always been Paradox Development Studio's strength," Johansson says. "Now we are stepping up our game to get better at the not-too-complicated part."

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Back To Top
53 Comments  RefreshSorted By 
  • 53 results
  • 1
  • 2
GameSpot has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to toxic conduct in comments. Any abusive, racist, sexist, threatening, bullying, vulgar, and otherwise objectionable behavior will result in moderation and/or account termination. Please keep your discussion civil.

Avatar image for aradplaug

You can't raise taxes, actually. I think Anti-tax rebels are just a placeholder for when revolt risk are high but there are no other kinds of rebels (heathens, nationalists etc.)

Avatar image for advocacy

This game will cause the head of the average COD player to explode.

Avatar image for Carton_of_milk

CK II is the best game i played last year. Also the best strategy game i EVER played. I'm nowhere near a strategy game expert, and honestly CKII ended up being a lot simpler than id expected. It's really easy to figure out. As they say, complex, not complicated. This is really how i'd describe CKII (and in the end i wish it would have been a LITTLE more complex...)

Started as an independent Count of Lubeck, became Duke of Holstein within the Kingdom of Denmark and three generations later, I was King of Poland within the HRE. All this WITHOUT so much a war against or for Poland. Genealogy, incredible cirscumstances and later on, a few murders, made me king of Poland . By the time i finished in 1453, I was an independent King of Poland and Lithuania and i'd eaten away at most of Denmark, half of Hungary, well into former Ruthenia (that had nearly disappeared when the mongols came) and started my way into the HRE territories. I also had two counties in the middle east. Looking forward to continue the saga of my Polish kingdom in EUIV

Avatar image for Judas_III

I find these games are smarter than my capacity to use the software effectively. I appreciate the depth and ambition, but I do struggle with execution, and lack of historic knowledge.

Any advise to help a guy dig in and feel some accomplishment?

Avatar image for gunsofdeschain

@Judas_III I was quite overwhelmed myself initially, but there is a fantastic youtube tutorial series that is good fun to watch and learn stuff at the same time.

Avatar image for triandy21

Rome 2 and Europa Universalis 4 I see no future in my life.

Avatar image for abel1717


same here i was just thinking the same....can't wait for sept 3rd

Avatar image for Joesocwork

I'm glad that Paradox is trying to come across as at least one company that is taking serious gamers seriously. I hope they find ways to resolve their challenge to make or keep the franchise more accessible without dumbing it down.

Avatar image for gekkoguy24

@Vidpci Comparing Civ and CK is like comparing apples to oranges. They're totally different from one another.

Avatar image for badabimmo

@gekkoguy24 Totally agree: one can prefer CKII instead of CIVV, or maybe say you like the gameplay or the inner depth of PDS games better, but one's a "simple" historical strategy game whilst the other goes under the section grand strategy, and that makes things a lot different when it comes to playing and also rating the games. That said, I like Paradox games better too, but I seriously love Civ and its gameplay, and still, that doesn't make me a lunatic.

Avatar image for Caldrin

Really looking forward to this.. i loved UV3 and just got CKII its good to have a really deep game that you can get into and spend some real time playing..

Avatar image for Tobajas

WHAT THE! Denmark conquered Sweden! What blasphemy! Woe to the people playing this game for they are curseD!

Avatar image for RockoW

@Tobajas Skåne, Blekinge and Bohuslän were danish territory until 1658. Check the "Treaty of Roskilde" out. You may learn something new. :)

Avatar image for GITY69

Europa is my favorite game series of all time. I love taking a principality and turning it into a nation via diplomacy and well timed warfare.

Preorder check

Downloaded check

Wed-Fri days off work check

Its gonna be a great week!

Avatar image for UmaSama

@GITY69 I used to have that attitude towards Pdox, Having bought most of their games since EU2.

I even was really active on their forums.

However after the disaster launch of Heart of Darkness for Vicky2 I decided to never preorder from them again.

Also EU4 as well as future games from Pdox will be Steam exclusives, and day one DLC which to me feels like a spit to the face.

Avatar image for Neo_Sarevok

>>> "With Europa Universalis IV, we decided early on that this was not going to be a radical new game. Instead, we decided to focus on enhancing and polishing what we thought was immensely fun to play in previous games."

You mean like what you guys always do?... For better or worse?

Avatar image for Karjah

I've got to be honest when I'm looking to relax and just pop in a game for fun none of Paradox properties are on the list. After playing CK2 for a few hours after I got it for dirt cheap on steam i just find the game more frustrating then fun because I still don't know what some of the options or screens are really for.

Complexity is fine and frankly I"m more then willing to sit through an hour long tutorial for a game like this but I just can't touch their products until they start putting in full and proper tutorials. Hell even a series of "click here for a youtube walk through/basic play" would be better then the horrible pile of junk their tutorials currently are.

Avatar image for Locuus

I like the complexity of their game, but they are also one of the worst companies when Quality control is concerned. All their games are RIDDLED with bugs and huge performance issues at release and even months after release.

Kind of surprising considering they make so many basically identical strategy games. Hopefully they test this one more and release something that runs like it should.

Avatar image for nyran125tk

These games can be daunting. Like WTF am I doing , daunting. Civilization 2 and 3 were also daunting, once you get the hang of games like this, all other games feel basic and empty.

