This is the second part of a three part series (I) examining the historical assumptions of Paradox Interactive’s 19th and early 20th century grand strategy game, Victoria II. Last week, we looked at how Victoria II handles its central, defining theme, the industrial revolution, and the mechanics it employed. We also discussed how Victoria II is unique in the Paradox catalog for being a game centered on ‘pops’ – that is on population – more completely simulated and more necessary to the player than other games. That pop-centric design is going to matter this week as well, precisely because of the way it reorients the player to think about people instead of merely thinking about states when assessing the value of various actions.
This week, we’re going to turn to how Victoria II treats war and peace. The military-diplomatic game is the most consistent element in Paradox’s titles and the one set of mechanics that appears in all of them. It is also an expected convention of the genre in that it is a theme that players expect from strategy games. Consequently, in all of Paradox’s titles, war is a central activity (although perhaps less central in Victoria II than in any of their titles, but then the fact that war consumes 2/5ths of the tech tree should tell you ‘less central’ does not mean ‘not central.’). As we’ll see, Victoria II has its share of war, but perhaps the most interesting part of its treatment of war is how it – perhaps alone in the Paradox catalog – has a set of emergent mechanics which openly question the efficacy of war in achieving aims, either for individuals or for the state.
We have spent all of our last post building factories so we can churn out a lot of things which go ‘boom’ so let’s go ahead and set some of them off! Or – perhaps – not.
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The Dust Settles
We need to start by reviewing the situation as it stood in EU4 (or EU3), not only because that provides a set of baseline expectations most Victoria players (II or III) will have but because it also generally reflects the conditions present at the start of any given VickyII game. The basic outline goes thusly:
The world consists of states which are not restrained by any meaningful laws (at least against aggressive warfare). Those states seek first and foremost to survive. Since the best route to survival is military power, states seek to maximize their military power at nearly all costs. The most efficient way to maximize military power is for the state to expand, absorbing new peoples and new productive resources (which in a pre-industrial context, is almost entirely about large amounts of agricultural land); because productivity in society is very low, absorbing new lands and peoples – even at very low efficiency (say, from tax resistance) – is much more effective than attempting to increase domestic productivity. Consequently each state, in looking to survive, is always looking to expand in order to gain more military power in order to be more secure. But precisely because every state is doing this, most efforts to raise new military power leave states no more secure, because they are matched by all rivals (this is called the security dilemma or, more colorfully, the ‘Red Queen effect’). The only sure thing is that failing to violently expand, failing to engage in ruthless conquest, sets a state up inevitably to be a victim of the states that do.
As a result, this creates an international system of dog-eat-dog competition where war is normalized and societies essentially compete in the degree that they can successfully militarize themselves and their resource base. If you ever wondered why it seems like most societies in the past held a fairly high opinion of war and those who performed war, this is why; the pacifists, generally speaking (there are doubtless exceptions to everything) did not survive. Meanwhile, the societies that were the most bellicose, the most willing to sacrifice people and resources expanded and thrived. The fancy term for this system of unrestrained state competition in political science is a ‘system of interstate anarchy.’ It is a very common system of international relations and the Europa Universalis games reflect its brutal logic well.
The Europa Universalis games (both III and IV) are set up so that this violent escalation reaches a crescendo towards the end of the game. State resources for war expand over the course of EU-games and also the casus belli which govern the ultimate peace terms of wars become more powerful, allowing for bigger land grabs which in turn means that the pace of consolidation (or sudden, violent deconsolidation when a large power is defeated and broken up) increases, while the giant colonial empires that emerge in the late game make the wars that result truly global. This is meant, one assumes, to mirror the events of 1740-1815, with the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the connected Anglo-French War (1778-1783) and finally the Wars of the French Revolution (1789-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) making that crescendo of violence, albeit one where no one power was able to quite come to dominate the others.
Victoria II picks up as a shattered Europe emerges, fitfully, from the smoke of the Napoleonic Wars, although by setting the date at 1836 instead of 1815, the player picks up with the new system already in place. Conveniently for us, people at the time had a name for that system.
