Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Europa Universalis III: Heir to the Throne Review

Europa Universalis III: Heir to the Throne, developed and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Specific war goals, more definitive battle results, enhanced dynasties with ruler legitimacy and lines of succession, HRE has more powers, no more silly bribing of cardinals for Papal control, spheres of influence for regional authority, trade leagues, national focus for increased benefits, improved AI uses diplomacy and military more aggressively, tweaked interface, explorable permanent terra incognita
The Not So Good: Too much freedom in recruiting new advisors, magistrates spawn too often resulting in decision spam, no decisions for the Papal Controller
What say you? The grand strategy series finishes (probably) with a must-have expansion: 8/8

After the release of the In Nomine expansion for Europa Universalis III, the “Complete” version of the product became available, which includes the base game and both expansions. Now, you would think that the “Complete” version of a game would be, you know, “complete.” Not so fast! Paradox Interactive has decided that Europa Universalis III is not yet complete enough (and that they want some more money) and commissioned the (possibly) final expansion, entitled Heir to the Throne. Significant changes include royal dynasties (hence the title) and more definite war declarations, along with the usual assortment of more minor tweaks and enhancements. Do players of Europa Universalis III need to fork over some more cash? Yeah, pretty much.

While this expansion does not obvious overhaul the graphics engine of Europa Universalis III, Heir to the Throne does make some minor changes to the map’s appearance and the interface in general. First, there are some slight improvements in the land and sea textures, although since most people play with one of the colored map modes on, I doubt many will witness this. You do get three more map modes to ascertain rebel revolt, national influence, and colonial range more efficiently. There are also some modified starting conditions to be more historically accurate, and a handful of new countries (most notably Jerusalem) added to the mix. Finally, there are shiny new gold selection buttons (not made of real gold). The interface has gotten some new pieces as well: a list of all modifiers currently in use, unit detail on the military screen, and additional alerts for military upgrades and disputed royal successions in other countries. All of these new features are right along the lines of what I would expect in an expansion, so no complaints here.

The new shiny shininess of Europa Universalis III: Heir to the Throne will be discussed in order of importance as determined by the ultimate authority: me. I'm only egocentric because I'm so awesome! First up is the vastly expanded casus belli system. Before Heir to the Throne, wars were fought without specific objectives, so once you took all of the provinces, you could get anything you wanted. Well no longer! Now, there are thirty (thirty!) precise war declarations, each with cause-specific terms of peace. For example, a “cancelled loan” casus belli gives you double prestige and half infamy for asking for money in a peace treaty, and a “colonialism” nets a quarter of the infamy and half the cost for requesting overseas provinces. There’s a complete list here; basically any reason to go to war is included. The system makes so much sense, and wars are less generic now. Honestly, I would like to see an even more severe penalty for going away from the initial terms of the war (particularly annexing provinces when the casus belli had nothing to do with conquest), but this is something that could be easily modified in the extensive text files. Related to the new casus belli options are longer battles: there are now two phases of combat at a minimum, which results in more definitive battles and less bouncing of units from province to province. Typically, two battles is all it takes to eliminate any size army; the annoying protracted battles of Europa Universalis III finally seem to have gone away. The side effect is that you need to recruit new units much more often, rather than relying on reinforcement. This does create more micromanagement, but I’m willing to give up some automation for a better battle system.

The namesake of Heir to the Throne is the new dynasty model, which adds a couple of new enhancements to kings and queens. Succession (who gets the throne when the current monarch dies) is more detailed: you have legal heirs that will inherit the throne (children of the monarch first, followed by family members). These heirs can inconveniently die, opening the door for less legitimate rulers; there can be a disputed succession if their claim on the throne is not strong enough. If royal marriages are involved, other nations can actually inherit the throne; this is where the danger lies in improving your relations through the use of royal marriages. It is important to keep your prestige high to be first in line for a personal union. A more manual approach to ownership is to claim the throne of another nation, granting one of those new casus belli and allowing you to form a personal union where you reap all of the monetary benefits of owning a country without actually having to run it. Countries can also share bloodlines forming a dynasty, where the same family has rulers in multiple nations; this tends to improve relations. The new dynasty elements are nice, but they do not impact your day-to-day empire like other improvements in Heir to the Throne do: you only notice the new features when your king or queen dies, although you can position yourself for a peaceful annexation through inheritance using diplomatic means.

Heir to the Throne has also changed how advisors can be hired. Before, potential cabinet members were semi-randomly born in your country, and you could hire them to your three-person court. Now, you can use cultural tradition, earned through certain buildings and decisions, to hire quality men to help lead your country. You can choose from any of the thirty-six advisor types, as long as you have the very minimal tradition requirements. Because of this, there is a high degree of freedom in choosing the exact advisor that’s right for you. Less luck is involved, but I feel that you are given too much freedom: I would much rather have to choose from a pool of, say, ten candidates, instead of having access to the entire roster of advisors. Of course, the AI countries have the same options, so everyone benefits from the imbalance. Advisors are still “born” in your nation the traditional way, but the access to high-quality advisors makes the bonuses much more important.

