Why I Love: Achievements in Europa Universalis IV

At the time of writing, I’ve just conquered Kent, the last English province on the British Isles. It took 298 years (between the game’s opening in 1444 and the final peace in 1744) but at last Ireland controls the whole of both islands. When I’ve finished integrating the land into my empire I get the message I’ve been waiting for: I’ve earned the ‘Luck of the Irish’ achievement. To get the achievement, you’ve got to be playing the game as an Irish state in ironman mode and you need to own and have cores on every province in the British Isles. It’s tough, partially since Ireland doesn’t exist in 1444. Instead, you choose one of the many independent kingdoms on the island (Kildare for me) and by making a few judicious alliances you conquer your equally small neighbours. Playing as an Irish state means constantly dodging annihilation. If you stab your friends in the back and eat your neighbours too quickly, they’re likely to band together, beat you, and divide you up. If you don’t, though, you’ll be unprepared for the moment England or Scotland decide Ireland looks like a nice place to expand.

Trying to get Luck of the Irish made for a great campaign and it speaks to what makes achievements in Europa Universalis IV so good. They ask you to succeed with states you wouldn’t normally play, or to pursue specific, unusual goals with the major players. Without achievements, EUIV’s immense sandbox is often overwhelming. In the beginning, it’s difficult to find an interesting state to play since the game’s options are so vast. In the late game, it’s hard to stay interested in a campaign without a goal. Achievements solve both of these problems: they allow Paradox, the developer, to highlight cool scenarios and they help players stay interested in their campaigns by setting clear goals.

As I mentioned, when you hit ‘New game’ in EUIV the state selection which follows can be overwhelming. It’s true that EUIV is primarily a game about European history and as such European states have had the most attention paid to them, but Paradox are happy to let you play one of the dozens of Asian, African, North or South American states, too. In the past, my approach when starting up EUIV was to ask myself what systems I want to explore, and then I’d pick a suitable candidate. If I want to establish overseas colonies and focus on trade, I could play as Portugal, England, or one of the Dutch provinces, for instance.

Increasingly, though, I’ve been scrolling through the achievements list and seeing what grabs my attention. Partially that’s a result of my familiarity with most aspects of EUIV, but partially too it’s a desire to be challenged without stumbling into a virtually impossible start. I could, for instance, play as the tiny kingdom of Dulkadir, sandwiched between the Ottomans and the Mamlukes, but I likely wouldn’t get very far before being eaten by one or the other.

On the other side of the Black Sea, however, is Wallachia, in a similar position between Hungary and the Ottomans. Because there’s an achievement related to playing Wallachia (Dracula’s Revenge, which asks you to form Romania and own the Balkans) I can take it that survival and success is possible, if not likely. Achievements are important in part because they work as a kind of developer seal of approval that someone, somewhere has done this and no you shouldn’t get discouraged just because Hungary moved 20,000 troops to your border.

As important a practical matter as that is, though, it’s not very exciting. Achievements are more than a seal of approval that something is possible – they’re a marker that a particular challenge is interesting and fun. Partially that’s because a state with an achievement attached to it is likely to be unique. That is, they’re likely to have their own ideas. In EUIV, every state has a track of ideas they can access as they their monarch points on idea groups. So as France when you invest the requisite number of points you advance to the first idea on the track, French Language in All Courts, which gives you an extra diplomatic relation slot. As you advance further along the track you get more ideas associated with the particular state you’re playing. France’s final idea is Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, which allows you to more easily tolerate people with different religions.

In addition, states have a tradition, which is a bonus they get at the start of the game, and an ambition, which is a bonus they get when they unlock all the ideas on their track. It’s a great system both for teaching bite-sized chunks of history and for making states distinctive. Mostly, states have generic idea groups. Most of the tiny principalities where German is the primary culture have generic German ideas, and Dulkadir, which we mentioned earlier, has generic Anatolian ideas. Paradox have not designed a unique idea group for every state, likely because most players want to play states they know and not some obscure duchy which was semi-independent from 1444-1445.

