This is the fourth and last part of our series (I, II, III, IV) examining the historical assumptions of Europa Universalis IV, Paradox Interactive’s historical grand strategy computer game set in the early modern period. Last time we looked at how Europa Universalis IV often struggles to reflect the early modern history of places and peoples outside of Europe but how those struggles fit into a fairly clear pattern of efforts by Paradox to steadily convert what began as a European history simulator into a world history simulator. While that slow process has had uneven results over the years, it has steadily transformed EU4 into a real rarity: a game that actually makes a serious attempt at world history.
Before we dive in, I need to clarify some terms. I’ve tried to avoid a lot of the games jargon so that these posts will be intelligible to people who haven’t played the game, but as I wrote this I realized that I am going to have to clarify one thing. I have in the past two posts alluded to ‘resources’ of administrative, diplomatic and military ‘points’ which are used to develop provinces, fully absorb conquered territories (called ‘coring’ them), and a number of other things (including developing new technology and adopting new ideas). Collectively, these are called ‘monarch points’ (because they are, in part, generated by the skill of your ruler, although the ruler’s abilities in this regard were much more important when the game released and are far less important now) and they are meant to reflect in a very abstract way your overall state capacity. The state can, after all, only do so many things at once and so these monarch points are meant to throttle your activity to reflect that.
I bring them up here because we’re going to be talking about how this single currency (really, three separate currencies, but we can treat them together) is going to impact the game design and I want to be able to just say ‘monarch points’ and not have to type out a huge explanation of them each time.
We also need to bring forward one other thing we discussed in part II. To summarize the conclusions of that post, EU4 presents a model of international relations where security is only achievable for most states by aggressive expansion, creating a zero-sum game where the only way to avoid becoming a victim of the intense military competition was to become the victimizer, violently expanding into your neighbors (and even very distant overseas peoples) before they did the same to you (or more obliquely, conquering your weaker neighbors so as to deter your stronger ones from attempting the same of you). As we noted, this isn’t an unreasonable model of state-action during this period – the patterns it creates map on quite well to what is known in international relations political science as ‘interstate anarchy’ (from the neorealist school of IR thinking), which create situations where war is normalized and polities are forced to match the militarism of their neighbors. We are going to be bringing that thread forward here, because it provides part of EU4‘s answer for one of the more central questions that historians (and political scientists) ask about this period.
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It is not hard to see why this question is so influential. At the beginning of the early modern period (say, c. 1400 or 1450), Europe was unexceptional. Not the poorest part of the globe, but far from the richest, Europe was most notable for having relatively fragmented, relatively weak states. Compared to the more prosperous and densely urbanized regions of Eurasia, Europe was fairly clearly a backwater.
Yet, by 1840 or so, all of the military and economic great powers were European states (with the First Opium War demonstrating with stunning clarity that the last of the great powers of East Asia could no longer defend itself; note that I am classifying the Ottoman Empire as a European power for this purpose. The Ottomans were – and had always been – part of the European state system, even if they were also part of other state systems). While European imperialism had not reached its zenith yet by 1840, it was clear that the tipping point had already been passed some time prior, creating a situation where there were no non-European powers (understood to include some of Europe’s now independent colonies) which could effectively compete with the great powers of Europe.
What on Earth happened? is thus a question the historical record very clearly demands, not only because of how the rise of Europe reshaped global politics (with continuing ramifications) but also because of the potential implications for modern political thinking and statecraft. After all, if whatever factors caused Europe’s rise could be replicated by modern states, they would be fools not to; likewise avoiding whatever mistakes were made by non-European states.
EU4 covers almost this entire time period (it ends in 1821 rather than 1840) and so it must supply an answer to the question ‘how did that happen?’ EU3, the game’s predecessor had a hard-coded deterministic approach; while it set Europe behind technologically at the start, it gave every culture group a hard-coded penalty to technological development speed with essentially forced Europe (the ‘Latin’ tech group being the only one that moved at full speed, covering Western Europe; all other tech groups suffered research penalties, larger as they got further away from Europe) to leapfrog ahead. Other cultures were provided no option to ‘keep up’ save for adopting European culture (a nonsense mechanic; as we’ll discuss in a moment, at various points various non-European powers ‘kept up’ just fine without any attempt to ‘westernize‘). This is not great as a model. While this kind of pure cultural explanation used to be (decades ago) quite common in assessments of this question and still occasionally appear in deeply frustrating popular works (we’ll touch on the most popular modern such work in a bit), their explanatory power against the detailed record of history is relatively weak. We’ll talk about more current explanations in a moment, but to be brief, such ‘cultural’ explanations generally rely both on supposed virtues Europe only occasionally showed (it is difficult to say, for instance, that the Europeans of the 1500s were particularly rational or particularly free as Europe prepared to descend into brutal wars of religion under the leadership of increasingly absolute monarchs, for instance), but also fail to explain why other states in some periods and places kept up with Europe’s sudden ascent, despite supposedly lacking those ingredients and generally making no effort to obtain them (attempts to ‘westernize’ in that sense belong to a later historical period and are much more complex than the term implies).
