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 Has the Ottoman army been withdrawn from Europe to fight the Timurids, in which case Byzantium will face minimal opposition on land?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.

21 thoughts on “Puzzle or strategy? Byzantium in Europa Universalis III”

  1. EUIII is currently making me shake my head. It is like looking at that empty canvas and wondering what sort of picture I want to paint. But at the same time, that picture is framed by what appears to be a set number of opening moves. You cited Byzantine attacking the Ottomans, for me, looking at Castille, it looks like the one true path is to attack Granada to begin with and solidify the Iberian Peninsula.

    But what can Paradox do though to remove the puzzle element and still maintain some rough guide of human history? I asked myself that same question when playing Hearts of Iron 3, and to be honest, I don’t know the answer to that.

  2. I think the issue is particularly pronounced for the Byzantines because they start the game in such a weak position. A stronger country like Castille or England would probably have much more choice available at the start. So selling all the English continental possessions to France and quickly beating up Scotland might be the CONVENTIONAL way to play England, but diverging from that won’t result in catastrophe.

    You raise a very good question there. I’d have to think about that one, but my initial impression is, you can still throw in the forces that shaped that period of history — it’s only really puzzle-like if there’s no real choice about how to respond. So in HOI, each combatant has a lot of choice as to what kind of military it wants to build up, and when and where it should attack country X.

  3. You are complaining that there is only one way out for a destroyed empire? In an almost hopeless situation? Of course there is. That’s basic. Same as taking out Granada. Why is it basic? Because, in literally any strategy game, you do not over extend yourself. You solidify your base. You can’t win in a game or real life without a strong base. So you are complaining about an element that is in all games, but you just now noticed? And its not a puzzle anymore than any other strategy game. Also, puzzles and games do tend to lose fun when you read the answers. And who the hell gives up and France? Me and my friend took all of Southern France when we played instead. Easily. It’s not even 1405 yet.

    1. First, disagreeing with me is cool, but if you’re going to comment here, kindly leave the hostile attitude at the door. :)

      Re-read what I said. The whole point of my post is that yes, playing Byzantium is more of a puzzle than other strategy games (or even other nations in EU3) because this particular case isn’t about “not over-extending yourself”; it’s about trial and error, reloading and reloading in order to perfectly execute that one early war against the Ottomans.

  4. As much as I want the survival of Byzantium in theory I mostly want it to be destroyed. My country of choice is Russia, which needs Constantinople to fall in order to become the third Rome. Besides, Russia was the largest “Christian empire” ever (not counting gb as it wasn’t really religious in conquest), so I enjoy the fact of being the defender of the faith as a large orthodox empire with no Byzantium to claim the same title.
    That being said, In my opinion, Russia follows a similar post hoc course of events. Ie. Novgorod first, Kazan second, defend from Poland, etc. Would you not agree? I find that there are certainly a one true method for many countries. Another one is Brandenburg, who needs x provinces by a certain year in order to become Prussia. I often find I miss this event and get angry and just edit the game file out of frustration.

    1. I’ve actually never played one of the Russian nations, so I can’t comment on that example. You’re probably right that there is a “one true method” for many countries, but it’s not the end of the world if, say, you do something different as England — whereas it IS the end of the world if you do something different as Byzantium.

      In the case of your Brandenburg example, ouch, I’d edit the game files too!

  5. Hello Peter. Out of pure frustration and over-extension of my Byzantium State I searched for solutions on the web and came across your post. It seems I face a quagmire if you are to load my last saved game.

    Intuitively I have taken the same trial and error approach when it comes to practical conquest. If you were to load my most recent saved game you will find it’s the year 1495. I have defeated the Ottoman Empire (100% Annex option). I also have full control of Albania, Bosnia and Greece along with my off-shore provinces, Naxos, Crete, Malta and Venice.

