I am a longtime fan of developer Paradox’s Europa Universalis III. The series has already spun off several other series and one-off games, most with an epic grand strategy focus. Campaigns typically take place over hundreds of years, with dozens of wars, and a sense of an evolving world history permeating the experience. The newest offshoot, March of the Eagles, eschews that approach in favor of narrowing the focus of the game to a single fifteen year period, one of the most turbulent in the history of Europe: the Napoleonic Wars.
The game has a distinctly martial feel, as many of the complex trade, nationality, and societal development systems we’ve come to know and love from Europa Universalis fall by the wayside. The game runs on the EU3 engine, which means that any seasoned player will instantly be familiar with the gameplay. Conversely, the stripped-down nature of the game makes it an excellent introduction to those who might be otherwise frightened off by the level of complexity present in other Paradox games. Still, accessibility aside, the game feels a bit thin. You’ll spend most of your time moving and building troops, fighting wars, and then doing it all again. The planning and meticulous calculation to build claims and casus belli (Latin for “acts of war”) required in other games are lost to your ability to declare war on anyone at any time.
Don’t get me wrong, moving troops and conquering your enemies is fun. The military elements of the EU3 engine have been upgraded substantially. Armies are divided in three wings and reserves and, during the course of epic battles, will deploy a variety of tactics, and engage in entertaining, interest conflicts. Units with the proper orders will march to the sound of the guns, involving themselves in battles in adjacent territories, or evading battle against stronger forces. Sieges are the same sort of affairs you remember, but the upgrades to the field battles are an excellent addition to the system. The game scale is more regional than in typical EU games. Provinces are widely expanded, with massive territories forcing a more operational view of conflicts than the strategic view Paradox typically confronts players with. It’s an interesting and compelling change, moving the scale from massive armies to managing individual corps and smaller units in the field. The game design supports the “march dispersed, fight concentrated” tactics of the era really well.
I wish I could heap the same praise on the enemy AI. For some reason, after an initial battle or two, the enemy tends to split all of their forces into small, easily mopped up chunks. These smaller forces would make dashes at my supply lines, attempting to cut my armies off. But they would be so exposed and so small that they were easily defeated and wiped out. Time and again I was able to win wars on the operational level simply through proper concentration of force.
The AI is sadly predictable and makes severe mistakes. In one case, I was faced with a show down between my Russian army of 75,000 men and a Dutch army that actually outnumbered it by 3,000 troops. Sadly, in the face of my army, the Dutch divided themselves into three contingents and were completely wiped out with minimal loss to my own troops. This was actually one of the few occasions where the enemy was able to assemble anything close to parity at the point of my attack. I rarely saw concentrations of enemy forces that approached mine with any hope of reasonably contesting my assaults.
The weakness of the AI makes multiplayer a must. Actually connecting to an online match is complete unintuitive (after an hour of trying, fellow writer Don Parsons and I went to the Paradox Interactive forums for advice. We were online battling each other in the game for supremacy in another 10 minutes). There isn’t any match making, either, meaning you’d better have some friends already if you’re looking to give this a go. But if you do, you’re in for a treat. Fog of war prevents you from any solid intel on the enemy without proper reconnaissance, really opening you up to the more interesting elements of operational combat in the era. Don and I are really enjoying our ongoing multiplayer series in the game – it really is the way March of the Eagles is meant to be played. The cunning and guile of actual human players really expands the model; Don’s constant fear in our multiplayer game is that the Russian bear will come charging in on the heels of Austria or Prussia shortly after a declaration of war by his France. This adds a dimension you don’t have in the single player – I never really felt threatened by any of the AI powers.
It is difficult to recommend March of the Eagles to experienced Paradox players looking for a single player experience. The AI issues and the lack of depth will lead to a campaign experience that is interesting for a while, but ultimately unstatisfying. However, if you can assemble some strategy-minded friends for a multiplayer match, you’re in for a real treat. This, of course, limits the game’s audience, but the friendly price tag makes a purchase much more palatable. For a few afternoons of Napoleonic fun, March of Eagles is worth marching to the sound of the guns.