This is the second part in a series (I, II, III, IV) that examines the historical assumptions behind Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy computer game set in the early modern period, Europa Universalis IV (EU4). Last time, we took a look at how EU4 was a game fundamentally about states and how the decision to orient the game in this way both expressed a theory of history centered on states, but also served in many cases to obscure the impact that state actions (particularly the emergence of the modern administrative state and the nation) had on actual people.
We also discussed last week the basic structure of EU4, as well as my own experience with it, so if you want to jump back and reread that, the first post is here.
This week, we’re going to turn to war and diplomacy and discuss what I think is one of EU4‘s strongest elements in the depth of its political and military simulator. As we will see, the great strength of EU4 in this regard is that the system shows how a relatively simple set of premises concerning the state’s need to maximize military power in order to survive lead to a host of complex behaviors broadly consist with the political science school of thought known as ‘realism’ (or IR Neorealism (sometimes just ‘realism’), where the IR stands for international relations). I can teach realism as an analytical tool in a classroom, but EU4‘s political simulator effectively allows a student to experience the demands of strategic thought which create realist paradigms of action.
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Paint it Red
Europa Universalis IV has a reputation as a ‘map painter’ – that is a strategy game which encourages the player to ‘paint the map’ their national color by expanding as rapidly as they can, typically through relentless military conquest. And indeed, many players do play the game this way. Although EU4 lacks explicit ‘win’ conditions, the game does have a score, which rates states by their relative strength in three categories (essentially military, economic and diplomatic strength though they are labeled somewhat differently) and large, expansionist imperial powers tend to top these rankings, so the game still does have a mechanic which clearly points players towards that play-style. The score function is probably unnecessary, in the event, because even without any direction, the conventions of the genre will mean that most players will trend towards this style of play (for cultural reasons we’ll discuss at the end of this essay) anyway.
The reputation is somewhat unfair in that map-painting is not the only play-style available in EU4. Attempting to become powerful without expanding (‘playing tall’) is a fairly popular alternative play-style, particularly for very experienced players looking to show off their mastery of the game systems (because, as we’ll see, in most situations expansion is key to survival). Unlike other strategy games in the genre – like the Total War series, for instance – there are things to do in EU4 even if you are not bent on Alexander-esque world-conquest.
But what I find even more interesting is how ‘map-painting’ as a behavior is the consequence of assumptions in EU4‘s systems. In most war and strategy games, players expand because…that’s the point of the game. Expansion is the telos, the end goal which has no other justification besides itself. Instead, the violence in EU4‘s systems are not an end goal but rather the inescapable product of the assumptions of its diplomatic systems, assumptions that – even more interestingly – operate in the real world as well.
The Color of Desire
One way to understand the things that motivate state actors is to think about their objectives. Of course states, not being people, do not have desires or plans, but states are by nature led by people who do. For simplicity’s sake, we are going to adopt the common shorthand of saying that a state may have a given plan, strategy or objective; what you should all understand is that what we are actually saying when we say that, for instance, ‘France wants something’ is rather than the various powerful political actors (who are human and do have plans, emotions and goals) collectively want that thing. So, what do states want and how do their actions follow from this?
(I promise this loops back to EU4 in just a moment!)
One way to think about this (following an IR Neorealism lens) is that the basic goal of all states is to survive. People in power generally want to stay in power; failing that, they want to stay alive. State extinctions – when the state is absorbed or destroyed – pretty much always push the leaders of the old state out of power and frequently kill them. Consequently, regardless of what the common people may want, the leaders of states who make actual decisions will almost always want the state to continue existing (because, after all, that state represents a social order that, by definition, the leaders are at the top of); they will be more attached to this goal than any other collective goal (though they may well prioritize individual advancement over collective security, but that’s a discussion for another time). Consequently, states tend to behave as if survival is their highest priority.
The goal of survival in a dangerous world in turn suggests that maximizing security is the highest external priority of the state (balanced, really, only against the need to prevent the state from collapsing from within). Since historically, the greatest threat to state survival was foreign military action (read: being conquered) is makes sense that the kind of security being maximized is military security (which is also very handy against many sources of internal collapses, like revolution or rebellion). In turn, maximizing military security generally means maximizing revenue and manpower. So a state whose goal is to survive is likely to seek to maximize state power, to draw in as much manpower and revenue as possible (or else seek a patron protector state who will be doing the same).
