Saturday, July 16, 2011

The History Of Japan-As Seen Through Paradox

Paradox Interactive has long been known as a producer of highly detailed, accurate, and immersive historical simulations for home computers. Their upcoming effort "Sengoku" promises to debut as the be-all end-all of strategy games for Japan's Warring States period (the Sengoku Jidai, which began with the Onin War in 1467 and lasted for well over a hundred years). Slated for a September release, we'll be doing an interview with the game's developers and designers along with an in-depth review. Until then, we'd thought we'd spotlight two other recent Paradox sims that between them stretch from the days of the Muromachi Bakufu in 1399 to the early years of the 20th century. "Europa Universalis III: Divine Wind" introduces Japan and China to the popular Europa Universalis series, while "Pride of Nations" is an original effort by AGEOD that covers the world's great powers between 1850 and 1920.

The original Europa Universalis was introduced in 2000 and proved to be wildly popular among strategy gamers, with two later versions of the game and four expansion packs. Currently, you can play as any of over 300 historical nations controlling more than 1700 provinces and regions in games that can stretch from 1399-1820. And in DAILY turns. Yes, daily-and we're not even going to speculate if it's the Gregorian, Julian, or Lunar calendar. "Divine Wind" is the latest expansion pack, giving a new dimension to the previously generic nations of Japan and China. While Europa Universalis II had released a special version (entitled 'Asia Chapters') giving life to the Orient for Asian markets, this is the first time it has done so in the West. Since this is, after all, the Shogun-ki, we'll be focusing on gameplay as Japan.

The first thing you'll notice is that instead of the game using historical 'clans', it uses a system popular in Japanese gaming-having the nation controlled by the Genpei Toukitsu, the "Four Famous Clans" of Minamoto, Taira, Tachibana, and Fujiwara that almost all samurai supposedly can trace their roots to. Since the game covers roughly 400 years and the entire world, this was probably a good choice-with all the other nations, it simply wouldn't have been possible to keep track of all the tiny clans that emerged and were destroyed over the years. Just think of the 'Genpei Toukitsu' as representing the different clans that descended from them. While you're perfectly free to try anything you want anywhere in the world (we invaded Ming China on Turn One just to see if we could), this will cause disruption and unrest among your people, so it's best to concentrate on consolidating Japan under your leadership first. After all, only the Shogun can effectively carry on diplomatic relations with outside countries.

Juggling your economic resources to keep your people happy, developing your provinces with buildings, and recruiting military units are the basic building blocks of this type of game. However, you can also recruit leaders and other 'great men of history', each with their unique strengths and weaknesses. As the economy and technology develop, more and more choices and options open to players. Missions are given to players and can range from elaborate to simple-our first mission involved adding to the nation's culture by cultivating the art of tending to cherry blossoms. These missions sometimes require concurrent advances in different fields along with using up specialized personnel. Diplomacy allows players to do something as subtle as insulting a rival to provoke a war and leave your opponent looking like the bad guy. You can sponsor artists and writers to heighten the nation's culture. Keeping your military tradition high is crucial in insuring you will have effective generals and admirals to recruit. Battles are played out on a strategic level, and there are no 'real time' tactical level battles. Players can set priorities for their nations by adjusting sliders that determine how much of a country's resources will go into them. Each aspect of the game has repercussions for every other aspect, meaning that a wise player will not just look at the immediate effects of a decision but also how it will affect other factors over time.

The level of depth and options in Europa Universalis is staggering. You can recruit all sorts of agents-spies, admirals, conquistadors, diplomats, missionaries, all with different functions. Spies can perform all sorts of actions, ranging from counterfeiting another area's currency to undermining their guild structures and spreading false rumors. Unlike many games of this ilk, steamrolling province after province without provocation will result in bad things happening to the player. Unbridled aggression will drive up a player's infamy, a game device which fits in well with Japanese history-think of how Oda Nobunaga or Taira no Kiyomori tended to unite the ranks of their disorganized foes. Provoking opponents into rash attacks or coming into a war on the side of an ally who was 'unjustly attacked' provide much safer avenues for expansion.

One area in the game we noticed that comes up a bit short is 'localization'. Most game terms are European (understandable, since the game is centered on Europe, and having more than one set of commands would cause mass confusion). Likewise, many of the portraits the game uses are of Europeans and look completely out of place when matched up with a Japanese character. Many of the Japanese characters have clearly Chinese names. Overall, given the scale of the game, this a relatively minor annoyance.

