Victoria II, the new and ambitious strategy simulation for PCs, places you at the helm of a nation for a whole century, starting in the year 1836 (right about the time when the dust had finally settled from the chaos of the Napoleonic Era). You must then steer this country through the rambunctious waters of 18th century diplomacy and economics.
The game seems geared towards assuming that you will play as one of the top eight World Powers. However, instead of only giving you some ten or fifteen playable factions, Victoria II actually allows you to select from a whopping roster of about 200 playable nations. You want to re-enact the US expansion to the West? Keep the Central American Federation from crumbling? Unify the dozens of Teutonic fiefdoms into a German state? Or perhaps even turn the tribal nation of Sokoto into a respectable industrial nation? All are possible challenges in this game.
As in real life, not all nations are bred as equals, and in Victoria II your experience will vary greatly depending on the faction that you choose. The game divides the nations into four well defined categories: World Powers, Secondary Powers, Civilized Nations, and Uncivilized Nations. The World Power category only has eight members, and includes nations such as the USA, Britain and Spain. World powers can establish colonies, intervene in foreign wars at will, engage in gunboat diplomacy, and ensnare lesser nations into their exclusive spheres of influence (more on spheres of influence shortly). The next eight nations in the ranking are called Secondary Powers and include nations such as Sweden, Belgium, Bavaria and Portugal. Secondary Powers can establish overseas colonies and can occasionally stand their own against World Powers in a struggle, but are otherwise precluded from engaging in the more overt practices of imperialism described above.
The third group, which includes a few dozen nations, includes countries such as Switzerland, Serbia, Mexico and Brazil. Civilized Nations all embrace Western cultural values, and can more easily industrialize and modernize than Uncivilized Nations. Finally, the bottom tier is made up of a huge list of Uncivilized Nations. These nations still embrace autochthonous cultural values that often collide with Western ideals. These nations have a much tougher time modernizing and industrializing, however that doesn’t necessarily mean they are all weaklings. Many powerful factions start out in this bracket. Dai Nam, the Zulu Nation, and Persia, all fall into this category. Oddly enough, in my personal experience, Civilized and Uncivilized nations were the most fun to play, since it is extremely satisfying to laboriously work them up into the upper ranks, whereas when you start with a nation in the upper two brackets there really isn’t much space left to improve.
However, the nation category is only one of many levels of complexity to be found in this game. One also has to take into account the political system (democracy, absolute monarchy, parliamentary monarchy, etc.), ruling ideology (liberal, conservative, socialist, communist, etc.), demographic build, economy, geography, natural resources, etc. In fact, Victoria II is quite a handful for an inexperienced player to take in. Just wading through the very detailed tutorial can take several hours (and probably a few repeats).
One key aspect of Victoria II is the extremely refined world market and political tapestry structure. The 18th century was the age when imperial powers started shifting from territorial expansion to economic/diplomatic hegemony. In Victoria II all nations compete in a global market. As in real life, more respected nations enjoy preference and can buy and sell goods first, while lesser nations have to settle with what’s left. World Powers in particular can further secure their supply and demand markets by forcing other nations into their spheres of influence. A nation trapped in a sphere of influence is forced to trade preferentially with that World Power. These countries are also limited in their diplomatic and political options (they can’t attack their sphere leader, for instance). There are only two ways for a nation to escape from a sphere of influence; they can be removed from it by another power, or they can become a World Power themselves and simply walk away.
Control in Victoria II is rarely ever a straightforward or simple affair. Most of the time you have to laboriously prod and pamper small social groupings called ‘Pops’ into doing your desires. These ‘Pops’ are the basic unit in Victoria II and they represent clusters of population which share the same occupation, cultural values, and aspirations. One of the channels of indirect control opens every once in a while (usually around the election date in democracies) when a group of 'Pops' come with a dilemma for you to mediate. Your choice influences the opinion of all ‘Pops’ in a region, except those who originally supported the opposite position, who instead accumulate discontent. If you push too much and too fast in the opposition direction to the initial desires of a significant segment of your population, the ensuing discontent may result in a pushback revolt instead of the desired social change. If you think this sounds complex, you are right on cue.
Of course, some other decisions are necessarily more direct, but even then the end results of a choice may sometimes be difficult to map from the outset. For instance, you can directly choose to engage in war with another country, and during hostilities you will be able to control and move troops at will through the strategic map. However, your choice to engage in war may depress your finances due to foreign blockades or the national mobilization of 'Pops' to join the war effort. The economic slump brought on by the war may force you to seek foreign loans, thus increasing your exposure to foreign intervention in your internal affairs. Or perhaps you may simply alienate your neighbors, who will then form an alliance to isolate and contain your threat to the regional balance of power.
Victoria II is one of the most dynamic and interactive strategic simulations ever to reach the PC game market and can boast that almost every element of the game can be manipulated. At the end of the century-long simulation you will have seen some nations grow and prosper while others have dwindled and disappeared. Your own nation will have changed enormously as a result of all of your choices, and you will also see the impact of fortuitous events such as famines or immigration as well. You can even switch factions during a simulation by simply saving and exiting from a game and signing into the save as a new nation.
In the purely technical department, Victoria II is a mixed card. The game is somewhat limited visually. Most of your time is spent on a world map that can be shifted to focus on different aspects of the simulation. The map is extremely interactive, and clicking on any territory will invariably pull up data charts. Animated military units are moved through this map in a way somewhat reminiscent of a Stratego or Risk game, but in real time. The sound department is excellent, with a grandiose and epic background music score dominating it. The use of ambient sounds is scant, but those that are present are well enacted. Sadly, there is no voice acting, making the experience a little flat at times.
Victoria II is a uniquely intellectual challenge. Excelling at this game will demand a basic handle of fields such as economics, military strategy, political sciences, and even demographics. The AI factions are extremely refined and very often relentless. The game also enjoys a remarkable replay value thanks to the myriad of playable factions, but in case that wasn’t enough, Victoria II also sports multiplayer options. You can meet and engage worldwide with other players at the official Victoria hub, or you can simply choose to play with close friends via a LAN connection.
Of course, Victoria II is not a game meant for everybody. It’s geared mainly towards lovers of real time strategy games who prefer the ‘strategy’ elements to the ‘real time’ ones. Most people would probably shy away from this type of title, which is a real shame, because it is a rare gem of elegant intricacies and shameless complexities. Victoria II is also a nearly inexhaustible game since the enormous number of factions and probable variables ensure that no two campaigns will ever be the same. It’s really hard to find something to criticize in such a well made package, but perhaps a little voice acting or probably a shift to more tactical battle screens during combat (much like those seen in Commander: Conqueror of the Americas or in Empire: Total War) would have been nice. Nevertheless, if you love challenging strategy games, Victoria II is a must have.
...Oh, and never, ever march an invasion on Moscow. Trust me on this one, boys.