For a very long time, I’ve been writing reviews of Paradox’s grand strategy games for this site, devoting many hours to everything from Crusader Kings to Hearts of Iron to Europa Universalis. Believe it or not, I’ve even played Sengoku. I can admit, though, that before to this game, I had never played a Victoria game.
I just never found the series, primarily set in the Victorian era (surprise! ), to be all that compelling. From the political scheming of Crusader Kings to the military power of Hearts of Iron, every game in the nearby Paradox collection marketed itself as more intriguing and narrowly focused. I decided not to bother because Victoria always seemed to have a bit of everything, leaning slightly more towards some (seemingly impenetrable) big-picture political stuff but also with a ton of economic management (no thanks).
I’m pleased I held off till this more recent incarnation of the series came out, where everything is a little bit prettier and smoother, now that I’ve bothered. I am, however, also feeling somewhat validated in my reasons for never having tried it before, as this game is still fundamentally a Victoria game.
A game called Victoria 3 was created by crunching data. You control the development of a nation’s economy, military, politics, and society while acting as the unembodied, guiding hand of that country during the years of 1836 and 1936. All of these are significant topics to attempt to simulate, but Victoria tries to do so by turning each idea, principle, and concept into something that can be reflected numerically. You will get tired of reading the word “numbers” by the end of this review.
It’s crucial to keep your employees content, but their happiness is measured by how well they perform on a scale. When things go too far in the other direction, they’ll turn revolutionary. Your agricultural output and the output of every farm are numbers that fluctuate. Numbers that are either green (yes, they’ll agree to this) or red determine your diplomatic relations (get the fuck out here). Political parties have sway, and that influence is reflected in…I think you get the picture.
I’m aware that every Paradox game is like this. If you look closely enough or approach them in a certain manner, every video game actually is like this. However, everything is so sudden and overwhelming here. However, Victoria 3 plays more like accounting software than it does a social simulation. Throughout the entire game, all you do is analyze numbers, make decisions based on how they’re trending, adjust those numbers, and see if you receive new (and better) numbers in return.
This seemed like my personal hell at first. However, Paradox has always been able to take spreadsheets and transform them into something more. Even though all we ever do is move numbers around, what if we act as though we’re reshaping the world as we go? Then, we’re discussing a potential new video game.
It sometimes turns into something else as you begin to recognize the forms and patterns in all of your numbers, much like Cypher did while spending all day staring at the raw Matrix code. A game where the goal is to make the world as it was in 1836 as bizarre and fascinating as possible. How the choices you make as the head of a single country can affect not only the future of your own people but also the future of the entire planet.
This wide-angle emergent story-telling style, in which the storyline is never told in the same way twice, is what I love most about Paradox games, as I’ve stated in reviews of earlier titles. It’s good to tell me a tale through dialogue and people, but it’s much better to allow me to make my own story through political pliability and societal reconstruction.
Your country’s economy is the first thing you need to grasp in Victoria 3 and the item you fiddle with the most. This comes down to the tiniest of details, like the locations of each farm, the crops that will be grown there, and the types of engines you’ll be employing in your factories. Every other aspect of the game will be determined by the products those production buildings produce, how much money you make from them, and where they both end up.
The goal is to feed, clothe, and equip your people, so that stuff isn’t being produced in a statistical vacuum. Your country is filled with “pops,” or groupings of individuals, who are arranged according to factors like location, class, religion, and political affinities. The opinions of these pops are greatly influenced by their wealth and the goods they have access to. This influence then translates into the political system of the game, where the ideologies each pop supports and the influence they have over the general populace create an ever-changing landscape of parties and protest movements you must navigate.
The populace and economy are then affected by what you do on the political level, such as adopting significant new legislation or investing more money in services like education. It’s one big feedback loop, and even the smallest adjustment to the type of furniture a factory produces, the number of fisheries you build in a state, the amount of tax you impose, or the cost of paper to your civil service could have huge effects on the economy and society.
