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I’ve been reviewing Paradox’s grand strategy games on this website for a very long time now, spending countless hours on everything from Crusader Kings to Hearts of Iron to Europa Universalis. I’ve even, believe it or not, played Sengoku. I will confess now, though, that I had never once played a Victoria game until this one.
The series, set mostly in the Victorian era (surprise!), just never seemed that appealing to me. All the games around it in Paradox’s library, from Crusader Kings’ political meddling to Hearts of Iron’s military might, pitched themselves as not only more interesting, but more focused affairs. Victoria always looked like it had a little bit of everything, leaning a little more towards some (seemingly impenetrable) big-picture political stuff, but also with a ton of economic management (no thank you), so I just never bothered.
Now that I have bothered, I’m glad I waited until this more modern iteration of the series hit, where everything is a little bit prettier and smoother. But, this still being a Victoria game in its bones, I’m also feeling slightly vindicated in my reasons for never trying it beforehand.
Victoria 3 is a game built on crunching numbers. Playing as the disembodied, guiding hand of a nation between the years of 1836-1936, you’re in charge of developing that country’s economy, military, politics and society. All big topics to try to simulate, but Victoria—through lots of numbers, a word you’re going to be sick of reading by the end of this review—tries to do so by turning every idea and principle and concept into something that can be reflected numerically.
It’s important to keep your people happy, but their happiness is determined by reaching a certain value on a scale. They’ll become revolutionary when things drop too far the other way. Your agricultural production (and that of each farm) are numbers that go up and down. Your diplomatic relations are determined by numbers that are either green (yes, they’ll agree to this) or red (get the fuck outta here). Political parties carry influence, and that’s reflected in…OK, you get the idea.
Every Paradox game is like this, I know. Every video game is like this, really, if you dig deep enough or think about them in a certain way. But here it’s all just so immediate, and overwhelming. Victoria 3 wants to be a social simulation, but it plays like accounting software. The entire game consists of doing nothing but poring over numbers, making judgements based on how they’re trending, adjusting those numbers, and seeing if you get new (and better) numbers in return.
At the outset this sounded like my personal hell. But then Paradox’s magic has always lain in taking spreadsheets and turning them into something more. Sure, all we’re ever doing is sliding numbers around, but what if we pretend that in doing so we’re reshaping the world? Then we’re talking about a potentially different video game.
Once you start recognising the shapes and patterns of all your numbers—like Cypher sitting in front of the Matrix’s raw code all day—it becomes at times something else. A game about taking the world as it existed in 1836 and seeing just how wild and interesting you can make it. How your decisions, as the leader of a single nation, can influence not just your own people’s future, but that of the entire planet.
Like I’ve said in reviews of previous Paradox games, this kind of wide-angle, emergent story-telling, in which the tale is never told the same way twice, is the thing I love most about the company’s output. Telling me a story through characters and dialogue is fine, but letting me write my own story through political malleability and social reconstruction is a lot cooler.
The first thing you need to master in Victoria 3, and the thing you spend most of your time tinkering with, is your nation’s economy. This is down to the most agonisingly minute detail, like where each farm is going to be, what crops they’re growing, and what kind of engines you’ll be using in your factories. What goods those production buildings create, how much money you make from them, and where they both end up will then go on to define every other aspect of the game.
That stuff isn’t being made in a statistical vacuum; the whole point is that you’re trying to feed, clothe and equip your people. Your nation is full of “pops,” which aren’t individual people but groups of them, arranged on the basis of stuff like location, class, religion and political affinity. How wealthy they are and what goods they’re able to enjoy goes a long way to shaping the opinions of these pops, and that then translates into the game’s political system, where the things each pop is standing for and the sway they have amongst the wider population create an ever-shifting landscape of parties and protest movements you need to navigate.
What you do on that political plane, like passing important new laws or pumping more money into services like education, is then reflected back onto the pops and the economy. It’s one enormous feedback loop, where the tiniest tweak—maybe to the kind of furniture a factory makes, or how many fisheries you’re building in a state, or how much tax you’re going to charge, or how much the price of paper is costing your civil service—can have potentially enormous economic and social ramifications.
