The Europa Universalis series has always struggled to be approachable to newcomers while offering a deep strategy game experience that accurately depicts the colonial period's social dynamics without becoming too deterministic. Europa Universalis IV succeeds at this balancing act by simplifying the series and making the hundreds of playable countries feel unique without dumbing it down or adding too many special rules. In many ways, EUIV is the pinnacle of the series; however, it is also plagued by numerous bugs that can ruin an otherwise outstanding experience.
In keeping with previous incarnations of the series, EUIV plays like a real-time version of a tabletop board game, which is appropriate since the series is based on one. You can pause the game and change its speed at any time, and instead of having you command real-time battles, combat is resolved with dice rolls influenced by modifiers such as terrain, weather, and generals. The series has been referred to as being akin to a real-time version of Risk, but that is a woefully inadequate description. EUIV covers over 400 years of history, from the last days of the Byzantine Empire to the end of the Napoleonic era, all of which takes place on a map consisting of a couple of thousand provinces.
As the leader of one of several hundred playable countries, your word is law, and your will drives the state. This is a game about royal marriages, colonization, trade, social and political intrigue, warfare, religious strife, and revolution. While victory is technically score-based, EUIV is most satisfying when you forge your country's path into an alternate history. In other words, EUIV is a game for dreamers who want to create a greater Montenegro that stretches from Germany to Jerusalem, fight off European invaders as the Cherokee, save Constantinople from becoming Istanbul, or simply see what kinds of hijinks Ethiopia can get into.
Of course, the same is true of Europa Universalis III, which would make EUIV redundant were it not for the many welcome changes the latter makes to the series. While not the most significant change, the implementation of automation may be the most welcome, because it greatly improves gameplay while reducing your clicking work. Consider the act of improving relations with neighbors: in EUIII, the process involved selecting a country and giving the order to improve relations, sacrificing a diplomat for an incremental improvement in relations, and then repeating the process ad infinitum. Now, diplomats are permanent characters who remain in Vilna for as long as it takes to make the Lithuanians love you before returning home for their next assignment.
Colonists are treated in the same way: a colonist enters a territory and convinces people to move there until the area is large enough to support itself. If the colonist is run off by angry natives, he returns home. In previous incarnations of the series, you had to send multiple colonists to a territory, one at a time, and wait for the next one to spawn while hoping the natives didn't burn down the settlement in the meantime. Another example of automation making the game more enjoyable is the ability to order an army to seize the initiative and automatically hunt down any rebels that pop up. You'll have more fun when the AI takes care of chasing rebellious Ruthenians across the map.
An even more profound and welcome change to gameplay is the addition of administrative, diplomatic, and military power, resources that replace EUIII's bureaucrats. These powers grow based on the administrative, diplomatic, and military stats of your monarch and her advisers. You can use these powers to increase your country's all-important stability rating, research technologies, build province improvements, slowly change the demographics of a province, and repress potential revolutionary movements. This element creates many new and interesting dilemmas. For example, do you pick an adviser based on a beneficial trait or to increase your power level? Do you spend power points to help build structures that will benefit your empire in the long run, or save up power to buy the next level of administrative, diplomatic, or military technology?
Administrative, diplomatic, and military power also play a role in the revised "ideas" system. Previously, you could pick national ideas that would affect your empire, like tolerance of religious and ethnic minorities. Now, you have the option to unlock up to eight idea trees by increasing your administrative tech level. Each tree has seven ideas that can be unlocked with power points. For instance, there is a religious tree that benefits and enhances missionaries, an exploration tree that enables you to explore hidden areas of the map while also providing more colonists, and other trees focusing on areas like diplomacy, spycraft, and military thought.
You can now choose whether your military complex emphasizes quantity or quality (or both). Almost every country has a unique national ideas tree, and these bonuses are unlocked automatically as you go through the other trees. For instance, in addition to things like manpower bonuses, Russia's tree includes an idea that provides a free colonist and reveals nearby territory whenever a colony is completed, thus allowing Russia to colonize Siberia without investing in the exploration tree. Ethiopia's tree, meanwhile, makes reference to the beliefs that its royal dynasty is descended from King Solomon and that it has the Ark of the Covenant under lock and key.
