This is the third part of our series (I, II, III, IV) examining the historical assumptions of Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy computer game set in the early modern period, Europa Universalis IV (which is in turn the start of a yet larger series looking at several of Paradox’s games and how they treat their historical subjects. Last time, we looked at how the diplomatic and military model that Europa Universalis (EU4) uses provides a vivid demonstration of the pressures of interstate anarchy as understood through neorealist international relations theory. In particular, EU4 presents a system where the pressure to survive in an anarchic, ‘dog-eat-dog’ world leads states to prioritize increasing security, which in turn forces them to expand in order to have the resources to defend themselves, creating an international system where failing to victimize one’s neighbors lead to becoming a victim and so aggressive war is normalized as states expand and consolidate in order to survive. We are going to be bringing that thread forward this week and next week as well, because that lens is going to shape the way that EU4 presents its understanding of other historical forces and pressures (though this week we are going to see a few missed opportunities to take that model even further).
This week we are going to take a deliberate look outside of Europe to see how well EU4 functions as a truly global grand-strategy game. The tension between a game that is in some ways about Europe (I mean, it is called Europa Universalis), but is played on a global stage has been core to the franchise for a long time. As we will see, Europa Universalis has global ambitions, with at best uneven execution (which nevertheless still sets it well above most of its peers; it at least wants to tell a global story, even if it doesn’t always succeed).
In discussing these issues, I am going to end up being rather more critical of EU4; if part II was mostly positive and part I was fairly evenly mixed, this part is going to be rather harsher. That does not mean that EU4 is a bad game or evil; I am not here to bury it. Every approach to history has limitations because the past is too complex for anyone to hold in their heads; even scholarly works must, by dint of choosing their scope (because one book cannot cover everything) prioritize some things and de-emphasize others. So let me be clear here: while I think EU4 has some flaws (and I’d love to see them addressed in the next game, or in expansions and patches to the current one – just, you know, Paradox, maybe give the next expansion a bit more time in the oven to cook all of the way?), overall, for the genre, EU4 bats well above par in providing a historical game which tries to be careful about difficult issues and to remain well connected to the history.
But first, as always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
(I should note that I understand that the most recent expansion tends to cause some odd game behaviors in the Americas related to bugs in an effort to simulate more mobile peoples. I still don’t have that expansion yet and my current game is in India, so I have been spared those problems. My sense of the Americas as they appear in EU4, for both this essay and the next, is based on the pre-Leviathan version of the game.)
Also, fair warning, we are going to be discussing slavery here, a topic which is unpleasant but very important.
EU4 is in some obvious ways, fundamentally a game torn between two geographic focuses: on the one hand, it is Europa Universalis, but on the other hand, the map covers the entire world and states on every inhabited continent (take that, Antarctica!) are playable.
The continued focus on Europe in particular is evident in quite a few places in the game. The country-select screen (which begins every new game) defaults to viewing Europe, as does the screen when a new game is loaded (until the player’s country is loaded, then the view snaps to that state). At the country-select screen, the developers suggest a set of ‘interesting’ countries (with a few marked out as particularly ‘beginner friendly’); the exact line-up has changed but as I write this all of the options have territory in Europe (the recommended country list as I see it is: Ottomans, Castile, Portugal, France, England, Austria, Brandenburg, Sweden, Muscovy, Burgundy and Poland). And it is not hard to notice that special mechanics and events are thicker on the ground in Europe because the European states got significantly more time during the game’s development and so are more fleshed out. This even comes out in the loading screens, which feature at least as many, if not more, rulers from Europe as from the entire rest of the world combined.
All of that said, it is very clear that the direction of EU4’s development is away from such a disproportionately heavy focus on Europe. Compared to EU3, successful and fun games outside of Europe are much more possible (you may note, for instance, many of the pictures here have been from my recent game in India playing as Vijayanagar); many of the disadvantages placed on non-European states which were hard-coded in EU3 are subject to circumstance and decisions in EU4, meaning that non-European states do not lose by default (at least, Old World non-European states; games as New World non-European powers are still very difficult).