As I noted at the beginning, though, Paradox’s development style has changed over the years from such ‘railroaded’ results (where key historical changes are hard-coded like this) to an effort to simulate historical forces. So how does EU4 compare? As in EU3, Europe starts ‘behind’ much of Eurasia at the beginning of the game though not by nearly so much as it probably ought. Europe starts even in technology with much of the agrarian societies of Eurasia, but it receives no obvious cultural hard-coded research bonus. Development is a bit trickier, with Europe starting with province development scores that are often as high as other peer states (rather than being something of a backwater), leading to the ‘great power’ list (largely driven by development scores) having perhaps too many European powers. But even with the higher-than-probably-historical development scores in parts of Europe (and lower-than-probably historical scores for parts of Asia in particular which were quite urbanized in this period), the small and fragmented nature of European states means that they still start behind in comparative military and economic power, particularly compared to juggernauts like Ming and will rapidly find themselves looking up at, not down upon, strong centralizing states like the Ottomans. So far, so good.
Two factors enable European states to catch up and then eclipse other states. The less important of these factors are the statistics assigned to military units. Each culture-group has their own unique set of infantry and cavalry units (everyone shares artillery and ships) with modestly different stats based on tech level. The ‘Western’ (read: Western European) units are notable for being generally very poor in cavalry until very late in the game (due to complex factors within the game’s battle calculations, cavalry is very strong early but its importance wanes as the game goes on; Europe gets good at cavalry just in time for cavalry to not matter very much). European infantry is subpar at game start, becomes roughly average by mid-game and surges into the lead in the late game. The consequence of this is that, for a given ‘tech level,’ by 1820, a European army will have a fairly modest combat advantage over a non-European army.
(Players of the game may be chafing a little bit at this description from experience – ‘the difference isn’t modest, it’s huge!’ No, it’s modest, check the stats. What causes European armies to stomp all over everyone else in the game isn’t the differences in stats (‘pips’) within tech levels (which are small enough to be easily swamped by differences in drilling, discipline, general skill or just raw numbers), but Europe’s tendency to end up several tech levels ahead of everyone else. Even fairly small differences in military tech levels can lead to substantially large disparities. Consider that tech 25 European infantry (despite being the strongest at that tech level) is weaker than tech 30 Native American infantry (which is the weakest at that tech level) and that’s before even accounting for the bonuses provided by the military technology directly. In practice, that tech-30 army with weaker units will easily defeat a similarly sized tech-25 army with stronger ones because of the substantial bonuses to morale, tactics and general’s skills in the intervening tech levels. Tech level is far more impactful than unit types; playing a non-European power and ‘keeping up’ in tech makes this obvious as overcoming the small advantages in ‘pips’ is easy if you keep up in tech level.)
Far, far more substantial are institutions, the awkwardly named not-quite-obvious technology bonus that Europe receives. Briefly, at fifty year intervals, key ‘institutions’ (a mix of technological, social and economic innovations) spawn and begin diffusing through the map from a central point. States that do not have all currently existing institutions take a stacking penalty to the cost of raising their technology level (up to 50% per missing institution). That penalty has even wider implications however; the resources used to upgrade in technology are those same monarch points used to develop provinces or fully absorb (in game terms, ‘core’) new territory. Consequently, increased costs in technology can have ripple effects if a player tries to ‘keep up’ anyway while behind on institutions, because that means foregoing development and other options which require these same resources.
So far, this seems like a much better system than the hard-coded culture-based research penalties of EU3. But the devil is in the details. Because these institutions radiate out from a central point where they were ‘discovered,’ states very far from that origin point may find it takes many decades for that knowledge to ripple out, with very few options to accelerate the process (you actually can ‘force’ an institution to spawn in your province once it is spawned somewhere else, that but requires investing a couple thousand of those same monarch points with all of the same effects as the last paragraph noted. It is often still a better investment than overpaying for technology over decades – at least you get a very developed province out of the deal – but hardly efficient compared to just being fairly proximate to the start locations of key innovations).
And – you knew this was coming, didn’t you – nearly all of the institutions tend to spawn in Europe. Of the eight institutions in the game, one is available everywhere in Afroeurasia at game start (‘Feudalism’) and so mostly serves as a permanent 50% research penalty to the New World. Two (Renaissance and Printing Press) are hard-coded to only occur in specific European regions (Italy and Germany, respectively). One (Colonialism) requires the state to have the ‘Exploration’ idea tree, which generally only is taken very early in the game by European states; a player could try to pull this innovation out of Europe by burning their first idea group on ‘Exploration,’ but the nature of the map gives most states outside of Western Europe few reasons to explore and few benefits to doing so. One more (Enlightenment) is heavily weighted towards Europe, but not exclusively so. Two others (Global Trade and Industrialization) are set to appear in the highest valued trade node in the world which, for the reasons discussed last week, will almost always be one of the three European end-nodes. Consequently, in most normal games, all institutions will spawn first in Europe and then radiate outward. That propagation is often very slow (sometimes taking close to a century for an innovation to make its way from Europe to China), meaning that states essentially suffer research penalties based almost entirely on their distance from Europe.
