Monday, November 14, 2011

Mecklenburger with Extra Cheese

There are many things to fear in the world today. Nuclear weapons falling into the hands of rogue states. Encountering a serious medical illness without any insurance. The collapse of the global financial system. Personally, though, I'm terrified of what will happen to my life now that I've discovered that I can install games on my laptop and play it in bed.

Due to reasons too complex to get into at the moment, I've had to temporarily box up my PC, which used to be a combination dual-boot Linux/Windows box for Programming/Gaming respectively, but since moving over to a MacBook Pro for my development, it's pretty much just been a dedicated PC gaming system. I'm really bummed to have put it away, because I'd finally gotten started on the Mass Effect trilogy - yes, I decided to extend my incredibly fun play-through of Baldur's Gate into my first experience with Bioware's other phenomenal RPG series, and am vaguely hoping to finish the second game at the exact same time that the third entry arrives in 2012.

Be that as it may: I'm a geek, I need games. Fortunately, I have an old black MacBook that isn't getting used, so I decided to repurpose it as my stopgap gaming solution. I installed Steam on it, and started clicking around. I had vaguely thought that I might finally get around to checking out those fun Sam & Max games, but good lord, they're still expensive! Well, I guess not too expensive compared to shrink-wrapped AAA titles, but still, I'm pretty sure they cost as much as they did when I played the demo four years ago. I kept looking. The Steam offerings for Mac are much more limited than for PC, but a few titles are available cross-platform. I was briefly tempted by Civ V, which has seen a pretty nice price cut, but eventually decided that a price cut for a sub-par game still isn't that great a deal. I'll be sticking with my original plan for Civ V, and wait for the inevitable "Ultimate" version, which will include all the DLC stuff and hopefully fix all the things that apparently make it not fun. (And, if we're really lucky, maybe even have an ending of some sort!)

My browsing eventually led me to Europa Universalis III, which triggered some dim recognition. It's one of those things where I've heard about the series for a while, without ever being too clear about exactly what it is. I read a few brief summaries, saw some positive reviews, double-checked the cost, and bought it. I got the "Complete" version, which, amusingly enough, includes only two of the four expansions: it has Napoleon's Ambition and In Nomine, but not Heir to the Throne or Divine Wind. Which is totally fine by me - as a complete neophyte to the series, I was happy approaching a (slightly) smaller body of work.

EU3 belongs to a tradition of computer strategy games that... I guess I might call them something like "Historic simulation strategy games". The first game of this sort that I remember playing was Castles 2 for DOS. Interestingly enough, the original Castles does not belong to this sub-genre; it was more like Sim Castle combined with a primitive tower defense game and extremely enjoyable choose-your-own-adventure plotlines. Castles 2, though, was played in western Europe, specifically France and the northeastern portions of Spain. The map was divided into provinces, each of which was owned by a particular faction. Most of these factions were competing against one another for supremacy over France, but there was also a separate (non-playable) faction for the Church, who everyone had to be nice to. Anyways, in the game you would start off with a single province, and over time you would discover your neighbors; make friends with some and allies with others; attack and try to capture other provinces; build castles to defend your own against enemies; raise armies; and kiss up to the Pope so he will crown you the King. I think it also had some stuff with money and taxes and things.

Well, EU3 is basically that same style of gameplay, but much more refined, with much better graphics (though still chunky by today's standards), and applied to a broader span of history and geography. In between Castles 2 and EU3, I would place the "Total War" series of games as well; I haven't played those as much, but they seem to fit into the same general mold of historically-flavored games that let you lead a country's military and diplomacy in a quest for sovereignty.

Now, if you're like me, you're thinking, "Wait, so isn't this like Civilization?" I'd say that Civ is the most abstracted manifestation of this type. Civ games are incredibly broad and incredibly generic: you can play them on any map, not necessarily Earth; they contain the entire span of human existence, from the Stone Age through the nuclear age; and they cover an incredible range of inner gameplay components, not just armies and spies but also scientific research, spacecraft construction, etc. Historical simulation games trade in some of that generic quality in order to get more detail: instead of the world being a map of squares (or hexes), it's a, well, map, with different countries of different sizes, with realistic borders drawn between them. The games don't need to include spearmen or mechanized infantry; instead, they can accurately portray the progressive improvements offered by halberds, longbows, muskets, and rifles. A game like Civ will either omit religion altogether or treat it fairly generically; here, there's a specific game just around Catholicism, which includes influencing cardinals to gain control of the Curia, excommunicating rivals, calling crusades, and counter-reforming Protestantism. So, they're different beasts, and while in the past I've tended to prefer Civ's endless variability, in this game I found myself deeply enjoying the detailed world offered.

That said, EU3 has much more in common with Civ than other historical simulation games I've played. Specifically, it includes a technology investment and advancement path. Unlike Civ, you don't research specific discoveries like "The Wheel" and "Metallurgy". Instead, you divide your investment into multiple general areas: Trade, Government, Production, Naval, and Land. Unlike Civ, where at any given time you're researching one technology to the exclusion of everything else, in EU3 you are generally advancing at about the same pace around each of these lines; although you can certainly adjust your priorities to focus more on a subset of technologies, which means you'll advance in them relatively more quickly, but it's nearly impossible to actually cease research in one field. So usually, you'll be operating at a certain tech level, then will advance in a bunch of different fields around the same time, then operate at that new level for a while level.

