All right. Let's get this out of the way -- the manual that was packaged with Europa Universalis
is a terrible game reference. It's absolutely fascinating when you want to read about the world behind the game, but it's nearly impossible to find anything you need to be competent at the game. So, post-haste, make your way to Strategy First's website and nab the new PDF version. It's got a few formatting issues, but it also has a Table of Contents, which is an absolute godsend. You may actually be able to find what you need. I'd prefer if it had an index as well, but a little is better than none.
With that technical issue out of the way, let's get to the game itself -- and, to put it simply, Europa Universalis portrays the Eurasian sociopolitical world in game format better than any other game before it, and more importantly, it makes it entertaining to take part in.
Your first game of Europa Universalis is likely to completely overwhelm you. When you've taken over all of Ireland and Great Britain in the tutorial, and you look in the grand world map and realize that that's barely a few pixels on the screen, you may start to shake uncontrollably. At least, I did. The tutorial itself is a little weak in some places, and I had some problems with the sections completing properly, but it definitely drives home a few points that need to be driven before you jump full-fledged into the game.
The game consists of a number of scenarios, and takes place from the end of the fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century. Major turmoil was the name of the game in Europe at the time, as was the expansion and colonization by the various powers that be. Along with this, the religion of the European world was shifting between Catholicism and Protestantism, along with the two major sects of the faith of the Muslim.
EU takes all of this into account, and more. You have to worry about the stability of your country, the various alliances and treaties, and a complex trade simulation involving centres of trade and merchants and monopolies and all sorts of other things.
As I said before, it can be a little overwhelming at first.
Something of a paradigm shift of the way one plays a strategy game is also necessary. In games like Risk and any other RTS, the goal is usually either sole domination or team domination. In Europa Universalis, there is no way to take over the entire world. The other countries would gang up on you and obliterate you. Instead, you must weave a delicate balance, colonizing, making treaties, and occasionally declaring war when absolutely necessary. And the whole political structure is nothing like any other game of the sort. Treaties are made to be kept, not broken, and the world gets terribly pissed at you when you start to violate all of the agreements you've made. And armies are vastly simplified from their normal strategy counterparts -- three types of units, three types of ships. These sorts of changes make the game more manageable.
But given time [and it does take time -- a lot -- to get really proficient at EU], the massive complexities of the game start to become manageable. Indeed, the scenarios that come with the game can be played such that they ease you relatively nicely into becoming a master.
You can also play Europa Universalis over either a LAN or the Internet, but it doesn't have any built-in matching service support, so you may have to set up times to get together with your friends to play. And while I imagine that a game of EU would be absolutely fascinating to play with other people, it's such a time investment that an entire weekend would have to be devoted to a truly solid game.
There are a few weird issues. Loading the game, especially in the tutorial, can seriously screw up the various objectives and achievements. And gameplay-wise, you get a lot of messages that you may or may not want and getting the game to hush is something of a pain. But EU definitely shines more than it dulls.