On the one hand, that set of mechanics produces a historically recognizable set of changes. Europe begins technologically behind, but will tend (in fits and starts as institutions appear and propagate) to catch up and then overtake the rest of the world. And because the same resources (the monarch points) are involved, European states will tend to have a surplus of those ‘monarch points’ to develop their provinces (because their technology is effectively cheaper), leading Europe to also tend to increase province development substantially more rapidly than the rest of the world, reflecting rapid European urbanization. The outcome of these mechanics looks something like historical outcomes.
On the other hand, this system bears essentially no resemblance to what we generally suppose to have been the historical forces that actually motivated those changes, as we’ll discuss in a moment. It also makes a mess of the actual geography of competitiveness in the period. As multiple scholars have noted (see below), outside of Europe (again, understood to include the Ottomans), the states which were most able to ‘keep up’ with European developments in this period were China and Japan – at times both states achieved and held effective parity with the West. But in this system, both China and Japan are at extremely deep disadvantages, being likely some of the last states to gain access to each institution and as a result falling behind even relative to parts of South and South-East Asia. That is, to put it charitably, not what happened.
Briefly, how might I fix institutions? First, ‘Feudalism’ which exists to create a semi-permanent research penatly for the New World, ought to be renamed; I might suggest ‘iron-working’ as a better descriptor of the technological gap as it really existed. Second, at least some of these institutions should already be present outside of Europe and thus be able to be independently discovered in different places. The Renaissance reflects, for instance, a recovery of classical learning; but China and India in this period do not need to recover their classical learning, having never lost it. They should thus start with the Renaissance, if it is to remain an institution. That of course also means breaking up the strict ordering of institutions and the hard region-locking of them; make them fully contingent on conditions and then let the chips fall where they may. But what about this system and how it speaks to the ‘Why Europe?’ question?
And that means it is time to talk about…
There is a massive amount of literature to explain what is sometimes called ‘the Great Divergence‘ (a term I am going to use here as valuable shorthand) between Europe and the rest of the world between 1500 and 1800. Of all of this, most readers are likely only to be familiar with one work, J. Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), which is unfortunate because Diamond’s model of geographic determinism is actually not terribly well regarded in the debate (although, to be fair, it is still better than some of the truly trash nationalistic nonsense that gets produced on this topic). Diamond asks the Great Divergence question with perhaps the least interesting framing: “Why Europe and not the New World?” and so we might as well get that question out of the way first.
I am well aware that when EU4 was released, this particular question – and generally the relative power of New World societies as compared to Old World societies – was a point of ferocious debate among fans (particularly on Paradox’s own forums). What makes this actually a less central question (though still an important one) is that the answer is wildly overdetermined. That is to say, any of these causes – the germs, the steel (through less the guns; Diamond’s attention is on the wrong developments there), but also horses, ocean-going ships, and dense, cohesive, disciplined military formations would have been enough in isolation to give almost any complex agrarian Old-World society military advantages which were likely to prove overwhelming in the event. The ‘killer technologies’ that made the conquest of the New World possible were (apart from the ships) old technologies in much of Afroeurasia; a Roman legion or a Han Chinese army of some fifteen centuries earlier would have had many of the same advantages had they been able to surmount the logistical problem of actually getting there. In the face of the vast shear in military technology (though often not in other technologies) which put Native American armies thousands of years behind their Old World agrarian counterparts, it is hard not to conclude that whatever Afroeurasian society was the first to resolve the logistical barriers to putting an army in the New World was also very likely to conquer it.
(On these points, see J.F. Guilmartin, “The Cutting Edge: An Analysis of the Spanish Invasion and Overthrow of the Inca Empire, 1532-1539,” in Transatlantic Encounters: European and Andeans in the Sixteenth Century, eds. K. J. Andrien and R. Adorno (1991) and W.E. Lee, “The Military Revolution of Native North America: Firearms, Forts and Politics” in Empires and Indigenes: Intercultural Alliance, Imperial Expansion and Warfare in the Early Modern World, eds. W.E. Lee (2011). Both provide a good sense of the scale of the ‘technological shear’ between old world and new world armies and in particular that the technologies which were transformative were often not new things like guns, but very old things, like pikes, horses and metal axes.)