    The peculiar twist, I’ve lost Casis Bali on Ottoman Core provinces meaning if I annex the Empire I will gain a ridiculous sum of infamy whereas everyone inadvertently declares war on me. (France has control of Macedonia, they actually halt and scale back my conquest). Not to mention my flawed Social Policy, it’s ravaged my provinces with revolts after revolt not even making it feasible to annex the Ottoman Empire in the first place.

    Question is, should I simply restart the game and focus on the Ottomans before I loose them as core territories? Also, should I overlook my conversion practices of forcing Orthodoxy down the throats of my provinces? That may be one of the reasons for the high level of revolts (aside from exhaustion and partisans.)

    Out of curiosity what did you do after you recon-quested you’re historically lost provinces? Create a Byzantium South America? If all went well I could have realistically gone forth in doing so (I could have control of Gibraltar thanks to Ottomans making it a core province.)

    Everyone may feel free to respond. Thanks.

    1. Hi Collin,

      I’m not an expert on EU3, so I may not be the best person to help – have you tried the Paradox forum? That said, I’ll give it a shot…

      If you’ve lost your cores on the Ottoman provinces, and as such, lost the Reconquest casus belli… yeah, things would be a lot trickier. I think it would still be possible to continue with the infamy hit (though life would be very unpleasant while you worked your way back down under the infamy limit), but it wouldn’t be easy. How did you manage to defeat the Ottomans in a later war, out of curiosity?

      I did convert my provinces back to Orthodoxy after I conquered them, so I don’t think that’s a problem.

      After I reconquered the lost Ottoman provinces, I went west and conquered, I think, most of Italy. Around that point I lost interest in the game, since it no longer felt “tense” – I was now one of the foremost powers of the Mediterranean. I could easily have continued east to fight the Mamelukes etc, though, or tried fighting the Western Europeans (probably not a good idea, since the Spanish had slightly better tech than me as well as a large empire, but it would have been possible).

  6. I see what you’re saying Peter, but can we come up with any alternatives?

    The Byzantine Empire is an empire that is literally at its last hurrah, with a very powerful and aggressive nation on its doorstep that thinks that your capital should belong to them. As the Byzantine Empire, why shouldn’t your survival depend on removing the enemy at your gates?

    What other strategies do you think should exist? And for a game where you can choose from any of the one province minors that exist on any given day, I think it might be unreasonable to expect that every nation that you can play be given a multitude of viable opening strategies to ensure survival.

    I was just trying out a Divine Wind campaign as Byzantine and yeah, there are a lot of potential pitfalls that can immediately make you think “well, I might as well restart,” but how often do we (I include myself in this) see how things actually go?

    In my game I quickly annexed Candar and Karaman, but not before Tripoli joined Karaman in an alliance and declared war on me. Now I have to hope I can find a way to make Tripoli surrender before more Arab nations decide that my little spec in Asia minor has annoyed them.

    But I’ve also seen people who start off with opening moves against Greece. But I’m not sure there should be a viable alternative to avoiding the Ottoman’s, when they sit on a ton of your cores and they are salivating at your historic capital.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Allan. You raise some good points, especially about whether nations in a very bad position (one-province minors and Byzantium) _can_ have more than one strategy.

      However, while I agree that a showdown with the Ottomans should probably be inevitable in this case, the game (at least when I tried it in HTTT) was utterly inflexible as to the _timing_ of that showdown. If I didn’t hit the Ottomans in the first few years, while they were off fighting the Timurids, bam. Is this a realistic depiction of the choices available to a glorified two-province minor? Quite possibly: the Ottomans don’t have to worry about many other distractions besides the Timurids. Is this limitation fun? Not so much. The lesson si probably, caveat emptor for those who play one/two-province minors!

      By the way, how did you go with your Divine Wind campaign? Did you have time to take out Tripoli before the Ottomans piled in?