(Of course, just because survival and thus security maximization is the highest goal doesn’t meant it is the only goal. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, states and their leaders often also have what I term an ‘ideological project’ – a vision of themselves or the world they want to achieve. But of course state extinction prevents the ideological project from being realized too, so most states prioritize survival over the ideological project. Naturally the rejoinder here is to ask about leaders behaving irrationally, which is an issue of real debate in the IR field.)
Of course this model is a touch simplified. Realism, as a theory of international relations has its limitations; it tends to assume that all of the actors in question are rational. It also often underrates the degree to which cultural concerns, social norms or traditions might constrain actors, preventing them from acting in this raw power-maximizing mode. We’ll touch on some of these limitations towards the end. But what I want to stress here is that EU4 has adopted this model of interstate relations and executes it extraordinarily well.
Let’s walk through that.
Burgundy; Red Ones Go Faster
Perhaps the best way to think about these forces is to walk through the early game experience for one country within EU4. For the sake of demonstration (and by no means to continue the chain of color-themed puns) I’ve opted for Burgundy, a mid-sized European power sandwiched between France to the west and the tiny states of the Holy Roman Empire to the east. I may have also chosen Burgundy because Burgundy-into-Netherlands games are some of my favorite.
An experienced EU4 player is going to recognize straight off that Burgundy has problems despite it being a decently large country (and indeed, new EU4 players will discover those problems for themselves). The player, as Burgundy, of course, most of all wants to survive – just like our states above. But just as above, that desire to survive forces choices for the player that guide them towards a specific line of action. Because Burgundy’s problems have a name, and that name is France.
The player running Burgundy can quickly recognize a few things. First, this is 1444, not 1415; eventual French victory in the Hundred Years War is nearly inevitable. Moreover, France is already somewhat stronger than Burgundy. More to the point, France is very likely to begin consolidating the other smaller French states, reasserting the authority of the French crown over them. In short, France is going to widen that margin of security (in part to compete with England and Spain; even France is not without fear). If that process is allowed to continue, the result will be a situation where Burgundy only exists by the sufferance of France, which is to say a situation where Burgundy doesn’t exist very long. Again, an advanced player will recognize this instantly, but part of the learning curve (we’ll come back to this, actually) of EU4 means that a beginner player is going to find this out as they go along (possibly in ways that force them to start over).
So Burgundy is essentially in a race where it starts four feet behind and must sprint to catch up. Burgundy has to assemble power faster than France in order to remain secure. Fortuitous alliances (including ones with France, initially) may buy time (but of course, France can gain allies too and people tend to want to be friends with stronger powers, not weaker ones) but in the end, Burgundy has to catch up and then eclipse France’s power if it is ever to be safe from possible (or in this case, nearly guaranteed) French aggression. So how does one build power?
Military power requires revenue and manpower (along with staying technologically competitive) and both come from the same source: the land. While a player can develop existing provinces, taking land in war is far cheaper and faster. The game represents this through both developing old land and seizing new land requiring similar resources (administrative points to ‘core’ and thus fully exploit new land; administrative, diplomatic and military points to develop, with each increasing a different production category of already held land). But for a single point of development, it costs around 40 of these resources points to develop but only 10 (!) to incorporate newly conquered land. That may seem like the developer has placed their thumb a bit unfairly on the scale, but, as Azar Gat notes in War in Human Civilization (2006) for pre-industrial societies that is a historically correct thumb on the scale. Until the industrial revolution, nearly all of the energy used in production came out of agriculture one way or another; improves in irrigation, tax collection and farming methods might improve yields, but never nearly so much as adding more land. Consequently, as Gat puts it, returns to capital investment (hitting the development button) were always wildly inferior to returns to successful warfare that resulted in conquest. If anything, EU4, for the sake of keeping the ‘tall’ play-style relevant, has narrowed the gap between the profits of conquest and the gains to be made by land improvement in this period.
