Victoria II gets out of the house, goes into Africa

, | Game reviews


Today is Victoria Day. No joke. It’s a holiday they celebrate in some countries. I’ve never heard of a Europa Universalis Day or Crusader Kings Day or Hearts of Iron Day. Just a Victoria Day. Fitting. Victoria is one of the most Important strategy games ever made.

After the jump, yeah, I just spelled important with a capital I

Victoria II presents history as something that happens because of populations rather than something achieved by individuals or mandated by governments. The conventional strategy game paradigm of moving chits on a map, which was so well adapted by Sid Meier in Civilization and so perfectly suited to Cold War containment or invasions of Iraq, has outlived its relevance for anything that doesn’t involve elves or space bears. Popular movements trumping top-down chit-moving government models is uniquely relevant to the Arab Spring, the Tea Party, Rove-era Republicans, and the Occupy movement, all prominent, and all with their own dynamics and stakes, from the ridiculous and ineffectual to the insidious to the inexorable.

As Victoria charts the concurrent rise of social consciousness and industrial prosperity in the 19th century, it teaches lessons about chaos, inevitability, and enlightenment. You discover steel and make tons of money from automobile factories. Cool. But now the people want health care, education, pensions, and unions. To paraphrase a comic book, with great prosperity comes great obligation. Or, to paraphrase a popular space elf, the needs of the many can be a real bitch.

Victoria II is, of course, the latest and greatest way to experience Paradox’s accomplishment. And with the latest add-on, it’s now one of the few games to throw Africa a little love. The focus on Africa is a historical convenience. By the time Victoria II starts — at the dawn of the Victorian age, natch — everyplace else has been claimed. Africa is the colonial dregs compared to the New World and Asia. It’s like the fat kid who gets chosen last for dodge ball. Wait, you found diamonds where? Okay, we want Trevor on our team.

Although African colonialism is the titular focus of this expansion, the main drive behind the Heart of Darkness seems to be increasing your awareness of and involvement with what’s going on in the rest of the world. Paradox’s games are so vast, intricate, and sprawling that the default way to approach them is to just stick your nose into your own country’s business and pretty much leave it there. It’s a gameplay expression of the Monroe Doctrine. Look, we’re just going to mess around with these areas next to our borders; the rest of you leave these to us and we won’t have any problems. And, of course, feel free to do whatever you want with the countries next to you. We don’t really care.

Heart of Darkness’ first solution to gameplay parochialism is a simple newspaper that appears every six months. It consists of a handful of stories from around the world, presumably customized so that you see stuff relevant to you, or at least tangentially relevant to you. It’s mostly useless and sometimes even annoying for how it gets its own icon smack dab at the top of the screen, complete with a tiny number as the unread newspapers stack up. It’s as if it was something that needed your attention, like an updated app on your iPad. Cute, but not really my bag.

The more successful solution to is the wonderful new crisis system. This gives open conflict a gameplay prologue instead of the fully formed causus belli that used to appear. Now conflicts flicker and maybe catch. The Great Powers align themselves on either side of lines in the sand. Maybe someone blinks and everything is over. Maybe no one blinks and wars happen. It’s sometimes wonderfully absurd. So Britain thinks the Ottomans should let loose of a tiny island in the Aegean Sea? Big whoop. Oops, now there’s a war raging among the Great Powers in its third year.

Like many of Victoria II’s better features, the crisis system is exclusively the domain of the eight countries in the lead, known as the Great Powers. Sorry numbers nine through 131! If you want to try one of Victoria II’s lesser powers — who would voluntarily play without spheres of influence? — of if you get muscled out of your top spot, you’ll still get to spectate these crises. But their main role is to create a gradual wind-up and superpower participation at geopolitical hotspots, lending events around the world a much-needed sense of wider relevance.

A new colonial system allows for more early elbowing among competing colonial powers, and it introduces a new resource to limit colonial growth and force hard choices. But to manage this resource, you have to release colonies to free up the resources to make more colonies. The idea is that an autonomous entity called a dominion — the model is how the British empire “released” Canada, Australia, and South Africa — takes fewer colonial resources, thereby freeing up a nation to grab more colonies. Which is completely ahistorical. Britain didn’t form dominions so that it could grab more territory. A country loosing its colonial grip is an important part of the Victorian era, and particularly the 20th century, but the Heart of Darkness expansion presents this almost entirely British concept it as a gamey one-size-fits-all loophole that can turn Africa into a crazy quilt of autonomous and states immune to colonial skirmishes.

Colonial power is now largely a factor of the size of your navy, so if you want to rival England, get those shipyards busy. The revised naval combat turns battles into more than just bags of hitpoints slamming into each other at sea. At a time when naval power was so important, the added detail is welcome. And that’s pretty much what Heart of Darkness does for Victoria II: a new level of detail to encourage you to get out and see a bit more of the world.

4 stars