Victoria 3 Review: Chaotic Grand Strategy In The Steam Age

Guys, I have some bad news. Victory 3 is not a game where you play the clone of Posh Spice’s clone. I was ready for some Sci-Fi-tinged Spice Girls, but I was sorely disappointed. However, I already installed it, so I decided to check it out and see what kind of game it actually is. It turns out that Victoria 3 is a grand strategy game, just like its stablemates Paradox Crusader Kings and Hearts of Iron.

Trying to classify Victoria 3 is quite important. Unlike, say, the Total War series, Paradox’s grand strategy titles are differentiated by much more than their time periods. Hearts of Iron is the military symbol of World War II on its sleeve, while Crusader Kings (my personal favorite) is secretly an RPG, only one that happens to have you as the ruler of a country rather than a criminal wandering. Understand that, and you’ve got the game’s appeal, especially to people who might not be interested in – or downright put off by – the historical era it covers.

The answer, to paraphrase my friend Pete, is that it’s a Victorian socio-economic Rube Goldberg machine. You’re given control of a country of your choice in early 1836, just one year before everyone’s favorite monarch named after a Walford pub will plant his vagabond on the throne of the United Kingdom, and you have a century to make everything you want. .

While Victoria 3 offers several guided game modes with helpful hints on how to achieve a particular goal, such as economic dominance or an egalitarian society, you are largely left to your own devices. Fortunately, the tutorial mode is both robust and flexible, giving you the option to ask how to accomplish the task you’re presented with, as well as why you want to do it. You can let the game show you where to click to build and ask for an explanation of why it’s a useful thing to do and how it will affect your growing nation. Alternatively, if you want to solve it yourself, you can do whatever you like and the tutorial will resume later. It’s a clever way to allow the player to engage with the game’s depths at their own pace.

The various buttons and levers that pop out of the machine will be familiar to anyone who has ever played a strategy game like this. You can build various assembly and production buildings, pass 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 behind-the-scenes activity. Your country’s population is divided into groups called pops (sadly no snaps or crackles). Pops are generally defined by profession, such as clergy, farmers or academics. You don’t really interact with individual pops, but instead interact with the interest groups they form. Some, like Samurai for example, only appear in certain countries, while people like 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 you push your country in the direction of your choosing. Go too fast in trying to, say, abolish child labor while the industrialists hold all the power, and not only will your attempt to enact a new law fail, but you’ll piss them off in the process. Instead, you must weaken the industrialists while boosting the trade unionists, perhaps throwing in some support from the authorities while gently encouraging the urbanization of the lower classes, until the balance of power is such that you can the law without much. bang bang

A colored map of America divided into zones

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 a policy information overlay.  It shows a breakdown of political parties and details of a constitutional monarchy.

Now that the subject of child labor has been addressed, it’s time to address the British Empire-sized elephant in the room. Victoria 3, because of the time period it covers, deals with some unpleasant subjects. 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 there’s the potential to reduce a lot of human suffering to data points 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 troubling the realities of colonialism.

Fortunately, my doubts were unfounded. Victoria 3 navigates these treacherous waters, presenting the Victorian era with brutal honesty, neither glorifying nor flinching at the realities of colonialism. It’s a game about progress and the technological and social advancements that have 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 increasingly mindful of every action I took, weighing potential harm and benefit.

The act of turning the tables to keep everything from crashing down around you means you have to make compromises and shift your priorities. You may want to reduce the power of the church and increase healthcare for your citizens, but the only option available is charity hospitals run by the clergy. Public education may be your goal, but if that’s not an option, then surely private school is better than none, right?

A screenshot from Victoria 3 showing 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, it’s about experimenting and learning. The abstract and ambiguous nature of the player’s role in business (the disembodied spirit of the nation? A tiny leprechaun who appears in politicians’ bedrooms and shouts “HEY YOU WITH THE GLOBAL MUSTACHE, ENACT OR UNIVERSAL SUFFERING OR OTHERWISE!” idea, honestly) means you can face happily revolutions and regime changes, continuing to push and move the population. Failure can be just as much fun as success, as I discovered after leading Belgium into the 20th century before causing economic collapse and civil war with an over-ambitious expansion of the welfare state. Whoops!

Making entertainment media rooted in the recent past is never easy. The interactive nature of games makes this even more complicated, and Paradox is no stranger to certain groups who decide that presenting historical reality equals approval. Victoria 3 manages to render a tumultuous chapter in world history with a simple grace that educates as much as it entertains, encouraging reflection and empathy in the process.

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