‘Victoria 3’’s staggering complexity is only matched by its excellent accessibility

Hands on with Paradox’s upcoming economic and society sim

Victoria 3 might just have the best tutorial I’ve ever seen in a strategy game before. It’s not just down to the detailed ‘Tell Me How’ step-by-step that follows each objective. It’s not even because of the brilliant nested tooltips, each a glossary link, similar to the equally inviting Crusader Kings 3. It’s something that feels so obvious, and yet so perfect, that I’m shocked I’ve never seen it presented like this before: Just below the ‘Tell Me How’ button is another that reads ‘Tell Me Why’ – providing context, not just instructions, for your earliest steps into this vast society simulator.

Crusader Kings 3 raised the bar for accessibility, which is of course something we want to do,” says game director Martin Anward. “We want to be able to make a really deep, complicated economic simulator. But we also want people to be able to play it!”

First announced last May at PDXCON, Victoria 3 is the follow-up to Paradox’s 2010 grand strategy, also set in the hundred year period between 1836 and 1936. In the twelve years since, the studio’s famously granular and complex grand strategy games have found a new audience with more modern and accessible offerings, like the aforementioned Crusader Kings 3 and the galaxy spanning Stellaris. After spending time with an early build of Victoria 3, I’m convinced that the long-awaited sequel hasn’t sacrificed an ounce of complexity or decision making in its transition to this new era of Paradox. But gosh, it’s very nice to know what all these buttons do for a change.

Victoria 3. Credit: Paradox.
Victoria 3. Credit: Paradox.

So, back to those crucial three words, then. Tell Me Why. As I learn very early on, there’s little you can change as ruler of your country in Victoria 3 without significant ripple effects. Setting up a new import route might benefit your economy in the short term, but flood your domestic market with too much of a certain resource, and the resulting drop in price could end up being disastrous. Passing a law might quickly improve the favour of one political party, only for the opposing party to sow political dissent that eventually snowballs into revolution. By allowing you to fully understand the macro – the long term effects and spider web of consequences behind every decision – Victoria 3’s tutorials instil an early sense of confidence and insight into the inner workings of your nation from the offset. Whether that confidence translates into competence, however, is up to you.

Although there’s no true win condition in V3, the main menu offers a series of society building challenges – Egalitarianism, Hegemony, and Economic dominance – along with suggested countries. These are only suggestions, though, as you’ll still be able to play any country on the map, with the exception of decentralised powers. As Anward puts it, your ‘pops’ in V3 are the primary building blocks of your society, and although you won’t be able to influence them directly, their living conditions, employment, wants, needs, and political leanings all influence the cogs of your society. The more political strength a certain group (Serviceman, Labourers, Clergyman ) has, the more their opinion will influence your ability to affect change. Allowing for abstraction, the entire population of the world in 1836 – around a billion people – are part of V3’s vast simulation. “Everything in the game is designed to either operate on, or be informed by, these pops,” says game director Mikael Andersson.

When it comes to balancing sandbox possibilities with historical accuracy within that simulation, Anward gives the example of crops – specifically opium. “You can theoretically grow it anywhere in the world. So if we’re just following a model of ‘Can you grow it here?’, we’d put it everywhere. But that would be strange, because it has a cultural element to it, a taboo element to it. So we chose to put it where it had either historically been grown, or it felt plausible that someone would grow it, as opposed to just saying, ‘you know what, Sweden has potential for opium’.”

Victoria 3. Credit: Paradox.
Victoria 3. Credit: Paradox.

“There’s been a lot of compromises like that,” says Andersson, “between what feels historically correct vs. how could history have turned out? There’s all sorts of case by case judgements that have to be made. But I think we benefited a lot by just having a team full of history nerds. Just people who love this stuff and read about it in their spare time.”

As Anward points out, the other pillar of the game’s economic simulation, alongside pops, is buildings. As well as creating the resources that fuel your economy, these businesses also affect supply and demand, buying and selling input and output goods, respectively. As you might expect, a well-run building is more lucrative, but for the workforce, rather than directly for the player. Instead, you’ll make money through tax. Different buildings hire their workforce from different strata of the population, with the capitalists at the top enjoying a much higher living standard than the workforce. You can’t just open a building and start redistributing the wealth, but through a long-term plan of canny trade deals, technology, and changes in the legal system, you might just be able to move toward a more egalitarian society.

Victoria 3. Credit: Paradox.
Victoria 3. Credit: Paradox.

Despite the huge amount of options at your disposal, resource management in V3 still comes down to a few core pillars. There’s money, of course, and keeping your economy healthy – which also means not stockpiling too much gold. There are also three main capacities: Bureaucracy, produced and maintained by government buildings, is used by internal state management. Authority represents your ruler’s personal ability to affect change, such as issuing decrees or supporting political interest groups. Finally, for external affairs, there’s Influence – your diplomatic power. There are naturally wide-spanning consequences baked into all of these, but just as an example: Introducing filing cabinets to your government offices might help with organisation, but if you run into a paper shortage you’ll see your bureaucracy suffer, as you’re no longer able to effectively keep records.

That V3 manages to make the introduction of filing cabinets feel just as strategically meaningful as inventing planet mining lasers in Stellaris is a testament to how well defined the cost and benefits of each decision are. The themes might be more mundane on a surface level, but the brain-tickling, number-crunching, one-more-week pulls of Paradox’s best are all on full display here. Whether V3 is able to pull in the uninitiated in quite the same way as CK3, I’m not sure, but it’s clear that no small amount of care and attention has been taken to ease new players in. It’s nowhere near a ‘pick up and play’ experience, sure, but what could have been intimidating in lesser hands is now just fascinatingly complex.

There’s so, so much more granular detail I could get into here, but it’s safe to say that V3 doesn’t just reward micromanagement, it requires several specially appointed bureaucratic offices to sign, seal, and deliver every syllable of the word micromanagement to a secret council, where its long term effects will be painstakingly forecast for the months to come. While it lacks the character drama of Crusader Kings, or the pure sci-fi spectacle of Stellaris, the game is shaping up to be a staggeringly complex society simulator. Once again, I can’t praise those excellent tutorials enough.

Victoria 3 launches on October 25 for PC

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