This week’s post is coming to you all a bit early, as the folks at Paradox Interactive were kind enough to send me a review code for Victoria III – Paradox Interactive’s long awaited historical grand strategy game set during 19th and early 20th centuries – so I could have something to say about it at launch, so I thought I would move this post up in the week to coincide with the end of the review embargo.
This post is going to proceed then in two parts. First, there’s going to a be a brief section of my own first impressions; this isn’t a review per se, but I suppose as close as I can get to one. Then a long section discussing how the game modifies or builds on the historical perspective taken by its predecessor, Victoria II (which I am henceforth going to call VickyII so that it’s easy to see which game I mean without counting the numerals, so Victoria III but VickyII), which we’ve already discussed.
And of course for the sake of disclosure it seems worth noting that I received an early review code from Paradox and also owned the game already via the PDXCON2022 conference goodies (where I was a paid speaker), so I do have something of an existing relationship with Paradox, though those of you who have read the Teaching Paradox series will know this does not stop me from criticizing their games, sometimes quite stridently. Finally, these are my impressions having put about 80 hours into the game; I’ve played a mix of Colombia (into Gran Colombia), Austria (into Austria-Hungary) and Spain (into more Spain), in each case focused more on political and industrial than military aims, though none of these were by any means ‘pacifist’ runs, so I’ve engaged with most of the game’s systems.
Finally, it is worth remembering that I am singularly responsible for bullying Paradox into announcing Victoria III, so I both accept your accolades but also this game as the war reparations I demanded.
And of course if you want to proactively send me war reparations, you can do so via Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
Overall, I think Victoria III is a remarkable success at what it sets out to do, albeit one that, like most of Paradox’s games, probably won’t have universal appeal. I’m going to talk about this game as a historical project in the next section, but as a game it presents a really capable mix of the traditional strategy of most Paradox games (the diplomacy, scheming, resource allocation, etc.) married to the sort of joy that comes from a lot of production games like Factorio or Satisfactory, that delightful feeling of creating a machine (in this case, a national industrial economy) and then watching it work. Both of those genres (production games and grand strategy games) have reputations for being really hard on beginners with a high barrier for entry; Paradox has put in a lot of work to make this game beginner friendly and they do as well as anyone could but if you are new to these sorts of games, you should go in expecting to tank your economy or tip your country into revolution at least once.
Fundamentally Victoria III is built around three interlocking pillars: geopolitics (war and peace), economics (industrialization) and politics. Paradox has in the past struggled to make their games as interesting in peacetime as in wartime; Victoria III at last I think succeeds completely at this. The player is at any time likely to be pursuing parallel interlocking goals in all three pillars, with diplomatic activity often focused on securing resources to support economic activity which reshapes society in ways that make desired political changes possible and so on. Those interlocking goals generally means the player is always doing something. While the game runs just from the 1830s to the 1930s, I found myself playing it much more slowly and carefully than other Paradox games (except perhaps for Hearts of Iron), so don’t let the short time frame fool you: this is a full length Paradox game experience.
A lot of the game in turn is defined by the tension on the one hand between the tremendous, beginner-unfriendly complexity of what the game is trying to simulate and the strenuous, omni-present efforts by the designers to both make that simulation work (it does work, to a degree that VickyII never did) but also to be understandable to the player. The game comes not only with an extensive tutorial (which I must admit I mostly skipped), but also for the first time three sets of objectives (essentially military dominance, economic growth or political liberalization) the player can choose to pursue at game start, each with its own set of suggested countries with which to attempt it, though you can play with any goal as any country or any country with no goal at all. The goals have no direct gameplay impact, but instead give the player a series of intermediate objectives that broadly lead towards a certain outcome. That’s really valuable because a lot of the strategy in Victoria III is about staging, mastering the order in which political and economic moves need to come.