This isn’t the place to discuss every response to ‘Why Europe?’ (that would be a graduate seminar, at least), but I think it is worthwhile to hit some of the major theories I think are worth dealing with. It’s worth noting at the outset that while historians presenting an argument about what caused the Great Divergence tend to present arguments in monocasual form (‘look at the impact of this‘), if you talk to them, most historians I’ve discussed the point with tend to blend these theories (they are mostly not mutually exclusive); I’ll give a sense of my own blend at the end.
The first argument is about fragmentation. The balance of political systems, military technologies (castles and cavalry), and geography in Europe created persistent European fragmentation through much of the Middle Ages. Even after the period of rapid consolidation in the 1400s and 1500s, European geography didn’t lend itself towards a single dominant state emerging (contrast China, where a bunch of big navigable rivers all connected to the same coastline encourage larger regional consolidation, though by no means make it certain). Consequently, Europe remained unusually politically fragmented (and still is). One argument for the Great Divergence then is that this fragmentation, combined with the pressures of the competition we discussed last time, forced European states, when faced with existential pressures, to innovate rapidly to survive. New innovations in military technology could not be avoided – even if they destabilized the existing political systems – because failing to take them up meant falling potentially fatally behind. Consequently it was impossible for any European state to choose stability over progress, not because they were enlightened (they weren’t) but because they had to survive. This argument is most closely associated with W. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power (1982), but the impact of fragmentation on firearm development specifically is also important and we’ll come back to it. Of note, McNeill argues that the European flourishing of relatively free markets and a degree of free expression was not so much a product of European ruler’s tolerance of these things or some general European commitment to them (there is little evidence of either), but a product of their inability to be rid of them; markets and ideas suppressed in one country could and did simply shift over the border into the next.
Fragmentation does have some odd but significant effects on the trajectory of games in EU4 and that comes back to ‘monarch points.’ Meant to reflect state capacity, monarch points are used both to acquire new technology levels and develop provinces and absorb new land. But a well run state in the game will only ever gain marginally more monarch points per month than a poorly run one, as the bulk of monarch points come from the base value every state has along with ruler skill (which is functionally random for most states). Consequently, a tiny ‘one-province minor’ (or ‘OPM’ in the community lingo) is going to be gaining almost as many of these points as mighty France or Ming. Such small states lack the military power to expand and technology can only be pushed so far ‘ahead of date,’ leaving province development as the remaining way to use those points. Consequently very small states tend to develop their handful of provinces very highly and so European fragmentation does drive its urbanization.
Except that creates a pattern where the areas of most intense fragmentation (generally the German regions of the Holy Roman Empire) develop the largest and most developed provinces. But this is exactly wrong. If we take development to mean improves in something like economic productivity and infrastructure, these developments were most rapid not in the fragmented Holy Roman Empire, but in the larger, consolidated states of Great Britain, France, the Dutch Republic (which, do not forget, had a vast colonial empire) and so on. The industrial revolution, after all, began in Britain and spread first on the continent to Belgium and France. Likewise, if development is taken to mean urbanization and population growth, there is no indicator that small states were any further along in that either; if anything, the small states of the Holy Roman Empire lagged behind France, Britain and the Low Countries.
Consequently, while fragmentation has some effects in contributing to the rising economic power of Europe in most EU4 playthroughs, those effects happen because of pure game mechanics untethered to any identifiable historical forces. What we do not see are situations where existential warfare in the context of extreme fragmentation provide meaningful bonuses to technology or where states are given the option to preserve stability by avoiding economic or technological development – situations that would be more concordant with McNeill’s arguments. In the end, I suspect this goes to Paradox’s stated preference to avoid situations where producing historical results requires the AI to be taught to play badly. By McNeill’s thesis, most non-European states ought to be, in many cases, trading long term technological and economic advancement for stability, taking the short term benefit over the long term one. Historical actors didn’t know that is what they were doing, but a player would and so training the AI to make those stupid decisions, while it might fit the historical theory, would break with Paradox’s core design philosophy.
All of which bring us to technology, particularly military technology and a debate known in military history circles as the military revolution, which serves as another answer to the ‘Why Europe?’ question. The core of this question, well stated by K. Chase is, “Why was it the Europeans who perfected firearms when it was the Chinese who invented them?” G. Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West 1500-1800 (1988; 2nd ed. 1996) sets out a technological argument mostly confined to Europe, where the development of cannon (a technology that had spread from China), led to a change in fortifications (to trace italienne or ‘star forts) which demanded larger infantry based armies, which spurred development in firearms for those armies to use; the defensive stalemate this technological package (cannon + star forts + big infantry armies + guns) spurred colonial expansion at sea as an effort to get resources to fund these huge armies and Europeans found the military package that this ‘military revolution’ had given them basically unbeatable abroad. Much of the last 40 years of writing on the topic has been responses and refutations to portions of this argument, though Parker has never quite been fully forced from the field. That said, Parker is also careful to clarify that the Ottomans, China and parts of India kept pace with this rapid change; it would take the industrial revolution (rather than the military one) for them to fall behind (the military revolution is generally dated from c. 1450 to 1700 or so; the industrial revolution from 1760 to the mid-1800s though industrialization obviously continued after that). Chronology, as we are going to see, matters a lot here.
