It’s a Wednesday when I write this. I work from my couch, laptop in lap. I’m writing an email, and I look up at my TV, where I am mirroring my PC monitor. On it, Victoria 3, latest of Paradox’s series on Victorian-era industrialism, imperialism, and revolution. Though so far, the most enjoyment I’ve gotten out of it has been looking up at the paused screen in-between work, and just watching the clouds roll across the Great Plains of the American Midwest. I’ve also sat, watching the waves crash against the rocky coasts of New England, and looking over the dry, dry deserts of North Africa. As a functional and modular wallpaper maker, a still image to look at while I mentally process work tasks, Victoria 3 is unsurpassed. As a grand strategy title? The answer is a little more complicated.
Victoria 3 gives the player a significant level of control over their country, boiled down into a few different areas. These areas (my definition, not Paradox’s) are economy, politics, and the dual area of diplomacy and warfare. I’m going to cover each of them here, but frankly I’ll likely end up talking more about some of those areas in follow-up articles.
Anyway: the internal economy. As the omnipotent leader/spirit of the nation, you can direct the industry of your state by constructing buildings. Buildings represent industry in a very direct manner; when you plop down a steel mill, for example, the mill will hire workers to fill its needs, buy iron and coal, and turn them into steel, which then gets added to the national stockpile of steel. Straightforward, right? No, not at all.
In order to get the mill to produce the steel, it needs qualified workers, which may include learned engineers, money to hire these workers and pay for the raw materials necessary, not to mention needing the raw materials to be available. Victoria 3 tracks the amount of many types of “good” across the world, and if your steel mill doesn’t have access to iron because you don’t have enough mines or foreign competition bought it all up, you’re not getting any steel.
Overall, there are 49 types of good, and you’ll need to track them all. Some are used only by the military or your heavy duty industrial factories, and others are staple goods like grain, needed by every pop to survive.
“But Jack,” you say. “What the hell’s a pop?” I’m getting to that, it’s a complicated game with a lot of moving parts.
A “Pop” represents a worker and their associated family. There’s a pop for every type of person in the world, whether they’re an English Protestant Aristocrat or a Mexican Animist Laborer or a Fluvial Bantu Jewish Capitalist. These are further broken up into where they live, and even moreso into their political alignments. It’s a great system, and adds a ton of character to your state and the world as a whole, as you can literally see who is living where, and if their needs are being met.
Pop needs! Another thing to keep track of. You’ll want to make sure that you have enough grain and clothes to keep your people fed and clothed, obviously. But what about when they start to get a little richer? Well, then they’ll start wanting to buy fancier things. Coffee. Sugar. Opium. Luxury Furniture. You’ll want to make sure they have access to these things in your market, or else they won’t be able to buy them, and will get pissed off, becoming a “Radical,” essentially a group of disgruntled folks who are more likely to join political movements and generally make things harder for you. Their foil, “Loyalists,” come into being mostly from helping your people meet their needs, or get richer, either by making the goods cost less or making them get paid more.
In short: you’re asked to make sure you have a market full of accessible goods so your people can buy them, either for personal use, or for their jobs. But if you don’t have the goods needed, you can always trade for them. Many goods can be produced anywhere, but some like opium or oil, can only be found in specific places, so states looking to meet their needs will need to trade for them (or go full imperialism).
Now, a note about the UI for all of this: you will get lost in the menus. I don’t exaggerate when I say that they are absolutely labyrinthine. Looking for a particular piece of information, wondering about how many of my peasants in a particular state were radicals, I walked into the menus and tumbled my way out the other end 5 minutes later, having found it in what feels like an accident. Many pieces of information are difficult to find. Certain broad concepts are easy to spot, but in a game about economics, not knowing how to find which of your iron mines are underperforming specifically because of a lack of engines and steel can make the game a headache. That information is there. But finding it is incredibly difficult.
Specifically, there’s a particularly baffling choice with the fact that you can’t click into a pop view of ALL peasants or ALL Yankees… there’s no sortable feature either. Let me get back to the work thing. In my day job, I run around in databases all day, finding information for people. I know what a good, searchable database looks like, and brother, Victoria 3 is not it.
Because at the end of the day, Victoria 3’s economy and political game is you going through sheets, comparing costs mentally and tracking all sorts of information; I wouldn’t be surprised if the game’s a hit with people that find QuickBooks engaging. But you almost wish you were them, these people that know how to use spreadsheets, because sometimes that’s how it feels trying to interpret some of the information you’re getting. And sure., the game warns you that not all of the pieces of information you’ll want are available, but I feel that more should be, or at least that information should be focused elsewhere. I mentioned the labyrinthine menus. It feels like there’s a lot of information you get that isn’t really relevant, or is presented in a way that doesn’t make sense.