Likewise to this end (and presumably making the economic model work) the economic system has been streamlined a bit. Raw resource production is now built and functions like factories, with the background production of the pre-industrial economy represented by ‘peasant’ pops that work in subsistence agriculture and do household production. All factories are built by the player (avoiding the ‘capitalists are dumb’ problem of VickyII) but capitalist pops flush with cash will ‘pitch in’ for part of the construction cost of non-government buildings via the Investment Pool, making more free-market regimes attractive for being able to shift much of the construction costs off of the government’s balance sheet (but beware the political power of the industrialists!). Meanwhile, the old World Market of VickyII is gone, replaced by a system of national markets that directly trade between each other, with the ‘customs union’ treaty allowing one country to join the national market of another (much the way ‘sphereing’ worked in VickyII). Production buildings build up a cash reserve when they make a profit, which depletes when they run negative, meaning that a factory that runs into the red doesn’t immediately begin laying off workers, leading to a lot less economic shuddering than in the previous game.
The result of all of these little changes is to make the economic game a lot more manageable and intelligible to the player. It is fairly easy to grasp the cycles of expanding raw material production to push down the prices of those raw resources to support larger factories producing finished goods at a profit, all of it employing larger and larger numbers of pops at a higher standard of living than the subsistence economy (which in turn has positive political ramifications). At the same time, this has to be balanced: push down prices too much and factories will lose money and lay off employees until prices stabilize; drive prices too far up (by exporting goods) and your factories will be extremely profitable moments before they are burned down by your revolutionary citizens responding to the declining Standard of Living (SoL) as a consequence of high prices. This isn’t quite a no compromises change; the lack of a world market makes the industrial ‘start up’ sequence a bit tricky, especially for small economies, where having no factories producing a good means you have none, but one factory is way too much for your small economy; exporting the excess can be difficult making it really valuable (but also tricky) to be in the customs union of a greater power. At the same time, this isn’t ‘dumbed down’ either – as your economy grows, the juggling act of continuing expansion to maintain upward standard of living changes becomes increasingly tricky as you’re now building dozens of factories, mines, farms and railroads simultaneously.
The biggest change to the Paradox formula though comes with war and diplomacy. Rather than declaring wars, countries now embark on ‘diplomatic plays,’ essentially making a demand that triggers an international crisis. Other countries can either intervene or declare neutrality as the crisis counts down to war; either side can back down, ceding the other side’s primary demand (but not the secondary ones) if it looks like a war would be unwinnable. It’s a good system for simulating the diplomatic push-and-pull of a globalizing world where Great Powers might meddle in the political disputes of far away regions.
Meanwhile, the war system is quite different. Gone are moving individual armies through provinces, replaced by ‘fronts’ to which armies are assigned to either defend or push forward. I think some players are going to be quite unhappy with the level of abstraction here, but I really like this system. It puts the player in the actual shoes of political leadership: set the goals, assign the resources, hire the general, hope for the best. If it limits the player’s ability to solve every problem by pulling off a flawless sequence of Alexander-the-Great-esque unlikely victories (usually by abusing the AI), so much the better. I will admit the system is a bit better formed to reflect war in the early 1900s than the mid-1800s, though with sufficient military mismatch in combat capabilities, lightning campaigns like those of the Franco-Prussian War are very possible. The system also very strongly favors army quality over army quantity, but that seems era appropriate. I suspect this system is probably one of the most likely to get a post-launch overhaul, but as a foundation I think it’s actually quite good.
The last major pillar is internal politics, which is mostly about reshaping a country to fit the player’s aims without breaking it in one devastating revolution after another. The country’s political system is broken up into a series of interest groups defined broadly by attitude and social class (aristocrats/landowners, industrialists, intellectuals, trade unions, etc.) whose power (‘clout’) is determined both by the raw numbers and wealth but also by the structure of the country itself. The player’s path to reform then is a careful one – some reforms may be desirable because of their economic or social impacts, while others are useful because of how they change the political balance of power. In most cases, countries begin dominated by a landholder elite broadly averse to change, backed by military and religious interests; that coalition has to be carefully dismantled first before the player can make major moves to embrace liberalism, socialism or both. And the combination of laws and institutions do provide a real range of end-states, pairing governing systems with economic and social systems. This whole system is much more interactive and intuitive than it was in VickyII and much more engaging; it’s a remarkable design success.