Even more than that, since EU4‘s release, almost every single expansion has added more content outside of Europe; this can include breaking up provinces to allow for more strategic options, adding new states to better present the granularity of political fragmentation in certain non-European regions, giving those new states unique idea trees (at release, many states had the ‘generic’ set of national ideas, especially outside of Europe; now almost none do) and unique events and mission chains. It is still the case that there is more content in Europe and more focus on Europe than any other part of the world, but the gap is nowhere near as large as it once was and it closes with each expansion. And that also speaks to a set of priorities because most players still play in Europe; Paradox appears quite consciously to be dedicating development time to the rest of the world not because players play those states, but because they don’t. That speaks to the degree to which Paradox clearly sees the Europe-over-Global focus of the game as something to be changed, as an area of improvement in the game.
That said it is worth noting just how exceptional EU4‘s ‘play as anyone‘ approach is and how much it does to make EU4 a global game. In a real sense, the only reason one can have an essay mostly whinging about how EU4 gets elements of non-European early modern history a bit askew is that you can actually play the game as a non-European state. One might compare Empire: Total War as one of EU4‘s nearest equivalents (there are grand strategy games that are much closer in style to EU4, but Empire is far closer in terms of popularity); in E:TW‘s main global campaign there is only one fully non-European playable state (the Maratha Confederacy; the Ottomans are also playable but I stick with my argument that we should understand the Ottomans as existing partially within the European state system) and to say that the Marathas feel a bit under-cooked compared to the European factions is a substantial understatement. This is in a game where the map includes the Near East, Egypt, India, the Caribbean, North and Central America, but all of the peoples of those places are non-playable cannon fodder for the ‘main’ factions (there is literally a mechanical differentiation between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ factions and there are no new world major factions at all).
But in EU4 the ability to play outside of Europe is not some vestigial part of game design; at this point a player who chose only to play outside of the traditional Western European powers would still have plenty of game to play in EU4. There are very interesting games to be played as the Delhi Sultinate, Ayutthaya, Ming, a Japanese daimyo, the Manchu, Bengal, Vijayanagar, the Mamluks, Mali, Ethiopia, Kilwa and so on. All of those states have their own idea tree (Kilwa shares its idea tree with some of its regional neighbors), their own unique events. Many of them have their own complete custom bespoke mechanics, like Ming’s Mandate system, Japan’s shogunate, the Manchu banners system, the custom mechanics for Hindu states to chose patron deities and have unique internal politics (‘estates’) and so on. And of course there are also a lot of ‘challenge’ games as various non-European powers often in very challenging initial positions.
And I am going to say this here though I will come back to it next week: I extend tremendous charity for any game willing to put the player in the shoes of the victims of imperial expansion as well as the expanding imperialists, even if the systems don’t always work out. Playing a state along the routes of European expansion, or too close to larger expanding non-European powers (frequently Ottomans, Timurids, Mali, Ming) or as a small state in regions which are likely to rapidly consolidate (West Africa, India, Indonesia, South East Asia, Central America, the Andes) gives the player an experience almost no other strategy game does: it asks the player to think about strategies for the powerless – how do you just survive in a context where your military strength is negligible and your neighbors eye your provinces with jealousy and greed? How do you cope with a much larger power suddenly moving into your region (resist? accommodate?)? Historically speaking, being on the ‘business end’ of imperial expansion was a far more common experience than being an imperialist, but it is so rare for a game to attempt to simulate that.
But that isn’t to say there aren’t issues in the ability of the core mechanics to present a historical simulation outside of Europe and the first to deal with is trade. First, a brief description of how trade works. Every province in the game produces one export product (grain, silk, sugar, etc.); those products are converted into ‘trade value’ and pool in the local regional trade node (there are 80 of those nodes). Merchants, trade ships and local territorial control all give states a slice of the trade node (‘trade power’), which they may use to either ‘collect’ (turning the trade value into tax value) or ‘transfer’ (steering a slice of the trade value in the node to another node). Collection is most efficient in a state’s home trade node, so the main trade strategy for trade-focused states is to set up a long chain of trade nodes where they have very high ‘trade power,’ directing trade in each node towards their capital so that the trade value in their home node is very high allowing them to collect a lot from it (and also you want to dominate your home node so that no one else gets a slice of all of that trade value pooling in it). Trade isn’t quite zero-sum – each node that trade is pushed along multiplies its value by 5-10% – but it mostly a competitive rather than cooperative mechanic; states having trade moved out of their home nodes so that it can be fed back that long chain of controlled trade nodes just lose out on a lot of income.
