[Keys to the Kingdom is a new GameSetWatch column from freelance writer and blogger Rob Zacny. This month he examines how 'grand PC strategy game' Europa Universalis III portrays social and political change, and how its mechanics put players at odds with their own self-interest.]

Revolutions have never made much sense to me, probably because my understanding of the world owes a frightening amount to Civilization. I have always believed, on a level I kept secret from my history professors, that the Bourbons and the Romanovs perished because they were terrible slackers. Why else would they stubbornly refuse to summon their advisors, select from a tray of exciting sociopolitical values, and say, "Let's get this revolution started!"

Games like Civilization do not attempt to explain why some countries get lost in developmental cul-de-sacs, or why others consciously reject innovation. They focus on progress and power. The tech tree is a litany of scientific, economic, and social advances. The games themselves are races to technological finish lines. Some competitors may fall behind, and others might be eliminated by more powerful rivals, but everyone progresses. The rules do not comprehend another outcome. Grand strategy games are about winning history rather than experiencing it.

Paradox Interactive's Europa Universalis III places historical experience at the center of the design while superficially adhering to genre conventions. The commonplaces are all there: players spend money on research, unlock new weapons and infrastructure, and change society as more options become available. Yet EU3, unlike most of its cousins, never treats development as synonymous with progress.

An EU3 campaign begins sometime after 1399 and finishes in 1821, and players must guide their country through that segment of history. Although the game issues national missions, players are free to choose their own goals. They receive a rank at the end based on their standing, but it's really up to the player to determine the level of his own success or failure. EU3 is very much about the journey, not the destination.

Which all sounds very Zen, but that open-ended journey takes place in a world of unresolvable tensions and the occasional Hobson's choice. The wisest and most far-sighted decisions are rarely the best decisions, and a faction's evolution owes as much to circumstances as strategy.

Level 5 Chaotic Neutral Rogue Nation

EU3 describes each state through the National Policy window, which is a sort of character sheet for your country. The essential attributes are sketched out across eight policy sliders that place opposing values at the extremes. One slider places Centralization at the far left and Decentralization at the far right, while another puts Serfdom against Free Subjects. A country is defined by where the sliders fall along these spectra, and each position confers penalties and bonuses. At extreme positions, these consequences are likewise extreme.

Presiding over these attributes are the National Ideas that guide a country. To continue with the "character sheet" metaphor, these are a bit like feats or special abilities that confer bonuses in particular areas. "Glorious Arms" causes a country to receive prestige (political currency that has effects across every aspect of the game) for military victories. "Bureaucracy" produces improved tax revenues. National Ideas are important strength multipliers, and it's crucial to have the right ideas to meet current challenges, otherwise they do little good. Glorious Arms is useless during long periods of peace, for instance.

The player cannot, however, simply min-max society. The sliders may only be adjusted once every several years, with the country's form of government determining the exact period. Furthermore, only one slider may be adjusted at a time, so prioritizing is key. Instant social transformation is impossible.

Even these minor adjustments pit the player against a status quo that bitterly resists change. The chief obstacle is instability: every government has a stability rating of -3 to +3, and lower stability can trigger a downward spiral into anarchy. Because lower stability exacerbates every domestic problem, it increases the probability that more destabilizing events will occur. Even a well-governed country is merely at rest on a slippery slope.

The Butterfly Effect, Government, and You

Since each policy slider affects large segments of society, any policy shift can unleash powerful backlashes. For instance, in one game I played as France, I decided I needed to reduce the privileges conferred on the aristocracy in favor of the bourgeoisie. I tapped the Aristocracy - Plutocracy slider from its extreme aristocratic position to one that was marginally more equitable to wealthy commoners.

However, there was a 1 in 3 chance that the nobility would revolt if I made that decision and, to my genuine surprise, they did. You would swear that I was Robespierre from the way they mobilized against me. They produced a pretender to the French throne and marshaled an army of 16,000 men behind him. Since this was a noble revolt, I found myself at war with the men who had formed the backbone of my superb army. The rebels were far better led, and far more motivated, than my peacetime loyalist army. Before I could gather my forces, the rebels started picking them off piecemeal, leaving me temporarily outnumbered.

When the rebellion broke out, France had naturally suffered a stability drop from +3 to +2. While I didn't think that would matter very much, it turned out that it did. My king had a terrible administrative rating, which reduced tax revenues throughout the country. The dip in stability further depressed those revenues and forced me to start minting more money to pay for the army I suddenly needed to build, which sent inflation into the stratosphere. That triggered an event that forced me to either move to a new coinage, which would cost me 2 stability points but reduce inflation, or permit inflation to run rampant. I authorized the new coinage and stability fell to 0.

Now stability was so low that Norman nationalists decided the time had come to secede from France. Another 12,000 rebels cropped up in Normandie and started laying siege to my fortress there. Meanwhile, the nobles were taking over western France. Feeling increasingly hapless, I finally scraped together a large enough army to go take on the nobles. I defeated them, barely, and ended the revolt, but at the cost of most of my forces. In the meantime, the Norman rebels took over Normandie, Caux, and Picardie. The game notified me that due to this nationalist victory, these provinces would be hotbeds of separatist sentiment for the next few decades. Tax revenues would be low, revolt risk high.

I finally managed to put down all the revolts and was beginning to restore some semblance of order when I received notice that the bourgeoisie were furious about the nobility's privileges keeping them out of powerful positions and had brought forth a petition. If I accepted it, I would move the slider farther towards plutocracy but lose yet more stability. If I rejected them, the slider would move back toward the aristocracy. Since I absolutely could not afford more instability, I backed the aristocracy.

Which placed the slider in exactly the same position it had been before a civil war, an economic collapse, and two revolts. It had all been for nothing.

It's worth pointing out that this chain of events could have played out very differently. EU3's event system forked the road at key points, and I could have chosen different routes. Furthermore, my own responses to the crisis produced additional problems. Other courses of action might have produced better outcomes. On the other hand, I might have done worse.

That single minor policy adjustment took on a life of its own and brought France to the brink of destruction. It also drove a wedge between what I knew was the best long-term course for the country, and what pragmatism demanded. While I wanted to support the commoners against the nobility, and knew that would be better for my strategy over the course of the game, events forced me to choose between a potentially disastrous reform or a reactionary backlash.

EU3 is a game about consequences and the limits of power. While I had choices throughout the incident, and even triggered it by using my available policy change to make a moderate reform, my choices were bound by circumstances that I did not create. I could choose from among available options, but I was not free to decide what my options were. I knew what progress demanded, and that France could not be dominated by nobles forever. But progress was not something I could afford.

The cleverest consequence of how EU3 models political and social change is that it makes the player complicit in his own undoing. Where most grand strategy games portray technological or social backwardness as a consequence of poor management, EU3's interlocking policy, event, and stability mechanics can force you to eschew the good decisions for the smart decisions. Later, when you confront the mess left by years of expedience over efficiency, you will ask, "What kind of idiot lets things get this screwed up?" Then you'll remember.

It was you all along.

[Rob Zacny is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, Mass. He is a frequent contributor to The Escapist and a panelist on the Three Moves Ahead strategy podcast. More of his work appears on his blog.]