I will say some quirk I did notice is that certain major historical events in this period seemed rather less likely to happen on their own than I’d expect. AI Prussia seems to generally be pretty weak and as such struggles to unify Germany, the American Civil War doesn’t seem to always occur or doesn’t occur quite right and I have not yet seen Italy unify (although to be fair, in my longest game I was Austria and thus actively working to prevent both Italian and German unification). Unification events can fire – I’ve seen a Scandinavian Union in one of my games – but less often, it seems than in VickyII. I don’t think the player will find it impossible to produce these outcomes, but the AI right now seems to find it difficult. On the other hand a certain vocal segment of the player-base ought to rejoice: Victoria III has railroads, but it has very little railroading.
I’d also say that I found myself outstripping the AI by the end of midgame (which of course compounds as that massive GDP is reinvested back into industrialization). Of course this is a Paradox game; if you want a harder challenge, you can play a harder country and there is almost always a country that is some version of ‘that country, but harder.’ At the same time, I’ve played every Paradox game since Hearts of Iron II (though EU3 was my first, I went back for HoI2) and so I tend to be pretty capable at them. Still, I suspect as the player-base grows with experience with the systems there will be calls for difficulty modifiers and for Paradox to sharpen the AI a bit. Here, frankly, I think the key is a game that works; AI fine-tuning can come later and that pattern is one that will already be quite familiar to longtime Paradox fans (e.g. the HoI4 AI is substantially more capable now than when the game launched).
Finally, I think something should be said about presentation. As I hope you can tell from the screenshots, taken on my admittedly now quite old computer, this game is very pretty, for a strategy game. Moreover, the towns and cities on the map grow and expand dynamically in response to what the player is doing; factories, mines and farms appear visually in their respective provinces, while cities expand out with dense urban terrain as the urban population expands. There’s a real joy to watching a country go from a largely undeveloped, rural countryside dotted with small towns to a dense mix of cities and factories, crisscrossed with railroad and roads (that go from having wagons to cars and trucks). Meanwhile the soundtrack may be one of Paradox’s best (I also had the pre-order bonus with the VickyII soundtrack remastered in the track list, which was lovely).
Overall then my takeaway is largely ‘they did it.’ Naturally there is some Paradox jank; the AI doesn’t always make the right war demands, leading to sometimes strange borders (though not generally to bad) and the system of fronts in war can create oddities where borders between warring alliance blocs are complex. Some opaqueness in the economic simulation remains as well, though mostly these are things where a brief hunt through the menus will reveal the problems. But broadly it works, the basic game loops are really satisfying and the different countries provide some really interesting and different starts, with different problems and goals. A game this complex isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you aren’t afraid of complexity and always wanted a game somewhere between EUIV and Factorio…this is it. And it is good.
Before I close this out an obligatory performance note. I ran this game on my (frankly, aging) computer. My setup runs an Intel i7-6700 (3.4GHz came out in 2015) with a GeForce GTX 1070 graphics card (came out in 2016) with 16GB of system RAM, which is hardly a cutting edge system these days but also while older is a purpose-built (by me) gaming rig. The game ran quite well on my machine, with some late-game slowdown when there were major wars on, which seemed to be much more a processor issue than graphics (no shock there); they weren’t too bad and didn’t stop me playing, but presumably would be worse with a lower-end machine. So while on the one hand you don’t need a super-computer to run this game, on the other hand very low end machines (or old machines) may struggle with the late-game CPU load, especially with very large countries.
On to the analysis!
Mechanics and Gears
I think the best way to structure this is to move through some of my Paradox analysis in order and discuss how Victoria III either changes or builds on the points I made about Victoria II.
And a good place to begin is the generational scheme I set up for Paradox’s offerings; I suggested a typology of three ‘generations’ of Paradox games based on some of their common design sensibilities. All of the pre-Clausewitz Engine games were ‘first generation’ (mostly because I haven’t really played them, except for HoI2). The second generation (EU3, HoI3, VickyII) were typified by their use of hard-coded events to ensure historical outcomes, while the third generation (CKII, EU4, HoI4, Stellaris and Imperator) were defined by their substantially more flexible structure, with fewer events and decisions locked to specific country-tags. I then noted that I couldn’t really say if CKIII represented an evolution of the Gen3 design or if we should understand it as properly marking the start of what we might call Gen4. Playing Victoria III makes me lean towards the latter. I think together with CKIII, Victoria III reflects a design sensibility aiming to reaffirm some of the elements of historical ‘simulation,’ backing away from some of the more obviously artificial ‘currencies’ (so-called ‘mana’) in favor of resources which are more explicitly tied to historical concepts. There’s also a clear visual shift towards making the game itself (and especially the map) itself more engaging and more visually reflective of the player’s actions, something that has always been present in these games but evidently can now be more fully realized.
