Saturday, December 10, 2022
Victoria 3 - First Impressions
After some deliberation I finally went and bought Victoria 3, despite the mixed user reviews. One thing that really made me want to play this was when I discovered that Belgium is among the 4 nations proposed to play through the "Learn the game" objective. So I am now on my first game, a few years in, and I am having fun. But I can see why there would be a lot of people who won't like this game.
One problem, presumably more relevant for the US market, is the ongoing culture wars, where Victoria 3 manages to make both sides angry. In a game where you start in the year 1836 and can play as the USA or a major European power, slavery and colonialism are represented. Some people consider that it is inacceptable that a game lets you "play" with slavery. Others consider it an affront when the player of the USA can abolish slavery 20 years early without even starting the Civil War. And that is just the start of it, Victoria 3 also has child labor, voting rights for rich white men only, absolute monarchies, capitalist and colonialist exploitation, and everything else that somebody "woke" would be upset about. The game is basically one big trigger warning. Meanwhile the history buffs are upset that in order to placate the progressive people, the game is making progressive politics a bit too easy and understates the opposition. This is a game that is realistic enough to state that the world in the 19th century wasn't a very nice place by 2022 standards, and not realistic enough to play through that century with anything resembling historical accuracy, even if you as a player stick to the historical script.
The other big problem of Victoria 3 is its gameplay focus. It has to be said that different Paradox grand strategy games have a certain overlap of scope, but with different focus points. I just played Hearts of Iron IV a bit, which is mostly focused on warfare, and only covers research, politics, and economics in as far as they serve the war. Crusader Kings 3 focuses on dynasties, does war reasonably well, but totally sucks as an economic simulation. Victoria 3 is mostly an economic simulator, has a reasonable strong domestic politics part, but the warfare aspect is rather bad. You have very little control, armies can "teleport" without bothering with logistics, and strange AI behavior can make the outcome of a war rather unpredictable. Victoria 3 is a grand strategy game with a deficit in military strategy, which is obviously what many people are interested in.
So, what do you actually do when "playing" Victoria 3? Well, mainly it is an economic simulation. You have different population groups, which consume different goods, albeit with a lot of overlap. There are artificial limits, you never "run out" of any good; famine only exists in the game as an "event", not something that happens if you don't produce enough food. Instead, if you don't produce enough grain or clothes or furniture, the price of these goods goes up, with a cap of +75% over base price, and the people who consume these goods get unhappy. But if you produce far too much of something, prices go down too much, and your production building become unprofitable, unable to pay their workers much, and those workers will become unhappy too. Thus Victoria 3 is a constant exercise of trying to keep the price of everything balanced. And there is a huge number of different goods. This requires a lot of micro-management, up to the point where you decide for each of your provinces whether one type of farm concentrates on producing grain, fruit, or wine, and might want to review that decision in response to market changes. Fun for me, but certainly not for everybody.
The downside of you playing the economy more than anything else is that the goods tree and research tree is the same for every nation, so that gameplay can feel a bit sameish, regardless which nation you chose. The Spiffing Brit, a YouTuber who likes to "break" games, made a video of turning a tiny rock of an island into a global powerhouse in Victoria 3. And if you watch this and then play any other nation, you are still going to go through a lot of the same steps; industrialization just always goes through iron, coal, steel, and tools.
In my game I am not very happy with the research tree. A first technology was already under research when I started the game, so I thought that one would be useful and left it running. But it turned out that the Water-Tube Boiler is actually a useless technology for Belgium (and a lot of other countries at that point in time). The technology allows you to run your factories and mines with fewer workers, but doesn't increase production. But if you have a large population, and a lot of them are peasants working in subsistence farming, you would want them to work as laborers in factories to increase their standard of living. A worker-reducing automation technology is only useful if you have a much larger economy where those fired laborers can go and get better jobs, instead of going back to subsistence farming.
I am still in the "learning the game" phase, because Victoria 3 is a highly complicated game. My version of Belgium will avoid colonizing the Congo; not only because by today's standards that colonization is today considered a mistake, but also because I don't want to play the sucky warfare system. I am not sure how much replay value Victoria 3 has, but I am certain that it will take a good number of hours until I have explored the various economic and political systems of the game. That is okay for me, but I understand why the game has a 4.7 user review score on Metacritic. It is too complicated for the average player, not accurate enough for the hardcore Paradox grand strategy fan, and politically contentious.