The Broken Concert
They came to call it the ‘Concert of Europe,’ a system whereby (in theory) a general European war (that is, a war involving most or all of the Great Powers) could be avoided by resort to diplomacy and early on congresses, meetings where all of the great powers would get together to hammer out an agreement rather than resorting to war. Victoria II simulates diplomatic ebbs-and-flows of this system its own ‘crisis’ system where territorial claims and independence movements can trigger crises which draw in the Great Powers, with a ticking timer before war breaks out. These are often resolved diplomatically before an explosive general war, reflecting something like a Congress of the Great Powers hammering out a conclusion.
At first, this looks like one of our other Neo-realist systems: it looks like a system of international law. But attentive readers will recall that in the last series we noted that no one has ever actually managed to tame war with international law before. This is no exception. What is at work here is not the Congresses themselves and certainly not law (indeed, the individual Congresses could be startlingly inconsistent), but rather balance of power politics. The pressures of anarchy aren’t restrained, but instead there are a sufficiently small enough number of major players that they can form into a handful (typically just two) major ‘camps’ which end up roughly balanced. The reason they end up roughly balanced is that it is it is counter to the interests of the lesser powers to allow the top few (that is, the greatest of the Great Powers) to have the clearly strongest alignment because then that bloc could wage war without fear and thus compromise the security of the lesser powers. Consequently, as a bloc gets stronger, the tendency is for lesser powers to leave it (a behavior known as ‘balancing’) to try to preserve the balance of power which allows them to avoid the fatal pressures of interstate anarchy.
(As an aside, Vicky2 achieves balancing through some odd mechanisms, mainly by limiting how many Great Power alliances each Great Power can have for most of the game, which tends to ensure to opposing blocs of roughly 3 powers each of the 8 Great Powers, with the rest more or less isolated. Crises themselves also encourage balancing behaviors in which sides the AI tend to join. Overall, Paradox’s AI has always struggled with implementing balancing behaviors; Vicky2 seems to essentially fake it, but it fakes it better than probably any other Paradox product. To be fair, I’ve never seen any strategy do balancing behaviors well; most don’t even try.)
That this system hasn’t solved the pressures of anarchy becomes obvious the moment we look beyond the Great Powers to what those powers are doing outside of Europe. Still trapped in the security dilemma, the Great Powers are looking to maximize power in order to maximize security, because there is always the other big bloc of Great Powers to worry about. This effort to ‘outflank’ the balance-of-power stalemate in Europe (and the fear of what happens if someone else does it instead) produces the same rapacious colonial policy in Vicky2 as it did in Eu4; the only difference being that as technology advances the ability of the colonial powers to do colonialism begins to radically increase.
But that brings us to the first interaction between the economic simulator and war.
Spheres, Gears and Rounds
In most Paradox games, things like military equipment, uniforms and such are abstracted away, typically into a single resource (money). But Vicky2 doesn’t do this: instead each and every unit requires finished goods – clothes, small arms, ammunition, etc. – in order to be trained and maintained. This is important: military power in Vicky2 is not a one-time cost, but a continual investment, a constant flow of goods (the demand for which increases massively in war time). Soldier pops, representing professional soldiers in service in peacetime, also require these goods as continual maintenance. Navies require tremendous amounts of increasingly complex goods as well. Consequently, maintaining military force requires industrial production in the long run. While artisan production might be sufficient at the outset, failing to industrialize and thus harness the much larger amounts of production means accepting an 1830s-size military, which even by 1850 means accepting tremendous, typically fatal, military weakness.
But industrialization is complex. As the Great Powers pile on factories, they’ll rapidly outstrip their own RGO’s ability to provide raw materials. At the same time, war consumes massive amounts of supplies; to have production that can cope with war means over-producing some goods in peacetime (or at least having lots of production slack, like oversized ammunition factories that spend peacetime producing at much lower volumes. Because factories require maintenance goods – mostly machine parts – based on their size, not utilization, simply over-sizing your factories also induces extra costs). That’s really expensive – unless you can find someone who wants to buy all of that stuff. If you can do that, suddenly that overcapacity becomes revenue which you can use to buy things (like more weapons when war drives the price through the roof). So the Great Power wants to lock in resources and customers.
There are, in practice, two ways to do this. The first is simple conquest. European conquests are expensive and difficult, but because by this point the armies of the Great Powers are so much stronger than the militaries of most of the rest of the world, conquest outside of Europe is comparatively easier and cheaper. And since the demand here is for resources and markets more than factories, less industrialized countries will serve just as well.