(As an aside, this is not a great model for actual trade. The mechanics seem to imply something closer to extraction with the main goal being to ship resources home (fitting with the mercantilist philosophy of the time, but remember that mercantilism was a deeply flawed economic theory; that needs must stressing: mercantilism was wrong), but provide no opportunities for mutual benefit. Prior to British sales of opium beginning in 1781, for instance, westward trade in Chinese goods not only made European merchants wealthy, they were also a major source of bullion for the Ming and Qing dynasties. While the effects of the ‘Triangle Trade’ on West Africa were devastating in the long run and in total human suffering (if it needs to be said, the slave trade was bad), trading local captives for European firearms made some West African states substantially more powerful. Likewise, trading for European weapons with local goods (especially furs) was a vital part of ‘keeping up’ in the Native North American ‘red queen’s race’ which could be no less ruthless or competitive than the European version (though in the long run, doing so made it impossible to create a united front against European powers, with devastating results for Native Americans. For more on these impacts in West Africa and North America, read Lee, Waging War (2016), ch. 8.)
The problem with the design is that the trade nodes can only steer in a limited set of directions. While trade can be redirected from one channel to the next (or blocked), it can only ever flow ‘downstream’ towards the end nodes. Consequently, the best place to have a trading power is always going to be on or very near one of those end-nodes because that makes it possible to have the longest trade chains. All three of these important ‘end nodes’ are in Europe (they are the Venice, Genoa and English Channel nodes). Consequently, trade is set up in the game to flow from the Americas, Africa and Asia to Europe; it cannot flow the other way. That doesn’t make it impossible to be a trade-centric state outside of Europe, but the opportunities for it are few and some starting areas really are trade-dead ends; if your home node is a start node (with no upstream connections; the start-nodes are Lhasa, the Amazon, Katsina, California, the Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes, Cuiaba, Siam, the Rio Grande and Patagonia) building a useful trade network is essentially impossible.
My understanding is that the Paradox folks are aware of the issues with the trade system, but that the underlying systems make it impossible to allow players and states to freely redirect trade (I think this has to do with the system being unable to handle closed loops and the need to calculate each node sequentially). My sense from developer comments is that this is one of those mechanics that it too fundamental to the game to be changed now but would likely look very different if the game were built from scratch today. In any event, beyond motivating European powers to engage in imperial expansion and colonialism for the purpose of reinforcing trade and extraction networks, EU4‘s trade system isn’t a very good simulation and doesn’t really have much teaching potential to offer as a result.
The major problem that it really presents is that it hard-codes a massive deterministic geographic advantage for Europe which just didn’t exist. The directions and flows that trade took were highly ‘contingent’ (that is, subject to change based on events and conditions); it could have looked very different and we know this because it did look very different. For players looking to get an idea of what different global trade configurations might have looked like (and teachers looking to teach on the topic), check out J.L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989) which lays out what global trade looked like in that period. A view of what was just before EU4‘s period serves on its own as a sort of fascinating counter-factual that drives home the essential contingency of the patterns that did end up prevailing in the early modern period.
That said, the impact of the trade system on which states become strong over the course of a game is also fairly muted, in part because while a human player can use this system to become extremely powerful, the AI is less adept at manipulating the trade system and so AI states rarely capitalize on it to the full possible extent. Consequently, even though Eastern European states are also disadvantaged in the trade system compared to their neighbors, the emergence of very strong Ottoman, Austrian, Polish or Russian empires (with revenues based on tax and production, rather than trade) are quite normal. Not to jump the gun on next week’s topic, which will focus on what I call the ‘Why Europe?’ question, but trade crucially does not offer the advantages it is sometimes theorized to have done by historians. In particular, while a huge trade empire can pull in tremendous state revenue, the methods to turn that into development and technological advantages are very limited, because those factors are governed mostly by state capacity resources (called ‘monarch points’ – more on those next time) and not by money and converting money to monarch points can only be done indirectly and to a limited degree.
