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Sunday, September 01, 2013

Review of Europa Universalis 4: the Big Blue Railroad

Japan 2009 — Japanese Railroads  59 by dugspr — Home for Good from flickr (CC-NC)

I have a rule I've been following with all games, especially strategy games (and Total War series in particular) - never play until at least six months after release. This saves me trouble with all the inevitable bugs and balance issues which are inevitable in highly complex games - and I don't think I'll ever catch up with everything I ever wanted to play, so I don't lose much by the way (it also doesn't hurt the game will probably be half the price by then).

With Europa Universalis 4 I took my chances. I liked a lot of what I've seen, and I have no doubts that it will be an amazing game after a few patches, and once modders start messing with it, but it sure has some major issues now.

The Big Blue Railroad

There's a handful of minor things I'll mention later, but let's just get to the core of the problem - EU3 and CK2 were sandbox games were player could shape the history in any way they wished. EU4 has some of that, but it pushes a lot harder than before to achieve certain predetermined historical outcomes, and I really don't like this shift.

First, and most infuriating of all - the game contains big scripted events to help France, Austria (and to lesser extent Castille blob) - like France and Austria dividing Burgundy between each other by event, every single campaign - even worse, with instant free cores everywhere, accepted culture, and everything. Triangle of power of France, England, and Burgundy led to very interesting balancing dynamics in EU3, now you only have Big Blue Blob.

And of course the third part of the triangle - England - is basically scripted to lose the Hundred Years War, and it has scripts (Scottish Highlanders) working against it. Speed bumps against blobbing I don't mind as much as scripted blobbing, but the outcome here is total collapse of triangle of power and France dominating Western Europe almost immediately every single time. At 0% overextension, and 100% accepted cultures.

If you absolutely have to make someone inherit Burgundy, make it some random countries. If France wants that, it will have to conquer and core them all, but I'd simply remove this nonsense.

And speaking of France - unlike every other nation in game it starts as culture union nation ("All French cultures view France as their own nation, thus giving no penalties"). A few other countries can achieve similar outcome by undergoing more or less difficult unification - but France starts as one. This is historically ridiculous before at least 19th century, and in terms of gameplay just adds to the Big Blue Railroad. I'm totally fine with nations being able to unlock this as some mid-game decision, or at some tech level, or an idea or whatnot, but they shouldn't start with that, especially not France. This mechanic isn't new, but culture penalties are much worse in EU4 than in EU3 (something I'm totally fine with, especially since culture shifting is so much easier).

To continue with railroading blobs (and not just France this time), EU3 had a lot of speed bumps against blobbing, and EU4 just drops them. Instead of infamy which hurt big countries a lot, and for small ones it didn't matter much there's aggressive expansion penalty, which is only as strong as the coalition people can gather against you.

If you're France, then Burgundy instantly collapses, England gets kicked off the continent (and even if England had any armies worth talking about, AI sucks hard at naval invasions), Castille (who is pushed pretty hard to unite Spain) has little chance of joining anybody else's troops and can be crushed separately, so maybe, depending on situation within HRE, the emperor can be a problem. Usually from what I've seen the Empire has constant internal wars and is too weak to challenge France, at least early game.

And speaking of coalitions against someone - even if you somehow managed to gather a coalition against a blob, that's usually still of no use, since you have no way to coordinate with your coalition partners, or for that matter your vassals. Blob's doomstacks will just roam the country unchallenged while your allies just sit around doing nothing. What's most annoying about it is that they solved this problem is CK2 already in two ways - first you could control your vassals' troops during a war, second you could link your troops to other allied troops in the same province, so they could put their troops under your command or you under theirs - and this would let you gather enough troops to face a doomstack. It's really annoying how EU4 just ignores all that and we're back to situation where blobs always win.

Another speed bump - most important of all actually - was war exhaustion. In EU3 it was proportional to number of troops you lost, so waging a successful war against a big blob like France, crushing all their armies, forcing them to release a bunch of states, would doom them to decades of fighting rebels and desperately trying to rebuild their armies, and kick them out of big politics for a long while. Usually by the time they could recover their neighbours like Burgundy (did I mention how much I hate EU4 scripting Burgundy out of existence?) or Castille or even Savoy would eat deeply into their territory, so a single war could change balance of power forever.

