I had been eagerly awaiting the release of Europa Universalis 4, the fourth iteration of Paradox's flagship title that first put the studio on the map and marked the entry of one of the greatest strategy game developers. EU3 marked one of the more ambitious projects undertaken by Paradox that indicated the rapid improvement of their development staff, as well as their budget, and Crusader Kings 2 marked the first truly polished release last year, making EU4 that much more critical in demonstrating whether Paradox was truly able to consistently release bug free and enjoyable games.
Europa Universalis 4 is set in the time period of 1444 to 1820, with the player able to choose any historical nation during any point in that time frame. At the player's disposal, as leader of the country he or she picks, are the military, diplomatic, and economic tools of the state. The entire system has been revamped since EU3, with administrative, diplomatic, and military "power" representing three continually generated resources with which the player must ration and utilize to achieve their various goals. Much else remains unchanged, with variable government type, generals, monarchs with three core abilities and other features familiar to players of the Europa Universalis making a return.
One of the greatest changes in gameplay is that of trade, which has been entirely revamped. One of the most appealing aspects of the EU series was the dynamic trade system, which fit in well with the often ahistorical and divergent world of each game. While centers of trade can no longer be changed, and instead the areas of trade importance are entirely static and based on geography, the wealth of these areas can be transferred from trade "node" to other nodes, to reflect the draw and pull of some empires over others, creating a simple and effective trade system. While initially intimidating, once familiar with the system it is much simpler and requires less micromanagement than the previous system - a welcome improvement.
The greatest strength of EU4 however, especially relative to the previous titles, is the degree to which real choices need to be made as leader of the state. Previous iterations were often easy to "power game", that is, once you understood the mechanics it was extremely easy to roll over your AI opponents and become overwhelmingly powerful in every aspect of the game regardless of your nation's circumstances. EU4's power system and more specialized ideas instead require significant tradeoffs and specialization to achieve one's goals, especially for smaller nations. This has the effect of handicapping one's nation relative to those that specialize in other aspects of the game. For example, if you choose to specialize in colonization other nations may specialize in trade, reaping many of the benefits of your colonial efforts. In addition, a blind focus on some form of specialization can actually handicap a player, as the same power resources that allow for idea purchases drive diplomatic (naval) technology, and players may find themselves behind others in other aspects they unknowingly neglected.