At the same time, there is the sphere system. Great Powers can use diplomacy to extend their influence in weaker powers, eventually pulling them into their ‘sphere of influence.’ ‘Spherelings’ (junior partners in this relationship), you may recall, buy and sell as part of their overlord which means their resources and customers might as well be part of the state market of the Great Power. In return, the spherelings get a protection guarantee from the sphere leader, which massively raises the cost for any other European power looking to opportunistically prey upon them since any predatory war against a sphereling risks bringing their Great Power patron into the fight; in most cases in practice it takes them out of the land-grab-game.
Now, we’ll talk more about this system from the perspective of its victims in the last post in this series, but I want to note that the pressures of the security dilemma are not gone, the balance of power system has merely channeled them outwards into these colonial ventures designed to fuel the industries of the Great Powers, which in turn fuel their militaries which in turn must grow in order to match the growth of their rivals. The Red Queen still reigns as everyone runs and runs and no one can quite ‘get ahead.’
I want to make a point here of just how vast the increase in military capabilities and costs are. At game start, France has 47 standing brigades (141,000 troops) and can mobilize another 106 brigades (309,000 troops) in a war; a maximum all-call army of 450,000. Jumping to the end-game, the France of my Ottoman play-through – which has been AI controlled and so not benefited from the efficient sort of play that a human player can bring (indeed, it has expanded only outside of Europe and even then rather less than would normally be expected) – has by 1921 a standing army of 192 brigades (576,000 troops) and can mobilize for war another 555 (1.66 million troops); an all-call army of 2.24 million men. Nearly five times larger than its army of a century prior. Naturally, the increase is even more dramatic for a well-run player-country; the all-call figures for the Ottoman Empire in that same game went from 183,000 to 1.98 million in the same period, a ten-fold increase.
Moreover, those aren’t the same basic types of soldiers. That AI army has lots of new and expensive troop types that weren’t available in 1836, like airplanes, tanks, elite guard infantry and so on. And we haven’t talked about navies, but the introduction of ironclads, then pre-dreadnoughts, then dreadnoughts make navies both much more powerful but also massively more expensive. Note also that not only has the total army size increased, it has increased faster than population growth. France in the above example starts with 8.78 million males in 1836 and has, by 1921 20.5 million, merely 2.3 times as many, but its army has basically quintupled. It’s actually worse than that because many of those new pops aren’t natural growth, but added colonial possessions; very roughly the population of the French core (which will provide most of the soldiers as pops in colonial states provide troops at lower rates than pops in fully integrated states) has gone around around 7.9m to 16.4m; just about double. Consequently the mobilized manpower has gone from around 5-6% of the core population to around 14%. A much larger slice of the population now fights in war, drawn mostly from the farmers, laborers and craftsmen, while at the same time it now demands massively more resources.
And finally, with all of that ground laid, we can get to the point that made me want to discuss Victoria II in the first place.
In Flander’s Fields…
The nature of the sphere and colonial activity of the Great Powers means that, as any game progresses, the globe is steadily carved up, one way or another. Meanwhile, technologies like nationalism and rising consciousness in multi-ethnic empires will also tend to stir more – and worse – crisis events (especially since backing down in a crisis doesn’t have a fixed prestige cost, but costs a percentage of current earned prestige making the prestige hit in the late game massive). Importantly, there is a smaller prestige penalty for declaring disinterest in a crisis, which tends to get players in the habit of declaring a position on each crisis on the assumption always that some deal will be struck before war actually breaks out; the system encourages exactly the sort of ‘mailed fist’ brinksmanship that typified a lot of European diplomacy in the 1910s. Moreover, many of the ‘Culture’ and ‘Social Thought” technologies and inventions (reflecting greater intentional manipulation of public opinion) increase national resistance to war exhaustion. Finally the game will unlock around 1890 ‘Great Wars’ – making it such that any war with at least two great powers on each side becomes a ‘Great War’ which allow for much broader and more severe peace terms and also makes it easier for Great Powers to ‘jump in’ on an on-going conflict. This last mechanic strikes me as a bit of a kludge – Europe, after all, had a bunch of general wars before, it is not as if the idea of a war between all of the Great Powers was a new discovery – but I understand its purpose.