The benefits of advancement are a mixture of specific additions, as in Civ, and incremental improvements. The specific additions might be unlocking a new form of government; gaining the ability to recruit a new type of regiment or build a new type of ship; being able to form monopolies in centers of trade; etc. These big additions are usually spaced several levels apart, so you'll need to research a technology multiple times before you start seeing significant differences. In the meantime, though, almost every level you advance gives you an incremental improvement, which seems minor at each level but becomes very significant cumulatively. For example, every level of Trade you learn boosts your trade efficiency/income; new levels of Naval will often increase your colonization range and boost your navies' morale, and so on. Sometimes, as with Government, you might need to take a level that doesn't provide any direct benefit, but is still a necessary step to reach the more important benefits at higher levels.

Man... I could spend hours writing about the mechanics of the game, which are fascinating and complex. I'll try to hold off. There's definitely a pretty steep learning curve. I started out by playing the tutorials, which was kind of a mixed bag. The first set of tutorials are more like an on-screen manual, with nice long expository descriptions of the various interfaces, but not a lot of interactivity.

Next come the tutorial missions. One tutorial has you play as Portugal, and has a good set of well-described progressive goals you need to undertake: basically you need to colonize the Azores, then recruit an Explorer, then send a ship westward to discover Cuba, then build colonies on Cuba. Now, the exploration/colonization game is just one small and largely optional sub-game within EU3, but the tutorial did a really good job of giving you hands-on experience with this task. The other tutorial, though, was just totally flubbed. You're playing one of the minor landlocked Germanic kingdoms, and your very first task is to move an army into an adjacent province. However, it's impossible to select the army to move. After spending several embarrassing minutes wondering what I was doing wrong, I finally started googling, and learned that Paradox had accidentally broken the tutorial when they updated the European map for the expansion - basically, they had created a new independent kingdom, but the tutorial was still set up to use the old kingdom, which now no longer controls the territory with the unit you're supposed to move. I know, it's silly - they should have just removed the tutorial altogether.

After this, I cracked open the PDF copy of the manual. It's a nice, old-fashioned strategy game manual, about 150 pages long and including detailed explanations of the game mechanics, nice big charts filled with data, and some good strategy tips. The manual was actually more helpful to me than the tutorials had been, and also gave some good advice on the overall philosophy and attitude I should take towards the game: there really isn't a way to "beat" EU3, like there are victory conditions in Civ, so they say that most players will set personal goals for themselves for each game. I totally get, and love, this approach. One of my (many, many) favorite Civ experiences was playing the Civ 2 WW2 scenario as Francisco Franco's Spain. It's totally impossible for Spain to "win" this scenario, but it's really fun to play around in that historical period as a minor power and try to come out of it more strongly than they actually did. I also learned while reading the manual that, unlike Civ and most other strategy games, it's nearly impossible to conquer or annihilate an opponent. As with history, there are plenty of wars, and often winners and losers, but very rarely does a loser get swallowed up by a winner; instead, losers generally need to pay some sort of reparations, and perhaps surrender some territories, but will continue to exist in a diminished form. It's basically impossible, therefore, to "conquer the world," so you need to come up with your own yardstick for success: perhaps to become the world's wealthiest nation, or the first to colonize America, or to completely control the East Indies, or whatever. (Personally, I think I'd like to someday play a game as Byzantium in 1399, and simply try to survive into the 16th century.)

While I did generally love the manual, I was disappointed later to learn that Steam was being stingy with the manuals. The two expansions in the Complete game don't just add content, but actually revamp many of the game's rules, as well as significantly rework the technology tree. This actually caused significant problems in my main game (which I'll get to in a bit), specifically because the way they handle the Holy Roman Empire changed quite a bit, and I wasted a lot of time pursuing the emperorship when it actually was a very poor match for the type of game I was planning on playing. I was able to find a PDF manual for In Nomine later online, but it only describes the changes specific to that expansion, and I still haven't been able to find a manual for Napoleon's Addition. It's perplexing that Steam doesn't just have all three manuals in the store.

So, on to the game!

As is generally the case when I'm playing a brand-new strategy game, I tried a couple of games first, going as far as I could and learning the ropes and then stopping once I'd played myself into a corner. I had an idea that I wanted to play as a small trading-focused nation. This is actually an excellent suggestion from the manual directed at new players; they recommend your first game to avoid combat as much as possible, even if it means paying tribute to larger and meaner countries, and to focus on the game's economic systems at first; after getting comfortable with those, they recommend trying out one or two minor wars against weaker countries, and waiting until future games to get involved in major wars. So, based on my vague recollections of European history, I figured that the Netherlands would be a good country to play as.

In one of the many differences from Civ, EU3 does not start with all the nations at the beginning of the game. The first thing you need to do is choose a starting year to play, and then to pick a country that existed at that time. This means that you can't play as the Netherlands in 1399, and you can't play as Byzantium in 1650. Now, the Netherlands came into existence during the Eighty Years' War, which started in 1568, when the Dutch tried to become independent from Spain. I was reluctant to play as the Netherlands during this time, since I didn't want to fight a war right off the bat. Instead, I decided to start in 1650, shortly after the end of that war. However, I soon learned that, while the Netherlands were no longer at war with Spain, they were now at war with Portugal. Furthermore, I realized that the Netherlands had already established significant colonial interests in the New World (including Manhattan!), extending all the way down to the northern coast of South America. Portugal, of course, had significant interests in the same region, particularly massive holdings in Brazil. It looked like I'd have to defend a disparate empire across northern and southern hemispheres, and both in Europe and the New World. Ugh. That might be fun, but not for a beginner.

