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Posted on Apr 22, 2009 in Electronic Games

Europa Universalis III Complete – PC Game Review

By Larry Levandowski

Europa Universalis III Complete.
Paradox Interactive. $27.99 (GamersGate).

Passed Inspection: Great historic strategy. Unlimited replay value.

Failed Inspection: Ping-pong battles.

The game tracks how each nation feels about every other nation in the game—and they all have memories.

If you love deep historical strategy gaming, and you do not already have Europa Universalis III, then EUIII Complete has to be your next PC game purchase. This is the final version of Paradox’s flagship product, and includes the two expansions, Napoleon’s Ambition and In Nomine. The two expansions add so many tweaks and game-play options that the total of EUIII Complete is much greater than the sum of its parts.


For those not familiar with the game, EUIII Complete puts the player in full control of any nation-state, during any period from 1399 to 1820. The game comes with ten scenarios setting up major conflicts like the Thirty Years War and the French Revolution. For this reviewer, however, the most fun comes from making ad hoc games.

Using a dynamic map interface, the player first picks a year. As he scrolls the year selector, the political map of the entire globe changes as nations expand and fall. For example, choosing the year 1635 gives the player a global map with all of the then-existing nation-states and their colonial possessions from that period. Major nations like England and France are selectable, but so are the hundreds of minor ones like Burgundy and Munster.

A very nice touch is that the player can also select any nation when loading from a saved file. So you can begin as England, start a war with France, then return to play as France to teach those pesky English a lesson. In short, the replay possibilities are endless.

The game plays real time, day-by-day, year-by year. Playing even a few years of the 400-year Grand Campaign can take a few hours. However, the player can control how fast the game plays, and it’s a good idea to speed things up when the world is at relative peace. Once a player gets the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to play forty or fifty years in a sitting.

The game map is region-based and covers the entire globe, except for the uncharted regions of inner Africa and South America. For players who start the game before the Age of Discovery, the initial map has plenty of unknown territory covering the New World, Asia and Africa. As the game progresses, the player can hire explorers and discovery fleets to make those areas accessible.

The player controls his nation through an elegant interface that has been well tuned in the expansions. With a few clicks, the player can control his nation’s finances, research, military and even local governments. While the game is very deep and complex, the interface is intuitive enough that most experienced gamers will be able to dive right in after a trip through the tutorials.

One of the game’s real strengths is in the area of diplomacy and the relationship between nations. EUIII’s sophisticated modeling of nation-state interactions creates plausible alternate histories. Each nation has many options to stroke their friends and slap their enemies. The game tracks how each nation feels about every other nation in the game—and they all have memories.

Unlike many strategy games on the market, in EUIII there is a historic tether on what a kingdom can do. Uniting France, let alone Europe, is not easily done. Diplomacy is a slow method, but more effective than military might in the long run. Marching your armies around, taking every piece of land, is not as easy as in other strategic games.

The biggest reason for the strength of diplomacy is EUIII’s concept of casus belli, or cause for war. Attack a neutral country without provocation and you will not only risk attracting the hostile attentions of other nations, but your own national stability will drop. Kings that behave badly by breaking treaties or invading their neighbors without provocation are not trusted.

Of course, in the time of Machiavelli, you don’t have to wait for your neighbor to insult you before you unleash the dogs of war. The game allows for dirty tricks. Rummaging through your dungeon one day, you find ancient documents that prove your dynasty should also rule your neighbor’s lands—never mind that the ink on this document is still wet. Raise an army and have at them! Of course, your department of dirty tricks might get caught and the plot exposed, but that is a chance that a strong prince must take.

Nations also have goals and fears. So the French player might be flattered to find that Burgundy fears the might of France and is desperate to marry one of their daughters into the French royal family. The player’s nation will also have national goals, like the unification of Ireland under the English Crown. These goals are based on history, and tend to keep the flow of the game away from Risk-like free-for-alls. But despite national goals, EUIII is still an amazingly open-ended game, and the player has a great deal of freedom in choosing a path.

