Thoughts on playing Sardinia-Piedmont and later unified Italy Original version by Konrad von Richtmark
At first, Sardinia-Piedmont's position doesn't look too assuring. Piedmont is relatively populous, but it's still only one state. France looms in the west, with territorial claims on three of your provinces. The rest of Italy seems sufficiently divided, but those minors have pesky alliances making for obstacles on the path to glory. In the south looms Two Sicilies. And after unifying Italy, there's an Austria-Hungary who often likes to meddle in Italian affairs to be wary of. However, things are not necessarily as bad as they look. This country has a few advantages to compensate, which carefully utilized can allow one to outgrow and overpower the surrounding great powers.
There is a chain of events allowing unification of Italy by the historical route, but we won't be waiting until the 1850s for it to take place. Fortunately, since patch 1.03, we don't have to, we can just occupy (not necessarily own, mind you) the necessary provinces (Rome, Florence, Parma, Modena, Torino, and Naples if you're interested), firing off an event unifying Italy, auto-annexing the last Italian minors and gaining you the great prize unification brings - South Italian as a state culture in addition to the North Italian you start with!
How do we overpower the alliance of minors controlling northern Italy? We will talk to our good friend France. Remember those three provinces France has territorial claims on? Furthermore, selling them makes sure we stay friends with France, we don't want them going to war over them (as often seems to happen when both France and Sardinia-Piedmont are AI-controlled). None of those provinces are important for unification, either. What more? Well, France not only wants them, but is prepared to pay very well for them, too. Sell them one at a time, waiting awhile after each trade to let France get some money to pay you with. Each province should give you tens of thousands of pounds (I've got 40,000 for Nice at best!) as well as a tech or two. Get army techs if you can, industry techs second. Don't take a tech just "because you can". Taking a naval tech simply slows down your own, more important research. We can't afford to think overly of the long run right now, not before we've mopped up a few minors.
Now, use the money you've got from selling provinces to France to prepare for war. Five divisions with guard brigades should be enough, but five reserve divisions are a nice thing to have, too. Expenses be damned, that's what we've sold land to France for! Line up along the border, declare war, and avanti! You'll be in a war with everyone on the peninsula save Two Sicilies (as well as possibly some alliance-breaking cowards). Waste no time, put the closest enemy states under the iron boot before others arrive at the scene. Don't bargain with anyone, annex outright! Put farmer and labourer POPs from the newly annexed lands into uniform to replenish divisions that have suffered casualties, and keep the steamroller going. Unless another power intervenes (unlikely, but check the independence guarantees on your enemies just in case), you should have annexed everything north of Rome in a year or two. The Papal States are too large to be annexed in one bit, so that'll take two wars.
So, now we've conquered Rome and everything north thereof. Except for the land Austria sits on which rightfully belongs to us, but we'll bother about that later. Those aren't necessary for unification. Our next target is the Two Sicilies, but jumping in right after unifying North Italy is hardly wise. Our good friend France has a bad habit of guaranteeing the independence of Two Sicilies, and even if they haven't, there's a chance they'll declare war on us anyway. Clearly, we'll have to bide our time. As the time we'll have to wait will vary, we should use the time waiting to industrialize what we've conquered. The province of Piedmont is a good start for your industry, being very populous and thus being able to host large factories, getting the most utility from your railroad investments. If you managed the annexation of North Italy quickly enough, you should have some money left from the French land trades. Use it to lay tracks, and most importantly, educate the masses. You're somewhat behind in the tech race (and at just 20% literacy). Except in times of dire need of money, there is no reason to put education at anything save maximum. Building some profitable industries should get your economy going nicely, and is the first step on the way to greatness. Prioritize industrial tech, commerce tech second. Forget about cultural techs, the annexation of lots of small North Italian states at the prestige cost of relatively few declarations of war (thanks to their alliance structures) should have got you at least 400 prestige by now, which should be enough for the great powers and the world market to treat you with dignity. Besides, starting behind in techs, you wouldn't be among the first to get any cultural tech anyway.
