Europa Universalis: Crown of the North concentrates on northern Europe from 1275 to 1340; the nobles and the church held most of the power, but Sweden teeters on the verge of civil war. Players can control Norway, Sweden, or Denmark (each has two playable factions) and attempt to survive the poisonous political intrigues between peasants, churchmen, nobles, and merchants. Three campaigns -- the Alternative Grand Campaign, Independent Europe, and Vinland -- are also available. Multiplayer options allow players to compete through the Internet or a LAN.
The real-time gameplay of Europa Universalis was quite an achievement in strategy gaming. With everything happening at once, you had to make quick decisions while trying to expect the unexpected. The biggest downside was that from the very beginning you could get overwhelmed in a very complex game. The Age of Enlightenment setting also meant that you had a semi-industrialized society to run, an expanding global empire to manage, and most importantly, a new game system to master. The follow-up, EU2, took things back in time to the Middle Ages and allowed for a more relaxed gaming experience.
The latest addition to the series, Europa Universalis: Crown of the North, is even slower paced -- at least at the beginning of the game -- and allows you to get things going at your own speed. In hindsight, this is how things with EU should have been all along. This latest title, which is a fully self-contained game, has the action focused on the struggles for the Scandinavian crown from 1275 through 1340, when the semi-independent lands of Norway and Denmark challenged Swedish rule. Playing as one of six different major factions from the region, it is up to you to forge alliances, conquer territory, keep your people in check, and, of course, do all this in real-time!
What makes Crown of the North so enjoyable is that it doesn't start off with more than you can chew. You'll begin with only one, perhaps two, territories to govern, and from there you get free reign of how to expand your empire. You'll have three primary resources to manage, which include food, wealth, and honor (victory points). Success on the battlefield (as well as your management of the economy) will determine your overall honor and score. Random events like trade opportunities with European powers, possible wars with Russian princes, and Papal invitations will further affect your standing, and more importantly, will also play a factor on your influence with the various groups at home. These factions include the church, the nobility, your peasants, and the merchant guilds; it is up to you to keep each of them as happy as possible. The game's developers used a handy weather-themed interface to let you know how your people feel. Storm clouds suggest a rebellion might be brewing with that group, while sunshine suggests they're completely content at least until you make a decision they don't like and the clouds make a return. Fortunately, you can do things like expand churches to make the religious faction happy, while increased trade will keep the merchants in line. Peasants and nobles are a bit trickier, but a successful ruler eventually learns how to keep everyone moderately happy, and that is the best you can use hope for in Crown of the North.
As with previous EU titles, you also need to continually build up the infrastructure of your kingdom. This includes improving the defenses for your lands, increasing farmlands, and expanding castles to increase the number of knights that will follow you. It also requires that you build up the ranks of your armies, recruit mercenaries, and train those squires and knights. At the early stages of the game, it is actually easy enough to expand your lands and build troops, but as with other strategy games, the latter parts become an experiment in multi-tasking and micromanagement. This is also where the game begins to become both cumbersome to play and a bit unrealistic historically.
At the easier levels, you don't have to worry much about the loyalty of your nobility, so you can amass huge standing armies to aid in your conquest. This is entirely necessary because the clock is ticking and you need to conquer as much land as possible to win the game and therefore need to be conquering in multiple directions. It is also easier to build new and more massive armies than attempting to transport your warriors to some of the far-flung lands. This is especially apparent because of one annoying bug that nearly kills the entire game. If you load your armies onto your warships, you need to immediately unload them at another adjacent land territory. If you move the ships at all, the armies become "stuck" on the ships and can't be unloaded. To add insult to injury, the capacity of these ships is reduced because the computer sees the ships as carrying this crew of the damned. While this is no doubt a bug that is being addressed (and we can only hope for a patch), at the time this review was written it was unresolved, and thus resulted in becoming a major problem in the game.
Crown of the North's only other major issue is one that is at the core of the very game system. You simply don't have enough control over important events like battles. While you can send your armies off to engage your enemies, you don't actually have any input in the actual combat, which is resolved much like that in Civilization, where some random number generators and algorithms determine who comes out on top. An optional battle mode, like that in Medieval: Total War, would be more apt to this otherwise constant real-time game.
Fortunately, the bonus material truly feels like a bonus. In addition to the new full-blown sequel, Crown of the North ships with three new campaigns set in the EU2 world. Furthermore, you don't even need a standalone copy of EU2 to take advantage of these modes, which include a new full campaign that expands the original game, as well as new full European campaign that lets you begin with a mere territory much like Crown of the North. Finally, there is also a Vinland campaign that lets you explore the North American continent as the Vikings, where you can engage the natives as well rival European powers.
Europa Universalis has always been a bit of a secondary franchise in the United States, but it is easy to see its appeal worldwide. The gameplay is extremely fast paced, and while difficult to master at times, it does make for an extremely captivating experience. It isn't without problems, and will no doubt have limited appeal even to those looking for grand historical strategic gameplay. But for anyone wanting to unite the lands of the North in a constant real-time struggle, this is the best Europa yet.
People who downloaded Europa Universalis: Crown of the North have also downloaded:
Europa Universalis 2, Europa Universalis, Europa 1400: The Guild, Empire Earth II, Crusader Kings, Gary Grigsby's World At War, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, Empire Earth
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