Achievements, however, are reserved for states Paradox have paid attention to, and thus for states with their own idea group. Indeed, in cases like Wallachia’s they appear to be designed to give players in an extremely difficult position a fighting chance. One of Wallachia’s traditions, for instance, increases the cost of coring their territory, effectively discouraging others from declaring war on them. Of course, that’s less because the war would be difficult (it wouldn’t) but because integrating the land you’ll conquer would be an expensive pain. As such, Dracula’s Revenge is as much a barebones campaign as a standalone achievement to pursue. Paradox have given you the tools you need to succeed. Yes, it will be difficult and it’s possible to get into a losing position through no fault of your own, but with a bit of luck and grit you can survive and thrive.

That begs the question of why Dracula’s Revenge is an achievement at all, and not just a campaign you select from the main menu. After all, I’m happy to admit there are problems with the achievement approach. Imagine, for instance, you’re playing Wallachia and the Ottomans happen to be wildly successful. Since EUIV is a sandbox, it’s possible the Ottomans could swallow every other state that borders you and, even if you survive the initial invasion, they’ll never like you since you’re a neighbouring state with a different religion. In short, you can lose because one AI state was luckier than another AI state rather than because you played badly. Surely EUIV ought to just present you with a series of missions using the mechanics of the main game to ensure you win or lose by your wits, rather than a dice roll?

In my opinion, no. The fact that EUIV is a sandbox is what makes it interesting. In my Luck of the Irish campaign I started out by cosying up to France, my natural ally. Since they almost always win the Hundred Years’ War and push England off the continent, they’re going to be England’s enemy and as a result my friend. By chance, though, it didn’t work out that way. A few bordering kingdoms happened to declare war on France at once, and the French lost key battles. Since the AI decides whether to declare war on an enemy largely based on the size of their army and their ability to rebuild it, France entered a death spiral and in eighty years it was a third of its original size. France was weak enough that it was being continually defeated by rebel peasants inside its borders and England got to join up their continental provinces by conquering its northern coast. Suffice to say, I hastily sent off a diplomat to make Spain like me and I helped them conquer France’s Mediterranean border.

Losing France was a huge setback. I had to cede my gains in Scotland to an extremely powerful England. Only gradually was I able to build an alliance network and claw my way back from the brink. Breaking my royal marriage with France so I could declare war on the kingdom myself and loot their provinces was nerve wracking: if they ever made a resurgence, I was obviously doomed.

EUIV largely follows the contours of history (there will be a Reformation, Europeans will learn about America, there will be an Enlightenment) but what keeps me playing after hundreds of hours is that the unexpected thing sometimes happens and you have to deal with it. No two games of EUIV are the same, and by creating an array of achievements which celebrate that rather than a series of campaigns which minimize it Paradox demonstrate why they’re the best strategy developer in town.

EUIV’s achievements also help me to stay interested in a campaign in the longer term. I’ve never played a game of EUIV from the start date to the end date largely because you will either be dead or invincible long before that. Focusing on an achievement often makes this later phase more interesting, though, not least because your primary enemy can become the time left in the game until the end date in 1820 as much as competing states. So if you want the Norwegian Wood achievement, which asks you to control all provinces which produce naval supplies as Norway, you might find yourself racing against the clock to beat up that last rival or colonise that last province.

Even if the achievement is less challenging, finishing a task you set when you began a campaign provides a much more satisfying ending than merely losing interest. I don’t feel the need to continue as Ireland, because that story ended when I achieved my goal of owning every province on the British Isles. Likewise, when I completed No Trail of Tears – which requires you to own the Thirteen Colonies as the Cherokee – I didn’t feel the need to go on and get the highest score or conquer as much land as possible. I experienced that campaign and it came to a satisfying, if not tense, finale when I snuffed out that last European colony.

At their best, we’re often told, achievements suggest a new way to play an already good game. EUIV’s achievements actually exceed this definition. They’re part tutorial, part suggestion, and part mini-campaign. They give you a more directed experience than the base game without making you invent and impose rules on yourself. EUIV’s achievements make it a much better game, and for that they deserve to be celebrated.