Taken together, the game’s mechanics are designed both to slowly push the Great Powers towards a powder-keg situation where any conflict is going to blow up into a very big war and then furnishes any number of sparks. In short, the game mechanics are designed to produce World War I. They need not always do so, nor does the World War I need to look like the historical thing (though the game is also set up to encourage the formation of Germany and Italy and both of those states will either have revanchist claims on other Great Powers, or be the subject of them themselves which tends to fray European politics in historical ways; e.g. Germany and France can basically never be friends due to competing claims), but they do all push this way. We discussed last week the problems of deterministic thinking in the design of Victoria II (and other Gen2 Paradox games), though many historians also regard World War I as an ‘overdetermined’ event (that is, when there are more causes for an event than are necessary to make it take place such that any one cause could be removed and the event still occur in some form). Consequently the deterministic thinking here puts Victoria II pretty squarely within the realm of active historical debate (where ‘to what degree was a world war, if not this world war, inevitable’ is an active question); and of course we must note it is also possible to not have a great war (the Ottoman Empire game I’ve pulled screenshots from didn’t have one, for instance).
In some ways, World War I, in whatever form it takes, is essentially the ‘final boss’ of Victoria II – have you, the player, sufficiently prepared your country so that it can make it through the military, social and economic crucible of the First World War without being defeating or ripping apart under nationalist pressures? And I suspect that was the game design vision, moving towards this final test. Except.
Except the best way to win World War I is not to fight in World War I. Actually preventing WWI in Vicky2 is usually challenging (but not impossible!), since there are 8 Great Powers, you are – at most – only one of them and if the other seven decide to have a war, well, you can’t stop them without having a war yourself. But you can choose to sit it out, and this is frequently the best score-maximizing decision. Even winning WWI is generally worse for your score than not fighting at all. How is that?
Well, first remember that not only has your country’s military gotten bigger, but so has everyone else’s. By the 1900s, all of the Great Powers are industrial to at least some degree – or they wouldn’t be Great Powers anymore – and so have those massive industrial militaries which can now mobilize large proportions of their total pops for war.
Next, we have to look a bit at how battles are simulated in the game and how that changes; I’m not going to get too deep in the weeds here because this area of the game is complex. But in short, Vicky2 largely borrows EU4‘s model of battles; one feature of this is the way it handles ‘frontage.’ When two armies meet, only so many units (brigades) can be in combat at once. In Eu4, over the course of the game, that ‘frontage’ generally increased, reflecting the greater ability to control large armies, making late-game battles big, violent and often more decisive because more units are engaged at once (although this trend is substantially counteracted by the larger and larger armies). Vicky2 does the reverse – reflecting greater and greater amounts of firepower forcing armies to disperse in combat and use cover more, mid- and late-game military technologies reduce frontage, even as they increase the damage land units do to one another and increase the ability of land units to sustain their morale in the face of damage. Consequently, early game battles tend to be quick, unpredictable and decisive, but often with fairly low casualties (one side runs out of moral and retreats, forced to spend weeks recovering before trying again).
(Because this doesn’t fit anywhere else, I want to note that the combat model and operational-level game in VickyII feels perhaps the most awkward of any Paradox game. Crusader Kings, Imperator and Europa Universalis all share an operational level combat model, where battles initiate when two opposing armies end up in the same province. This is a good system to produce battles at a point, which makes a lot of sense for pre-1900 warfare. Hearts of Iron, by contrast, breaks formations down to individual divisions, rather than armies, and has combat occur when a unit begins to move into a province occupied by another (so the fight is not notionally at the center of a province, but at the meeting point of two). That model enables situations where armies are ‘in contact’ but not fighting, creating these clear operational-level front lines (the frontage and supply systems also play a role here). VickyII is caught though; at the start of the game (even as late as the 1880s), the EU4 model makes more sense. But trying to simulate World War I, with its vast trench stalemates, really demands the HoI model. The designers for VickyII opted to go with the system that makes sense for the first 4/5ths or so of the game, but the efforts then to simulate WWI in the end-game feel quite awkward as a result: instead of a western front, one often gets a western point – one massive battle sucking in all of the armies and leaving the rest of Europe nearly empty, save for reserve armies waiting to reinforce into the one maelstrom battle. I’m not sure how this could be resolved except by having the game actually transition combat models in the middle, which seems very difficult to design.)