Does the core concept of the game work? Yes, the game nails the chain of cause and effect, with buildings producing resources and having those resources determine the nature of everything else in the game. But does it work as well as it could? I’m not so sure. In any case, it’ll be a great teaching tool for production chains to kids, and it is a joy to use when you understand how it works.
One last note before I move on from the economy: as I mentioned earlier, the game is beautiful. A big part of this is that the map does react to buildings you place down in the state, either tacking on some more government buildings or factories to urban centers, or seeing houses spring up around logging camps, eventually turning into full towns. You can see oil fields form, or mines pop up, or see trains and ships traveling on the routes you built for them. It all looks quite excellent, and I want to give a big kudos to Paradox for how aesthetically pleasing the game is.
The political game in Victoria 3 is somewhat related to the political model of Victoria 2, in that the pops in your country can rally behind various political movements or parties. Who a certain pop decides to back depends on their job mostly (laborers tend to side with the “Rural Folk” interest groups, machinists the “Trade Union” groups, and so on), but also the overall popularity of a party’s stances. If you are., say running a command economy government that has a high standard of living, pops will tend to support the political groups that made that possible, in the case likely the Trade Unions or Intelligentsia. The popularity of these groups will obviously affect elections, and of course in states that have weighted voting systems, the richer pops and their associated interest groups tend to have a lot of say over what actions the government should or shouldn’t take.
The interest groups represent the various political platforms in the country, and in order to enact new laws, you have to “bring in” an interest party that supports a particular law into the government. For example, if you want to pass the Professional Army law, you’ll likely need to bring the Armed Forces interest group into the government, as that is one of their preferred laws. However, bringing too many interest groups into the government will reduce the overall legitimacy of the government, reducing the speed of new laws being enacted.
Politics can also be a balancing act. As you pass certain laws, the endorsing interest groups will surely be happy, but most laws also have opponents, and if you enact a law that some interest groups don’t like, they can become angry, causing their pops to radicalize. If left discontent for long enough, interest groups can form a political movement to enact (or revert to) a law they favor. These movements can dwindle over time if you keep people happy, but if not, they will lead to revolution. Revolutions, when they occur, function the same way as Diplomatic Plays do, which I talk further about in the next section. Essentially, parts of your state with high amounts of radicals supporting the movement will secede, and after allies pick sides to support, a war will break out, winner takes over the government.
The political game is definitely interesting, but it plays out in kind of a quirky manner. As the US, I managed to get slavery banned and have all segregationist policies overturned within the first few years of my playthrough, managing to do so without angering the Southern Landowner interest group too much by making legal concessions elsewhere. Not sure if I just got lucky, but it seemed odd that I was able to get away with that.
Meanwhile, I noticed that many revolutions in other states broke out, but it seemed to mostly be over strange reforms, such as removing freedom of speech or enforcing a professional army. I find it quite strange that a country would launch a civil war against itself just because some interest groups want to institute these changes, and I would only infrequently see revolutions that mirrored historical revolutions, such as pushes to liberalize the economy/ the government, or revolutions looking to bring the communists into power. The logic behind what leads to certain groups radicalizing enough that they revolt makes sense in the game-logic, but not much sense in the real world.
WAR AND PEACE (AND WAR)
This section is gonna be a doozy. I’ll give it to you straight: it’s not great. The main feature of diplomacy in Victoria 3 is the Diplomatic Play system. Diplomatic Plays see demands placed on a state by another, something to the effect of “give me this territory/ transfer this subject to me/ change your government to be like mine/ ban slavery” etc. A Diplomatic Play starts with just one of these demands, but both parties can add further demands and convince allies to join them over the course of 100 days. The idea is that it’s a game of brinkmanship, where the cost of acquiescing to the initial demand is cheaper than going to war and having all of the demands potentially forced upon you if you lose. However, if the timer runs out, congratulations! You’ve got a war on your hands.
It’s an interesting system, but one that’s pretty restrictive. Any sort of coercive activity you want to force upon another country is done through this mechanic. There’s no claim generation, no spying, no attempting to internally ignite revolutions in a neighbor, no trying to influence them to your politics. It’s just a threat of brute force. You either trade with a neighbor, or you beat them with a stick. This would be fine if it was just for great powers clubbing small, unrecognized local powers, but this is how they even interact with each other. It’s somewhat analogous to the leadup to World War One, but only if you squint at it. Not to mention the fact that when wars start, no new parties can jump in, so you can’t have America joining World War 1 a few years in.
