I just started up a new game of Europa Universalis IV, this time as Denmark in 1508.  As usual, I sat around in pause for a while, figuring out my friends and enemies and options for the future.  Within minutes, I was looking around the map and categorizing it in terms of “could conquer,” “should conquer,” and “must conquer” – because the mechanics of Europa Universalis (all of them, really) are fundamentally about expansion.

The Europa games have often been described as a game where you have to create your own objective, but the fact is that the game comes with a sort of default objective built-in, one that is created not through victory conditions but rather as a natural outgrowth of the basic mechanics of the game.  That default objective is “conquer the world.”  Obviously not everyone goes all-in on that objective – but it’s always sort of sitting there, lurking in the shadows, tempting powergamers and megalomaniacs with its just-barely achieve-ability.

When you think about it, every mechanic in the game encourages you to either expand, or improve your ability to expand.  Boosting trade?  More money for your army.  Buildings?  More money or manpower for your army.  Tech and Ideas?  Boost colonization, economy, trade, diplomacy (the main feature of which is to manipulate the balance of power so as to tip the war balance in your favor), or the military.

From the moment you begin the game, it draws you into the push for expansion.  Boost your income, build your army, win wars, take territory.  Really, what else is there to do?  At the very least, you end up fighting other powers that are trying to expand, so that they do not become overwhelmingly powerful and destroy you.

What if you don’t want to expand?  Build stuff in your provinces and boost your tech so that other powers don’t conquer you, and then get involved in wars to prevent other powers to expand.  Or, just sit there and turtle.

This isn’t a criticism.  Politics in the period was, a lot of the time, about wars, and winning wars lets nations expand.  So, any game about nations in the early modern period will end up being about wars and expansion.

However, it also seems like something of a letdown.  Is there no other goal worthy of pursuit?  Could nothing else be gameified, to present an alternative path, or at least another side of the game to pursue when one has tired of wars and expansion, or needs a break?   Must one invent imaginary rules and conditions to avoid falling into the trap of infinite expansion for its own sake, expansion for lack of anything else to do?

I ask this, because it is when I reach this point that I tend to lose interest entirely with a game.  This is why I’ve never been a serious player of Europa Universalis games – after a certain point, one has achieved one’s personally set goals, and all that is left is another 200 years of expansion, or doing very little.  Further, building skill at the game really just means getting better at conquest, and moving towards that one goal implicit in the game’s mechanics – world conquest.  The idea of world conquest seems so utterly absurd in the time period that its possibility is repugnant, and striving towards such an ability is the height of pointlessness.

It may just be me, but I cannot help but think of this as a flaw in the basic design of the game.