Netherlands

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The Dutch are a mediocre power with some good advantages, no one in Europe really dislikes them, once the Belgians are free they will be able to do as they please, but to go for true Great Power status Belgium must be forced back into the fold and her industries absorbed.

Colonial expansion is one of the keys to Dutch success, and she is in a prime position to benefit from it.

Starting Off

You begin involved in a war with Belgium, which is fighting for independence from the Netherlands. Though it is possible to defeat and subjugate Belgium, this will be quite difficult, as you are militarily weak (though slightly stronger than the Belgians). After a few months, an event will fire asking whether to recognize Belgian independence, make them a Satellite, or fight on. If the war is going well, consider fighting on. Otherwise, best to recognize Belgian independence and leave the reconquest until later.

Meanwhile, set taxes to 49.22%, tariffs to full, education to full, crime fighting to half, and military spending as low as you think is wise. Close your unprofitable factories.

As for technology, focus on Industry, specifically Mechanical Production, Interchangeable Parts, and the various Railroad technologies. Don't forget to research Steamers under Naval techs (see below). Because you will like have a large proportion of clerks in your population, you will amass technology quite quickly through research and trades (assuming you are friendly with your neighbors).

Economy

The biggest weakness of the Netherlands economically is its small population, which means you'll have to make money with fewer factories. This means, unlike a major power with a large empire, like the United Kingdom, you will be unable to be self-sufficient in most goods. Focus instead on producing goods, like Steamers, Luxury Clothes, or Luxury Furniture, that are highly profitable. Steamers are also key to colonial expansion (see below). Remember, though, that since you have to import the raw materials for these factories, you must have high efficiency in order to turn a profit.

The answer to efficiency is railroads, and this leads to the Netherlands' biggest strength - a small number of provinces. Unlike, say, Sweden or Spain, which have a few states with numerous provinces, and therefore require huge investment to upgrade the infrastructure, the Netherlands only has 12 provinces. That means far less cash is needed to upgrade to the highest available railroad technology, which you should always do at the earlier possible opportunity.

Colonies

Your first steps should be expansion in the East Indies (Indonesia). Place claim buildings on Flores, Borneo, and New Guinea as soon as you are able. Building your own Steamer Factory is important, since Steamers are key to claiming colonies, and are often unavailable on the World Market. You may be tempted to conquer Atjeh, Brunei, and Bali, but be careful of the loss of prestige that may come with this.

Steamers are also important to building a decent navy. You don't need to rival the United Kingdom's naval strength, but if you are going to maintain an overseas empire, you'll need to make sure that you have enough warships to protect your colonies against invasion and escort your transports.

If you have the cash reserves, try to grab colonies on the coast of Africa which give access to the interior of the continent. The Congo is a good place for this, or Cameroon, or Kenya (if you can get control of Mombasa from Oman/Zanzibar or the United Kingdom). But you have to be fast, or you'll find all the coastal provinces gone. Once you've successfully claimed colonies on the coast, you can quickly expand towards the interior, grabbing valuable pops and prestige as you go.

Once unclaimed coastal areas disappear, war will be your only means of expansion. Luckily, minor uncivilized countries have a tendency to go bankrupt, and therefore suffer a major loss of prestige. Once their prestige dips below -100, it only costs 1 prestige to go to war with them. Remember to check the Ledger frequently to see which minors are vulnerable to this type of conquest. Nejd, Dubayy, Oman, Aden, Zanzibar, Cambodia, Luang Prabang, Johor, Kutch, Makran, and Madagascar are the countries most likely to suffer bankruptcy, so they should be your prime targets. If China, Japan, or Egypt suffers a loss of prestige, you stand to gain some very valuable provinces.

Foreign Affairs

Belgium should be the main target of your expansion in Europe. It is small and militarily usually very weak. Though your army will likely be small, if it consists entirely of Guards and Artillery units, you will have a decisive advantage. Make sure that Belgium doesn't have any allies or guarantees of independence, and check the strength of the military units arrayed along your border. They will likely only have 1-2k soldiers each, due to low military spending. That is the best time to attack. Make sure that you conquer the entire country before making peace, to maximize the prestige gain. Then demand all but three provinces. Since you cannot claim all of Vlanderen (because Brussels, the capital, is located there) and therefore get possession of the factories, make sure that you claim all of Wallonia. Then, wait five years and declare war again. This time, annex Belgium.

Of coruse, attacking Belgium will rack up some badboy points. If you don't play your cards right, this could lead to war with Prussia/Germany or France. Make sure pay attention to your relations with these powers, as well the United Kingdom. In addition to avoiding a potentially disastrous war, this will allow you to have partners to trade technology with. Don't forget to build a large mobilization pool, too, as a deterrent. You probably won't have to use it (and if you get into a war with Germany, you may be overrun before you get a chance to deploy it), but it will certainly boost you military score and give other Great Powers pause before attacking

Conclusion

The Netherlands has several strengths and several weaknesses, but with a little bit of strategy, you can use the former to overcome the latter. A Top 5 finish should be your goal, though Top 3 may be possible with a lot of daring and a little luck.