That generation ‘skip’ makes for a pretty radical change in design sensibilities from VickyII to Victoria III. The example I used for instance about how VickyII hard-codes immigration to go to the Americas? That’s entirely gone in Victoria III, with immigration instead depending on laws (migration controls but also pops don’t want to migrate to places they’ll be discriminated against as far as I can tell) and economics (the standard of living). The United States is still in a really solid position to capitalize on mass immigration, but the player can pull this off anywhere by pushing standard of living up and implementing a liberal and tolerant legal structure; I’ve achieved massive immigration bonazas as Austria and Spain – people move to where there are jobs and favorable laws. That ‘systems over hard-coded events’ shift is broadly indicative of the two-generation jump here. I said in the original post, “my suspicion is that Victoria III will tend to push harder against a deterministic viewpoint.” Check.
More broadly I noted that VickyII was a game about pops and that design is carried over almost verbatim. Indeed, if anything it is intensified here; the game now simulates women and children as well so it really is now an effort to manage a 1-to-1 simulation of the population (gender and child labor laws determine what percentage, if any, of those women and children can work). Likewise the shift from a pre-industrial household and subsistence economy to an industrial one is maintained. One big change here that I really quite like is that the shift from traditional subsistence farming to larger scale industrial farming (‘enclosure‘) is more directly represented. Each province has an amount of arable land; if left undeveloped, it will fill with unemployed pops eking out a meager living as subsistence farmers (‘peasants’); developing that land by building big market-oriented farms will increase production, but it also reduces the last available for those peasants, kicking them into unemployment if no other options are available. Consequently reorganizing the agricultural sector can be a key route towards greater wealth and prosperity for everyone, but it can also lead to the misery of peasants who are left with no land to farm and no jobs to find; left for a length of time they’ll leave your country for some place with work (which, of course, is bad because you want to keep your pops!).
On the flipside, the change in how you build factories fixes a major problem with VickyII, which was that the economic engine never worked right. Here the solution is letting the player plan all factory construction (there is, mercifully, an ‘auto-expand-this-factory’ button which will keep enlarging a factory every time its cash reserves fill) and making the economic system balance the degree to which the player can intervene to subsidize or government-run factories against the amount of building assistance capitalists will offer via the investment pool. Combined with the shift away from the world market, this produces an economic simulation that, at last, works.
The basic sequence of industrial development is present in the game. It is a bit less teleological in that there are somewhat different paths available to countries based on the raw resources they have access to; countries without access to lots of oil, rubber, silk or dye are going to end up with economies that look somewhat different from countries with those things. But broadly the sequence of industrial innovation is represented pretty well here, as it was in VickyII, with an interwoven set of tech-trees performing the same task as VickyII‘s innovations, demonstrating interlocking technologies interacting with each other. That said some of those interactions are lost, I assume in an effort to simplify a fairly formidable tech tree: techs are split into three categories (industrial, military, social) and cannot have cross dependencies between categories. That means it’s possible to have steamships without steam engines (though good luck building any due to the building dependencies) but really unlikely.
But more importantly I think the game works even harder to focus the player on thinking about the changes they are making in terms of how they would be experienced by people. Central to this is ‘standard of living,’ a new stat which compresses VickyII‘s ‘needs’ into a single number. In short, pops get money from their jobs, which they use to buy goods to survive (food, fuel, clothes, etc.); the more of these goods they can get with their money, the higher their standard of living is. For poorer pops (who, being much more numerous, have a stronger overall impact), the key goods are basic staples: wheat, simple clothes, wood (for home heating) and so on; these make up the largest components of household spending. So standard of living can go up because prices of goods fall (because you are producing or importing more of them) or because wages went up (which happens as profitable employers compete for scarce workers); the reverse lowers standard of living.
