Ayutthaya Universalis: Building an Empire in Southeast Asia

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV
Ayutthaya (dark green) at the start of the game.
Ayutthaya (dark green) at the start of the game.

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was the major power in Southeast Asia in the 14th and 15th centuries. Based in the capital of Ayutthaya on the Chao Phraya River, this decentralized Thai kingdom managed to exercise hegemony over the area for many years. Trade rivalry with Malacca and constant wars with neighboring Burmese and Khmer kingdoms typified the history.

EU4 developer diary 38

At the start of Europa Universalis IV, Ayutthaya is a big fish in a small pond. As the largest and strongest state in Southeast Asia, it is still a minnow compared to Ming China and the eventual European invaders. Over the 350 years of the game, I set out to change this. With patience, luck, and the odd save/reload, I succeeded:

Final score.
Final score.

My journey took me from Southeast Asian minor to Asian power; from an Asian power to the Asian power; and from Asian hegemon to one of the world’s Great Powers. This was one occasion when EU4 shone as an “empire-building game”, and I’ve given some thought as to why.

The starting point lies in EU4’s (and, by extension, the entire Europa Universalis series’s) choice of subject. Every Paradox game is about the struggle for power: Crusader Kings is about the struggle between individuals, Victoria is about struggle between states and struggle within states, and Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis are almost entirely about the struggle between states. The player’s tools in EU4 reflect that focus: you fight wars, colonise territory, befriend (or antagonise) other states, send out explorers, merchants, and trade fleets, and unlock bonuses via technology or National Ideas. Other aspects of the period are abstracted or, in the case of the emerging gap between European and non-European powers, taken for granted.

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Europa Universalis III: The price of freedom is deficit spending

This is part 2 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.

 

 

I recently picked up Divine Wind, the Asian-focused expansion for Europa Universalis III, and I’ve had a lot of fun playing the Manchus, the people who would eventually conquer China and constitute its last imperial dynasty. The screenshot above shows the Manchu starting position in 1399 AD. To the south is the game’s sleeping giant, Ming China, and Korea.  To the east, Japan. To the north, unclaimed wilderness. And to the west, the nomadic hordes of the steppe.

 

This last point needs a bit of explanation. Divine Wind introduced a new type of nation to the game: the “horde”. Whereas sedentary nations are at peace with each other by default, they are automatically at war with hordes, broken only by temporary truces. Those truces must be bought with either prestige (via an admission of defeat) or tribute, from one side to the other. And rather than exchanging land as part of a peace treaty, possession is ten-tenths of the law – to claim land from the horde, first you have to occupy it with soldiers, then send in colonists who will eventually bring the province under your control. The hordes on the Manchu border are small and weak, but as we’ll see, even a small enemy can be dangerous in unexpected ways…

 

When starting a game of EU3, it’s usually necessary to cut military funding to the bone during peacetime, and so I did that. This worked out just fine, as for the first few decades I played like an East Asian Netherlands or Switzerland – colonising unclaimed patches of land such as Taiwan and bits of Siberia, sending out merchants to Nanjing and Malacca, and building up my infrastructure. What I didn’t realise was during that time, my game was affected by a glitch that prevented my armies from moving – and I strongly suspect this also prevented computer-controlled armies from moving, thus effectively enforcing world peace. In other words, things should not have been so easy for me. Eventually I cleared up the glitch, but I was able to enjoy a few more years of peace as a result of the Ming armies marching out onto the steppe to deal with the nomads.

 

Then the Ming struck a truce with the hordes. And the hordes, now free to attack me, flooded across the border, crushed my small standing army, and sacked half the Manchu kingdom.

 

But I still held half the nation. And in that half, I rebuilt the army, making it larger, stronger, more cavalry-heavy. This cost money, and lots of it, but I didn’t care. I wanted the invaders out! And with my new army, I was able to drive them back, before eventually settling for a truce that would get them off my land.

 

Five years later, the truce expired. But I was ready. My expanded, and now lavishly funded, army surged onto the steppe. This time, the shoe was on the other foot – the nomads stood no chance. And behind the soldiers came the settlers. The hordes had started this mess, but I was going to end it.

 

Well, I did end it – but not for the reasons I envisioned. Raising my new model army cost money. Maintaining that army cost money. Starting those colonies cost money. Maintaining those colonies, before they became self-sustaining, cost money. Sending out more colonists to make them self-sustaining cost money. When there was no money, I borrowed it. But paying the interest on the debt… cost money.

 

In the end, my budget was being chewed up by interest payments. My inflation* was dangerously high, far higher than I would have let it get had I been playing a Great Power. My technology and infrastructure were suffering. I could no longer afford my campaign. So I opted for peace, though this time I was able to exact tribute from the nomads.

 

In due course, I turned around my economy and paid down the debt, and my future campaigns were much more affordable. But for me, that episode – the diciest so far – will be the high point of the Manchu game. Historical strategy games tend to be about the extraordinary: extraordinary conquests, extraordinary empires.  (Just look at the victory conditions in most of the Total War games – historical kings would have given their right arms to rule over that much land.) Even EU3 is no exception, once you get past the early game. It’s far rarer that they convey a sense of limitation, of why these conquests and empires were so exceptional in the first place. But that costly steppe campaign was one of those rare cases. The limitations imposed by the game helped to drive home why civilised emperors, from Rome to China, opted to throw tribute to the barbarians rather than sending in the army**. It was an example of games allowing me to “reach out and touch history”, and I’m glad to have had the chance.

 

* In real life, inflation would reduce the value of my debts, but I don’t think that’s represented in the game.

 

** For example, every year, Sung China (circa-11th century AD) sent 300,000 bolts of silk and 200,000 ounces of silver to the neighbouring Liao dynasty – and the Liao were just one of the two nomadic states on China’s frontiers.

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.)