Meanwhile war exhaustion didn't matter at all against a small country - unlike big blobs small countries had very little trouble coming back up after being completely occupied and having all their armies destroyed.

Now it's the opposite - war exhaustion depends on army size, so big blobs have zero trouble with it, but small countries are completely buried under it.

But let's forget about all these minor problems - the biggest railroad is the game, and one thing that completely screws game balance, and really needs to be patched or modded away, or the game is doomed is the new manpower mechanic.

In EU3 manpower regenerated fully every 2 years and it was pretty close irrelevant unless you started as a non-European OPM. It made perfect sense to either make it matter, or just scrap it completely. Unfortunately switching to 10 years regeneration is the biggest pro-blobbing mechanic of them all.

If you're a small country, even if you somehow manage to defeat a blob, your manpower will be crushed forever without any hopes of recovery - meanwhile the blob will get theirs back real fast. And if you actually lose a war, it will take far more than 10 years to rebuild your armies since manpower is usually a lot less than your force limit. Not long enough until the blob attacks you again.

And as if it wasn't enough, blobs invariably have more monarch power than you, so they'll have better tech, better generals, more ideas and so on. Back in EU3 small trading powers were tech leaders. Now it's the Big Blue Blob (which is of course exempt from cost of coring and culture shifting things in takes).

Unlike bugs which are mostly minor annoyances and will likely be fixed in patches anyway, the railroading problem (especially with manpower and Burgundy event) is one are are which seems like a consciously made horrible design decision, and it hurt the game to the point where I want to wait for mods (or mod it myself) rather than suffer from vanilla. It's basically EU4 equivalent of gavelkind. Nothing else I'm going to mention is anywhere near as bad as this.

Oh, and it's something I don't care about, but others do - if you want achievement, now you have to play with lucky nations set to historical - as if France really needed any more railroading than it already gets. They could let people choose random or none, but they sure want to see the blob train.

Tama — Station Master of Kishi Station 1 by dugspr — Home for Good from flickr (CC-NC)

Diplomacy and war goal system

EU4 changes to a completely new war goal system inspired by some aspects of EU3's and CK2's. It is quite interesting, and I think diplomacy and war goal systems are both huge improvement over what was there in the previous games.

However, it's still either bugged as hell or just really non-intuitive, whichever way you prefer to look at it.

Even if you don't let war leader negotiate for you, war leader can still negotiate for your vassals.  Austria was the war leader. I was their ally Brandenburg, and I had Teutonic Order as a vassal (who held Hinterpommern on which Pomerania had a core). Of course I disabled their ability to negotiate for me - but they still gave Hinterpommern to Pomerania in the peace deal. No enemy troops got anywhere near me or Teutonic Order at any time, so it sure as hell wasn't occupied or anything.

A big rule of the war goal system is that except returning cores (which by the way should result in a very high positive relationship modifier if you're just gifting territory to someone who's not even a party to the war, not just +10 for doubling their territory) - only country actually controlling a territory can get it in a peace deal.

This sounds fine, but when the primary goal is of the war is your claim for some province like Hinterpommern, and your Polish allies are first to reach and siege it, you can still only ask for it to go to Poland, not to you. So much for your claim.

Even more bizzarely, Poland started a war to subjugate Teutonic Order, where I joined hoping to get that damn Hinterpommern in a separate peace deal. I ignored enemy armies and rushed to siege everything Teutonic Order had - then the moment war ticker reached 100% Poland pressed subjugation option, and Teutonic Order ended up as my vassal, not theirs. I couldn't even vassalize them in a separate peace since for me that was 198% war score, but since Poland had a discount due to CB, they could vassalize them under me.

I think there should either be exception for war goals so they can always be pressed for the right party, or sieging a territory with a claim should make it go to the claimant not to the besieger (at least when the claimant is the war leader), or something like that, otherwise a lot of silliness will ensue. This isn't really game-breaking but it's sure extremely nonintuitive.

