READERS of my writings over the years will hopefully be aware that I am very fond of Grand Strategy Games and the Victorian Era – and have been very much looking forward to the combination of the two that is Victoria 3.
Developed and published by Paradox for PC and Mac, Victoria 3 is the third iteration of the popular Grand Strategy series, and like the others, it is not for the dilettante – and ultimately proved too complex and opaque for me to really get into on the level I wanted to, either.
While the game launched late last year it’s so incredibly dense and complicated (combined with there just being a lot going on generally) that it’s only now I’ve finally found myself feeling like I can review it.
In broad terms, the game starts you off on January 1, 1836 and gives you 100 years to lead whatever country you’ve chosen to whatever outcome you aim for. There are truly limitless approaches you can take – whether it’s Make Sweden Great Again, modernise Qing Dynasty China, or have Australia colonising the entire Pacific Region, Victoria 3 lays the map down and essentially says “Go nuts”.
I cannot overstate just how complicated and complex this game is. This goes beyond just not being for filthy casuals; this is a game that requires a significant time investment and understanding to the point where the time it takes just to get a handle on how most of the mechanics work is longer than many other entire games.
It all proved a bit much for me, sadly. I like Grand Strategy games a lot and I wanted to get into the nitty gritty of micromanaging a globe-spanning 19th century empire, but the user interface, controls and mechanics were all so incredibly counterintuitive that while I was able to get things sort of on an even keel, I still just never felt I was actually on top of everything – and couldn’t be on top of everything because there was just so much to keep track of.
Countries are governed by laws, and as in the real world, getting them passed takes ages and requires a lot of compromises (represented in game by pop-up events requiring you to make a decision which will have an impact on the bill’s progression); and
Victoria 3 is most definitely not a war game, and actually fighting wars in it is complicated, abstract and not particularly engaging.
Armies are controlled by generals, you assign a general to a front, and then basically leave them to do their thing. I wasn’t expecting Empire: Total War or anything, but this was entirely too ‘hands-off’ for my liking.
Industry was a little more accessible; in each region you can build key infrastructure (factories, farms, railways and so on) and the connection between “There is a farm in this region and a cannery in this one and you can sell the canned food to another country” was clearer to me than some of the other systems (including the system deciding global prices).
You can engage in some pretty epic micromanagement in trade, buying X units of Y product for an amount, selling products to certain markets, shipping from particular ports, etc. If you really like your trade simulations, Victoria 3 will appeal.
One of the biggest elements of the era, colonialism, is not handled all that well, though. To set up a colony, you have to first research colonialism (which was not, incidentally, a new idea in the 19th century) then establish a Colonial Office, then declare a diplomatic interest in a region where colonies can be established, then click ‘Establish colony’, and suddenly you have a piece of land in a far corner of the world with your flag on it.
Here’s the thing, though – in the 19th century, sea travel was slow. It would take months to get from the UK to Australia; yet in the game you instantly have a small colonial territory to work with that will continue expanding as long as you develop it. While it might have seemed like the Great Powers of the age more or less did exactly that, the reality was more complicated and setting up a colonial enterprise (even if it was simply sending a ship and some soldiers to plant a flag and say “This is ours now”) took a long time, which isn’t reflected in the game.
While I appreciate colonialism and its legacy are contentious subjects in a number of ways, the abstract way Victoria 3 handles the subject was disappointing to me and didn’t really although it did provide a disturbing insight into how things like the horrors of the Congo Free State could have happened purely from a book-keeping perspective.
I also encountered a lack of polish – it was hard to put my finger on, given how complex the game is, but things like trade routes not working properly, goods not going where they were supposed to, and lots of people being unemployed despite industries needing them all seemed to be part of it, along with the game starting to slow down and chug along even on my pretty beefy gaming PC in the later decades of a playthrough.
It was clear to me that industry/trade is the main focus of Victoria 3, and it does that well, and the game already has a thriving community sharing tips, tricks and developing mods.
If you are searching for an authentic Grand Strategy experience with a Victorian flavour, then Victoria 3 has a lot to offer, but I felt it was still a flawed experience which needs some more polishing and fine-tuning.
On the other hand, if you want a more accessible and less crunchy, abstract approach to the idea then I highly recommend Ubisoft’s Anno: 1800, which has the same aesthetic and focus on production chains, trading and keeping people happy, but is a lot less demanding overall.