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Victoria 3 review: chaotic grand strategy in the age of steam

Does it build a good head of lettu...I mean steam?

Folks, I’ve got some bad news. Victoria 3 is not a game where you play the clone of the clone of Posh Spice. I was all geared up for some science fiction-tinged Spice Girls shenanigans, but I was left bitterly disappointed. However, I’d already installed it, so I decided to check it out and see what kind of game it actually is. Turns out that Victoria 3 is a grand strategy game, just like its Paradox stablemates Crusader Kings and Hearts of Iron.

Trying to classify Victoria 3 is pretty damn important. Unlike, say, the Total War series, Paradox’s grand strategy titles are differentiated by a lot more than their time periods. Hearts of Iron its WW2 military ticker on its sleeve, while Crusader Kings (my personal fave) is secretly an RPG, just one that happens to cast you as the ruler of a country, rather than a random wandering murderer. Figure that out and you grasped the appeal of the game, especially for people who may lack interest in - or be downright put off by - the historical era it covers.

The answer, to paraphrase my friend Pete, is that it’s a Victorian socioeconomic Rube Goldberg machine. You’re given control of a country of your choice at the start of 1836, just one year before everyone’s favourite monarch named after a Walford pub plants her bum on the UK throne, and you have a century to, well, do whatever you want.

While Victoria 3 offers several guided game modes with helpful hints at how to achieve a particular goal such as economic dominance or an egalitarian society, you’re largely left to your own devices. Thankfully, the tutorial mode is both robust and flexible, giving you the option to ask how to achieve the task it presents you with, as well as why you’d want to do it. You can let the game show you where to click in order to build and ask for an explanation of why that’s a useful thing to do and how it’ll affect your growing nation. Alternatively, if you want to work it out yourself, you can just do what you like, and the tutorial will pick up again afterward. It’s a smart way of allowing the player to engage with the depths of the game at their own pace.

A screenshot from Victoria 3 showing a map of Europe with a gameplay interface displaying in-game data and activity

The various buttons and levers sticking out of your machine will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a strategy game in this vein. You can build various gathering and production buildings, enact laws and engage in diplomacy with other nations (at the end of a rifle, if that floats your boat). But what makes Victoria 3 interesting is the activity behind the scenes. The population of your country is divided into groups called pops (sadly, no snaps or crackles). Pops are generally defined by profession, like clergymen, farmers, or academics. You don’t really engage with the individual pops, but instead, interact with the interest groups they form. Some, like Samurai for instance, only crop up in specific countries, while the likes of Rural Folk can be found everywhere.

Your job is to keep all these different interest groups happy (or at least not so unhappy that they start a revolution) while nudging your country in the direction you choose. Move too quickly by, say, trying to abolish child labour while the Industrialists hold all the power, and not only will your attempt to enact a new law fail, but you’ll rile them up in the process. Instead, you have to weaken the Industrialists while boosting the Trade Unionists, maybe throwing some support from the authorities behind them while gently encouraging the urbanisation of the lower classes, until the balance of power is such that you can get your law passed without too much fuss.

A coloured map of America divided into areas
A screenshot from Victoria 3 showing a text box explaining that a censorship law has been passed
A screenshot from Victoria 3 showing a 3D model of Mexico City
A screenshot from Victoria 3 showing an information overlay about politics. It shows a breakdown of political parties and details of a constitutional monarchy.

Now the subject of child labour has been broached, it’s time to address the British Empire-sized elephant in the room. Victoria 3, due to the time period it covers, deals with some unpleasant subject matter. Not only that, but the nature of the genre also means looking at them in a detached, almost clinical manner. It’s very much a numbers game, and the potential is there to reduce a lot of human suffering to points of data in an economic equation. For these reasons, I must confess that I approached the game with some trepidation.

Victoria 3 navigates these treacherous waters by presenting the Victorian era with brutal honesty, neither glorifying nor flinching from the realities of colonialism

Thankfully, my misgivings were unfounded. Victoria 3 navigates these treacherous waters by presenting the Victorian era with brutal honesty, neither glorifying nor flinching from the realities of colonialism. It’s a game about progress and the technological and social advances that shaped the world we live in today. I was worried that the lack of historical distance would repel me, but instead it drew me in and I found myself growing increasingly thoughtful about every action I took, weighing the potential harm against the benefits.

The plate-spinning act you have to perform in order to keep everything from crashing down around you means you have to make compromises and alter your priorities. You may want to reduce the power of the church and increase healthcare for your citizens, but the only option available is charitable hospitals run by the clergy. Public education may be your goal, but if that’s not an option, then surely private schooling is better than none at all, right?

A screenshot from Victoria 3 displaying a story snippet with a multiple-choice answer box. It refers to the acceptance or rejection of The Communist Manifesto.

It helps that the game isn’t really about winning as much as it is experimenting and learning. The abstract and ambiguous nature of the player’s role in affairs (the disembodied spirit of the nation? A tiny goblin who appears in politicians’ bed chambers and yells “OI, YOU WITH THE HANDLEBAR MOUSTACHE, ENACT UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE OR ELSE!” I have no idea, honestly) means that you can happily weather revolutions and regime changes, continuing to poke and prod the populace. Failure can be just as fun as success, as I discovered after leading Belgium all the way into the twentieth century before causing economic collapse and civil war with an overambitious extension of the welfare state. Oops.

Making entertainment media rooted in the recent past is never easy. The interactive nature of games makes that even trickier, and Paradox is no stranger to certain groups deciding that presenting historical reality is equal to endorsement. Victoria 3 succeeds at rendering a tumultuous chapter in world history with a straightforward grace that educates as much as it entertains, encouraging reflection and empathy in the process.

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Caelyn Ellis

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