  7. I personally didn’t take the ottomans untill nearly 1550. I expanded at the expense of aragon, of all places, when they went hammer and tongs against castille. I ended up with sardinia, sicily, and the baleares. From that base I managed to knock out naples and from there slowly worked my way through italy. I raised enough money to build a reasonable fleet and drove the ottomans crazy with boats whenver they attacked me. This made them utterly innefectual against any province of mine, as a strong boat blockade kept them from crossing and my admirals easilly outclassed theirs, as I had gone full naval. After rolling up Venice and stealing the newly risen croatia, I proceeded to wipe out the ottomans with overwhelming force. I used my boats to trap their army in rhodes, which I owned. I then too over the entire country and from there it was a short road to taking over most of the italian and greeak peninsulas. There is more than one sttrategy available. You simply need to keep the ottomans busy with rebels long enough to build a base away from their borders. I managed to completely avoid asia minor and macedonia for 100 years or more. There are plenty of options, yoyu just have to be sneaky and improvise to circumstances as they are presented. In my case, the circumstance was an ambitious castille. In yours, it could be entirely different…

    1. I stand corrected, then — that sounds like a very cool alternative strategy. Thanks for sharing!

      I’m guessing you hit Aragon while the Ottomans were distracted with the Timurids? If you only had two provinces, I imagine money would be too tight at that stage to incite rebellions.

  8. I apologize, for this is a bit off the head topic, but I wanted to voice my opinion on EU3.

    As much as a I love EU3, I was disappointed in the HTTT expansion. Many claim it brings more realism into the game, but I don’t see how that is. They totally removed historical rulers which means any upstart can possibly sieze control of your throne.

    In addition, (again with the historical accuracy) I was playing England, and Henry IV who supposedly lives until the year 1413, left the throne in 1403. I was like, whaaaaaat?

    So, how is this realistic or historically accurate?

    I know many people like the freedom which HTTT brings to the game, but I prefer the historical aspect of the “complete” version of the game and its historical rulers.

  9. John, I’m sure Peter will have his own thoughts. However my opinion is that EUIII is more of a historical sandbox. It doesn’t need to play out exactly like history otherwise it just ends up being a rehash of history. I much rather a game that tries to keep a lose grasp on what happens within a historical context, but also allows the game to take unexpected turns. The beauty is the “what if” scenarios. What if the Tuetonic Order conquered Norway and Sweden rather than venturing south to Poland and Lithuania. What if Castille sucumbed to Aragon and Portugal? What if France was decimated by Austria (as what happened in my last game).

    I don’t see the loss of historical rulers as being too much of a problem. It can certainly cause a few headaches when one goes too soon and suddenly the Monarchy is replaced by a regency. Or another country makes a claim for the throne. But that is the joy of the game.

  10. in reply to OP:
    your thoughts about ‘inflation’ in EU3 have been bothering me as well. Debasing of the currency actually didn’t occur to me, and when you mentioned it I thought “well of course he’s quite right, at least according to currently traditional economics” but really its seems that that it’s not a good rationale behind this game mechanic – would any country devote up to half its annual budget into schemes to debase its own currency? That seems like a lot of money for a small amount of effort. On the one hand, I think it’s fairly obviously a way to make it hard to force your economy to produce a scandalous amount of money in EU3. On the other, to rationalise it, and make it line up with the (possible) true state of economics in the real world (as I humbly understand it), i’m currently hypothesising that taxing business owners forces them to raise their prices, and therefore produces inflation. Any comments on this idea by more educated souls would be much appreciated, not just for rationalising EU3 (lol) but hopefully to teach me something about this somewhat mysterious phenomena of inflation. It occurs to me that if such a tax was applied to consumers (workers), such as with an income tax, the consequences would not be quite the same.

    1. Well, in EU3, minting increases the funds available to spend, so it does seem to be consistent with minting more and more coins but putting less and less silver in each coin (For an entry-level look at the subject, I recommend the early chapters of Philip Coggan’s Paper Promises.)

      Real-world economics is beyond the scope of this blog, I’m afraid, but the macroeconomics textbooks (local library, and I think there are some free online ones) should be able to help. :D If you’re interested in economics, might I point you to the free courses starting in a few months’ time at Coursera.org, or to the free development economics series at http://www.MRuniversity.com?

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