Standard of living in turn has a very strong impact on ‘radicalism,’ which now replaces militancy. High radicalism both makes politics harder and revolution more likely (and makes it harder to hit key support thresholds to get bonuses from your political factions), but it also can create ‘turmoil’ in specific states, which lowers tax income and negative impacts migration. Radicalism is thus very fundamentally bad for the player and it is caused both by falling standard of living or by stable standard of living below pop expectations. One very common midgame interaction you will see for incompletely industrialized countries is that as new factory workers bid up the price of basic staples with their higher salaries, radicalism among the remaining peasantry – rapidly being priced out of living due to their very limited economic resources – can become very radical, which can lead to a lot of instability. Which is, of course, a really common thing in industrializing economies!
On the flipside, rising standard of living is very good for the player. It creates ‘loyalists’ – folks happy with the regime – who do the opposite things as radicals and are quite potent as a stabilizing factor in your political makeup. Moreover, the average standard of living in a state sets the baseline migration attraction factor (which is then modified by temporary effects). That’s hugely beneficial to the player because you are going to need a lot of pops to fill your mines, factories and new, industrial farms and unless you are playing a country like China, your basic population growth will still leave you pop-hungry (especially if you are playing the colonialism game to get resources your home country lacks to feed those factories). And you’d think that all that immigration would bid down the SoL in your country, but because your factories can become quite labor efficient, assuming capital investment can keep up (and the flow of raw materials can be maintained) it can have the opposite effect: massive factories employing hundreds of thousands of workers with enormous through-put bonuses can stay profitable while crashing goods prices through the floor even at high wages. And you, the state, on the top of all of this, also reap the advantages in terms of military and economic power (read: soldiers and taxes). Consequently, the player is really encouraged to care about the standard of living effects of their actions, even more than in VickyII.
Overall then, Victoria III doubles down in VickyII‘s focus on pops as the center of the story, while at the same time trying to make that story a bit more intelligible to the player.
The Ruin of War
Moving to diplomacy and war, VickyII had this wonderful hidden interaction where gains to warfare were slowly eclipsed by its destructiveness. My own sense of VickyII was that this interaction was an unintentional, emergent property of the game’s systems and thus the game didn’t highlight or harness it fully but that nevertheless this was the crowning achievement of the design. Well, I don’t know if the Victoria III team just reads this blog (actually, I do know they read this blog, but I don’t know if they decided on the following design elements before I wrote about them) or if they just made the same realization I did, but Victoria III takes that ‘hidden’ interaction and draws it out much more clearly.
Armies in Victoria III consist of regiments, each of which is created by a building – either a barracks for permanent, professional forces or conscription centers for mobilized conscripts. New technologies unlock new ways of fighting which can be chosen from the buildings; the main statistics are ‘offense’ (the army’s power when attacking) and ‘defense’ (the same when defending). Early in the game, technologies tend to improve these two statistics more or less evenly, with defense having perhaps a slight edge; relatively small gaps in technology can produce a military ‘overmatch’ that can result in being able to rapidly overrun an enemy country on the offensive, whereas wars against peers tend to be more grinding things.
That situation begins to shift fairly quickly for the cutting edge countries in three key ways. First, technological advancements begin around the middle of the tech tree to favor defense, making it easier to defend territory than to take it; that tendency becomes stronger and stronger until some very late game technologies reverse it. At the same time, several technologies increase ‘kill rate’ (the rate at which a unit inflicts casualties as compared to the morale damage it inflicts), making battles bloodier (once again, asymmetry in these technologies can produce brutally one-sided fights). Finally, upgrading to these new ways of fighting demands more materiel, especially the ‘munitions’ good (in addition to ‘small arms’ and ‘artillery’), which can get expensive fast. Consequently, both the human and financial cost of military activity increases as a factor of time, while rising defense is designed to produce brutal, high-casualty deadlocks if both participants have them.
