Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 14, 2024
Grand strategy toys

Strategy games have some fundamental game design rules to make them work: For example they should be balanced, so that the winner isn't already determined by choosing the starting side. And while some randomness can spice things up, in general the player should be able to make decisions that predictably move the game in his desired direction, albeit against obstacles in the way. I started to play Victoria 3 again, having heard good things about the latest patch 1.6, but all my previous games were problematic: Victoria 3 simply doesn't conform to the above basic game design rules. It is obvious that if you play as Belgium you will have a much smaller impact on the world than if you play the British Empire. And my previous games often got completely derailed by unpredictable random events, making me feel as if I wasn't in control at all.

After watching Victoria 3 videos from different sources, a realization finally hit me: Victoria 3 isn't supposed to be a game at all! If you play it "as a game", with some sort of optimization strategy, it will either end up in complete failure or in you breaking the game through exponential growth. What you are supposed to do is to play Victoria 3 as a toy: Choose a country, set yourself some goals, and enjoy the emergent storytelling caused by the random events. You can vary the difficulty and historical accuracy with your choices: The goal of taking over North America from coast to coast is easier and more historically accurate when playing the United States, but if you want you can do it as Mexico.

I can live with that. But it does require a degree of open-mindedness that is getting rare in this world. While that might be stunning and triggering news for the young generation, it turns out that the 19th century didn't exactly conform to 21st century progressive values. To play Victoria 3, you need to deal with unpleasant subjects like slavery, colonization, racism, child labor, worker exploitation, sexism, and many more. You can strive to make your country better than it started, or a paragon in comparison with the other countries, but you will have to deal with the events that reflect 19th century reality. If that makes you squirm, Victoria 3 is probably not a good choice for you. I think there are good opportunities for learning experiences in here, making you understand why the world got more progressive over time, but slowly.

If you are open to how the world was in the 19th century, and willing to entertain a degree of alternative history, there is some fun to be had in Victoria 3 as a toy, once you abandoned the idea of "winning the game". I am currently in a game where I play Belgium as a colonizer, but concentrate on South Africa rather than the Congo, in order to exploit the gold mines there. I had a lot of fun doing various exploration missions through Africa, like discovering the source of the Nile. And while random events made it impossible for me to pursue a secondary goal of forming the United Netherlands, I just decided to pursue other goals instead. In 1893 I reached "great power" status, which is some sort of a win in a game without a win condition.

I have started to play more Board games recently, and have read about an interesting thought about randomness VS Strategy : randomness is interesting when the different possible outcome are not about performance but about path to victory.

Res Arcana is a board game where you have 10 cards randomly selected from the begining and that will not change. This initial set of card can vary wildly, forcing you each time to find a new strategy. But the balance is well done, and no specific set is better than others : you just have to understand how to use it.
More recently Vale of Eternity is giving you slight more control over your set of cards, but still force you to adapt to available cards.

This type of randomness is very interesting : instead of learning the game to become better and better (no randomness), or praying for the dice gods ( random on power level), each game is like a different puzzle.

This is not applicable to Victoria 3, but it make me change my mind about randomness in game : it can be hugely beneficial to the game fun, when it is not about power but about different path to victory. But it means very competent designer, able to balance it out properly.

List of board game I know, with this type of randomness : Res Arcana, Vale of Eternity, Mind Bug, and possibly ( Kickstarter for now) Etherstone.
A lot of good games also have this type of randomness, but often mixed with knowledge or power randomness.
> you have 10 cards randomly selected from the beginning and that will not change. This initial set of cards can vary wildly, forcing you each time to find a new strategy.

That sounds completely like the board game Dominion.
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