Avatar image for Strategygamer22

After running through the demo for an hour as Austria, I am ecstatic for the full game. The tutorial was great, though I don't know how good it will be for people who haven't played a game like this before. So far I've seen nothing but improvements.

Avatar image for Gruug

I love the complex games. Seems that so many developers have gone the "dumber is better route" lately. Thank God for Paradox and games like EUIV, CK2 and HI2. Of late, been playing a lot of CK2. Yes, it is complex but only took me about two days to begin to figure out how to play. Plus, it is complex enough that you can never expect to "win" every session. That is what makes games like this unique. I like to know that there is a chance I could fail rather then know that I never can as in many of today's less complex titles.

Avatar image for RedLegZeff

@Gruug Yeah even the shallow end of the strategy genre has considerable depth. And the deep end....NIGH UNPLAYABLE. So awesome.

Avatar image for goododa

All the picture links in the article are 404ing.

Avatar image for Tommy7600

While I'm looking forward to this, I'd rather prefer new Hearts of Iron...

Avatar image for LordCrash88

I've downloaded the demo from Steam but holy hell, the game is complex.

I've been playing Total War games for years but this game is much more "complicated". I don't even know all the menus and options this game offers. A tutorial in the demo would have been nice......

Avatar image for Mausolus

@LordCrash88 I think everyone that first played a Paradox game had this kind of experience, but we all end up addicts. My advice to you is just go for it, don't worry that you don't know half of what you are doing, just focus on one thing at a time and let everything else go pear shaped. Keep playing until you suddenly realize you should have been doing something differently, then restart. Rinse and repeat, then suddenly you'll 'get it'.

Avatar image for LordCrash88

@Mausolus @LordCrash88 I hope I can justify the time to do that, thanks. This game looks like a real time sink......but it looks very fun though. I know how addictive this type of games could be, played the TW games for months..... :P

Avatar image for LordCrash88

@Rabbitovsky Wow cool, I must have overlooked that. Thanks for the hint, I will play it later. :)

Avatar image for Rabbitovsky

@LordCrash88 There is a tutorial in the demo. It's one of the bottom options on the main-menu screen. It is set up pretty well!

The first just show you how to *DO* things, like finds things on the map, create and move units, declare war, make peace, and transport. The second then explains what the heck all the numbers are around the screen and what all the buttons do, and then explains trade. The Final tutorial then has a mock-game as Spain where it guides you along completing specific objectives, while going into a bit more detail as new stuff comes up.

Avatar image for Mausolus

I'm so addicted to Crusader Kings II right now that I worry that this game will disappoint me with its focus more on strategy and tactics and less on dynasty building, melodrama and intrigue. Of course I will be playing it though, and importing my crazy empires from my CK2 games, still, I'm secretly holding out for Crusader Kings III.

Avatar image for scottabc

Great series from a great developer and a very good reason to get Steam on PC if you haven't already.

Avatar image for Pyrosa

Well done -- I'm looking forward to this.

Avatar image for Krauklis

PI games are at the pinnacle of PC gaming IMO together with games like DOTA 2 and SC2.

Avatar image for Kjranu

@Krauklis DOTA2 and SC2? Gosh, what low standards you must hold up Paradox to then...

Avatar image for Krauklis

@Kjranu @Krauklis Yeah really low standard. Games that define their genres, have huge communities and are pure bread PC games.

Avatar image for Krauklis

@Sorciere_basic @LordCrash88 @Krauklis @Kjranu Oh I so sorry for picking games from this decade, that relate to today's PC gaming, but I guess I should have sicked to TA for ever. Fucking Hipsters.

Avatar image for Sorciere_basic

@LordCrash88 @Krauklis @Kjranu

Much more the pinnacle than DotA crap. Gamers these days...sheesh

Avatar image for LordCrash88

@Krauklis @Kjranu BG 2 was the pinnacle of PC games imo..... ;)

Avatar image for GSyynoandnoyyGS

Go Paradox go!

Avatar image for truckingpete

Once I get my new computer, I will be going back to play CK2...still need more hours in that lol

Avatar image for Sagem28

I've played over 120 hours of Crusader King 2 and sometimes I'm still scratching my head and wondering what the hell just happened, lol.
I'm definitely picking this game up, love those guys at Paradox.

Avatar image for RedLegZeff

EU3 was pretty great. I got it a couple years ago with all it's expansions in a steam sale. It is hard to get into, and i mean hard. It was harder to get into for me then any other strategy game I've played. Civ is much easier to jump into, as is total war. I nearly quit 3 or 4 times in the first 20 hours of play. Of course at about 60 hours I suddenly understood one of the basic mechanics and things got a lot easier and more fun. Made me feel kinda stupid to realize you had to do something specific to activate a cassius belli. I am psyched for eu4.

Avatar image for Dark_Matter1337

@RedLegZeff Endless space was pretty friggin complicated to me. Love total war, but just couldnt get into Civ. EU4 does look interesting

Avatar image for sgt_hunter

you can get the demo on steam atm

Avatar image for erwerman

@sgt_hunter Dude, thank you for this info! This was the best news today for me! :D

Avatar image for poromenos

Always found this game quite intimidating , i await for a proper review, 4x games are most of the time a good investment.

Avatar image for Jim-Panze

I love Paradox, but their games do have a huge learning curve. Once you figured your way through, the amount of possibilities and the scope are just amazing.

  • 53 results
  • 1
  • 2