Puzzle or strategy? Byzantium in Europa Universalis III

Note: Europa Universalis IV is now out! You can find my EU4 coverage here.


This is part 1 of an irregular series on Europa Universalis III.


Part 1: The Byzantine Empire and puzzle-like gameplay.

Part 2: The Manchus, hordes, and the consequences of deficit spending.


One of the supposed sins of strategy game design is making a game, or a level, that feels like a puzzle. In this situation, players don’t win because they were creative, or because they were skilful and flexible planners; they won because they precisely followed the One Right Sequence Of Events. Now, while I intellectually knew what this meant, I didn’t quite grasp why it was a problem. Couldn’t you still have fun playing that one right way?


Then I tried my hand at playing the Byzantine Empire in Europa Universalis III (with the Heir to the Throne expansion). EU3 opens in 1399, and as the following screenshot illustrates, by this point the Byzantines are a pitiful shadow of the glory that was Rome:



In 1399, Byzantium (purple) is a two-province rump, comprising Constantinople and the southern tip of Greece. What was once its empire is now held by various one-province statelets such as Achaea and the Knights of Rhodes; the Venetians (teal)… and the Ottoman Empire (green). In real life, the Ottomans would finally destroy the Byzantines in a little over fifty years’ time. Could I do any better?

The answer, it turned out, was yes. This is my Byzantine empire about a century later, in the 1490s:



The one-province minors are gone, absorbed into the Byzantine fold. The Ottomans are no more. Venice has been reduced to a Byzantine vassal state. And the Byzantine writ now even extends to southern Italy. How did I, a player of mediocre skill, pull this off?

The answer is, by following the One Right Way To Play Byzantium (per EU3’s official forum). As the game begins, the Ottoman Empire might be much larger than the Byzantine, but it has a distraction on its eastern border: the fearsome Tamerlane (whose Timurids are dark red in the first screenshot). This gives Byzantium a couple of years’ grace to build up its forces, possibly mop up some of the one-province statelets, and then hit the Ottomans during that narrow window of opportunity. Everything hinges on the success of that first Ottoman war, which in turn depends on two conditions:

  1. Has the Ottoman army been withdrawn from Europe to fight the Timurids, in which case Byzantium will face minimal opposition on land?
  2. Is the Byzantine navy strong enough to prevent the Ottomans from re-crossing into Europe?

The outcome of the war then becomes binary. If the answer to both questions is YES, then the Byzantines can reclaim the western half of their empire at a stroke. Otherwise, the Ottomans will wipe Byzantium from the face of the earth. And there is no margin for error.

Oh, there is a little leeway as to the details: as the link to the forum thread shows, the Byzantine player does have the choice as to whether to mop up a few of the little principalities and maybe the Venetians, before going after the Ottomans. And to pay for all the troops and ships it’ll need, Byzantium can either run a mildly inflationary monetary policy, or go for fully-fledged Mugabenomics*.

But strategy games, by definition, are about making tough choices, and there’s no choice as to that do-or-die Ottoman war. If the Byzantines miss their opportunity, then the Ottomans will raise a new army in Europe (or bring their troops back across from Asia) and declare war first – as I found out the hard way.  And if the Byzantines don’t have a bigger army in Europe and enough ships to bottle up the Ottoman fleet, they’ll be in for a very short game. If the Byzantines win, on the other hand, the rest of the game is downhill: they can use the manpower and revenue base of Europe to reconquer the eastern part of the empire, and keep snowballing from there.

Oh, I had a lot of fun rebuilding the Byzantine Empire, and it might be interesting to see just how far I can push my success – should I revive Justinian’s dream of a reunited Roman empire? But before I arrived at that fun, I had to reload at least four or five times to perfect my technique. And I think that, in a nutshell, explains why puzzles and strategy don’t mix.



* Given that the game takes place in the days before paper fiat money, I assume the option to “mint” money, at the cost of inflation, represents debasing the currency by using less and less precious metal in coins. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!


Update: for an interesting discussion of strategy games and puzzle-like gameplay in general, I refer you to these posts by Troy Goodfellow.

Another game I’m looking forward to: Europa Universalis 3: Divine Wind

Yesterday, I forgot to mention another game I’m looking forward to: Divine Wind, the forthcoming expansion pack for Paradox Interactive’s historical grand-strategy game, Europa Universalis III.

The EU games model world history between, roughly, 1400 until 1800; the key word here is “model”. Other games place you in charge of an entire nation in a historical timeframe, such as the Total War and Civilization series, but they tend to use history as a veneer for conquer-the-world / build-a-utopia / etc fantasies. EU, in contrast, actually attempts to simulate  real life: the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation; the resistance of society to governments’ attempts to impose change from the top down (as described in this article by Rob Zacny at Gamasutra); the possibility for empires to overstretch themselves and fall apart, as happened to a monster Ming China in one of my games (at its peak, it spanned the world from Manchuria to Sumatra… then China proper fell into civil war between competing dynasties, and the subjugated nations broke free).

However, as its name implies, the series is also rather Western-centric. This is where the Asian-centric Divine Wind comes in, with features (per the press release) including:

  • Play as one of four major daimyo’s in Japan vying for influence over the Emperor and control over the Shogunate
  • Enhanced diplomacy with more options for alliances and peace negotiations
  • Dozens of new culture-specific building types allowing greater control over the development of provinces
  • More realistic development of trade
  • Manage the internal factions within China to keep the Mandate of Heaven

The first two designer diaries don’t contain much information, but I am interested in hearing more about trade, in particular. While I know little about Asian history, what I have read indicates that you can’t do justice to European/Asian interaction in this period without an in-depth examination of trade. I look forward to hearing more about this expansion pack.

(By the way, if EU3 interests you and you’d like to learn more, there is a demo available for the previous expansion pack, and this Greg Costikyan piece offers a more detailed writeup of the game’s mechanics.)