The ground beneath your feet is continuously moving as Victoria 3 is continually in motion, heaving, and groaning. When all the numbers are understood, what is left in the middle is something that is attempting to approximate the world. Numbers are fed into it, and they are coming out the other end as well. Since you can command any country (or analogous entity) that existed in 1836, from European superpowers to the smallest, fledgling state, the options are seemingly endless.
Want to establish a constitutional monarchy and an agrarian utopia in the United States? Do it. Do you feel like destroying the British Empire and giving the unions control of Westminster? Defeat yourself. While you’re at it, keep in mind that, as you’re rewriting history on the spot, enormous changes are happening everywhere else as well. As butterflies flap their wings everywhere, the world becomes increasingly alien the further away you travel from 1836.
[Voice of Rutger Hauer] I’ve played as Shogunate Japan and witnessed emancipated slaves in the Southern United States forming their own republic. I’ve taken the role of Belgium while seeing the French Empire disintegrate as communists took over the military. I have witnessed vast swaths of Africa maintaining their independence well into the 20th century, and I have even witnessed the USA unintentionally trigger the First World War in 1892 because…it was me. I unintentionally started it when unaware that the entire continent had been splitting into two camps for decades, I went to war with Prussia over nothing. Whoops.
But as wonderful as that all sounds, and trust me when I say it was wonderful for the first dozen or so hours or so I played this game (and could be for much longer depending on how enjoyable you find the prospect, or enjoy economic micromanagement), it also started to get a little boring once the routine of Victoria 3 set in. It started as a game of numbers and evolved into one of the sentiments, but the more I looked at and explored those emotions, the faster they returned to becoming a game of numbers. Even though Victoria 3 often appears to be breathing, it rarely actually is.
Each nation’s leaders and significant political figures are represented by 3D models, and everyone has opinions and characteristics. This character system in Victoria 3 looks significant and can be at times, but it also hums along beneath the game’s surface and never feels as intimate as a character-driven system could or should.
The game is so dry that other factions seem like firms on the stock market, not rapidly-developing nations of millions battling for supremacy in a political and social tinderbox, thus I never made a true and trusted friend in it, and I never wanted to truly stick it to a rival. To be fair, this is primarily a presentation problem; you constantly receive offers for alliances and transactions that lack any feeling of humanity or character.
This makes some of the game’s main components—the parts where you venture outside and really mess with the outside world—like diplomacy and warfare—which has a straightforward but lovely “frontline” mechanic by which you can assign attacking and defending armies—a little disappointing. You put so much time and effort into developing your own people and preparing them for growth, competition, and engagement on the global stage, only to discover when you arrive that the audience is empty.
Additionally, I’ve never liked how important money management is in this context. I am aware that this is the game’s intended message—to demonstrate how politics affects our food intake just as much as it affects our opinions on immigrants or public schools. However, despite the fact that this is a multifaceted video game with elements of global diplomacy, societal story-telling, and the potential to reimagine the First World War, I found myself spending the majority of my playtime examining statistics related to regional livestock and government paper costs and dye production. I wasn’t interested in this at all, but the accountants and quartermasters among you might be.
Additionally, I have never liked how much importance is put on economic management in this country. I understand that the purpose of the game is to demonstrate how politics affects our food intake just as much as it affects our opinions about immigrants or public schools. I was spending most of my playtime examining government paper expenses, dye manufacturing, and regional livestock data, despite the fact that this is a multifaceted computer game with elements of global diplomacy, societal story-telling, and the capacity to reinvent the First World War. I wasn’t into this as much as the accountants and quartermasters among you.
Even the universe itself is depressing. The map of Victoria 3 is stunning, much more so than the one of Crusader King 3. It features a world that is vibrant and varied, with a terrain that is constantly changing as cities and railroads grow through time. However, you hardly ever, if ever, use it. The game’s main interactions are all more quickly and conveniently handled via sidebars and buttons, so you hardly ever (with a few exceptions) have to click on this enormous 3D recreation of the entire planet that occupies the majority of your screen for almost the entire time you play. It’s really too bad!
But doing it is also incredibly Victoria 3 of them. To make such vivacious and vibrant promises, and occasionally to keep them, but mostly to just leave you alone to do the math.