All and all, that tends to mean that the trade system is a fairly poor simulator of both global trade in this period or the impacts that trade had.
But there is one aspect of global trade that needs must be addressed here separately and in rather more depth.
Let me say at the outset that I understand Paradox’s dilemma here (we’ll come back to this dilemma especially when we talk about Hearts of Iron). On the one hand, there is a desire not to white-wash history and simply remove real things that really happened. On the other hand, no one wants their historical game to end up as a genocide and slavery simulator. And the very ‘play-any-country’ mindset which I praised above makes it tricky to be blunt with the player about the human impacts of playing as, say, Portugal (the most active, but by no means only, power involved in the transatlantic slave trade) without effectively ruining the game experience or worse yet, enticing players who out of their own twisted ideology want to play up that aspect of history (this, again, a larger problem with Hearts of Iron; we’ll get there some day).
But I have to say that the effort by the Paradox developers to land on a measured solution is not very satisfactory and instead manages to essentially fail at all of these goals and doesn’t reflect the history very well besides. Slavery is one of the few historical subjects where I tend to say that EU4 fails completely.
(Quick note: I tend to prefer in nomenclature to say ‘enslaved persons’ rather than ‘slaves’ because I think the reminder that people in slavery were people held in bondage is valuable, especially in teaching contexts and I trying to retrain my brain to ensure that terminology by habit (I do not, by any means, claim to have achieved any great consistency on this point; this is not some holier-than-thou bit, just an effort to improve my teaching). That said, as we’re going to see, EU4 doesn’t have enslaved people, it has a trade good called ‘slaves’ which it carefully avoids ever implying too strongly consists of people. So I am going to use ‘slaves’ (with the inverted commas) to denote the in-game trade good and its mechanics, and stick to my normal way of talking when speaking of historical enslaved people.)
First, let’s clear up the mechanics. Slavery exists in EU4 (as, of course, it did historically). ‘Slaves’ are one of the possible trade-goods on the map, represented by shackles (I will note that Victoria II has the courage to represent what EU4 does not; in EU4 slaves are represented just by open shackles, but VickyII represents them graphically with people in bondage and I think here VickyII’s approach is superior). With, to my knowledge, only one exception, every province that ‘produces’ slaves is in Africa; colonizing land also reveals new trade goods and ‘slaves’ can only appear this way in Africa. Around 1500, the ‘Triangle Trade’ event will fire which increases the trade value of ‘slaves’ by 50%; around 1710 the ‘Abolitionism’ event will fire (once the first country takes the Abolition of Slavery Act), which lowers the trade good value of ‘slaves.’ Reaching administration technology 15 (around 1700) lets states pass the Abolition of Slavery Act which grants a small amount of prestige, lowers national tax income (an important, major negative effect), lowers stability cost (a minor, positive effect) and forces every owned province with ‘slaves’ as a trade-good to randomly select a new regional trade good. In raw strategic terms, that tradeoff is only really worthwhile for large trading empires with heavy presences on the African coast (since the new trade goods have a decent chance to be more valuable than ‘slaves’ and trading empires don’t get too much of their income from national tax anyway). It oddly will almost certainly make no strategic sense for a historically configured Great Britain – which historically was the major great power pushing abolitionism as a matter of policy post-1807 – since British enclaves in Africa will be small compared to the income derived from India and Great Britain itself.
And that’s it. That’s the entire mechanic. Other than that, ‘slaves’ work in the trade system exactly the same as boxes of sugar or crates of tea.