In stark contrast, late-game battles are blood baths. Late-game bonuses to morale (which really ought to be ‘cohesion’ given its function in game) are massive, so units hold in the fight much longer, taking heavier casualties. Meanwhile, the narrower frontage ensures that battles last long enough for other reinforcing armies to arrive, turning into exactly the kind of whirling maelstrom of death we see historically at places like Verdun, where one relief units after another was fed into the maw of the war for months on end.
Something else happens here. The game simulates each army at a depth of two – a front line and a reserve line. The advantage of artillery is that it can fire from the reserve line, allowing two units (the front line infantry and the back line artillery) to engage one unit (the enemy front line infantry). And now we have to go back to that mobilization vs. standing army distinction. Artillery has to be raised as part of the standing army (you can do this in war, mind you), but when you mass-mobilize the working class, they mobilize as infantry. Once in battle, unless something has gone very wrong, the infantry is taking all of the casualties, but the firepower of artillery means they (should) be dealing more damage than the infantry shielding them – you should voluntarily retreat long before things get bad enough that your (expensive, limited) artillery gets ‘reinforced’ to the front line and engaged directly. Consequently, late-game battles consist of each side using their infantry to shield their artillery and using their artillery to mulch enemy infantry; the first guy to run out of infantry loses and retreats. Flanking or overwhelming with infantry quickly isn’t an option anymore, because the frontage is so low the battle is guaranteed to fill all of it, leaving no flank.
Now take this combat system and add in countries whose industrial base (and nationalistic resistance to war exhaustion) means they can mobilize 10+% of their population and stick in the war long enough to keep reinforcing those brigades with fresh bodies and throwing them back into the fire and the one by one the little changes begin to add up to a big change in how wars are fought.
…The Pop-pies Blow…
But we need to talk about what this all means for pops.
Remember pops? This is a game about pops.
When it comes to manpower, most Paradox games basically ‘cheat’ in one way or another. Manpower is generally a resource required to create new military units or reinforce old ones, but in most Paradox games, while it is created by your economic resources (like development in EU4, pops in Imperator or population in HoI4) it doesn’t feed back into those resources. Instead, manpower is produced by your country, the same way money is; it flows into a pool at a steady rate and can then be ‘spent’ to fill up or make new military units. Manpower ends up not so much reflecting your population as it reflects a product they produce, as if instead of men your armies were composed of little toy soldiers being churned out in your villages.
Victoria II does not engage in this cheat. Each brigade you train (for regulars) or mobilize (for reserves) is tied to a pop in a specific province in your state (soldier pops for regulars, working-class pops for reserves). This has significant ramifications – even a victorious war has negative effects as pops are mustered out of the factories and the fields, resulting in lowered production (even as demands for war materiel spike); players are likely to raise taxes to compensate (while also spending down reserves and taking loans) but that has further downstream impacts on pops. The factories in occupied provinces also shut down, which causes those workers to be unemployed, which again matters because remember that pops use the money they get from their jobs to buy the goods they need; with no money, they buy no goods and militancy begins rising. Even a successful war can thus produce economic slumps afterwards which can in turn lead to militancy and from there to emigration or increased violent agitation. In the early-game, having your factories shut down isn’t too bad, but in the late-game where most of your production is factory based, this is a catastrophe.
The situation is even more pointed men die. When a man in abrigade is ‘killed’ in combat (or by attrition), the game checks your hospital modifier (to simulate medical technology) to determine if he dies or not, with surviving pops returned to their parent pop and dead pops removed entirely. If the main pop grouping (the actual ‘pop’ in game terms, rather than the individual unit of population) is exhausted in war, then its attached unit won’t reinforce anymore and eventually you’ll have to disband it. If you recruit a pop into the army and get it killed, it is gone. It can’t work in factories or work on farms; not only that, because pops reproduce, not only is that pop dead but its death reduces your population growth (because pop growth is simulated as a percentage of pop size; smaller pop, lower absolute growth rate). That pop and everything it would have ever produced – including other pops – is gone. Forever. Even in the early game, this fact radically re-conceptualizes the player’s military activity, because every battle represents some quantity of pops permanently lost.