Victoria 3 is constantly in flow, then, heaving and sighing, always shifting under your feet. Numbers are being fed into it, and they’re coming out the other end as well, but what you’re left with in the middle, once you understand them all, is something that is trying to approximate the world. It’s seemingly infinite with its possibilities, especially since you can control any nation (or comparable body) that was around in 1836, from European superpowers to the tiniest, fledgling state.
Want to turn the United States into an agrarian utopia with a constitutional monarchy? Do it. Feel like smashing the British Empire to pieces and giving power in Westminster to the unions? Knock yourself out. While you’re at it, though, know that while you’re rewriting history on the fly, huge changes are taking place everywhere else as well, as butterflies flap their wings the world over, and the further you get from 1836, the more alien the world begins to appear.
[Rutger Hauer voice] I’ve played as Shogunate Japan and seen freed slaves rise up and form their own republic in the Southern United States. I’ve played as Belgium and seen the French Empire fragment into pieces as communists seized control of the military. I’ve seen huge swathes of Africa retain their independence well into the 20th century, I’ve even seen the USA accidentally start the First World War in 1892 because…it was me. I accidentally started it by going to war with Prussia over nothing, not realising that the entire continent had been aligning themselves into two camps for decades. Whoops.
As wonderful as that all sounds, though, and don’t get me wrong it definitely was for the first dozen or so hours I played this game (and could be for a lot longer depending on how fun you find the prospect, or enjoy economic micromanagement), it also started to get a bit dull once the routine of Victoria 3 set in. Having begun as a game of numbers, it had turned into one about feelings, but the longer I looked at those feelings, and the more I poked around them, the faster they turned back into piles of numbers once more. It may always look like it’s breathing, but rarely is Victoria 3 ever truly alive.
Victoria 3 has a character system (each nation’s leaders and important political figures are represented by 3D models, and everyone has opinions and characteristics) that looks important, and at times certainly can be, but which also hums along under the surface of the game and never feels as personal as a character-driven system could or should.
I never developed a true and trusted friend in the game, nor did I ever want to really stick it to a rival, because the game is so dry that other factions come across like companies on the stock market, not rapidly-developing nations of millions vying for supremacy in a political and social tinderbox. This is, to be clear, mostly an issue of presentation; you’re being offered alliances and deals all the time, but without any sense of character or humanity propelling them.
This renders some of the game’s major pillars, like diplomacy and warfare (which has a simple, but also very lovely “frontline” mechanic by which you can assign attacking and defending armies), the stuff where you go out and really mess with the outside world, a bit of a disappointment. You spend so much time and effort working on your own people, setting things up for expansion, competition and interaction on the world stage, only to find out once you get there that you’re playing to an empty theatre.
I also just never enjoyed how much emphasis is placed on economic management here. I know that’s the point of the game, to show us how politics has as much to do with how much we have to eat as what we think about immigrants or public schools. But also, this is a multifaceted video game, one that features global diplomacy, societal story-telling and the potential to reimagine the First World War, yet here I was spending the bulk of my playtime looking at government paper costs and dye production and regional livestock figures. The accountants and quartermasters among you might be very into this, but I was not.
Even the world itself is a bummer. Victoria 3‘s map is beautiful, even more than Crusader King 3‘s, a globe bristling with colour and variety and an ever-changing landscape as cities and railroads expand over the decades. But you rarely, if ever, actually use it. This enormous 3D recreation of the entire planet is sitting in the middle of your screen for almost the entire time you play the game, taking up huge amounts of real estate, and you almost never (there are a few exceptions) have to click on it, since the game’s primary interactions are all more quickly and easily handled via sidebars and buttons. It’s a real shame!
But it’s also a very Victoria 3 thing to do. To promise so much life and vibrancy, and sometimes deliver on it, but for the most part just leave you alone working on the math.