First, the degree to which slavery is presented here as a distinctly African-and-European thing is just historically wrong and a distortion in the understanding of the historic (and, just so we are very clear, morally reprehensible) institution of slavery. Mediterranean slave raiding had been a regular event in the warfare between Christian and Muslim societies and remained so during this period (the United States went to war with a collection of North African states over this in 1805, though of course one may well note the astounding hypocrisy of the United States of 1805 going to war over someone else’s slavery). That interaction is lamely represented by having one – and only one – North African province (it isn’t even a coastal province) produce ‘slaves.’ The slave trade in the Ottoman Empire is entirely unrepresented, save perhaps that one (and again, only one) province on the Black Sea also produces ‘slaves.’ Slavery in India, well attested under the Delhi Sultinate and the subsequent Mughal Empire (though more limited in the later) is also entirely unrepresented, as is both slavery and subsequent state action to eliminate slavery under the Qing. We’ve also already discussed slavery on the Eurasian Steppe, again, entirely unmodeled here.
Instead, slavery seems, in EU4 to exist in Africa, to be expanded to European colonies in the Americas (such colonies are the required trigger for the ‘Triangle Trade’ event that substantially increases the ‘value’ of ‘slaves’), and not to exist anywhere else. This is, unfortunately, frequently how the history of slavery is taught in some western countries, as something that just popped into existence in the 1400s and 1500s out of nowhere, rather than as an (again, to be clear, evil) institution with deep roots in almost every complex agrarian society (though it should be noted that the slavery tradition that Europeans carried with them to the Americas, coming from the Mediterranean form of the institution with roots back into the ancient world, tended to be somewhat more brutal and dehumanizing than some other forms, though we must also note that slavery is always and everywhere bad. Efforts to whitewash non-European forms of slavery are just as much bad history as efforts to whitewash European forms (and often made in very much the same broken, tired and debunked terms)). But slavery was an institution with deep roots in a great many societies all over the globe, something that EU4 simply leaves out.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade
But the game also does a poor job of handling the one form of slavery it does model. Generally over the course of a game, European states will expand down the African coast by seizing territory, which will in turn pull the ‘slaves’ into their trading network (bound, oddly, for Europe and not the Americas, though the Triangle Trade event does make the directionality of the transatlantic slave trade explicit; another weakness of the trade system here). But that isn’t how either European colonialism in Africa worked prior to 1821, nor is it how the transatlantic slave trade worked. European territorial holdings in West Africa remained minimal throughout this period; a combination of strong West African states (which could oppose European traders militarily), geography and potent disease barriers (malaria and sleeping sickness) made European expansion in West Africa beyond a handful of ports-and-forts coastal trading stations impossible. These ports-and-forts mostly existed only at the sufferance of local African rulers who permitted European traders for various economic and strategic reasons.
The arrival of European traders put West African rulers in a strategic bind. West African states (and to be clear, we’re talking about states, not tribes; these are complex agrarian societies) were operating under the same conditions of interstate anarchy as we discussed previously, though often population, rather than land, was the key resource being fought over. The enslavement of captives was a normal part of this warfare (it was part of how you converted military gains into population gains and thus resource gains); early European traders seeking to transport enslaved laborers to the Americas to work on (brutal, inhuman and often fatal) plantations fit into this system (as did slave traders moving slaves East out of Africa into the broader Islamic world). Since the European slave traders (initially the Portuguese, but later all major European colonial powers) were willing to pay substantially for more enslaved people, refusing to treat with them meant forgoing a potential source of revenue (often in goods, not money, I am simplifying a bit), which was a dangerous thing in the brutal interstate anarchy of West Africa (just as it was in the brutal interstate anarchy of Europe).
But that equilibrium undergoes substantial disruption beginning in the 1680s when European traders start bringing to West Africa goods that no West African state could ignore: flintlock firearms. Earlier matchlock firearms, which required a decidedly unstealthy lit match to use, didn’t fit with the dominant tactical patterns of state-on-state West African warfare very well, but the flintlock, which did not inhibit stealthy movement at night, fit all too well. Suddenly access to firearms was a key factor in state security and survival and the only way to get those firearms was to trade for them and the only ‘good’ that was desired in trade was people. Even a good-hearted West African ruler (and like all rulers, many were not so good-hearted) was strategically trapped; refuse to trade enslaved people for guns and you would be defeated and traded by those who did.