Right now the proper way to act in any wars where you have allies is to ignore enemy armies (since even winning means extremely painful manpower losses) and just siege everything (regardless of who's the war leader, besieger gets everything). I don't think that's such a great design.

Another issue is that when you are attacked by OPM who's a coalition member, that OPM remains coalition leader. This means a single siege gets the war score to 100% and you can force other coalition members to give you huge unearned concessions. This is much less of a deal than other problems here.

Overall, I think the new war goal system needs a bit of polishing, but it's a huge improvement over what was there in the past - and EU4 diplomacy is just a lot better than in any previous game.

User Interface Issues

I'm really really happy with interface improvements - CK2 was already a huge improvement over EU3, and EU4 makes it even better.

There are finally hotkeys for most things, map modes are really well designed, and the game looks really pretty.

There are a few things that could be improved, but they're pretty small:
  • Alt-mouse drag to select all ships like in recent CK2 patches would be nice (but not a big deal, since you have far fewer armies than in CK2)
  • Diplomacy view mod (or some other mod) really needs to show coalition members against you.
  • Some kind of casus belli / truce map mode would be nice.
  • Tooltip showing diplomatic relations should maybe show how fast "improved relationship" is changing, right now that's only in diplomacy view.
  • Diplomacy screen really needs to be larger. Fortunately there's already a mod for that.
  • Ledger page showing charts with culture seems to be broken and shows them all (or maybe all from the same culture group?) as same color without even any dividing lines.
  • There doesn't seem to be any explanation of technology "neighbor bonus" and it sure doesn't work like EU3. I had a few theories on how it might be calculated, but none of them fits very well. Anybody has an idea?
  • Micromanaging diplomats is really annoying. Worst of all you need a free diplomat to even view your options (like CBs you have), not just to send an offer. They really should let you view such things even if you can't act on them at a moment. AI for sure knows all that itself, so it's just user interface pain, not any real game mechanic. (I still prefer that to EU3 diplomats system, which was just unbearable and I modded it away every single time I played)
  • It would be nice to be able to see this big war summary dialog for all wars, not just ones you're in. Most of this information is already available, just scattered over many places.

And assorted minor issues

I really like how they replaced one random mission with a choice of 3 missions - unfortunately very often all 3 are totally generic and none of them are things you want to do, or have much chance doing. That's one area where just throwing more content at the game can really improve it.

Military expansion within HRE feels about the right level of difficulty - people will dislike you for it, but not ridiculously so (in EU3 you'd get 4 infamy for taking a province, then 12.5 ticking infamy before it cored - very few provinces were even close to being worth that).

It feels like money is a much bigger problem than in EU3, and everyone is pretty much forced into trading, not just trading powers. This was another thing where small countries used to have advantage over blobs, but now blobs dominate trading just like they dominate everything else, and trading is now a lot more important than it used to be, so help blobs even more.

As a small country you'll be starved of monarch points - you won't have enough money to buy any decent advisors (who by the way are totally all free for AI, AI also suffers no naval attrition, has no fog of war and cheats in a few other ways), while big blobs won't have such problem at all.

Anyway, to summarize this review - EU4 has huge potential and I'm pretty sure some modder will turn it into a game it deserves to be - a fun sandbox, not the big blue railroad it currently is.

EDIT: I wrote a minimod for EU4 1.1.1c to reduce railroading a little. It hasn't been tested too much.


Anonymous said...