One notable response to Parker is the aforementioned K. Chase, Firearms: A Global History to 1700 (2003). Chase argues that the key factor is not Parker’s technological interaction (though I’d note that the two theories are not quite so mutually exclusive as Chase argues they are), but rather the threat profile. Chase notes, very persuasively, that firearms just weren’t a very good answer if your major threat was steppe nomad horsemen. Sure, firearms c. 1800 would do the job, but no one directing resources in 1550 could know that. So societies where the major threat was other agrarian states with big infantry armies invest heavily in firearms while states whose major threats are nomads do so to a lesser degree. Since – in a way no one could realize in 1550 – firearms had the potential for much greater power in the long run, Western Europe (one of the few areas of the belt of complex agrarian societies running over Eurasia that did not have major steppe nomad threats due to Eastern Europe being in the way) found itself, by mostly dumb geographic luck with the ‘killer app’ of the 1600s and following. In short then, Chase argues that Europe’s military advantage (and thus its dominant position) was a consequence of environment – being relatively shielded from regions of Steppe which would give rise to dangerous nomads – which in turn motivated European to embrace the new technology (guns) with greater long-term growth potential. The weakness of the thesis is that other places similarly insulated (namely Japan) didn’t have an indigenous military revolution (though they adopted it enthusiastically when it showed up), while Mamluk Egypt, which in this formulation ought to have been as eager on firearms as the Ottomans very clearly wasn’t for what seem pretty clearly to be cultural reasons (Chase anticipates and attempts to fend off this argument, but it is one of his weaker arguments in an overall excellent book).
Most recently, T. Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West in World History (2016) blends the fragmentation explanation with a look at firearms particularly through a contrast between China and Europe. He helpfully demonstrates the weaknesses of many under-cooked ‘cultural’ explanations (property! rule of law! despotism!), by showing that at times China (and the Ottomans) kept up, at other times fell behind and at points surged back ahead but that the key factor here was conflict and fragmentation not far slower changing culture. Periods of hegemony saw wars of expansion but also military stagnation as the state prioritized stability over innovation in military affairs. But periods of fragmentation in China saw technological leaps that kept pace with (always fragmented) Europe. In the process of charting these developments, Andrade also rescues some of Parker’s key European innovations from Chase’s dismissal, most notably trace italienne forts and broadside warships. Andrade also emphasizes that successful use of firearms is also dependent on ‘statecraft’ factors; strong states (which may be small; we mean ‘strong’ here to mean well organized internally) are a required factor for success. Of course 1400-1700 was a period where the modern European strong administrative state was, by fits and starts, emerging and developing itself to an administrative parity with the strong states of other parts of the world. In essence then, Andrade argues that rapid advancement in military science was a product of internally strong states kept in conditions of existential danger; as he puts it (op. cit., 302-3):
Rates of warfare thus correlate with military effectiveness, but we mustn’t forget the many other factors that come into play: state-craft, knowledge networks, economic organization, fiscal structures, communications and transportation infrastructure, and so much more. Warfare explains a lot, but not everything
(I should note here I have simplified a lot to just the word ‘firearms’ in all of this – these authors are not just talking weapons, but a complex mix of chemistry, manufacture, tactics, systems of drill and discipline and so on.)
Here I can say with some confidence that Paradox’s developers are at least aware of Parker’s arguments but perhaps not the more recent scholarship on firearms development. Most of Parker’s key developments are name-checked either in the names of units (e.g. Maurician Infantry referring to infantry using Maurice of Nassau‘s countermarch volley-fire technique), buildings (with ‘Bastion’ and ‘Star Fort’ being upgrades to castles which are more resistant to artillery) and technologies. And there’s clearly an effort to create a period of offensive dominance between the introduction of artillery (at tech-level 7 which becomes available c. 1492) and the appearance of upgraded forts (at lech-level 14, which becomes available in c. 1583), but the upgrade only marginally increases siege time (adding around two months to the total siege time). The historical impact of these technological interactions was much stronger, leaping from Machiavelli’s insistence in 1519 that “No wall exists, however thick, that artillery cannot destroy in a few days” – reflecting the inability of castles to stand up to cannon – to the sieges of 17th century bastion fortresses lasting months if not years (Parker, op. cit., 13 notes the siege of Breda in 1624 lasted nine months and was fairly short; the siege of Ostend, in Flanders in 1601 lasted three years despite ample artillery available to the attackers). Consequently, state consolidation doesn’t occur in a flurry as a window opening in 1490 and them slamming shut by 1590 – the historical pattern – but rather as a continuous process which only becomes marginally easier or more difficult over time.