Taking the Dahomey region as an example (drawing from Lee, Waging War, 265-72), you can see the clear impact of that strategic dilemma as the slave trade explodes, from perhaps three thousand enslaved persons traded out of the region per year in 1670 to twenty-thousand in 1688. As flintlocks flooded into the region, their price relative to enslaved persons plummeted, from two guns per-enslaved-person in 1682 to 24-32 guns per-enslaved-person in 1718. And that price movement, which is increasingly less favorable to European slave-traders as time goes on, speaks to the degree to which West African states were active participants in what was happening. For instance, Dahomey itself, once a victim of slave raiding from the West African states of Whydah and Allada pointedly conquered their way to the south, becoming a slave-trading state themselves in part to get the firearms necessary to provide for their security (and the insecurity of their neighbors). The multiplicity of African states and of European traders made it impossible for any one state to get a monopoly on the trade, which in turn made it impossible for most states to safely disengage from the trade without rendering themselves tempting targets for the neighbors.
In the long run, of course, this process (which might increase the power of individual West African rulers in the short run) had a devastating impact on the region and a horrible human toll. The transatlantic slave trade would transport more than 12 million enslaved persons from Africa to the Americas, under brutal and inhuman conditions. Millions died in transit, millions more died in the slave-raiding warfare at the West African point of origin, millions more died in the brutal conditions of labor they were forced into by their enslavers in the Americas.
(This is, you will not be surprised to learn, a complex and often much debated topic. Lee, Waging War (2016), ch 8 provides an approach and solid ‘for the lay-person’ introduction to the interaction of firearms and slave trading, in particular noting points of debate which remain unsettled. For more detail on those impacts, check out J. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (1998).)
Probably no strategy game set at the level of states like EU4 is could do full justice to the transatlantic slave trade, precisely because this was a system where states often benefited from the exploitation and misery of the people under their charge, but EU4 accomplishes little, if anything, here. I certainly appreciate that they did not simply build the game entirely leaving out transatlantic slavery, but its reflection here falls badly short of the effort the game goes to model other historical processes.
There is no effort to simulate the acceleration of warfare brought on in West Africa by the slave trade (in contrast to how the systems for the Protestant Reformation and French Revolution do lend themselves towards accelerating violence within Europe), nor the eventual weakening of West African states and societies. And by turning what were European trade enclaves into the direct conquest of large territories, there is also no simulating the strategic traps that rulers in the region found themselves facing (instead they face the onrush of European conquistadores much like the peoples of the Americas do, centuries too early – the scramble for Africa was in the 1870s, folks!). Finally, the impact on Europe and the New World isn’t simulated either; there is (and we’ll discuss this more next time) a persuasive argument that the conquest of the Americas combined with the enslavement of Africans to extract the resources of the conquered Americas was itself a key reason why European powers surged ahead of the rest of the world in military and economic strength in the 1700s and 1800s.
As we discussed at the very beginning of the series, EU4 generally doesn’t foreground the human consequences of state actions because it is a game about states. That is still very much true in its treatment of the institution of slavery.
Sic Transit Gloria Europae?
Europa Universalis IV, it seems to me, is clearly a game that is torn between the history of its franchise and parts of its initial design as a early modern Europe simulator (which needs must, due to the period, include the rest of the world) and the evident desire by Paradox to transition the game more completely into being a global early modern history simulation, which might still offer Europe a bit more of the limelight, but which tries to do at least some justice to the whole world. The game has clearly trended towards the latter in its development since release, and in the way it is different from its predecessor, but still has a ways to go.