I decided that I wanted to start in a simpler era, before the New World was found, with a nation at peace with everyone. I went to the earliest possible year, 1399, and started checking my options. The game gives a nice high-level overview of each nation you select, which doesn't just include the nations they're allied with and at war with, but also a summary of their relative military, economic, and diplomatic might, and a representation of how easy or hard it should be to play as that country. The pre-set "bookmarks" on the left side of the screen give you the interesting dates to start playing, and also a set of the interesting nations during that period. After looking through that list, I settled on England, who was bigger than I had planned on playing but who was at peace with everyone and seemed to be fairly well off.

I played as England for several decades, and had a great time - I learned a lot, though I certainly didn't do very well. One of the interesting things that EU3 added to the game was the idea of a national goal. At any given time, your country might have a general goal, like "Improve our army" or "Increase our wealth." However, they can also assign historical goals that are appropriate for your nation and time. The goals are optional, and there's no penalty to ignoring them, but the game gives you extra bonuses if you achieve the goal: for example, building your treasury up to 100 ducats might give a bonus of another 10 ducats, and becoming the controller of the Curia might give you 5 prestige points. Anyways, as England, my goal was to conquer Ireland.

Now, militarily, this didn't seem too hard. I had a nice big navy to move around my troops, and certainly outnumbered the few Irish armies on the island. However, in practice, this proved to be extremely difficult. In EU3, unlike Civ, declaring war is surprisingly hard. The game strongly encourages you to declare a "Casus Belli", a justification for your war, before you start fighting. Valid casus belli can include things like attacks on your allies, or reclaiming a province that your nation previously owned. In the case of Ireland, though, I didn't really have a good excuse for starting a war. The Irish were independent, they were at peace with me and the rest of the world, and we didn't really have alliances that would draw us into conflict. I technically still could have unilaterally declared war; but between the lack of a casus belli, and the fact that we were both Catholic, and that I was the aggressor, would have destroyed Henry IV's reputation, and plunged England into a period of deep instability. To make matters worse, I had to conquer ALL of Ireland, which I think was something like four other provinces besides the one I already controlled, and they were controlled by three or four separate clans (Munster, Ulster, etc.), which meant that eventually I'd need to declare war on all three or four of them, taking an enormous diplomatic hit for each. Yikes.

I decided to focus on Ulster, and spent years sending diplomats there specifically to insult them. This lowered our relationship down, eventually hitting the minimum of -200. It also gave Ulster a casus belli against ME, meaning that they could declare war on me even though I couldn't declare war against them, but they refused to take the bait. Which makes sense - they could probably see the regiments I had massed in Belfast, staring hungrily at their lone defender. So, they gritted their teeth, and smiled, and kept the peace.

While I was busy pulling faces at Ireland, Charles VI of France was on a rampage. He rapidly gained control of the Papacy, began excommunicating his rivals, and sending his armies on the march. Before too long, I found myself at war with him. This was another entanglement thing: I had ownership of a few provinces in France, not just the Normandy that I expected, but also one or two provinces on the southern Atlantic coast. A minor kingdom had a claim to one of those provinces, so it declared war on me; and, since he was allied to France and Scotland, I soon found myself at war with both of them.

I decided to write off those two southern provinces, which I actually hadn't realized I owned until they were already under siege. Instead, I moved to take Brittany, then consolidated my forces for a massive assault on Scotland. I wanted to create a united island, a Great Britain if you will, and after seeing how hard it was to declare war on Ireland, I decided I needed to take advantage of this opportunity to defeat Scotland.

So, that's how I got exposed to the combat of EU3. It's really interesting, quite different from fighting in Civ or other strategy games I've played. For starters, combat takes a long and variable amount of time. Occasionally a battle might be over in a few days, if a powerful army is pummeling a demoralized opponent, but it isn't at all unusual for a major battle to stretch over multiple months. Each side of the fight is composed of multiple regiments of infantry and cavalry (and, in the future, artillery), and each can be led by a general or conquistador. Leadership can confer some extremely critical advantages to the battle, and oftentimes a small, disciplined fighting force will win a battle against a much larger but poorly led enemy.

Fighting itself happens automatically; you can watch a window that visualizes the progress of the battle, but unlike games such as Total War, you don't take any direct control of the battlefield. There are two main variables to keep track of during the fight. The one you would think is most important is the size of each army. As the battle goes on, the two sides whittle down the opposing forces, as each count gradually shrinks towards zero. However, it almost never actually reaches that. The second factor, morale, is actually the most important factor. Each side can gain a little morale when it's successful in an attack; each loses more morale when it loses a round. There are a ton of behind-the-scenes factors that play into morale, such as the morale of the underlying units, their leadership, how much support you've been providing, and any losses they suffered shortly before the start of this battle. Because the battle continues across multiple days (or weeks or months), each side can elect to move reinforcing armies into the province, where their numbers and morale will shore up support on their side. Once one side's morale reaches zero, then it breaks and flees into an adjacent province. The victorious army takes the field. At this point, if the enemy owns the province, the winner can settle down and lay siege to the capital, hoping to eventually gain control of the province; otherwise, it may elect to pursue the enemy to continue the fight.

