As a history nerd, I've always had a personal disdain for historical fiction. To me, it has never made sense to make up stories about history; if you know where to look, many of the true stories that you can find are as entertaining if not more so than that which we can find in our fictional works, movies, or novels. Thus, reading stories of historical fiction has always smacked of idiocy and laziness. Why, say, create an imaginary story of Jews daringly escaping Nazi clutches when there are plenty of stories of how that happened in real life?
But what if you had an opportunity to personally step into the shoes of leaders of the past and alter history as you see fit? I'm not talking about those ridiculous books on historical revisionism or “What if Germany won the War?” I'm talking about the premise of Europa Universalis III, a computer game where you can take control of any (and boy, do I mean, any) nation that existed from the years 1399 to 1821 AD. From the ancient Ming Chinese to Holland to the Indian Vijayanagaran empire, you can direct the military, economy, and social policies of any country however you please. You can alter history however you want, or try to follow it as best you can as it happened.
History nerd challenge: point out everything crazy about this picture
Does it Work?
This concept, for a history nerd, is truly mind-boggling. The thought that, if I wanted to, I could enter into a game, release the vassal states of every major European country, then sit back and watch the mayhem is quite an intellectual experiment. In one game, I decided to be a totally neutral Sweden, then turned the speed settings up to maximum, and watched the map and wars unfold. I was curious to see if the game would hold to what happened in history if left to its own devices. The answer? Not quite. The French gobbled up every principality near them, waded into central Europe, and was stopped only by the similarly grotesquely large Russian and Ottoman empires. But it was interesting to note that Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands stayed out of it, electing instead to fight proxy wars among the colonies of the Americas. Poor England, instead of acting as arbiter of a balance of power in Europe, suffered beach landing after beach landing from the French and, in short order, split into the comparatively powerless nations of Wales and Scotland.
A thoroughly interesting result, but not historically accurate. Does that take away from EU III's fun factor? Not in the slightest. In fact, I found this diversion from history (and the possibility of further diversions from history if I tried the same experiment again) quite enthralling.
A Story of Super Aggression
So, taken by an overpowering desire to subvert history as much as humanly possible, for my main game I decided to take Castile (translation: Spain) and do crazy shit with it. Colonize Mexico? Screw that. Invest in a Spanish armada? Pah! Instead of making Spain into the fabulously wealthy gold hoarding naval imperialists of the Renaissance era, I decided that the nation needed a new goal. So I thought to myself; wouldn't the Middle East look nice on my wall?
Thus began an epic campaign to conquer the entirety of North Africa, one step at a time. My first was Grenada, swiftly swallowed whole by my spastic cavalry. Second was Morocco, a tougher nut to crack. My first landing in Casablanca was quickly encircled and destroyed without a chance to retreat. But I kept to it. I assembled a new force within a year, my navy raiding Moroccan ports and overwhelming their own fleets all the while. Within five years, the entirety of Morocco was mine, no matter the casualties from hot desert weather and hostile terrain.
For my next trick, I decided that Algeria was next. But, to my surprise, the other Muslim nations spazzed out. A Catholic nation in Africa? No way they were gonna let that stand! To my surprise, I found myself in a war with the Tunis, the Mamluks (Egypt), Algeria, and the Ottoman Empire itself. Hordes of camels led by pissed off sultans came out of nowhere, and I quickly found myself outnumbered. For a time, I was pushed back, my armies in disarray, my fleets barely holding their own. But, through a number of bait and switch operations pulled off with help from my allies France and Portugal, I turned the tide and, after what must have been a ten year war, I found myself in control of Algeria, Tunis, Alexandria, and Jerusalem itself.
Pictured: what I assume would have happened if I hadn't beaten Granada
And then things got CRAZY
My mission complete, I stopped for a while to sit back, relax, and consolidate my holdings. I smashed revolts, converted broad swathes of land from Islam to Catholicism, and built temples and workshops where I could to cement stability and bolster the economy. I thought to myself, “What mischief can I cause in Europe?” I split my forces in two, leaving a few armies in North Africa just in case the natives got jittery, bringing the rest to Spain proper.
And then the Protestant Reformation hit. And, through some hateful coincidence, piracy became rampant in the Mediterranean.
For a minute there, I wondered if this was God's vengeance for all my bloody conquest. But then I remembered: I'm Catholic Spain. And I prepared for the worst.
And boy, did I get it. I ran out of missionaries within months. Huge Protestant rebel forces popped up all over the grid, led by charismatic and deadly generals more skilled than my own. The only thing that saved me was oodles of manpower, allowing me to direct the path of the rebel forces while bringing them down through attrition. Other nations weren't so lucky; I watched in horror as my ally Portugal was consumed entirely by the fires and sieges of rebel forces. I stationed armies nearby the borders, fearing that they would come my way next. Roving pirate groups made naval transport across my empire frustratingly difficult, prompting the reactionary construction of the biggest fleet in Europe to go try and patrol the entire Mediterranean by myself. At that point, I decided to stop the game and write this review. I admit, I was intimidated by my fleet's journey, seeing Europe essentially in flames and in perpetual revolution, the only islands of stability being my own lands and, of all places, a peculiarly strong Byzantine Empire (who, historically, should have been long dead in the year that I stopped playing: 1517 AD). It only occurred to me later that the Byzantines must have flourished as an unintended consequence of my war with the Muslim nations; with them distracted, they were prevented from their historical purpose of annihilating the Byzantines, allowing the Byzantines instead to flourish.
Spain's starting position in 1399 AD
Altogether my time playing Europa Universalis III was exciting and brilliant. I didn't even get around to mentioning how, during my conquests, I cornered numerous centers of trade, implemented a national bank, and sent colonizers into deep central Africa (where they were promptly murdered). The breadth of what you can do with this game is mind-boggling, and I look forward to spending more time with it (and potentially regaling you all further with my adventures here on the blog).
One huge caveat, though, is that the game has a rather sizable learning curve. I'm used to complicated strategy games, so it didn't hold me back for very long but, for the average 'gamer', this is kryptonite. You have to get used to functioning with an annual budget (where on a monthly basis you are operating at a deficit). You have to learn how to utilize the casus belli system (when it is okay to declare war on other nations without global disapproval or hits to your stability). And more. It isn't easy but, if you are patient, beyond the curve holds one of the most intricate and amazing game experiences I've ever encountered. History nerds... This one is for you.