The other problem is that these technological interactions are extrapolated to the whole world, but of course Parker’s thesis relies on the precise interactions being confined largely to Europe, since the base technology (gunpowder) was not unique or indigenous to Europe. This is a point where Andrade’s more recent work is particularly useful, as he demonstrates how European castle design was particularly vulnerable to the new cannon (and thus incentivized European states fighting other European states to push artillery development), but the indigenous fortress traditions of China and India, with much thicker walls often using rammed-earth construction, were already very resistant to early cannon, making artillery development seem like a dead end in China, rather than the tectonic technological shift it was in Europe (Andrade, op. cit., 75-114; note that the moment those new European cannon got to China, the Chinese bought and copied them in a period that Andrade terms “An Age of Parity.” They knew a good thing when they saw it and Chinese metallurgy was more than up to the task of replicating European designs and in some cases improving on them.)
How might this be done better? I think the development of conventional arms (cavalry and traditional non-firearm infantry) might be split off from the development of firearms (including artillery) to create a balancing question for each state. Conventional arms development might be balanced to be far more effective against cavalry-heavy armies (like nomads), while early artillery might be more or less useless against them. Next, set Indian and East Asian powers to start with the ‘bastion’ fort-type, and dial up the ‘castle’ fort-type’s profound vulnerability to cannon. Those things, combined, create that strong incentive for European states to pursue firearm development, but force other states with thicker walls and more nomad exposure to diversify (and thus potentially risk falling behind).
Map Painting to Riches
Finally, there is the colonialism and trade explanation, perhaps most notably set out by K. Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000). Pomeranz focuses his chronology later, noting (as Chase and Andrade do) that Europe really only begins to outstrip China beginning in the 1750s. What he argues is that the key difference was the colonial empires that the European states had spent the previous two and a half centuries building (and also the use of coal instead of timber as a heating material) which by the 1700s brought in tremendous resources in primary products (raw materials and agricultural goods) which freed up land in Europe’s interior to produce other goods more intensively, leading first into the second agricultural revolution and then the industrial revolution, which would provide European states with insurmountable economic advantages (which in turn enabled more colonialism).
This really isn’t modeled much at all in EU4. European overseas imperialism- either in the form of port-and-fort trade networks reaching east (frustratingly represented in the game as consisting far more substantially of large stretches of territorial control rather than the isolated fortified trading posts of the era) or settler-colonialism – does feed significant income back to European states as an EU4 game progresses. But that income doesn’t feed back into development (which is produced by monarch points; the mechanism for turning money into monarch points is very limited); money can be used to build province improvements (buildings), but not to develop the underlying province resources. This dovetails with the relative underdevelopment of the game’s approach to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade as well; the movement of literally millions of (brutally enslaved) people from Africa to the Americas doesn’t result in shifting development or increased manpower in those regions. As grim as it might be, a system that transferred development from West Africa to European colonies in the Americas might more nearly simulate what was happening (Paradox’s ancient warfare game, Imperator, does almost exactly this with ancient slavery, so we’ll talk about that when we get there).
As I said, my own view of the evidence is something of a hybrid of most of these models explaining the rise of Europe. The rapid European development of firearms-based warfare created a feedback loop in terms of state centralization (cannon and muskets broke the power of the rural nobility, enabling centralization, which enabled more cannon and muskets, repeat until state-building complete then let dry; see Lee, Waging War (2016), ch. 7&9), while the fragmented agrarian state-on-state warfare in Europe encouraged firearm development particularly leading to an uncommonly effective military package (though not an unbeatable one in the 1600s and early 1700s) corresponding fairly substantially to the elements of Parker’s military revolution. That package enabled European states to set up and hold on to port-and-fort toeholds on other continents they might otherwise have lost (though early on, often only at the sufferance of local rulers, a balance of power that shifts almost imperceptibly until it shifts all at once). The networks of global trade and exploitation that created – because empire must be a product of military strength first – in turn fed a second feedback loop, providing the resources for greater intensification of both state power and economic development which then fed into the industrial revolution. The products of that second cycle, emerging in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, at last proved sufficient to overwhelm the large, complex agrarian states of Eurasia which had, up until that point, generally been able to maintain rough parity with Europe.
Crucially, all of this was an engine of change which was clearly destabilizing (it would, in the final account, consume all of the real monarchies of Europe and render the handful of survivors into powerless constitutional monarchs), but which no European prince, no matter how ‘absolute’ was in a position to shout ‘stop’ because of the intense competition inside of the cockpit of Europe. Any individual European monarch would have been wise to pull the brake on these changes, but given the continuous existential conflict in Europe no one could afford to do so and even if they did, given European fragmentation, the revolutions – military, industrial or political – would simply slide over the border into the next state.