So, much like territorial exchanges are much less absolute in EU3 than in Civ, so are military conflicts much less absolute. Suppose that you have an army that consists of five infantry regiments led by a general. This army is defeated. In Civ, depending on which version you were playing and whether you were defending a fortress, either all five units would be wiped out or one unit would be permanently eliminated. In EU3, though, a likely outcome is that your 5000-man force has been diminished to only 2000 survivors, perhaps (for the sake of simplicity) 400 survivors in each regiment. The general might die after losing, but usually he'll survive. If your army moves back into friendly territory, then over time it will automatically, albeit slowly, repair itself: it will recruit new soldiers from the local populace, its morale will gradually recover from the punishment it took, and finally it will be back at full strength.

Therefore, unlike Civ wars, which are almost always wars of attrition, where you try to eliminate an enemy's units and capture their cities, wars in EU3 are more about gaining strategic position: figuring out which battles to fight, spending the time to subdue local populaces, keeping forces in reserve so you can respond to the shifting demands of the battlefield. Depending on the nature of the conflict, sometimes it will be more important that you chase the King of Scotland all the way across the highlands so you can definitively eliminate his army; or it might be more important to lay siege to Brittany to secure your claim to that province while the King of France retreats home to lick his wounds. I do like this kind of decision-making challenge.

 In my case: I fought a LONG and epic battle with King Robert III (who was both the ruler and the general of the Scots), which stretched over multiple months and actually gave me time to recruit entirely fresh regiments and add them to the battle before it was over. He finally fled, and I settled into a pattern where I would leave a few of my troops behind to lay siege to the province, while the remainder of my forces would chase Robert as he fell back to another province. We finally won a decisive victory over him after six or so battles, and then settled in for the long and painstaking task of capturing his castles. He kept sending me emissaries with increasingly frantic terms for his surrender. I held out until I'd captured every last one of his provinces, even the dinky island in the northwest, and then finally sent a diplomat to finalize the war's outcome.

That's yet another interesting factor within EU3: it draws a distinction between "controlling" a province and "owning" it. During a war, you can gain "control" of the province after a successful siege; this means that the enemy will no longer be able to reinforce there or issue build orders, but it isn't actually part of your realm yet. Ownership can't change hands during a war, it can only happen as part of the negotiated end to a conflict. And, even though I had CRUSHED Scotland, defeating all of their armies and taking all of their provinces (well, at least the ones in Britain; I think they still had some in France), I couldn't just take all their territory. It turned out that I could take everything except for two provinces: they couldn't surrender their capital, and I decided to also give them that dinky little island. We signed the peace deal. Next I negotiated with France, who was leading the alliance against me. Even though I had done rather poorly on the Continent, I think some of my victory in Britain added to their overall perception of me, so I was able to negotiate for a "white peace", which basically meant that everything went back to how it was before - I got back my southwestern French provinces, and nobody owed anybody anything.

That was all pretty fun, but I felt like I'd gone about as far as I could in that game and still have fun. I still wasn't making any progress on Ireland, I was close to broke, and had neglected everything else while I learned the ropes about combat. England is pretty huge, and I found myself longing for the simplicity of learning on a minor power. So, I started a new game.

This time I also started in 1399, but skipped the list of suggested/interesting nations, all of which were too big and/or too poor for my tastes. Instead I manually clicked around on the map, paying particular attention to each country's economic rating. I finally found something that sounded pretty perfect - a tiny little northern Germanic country called Mecklenburg, with virtually no military, some minor diplomacy, and a pretty substantial economy. I realized that Mecklenburg was the country that controlled Lubeck, one of the major Centers of Trade in Europe. I haven't written yet about CoTs; they're pretty important, though there isn't a huge advantage to directly owning them, at least I wouldn't need to worry about anyone banning my merchants from there, which had happened a few times when I was playing as England. It looked like Mecklenburg would give me a solid start on my goal of becoming a strong economic power, without making me micromanage a bunch of wars or a large territory.

I could tell after playing for just a short while that EU3 was delivering the goods: it could actually be fun to play as a tiny little country. This is something that was impossible in Civ up until Civ IV, and even then, you still needed to hit a certain size in order to be competitive. (Apologies for the constant references to Civ, by the way - it's by far the game I've played most often, and so it's my closest frame of reference to EU3.) Part of this comes down to the economy - without getting into too much detail, part of your economy comes from production, which measures how much stuff your country actually produces. Large countries, like England and France, will have a large production; similarly, medium-sized countries that produce very valuable resources will also make a lot of money from production. However, there's also a parallel economic system, one based on trade. Trade is conducted in major financial cities, known as Centers of Trade, each of which is the locus for economic activity in a geographic region. The Center of Trade produces income from all the buying and selling of resources that happen within that center's region. Your country can capture some of that income by dispatching merchants to set up shop there. If your nation's values prioritize cut-throat market competition, then you'll be able to capture a portion of the trade for your merchants, and your country will tax some of their income.

That's all pretty complex, and it took me a while to really grok how it worked, but once I did, I loved it. As with all good strategy games, you need to choose between multiple good options: is it better to send your new merchant to the wealthiest CoT like Lubeck, where he'll need to compete against a crowded market? Or should you send him to a quieter and relatively poorer CoT like Lisboa, where he'll certainly be able to get a seat at the table but will produce less income for you?

