Although there have been many conquest and empire management games for the PC over the years, no such game to date compares with the historical detail and scope of Europa Universalis. It plays somewhat similarly to turn-based games such as Civilization II and Imperialism II, but with a focus on the European continental and overseas empires from 1492 to 1792. This tighter focus lets the game be amazingly specific, as the world map encompasses more than 700 provinces to be explored, conquered, and developed by the 60 or so major and minor nations. Given how much time was necessarily involved in compiling the game's extreme level of historical detail, it's hardly surprising that it's based on a board game. However, once you get past the initial shock of how big and occasionally unwieldy the game is, you'll find that the detailed mechanics work to produce an unparalleled level of depth.
Europa Universalis features dozens of different nations
There's plenty of opportunity in Europa Universalis for expanding your empire through military conquest, diplomacy, and mercantilist economics, but it's less about outright world domination than swinging the balance of power in your nation's favor. The game contains 11 scenarios that center on key periods like the War of Independence or the Thirty Years War, where each major nation involved has specific objectives to accomplish. But truly, the heart of the game is the campaign that starts you out in 1492 and challenges you to be the clearly dominant force by 1792. The campaign doesn't artificially level the playing field, so some nations are much stronger than others from the start. But the sheer number of nations competing for power means that no nation is big enough to go at it alone. While commerce and steady research are important considerations, the path to power lies between the complementary poles of war and diplomacy.
Europa Universalis starts out right at the turning point for modern Europe, when newly united major powers set their sights on the wealthy Italian states and started profiting from early overseas colonies. Real historical events punctuate the campaign, often changing the dynamics. Shortly into the game, the Reformation breaks out across Western and Central Europe, which suddenly makes religion a factor in diplomacy and in maintaining the internal stability of your empire. There's the option of converting to appropriate alternatives to your nation's religion (including Calvinism, Counter Reformation Catholicism, or Shia Muslim, depending on the region) and to set tolerance levels for other faiths, which consequently affects how adverse their believers are to your government. It's pretty unusual for a game to make religion such a dynamic political force, but it works out to be a global setting that you'll tweak only once in a while, rather like government types in Civilization.
Since there are so many minor independent powers, diplomacy in Europa Universalis involves numerous loose alliances that can string together half a dozen countries at once. In times of conflict, this can make the game seem chaotic, as declaration of war by an ally on the opposite side of Europe can soon engulf the whole continent in war. Relations with computer-controlled nations are indicated clearly by a numerical scale, which is influenced by such things as diplomatic gifts or letters of insult. It's all handled abstractly, so you won't see talking heads or even much of a description of your diplomatic efforts' outcome. But in spite of this lack of flourish, diplomacy is unusually well integrated into the game.
The graphics are clear and intuitive
As if by following Sun Tzu's famous advice, you'll quickly find in the game that war and diplomacy are inseparably entwined. It's impractical to wage a sustained and indiscriminating war, because provinces don't actually change hands until a peace treaty settles things. It's impossible to just march a large army at your opponents and expect to gain much territory in one swoop, but border wars are nonetheless effective over time. Again showing its board game roots, Europa Universalis handles combat statistically, factoring a healthy dose of chance in with the factors of morale, leadership, and technology so that the bigger army can be in for a surprising defeat. Military research and production is also a simple affair. There are just basic unit types--infantry, cavalry, and artillery--and numerous small research steps will transform your army from pikemen into musketeers and, later, into orderly Napoleonic-era infantry.
Considering the importance of military victory in deciding the fate of your nation, it's somewhat disappointing that so many of the variables in the combat system are hidden from view. While the documentation makes an interesting foray into describing the period's military history, there isn't a specific explanation on how combat is decided. Furthermore, the historical leaders that pop up periodically seem to give a disproportionate advantage to the armies they lead. Later in the game, you may have many qualified generals, admirals, and explorers, and absolutely none at other times. While morale plays a large part in battle, there's no experience system to increase the value of veteran troops. Attrition is another significant consideration that works invisibly, eroding troop numbers inexplicably until you pay close attention to the documentation's explanation of the transparent supply line system. These factors add to the game's depth after you've spent enough time working through the system, but such basic mechanics should have been better explained.