Back to the Model
EU4‘s model manages to capture basically none of this. Indeed, some of the most important technologies that were historically distinctly European and important – broadside warships and trace italienne forts – are in EU4 general technologies available to everyone equally (which incidentally makes it flatly impossible for the game to capture the Portuguese cartaz-system (c. 1500-c. 1700) which was the main way that the Portuguese and later European powers wrested control over trade in the Indian Ocean; it only worked because Portuguese warships were functionally unbeatable by anything else afloat in the region due to differences in local styles of shipbuilding). Of the main institutions, only four of them (Colonialism, Global Trade, Manufactories and Industrialization) can be really connected to any of these processes and of these, at least two can hardly be said to have started in Europe. The Phoenicians (a Levantine, which is to say West-Asian people) were doing overseas settler-colonialism from at least 800 B.C. and potentially for a couple of centuries earlier and as J.L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989) lays out, global trade was not new in this period, although the scale of commerce and its management by a handful of European states was. In a real sense, European merchants, long confined to the rump-end of Eurasia were only now entering into a stream of global commerce which had run, in fits and starts, since at least the Roman period if not earlier.
What seems to have happened here is that the developers have taken a set of developments within Europe, which were very important within Europe (like the Enlightenment, or the Renaissance or the Printing Press) and invested them with tremendous explanatory power for what happens between Europe and the rest of the world, when that simply doesn’t seem to have been the case. In essence, the wires for the “Europe and the World” course and the “European Intellectual History” course appear to have gotten crossed. The various developments and intellectual currents they cite absolutely would be included in a course focused on Early Modern Europe (indeed, I have taught that survey and we talked about all of these in depth save for the industrial revolution, which sat mostly after our time frame and so was only alluded to in the final lecture). But in a global world history course covering the period 1440-1821, only some of these trends would be world-historic ones and their stories would in some cases not start in Europe.
That is not to say there is no Great Divergence (an absurd position I still see sometimes adopted in internet arguments but which is impossible to sustain in the face of European imperial expansion; something happened, the question is merely ‘what was it?’ and ‘why?’), but rather that EU4 does not provide a very compelling set of systems to explain it.
There is one exception to this, however, and that goes back to EU4‘s strongest feature: its model of interstate anarchy. While it does not explain why European states were in a position to be able to expand overseas, EU4 does encapsulate one argument as to why they did so. The solution it adopts is that European states had no choice but to expand militarily and economically overseas in order to survive, that for western European states directly exposed to other colonial powers whose armies were funded by the wealth of the Americas or trade in Africa and beyond, deciding not to do colonialism meant handicapping yourself in an all-or-nothing game of military power. And that is an argument that both Parker (1996) and McNeill (1982) – both discussed above – make. EU4 represents empire as a game nearly every large state is already playing and so the question of differing results falls not on the desire to expand and exploit neighbors (which is the assumed goal of all states) but on the different abilities to do so. And this too is not a position without a scholarly basis; it is a clear part of Azar Gat’s model of human conflict in War in Human Civilization (2006) and part that I think clearly holds up. As noted above, Europeans were not the inventors of imperialism, slavery or settler-colonialism, though they did become some of the largest scale practitioners of all three.
But when we move beyond asking about the willingness to expand to asking about the ability of European states to do so, the game falters. In particular, the placement of institutions as the key mechanism setting Europe apart causes the game to drift perilously close to (bad) arguments of the sort made by Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture (2001); VDH attributes western success to a shifting mix of key culture features the core of which are representative government, civic militarism, and freedom in expression, criticism, debate, markets and trade, which he argues gave rise to a cultural affinity for decisive battle which he argues in turn results in superior military performance. And in some of the ‘institutions’ of EU4, you can see something similar to (but not quite identical with) parts of that thesis (with the Renaissance and Enlightenment institutions seeming to align with the free debate and even a bit of the representative government and Global trade and Industrialization seeming to connect to the free markets and trade). But while Carnage and Culture sold very well to the general public and was lauded in popular press (in part due to the timing of its publication; a lot of people in 2001 wanted to read that ‘the West’ was inherently superior and destined for ultimate victory after the shock of 9/11), the book has been almost universally rejected by historians and a work of shoddy and deeply irresponsible pseudo-scholarship.