I started focusing on optimizing my trade income. Part of this was a patient and steady process of sending out merchants to the best centers of trade. There are quite a few in Europe at the start of the game: Lisboa, Andalucia, Ile-de-France, Antwerpen (which, amazingly, includes all of the modern UK in its region), Lubeck, Venetia, Genoa, Alexandria. I had a slight advantage in Lubeck, which was also the richest CoT, so I soon had maximized my presence there, and was climbing up the ranks in the other cities. At the same time, I was adjusting my national policy. Part of this had to do with adopting the proper "National Idea" - these are powerful bonuses that you can choose from; early in the game you can only select one of about 20 options, but as your Government level advances you can start picking more. Anyways, I found one that boost my Trade Efficiency by 10% - that doesn't sound like much, but that's 10 basis points, which in the early part of the game effectively doubled the income I was receiving from my merchants. That allowed me to pour much more funding into my research, which in turn helped me improve my Trade level, further boosting my efficiency and income still more.

You can also adjust a series of sliders, each of which offers choices along a continuum between two extremes. These are pretty fascinating options, for the most part; they include stuff like Aristocracy/Plutocracy, Serfdom/Free Subjects, Land/Sea, Quality/Quantity, and Mercantilism/Free Trade. That last one actually ended up being an interesting choice for me to mull over - Free Trade boost your trade efficiency, and helps you compete for trade abroad, while Mercantilism gives you an advantage in CoTs that you own. Now, since I did control Lubeck, I would actually gain some benefit from Mercantilism; but it was already quite clear that Lubeck alone wasn't nearly enough, and I would be competing in a dozen or so CoTs by the end of the game, so I started moving my nation towards unfettered Free Trade. The game prevents you from moving too hastily towards new policies, so there's a cooling-off period of about a decade after each time you adjust one of your sliders a notch.

Oh, yeah! I knew I wasn't going to talk about game mechanics, but... there's also this thing called a "National Decision". These represent historic choices made by your country or similar countries. You need to meet certain requirements, and then, if you opt for the decision, it has a set of impacts, which may include both good and bad elements. Fairly early on, I was able to make the decision to join something called the, uh, Hanseatic League (that's probably misspelled). This did some nice things, like improve my relations with Denmark and improve our trade efficiency, but it also made further adjustments to my sliders, pushing me even further towards Free Trade. Hooray! I took some time to look through all the National Decisions - even though most of these aren't available early on, and I doubt I'll ever meet the requirements for some of them (like one to unify Germany), I wanted to pick out the ones that I'd eventually want to make, and factor those effects in when I made my choices for the policy sliders, national ideas, and other game choices.

Because I'd been avoiding combat, I'd been able to focus entirely on trade, with the effect that after playing for a while, I was reaching my maximum possible position in the various centers of trade. This was a problem on a couple of levels. First of all, I worried that I'd become stagnant; my economic growth had been rapid, but I was reaching a ceiling for the income I could bring in from trade alone; meanwhile, my more conventional rivals could continue to grow by taking territory from one another or increasing their already substantial populations. Secondly, the game places a limit on the number of un-dispatched merchants you can keep around, so after I had 5 of them in my pool, I wouldn't gain any more. This meant that I'd just be wasting that resource, similarly to how I was already wasting my Colonist and Missionary specialists, neither of whom I could really use.

And so, I was delighted to see that I was very organically being pulled by forces that absolutely mirrored those affecting 15th-century Europeans, with exactly the same results. Namely, I needed to find new trade routes, and expand into new markets. Just to emphasize: the game does NOT force you to do this, and I could certainly have contented myself with fooling around inside Europe for the next hundred years or so. But, my trading-centric game had picked up a serious momentum, and I felt like the invisible hand of the free market was pulling me out to explore the unknown.

Now: Mecklenburg is in northern Germany, and at the start of the game your map includes all of central and western Europe, the north coast of Africa, the Mediterranean, and Scandinavia. By clicking on each province, you can find the Center of Trade that it trades in. For most provinces, these were well-known locations like Antwerpen and Venetia. Provinces at the edge of Europe, though, traded in cities that I had not yet discovered: Novogrod for central and eastern European countries, and Samarkand for Asia Minor. Those seemed like worthy goals for me: they were likely close to my known map, and once I found the cities, I'd be able to start sending my merchants there. And so, unlike the westward-driven expansion of Christopher Columbus and his ilk, I initially pressed eastward, drawn by the riches of the Orient, much like Marco Polo had a century before.

Like Civ, each area of the map can be in one of three states. Provinces that you own or have units stationed in will be visible to you: you can see details about the land and adjacent armies. Provinces that you have previously visited will be covered by the fog of war; you can see details about the territory, such as who it belongs to and how wealthy it is, but not see what units it holds. Provinces that you've never visited are invisible to you; in EU3, they're labeled as "Terra Incognita". Unlike in Civ, discovering these provinces isn't as simple as just moving a unit inside them. Instead, you'll need to recruit a special type of leader: a Conquistador for land-based armies, or an Explorer for navies. Once you recruit them, you'll assign them to an army or navy (basically a stack of units), and then you can issue orders for them to enter the new lands. The initial discovery takes quite a while, but once it's on your map, you'll be able to move regular armies in there as well at a quicker rate. Of course, discovering a new province will then reveal further terra incognita beyond its borders, so your exploration tends to get drawn progressively farther.

