This is what the smoke, noise, and heady glory of battle looks like: Statistics.

Plotting a safe course through the heady, Machiavellian world of early modern-era policital intrigue is a bit like surviving high school. Do you work really hard and suck up to everyone in an attempt to get them to like you (and become Holy Roman Emperor)? Or do you already have a really tough big brother who is five years older than you, who you can use to strike terror into everyone, allowing you to act like a spoilt brat (Papal States)? Or, you know, maybe you’re one of the gothy kids out on the periphery, happy to completely ignore the petty squabbles of the rest of your class and concentrate instead on colonizing North America. Okay, so it’s perhaps not entirely like high school. But it is a tough and complicated game of avoiding getting walloped by the bigger kids while you try to decide what you want to do with your life.

Have you ever played a Paradox game before? No, I don’t mean Magicka or that one with the knights in it. The other ones. The ones which are wonderfully, unashamedly complex, as if they were written be a roomful of Rain Men obsessed with history down to a frankly terrifyingly granular level? Well, here’s another one. So I’m going to kick off with a TL:DR recap for fans of the previous game, but you newbies stick around too… it’ll be a pretty good way to learn what exactly you’re letting yourself in for.

Trade has seen a significant overhaul, down to the conceptual level. Merchants can be placed in any areas you know about, and can either collect wealth (usually at a significant loss) or direct trade ‘downstream’, with the hope of getting as much as possible back to your capital. Trade Power is a statistic that governs how much trade can be steered along pre-set trade corridors, such as from Chesapeake Bay to London, and this number can be affected by merchants, number of provinces held, certain ideas and decisions, and – significantly – the number of light ships sent to protect trade. Other powers can be embargoed to reduce their trade power.

Monarchs now use their statistics as one of the major factors in the accrual of ‘monarch points’, separated into Administrative, Diplomatic, and Military. Also boosted by the ability of your advisors, these pools of points are spent in pretty much every way you can imagine, from assaulting a besieged stronghold to discovering a new technology. They are as much a critical currency as cash itself, and are central to the game.

Look, I’m going to leave it at that. In truth, there is a document available that outlines the differences between EU3 and EU4 that dwarfs most game manuals. That’s just the tweaks. This is a game of huge vision, and practically unfettered complexity. Trust me – there is a tech advance for the use of limes aboard ship to avoid scurvy. Methodist uprisings in Celtic Cornwall are as much a possibility as a Zaidi schism in a Shiite nation. The detail wormhole is as deep as any game on the market.

It’s not one for the faint-hearted or numerophobic. But, just like Crusader Kings 2, your time and patience are rewarded as the numbers fall away like a curtain, and the beauty and grandeur of a clever and incredibly engrossing game shine through. Reviewing a game like this is like reviewing a city – it can be a number of things to a number of people. If you love you some FPSes and racing games but couldn’t care less about the Hanseatic League or religious reform in the Early Modern era, you might find that there’s too much of a learning curve here.

Seriously. Think about that. Can you find it in your heart to really care about seventeenth-century Papal politics or the controversies of the Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants in the Dutch Golden Age? Do these things sound like they might bore you senseless? Then pass on this game.

But if a little history lesson sneaked into your gaming sounds like it might be fun, and you’re not afraid to actually RTFM (and the forums, and the Wiki) before you spend too much time playing, there is an incredibly elegant game here. Despite the offer of a Crusader Kings 2 save-gave transmogrifier for early-adopters, they’re not identical games. The core interface and some gameplay mechanics remain the same, but whereas Crusader Kings focuses on the internal politics of emerging dynasties, Europa Universalis IV is interested in the forging of nations. You feel much less like you’re playing one-king-at-a-time, and much more like you’re the embodiment of your entire people. You still have numbers for how much, say, you like the Muscovites, and another number for how much they like you, but you can’t look up stats on how much the Duke of Wessex likes the King of Scotland’s second daughter. Or whatever. In fact, there aren’t really ‘people’, besides from the odd advisor, general and ruler – certainly not in the same way as there are in Crusader Kings.

The random events that added a little salt and pepper to Crusader Kings are back though, enough to divide the EU fan base on the matter. They certainly can throw a significant morningstar in the musket barrel (as people in the 1700’s probably used to say), particularly when your peasants spot a comet and immediately assume it means the end times are upon you, or when the sweating sickness stalks the streets of Antwerp. Carefully-balanced economies can easily be mucked right up by such things. But they do add character to the complexity.

There is a lot to do. As I suggested above, you can realistically ignore the complicated smorgasbord of land wars and marriages that make early modern Europe such a barrel of laughs and focus entirely on colonization of new lands if such is your taste (although there’s no saying that the Austrians won’t suddenly decide to take a bite out of your backside while you’re occupied, of course). Or, heck, don’t let the name fool you – if you don’t want to play the marauding Spaniards, you can always play as the Aztecs, and reconquer first the Americas, and then the world. Or just, you know… who cares about the new world? Play as one of the multitudinous Indian factions, or just randomly pick some corner of China and see what happens.

Plenty of the complexity is happy to carry on in the background – once a land battle kicks off, for example, you don’t need to actually thing too hard about your leader’s bonus to leading cavalry in melee combat as a result of your nation’s strong belief in the traditional superiority of the aristocracy, or the troop discipline bonus that comes from the esprit de corps of the common footsoldier. They’re there, subtly affecting the outcome, of course, but when two sides clash in open warfare, all you can really do is sit back and watch – there’s no direct input. That said, the more you understand, the more you can tweak, and in the end you’ll play a better game if you plan ahead. But even if you only dimly grasp what’s going on, the game will plod along regardless, allowing you to watch in fascination as your once-proud nation inevitably crumbles to dust.

A game this huge has some pretty wide-open victory conditions. When all is said and done, the goal is merely to have fun. Setting your own goals is all part of the game – the procedural gameplay really does mean that no two games play exactly alike, and that your own story will be told not just through your own actions but through the madcap antics of the other world powers. If you want to play as Brittany and conquer all of France, go ahead. But even if you manage the military side of things, there is always the possibility that Austria will have a few lucky wins in the Low Countries, make a couple of handy alliances with England and Spain, and decide they want a couple of your core provinces.

The stories write themselves, and that’s a huge part of the fun. Over the years, game balance has been tweaked and refined, and EUIV is a pretty well-balanced beast. There’s a healthy chance that the average player will never truly understand every aspect affecting them, it’s true, but for an immersive, educational, engrossing historical simulator slash story generator, you can’t do a lot better.

Pope: LOL!  Milan: OMG NERF POPE!  France: WTF?  Incas: Whatev.