If this has been very harsh, I want to repeat a point I made towards the beginning: I extend a tremendous amount of charity for any game that makes an effort to present a truly global history. I come back again to what I view as EU4‘s nearest peer in the gaming space, the (now quite aged) Empire: Total War. That game has only one truly non-European playable state in its main campaign (which means, among other things, literally all the Native American factions are reduced to AI-controlled cannon fodder, except in their own, bespoke sub-campaign where they only fight each other; the player is never really put on the business end of a wild colonial power disparity). And E:TW just opts to leave slavery out entirely; your trade ships in West Africa trade in ‘ivory.’ Right. And that is when the rest of the world is simulated at all; Empire‘s successor, Napoleon: Total War confines itself entirely to Europe and the Mediterranean, as do most (all?) of AGEod‘s operational strategy games (Wars of Napoleon, Wars of Succession, etc. – they have quite a large portfolio, but none of their games has yet achieved the level of success and popularity as Paradox’s titles). One would be forgiven for forgetting that the Napoleonic Wars were global conflicts (what Americans call the War of 1812 might justly be called the American theater of the Napoleonic Wars; the conflict also involved the Haitian revolution and a number of other conflicts in Central and South America, along with operations in Syria, Egypt and naval skirmishes the world over; the Napoleonic Wars are not unusual in this regard, almost every conflict involving European powers with colonial empires turned into global conflicts).
Europa Universalis IV at least pans out to the whole world and what’s more, it insists at a fundamental mechanical level that viewing the early modern period through the lens of the Rajas of Majapahit or the Mansas of Mali is just as valid a lens as taking the perspective of the Kings of France or the States General of the Netherlands. It does not always succeed, but the mere attempt sets EU4 apart in this regard.
But there is so much room for improvement, from graphical changes and events to impress upon the player the human reality of the slave trade (and a more complete representation of the slave trade), to a revamp of the trade system to further attention to non-European states. It may even be time for Europa Universalis to drop its legacy title and embrace its status as a World History game rather than a European History game.
If I may speculate for a moment, I think many of the remaining flaws in EU4‘s global presentation may represent the ‘view from Sweden’ as it were. Paradox is a Swedish company and I tend to think that has real impacts on the design of their games. For many Americans, the transatlantic slave trade is not something remote, but an event whose consequences continue to shape our reality. Walking through the lowest floor of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (should you be in Washington D.C., it is not to be missed though it is a heavy experience and will take most of a day) is a moving reminder that the past – even the horrible past – is not really past at all.
On the one hand, I think the distance of a view from Sweden – a country much less involved in the transatlantic slave trade and slave labor in the Americas – may contribute to Europa Universalis‘ somewhat clean and disinfected view of the institution. It feels far off and remote in EU4 perhaps because it feels that way in Sweden. Of course at the same time, I cannot know that an American, British, Dutch, French, Portuguese or Spanish developer would do any better; Empire: Total War comes from a British company and clearly felt slavery was too touchy a subject to be discussed and simply removed it from a history of the period (to be clear, I think that was an irresponsible developer decision). I am left to wonder what a grand strategy game developed in Africa would look like and what decisions those developers would make.
For those looking to supplement EU4‘s treatment, particularly on the transatlantic slave trade, L. Lindsay, Captives as Commodities (2008) provides an up-to-date textbook approach to the topic which covers both the economic aspects and the terrible human cost of the trade in an accessible format. On the specific interaction of firearms and slavery, W. Lee, Waging War (2016), ch. 8 provides a good summary of the factors and arguments in a short accessible format (this is the textbook I use to teach global military history; it is good and an actually global military history, not just a treatment of war in Europe). For teachers looking to get more detail, you can raid Lee’s footnotes, but I think of particular note are two books by J. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (2nd. ed. 1998) and Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500-1800 (1999), though the latter can be pricey.
Finally, when teaching these topics to students whose first encounters with global history were through Europa Universalis IV, primary sources that speak to the direct experiences of people caught up in these grand historical forces can offer much needed balance to the state-and-power centered narrative. For example, the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The Africa (1789) both documents the horrors of the slave trade and was itself an crucial part of building support for the abolitionist movement in Britain, a book that both documented history and made history.
Next time (though perhaps not next week; I have something special planned), we’ll close out our look at Europa Universalis IV by turning to how the game handles on of the great debates, perhaps the great debate, of this historical period: why Europe?