And because the player cares about pops – they are the fundamental unit of production – this matters to players too. I suspect a lot of players (especially playing small countries) will have the experience of an early war where heavy losses to their standing army leaves their ‘soldier’ pops so heavily depleted that their army is crippled for decades to come, which ensures that they are thinking about this mechanic in subsequent games – especially when they are mobilizing not merely small armies of mostly professional soldiers but mass armies.
Already this represents a serious departure from the attitudes about war encased in the mechanics of Europa Universalis IV because it foregrounds the loss and human suffering that EU4 mostly obscures. But then this system collides with the build-up to World War I and all of the systems designed to produce that conflict. Because by the late-game, we now have a situation where all of the major Great Powers can and will muster mass armies consisting of many hundreds of brigades of both professionals (the correct strategy is to heavily tilt your professionals towards artillery) and many more hundreds of brigades of mass mobilize conscripts. High unit morale and low frontage means that in the long, grinding battles of late game wars, even with high medical tech, units will take mass casualties before retreating, often being entirely depleted. And reductions to war exhaustion coming from technologies linked to the rise of nationalism and jingoism mean that these great states will stick in the war long enough to reinforce those brigades, drawing yet more of their mass work-force, again and again until the thing is done. The low-frontage long battles in turn ensure that the war is unlikely to be decided fast enough to win before these huge armies are mobilized. But the fact that the ‘Great War’ system radically increases the scale of peace demands in a Great War – demands which can be added by any participant – any such war is likely to be a total war as every major participant tacks on their own little goals.
All of which in turn means that as the game advances, the wars in it get more and more ruinous. Early game wars are often small affairs mostly between professional armies, or one-sided fights between major European powers with modern, early industrial armies and other states which lack the industry and technology to effectively fight back. Mid-game wars can still occasionally be swift, but by the late-game those quick decisive victories are almost impossible to achieve against all but the smallest enemies.
And that steady increase in the destructiveness of war culminates in one (or more) ‘Great Wars’ which are likely to be tremendously destructive, killing a significant portion of the working classes of each country involved (or at least, each country that isn’t rapidly occupied and then forced to watch its suddenly unemployed factory workers slowly ground to dust for years while the remaining great powers bleed each other white). But while these late-game wars can also produce very large land-grabs, the game doesn’t score land. It scores military power, industrial power and prestige. Winning a Great War nets a bunch of prestige (but losing one costs a bunch), but in terms of industrial and military power the best thing you can do is not join the Great War and therefore not incinerating hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of your pops and crushing your economy (of course, sitting out the Great War is also a great way to make a bunch of cash selling to the combatants).
…Beneath the Crosses, Row on Row…
Historically speaking, there is actually something to this. As Azar Gat notes in War in Human Civilization (2006), for most of human history, war ‘paid,’ at least for the elites who made decisions. In pre-industrial societies, returns to capital investment were very low. They could – and did – build roads and infrastructure, irrigation systems and the like, but the production multiplier for such investments was fairly low. For antiquity, the Roman Empire probably represents close to the best that could be achieved with such capital investments and one estimate, by Richard Saller, puts the total gains per capita at perhaps 25% over three centuries (a very rough estimate, but focus on the implied scale here; the real number could be 15% or 30%, but it absolutely isn’t 1000% or 100% or even probably 50%).
But returns to violent land acquisition were very, very high. In those same three centuries, the Romans probably increased the productive capacity of their empire by conquest 1,200% (note that’s a comma, not a dot!), going from an Italian empire of perhaps 5,000,000 to a Mediterranean empire in excess of 60,000,000 (and because productivity per capita was so relatively insensitive to infrastructure investments, we can on some level extrapolate production straight out of population here in a way that we couldn’t discussing the modern world). Consequently, the ‘returns to warfare’ – if you won – were much higher than returns to peace. The largest and most prosperous states tended to become the largest and most prosperous states through lots of warfare and they tended to stay that way through even more of it.
This naturally produced a lot of very powerful incentives towards militarism in societies. Indeed, Gat argues (and I agree) that the state itself appears to have emerged as a stage in this competitive-militarism contest where the societies which were best at militarizing itself and coordinating those resources survived and aggregated new resources to themselves in conflict; everyone else could imitate or die (technically ‘or suffer state-extinction’ with most of the actual people being subjugated to the new states and later empires). Those incentives produce exactly the behaviors we see in EU4 and in the early-game of VickyII where the most successful states are the ones that are rapaciously expansionist. And this makes a lot of sense if you think about the really basic energy economy of these societies: nearly all of the energy they are using comes from the land, either in the form of crops grown to feed either humans or animals who then do work with that energy. Of course small amounts of wind and water power were used, but only small amounts.