Additional changes have been made to affect how trade, combat, and balance-of-power politics work. The old trade system involved sending merchants off to peddle their wares at centers of trade. Now, there are trade routes, and merchants are used to direct trade into your country and siphon off some of the profits from global trade. Careful placement of merchants coupled with control over important trade goods can be extremely helpful for your country's economy. In terms of combat improvements, the biggest is that AI armies no longer bounce around like Ping-Pong balls or retreat behind your lines and besiege your provinces when they've been defeated. Instead, retreating armies try to make it to the nearest "safe" province, like an allied capital, to lick their wounds. Sometimes an army's morale is utterly shattered, completely immobilizing it for a time as the officers try to restore order. That's an opportune time to strike and achieve a decisive victory.
Unfortunately, this otherwise excellent game is marred by some technical problems and bugs.
With regard to the balance-of-power system, in previous games, the entire world would seemingly gang up on a would-be Genghis Khan. Now, AI-controlled states form more reasonable military coalitions to keep an aggressor in check. For example, there is no reason for England or France to care if the Russians are beating up the remnants of the old Mongol khanates in Asia. The other khanates, however, form a coalition against Russian imperialism, and Russia's other neighbors, like Poland and Lithuania, might join in. A major difference between coalitions and the normal alliances in EUIV is that members of a coalition may not make a separate peace treaty with the targeted country. Thankfully, coalition members are public knowledge, and you can make them break up with skillful diplomacy.
EUIV is built around a modified version of Crusader Kings II's new graphics engine and is the most attractive game that Paradox has developed. Of particular note is the terrain map, which looks fantastic and is filled with details. This map features lakes that slowly freeze over during winter. You can catch what appear to be trade caravans passing through your provinces, birds flying overhead, and whales the size of Taiwan. The units also look much better than in previous iterations of the series and are more diverse, with different appearances based on military technology, culture group, and whether the army is mostly composed of infantry, artillery, or cavalry.
The most important graphical element in EUIV is its user interface. There are tons of tooltips that help explain why your missionary takes decades to convert a province, what the dice rolls during combat mean, and how many levels of military research you need to unlock before you can build more powerful units. These tooltips are desperately needed, because EUIV is a complex game, and its tutorial does little to prepare you for the challenges to come.
Unfortunately, this otherwise excellent game is marred by some technical problems and bugs. A particularly irksome and possibly game-ending bug involves coalitions. Members of a coalition may not make a separate peace and neither can vassals. However, a vassal can become the leader of a coalition. As a result, you might get stuck in a war with multiple countries that simply never ends because you cannot negotiate with the coalition's leader, causing increasing unrest at home from war weariness even if you control every enemy province.
A recent patch doesn't help EUIV's performance, sadly. While the game is very stable, it tends to lag a lot. To be fair, there is a lot of number crunching going on as the game takes into account the daily situation of hundreds of countries, computing how many troops China is building, whether Prussia is going to take a loan to finance a war, and what Suleiman the Magnificent ate for breakfast. Still, the lag and the bugs detract from what would otherwise be a solid gaming experience. These issues aren't deal breakers, but they are certainly disappointing.
Europa Universalis IV is every bit as epic as its predecessors, and the changes that it has made are overwhelmingly positive. For instance, the diplomatic, administrative, and military power aspect is more fun than the older system of bureaucrats and sliders restricting your actions. Also, the automation of mechanics like rebel repression and colonization wipes away the most tedious aspects of the series. The technical issues and bugs are a major disappointment, but they pale in comparison to the depth and diversity of the gameplay. It's a game where you can bribe cardinals to become the pope's true master, turn the Holy Roman Empire into a unified state, become shogun of Japan, prevent Poland from being partitioned, convert Eurasia to Buddhism by force, or turn Oman into a superpower. Europa Universalis IV easily provides hundreds of hours of gameplay for those who develop a taste for it. There are very few games remotely like this out there, making it a must-get game for people who want to "fix" history.