You also, bizarrely, can’t influence your subjects. I ended up playing as a socialist US in my main playthrough, and while I had a few already existing puppets such as Liberia, I couldn’t force them to abandon slavery, or adopt a government more in line with my own government. The interactions you can have with your subjects feels incredibly limited, the most involved I found myself was defending them from rebels who actually had more in common with my government than the current government in power… but there wasn’t an option to allow the rebels to take over. Despite the fact that I’d have enjoyed a more friendly government in my subject, I was still forced to beat them to assert my dominance.
The art of warfare is, itself, another area that missed the mark. It, like Diplomatic Plays, comes close to being decent, but it, again, lacks depth and nuance. Wars are no longer decided by stacks of men running around a bunch of provinces to try to outmaneuver each other. Instead, armies are assigned to “fronts,” essentially an area of the border you share with your foe. Depending on the orders you give your generals, they’ll either try to advance or defend. If they do try to advance, a bar fills up, the rate of which is determined by factors such as army size, technology, and the generals involved. When battle is joined, both sides slug it out, with the deciding factors largely being who has the better number of offense or defense points. Morale plays a role as well, but in my experience, the country with the more advanced tech has a higher number of points, and they normally win, unless the battle is very lopsided in numbers. The generals themselves don’t have much input. They have personal stats that give the armies buffs or debuffs, and a random modifier is placed on the army when battle is joined, simulating the uncertain circumstances of war.
And… that’s basically it. If the attackers win, they gain a few provinces, the front shifts, and the cycle starts over. It’s not a very complicated area of the game, and I really feel like they could have done more here. Generals don’t even have stats outside of some personality traits, and armies don’t have any measurement of drill or even experience, so it does just come down to tech, numbers, and the general’s personality traits. I find this dull. The battles, due to the fact that there aren‘t any changing factors after it’s joined (new arrivals to the front can’t join an active battle), can drag on for ages, literal in-game months, as one last battalion clings on for weeks because they’re receiving replacements just barely fast enough to stay in the fight. I’ve seen battles with 20 units against a single unit stretched out for weeks. It’s absurd, and it’s boring, and it needs work. There’s no real strategy to be done here other than making sure you have enough resources at home to supply your army with equipment and updated tech. As much as we all made fun of the “walk around them” strategy from Hearts of Iron 4, even that cheesy tactic took some personal input. There’s nothing for the player to do here.
The naval aspect is, at least, a bit more enjoyable. Your naval fleets can be directed to either raid enemy convoys, protect your own, patrol your coast, or aid in a naval invasion of enemy territory, which sees your fleet shuttling your army to hostile lands. There’s not a ton to see here, but finding the best places to send your raiders to disrupt their economy and potentially cause radicals to take hold feels more proactive than what you do with the army.
SOME KIND OF REVOLUTION
Before I can wrap this up, I have to also note one other thing: performance issues. Good lord, the performance issues. Experiences may vary, but playing off of my SSD, I ran into frequent slow-downs later into my campaign, and as my economy and population grew to massive proportions, the game would frequently struggle to keep up with itself. And the crashes. The crashes! On a typical play session, I would expect the game to crash 2-3 times, the number growing larger the further I got into my campaign. By the end of it, I was just begging for the end of 1935 to come to end the game so I didn’t have to chance any more crashes.
Frankly, I’ve been playing this game a ton over the last few weeks. I have a lot of complaints about the confusing menus, about the political system that either seems too extreme or not extreme enough, about the messy warfighting aspect of the game, and most annoyingly, those pesky performance issues. But at the point that I’m writing this, I have over 70 hours clocked on Steam playing the game. Is it frequently frustrating? Yes. Is it still fun to play? Oh, without a doubt.
I think that’s what bothers me the most about Victoria 3, is that it feels like a game that’s finished, but it’s expansion ready. It’s got parts of it that need to be fixed, need to be tweaked, and they haven’t been. Those things will likely wait for a paid expansion, to make the economy’s menus easier to understand, to make the politics more sensible, to make the warfighting work. I feel that these things should all have gotten some more love before coming to us, the folks that are going to be buying and playing the game.
I’ll close by saying this: Paradox is known for releasing grand strategy games in less than ideal states. Over time, the whole last batch of Paradox GS games (starting with Crusader Kings 2) all fell victim to the curse of nasty launches. This curse was, in my opinion, mostly broken at the launch of Crusader Kings 3, where the game felt balanced and functional, and the only real complaints we had was that a bit more depth was needed. All of these games, over the course of their lifespans, received many updates to fix bugs, change mechanics, and of course, release DLC to revamp certain areas entirely. While Victoria 3 is launching in better condition than say, Europa Universalis 4, it’s not in a fantastic state, but there is definitely a good game here. The remaining question is how soon these issues will be fixed, and if we’ll need to pay for the remodeling of the game.