As Gat notes, the industrial revolution changed this, breaking the agricultural energy economy. Suddenly it was possible, with steam power and machines, to use other kinds of energy (initially, burning coal) to do work (more than just heating things) – for the first time, societies could radically increase the amount of energy they could dispose of without expanding. Consequently – as we’ve seen – returns to infrastructure and other capital development suddenly became much higher. At the same time, these new industrial technologies made warfare much more destructive precisely because the societies doing the warfare now had at their disposal far larger amounts of energy. Industrial processes not only made explosives possible, they also enabled such explosives to be produced in tremendous quantities, creating massive, hyper-destructive armies. Those armies were so destructive, they tended to destroy the sort of now-very-valuable mechanical infrastructure of these new industrial economies; they made the land they acquired less valuable by acquiring it. So even as what we might term ‘returns to capital’ were going wildly up, the costs of war were also increasing, which mean that ‘returns to warfare’ were going down for the first time in history.
It’s not clear exactly where the two lines cross, but it seems abundantly clear that for the most developed economies, this happened sometime before 1914 because it is almost impossible to argue that anything that could have possibly been won in the First World War could have ever – even on the cynical terms of the competitive militarism of the pre-industrial world – been worth the expenditure in blood and treasure.
At the same time, Gat notes that human societies didn’t suddenly reinvent themselves in 1900. We have all of these institutions, these social habits, these values, these works of literature and culture which were produced to help our societies survive in the environment of competitive militarism that existed before 1900. It is hard to stress the magnitude of the shift Gat is talking about here – taking the modern state, the most efficient violence-machine ever developed by humans – and putting it in a world where war is maladaptive is roughly like dropping a polar bear in the Serengeti. Everything that bear has ever learned is suddenly pretty useless or actively harmful. So societies entered this brave new industrial world with a whole lot of habits and institutions designed to push them towards war because war used to be how one profited and survived.
And I think it is the commanding triumph of Vicky2‘s design that this very effect is produced not out of some railroading nor because the game makes a ‘war-is-bad’ sad-face at you, but as a product of the mechanics. I do not actually even think that the designers here had Gat or his theories in mind (Johan may happily correct me if I am wrong). Rather, the triumph here is that in producing a historical simulation which came close enough (with all of its many flaws) to simulating both the rising gains to capital and the rising destructiveness of war, Vicky2 produces this interaction as emergent gameplay.
And the game also simulates that sudden mismatch between the social values of societies born out of competitive militarism and the new industrial world quite brilliantly on two different levels. On the first level, we have the player. They have almost certainly been ‘trained’ on other Paradox games or at least on VickyII‘s early game, where war still ‘pays.’ They also have a set of expectations, much like these societies do and those expectations include that ‘final boss fight’ of World War I at the end of a game to prove how well or poorly they’ve managed their country. In short, they – like the leaders of Europe in 1914 – are primed by their own socially embedded expectations to walk into the First World War without ever really asking if they should in the profound sort of terms we’ve laid out. War, after all, is the doing thing!
At the same time, the game’s systems are going to pressure the player in this direction too. Your public wants that war; you have revanchist claims that are fueling the rise of dangerous nationalist and fascist parties after all. Even if the player has a long last recognized that building a new factory in Marseilles will do more good for the French people than retaking Alsace-Lorraine, the political pressure reflecting a populace whose social norms haven’t caught up to their new reality pushes you to that war anyway. Meanwhile, the crisis system creates a prestige cost for refusing to get involved! Prestige is funny – as a resource it has no value except that it contributes to score (I was wrong before, it doesn’t determine buy-order, rank does), but players want it. Taking that big prestige hit for just ‘noping out’ of the Great War before is starts hurts a little and reflects the sort of concerns for ‘national greatness’ which fueled countries which often had no business being in the First World War to join anyway.
And then, before you know it, 10,000,000 pops are dead (in a game where that matters and the player is made to care), everyone’s score is now lower than it had been at the start, even the winners. But because these games are meant to be played multiple times, the player learns – in the same way that, after a couple of disastrous playthroughs, the industrialized world is beginning to learn – that war doesn’t pay anymore and it is simply better not to be in World War I.