Which is much the interaction in VickyII, albeit with some of the jank (like the inevitable crushing global mid-century liquor shortage and no, I am not kidding, ask any VickyII player and they will tell you about this) removed. But now the presentation is crucially different: Victoria III shows total casualties and financial cost for both sides on the war screen. And these can be staggering. As I write this, I just observed AI Russia involved in a war to try to seize Moldavia in 1890-1; the war pulled in Austria, Egypt and the Ottomans. The end result was a white peace, but not before Russia lost 1.7 million men killed or wounded, spending more than £40 million in the fighting; I didn’t get a total for the other side (a number of them had ‘peaced out’ and so their costs weren’t listed on the screen), but when I viewed the war mid-progress, they weren’t doing any better.
Meanwhile, the new ‘front’ system is almost certainly going to get some polishing, but is actually a good match for simulating the WWI deadlock. And it avoids one of the problems in this bit of history that I found when I discussed this interaction in VickyII. When I noted that the best way to win WWI in VickyII was to not fight WWI, several readers noted that actually they actually found they could trounce their way through the First World War just fine, both by being comically ahead of time on tech but also by abusing the AI by drawing it into foolish fights (forts being a big contender here). And here I think the ‘front’ system – and this take is going to upset some people – is an improvement because it guides the player away from making micro-managing army decisions which political leaders wouldn’t make in any event.
It also allows the game to be a bit more deliberate about how war impacts people and economics. Occupied territory accrues ‘devastation’ from the fighting on it, which wears off slowly once the war is done but until it does provides economic penalties. A long, grinding late-game war can thus ruin territories that aren’t lost. At the same time, the economic disruption creates radicals (especially in occupied territories) which as noted above – having radicals is a very bad thing the player is going to want to avoid. Devastation and the turmoil caused by the massive local increase in radicalism are both clearly marked on the map, so once again an interaction that was easy to miss in VickyII is now explicit so the player can see, “oh man, that long war I won but where my key province was occupied for a few months is going to have long-lasting negative implications to my political stability.”
That said, it is still possible at present to get sufficiently technologically and economically ahead of the AI by the late-game (especially if you start as a major European power) to obviate this whole thing. I think I understand the instinct here: the developers want countries that aren’t Prussia, France or Britain to be able to ‘catch up’ by the late game, but I think some systems to hold back a player blazing too far ahead might be a good idea. I hesitate to suggest it, but they made need an ‘ahead of time’ penalty on technology research, for instance.
Overall, then, the big advance here is taking the interaction that already existed and informing the player about it. While I fear for what this sort of design philosophy will do for my job security as a History Game Explainer, for the player it makes the ‘theory of history’ much easier to discover, which is good.
Finally we come to the world beyond the great powers, which was where I had my heaviest criticism for VickyII‘s design. And while in this case I know many of these design decisions were made well before I wrote my essay, if I didn’t know that I’d be tempted to assume it was used as a checklist of things to fix.
I opened by critiquing VickyII’s division of people into ‘civilized nations’ ‘uncivilized nations’ and ‘uncolonized lands.’ The first two have now been replaced by recognized and unrecognized powers; the former are members of the European state system, the latter are not. Importantly, these conditions are now completely independent of economic development and government form (they were all tied up together in ‘westernization’ in VickyII); recognition is purely a diplomatic question and a power can become recognized by forcing an already recognized power to do so via a diplomatic play (so Japan could achieve recognition as part of the Russo-Japanese War, for instance). That’s much better as a way of expressing the slanted international system European imperialism created.
Meanwhile, ‘uncolonized lands’ are now ‘decentralized powers’ and I just love the this change so much, even though decentralized powers are not playable (you play as a central state, a thing which these folks are defined by not having). Decentralized powers still have pops and clearly defined territories (shown in outline whereas the other powers’ color shades their whole country) but as the game notes lack a single centralized government strong enough to force other powers to interact with it. Consequently, the other powers can encroach on their territory – the colonization mechanic – without triggering a diplomatic incident with the other centralized powers. But that doesn’t mean these decentralized powers are passive; pushing into their territory creates tension with all of the decentralized powers in the area, who may then rise up and attempt to throw the invader out. Those efforts at fighting back mostly fail, as they mostly failed historically, but it gives these decentralized powers a real sense of agency they totally lacked in VickyII. Moreover it now makes very clear that these parts of the world (primarily the Great Plains in North America and large sections of Africa) were not empty. Instead states expanding into those regions are very clearly taking that land from someone. I want to see this system used in place of the old colonization mechanics in every future Paradox game (which mostly means EU5 if and when it is greenlit).