Graphics are effective, relatively uncluttered, and there are multiple intuitive interfaces and filters that will tell you at the click of a button virtually any bit of information you'd ever want to know. Even though the game runs day-by-day over 400 years, it can be sped up greatly so the days fall away like a fluttering desk calendar. It can also be slowed down or paused during times of great activity where precision is paramount. And of course, playing as Japan just scratches the surface of what's on tap. Virtually any nation you can think of in any time period covered is available, offering a whole new gaming experience. Exploration, colonization, and developing new technologies become a big part of gameplay. While historical technology can be sped up by infusing it with development cash, it becomes much harder to do so the further it diverges from its historical appearance. Victory is determined largely by the goals players set for themselves-obviously, making France, England, or Russia the #1 nation in the world will be much easier than doing so with a small Germanic state-or even Japan. But often realizing a modest goal with a small faction is far tougher than meeting a large goal with a large nation. This makes for an almost endless variety of game experiences, as the goals for each nation are set by the players themselves and are easily changed from game to game. While there are no scenarios per se, there are bookmarked years that allow players to start the game in years of note-like the discovery of the new world, the League of Cambrai, the Thirty Years War, and the American and French Revolutions. There are ample mods for the game, which we'll delve into later in the review. Anyone interested in the game would likely be better off buying the "Europa Universalis III: Chronicles" pack which includes the original game and all the expansions, including Divine Wind. It's far more convenient than buying them separately.

We could go on and on giving details for Europa Universalis, but we still have "Pride of Nations" to cover. While similar in play to the Europa Universalis series, Pride of Nations is even more elaborate. While the main playable choices are the USA, Great Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, you can actually play as virtually any country on the map (albeit without getting country specific 'events').

We started off as Japan again, and found that the game rewards players that proceed in an historical manner. Thus your early goal is to keep the Tokugawa Shogunate in business, putting down rebels and earning valuable Prestige Points that make your nation stronger. Early turns in our mini-campaign were spent building up Japan's basic economy as quickly as possible while also putting together a small fleet that could trade with Southeast Asia. Trying to speed up history and getting rid of the Tokugawa will result in a shattered country that could provide easy pickings for circling Europeans. The change in the political climate will come soon enough, and it's important to have a Japan that can economically take advantage of it-as well as one with enough prestige to count on the world stage.

The strongest aspect of the game is the military component (an aspect of play that AGEOD has excelled at), an armchair general's fantasy. You have all the building blocks you need to form any unit from a company to an army, and they can be combined in any way imaginable (although there is a minimum size for an independent unit). Supply units, engineers, infantry, artillery, cavalry, and more-they're all here. Leader units usually have a photo of the historical leader on their counters, and clicking on each unit will show an illustration of their uniforms and arms-again, specific to each country. Individual ships will have a photo of the historical ship on the counter wherever possible. Garrisons are raised automatically as needed (representing a sort of 'local militia'). Each unit is rated in a mind-boggling variety of categories-range, ammo, cohesion, aggressiveness, speed, discipline, and recon being a few. There are over FIVE HUNDRED special abilities a unit can possess. Combat is again played out on the strategic level-no tactical battles. Units can simply march to a location, or use rail and naval transport (if you have it).

Pride of Nations also emphasizes logistics and supply. Putting together a large force to send to East Africa is easy-keeping it alive once it's there is a whole other story. An army far from home that doesn't has access to plentiful ammo, food, and replacement parts is an army in a world of trouble. Whether it's horse drawn supply attached to units, rail, or naval transport, setting up your the supply network is all important. Attrition to units via climate, disease, and moving through rough terrain can deplete an elite unit in no time. Much like the real world, non-battlefield casualties account for just as much damage or more than those sustained in battle. And also much like the real world, the army with the best logistics will be the one in the best position to win. Players with the patience and ability to put together a strong supply network will find the going much easier. Other than the Takeda series of games, we can't recall a sim involving Japan where supply was such a crucial element.

Diplomacy is a bit abstract-there are the standard options for making alliances, defensive treaties, and right of access along with less common ones like making inter-country loans. Declaring war is somewhat difficult-it's not as easy as just saying so. Players will need a casus belli to do so, which often comes out of a 'crisis'. This is an event generated by the game and is determined by several factors-the state of diplomatic relations between counties, troops gathered on a border, or a disputed parcel of land being some of these. This triggers a crisis where the player has six turns to either go up by three dominance points or simply be ahead at the end. Dominance is established by press conferences, oratory, calling for a resolution or delay, or attempting to gain the support of third parties. Winning a crisis might garner enough prestige points to justify declaring war on an opponent.