It is also, by the by, a brilliant refutation of Steven Pinker’s related argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature (and yes, I am aware that Gat blurbed Pinker’s book and thinks well of it; but for my part, I think Gat has the far better argument). Pinker argues that the decline in violence we see today – and yes, violence has declined (many people find this position unacceptable, but it is absolutely true; per capita violence and violent deaths have declined as a function of time over human history, though not evenly so) – is a result of changing social norms and values particularly focused on the Enlightenment. But a simulation like Vicky2 presents, in I think some startling clarity, the strength of Gat’s argument which is rooted in the raw economics of warfare. It doesn’t take new, enlightened people to realize that war doesn’t pay in Vicky2 – and indeed, the enlightened men of 1914 certainly didn’t seem to know that it wouldn’t until it didn’t even with their enlightened values! – it takes the experience of a war whose expense couldn’t ever possibly be justified by the return. Cynical human profit-maximizing does the rest.
(This may also go some way to explaining why the ‘Long Peace’ has fallen unevenly over the world. For less industrialized, poorer countries, the old calculus still might more-or-less hold (again, at least for the elites who reap most of the rewards in war, but don’t do most of the dying). In countries with resource extraction economies, grabbing the resources by violence may still be the ‘profit-maximizing’ route in a way that trying to do the same in highly productive industrial societies is counter-productive because the violence destroys the very human and physical capital you want to control. Gat’s thesis would lead us to expect that while there might be a lot of tensions and occasionally war between industrial powers, most conflict will center on developing countries with economies that are still largely pre-industrial (or resource-extractive); that is a pattern that seems to largely hold true (though those conflicts may draw in industrial powers, especially if intra-national conflicts produce international violence; e.g. transnational terrorism).)
The Larks Still Bravely Singing, Fly
This interaction, I must confess, was what moved me to write this whole series – not just Victoria II, but on the whole of Paradox’s catalog.
Azar Gat, after spending 600 pages building to it, closes by noting the enhanced ability for destruction unleashed by the industrial revolution, culminating in the taming of the atom has not undone the centuries of cultural evolution (or, he argues, many millennia of biological evolution) which predisposes humans and human societies towards war, leaving the open question of if we can avoid using all of these terrible weapons we have invented long enough for our cultural and biological evolutionary processes to catch up. For the attentive player, Victoria II can deliver, in microcosm, much of the same analysis.
As I said, I strongly suspect that this interaction was entirely unintentional on the part of the developers. They produced an economic simulation which captured the rising productivity of industrial economies and they also produced a military model which would capture the rising destructiveness of war (because they wanted the player to have a WWI experience) and the mechanics handled the rest, simulating a very complicated theory about warfare.
I am not at all exaggerating when I say I think this stands as Paradox’s single greatest achievement in game design, even embedded as it is in an often flawed, janky game. Many games have historical settings, some even have historical themes; I can think of few other games which are able to produce historical theories in an emergent manner like this. I hope – and this seems to be true so far – that Victoria III will resist the urge to gamify these systems in an effort to make World War I ‘fun’ and thus break this element of the simulation. Instead, my hope is that the developers on Victoria III approach this emergent mechanic more intentionally, making sure to fully capture the shift in ‘returns to warfare’ over the game.
I think these mechanics also speak to something I mentioned when we talked about EU4 which is the way that the Paradox oeuvre, when taken together, is more than the sum of its parts. If every game in the Paradox library was EU4, with its implicit endorsement of aggressive warfare and mercenary diplomacy, that would be a real problem. But VickyII, with its pop-focused system and stubborn insistence on making the player care about the destructiveness of their wars, serves to complicate the narrative of a game like EU4 (Imperator also does this in its own ways, by the by) in a way that renders the whole catalog richer. Playing Vicky2 coming from EU4 or CK3 ought to make the player stop, think a bit about the ramifications of the things they did in those games without thinking – because that’s the social script we still have – and stop and question that script and its values.
All of that said, no game is perfect and Victoria II is perhaps more imperfect than any other mainline Paradox game. That’s no where clearer than it is in how Victoria treats the non-industrial states outside of Europe and so that’s where we will turn for our last installment next time.