I recruited a Conquistador and attached him to a small army of Latin Knights and Men-at-Arms. Some earlier national goals had directed me to build up an army and a navy, so I was happy to have some units available to do something other than sit at home. I'd previously negotiated Military Access agreements with all of my immediate neighbors in the Holy Roman Empire, and as I moved east I signed new agreements with farther powers like Hungary and the Ottomans. In many cases, particularly where we practiced different religion (typically Orthodox for eastern Europeans and Islam for everyone else), I would first improve our relations by making several generous monetary gifts; again, with my enormous treasury, I could easily afford to do so.

My conquistador wandered for a bit, eventually discovering Novogrod and then pushing south towards Astrakhan, the economic heart of the Ottoman empire. By now I had started seeing some references to Samarkand, and so I started looking for that, only to soon be startled by the discovery that it was already on my map. All the provinces around it were still Terra Incognita, but Samarkand itself was visible; not only that, but some of my European rivals had already sent merchants there. Interesting. As far as I can tell, when one nation in your geographic region has discovered a new province, it will automatically be made visible to other nations after an interval; I must have just gotten lucky to have seen this.

My conquistador continued to press farther into Asia. Aided by my modern sense of geography, I could usually intuit roughly where each named Center of Trade was likely to be found; for example, I looked for Tehran at the south of the Caspian Sea. At each new center of trade, I quickly dispatched all of my available merchants, and instructed the game to keep on sending more traders until I had reached my maximum penetration. Few of these new centers of trade were anywhere near as wealthy as Lubeck, but each had a total trade value of at least a hundred or so ducats, and since competition was much less frenzied than in Europe I knew I'd be able to make back my investment over time. My coup de grace came near the end of my decades-long march eastward, when I finally discovered the economic center of the Ming dynasty: this was the richest CoT in the entire world, bigger even than Lubeck, and I was the only European with a seat at the table. Within a few months I had dominated that, too, and thus had tapped the wealth of the largest and richest empire in the entire world.

Around this same time, I decided that it would be good to start exploring overseas as well. I was discovering new CoTs rapidly enough to keep my merchants busy, but sooner or later I'd dominate all of them, and then be back to my old risk of stagnation, albeit at a higher level. So, I recruited a couple of explorers, made some small navies, and sent them off. One of them consisted only of Galleys, and was sent westward across the Atlantic. A larger one had both Galleys and Cogs, and I sent this one down the coast of West Africa, with the goal of eventually circling the Cape of Good Hope and reuniting with my conquistador army. This larger navy also carried a small army of its own, led by a new Conquistador, with whom I planned to explore the interior of Africa.

Exploring water areas follows the same mechanics as exploring land provinces, but the strategy is quite different. When your armies are marching across peaceful, civilized lands, they can keep on going forever without stopping. Ships, though, are constantly at risk: they're less likely to encounter combat, but every month that they spend at sea they will take damage and weaken. Once it weakens enough, a ship is destroyed, and any land units on board will perish. So, where my land explorations are a steady progressive march, my sea explorations are a steadily lengthening yo-yo. A ship will venture into uncharted waters slowly, expanding my visibility into the sea lanes; once it starts taking too much damage, I'll order it to quickly return to the nearest safe port. (Fortunately, you can repair in any water-bordering province with which you have Military Access; it would have been unacceptably slow if I'd needed to return to Mecklenburg after each expedition.) The ship will spend several months repairing damage, then head out again. This time, it will be able to move more quickly through the previously-explored territory, spend a bit more time driving farther into the void, before returning back again. After a couple of iterations of this, my ships got to the point where it made more sense for them to keep pushing across the Atlantic than to return home. Fortunately, we had entered the Caribbean, then found provinces controlled by the Mayans. I gifted them some ducats, then a month later desperately asked for access. They acquiesced. My ship gratefully docked, and spent nearly a year repairing its hulls, but I was satisfied to have opened a passage to the New World.

Meanwhile, my other navy had sailed past some uncivilized provinces in the west of Africa, but then encountered Mali, which was fairly friendly. We came to an agreement, and I sent out my conquistador to start exploring while my ships prepared for the next push down the coast. Mali and its neighbors actually had two Centers of Trade, including one in Gobir and neither of which was worth much at all. Still, I went ahead and started dispatching additional merchants there. I had decided that a worthwhile goal would be to dominate every center of trade in the world, no matter how puny.

Most of Africa is uncivilized, and actually available for colonization once your range is large enough. Not only that, but the vast center of Africa - Darkest Africa in turn-of-the-century parlance - is Permanent Terra Incognita, which you can never explore during the game. Once I had mapped out all of the provinces actually occupied by African nations and found my CoTs, I re-boarded my conquistador on the ship and kept sailing. Coming up the east side of Africa, we found a port in Somalia, where I rested before continuing into the Indian Ocean and meeting up with the people previously encountered by my Asian Conquistador.

Out of all the National Decisions available to Mecklenburg, there are actually only three or so that seemed appealing to me. One of those, though, was VERY appealing: founding the Indian Trading Company. This would provide some massive benefits to my trading-centric country, like increasing my trade efficiency, improving my chance at competing for new trade, and giving me a permanent boost to my Trade Research, along with some other goodies. In order to make the decision, though, I needed to own an East Asian trade port province. Now, if you're like me, when you hear "East Asian", you probably assume that means "Oriental", right? As in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc. Well, it turns out that the game thinks that "East Asian" means south Asian - the "East Asian Trade Ports" region consists of India and the islands to its south.