Keep an eye on France's foreign relations, checking regularly. We want France to have its hand tied into a war, preferably a lengthy one, to prevent them from intervening with the unification of Italy. Unless France gets into any serious war, there is an event coming up sooner or later which usually involves France into a war in Mexico. Then, at the latest, should you act. Strike as swiftly as possible to seize those provinces needed for the unification event (usually just Naples, unless the Sicilians have been land-grabbing). Viva l'Italia!
Great Power status
What you do afterwards is largely up to you, and the overall situation on the map. There are several possible ways to expand onwards from here. Egypt is a sufficiently soft target to be the first part of your colonial empire, having a decent population and offering an inroad to East Africa. Carry out a two-step annexation to minimize badboy gain, remembering to humiliate them properly to minimize the prestige loss of the second war. If other North African uncivilized countries like Tunis or Tripoli can be annexed at little prestige cost, go for it too. Putting your colonial population into uniform allows you to convert more of your state culture POPs into craftsmen and clerks, furthering your industrialization.
From time to time, check the country statistics in the ledger to locate countries with huge negative prestige. Even if they usually just are largely insiginficant minors having gone bankrupt, it's a colony for what it's worth for no prestige cost!
Of the nearby civilized countries, the Ottoman Empire is probably the softest target, as well as a country which tends to get humiliated by a series of wars, especially against Russia. A largely disgraced (-100 negative prestige) Ottoman Empire can be repeatedly invaded, grabbing off a piece every fifth year, stopping when war exhaustion turns into a problem.
Greece is a nice little morsel, but tends to attract lots of guarantees of independence. Can be taken, but only by somehow attracting Greece to declare war on you, usually done by declaring war on a country Greece has allied with, e.g. Russia. The Russians are too far away to harm you anyway.
Austria holds a sizable piece of land which you have territorial claims on. Rather obvious, since the POPs over there are mainly of your state culture. Which makes war with Austria an important long-term goal, though should hardly be considered until after mopping up a number of softer targets, as well as significant industrialization. Not only is Austria a Great Power in her own right, but she is also allied with a fair number of German minors eager to come to her help should you declare war. The key is, again, to provoke Austria into declaring war upon you. Austria often guarantees the independence of some Balkan satellite of the Ottoman Empire. Get into war with Austria by declaring war on one of these, preferably a sufficiently disgraced one. Obviously you'll get into war with the Ottoman Empire in the process, but from my experience they hardly ever offer Austria much aid. Having naval superiority prevents any Ottoman invasions of your land, and a few trenches in Sinai protects your Egyptian holdings from Turkish forays.
On the matter of Austria it is worth mentioning, that there is a Prussian event allowing you to form an alliance against Austria. This offers a good opportunity to give Austria a few blows with the Prussians keeping a part of the Austrian army along with most of the German minors busy while you storm Venezia. The downside of the event is, though, that Prussia will count as the leader of the alliance. While the AI won't intentionally exploit your war-score to its own ends, you might have to end the war sooner than you wanted, gaining less than you had done had you been allowed to continue.
France is a true friend later on also. Your land trade probably earned you very good relations with France on top of everything else, making for a good tech trade partner. France does have a genuine interest in Africa, but if you've annexed Egypt you should have your own colonial playground in East Africa, outside France's reach for long enough for you to make some claims of your own.
Switzerland isn't a bad addition to your empire either, being fairly industrialized. Though the AI is scripted to respect Swiss neutrality, it hardly does anything to protect it. Though, you won't be able to get around losing prestige for declaring war on Switzerland. Furthermore, do not underestimate the tenacity of Swiss defence. Blitz through their country asap, for they have a humongous mobilization pool for their size, which once mobilized can withstand an immense battering dug into the forested mountains.
To sum it up, fierce industrialization and opportunistic expansion while staying in the good books of as many Great Powers as possible are the keys to raise a unified Italy among the Great Powers.