The Holy Roman Emperor gets some more powers. Imperial authority, earned by helping out member nations, can be spent on reforms, improving relations with members, or granting casus belli against non-members who intrude your exclusive club. While the Emperor gets all these fancy new reforms, the Papal Controller gets…nothing. It’s kind of a letdown that the Papacy only has the powers of excommunication and crusades when you consider all of the other new tidbits in Heir to the Throne. Well, maybe next expansion (ha ha, I think). What Heir to the Throne has done for the Papacy is eliminated bribing cardinals: now, your probability of having a cardinal represent your country is dependent on following Catholic-like policies (narrowminded policy, namely) and being friendly with the Papal State. Less micromanagement equals good.

Guarantees are useful little declarations that allow you to declare war on any country that declares war on the country you guaranteed (huh?). But what if the bad country merely does a spy or diplomatic action against your little buddy? Say “hello” to sphere of influence! You can now spend prestige to expand your influence, allowing you to gain a casus belli on any country who messes with one of your dependents. You can only select those countries with a less significant military and economy that are close enough to your country, but this is a nice, somewhat automated way of declaring war against other superpowers that get a bit too brazen. Speaking of prestige, it now takes a more significant role in the game thanks to the spheres of influence. You can also earn more prestige thanks to more specific peace treaties, and it seems to decay more slowly, keeping more powerful countries large and in charge.

Monarchies don’t get all of the fun, as trade leagues are added for merchant republic to finagle. Now there is something for everyone! Except for tribes: they suck. In a trade league, there is no competition among members and all business is directed through the league center of trade. The result is a lot more income for all, since the income of the center of trade can be much larger, encompassing regions that would have normally been outside of the range. Nations can request that specific goods be traded through a center of trade instead of having all goods, if a trade league is out of the question. These expanded options result in more interesting trade, as nations fight for control of the world’s economy.

Heir to the Throne lets you define a national focus, which provides positive bonuses (tax, colonial, growth, missionary, revolt) to any province. You can switch it once every twenty-five years, and it’s useful for growing colonies and making your neighbors angry by placing it on a border. The importance of this feature is not very high, though, as the bonuses are generally minimal and the frequency you can change it is low.

Instead of just declaring decisions left and right, Heir to the Throne makes you use magistrates. This tends to slow down the use of provincial and national decisions, although the high number of magistrates you get really makes the use of them silly: you can almost constantly spam decisions and pretty much execute all of the decisions you need in every province anyway, if you are a large enough country. In fact, some decisions make more magistrates, further expanding the oversaturation. Personally, I'd like to see the frequency of magistrates to be halved (which, of course, I could easily modify in two seconds if I wanted). Also, the province decision ledger page should be better organized: using a single number for the same decision would be very helpful (like all “embassies” are decision #1), instead of displaying them in some semi-random order.

OK, we’re almost done. You can waste your time exploring permanent terra incognita, as Heir to the Throne adds wastelands that can’t be colonized; dedicated players will have memorized all of the permanent terra incognita zones anyway, so this is a superfluous new feature. Trade winds provide faster movement (and greater colonial range) through certain sea provinces, which is supposed to produce more historically-accurate colonization; the results are essentially invisible. Pirates require less micromanagement as a fleet in a port will automatically scout the surrounding sea provinces without being told to do so: I like it. Finally (whew!), the AI has been noticeably improved: they are smarter with diplomatic actions, being more active and more aggressive when the opportunity arises. This means you can’t be as isolationist as in previous versions of the game. I think it’s still impressive you can actually play this intricate game with and against the AI, considering the ever-increasing complexity of the series.

Simply put, if you have Europa Universalis III, you need Heir to the Throne. I mean, look at the length of this review…for an expansion! That alone should tell you that there is a lot of new stuff! The changes introduced here all alter the gameplay for the better, and are significant enough to clearly justify $20. Heck, downloadable content (all the rage) usually introduces a couple of needless maps for $10, so Heir to the Throne is definitely worth the investment. Why, you ask? Most significant is the addition of thirty specific casus belli; these give a real nice objective for each war, other than generic “capture provinces” and whatever other demands you can squeeze out of your war score. Battles are also more decisive thanks to increased minimum length; you will have to spend a lot more money building new troops during and after a war instead of simply reinforcing existing units. The dynasty model is a nice touch, adding more detail to what happens when a monarch dies. You don't really notice it until a leader dies, though, so it does not impact normal gameplay too much. Merchant republics get trade leagues instead of ruler succession, as a way to band together with allies and make fat stacks of cash. Specific advisors can be recruited, utilizing a more directed and less random approach to country-wide bonuses. It seems a bit unfair to be able to say what kinds of people are born in your country, but since every nation has this ability, I guess everyone benefits equally. Controlling the Holy Roman Empire has gotten more interesting with empire-wide edicts, though the Papacy is the same minus bribing for cardinals. You can gain a precious casus belli for any country under your sphere of influence (a use for prestige) and define a national focus for increased bonuses. Magistrates are now required for national and regional decisions, permanent terra incognita can be explored but not settled, and guarding against pirates is easier as fleets have a larger scouting influence. Finally, the AI is improved yet again, providing a much more active and aggressive foe, both in combat and in diplomacy: thumbs up. Most of my admittedly minor game balance complaints listed up in the header (advisors, magistrates) are personal preferences that could be easily modified in the game's extensive text files given a minute or two, so I frankly can't justify taking points off for them. In the end, Heir to the Throne adds a litany of features that easily justifies another expansion, one that any fan of the Europa Universalis series will appreciate.