And the technological sequence which both makes the scramble for Africa possible and then motivates it to happen is now much clearer. Instead of the nebulous ‘life rating’ system, Victoria III presents a fairly explicit ‘malaria wall’ as it were, with some states having ‘malaria’ or ‘severe malaria’ as modifiers; if your country isn’t already from such a region, either the quinine or more advanced malaria prevention techs are necessary to effectively push into these regions. Meanwhile, railroads and steamships are crucial for producing the infrastructure necessary for a colonizing power to actually get any resources out of these regions; the fit with D.R. Headrick’s argument in Tools of Empire (1981) – guns, quinine, steam engines – is much closer.
Meanwhile European imperialism in Africa is far more clearly tethered to the desire of European states to get key resources. For the player in Victoria III playing as a non-equatorial country, coffee (from cocoa), tea and rubber are all goods that simply won’t be available domestically. While the former two are consumer goods, the latter is a key industrial product that is likely to send the player scrambling for supply in the mid-to-late game. One resource that is missing here that was very important for expansion especially in West Africa is palm oil, which was a key industrial lubricant prior to the development of more ubiquitous petroleum based products (whale oil as an alternative to petroleum does exist in game, so it seems like adding palm oil here would be a fairly easy change, albeit with some balance implications, but then again the ramp towards an oil-based economy frankly needs smoothing anyway from a balance perspective).
There is one new problem with how Victoria III handles imperialism though and that is the existence of several ‘dominions’ and the way they behave, particularly the East India companies of the British and the Dutch. Both function as satellites that the player playing as the suzerain has relatively little control over. I assume this was in part for balance and in part to reduce the complexity of running the whole British Empire but frankly it suggests a greater degree of distance in terms of how these places were ruled, since historically speaking imperial control over these areas was often quite direct. ‘Company rule’ in the Dutch East Indies, for instance, ended in 1800, well before the game starts. The continuation of the British East India Company makes more sense (it was dissolved in 1874), but in practice the line between these two systems could be thin. It also creates gameplay balance issues, wherein the overlord cannot, for instance, direct their colonial dominions to develop specific resources (a problem that does not exist for later colonies in Africa) which is wild given that for most of this period the Dutch policy in their colonies in Indonesia was the enforced planting of specific cash crops and until 1901 official Dutch policy was that the whole region was a wingewest, ‘profit region.’ I think to better match this history the Dutch colonies in Indonesia should start already as part of the Netherlands as ‘unincorporated states’ (see below), while colonial overlords should be able to set building priorities in their subjects (which may be as simple as letting the overlord build buildings in subject territory).
On the other hand one thing I had wished for was for the design to revisit the ‘state-ification’ process and indeed, it has. In particular, I thought that players ought to be at least offered the counter-factual of attempting to integrate existing colonial territories fully, encouraging indigenous development, declaring local cultures tolerated and valued and extending political participation and rights to the people who lived there. That is, to be clear, a fairly clear counter-factual in all but a handful of typically very small cases, but it seemed like it ought to be something the player could do and in Victoria III it is, through a mix of incorporating states and passing laws removing discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and religion. There are challenges to it, since extending public services over more people costs money and bureaucracy (which also costs money) and will cause wages in those regions to rise which can reduce profits, and moreover reactionary elements will fight bitterly to stop those law changes (and consequently doing all of this is much easier if the country in question is already an immigrant-driven multi-cultural state which given that by far the largest examples of such permanent overseas ‘state-ification’ are Hawaii and Alaska makes a good deal of sense).