To get the manpower and money to hold off France, Burgundy is going to need land. That land has to come from somewhere and the obvious candidates are Burgundy’s smaller and weaker neighbors. In order to avoid becoming a victim of France, Burgundy effectively must victimize its own smaller neighbors. Once that conclusion is arrived at, the actual form of that expansion is fairly obvious. Burgundy begins bifurcated. This is an impossible position in a war with France and so the land-route connecting Burgundy’s provinces has to be taken, which means Lorraine and Provence (which has land holdings there) have to go first. France may try to protect them, so player-Burgundy has to wait for the first moment France is distracted (say, by a war with England) to pounce and seize them. From there, absorbing the small states of the Holy Roman Empire make the obvious choice; the emperor will try to protect them so again, moments must be chosen and capitalized on. To survive, Burgundy must become the wolf at the empire’s door, snatching up whatever poor children were foolish enough to be outside after dark.
And here is the rub: everything that Burgundy could possible do to render itself more secure – raising new armies, new revenue, new manpower – renders all of Burgundy’s neighbors less secure. Their necessary response is clear, to try to match Burgundy in order to maintain (or even expand) their own security and thus their own ability to ensure their survival. This situation – where any act one state makes to render itself more secure renders all other states less secure is called the security dilemma. Wealth and power may not be zero-sum, but the security they produce is.
Because this existential competition is zero-sum it creates a situation where states push further and further for security without actually achieving any security gains, because every action they take to improve security is matched by their neighbors. Azar Gat calls this, somewhat colorfully, the ‘Red Queen effect’ (because everyone is running and running and going nowhere), but as a product of the security dilemma we can also understand this as ‘convergence’ – where any behavior that advantages a state’s power is swiftly adopted by all other states in the local system, so that over time states come to resemble each other in their militarism and ruthlessness. For students of history wondering why European militaries of 1400 were very regionalized and unique with lots of local patterns but by 1700, a standard form of linear infantry fighting by professional soldiers was practiced from Moscow to Lisbon, convergence is why. The game represents this well too – falling behind in military technology is catastrophic in EU4 in a way that it is not in games set in earlier periods like Imperator or Crusader Kings (VickyII does even more with this theme and we’ll come back to that in the future).
So Burgundy isn’t the only state in this position, they all are – and no one can escape. No state (with one exception, mighty Ming, and perhaps the Ottomans, but more on that in a moment) in EU4 lives without fear. France isn’t expanding for its own sake (or ‘for the lulz’) but because it is trying to establish security against its peer competitors (like Spain or England). Even states outside of Europe that establish near-total dominance cannot live free from fear because the player knows (in a way that the historical actors didn’t) that Europe is coming, a point we’ll address in more depth next week. If no rules or outside influences restrain this competition, the result of a ruthless dog-eat-dog competition to survive; that competition isn’t driven by the evil in men’s hearts, but by the relentless logic of the security dilemma.
Part of what makes this work is that the AI is making the same decisions you are. Unlike in some war games, the AI of EU4 doesn’t declare war randomly, rather it looks at provinces of ‘strategic interest,’ and then aims to get those provinces, only declaring wars it thinks it will win. EU4 is actually kind of brilliant in how transparent it is; you can actually see which provinces, for instance, your AI allies are aiming to get and how the AI’s attitude influences its behavior. The AI even engages in ‘balancing’ – attempting to bring down too-strong powers. One mechanic for this is ‘coalitions’ – expand too fast and you may find yourself facing a vast coalition of all of your neighbors. But the AI does this even in smaller ways – imagine my surprise in my game as Vijayanagar finding that my ostensible ally Malwa was also balancing against me by using guarantees (a binding promise to protect another state) to block any further expansion or aggression against Gujarat. It’s not perfect, the AI doesn’t engage in as much effective balancing as historical states did, making it more possible to ‘break out’ of the Red Queen’s race and assert regional or global hegemony than it probably should be, but the existence of balancing behaviors itself is really impressive.
EU4 simulates this vision – the Neorealist vision – of historical forces brilliantly, and it also has some interesting comments on the permutations and exceptions.