There were some uncolonized islands out here, but they were on the opposite side of the planet from my capital, and I knew it would take ages, if ever, before I'd be able to colonize them. Hmm... how about a war, then? My entire army was now in Asia, and some of them had proven themselves well when fighting against African natives. I wouldn't need to carve out a large empire, only a single province, in order to take this Decision. I saved the game, and started looking for targets.

As we all learned from The Princess Bride, the most-known classic blunder is: Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Fortunately, many of the eligible "East Asian" provinces were located on islands. I initially considered Ceylon, which was a nice single-province island that would be easy to defend; unfortunately, Ceylon had alliances with several Indian states, and I didn't want to get involved in a major war. I kept looking and exploring, trying to find an island-based country that was diplomatically isolated. I finally found a target: one of the islands of modern-day Indonesia. It consisted of about six provinces, two of which were uncolonized, three led by another nation, and a small island hanging off the far east. I unloaded my army into the uncolonized area, canceled our military access (to avoid a blow to my reputation), then declared war and marched in.

My opponent had a substantial navy, which led to some interesting and difficult fighting. I had an explorer with mediocre combat bonuses, leading a fleet of 7 galleys and 5 cogs. Cogs, of course, are useless in a fight, and galleys get a substantial combat penalty when fighting on the ocean like we were doing. He had a decent admiral and a fleet of four carracks, which are larger and more powerful ships. So, his navy was made of more powerful ships, but mine was larger. I eventually decided to cash in some of the substantial Naval Tradition I'd been accumulating as I mapped the ocean, and get an Admiral. This guy had AWESOME combat bonuses. I split my fleet, sent the explorer to keep mapping the area around Malaysia, and assigned the Admiral to lead my galleys in combat. In the very first battle, we managed to capture one of his Carracks. I hadn't lost any ships, but they were all pretty weakened, so we retreated to Brunei to repair. By the time I had recovered, he was also at full strength. I didn't manage to capture any more of his ships, but we kept winning each skirmish we had. Each time he would retreat farther, and in our subsequent fights, his low morale would cause him to quickly flee. At last, we were finally able to sink all his ships. With the naval threat out of the picture, I reinforced my explorer's fleet, finally giving him a Carrack appropriate for what he was doing; my admiral took a smaller fleet and hunkered down in Indonesia to observe the main conflict.

The land fight wasn't particularly tough, but the war did last longer than I had expected. Both of our armies were of roughly equal size, and led by generals of roughly equal skill. I beat him soundly at first, then settled in for a siege, and captured his capital. After this, though, the war got trickier. I could chase him and beat him, but if I ever started besieging one of his other provinces, his army would circle around and lay siege to reclaim the capital. I could keep chasing him, but he was able to draw on more reinforcements than me, so he would grow progressively stronger as I weakened. It was a quandary.

I ended up resolving it by following another one of the classic blunders: dividing my forces in the face of a superior foe. Half of my army stayed in the captured capital, where they could reinforce. The other half started conducting the siege. He struck at the weaker half that was sieging his province. As soon as I saw his armies starting to march in, I directed my main force to rush in and join us. Because he was attacking us, we got a defensive bonus from the jungle cover. Once my army reunited, that terrain bonus gave just enough of an edge for us to beat him. His army still survived, but it was too weak to siege, so he ran off to recoup. We were also weakened, but had enough to siege, so we took that province, and then the third one on the island. We were gradually reinforcing while we sieged, so by the time we'd taken the island, we were back almost to full force. He started another attack on the capital, but now we could come in and strike him without worrying about the other provinces. After a defeat here, we chased him around the island for a while until we won a total victory. Finally, our fleet of cogs that had been waiting in a nearby port swung around so we could invade and capture the final tiny island.

We opened up peace talks. I had a War Score of 100%, which one would think would mean I could get everything I wanted, but that wasn't quite true; the capital province didn't even show up in the list of items available for negotiation. However, I was able to take his other three provinces, as well as all the ducats he had. And so it was that a tiny northern Germanic kingdom became the first European power in the Indian Ocean. I proudly declared the founding of the Indian Trade Company, and my already-significant economic prowess was now unmatched. It was around this time that I noticed that the game had started ranking me as the #1 country in the world; I'm not sure exactly when that happened, but even if it came before the founding, I'm sure that helped secure my position.

Since that time, I've been steadily progressing in the game, mostly building on my existing strengths, continuing to explore, investing in new CoTs in the New World (which unfortunately are so poor that they keep disappearing), and marrying everyone in sight. For a long time I was both the Curia Controller and the Holy Roman Emperor. I was actually a bit miffed by the HRE election - I had initially thought that it would be awesome, based on the description in the manual, but it turns out that In Nomine added the "feature" that the HRE automatically guarantees every member state. This means that if anyone is attacked, they'll ask you to come to their aid; you can refuse, but this destroys your relationship. What's truly idiotic, though, is that you're expected to make a choice even if both sides of the conflict are HRE member-states. So, that was all annoying, and required that I ruin some relationships I'd spent time cultivating. However, that experience did prompt me to invest some time in tracking down and fully reading the In Nomine manual, and also discovering the phenomenal EU3 Wiki, with the ultimate effect of making me far more knowledgeable about the game's mechanics and strategy.

