Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy games are known for their uncompromising scope and depth in recreating entire eras of history, but never before have they attempted something quite so dizzyingly complex as Victoria 3. Modeling every single human alive in the world-changing century from 1836 to 1936, their hopes and desires, their joy and wrath, and how they feel about the price of new deck chairs, the simulated world before you is a marvel to behold. And what’s even more incredible is that it’s not merely a curiosity or a tech demo. Aside from a moderate helping of launch-day jank, it mostly works, and serves as the basis for a deeply engrossing sociopolitical strategy game.
It’s only fair to give a warning straight off that Victoria 3 is dense, detailed, and by its nature, full of mechanics that require you to do some proactive detective work to understand them. I love that stuff, personally. But for the uninitiated, finding your way around its quirks and pitfalls during the first couple campaigns is likely to be daunting. Even as someone with a combined 4,000 hours, give or take, across Paradox’s other franchises, I struggled at first.
There is a dynamic tutorial scenario in which you can play as any country, and that will give you a grasp of the basics but not necessarily set you up for mastery. The best teaching resources Victoria 3 offers are a nested tooltip system, and the ability to select “Tell Me How” and “Tell Me Why” on important game concepts. This is something I’d love to see in more strategy games, since simply explaining what all the buttons do – Tell Me How – usually doesn’t give you a working idea of when to press them – Tell Me Why. Even with all of that, though, I would still rank Victoria 3 as one of the hardest Paradox games to learn – more in line with Hearts of Iron than Crusader Kings.
The main balls you’ll be juggling at any given time in Victoria 3 are politics and economics, both of which are deliciously deep and sometimes frightening to interact with. Political power in your nation is neatly organized under interest groups, which could be anything from the Evangelical Church in America to the educated Literati in China. Their power comes from a variety of sources, but early on it’s mostly wealth and land ownership, so a handful of aristocrats might have more sway than the millions of peasants they lord over.
This creates a fascinating little dance if you want to, say, build a liberal and democratic society. Upsetting a powerful group like the aristocrats can completely destabilize your country early on, so you have to find ways to erode their power without overtly ticking them off. And since everything is tied into the simulation of actual people and their material conditions, the ways you can do this are actually quite intuitive. If you build a lot of schools and teach people to become engineers, then build factories for them to work in, there will be fewer peasants in your country and those old world barons will start to go broke and lose their political relevance.
Victoria 3 Screenshots
However, you’ll also be creating barons of the new world: factory owners and captains of industry who want low taxes and no child labor laws. Since wealth will always confer political power, even in a democracy where everyone gets a vote, truly putting power in the hands of the people requires economic reforms just as much as political ones – a bit of realism I rarely see replicated in these types of games.
Beneath all of this is a rich economic simulation in which every person – organized into groups called “pops” based on their culture, religion, profession, and place of residence – has a list of needs that they wish to fulfill. The richer and more educated someone is, the more things they want, so an illiterate peasant in the 1840s will be happier with less than his great-great-grandkids who are part of the burgeoning, urban middle class in the 1900s.
Supply and demand are modeled by a clever system of buy orders, which represent people wanting things, and sell orders, which represent industries making things, from grain and clothing all the way up to cars and electricity. Lower prices mean people can afford more things, but also that those industries are less profitable and the people making the things don’t get paid as much, so there are a lot of interesting trade-offs to navigate. There is a lot of give at the margins to this economic model, like the fact that high and low prices are capped at a certain point and having more buy orders than sell orders doesn’t limit the strict availability of basic goods – it just maxes out their price.
But trust me when I say whatever fudging is going on behind the scenes creates a much more robust and authentic simulation than Victoria 2, which tried to be a bit more “realistic” and inadvertently created a lot of problems for itself. It doesn’t really matter that they’ve “cheated” in some places, because what we got is a system that behaves, in practice, so much more like a real economy, which is awesome.
This is all well and good if you just want to shape your nation internally and watch a rustic, feudal society morph into a modern metropolis with radios and telephones, which is my preferred way to play. I love that Standard of Living is its own metric I can measure my success on aside from having the largest GDP or painting the map. Opposing interest groups in your own country provide plenty of pushback and make compelling antagonists, even if you never set foot outside your own borders. If you do, though, you’ll run into what is probably the weakest area of Victoria 3: warfare and international relations.
The way conflicts begin is fairly interesting. Launching a Diplomatic Play allows you to make demands, like taking land or forcing someone into a common market, after which both sides can bid to try and bring other countries in on their side. This can be a fun little game of chicken, as ultimately choosing when to mobilize your troops can give you an edge but also increase tensions, while either side has the option to back down for smaller concessions before it turns into a full-blown war. The bigger problem is that wars themselves aren’t that great.
I respect Victoria 3’s decision not to focus on war, especially when it excels at most of the things it does focus on. But that doesn’t change the fact that armed conflicts can be very fiddly and confusing. Generals are permanently attached to headquarters in specific regions, which limits where they can actually fight, and you can’t reassign them. They also have to be assigned to specific fronts, and it’s possible through the mostly hands-off warfare system that annoying, smaller fronts can open up in the middle of a war and completely throw off your strategy. Your influence once a war has begun is largely relegated to making sure your armies are well-supplied, as you can’t even order them to prioritize taking certain targets. I try to avoid war altogether as often as I can, which is also generally the right choice where the wellbeing of my people is concerned.
There’s also still a fair bit of jank lingering on Victoria 3’s gorgeous map. Sometimes the AI does stuff with no explanation and no warning, like when Britain ruined the entire economy of my developing Australia by cutting me out of the Commonwealth even though our relations were high. I’ve been referring to North America as “The Twilight Zone”, because it always seems to produce bizarre outcomes, like Mexico permanently owning a slice of Southern Colorado surrounded by the US on all sides, or states in the US South steadily becoming 100 percent racially segregated over time. These weren’t one-off occurrences, but consistent across all my saves. Why? Beats me.
This is hardly new for a Paradox game at launch. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but it is annoying. Sometimes you get Crusader Kings 3, which felt very refined on day one. This is more of a Stellaris, which was kind of lovably broken and needed a lot of post-launch love. I have faith that these issues will be ironed out in the coming months, but I have to review what’s in front of me right now. It’s legitimately a blast to play, but it still lacks quite a bit of polish.