The Red Queen’s Court
What we have just described – the ruthless competition created by the logic of the security dilemma – is, as an international system, referred to as a system of interstate anarchy, a term coined by Kenneth Waltz in Theory of International Politics (1979) and also his article, “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History18.4 (1988). Because convergence in such a system leads societies to rival each other in their militarism and the cold logic of power means that pacifists are merely victims in such a system, it creates – as Waltz notes – conditions where “war is normal.”
For a player wondering how these early modern states could so frequently go to war, EU4‘s model provides an answer to the question that is in keeping with at least one line of scholarly thought.
But interstate anarchy is not the only system and what is fascinating about EU4 is that it simulates the other possible systems as well and in so doing delivers some interesting and potentially controversial statements about them. Interstate anarchy is, above and away by far the default system under this neorealist model; the next most common is hegemony where one state so dominates the system that it can replace the anarchy of competition with the logic of its own rules.
And players will note that much of East Asia begins the game not in a state of anarchy, but of hegemony under the world’s leading power, the Ming dynasty (or just Ming for short). The designers have given Ming (or whatever state controls China) the tools to exert hegemony over the region through a set of tributary mechanics tied to the ‘mandate’ system. In short, Ming holds nearly all of its neighbors under a tributary system where they pay tribute and in exchange Ming generally protects them from outside aggression (though they may still fight each other). Consequently, a tributary that keeps Ming happy and plays by the rules of the system (that is, pays tribute) is effectively safe from interstate anarchy at the cost of letting Ming make the rules of the road for the region. At the same time, playing as one of these tributaries you immediately see the problem: Ming is your protector, but also itself a danger and an obstacle to increased long-term safety. Consequently, the tributaries tend to be a band of jackals, preying on each other and outsiders, but just waiting for the Ming to weaken, at which point they’ll all strike at once or in quick succession (what the community calls ‘Mingsplosion’), leading to the rapid reassertion of anarchy in the absence of a strong central power. Hegemony too, then, is an exercise of raw power and in EU4‘s view, a fragile one.
The next most common system is a balance of power, where a set of roughly equal sized powers fight and negotiate. EU4‘s late game transitions quite naturally into this system; as the brutal competition of the early- and mid-game is likely to have removed nearly all of the small players (with the ones remaining being attached somehow to the larger states), conflict centers on a shrinking handful of big powers. This sort of system is more directly handled in Victoria II but as the conclusion-point of periods of aggressive consolidation it works in EU4; the constant small wars of consolidation are replaced by longer periods of peace punctuated by massive and hideously destructive wars between large alliance systems which is, in the event, exactly what was happening in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Finally, Neorealist theory theorizes a system which has never been implemented: one where the actions of states are governed under international law. And EU4 has something to say about that too, in the strange creature that is the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire has unique mechanics; seven states within the empire select one of their number to serve as emperor. All of the states of the empire offer troops for the emperor (expressed in a mechanic whereby the emperor gets a substantial increase in manpower and force limit – army-size-soft-cap – for each member state) and the emperor is charged with defending the empire, returning stolen land to their original holders and generally keeping the peace. Fulfilling this role grants the emperor ‘imperial authority’ which can be used to push through reforms which further strength the emperor. And this looks like a system of consensual rule under international law. Wars of conquest – either by members within the empire or by those outside – are illegal (and the emperor can both intervene defensively to stop them or fight to reverse them after the fact).
But weaken the emperor, either by ‘breaking’ Austria from the outside by defeating it in war (which will, by the by, be a crucial goal for Burgundy to be able to expand east to match France), or by politicking the election of a weak state as emperor and the dozens of small states of the empire devour each other in a desperate race to be the handful of survivors: international law is revealed as just the mask that imperial (Habsburg) power wore. This is intensified by the fact that for the states in the empire – especially the mid-sized ones (Bohemia, Brandenburg and Saxony) – have split incentives; on the one hand, they want the emperor to enforce the law on everyone else, but also not on them and also for the emperor to never become so strong that ending the independence of the imperial princes becomes possible. Thus, much like the band of jackals around Ming, the larger states of the empire are at best frenemies of the emperor and have an incentive to look for the right moment to weaken whatever state is emperor (again, usually Austria). This ferocious explosion of consolidation that results within the empire will happen in most games – it is fairly rare for the empire to hold up in the long term unless the player makes it a goal to make sure it does.