Hi, interesting review. Just a thought. I had played Ck2 before but never any of the EU series. My first game I chose England being a proud Brit, and I won the hundred years war with careful planning and a bit of strategic genius; I evacuated all of the mainland and then when I had built 20,000+ more men in England I shipped them all into France in one stack and won the war with some careful blockading of French ports too. It took some time but it was manageable. In the compensation for the war i took more French provinces linking Calais and Normandy, made them annul their treaty guaranteeing Scottish Independence. By 1505 I had conquered Scotland all of Ireland and INCREASED my holdings in mainland Europe. Its now 1720; I have pushed France out of America completely. I own half of France, No Jokes, vassalised another quarter when I made France give up kingdoms. Fought wars on behalf of Lorraine and Savoy against Austria so they couldn't be amalgamated. When Spain entered the massive coalition that is now against me I won the war by winning 80% of the battles; their allies were France, Austria, Bavaria, Denmark, Ethiopia, Swaziland, Aztec, Iroquois and Creek (the last two have a couple of provinces between them as I have been stomping them) and the Indian princes. I made Spain give up CASTILE as an independent kingdom and now I am in a solid alliance with it and I sense an invasion to claim the throne on Castile just around the corner. I am in a personal union with Portugal. And in 30 years I will own Half of the Entire Globe as well as most of Western Europe. This was my first game and I have totally rewritten history. Even the English events such as the Cromwellian rebellion was crushed in mere weeks.

Sieging everything at once is not a particularly viable strategy. You need to kill off the doomstack so that you can siege safely. Battles can be won with some careful planning and also letting a slightly larger army attack half of yours over a river, have the other half in a neighbouring territory and when battle starts charge your remaining forces into combat. Then you win every battle, you take some losses but when you have chased down the enemy doomstack and killed it for good, not only does your warscore take a massive boost but you can then resupply and siege everything.

So looking back I don't think your review is balanced. Perhaps you need to fine tune your strategies and then maybe you will find that you can easily rewrite history.

Unknown said...

Hello, thanks for this review. I felt like someone should probably mention the changes in all different kinds of gameplay to EU3 and you did quite the perfect job. I like how you adressed the newish culture system, and I completely agree with you on that point. Your idea of having the culture overlord bonus thing midgame is perfect and i would love to see it in future mods. The guy that commented before me didn't really get anything you said about France. It's not about difficulty AGAINST France if you begin as Burgundy or England or anyone that fights France in the early game. I mean seriously, you can beat any AI nation if you do it correctly and use the right strategy. We all know it. And it's supposed to be like that. There's no reason to feel like a masterchief because you turned England into a dominating power. You couldve done way easier by simply PUing France at 100 years war, but whatever.

Obviously he's talking about France AI against other AI. The coalition system is supposed to create some sort of power balance, but doesnt serve that well. France has a very very very overpowered start. The event of Burgundian Inheritance is very likely to happen and the AI is very likely to beat England. Thats the first 50 years and France is ,what it used to be in eu3 by the late 1500s. This changes the entire game. Yes it is more historical, because France was kind of unbeaten in that time, but it destroys the sandbox aspect completely. Most games have those few big blobs. Austria France Spain (England, if it somehow manages to not loose to hard to Scotland and France, I often see Cornwall or Wales take them over with Scotland - which is great :D)

Again I have to say I really liked your review and i agree on most aspects. Lets hope for some Mods to repair the balance. Meiou and Taxes maybe. Or something like Project balance for CK2.

taw said...

Anonymous: It is a well known fact that decent human players can conquer the world as anyone, including Ryukyu. The problem is that without human intervention France is pretty much scripted to dominate Europe. AI is extremely unlikely to win Hundred Years War.

BladezOfFuture: I just made a simple sandbox mod for EU4. Eventually big modders will make their big mods, but that should fix the worst aspects of it for the time being.

Unknown said...

Well I don't neccesarily think they are bad. They simply represent a different approach to the game. Paradox took out alot of the Sandbox, because the wide mass complained about the game beeing historically inaccurate. Which obviously was done to enlarge their audience, but I can't really blame them. The game is fun, and most new aspects are a great improvement gameplayvise. As said, time will maybe bring some sandbox mods to return EU to its roots.

taw said...

BladezOFuture: CA has been releasing Total War games of both sandbox type (Rome, Medieval 2, Empire) and of predefined scenario type (Rome: BA, Rome: Alexander, Medieval 2: Kingdoms, Napoleon). I never really played any of the scenario games, but I'm sure there's some audience for that.

Paradox also has some scenario games (MotE, HOI3, Victoria seems far too railroaded to my taste too), so could it please leave CK and EU series for sandbox experience?