Since Mecklenburg is located in the northern heart of Europe, it's been impossible to colonize anything yet, even though I've discovered plenty of promising-looking territories. It seems like just before I get enough range to colonize a province I want, like the Azores or the Canary Islands, Castile will swoop in and claim it. The next one that will open up for me is the western coast of Greenland, and I need to decide whether it makes any sense for me to colonize that. I am pretty excited, though, to see what happens once my Indonesian provinces become cores of my realm; I'm not too clear on whether colonization range is calculated from the nation's capital or from its nearest core, but if it's based on the cores, than I have a good shot at colonizing all of Asia long before any other Europeans will gain the ability to do so. More generally, I need to decide whether I want to pursue a colonization strategy or not. Part of me really wants to do it, both because it seems like a good way to continue growing my economy now that I've taken over all the centers of trade, and also because it just seems like a fun game mechanic. However, I'm also a bit reluctant to do so, because it seems like it will require fundamentally changing my strategy: I'll need to start emphasizing production over trade in order to derive the most benefits from a larger land-based empire, and I'd need to pay to maintain larger standing armies to defend against uprisings and larger navies to protect my sea-lanes against pirates. That flies in the face of my lean-and-mean strategy that's served me so well up until now, and I'm not sure whether the extra cost will pay off with sufficient additional revenue.

Oh, yeah: I've also been experimenting with government types. It took me a little while to figure out why I couldn't switch to a Noble Republic after I had discovered it: for some reason, you can't directly convert from a Feudal Monarchy into a Noble Republic. Instead, you need to first convert to a Despotic Monarchy (at a -1 stability penalty), and from there convert to Noble Republic (at a -4 stability penalty!). I was a bit nervous at first about making the switch - my monarch had been serving me well - but I'm glad I made the change. For starters, since your king apparently dies when switching governments (I'm not sure if it's any switch, or just between a monarchy and a republic), I was finally freed from the mantle of Holy Roman Empire leadership. (The one downside to losing the crown: I could have really used the HRE's stability bonus in digging myself out from the -2 stability hole.) And on the whole, a Noble Republic just seems like a perfect government, with all the advantages of both republics and monarchies. Like a monarchy, and unlike every other form of republic, you can still form Royal Marriages with other nations, which can really help boost your relations in Europe - I've married everyone in sight for the whole game, and have yet to get involved in a single European war other than the ones the HRE dragged me into. And under a Republic, you get to choose your leader - you won't see his exact stats, but you can pick between three candidates, each of whom will be focused in one area, so there's a Military Candidate, Diplomatic Candidate, and Administrative Candidate. I went with the Administrative one, nacht, for the economic boost, and was delighted to get my best leader of the game so far - I think he has something like an Economic rating of 9, Diplomacy of 8, and a Military of 6. As a final bonus, the Noble Republic also gives a boost to your Tolerance, which makes it easier for me to stay friendly with the Eastern religions that dominate Asian trade, and the Muslim religion that rules trade in Asia Minor and Africa. I found a really good chart that shows the forms of government, how you can move between them, and what benefits each offers. I'm really not sure if I'll ever want to use another form of government... I suppose I might eventually go with an Administrative Republic, for the nice trade efficiency modifier, but it would be tough to give up the benefits of increased tolerance.

Phew... well, that's where I'm at now in the game. I'm having a blast, still not totally sure exactly what I'm doing, but loving every moment of it. It's got those deeply addictive hooks into me, which I remember so well from a lifetime of playing Civ, although the mechanics of the game make it manifest in new and terrible ways. With "Civ", the mantra was always "Just one more turn..." where I would promise myself that, after I moved my units, and pressed Enter to advance to the next year, I was going to save and stop playing for the night. Of course, something cool would always happen then: I would discover a new technology, or a neighbor would declare war on me, or I'd learn that an opponent was close to finishing construction of a Wonder I was building. I'd need to take take of that problem, "While I'm still in the zone," and play for "Just one more turn..." until it's three o'clock in the morning and I can barely keep my eyes open. Well, in EU3, there are no turns! The game keeps steadily progressing, and stuff is always happening everywhere. You can adjust the speed so time moves more quickly or slowly, but without "turns" as such, it's even harder than before to tear myself away from the game. I'll think "Oh, I'll stop playing once this ship returns to port safely..." but then I'll learn that a Cardinal has died, and then I'll start bribing the new Cardinal - who is from FRANCE, so I have a 48% chance of winning him over, so of COURSE I'll risk it - and then I'll realize that I have 5 diplomats, and then I'll hunt down people who need to marry members of my royal family, and by the time I've done that one of my Conquistadors has found a new province, but also been attacked by natives, so I need to check and see if he's okay, and then monitor the fight so I can send him back to civilization to reinforce but only if he needs it, and then I suddenly remember about that ship I was waiting for, well it turns out that it's back in port and already repaired, so of course I'll send it out to explore some more sea lanes...

Ahem. Like I said, pretty addictive stuff. Steam has this AWFUL feature where they show how many hours total you've played a game; I won't even tell you how long I've spent playing this so far. And I'm only up to 1465! Columbus wouldn't even discover America for another 30 years in our timeline! The game goes all the way up to frickin' 1822, for crying out loud! I badly need to find an excuse to end this game before it completely envelopes the remainder of my life. But, when something is this addictive and fun, that's awfully hard to do.

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