Is Red the Only Color?
This is part of what I meant at the beginning of this series when I noted that I thought EU4 had a detectable theory of history and that made it more interesting than many other games. EU4 embraces – intentionally or not (but I suspect intentionally, given the design) – a realist vision of geopolitics and constructs the simulation around that vision, ensuring that AI nations will behave within the constraints of those concerns. In the process, Paradox has created one of the best interstate anarchy simulators I have ever seen.
But, of course, realism isn’t the only school of thought when it comes to international relations! Against the realist model of international relations we ought to set constructivism. Where realism stresses a model of rational, strategic choice that applies equally to all actors (that is, all states) in the system, a constructivist approach instead focuses on the way that political thinking and decision-making is shaped by norms and cultural assumptions, arguing that on a significant level our political reality is constructed rather than inherent in the strategic conditions of our situation. Of course most actually sophisticated thinkers on international relations draw from both ways of thinking (and these two are by no means the only schools of thought), with ‘realist’ or ‘constructivist’ mostly referring to the balance of concerns. Long time blog readers will see the roots of constructivist analysis in how I argue that norms and customs shaped warfare in the past, though in the end, I am probably more of a realist in my thinking and thus tend to think that the road to peace is about shaping the incentives towards peace rather than banishing evil from the hearts of men (or the norms of society).
Nevertheless, I think that the bent towards realism in EU4 is intentional, precisely because it is not shared by all of Paradox’s products equally. While EU4 presents state strategy and forces as the only restraint to violence, in Victoria II, pacifist movements can block efforts to go to war, as can friendly public relations with other states. In Crusader Kings III, religious considerations shape both the wars that can be waged and the extent of those wars. And in Hearts of Iron, state ideology places very strong constraints on state decision-making, with democracies committed to liberalism and peace generally prevented from waging aggressive war because of their ideologies. All of these – and we’ll talk more about each when we get to those games – are clear ‘constructivist’ influences. Of Paradox’s games, really only EU4 and perhaps Imperator adopt that purely realist political model (Stellaris, their science-fiction game, very much doesn’t; state behavior is mostly determined by ideology there, and only secondarily by strategic considerations, making Stellaris perhaps the most constructivist game in the Paradox library).
(I should also note that the realism of EU4 is tempered a little bit through the ‘mission’ system, which tends to guide certain states to expand in certain ways – to press Portugal, Spain, England and the Netherlands to become colonial states, for instance, or for Brandenburg to form Prussia and try to form a united Germany, or for the Ottomans to absorb Mamluk Egypt and thus reach their historical borders. We might see these mission trees as expressions of ideological or cultural proclivities in each state though mostly they are a tool for the developers to get the system to output results not too wildly different from history on a consistent basis).
At the same time, adopting a realist political model seems particularly appropriate for the early modern period. After all, this is the period when Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes were laying the foundations for much of realist thinking (working off of the even earlier ideas of Thucydides); such realpolitik (a term itself coined in the 1850s, just after this period) was an influential way of thinking about the world (though by no means the only way). More broadly, realism makes a decent fit for the politics of the age, where the historical events of the period, especially in Europe, were often defined by opportunistic wars and alliances quite transparently about gains in land and resources with only the thinnest of ideological justification (though of course the wars of religion mark an important exception to this rule, although even then there was a heavy dose of realpolitik, such as Catholic France supporting the Protestant League to weaken Austria even while suppressing its own protestants at the same time and protestant Denmark managing to be on both sides of the war at various points, mostly for realpolitik reasons).