The economic aspect of the game is excellent. It's largely based on manufacturing while keeping your population happy enough to prevent rioting. Manufacturing allows for lucrative international trade in conjunction with a merchant fleet. These are vital for procuring raw materials and items not found in your country (a real problem for resource-starved Japan) to keep those factories running and the cash rolling in. The level of detail is so layered that a player can actually set up a factory in a different country (pursuant to an agreement to do so) and ship finished goods back to the homeland. Another nice aspect is the distinction between private and government funds-government funds are raised from different sources and are used mainly for military funding, whereas private funds bankroll factories. Colonization is obviously a big help in supplying whatever resource a country might be lacking in, so most of the game's battles center on colony disputes rather than direct invasions of the mother country. In countries that have elections, you can also attempt to push one candidate over the other (although as always your people might have different ideas!). Social classes, education, religion, nationalism, and ethnicity all have a hand in determining the stability of the home front.

Graphics are a bit more whimsical than in Europa Universalis, with tiny animated ships traversing the globe. We found the old fashioned real-time clock in the upper right a nice reminder that we needed to keep track of things in the real world, since the game is very addictive. Another nice touch was the background music-over 100 selections that reprise some of the more memorable period tunes. The map has several different modes (military, economic, decision, colonial) and several filters can show the supply grid, key cities, and even the weather. Unlike a lot of games, turns are simultaneous-when you click end turn, all of your orders made during the turn are then executed at the same time that every other country's orders are executed. This makes things far more unpredictable, as enemy forces will often move before an attack can be carried out.

Even with all of the research that went into the game, there were still some things that made us groan in the set-up. Shimazu Nariakira was shown as Daimyo of Tosa on Shikoku, not in Kagoshima (Satsuma) on Kyushu. Likewise, one of the Tokugawa is shown as being in control of Hiroshima and Tokugawa Yoshinobu is installed as a leader in Edo in 1850 (when he's only 13 and should be in Mito). Thankfully, he hasn't been made Shogun yet.

The biggest complaint among players of the game centers around its length. The Grand Campaign runs for 1680 turns, and on top of that the computer AI takes a LONG time between turns to make its decisions and sort out/coordinate all the orders given by all the factions. Mods are on the way that will double the time periods each turn covers (halving the number of turns), and hopefully some sort of patch that will address the AI decision making lag. If you're really impatient, there are four short 'battle scenarios' (including the Russo-Japanese War) that remove the economic element and allow you to slug it out-with the Spanish-American War scenario also available as DLC.

Pride of Nations is an amazing game that provides players with an avalanche of information, options, and materials but somehow makes it all manageable. With the different situations facing each country, it also has unlimited replay value-which is extended even further by the AI giving each country different objective cities each playthrough. With a strong military aspect, an excellent economic and diplomatic component, and establishing trade and colonialism as an integral part of success, it takes its place at the top of the list in grand strategic games.

Paradox makes their strategy games mod-friendly, so there are tons of interesting player-created mods for Europa Universalis and there are probably just as many on the way for the recently released Pride of Nations. Mods range from simply setting up new scenarios to changing the map, introducing new artwork and unit appearances, and plugging in new scripts. The load screens for the games even allow you to choose any mod you've downloaded before booting up! The best place to find mods to download is at the Paradox Interactive Forums...not to mention the skilled and knowledgeable players that will be able to help you out in any situation you might get into. Both games also offer online multiplayer (both LAN and online), with up to 32 different players taking part in the same campaign for Europa Universalis.

Both of these games make for great learning tools for those who don't just want to read about why history played out as it did, but also to experience it. They're the descendants of the monster board wargames of the 1970's and 80's with the advantages of greater depth and zero recordkeeping. While you won't get the 'real time battles' of "Total War-Shogun 2", you will get a much greater sense of running a faction's diplomacy, economy, and military along with an unmatched level of control and detail. There are no quick fixes here-you have to be thinking out your strategy years in advance, just not a couple of turns. You won't find more involved, well-researched, and addictive history games than these. Did we mention how inexpensive they are? Europa Universalis Chronicles lately has been on sale at Gamersgate for under $10, a steal. Pride of Nations is less than 20 bucks. Considering the amount of well-spent time you can enjoy playing them, it's the cheapest entertainment option around.You can find "Europa Universalis III Chronicles" and "Pride of Nations" on, or (recommended) in downloadable form at venues such as Gamersgate or Steam.


  1. What about Victoria II????

  2. We're thinking of doing that at some point, along with Hearts of Iron: Semper Fi! and Supreme Ruler: Cold War (which lets you play as a post-WWII occupied Japan-talk about having your hands tied). That would pretty much bring things up to the present. Sengoku will be the focus for awhile, with a preview this weekend.