Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Playing with History: A Review of Europa Universalis IV

Today I'm going to talk about a game I've been playing for about a year now called Europa Universalis IV (or EU4 as I'll be abbreviating it for the rest of this post). EU4 is a game published by Paradox Interactive and created by their in-house studio Paradox Development Studio (PDS) and is what's known as a grand strategy game, which resembles your average strategy game in the same way that piloting the Space Shuttle resembles driving your car to the store. That is to say, it's a lot more complicated. This is not a game for the faint of heart, the short of patience, or the unwilling to learn.

That doesn't really explain what EU4 is, however. At its most basic, EU4 is no less than an ambitious simulation of history covering the time period from A.D. 1444 to 1821 down to a time resolution of a single day (that's 377 years, for those counting). This is the Age of Exploration, of the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the rise of the modern scientific method. It was a time of great global upheaval, with the (re)discovery of the New World and the great Columbian Exchange, of the eclipsing of long-standing overland trade routes between Asia and Europe by new and more profitable sea routes and the rise of modern economic systems. It was an era when national border were often in flux, and when the very concept of nation-states began to attain its modern form. Spain, Portugal, France, and England all formed vast colonies overseas, while enjoying unprecedented trade revenues at home due to the monumental advances in ship construction enabling the new oceanic trade routes. Old nations fell, while new ones were born, including the United States towards the end of this period. It was the time when Europe (western Europe, specifically) began to wield an influence far outstripping its relative geographical size, the effects of which are still very much with us nearly two hundred years later.

It was a very dynamic period in history, is what I'm trying to say, and an extraordinarily interesting one to poke and tweak and fiddle with in an attempt to see how history could have played out differently.

This is complemented by an absolutely beautiful map of the world on which the game plays out. Load up the game and you'll find yourself staring at this (as always, click for a bigger view; my desktop resolution is 1,920x1200 so screenshots get squished a bit):

For the full effect, have the gorgeous strains of the main menu theme playing while you read the rest of this post:

If you enjoyed that, you can listen to the full soundtrack here. By the way, in some of these screenshots, you may notice that coastlines look a bit wonky; that's because I'm playing on Linux and one of the recent patches messed things up slightly. Other than that minor graphical glitch and a known one that required me to disable dynamic shadows, I haven't had a single problem running the game.

(Future Edit! The coastlines glitch was fixed a few months later in a patch, and the shadows one apparently was too, though I didn't notice exactly when. Paradox Studios' Linux support is really quite good, along with their support of their released games in general.)

The entire game takes place on a single map of the entire world, so PDS put a lot of thought and love into it. This takes the form of multiple “mapmodes,” which allow you to overlay different information on the background of the map. The mode visible in the first screenshot is the “terrain” mapmode, which gives a reasonable approximation to a satellite view of the Earth. It's quite pretty, and includes such delights as snow cover appearing and disappearing in time with the seasons.

It is, however, not very useful from a standpoint of knowing where all the various countries are, so most of the time you'll be looking at the “political” mapmode, which turns the world into a gorgeous illustrated atlas:

Look at it. Just look at it. I'll be the first to admit that I have something of a fascination for maps, and love to spends long periods of time poring over them, but you have to admit that that's pretty. The world is divided into thousands of provinces, much like the game Risk but much more detailed. Each province is either owned by a country, or unowned and waiting to be colonized. (There are also large areas of wasteland that can't be colonized, representing areas of the world that historically were difficult or impossible to colonize during the time period represented – places like the Sahara desert, central Africa, the central Amazonian rain forest, etc.)

The really cool part is that the map dynamically updates – including re-drawing the names of countries – whenever provinces changes owners. Over the course of a single game you can watch empires rise and fall simply by scrolling around the map. Unfortunately, due to the inbuilt zoom limits, I couldn't grab the entire world, so here's a shot showing the Americas:

Each of the little splotches of color you see on those maps is its own little nation-state, many of which have their own unique set of National Ideas that give them various bonuses throughout the game that help them perform as they historically did. (Every nation has some National Ideas, it's just that a lot of the smaller states share sets of ideas, such as the “sub-Saharan west Africa group,” or the “south-east Asian group.” Those vast areas of the Americas (and Australia, and south Africa, etc.) without color represent areas where there was no real political structure organized enough to be considered a state, and where Europeans of the time saw prime real estate for colonization.