And as a period, the early modern really does serve as a decent functional example of interstate anarchy at work. Convergence in militarism and institutions is clearly on display – as well as what happens to states which fail to converge fast enough. War in this period, particularly during the first century or two (before the game itself shifts to more of a balance-of-power model as a result of consolidation) was shockingly existential. As a demonstration to that point to my students, I once came up with a list of some 22 ‘state extinctions’ between 1453 and 1569 in Europe alone. Of course the same period saw a brutal wave of state extinctions claim arguably all of the states of Southern and Central America by 1600. The violence of this interstate anarchy was hardly limited to Europe; the Mughals spend the 1500s and 1600s violently consolidating nearly all of modern South Asia, while Ming efforts to consolidate South East Asia and into the Steppe under the bellicose Yongle Emperor largely failed (the myth of a non-aggressive, non-imperialist China is, by the way, just that – a myth). And of course Japan spent the period from 1467 to 1615 first violently fragmenting and then violently consolidating into a single state, the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Consequently, as a model for the politics of this period on a global scale, interstate anarchy grounded in (neo-)realist principles have a lot to recommend themselves. If it feels like we are selling the limits on this sort of model short, or that I haven’t really addressed circumstances where a realist vision of interstate relations leads to less violence rather than more violence, that is because we’re going to look at both of those perspectives when we turn to some of Paradox’s other games (particularly Victoria II, but also Crusader Kings III) which model them more fully.
Here my advice to students and teachers is two-fold.
First, take advantage of EU4‘s excellent simulation of realist political systems (and interstate anarchy) in particular to make the core assumptions of the system explicit. I have to say, EU4 is one of the few games I have ever considered actually teaching not to analyze as I would a text (you can do that with any game) but as an actual simulation of a political theory with real applications in the real world. But of course you need to ground that simulation in something real. I have already noted here that the theory itself can be found in K. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (1979), but I think the more approachable way to interact with the theory is with its application to a set of real circumstances and here I think a good place to turn is A. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (2006) which applies these theories very cogently to a different time (the Hellenistic period) but also does a good job of explaining them in perhaps somewhat more approachable form than Waltz (although Waltz is fairly readable too). The other, I think, really obvious foundational text here is W.H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power (1982), which gets into the impacts that the anarchic conditions of the early modern period has on Europe (particularly in contrast to the hegemonic conditions that pervaded in East Asia at the time), but we’ll actually be taking more about McNeill and his book next time, so I don’t want to jump the gun there.
But second and perhaps more importantly, be aware – or as a teacher, develop an awareness – of the real human cost of conditions of interstate anarchy. One weakness of all of this approach in EU4 is that, as with the human impacts of state action, the human impacts of war are abstracted away. Players are presented with the – often staggering – butcher’s bills for their wars only in the form of abstracted numbers. Moreover, the game for the most part assumes away civilian casualties (provinces can be ‘devastated,’ reducing their value temporarily, but this mechanic is so limited it is easy to play the game through without knowing this. One way I have found to dramatize this cost in my teaching is with period images; I’ve included here just a couple of the woodcuts, for instance from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, a series of 18 etchings by Jacques Callot showing the horrors of the Thirty Years War which I use when teaching warfare in this period.
I would also recommend W. E. Lee, Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500-1865 (2014), both for clear descriptions of the tremendous violence and human cost warfare in this era could entail, but also a discussion that goes into some of the constructivist concerns that EU4 leaves out – how cultural assumptions could shape the violence that occurred (of particular use, I think, for teachers who want to get up to speed on this topic, especially since the quality of training on military topics – including the ability to speak with confidence on the human costs of war – can be very uneven, even at the graduate level). Finally, those looking for a good comparative perspective on the human costs of war may find it in G. Baker, Spare No One: Mass Violence in Roman Warfare (2021) a very recent and valuable book (due for a fireside recommendation, without a doubt) on the standards of violence that emerged in Rome through its period of interstate anarchy and the varied reasons (some strategic, but many emotional or tied to internal politics) that Roman armies often reached to such intense levels of violence.
Finally, of course, any theory is history is like to in turn recommend specific answers to certain important questions in a given period. EU4 embraces realism as a model for state interaction and embraces the entire world in that model. That has implications for many of the biggest questions that historians ask about the early modern period.
And so next week are are going to turn, at long last, to Europa Universalis‘ odd legacy title for a theoretically global grand strategy game, its geographic focus and what it has to say about that biggest of big questions which looms over this period: ‘why Europe?’ Because EU4 has an answer to that question, but it remains probably one of the weakest parts of the game’s historical approach.