While diplomacy works best in the long run, warfare in EUIII is a very important part of game play. But as in history, warfare is really just diplomacy by other means. Unlike most games, peace treaties must be negotiated. Simply taking enemy territory, or even occupying the entire nation does not mean that you can take over that country. Usually the victor can walk away with a few regions, or be able to make the loser a vassal-state. In practice, only smaller nations can be annexed outright.

The warfare model in EUIII hits all the right notes. Military units are built by raising infantry, cavalry or naval units from the player’s controlled regions. The player will find that he has limited population and funding to build these units, so they should not be wasted. As technology advances, new unit types become available, and this may give him some advantage over potential opponents. If the player has exhausted his own population, or needs troops immediately, he can also hire expensive mercenaries.

Once troops are recruited, the player then organizes these units into armies and navies. He can also hire commanders to give these units bonuses. Historical personalities like Cortez or Hudson are a special type of commander that can push units into exploring the unknown. An interesting option is to let your king don armor and take to the field himself.

Once armies are established, the player moves them by simple clicks. The player must watch each army’s morale and strength. While in enemy territory, even the best commanders will lose as many troops to attrition as they will to battle.

When your forces enter a region that holds an enemy army or navy, combat occurs. The player has no direct control over the conduct of the battle, but can add troops from other regions, or force a retreat. Morale is just as important as the number and quality of troops. Eventually, one side will break and retreat.

But even when the player has run off any defending enemy troops, he still has to besiege the region. Sieges are realistic in that they can sometimes take years of game time to win. Attacks on the walls may incur a tremendous cost to the attacker. Unless the besieger has overwhelming numbers, he is often forced to wait for the enemy to surrender. As time passes, the morale and number of the defenders will drop due to lack of food and water. Of course, the attacker has risks as well. The longer the siege, the better the chance the defender has of raising an army to break the siege.

Overall, combat and sieges feel right for this period in history. The only real issue is that battles rarely destroy the losing army. In most cases, the loser takes a hit in numbers and morale, and then retreats. If they retreat into an enemy-held region, another battle and another retreat occur. This ping-pong effect can sometimes happen five or six times before the defeated army is destroyed.

In one game, the English army under Henry IV occupied all of Scotland. The Scottish king led his defeated army back and forth, region to region, for a game year before finally being destroyed. While history does have episodes of wandering defeated armies, in EUIII it can sometimes feel too gamey.

Another area that the player can control is the economy. In this area, EUIII’s modeling is complex, but the player’s interaction is subtle. The player gains income from taxing regions and colonies. As technology improves, the player can invest in improvements that will increase tax revenue.

To fill his coffers even faster the player can raise war taxes and also mint more money. But playing with these controls may increase inflation or cause instability. Another way to increase money is to set up regional markets and also send out merchants to compete in markets like Antwerp.

EUIII is not the kind of game you play when you want a quick gaming fix. The full campaign can easily take eight sittings or more. Also, the game is more like a nation-state simulator than a game. Goals are fluid and have good historic feel. The player will rarely be able to dominate the globe, and will probably be lucky to just unify France or the German states.

While EUIII is not new, even after two years the game has no serious competition in its genre. In this reviewer’s opinion EUIII Complete is a must-have for strategy game fans. For those who already own EUIII, but not the expansions, Complete is still recommended. The expansions add significant value to game play, and it’s much cheaper to buy Complete than each separate expansion. It is a great game has that wonderful ability to completely immerse the player and make time pass quickly.

The game’s pace is slow and detailed, however, so gamers seeking fast play will probably want to look elsewhere. For the deep strategy fan, a few hours in EUIII’s world will prove that the game has earned a well-deserved seat among the pantheon of great PC strategy titles. Long live the king! Long live EUIII Complete!

ACG Intel

Europa Universalis III Complete 

Larry Levandowski has been a wargamer for more than 30 years, and started computer gaming back in the days of the C-64. Until he recently discovered the virtues of DOS box and virtual machines, much of his computer game collection was unplayable. A former US Army officer, Larry has done his share of sitting in foxholes. Since leaving the Army, he has worked in the Information Technology field as a programmer, project manager and lead bottle washer. He now spends his spare time playing boardgames, Napoleonic and WWII miniatures, as well as any PC game he can get his hands on.