Europa 1400 consists of several simple parts that add up to an interesting whole. On the surface it's a basic economic simulation. On a deeper level, it's a strategic game about politics and ambition. It's not really a role-playing game, but you have a character with statistics, and these statistics can be improved. Any element examined on its own would seem pretty skimpy, but together they make for an addictive and unique game.
It's somewhat difficult to get started. There's a fairly comprehensive tutorial and a bulky manual, but both are disorganized and confusing. The game seems to have suffered from a poor translation in this regard. Even after you read the manual and go through the tutorial, Europa 1400 is a bit overwhelming. There are so many options right from the beginning--you have to choose your location, your goals, your career, and even your parentage--that it will likely take you a few false starts to understand the basics.
Once you have a basic grasp of the game, however, Europa 1400 is great fun. You can choose to amass wealth, become a master of your chosen profession, gain rank in society, or any combination thereof. But first, you must start small. You pick a profession and get to work earning a meager living. The majority of professions are related to craftsmanship, such as carpentry, masonry, and blacksmithing. You can also choose to run more unusual businesses such as churches, apothecaries, or thieves' guilds. With the exception of the thieves' guild, all of the businesses produce items which you cart to the market and sell. At first, you'll want to manage your business, hiring employees and choosing what is produced. Later, as your responsibilities grow, you can hire someone to run your business for you.
When you have a bit of money, you can choose to make a name for yourself by courting a spouse and running for public office. The former is a simple task, requiring you to send the occasional gift and hope your chosen mate doesn't get married before she accepts your proposal. Once you're hitched, you and your significant other will produce offspring who can assume your responsibilities after your demise, provided you set aside some money for them and make sure they are educated.
Running for office is more complicated than marrying. First, there must be a position for which you are qualified. The positions follow a pyramid: You must start at the base and then work your way to the top. How a particular position is selected varies from job to job, but it inevitably involves being well liked by the right people. You must pay close attention and make sure you are in good favor with those who make the decisions. You can gain favor by buying special items and throwing parties at your home, provided you have built a room in which to entertain. You can also find ways to sabotage those who don't like you, such as by publicly insulting them, hiring thugs to thrash them in the street, or having them thrown in jail. Once you secure a public office, you can then attempt to have your enemies fired and your friends hired, which helps as you ascend in rank and reap its associated monetary benefits.
Europa 1400 becomes exponentially more complicated as it goes along. As you expand your shop, or open new ones, you'll make more money and produce better items, but you'll also have added responsibilities. You can choose a new career at any point, and later in the game you can become a moneylender or purchase raw-goods shops, from which you can obtain cheaper materials for your prime goods, and you can even train mercenaries to waylay your competitors' trading carts.
In fact, you can base your entire career around being a general nuisance, robbing and blackmailing and sabotaging your fellow citizens. If you choose to be a thief at the beginning, your game will be slightly different. The thieves' guild doesn't produce items, though you can cart your ill-gotten goods to the market. Instead, you hire thieves who go out and pickpocket the civilians. You can scout homes and shops and then rob them once you've gathered enough information. Once you've expanded your guild, you can kidnap the well-to-do and hold them for ransom. Thieving is one of the quickest ways to get rich in the game, and it makes for a nice break from the otherwise standard make-and-sell formula of the other professions.
What's most surprising is that the game is so much more high-tech than it needs to be--a game like this would typically consist of a series of static menus and would work just fine. But Europa 1400 has a full 3D engine, allowing you to zoom around the town, watch your workers as they go about their business, and explore the many shops and services the town provides. It looks good, and the game cycles from day to night and even has changes in weather. It sounds good too, with helpful spoken advice and suitable music.
If the game has a major flaw, it's the combat. Occasionally, your shipments will get attacked by marauders, and, provided you've hired an escort, you'll have to fight. The combat is in real time and is very basic. It is also, luckily, sporadic--full games can go by without a single attack.
There's a great deal to do in Europa 1400, and you can choose to take part in all of it or just concentrate on the areas you like best. Because of all the options, it can be a different experience every time you play. Unfortunately, the early game can get repetitive after just a few games. But the mid- to late-game is involving and addictive every time. Europa 1400 has something to offer fans of almost any genre--it's the sort of creative hybrid that computer gaming sorely needs.