Europa Universalis takes place in the time of discoveries (1492-1799). As player, you will take over and control a European power of that time. In the "grand campaign"-mode, starting 1492, eight major powers are available to choose from. In the German version they are: Austria, England, Portugal, Spain, France, Poland, Turkey and Russia (as Prussia was a vassal of Poland at that time, it will be available only in scenarios with a later starting date). You may choose your goals to your taste, ranging from building a colonial empire or obtaining the military hegemony in Europe to the more peaceful approach of focusing on trade and getting along with your neighbours by employing diplomatic genius. Want to conquer the Incas and Aztecs? Spain will be ready to employ it's conquistadors! Want to call for a crusade and throw the infidels out of Europe? Have a go with Austria or Poland! Want to crush christendom and capture the Pope? The post of the turkish sultan is held free for you! Want to get elected to Holy Roman Emperor? Don't hesitate to employ your diplomatic cunning! Apart from the major powers, there are 66 minor countries following their own agendas, and - with only a little textfile-editing - they are all available for play also! So if you want to build a trade empire with Venice or want to survive as the Order of the Teutonic Knights, just go ahead!
You generally play on a map of Europe (which later expands to a map of the whole world!), and in political mode, this map has a very nice "historical atlas" feel to it. To expand the map, you have to discover sealanes to other continents either by yourself or by exchanging maps with your allies, or by simply stealing them.
Despite the fact that the game allows for "alternate history" (well, that's the fun!), the starting stats for each country are pretty historical. As time passes, all the countries will get their historical kings/generals/admirals with appropriate stats concerning their abilities. So when e.g. Gustavus Adolfus ascends the throne in Sweden, this country will likely consider WAR!
The units of warfare available to your generals/admirals are infantry, cavalry, artillery and three types of ships. According to your country, you have more or less of these units available right from the start. Additional troops and units have to be conscripted/built. War can be declared to anyone at anytime. But beware! If you do not have a Casus Belli, internal stability will drop and revolutions are likely to occur, which will eventually result in territories breaking loose from your empire forming new countries (e.g. the emergence of the Netherlands is quite likely, though no events are hardwired). If you decide to rampage Europe like a madman, you will find yourself alone and losing soon.
So what you need is a strong alliance! Here, the diplomatic model of the game really shines. You may improve relations to other countries by sending gifts or proposing a "Royal marriage". Degree of success depends on many variables (sharing the same "faith" being one of them). Any country may set up an alliance and inviting other countries to join. Soon there will be several competing alliances trying to hold the balance. When war is declared, every country will consider whether to honour the alliance it is in. When it has good relations to the leader of the alliance, it will mostly do so. Peace talks will be generally held by the leaders of the alliances, although separate peace treaties between countries are also possible. In case of victory the leader also divides the bounty (money and provinces) among the allies. As leader of an alliance you may very well choose to take all, but beware! The relations to your "allies" will severely suffer. Having a trustful ally over a longer period of time may prove very valuable: Some countries will offer to be your vassal or even agree to be annexed by you peacefully (a vassal will contribute half of it's income to your economy and you are allowed to freely move your troops through that country).
Building up economy and infrastructure is important for success - if you seriously lag behind, you will have no money to conscript troops or you will loose battles against much smaller armies with better tech. There are several tech-levels in the game and you have to invest an amount of your annual income to gain them more or less quickly. There are also several fortification levels for cities and levels of administration.Part of your income will be contributed by the wealth of your provinces and part will be gained by trade. There are several centers of trade (COTs) - e.g. at Venice or at the Hansa in Holstein - where merchants from all of Europe compete. The owner of a COT may exclude countries from trading there, so there's much room for economic warefare. New COTs will be established when a country/province meets certain criteria.
The game comes with several scenarios, one of them a tutorial. New scenarios will be available for free soon. The manual is really good and impressive in its comprehensiveness.
I will now turn to more tech-related issues: Most important here is the game being "realtime". This may at first glance repulse many hardcore gamers, who (like me) generally opt for turnbased games. But don't worry! Apart from setting speed to your taste, you may always pause and give whatever commands you want (like in Carriers at War). So the pause button here is not just a ?freeze?-function like e.g. in Age of Empires.
The AI is really good and - according to Paradox - NOT cheating. Even the so common "ganging up against the human player" does not occur. Because of the simultaneous simulation of the actions of so many countries, at least a P300 with 64 MB Ram (2MB videoram) is needed to play EU. The game has multiplayer capability (up to 8 players via LAN). Overall, Europa Universalis is one of the best strategy games I've ever played, bar none. A true classic.
Note by Underdogs: After an some false starts and troubles in securing a US distribution, this huge Germany hit has finally been translated into English and distributed stateside by Strategy First. Even better still, Hartmann, our reviewer of this underdog, is one of the die-hard fans who released a modified version of the game's Grand Campaign that makes it even more historically accurate. Check out his labor of love in Related Links box below :)