How To Enjoy Grand Strategy Games

While writing my last review about Crusader Kings 2 for you, I had a flashback of my first Paradox Interactive grand strategy game, and how frustrated – and even bored – I was with it, confused about what was going on.

And no wonder! The way their games are supposed to be played and enjoyed clashes a lot with how standard strategy games (and even more with standard games!) behave, and thus, some people never really “get” how to play them.

It was at this point that I decided that I was going to try and write a brief introduction to their games, concepts in them and how to start playing them. Before we start however, something I need to clear out: this is not a step by step guide.

While I wish I had the time to write a proper guide, given the scale of these games, it would take an ice age to chronicle all of the different aspects of the genre. Furthermore, I don’t consider myself such a good player of their games to write a comprehensive guide.

What this entry hopes to achieve is explain what kind of games these are, and how do they behave, dispelling some of the initial mist when you jump in and, hopefully, making them more enjoyable.


One of the first things you’re gonna notice is that the scale of this games is HUGE. Even Crusader Kings 2, that only covers Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East and Eastern-Europe, has hundreds of provinces, each with different stats and cultures. While some of the bigger maps in Civilisation or Total war are similar in extension, the detail is pretty much unique, and this has its importance that we will discuss later.

Huge does not begin to describe the maps in these games...

Playable nations are not balanced:

Game balance is an odd thing to have, the more components a game has, and it’s easier for one of them to be better or worse and skew the whole game in favor or against it.

In this games game balance is not even attempted (or it is, but in a different way), nor it should. It’s nonsensical for small and backwards Madagascar to be able to stand toe-to-toe against the UK in 1836, for an example. Besides, there are literally hundreds of nations to play, with very diverse territories, techs, cultures, etc… it would be impossible even if they tried.

So you have to think long and carefully about what you’re getting into, while it’s certainly possible in Europa Universalis to conquer the world as Granada (the last Muslim kingdom in Spain to fall, basically a lone single province nation at the beginning of Europa Universalis 3), as a newbie this might be impossible… hell, even for veterans it’s going to be an insane challenge (as it should be). So you’re probably better off learning the ropes with a big potent nation, maybe just not the UK in Victoria 2, as it’s almost unbeatable.

There are no “victory” conditions:

Another important point is that this series of games do not have an “end game” proper. Sure, there is a score and there is a year where the game “ends”, but unlike traditional strategy games (like Civilization) there is no “victory” here. The key is to set your own objectives, your own targets. For example you could decide to play a small German state and try to merge all German speaking states into your own, forming Germany (or not). You could also just have “survive” as a target, which can be hard to accomplish as a small one province nation surrounded by giants, like Navarra at the beginning of Europa Universalis 3. I decided in one game playing as Spain that instead of heading to America I was gonna head south and then East, colonizing all of the African coast and then painstakingly taking over India.

The games tries to work in a more “realistic” fashion

One of the most frustrating things to work out when starting is to figure out is how to take over more territory. This is ingrained in our gamer minds, you’re in a strategy game, you fight people and conquer thing, that’s how it goes! You just declare war on them and as you smack them you take their stuff…

But no! This is not how it works here. For starters, you cannot just declare war “just because”, well, you could, depending on the game (you can in EU3 last time I checked), but this would probably destabilize your realm and mess out your economy, not to mention trigger many uprisings.

What’s going on here? Well, think about it, you cannot just declare war on someone cause you want to take their stuff… you might want their stuff, but what are other nations and your own people think of you if you just do that?

To declare war properly, you need a “Casus Belli”, or in English a motive for a war. This could range from being insulted by a foreign diplomat, another country having your “national soil” (provinces that because one reason or another your population feels it belongs to them, and not whomever owns it), having a claim on their throne… etc

Also, depending on the reason why you declare war, you might only be able to take some stuff after you win. For example, if you go to war because another country insulted you, it’s not easy to justify taking over 50% of their territory, most probably you will just be able to impose some sanctions, demand a tribute or simple demolish their cities in revenge.

If you go to war to reclaim some “national soil” you will only be able to demand said provinces in the peace treaty, otherwise your whole argument for war would fall apart.

Aside from that, we have to remember war is not necessarily the main focus of the game. War is important because historically it has always been, but in some games you might not want to care about war at all, instead focusing on turning your country into an economic powerhouse, or a diplomatic maneuverer! In Victoria 2 for example, most of the focus is in industrializing your country, which is a painstakingly long process that could take you the whole game, depending on your starting position and population.

Even if you decide to focus on war and expansion, your expansion is going to be slow, as you cannot just conquer another nation in one go, unless you happen to have a very rare reason to do so!

These are not war games!

This is the one I’ve seen most people struggle with because, again, we have this compulsion in a strategy game to just field soldiers Risk-style and try to take on the world.

The combat system in these games is mechanically complex, but mostly out of your hands. The reason is that you’re not playing a general or a wargame for that matters, you should be concerned with being able to field soldiers, have them equipped, and field the correct units for each occasion, but once the battle starts, it’s all left for the game to resolve. This doesn’t mean there is no strategy here, the terrain where you fight, your supply limits and manpower are all for you to estimate and control, and failure to do so will quickly decimate your armies, but you won’t find any of the standard selecting units, moving them around the field and engaging enemy position, like in for example, Total War.

There's no detailed strategic combat in these games

This also brings up some nasty strategies in the game, since combat is out of your hands (mostly), bigger armies tend to smash smaller ones, which make perfect sense historically speaking, as situation where a very inferior force wins are very rare. This makes you think very carefully who do you wanna face, if a country can field your whole population in soldiers, it does not really make sense for you to engage them and hope to win. You could be cheeky, trying to have the war in winter and leading them into your lands, making the weather and hunger decimate their soldiers, leaving you with a manageable battle, but again this are high-up decisions.


And this is it my friends, my brief introduction to several concepts you’ll have to face. For specific differences among the games, you’d have to check the specific reviews for them, you can find reviews for Crusader Kings 2 and Victoria II’s expansion here and here.

Hope this helps you dive into the complex but highly engrossing game play of these games, once you’re in there is no getting out… you have been warned!

- Jose Luis Pérez Zapata

Tue, June 12 2012 » Articles, Guides & Tips

2 Responses

  1. John June 12 2012 @ 7:21 pm

    Also, these games are notorious for lacking proper tutorials. If you buy a Paradox game be prepared to spend tons of time in the forums. For some reason Paradox has put such little effort into teaching how to play their games.

  2. obsidianrazor June 12 2012 @ 9:03 pm

    Agreed, it also has to be said that while things have gotten better, the tutorials now are of those “old kind” tutorials that are just like another lesson in Uni… booooooooooooooooring!

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