The political landscape in 1444 looks quite a bit different to the political landscape today. Let's zoom in on Europe:

Looking at it, England and Scotland (still separate countries at this point) look pretty close to their modern-day boundaries, though Ireland looks a bit fragmented. The Iberian peninsula has a recognizable Portugal, though Spain as we know it doesn't exist, still divided between the competing states of Castile and Aragon (and tiny one-province Navarre). To its north, France is barely recognizable as the blue blob spread roughly around its modern-day region. And to its east, what's going on with the German region? Or Italy?

Welcome to the Holy Roman Empire. This unusual political structure had been around since either A.D. 800 or 962 depending on where you start counting – it's fascinating reading, but too much to summarize here. At this point in time, it had become a loose federation of several hundred principalities (though abstracted down to about forty in the game), all nominally under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor. The emperor was nominally elected upon the death of the previous emperor, though in this time period it had become more of a rubber stamp for what was practically a hereditary rule by the Habsburgs. It was such an important part of Europe that there's an entire mapmode devoted to it, and it was only dissolved in 1806 after defeat by Napoleon's armies.

Of course, while plenty of things were happening in Europe during this time period, there was a lot going on in the rest of the world too. For instance, let's take a look at Asia:

You'll notice that this picture is dominated by China under the Ming dynasty. China was the strongest power in the world at the beginning of this period, and familiarity with the game's mechanics brings home just how powerful it was. China owns dozens of provinces at game start and has a greater income than any other state. The only reason it wasn't dominating even more of the world was its belief in its own superiority to all the surrounding barbarians (a rather reasonable belief at the time) and a corresponding inner-facing focus.

To the west in India are a host of competing states of various sizes, soon to be conquered by the even-further-west Timurid horde, on their way to controlling most of India and forming the Mughal empire. To the east Japan is divided into a host of little states, in its appropriately-named Warring States Period prior to unification. To the north of China are a number of nomadic states including the Mongols that terrorized Europe not long before, whose descendants still control most of central Asia and some of whom historically will bring about the fall of the Ming dynasty and the rise of the Qing dynasty.

I'm getting sidetracked into history here (and that's without even touching on what was going on in Africa and the Americas!), but that's because I find it so fascinating. Paradox Studios have set up a giant historical sandbox with hundreds of historical actors, which then interact and develop over time. On average countries follow a broadly historical trend, though as with any open system there will be plenty of things that don't follow history, and suggest how it could have happened instead.

And that's where the fun really comes in. Remember those hundreds of different nations spread across the globe? You can take control of any one of them and play them.

For instance, here's a game where I played as Austria, and a-historically reformed the Holy Roman Empire from a gaggle of small states into a single massive country spanning much of Europe, with manpower reserves over a million strong, capable of calling up armies of fifty thousand on a whim. As you can see, Spain was also pretty lucky that game, taking over much of north Africa and part of Italy.

In another game (one I'm currently in the midst of playing), I started as Poland, then integrated the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into it to form one big Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a nation strong enough to bring the nascent Russian empire to its knees. I lost one war to the Ottomans early on while still weak, but if they decide to attack again they're going to find me a hardened and determined Defender of Europe.

One final screenshot from a game where I didn't play as Europe: in this game I started as the small Indian nation of Vijayanagara (the yellow nation at the south tip of India three screenshots up) and eventually conquered all of India and most of the Timurid Empire to the west and formed the westernized nation of Hindustan (whose name is amusingly splayed out on the map, which happens from time to time). This game as you can see the Mamluks reversed history and completely destroyed the Ottoman Empire and went on to form Egypt. Bohemia has also become quite the regional power in eastern Europe.

