Review: Europa Universalis IV: Mare Nostrum29 Apr 2016 2
Paradox Interactive never gives up; thank heavens it doesn’t create a new stand-alone game with every brainstorm as some developers do. Mare Nostrum is the eighth add-on to Europa Universalis IV, Add to that many inexpensive sound and icon packs along with several major patches and Paradox’s devotion for getting every factor of the period 1444 to 1821 down pat can’t be doubted. Yet, at what point do all these add-ons merely clutter up the gaming experience? After all, eight times $15 (usually) adds up to a substantial amount of money.
Europa Universalis IV is a pausable real-time grand strategy game that covers the period 1444 to 1821. Players guide their rulers or republics in an attempt to become “Top Dog” or merely survive. Trade, war, colonies, diplomacy, dynastic problems, domestic issues, economics, technology and philosophy are the matters players must juggle to win. The game runs one day at a time but can be sped up, slowed down, and paused as players wish. If four hundred years seems a bit much at this time scale, players can set their own start date or play one of the fourteen shorter campaigns. Every country in the world is playable by clicking on the map but a number of major powers, ranging in number from eleven to eight as time takes its toll, are good places to start. Initially Eurocentric, Paradox has developed add-ons spreading attention to the New World and the Steppes with the Orient playable but having fewer specific rules. If the system has expanded horizontally, it has also deepened with more options for diplomacy, trade, administration, religion and culture. Fortunately, a mini-manual for each add-on can be found at the Paradox website or at the Steam store to explain all the changes.
As the name suggests, Mare Nostrum – “our sea” in Latin – has a maritime theme. Sailors have been separated from the Manpower pool and are requirements for building and repairing ships. Coastal provinces provide sailors while improvements such as shipyards, docks and drydocks increase the number of these recruits. Nautical Ideas and technology also increase recruitment.
The number of fleet missions has been increased by three. Not only can ships explore, protect trade, be privateers and hunt pirates but they now can intercept enemy fleets, hunt enemy fleets and blockade ports. The interface for these actions is simplicity itself: pick a fleet from the outliner, give it a mission and send it to a listed area. Another simple option is patrolling a given sea zone. Settings tell the fleet to be bold or cautious and how much damage they should take before heading home. Players should remember that only certain types of ships can be assigned to some missions. Players controlling states along the North African Coast can become Barbary pirates using their corsairs to raid, pillage and plunder. These states were able to do this well into the nineteenth nave despite the best efforts of the Royal Navy, US Navy and US Marine Corps.
Debt in Venice
The other two new features can be used by powers that are primarily land-based but have a strong Italian feel to them. The first, trade leagues, may be a game changer. Merchant republics can invite small, one-province states. These leagues provide a 20% boost to shipping capabilities and bonuses for the leader’s goods. Leagues are also free military and diplomatic actions where all members fight together. The initiating power is the leader as long as its prestige holds up but can be supplanted if its fortunes slip. Countries may ask to join a successful league.
The other feature is the renting out of condottieri, a type of mercenary often used by the quarrelsome states of Italy. Condemned by Machiavelli as inefficient and not devoted enough to their owner’s cause, they were nonetheless easier to recruit than the locals, disciplined and, if they died, expendable. The power that rented them out saw them as a good source of cash. Condottieri are offered to a warring state as a diplomatic action. Once offered, haggling over the monthly price begins with a slide bar indicating the chance of acceptance. The selling state can control the unit and can recall it at will.
Fleets, trade and condottieri – yes, a definite whiff of Northern Italian merchant republics is detected. Genoa and Venice are good candidates for trying the new features but Genoa is too close to the emerging national power of France. The Serene Republic of Venice is sly, crafty with a good fleet and dubious scruples; in short, a perfect choice!
Venice in 1444 was slightly past its prime. With no more Crusaders to gouge and a good customer – Byzantium - about to go out of business, money was no longer as easy to grab as it once was. The Doge at the time was not the sharpest blade in the drawer and the Republic was diplomatically overextended. Although still solvent, the treasury was low, limiting infrastructure improvements. However, two armies were enough to make neighbors wary, two fleets could still project power and provinces in the Adriatic and the Balkans provided a solid income although some unrest due to religion existed on Crete and Euboea. Trade nodes existed at Venice, Vienna, Regina and Alexandria. A cautious beginning to build up the treasury and then spend on buildings and ships seems the best approach to bolster prestige.
First, Venice’s administration should be improved with three advisors. The treasury dictates to go with the cheapest choices; with a mediocre Doge, anything will help. The big fleet of early barques and galleys is told to patrol down the Adriatic to hunt pirates and the small fleet of light ships will protect trade to Alexandria. A trade league must be formed quickly. The more the merrier but diplomatic actions are limited to one a day. Also, one-province countries are scarce and difficult to spot. Cyprus joins on the first day with Sienna and Lucca following soon thereafter. Genoa predictably forms its own trade league with countries Venice misses. An alliance with the Papal States seems like a good idea. In the next year, Hungary and the Ottomans fabricate claims on two of Venice’s provinces but do nothing. A corsair raid on Euboea forces the war fleet to become bolder and head south. Venice’s treasury is growing so the strategy appears to be working.
The year 1446 sees Venice follow Genoa’s lead and start signing up North Sea counties to the trade league. Perhaps the Baltic could be exploited. Friesland and East Fries join but further immediate growth is stymied due to lack of diplomats. Venice could call back its spy master from Mantua but the truce will end soon and a fifth column is always valuable. After a while, diplomats are freed up and three more northern countries join the trade league. However, the downside of leagues appears when Venetian merchants leave home, disgusted at so many foreign rivals. By the same token, technology dependent on diplomatic growth is stagnant because belonging to a trade league costs a diplomatic point. Firing the old advisor and hiring one with a +2 rating remedied that problem.
And so it went. Juggling commerce, improvements and administration is the primary way of slowly improving a weak nation. Controlling a warlike nation is more exciting but the maintenance of peace requires insight and guile.
Mare Nostrum does not change the texture of Europa Universalis IV as did the more expensive The Art of War or The Cossacks but add-ons are like the ingredients to a stew; the basics are acceptable but adding good spices make the dish extraordinary. Mare Nostrum creates the equivalent of a culinary delight.
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online. He was adjunct faculty at Cardinal Stritch University for fifteen years.