Briefly, Hanson’s thesis fails at every level, from basic errors in his battle narratives (he gets the number of ‘free Greeks’ at Plataea wrong, for instance, catastrophically misunderstands what the Roman corvus boarding-bridge was, and his reconstruction of the Battle of Midway bungles the crucial minute-to-minute chronology), to grander errors in the overall argument. Arguments that political freedom is a characteristic ‘western’ value over 2,500 years of history ignore that such freedom was almost completely absent for the middle 1,700 years or so (more than half!). The fact that the West does not, in fact, have superior military performance for most of those 2,500 years is also glossed over in deceptive rhetoric but is fatal to the thesis in fact. Hanson argues that shock infantry is a distinctly western fighting style when it is clearly not; shock infantry shows up in Japan and shield walls and pike lines in China and even the ancient Near East. Hanson’s notion of a countervailing ‘eastern’ way of war is pure orientalist bunk supported only by his ignorance of warfare outside of the western tradition. Even a casual acquaintance with pre-modern Chinese warfare, for instance, reveals quite a lot of decisive large-scale infantry engagements. I could go on at some length, but I think this will suffice; do note that this is by no means a comprehensive accounting of the book’s failings. In short, this is a theory of the matter which EU4 would be well advised to steer clear off – it is not taken seriously by historians for good reason.
(Of course I do not expect you all to just take my word for it. For an in-depth critique of Carnage and Culture, note S.J. Willett, “History from the Clouds,” Arion 10.1 (2002), 157-178. The fatal problems in the book’s thesis are also addressed head-on in the first chapter of J. A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (2004). Suffice to say, I do not think any part of Carnage and Culture‘s main thesis survives the critiques offered.)
The Power of Simulation
The great power of a game like Europa Universalis IV in wrapped up in the persuasive potential of simulation. It is one thing to be told how something works, but quite another to see it play out with your own eyes and yet something still far more persuasive to watch the same processes play out differently each time, shaped by the basic assumptions of the simulation. But that power can also be a trap because the simulation is not, in fact, shaped by natural laws but rather by assumptions within the design. A simulation is not a real-world experiment, but rather a thought-experiment.
Now I have been, particular this week, sometimes rather harsh with EU4, but I want to reiterate that I think the game’s positives put it well above par with historical games. I could even imagine using it in class precisely as a thought experiment in interstate anarchy if the game itself weren’t so complex and long to play. And the tremendous amount of effort that went into getting names, provinces, states and regions correct makes EU4 an excellent stimulator of wiki-walks for players who find themselves wondering who the Timurids were, what the Sejm was, why they’ve never heard of Ayutthaya and so on.
But that care and attention to accuracy in geographic detail, combined with the power of the simulation, also pose a real problem, in that it is also all too easy for a player to assume that, since the developers bothered to get the borders of 15th century Vijayanagar right, that the systems in place that produce the surging European dominance in the late game are also right. And unfortunately, while EU4 does place competitive pressures in the mix, most of the factors it has on offer to produce eventual European hegemony aren’t based on the best history. And the game presents these outcomes as substantially mechanistic and inevitable (e.g. certain institutions are mechanically restricted to appearing in Europe), rather than contingent on either long-term underlying structures or on events.
And, as we’ve already discussed, EU4 presents a particular vision of history as being about the affairs and concerns of states, with little time or attention paid to the regular people whose lives those states shape. This is nowhere more apparent than how the ‘rise of Europe’ is treated – the game only rarely gives any sense of what it was like for people to find themselves on the business end of colonialism or imperialism (European or otherwise), although it can give a sense of the experience of being a state in that position, which is still far more than most strategy games where you are never placed in the position of being a minor, technologically disadvantaged power. And I do want to stop and note how unusual and quietly radical that design decision is: many EU4 players, new to the game or at least new to playing outside of Europe will find themselves in the unenviable position of being on the receiving end of militarily superior European forces, put in the same no-win situations that faced Native Americans, West Africans, South Asians and others. Fight the Europeans and you lose. Refuse to deal with the Europeans and be victimized by those who do. Cling to closely to a European protector and lose your independence. In many cases, all possible roads lead to catastrophe, which is, sadly, one of the true lessons of history. To quite Star Trek (of all things), “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.”
That said, this lesson is only delivered at the level of states. We never really see the human cost of those dilemmas. For the teacher and the student alike, the antidote to this state-centric narrative are primary source narratives of the lives and conditions of regular people, which can deliver home the frequently nasty reality of state action and conflict.
That said, the history of states is a valid lens of historical analysis. I absolutely teach some of my courses with a primary focus on this lens, but then of course I have other courses I teach (when universities let me – I have this syllabus for a course on ‘War and Society in the Ancient Mediterranean World’ which I am dying to talk a department into letting me teach, but alas on the adjunct-treadmill I am mostly confined to the Big Survey Courses). And just so, Paradox has other grand strategy games! And while I have noted how EU4 is limited in how it portrays the agency of real people, how it focuses on their problems, the next game in the series (chronologically, not in release date), Victoria II aims squarely at those limitations.
And so that is where we are going to go next. That’s right folks – Victoria II confirmed.
(For those who have asked, the announcement that Victoria III is a real thing that is really going to happen isn’t going to change my schedule here. If anything, I want to talk about Victoria II even more to set up what I think are its particular strengths in the great hope that Paradox will build on those strengths in the sequel.)