I could talk at length about the many features of EU4, its religion system which includes special mechanics based around the Protestant reformation, its system of trade routes stretching around the globe which can be manipulated to great effect if you know what you're doing, its nuanced diplomacy between nations, or any of a number of things. It really is packed with all kinds of simulated systems, and due to Paradox's policy of post-release support it get regularly updated with both free patches making sweeping improvements to the base mechanics and paid expansions that add whole new systems on top.

All this talk of features does underscore one of the problems of the game though, that of its steep learning curve. I must have played for nigh-on fifty hours before becoming really comfortable with the rules and not regularly getting defeated in wars. Although there are some tutorials to get you started and a lot of tooltips in-game, if you take it up you'll most likely be spending a lot of time reading up on aspects of the game on the official wiki. Though EU4 is apparently much more accessible than its predecessors (I haven't played them, personally), it still takes a significant amount of time, energy, and brain-power to master. I now have over two hundred and fifty hours of play time in, and while I have a pretty firm grasp of most of the mechanics I'm still picking up various tips and tricks.

Even with that amount of play time, there are still lots of regions of the world I have no experience playing with. I've never played a nation in Africa, and only once in North America that ended about 20 minutes in when my tiny tribe declared a foolish war and got promptly defeated and annexed (this was quite early on while I was still learning). The point is, this is a game I can see myself playing for years to come due to its incredible replay value. I could play dozens of games without ever playing the same nation twice, and get different experiences every time. EU4 is a game tht takes a lot of work to get to know, but is incredibly rewarding once you do so.

The amount I'm learning about history, geography, and historical geography is quite satisfying too. I've come to recognize quite a few different flags due to countries being identified by them in-game. I've been spurred to read up on the Holy Roman Empire due to the interest sparked by the game. I now know where dozens of small states that didn't survive to the modern day were located. I love history, and likely know much more about it than the average person, and I'm still learning all kinds of things about it from this game.

In the end, who is Europa Universalis IV for? Ultimately I think it's best suited for diligent lovers of history who are willing to put in some work for what is a very rewarding game. If you fit that description, I heartily recommend it. A hui hou!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Visiting Laupāhoehoe and Kalōpā

Last month a friend and I took a trip up the coast of Mauna Kea to visit the Kalōpā State Recreation Area. This is a small state park located 2,000 feet (610 meters) up the flank of Mauna Kea, with a small patch of native forest. Along the way we stopped at Laupāhoehoe Point, a small rocky tongue of land sticking out of the mostly high cliffs along the Hāmākua coast. Getting down there requires navigating a winding road hugging the face of the cliffs nearby, which gives some really nice views of the cliffs as you descend:

Descending along the cliffs towards Laupāhoehoe point (looking southeast).

From the point, the view back along the coast to the southeast was pretty neat (it helps that the weather was beautiful):

(Click for a larger version.)
The trade winds were blowing stiffly from the northeast, kicking up some impressive waves on the rocks. I tried to catch some of the amazing pictures that resulted:

Anyway, after having lunch at the point, we headed back up the flank of the mountain to get to the park. The high elevation led to a pleasantly cool temperature as we hiked through the forest made up of native ‘ōh‘ia lehua and kōpiko trees.

Kōpiko are the tall thin ones, ‘ōhi‘a aren't really visible.
We took a nature trail which was established in 1976, which had a nice informative pamphlet pointing out various sights along the trail. There were tons of different kinds of native ferns in different parts of the forest, some of which were rather pretty:

I even found a single orchid in bloom:

This angle makes it look like the orchid is about to attack me.

All in all it was a nice little jaunt through a native upland forest. There were a variety of other interesting sights along the way (such as a number of invasive strangler figs at various points in their life cycles), but due to the thick foliage they proved difficult to photograph. If you ever get the chance to check it out, I'd definitely suggest it. The one caveat is that we got lucky with clear skies; the Hāmākua coast has some of the highest annual rainfall levels in the state (and the world), due to the humid trade winds blowing in from the northeast and running into Mauna Kea, so it rains pretty often. But if it's not raining, it's a nice place to see some native flora. A hui hou!