Finally, I had groused a bit that while VickyII did well for making slavery a major part of the experience of playing the United States and some other countries, it did not really reflect slavery as a global institution, nor the degree to which stamping that institution out was at times achieved by ‘gunboat diplomacy.’ Both are now addressed. Non-free workers are now represented by both ‘serfs’ and ‘slaves.’ In countries that have the ‘serfdom’ law, all of the subsistence farmers (‘peasants’) are serfs, which reduces their standard of living while the institution is both fiercely defended by and politically empowers the landholder class. Slavery is divided into three categories: ‘debt slavery,’ an active ‘slave trade’ and ‘legacy slavery’ where the institution is permitted to exist as long as it doesn’t expand and the large-scale import of new enslaved persons is banned. A lot of countries have one of these laws at game start, reflecting global institutions of non-free labor of varying kinds (though the percentage of enslaved persons varies widely and a player even casually glancing at the demographic makeup of the Caribbean or the American South will immediately realize something is quite different in these places).
As in VickyII, the player is motivated to want to get rid of slavery for a number of reasons. For one, free workers are better, economically, than enslaved workers as they’re able to more flexibly transition between jobs, earn wages (enslaved pops get ‘upkeep’ instead of wages and thus are stuck with very low standard of living), obtain a higher standard of living and generate less radicalism. Also, slavery is bad. Moreover, chances are the player intends to implement at least some government changes, but both slavery and serfdom massively empower the landholder interest group who are for sure going to oppose basically anything the player tries to do politically. Consequently in running a country with slavery – now a much wider range of countries – the game pretty much invites the player to ‘think like an abolitionist’ as it were, looking for ways to lever out the country’s landholder fueled enslaver’s caucus in order to open up new economic and political paths. And that, I think, is a good frame to put the player into.
I will say that as I played it right now the American Civil War can happen but it tends to be an odd creature and I suspect this is something that will get more treatment later. Historically speaking, by the 1830s, a lot of the ‘cake’ was ‘baked’ for the American Civil War to eventually happen, but in the game as it is now the United States often gets quite late, chronologically before this bomb goes off when AI controlled. I haven’t yet played as the USA, so I haven’t seen this tension ‘from the inside’ but from the outside it still looks a bit wonky. Still, this is exactly the sort of thing ‘flavor packs’ are made for.
All told, I think Victoria III retains the elements that most drew me to VickyII but they are built now on a much stronger foundation. And of course given the way that Paradox development goes, that is always how one has to view a fresh new release: as a foundation for future work. And I can certainly see where some of that work can go, but the foundation seems solid to me. As I write this, Paradox has committed themselves to at least an Expansion, an immersion pack, a radio pack and an art pack post-launch, so it is clear they intend to build on the foundation.
Understandably, a lot of the development work in crafting that foundation has gone into the major European powers. What I find most promising here, however, is that the groundwork for non-European states and peoples is much better and so I hope that subsequent work really capitalizes on that groundwork, both in terms of playing those non-European states but also in feedback to a player running a European state with global reach. There are already a few events that speak to the kind of experiences that European imperialism could create, but that’s a part of this era that I think needs to be expanded upon and I hope will be.
Meanwhile, I think the political system, now that it is a lot more transparent and responsive, creates the opportunity to really show interconnections between the politics of various states as ideas crossed borders. It is, after all, not an accident that historically the Springtime of Nations in 1848 seemed to be contagious as both liberal and nationalist ideas spilled over borders with sudden and unpredictable effects. With the player able to better tell what is going on with their politics, I think it’d be easier to have events where, for instance, a liberal shift or imperial crack-up might in turn trigger major political shifts in neighboring countries (both positive and negative, since just as you have the liberalizing wave of the 1840s – and the crackdown that followed – you also have the totalitarian wave of the 1920s and 30s). Certainly the post-Conference of Vienna world was one in which the monarchs of Europe (and eventually the rest of the world) recognized that the contagiousness of revolution represented a threat to all of them.
But I don’t want these ‘areas for further development’ to misrepresent my tone here. Victoria III is a big step forward from VickyII and has some ideas – especially decentralized powers – that I now really want to see in every subsequent Paradox game and hopefully picked up more broadly by the historical strategy genre.
Final Verdict: I am 80 hours in and my ‘countries to play’ list isn’t getting any shorter.
And as a final note, there will be a short Fireside on Friday before the start of November. ACOUP will then be on a one-month hiatus for November while I work on some research writing. Patrons will be getting a few snippets of that work as a treat to make up for the lack of regular content. So, Fireside on Friday (10/28), then a break and we’ll be back in December (12/2)!