This is the third and final part of a three part series (I, II) examining the historical assumptions of Paradox Interactive’s 19th and early 20th century grand strategy game, Victoria II. Last time, we looked at how the game’s models for the industrial revolution and warfare interacted: by simulating (even in a fairly limited and abstract way) both the tremendous increases in productivity of the industrial revolution and the tremendously increased destructiveness of warfare brought about by the weapons of the industrial revolution the game reproduced one of the key historical developments in warfare in the period. While for most of human history the best way for a community or a society to become wealthy, power and secure was to seek out aggressive, expansionist war, the industrial revolution marked a turning point where war no longer ‘paid’ and the best strategy for state power and wealth (as well as for the well being of the citizens of that state) was to avoid war whenever possible, since even a victorious war was unlikely to be worth the cost.
Having that theory of history come together as an emergent, interactive part of gameplay (as far as I can tell, quite unintended by the developers) is I think the singular triumph of Victoria II as a historical game. But of course you all knew this series couldn’t be all positive things. So far we have stayed mostly focused on the game as it is played by the various western ‘Great Powers’ (mostly the European powers, but also the United States and the Ottomans). But this week we’re going to mostly look outside of the major players of the European state system towards the subjugated, colonized and enslaved. And here, unfortunately, Victoria II makes its fair share of missteps.
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So far we’ve kept our discussion focused on how the game treats the Great Powers and the rest of Europe and I have mostly been full of praise for the game. But as with Europa Universalis (and every other Paradox game of this type), it isn’t merely the major imperial powers which are playable: all of the countries are playable. And I want to start in the same spirit that I did for EU4 when discussing this: I have quite a lot of grace in me for any game that lets the player experience imperialism for the perspective of indigenous people and states which found themselves on the ‘business end’ of imperial power. Other strategy games of this type almost never do that; minor powers are unplayable, for instance, in the Total War series, as are the ‘city-states’ which fill the same role in the most recent Civilization games. So when it comes to presenting a truly global perspective and decentering the Great Power experience of colonialism, Victoria II has a strong foundation in this one game design choice.
Unfortunately after that just about everything begins to come apart to one degree or another.
We can start with some of the essential terminology. Now I should note at the outset that Paradox games often have a ‘tongue in cheek’ framing to a lot of the game’s text and descriptions which includes often presenting the narrow-minded or culturally chauvinist attitudes of the period straight to an exaggerated degree as a way of poking fun at the ‘things we used to believe.’ For instance the confirmation dialogue for an event where support for war against a neighbor (that your government is fomenting) builds due to paranoid xenophobia (promoted by your government) has the confirmation text of, ‘They’re Coming Right For Us!’ both a joke about the frequent absurdity of such paranoia and a South Park reference. One of the responses for the crop failure event (‘Potato Blight’) is labeled ‘Let them eat cake’ (the other option, “Spare no effort in relieving the local farmers” limits the extent of the penalties inflicted by the event). This sort of humor can work, but it can also easily go amiss and the line between what is meant to be funny and what is meant to feel historical is often very thin.
That approach extends into the terminology and the results are often unfortunate. The most obvious one is how states are classified. In Victoria II, all states are classified as either ‘civilized’ or ‘uncivilized’ (abbreviated by the player-base to ‘civ’ and ‘unciv’) with the former then being subdivided into Great Powers, Secondary Powers and just plain ‘Civilized Nations.’ As the wiki helpfully notes, “All nations with their capitals in Asia and Africa, with the exceptions of Oranje and Transvaal are uncivilized from the beginning of the game” (plus Hawaii). ‘Uncivs’ cannot industrialize and do not have access to the technology part of the game until they enact a series of reforms collectively referred to as ‘westernization’ and broadly modeled on Meiji Restoration’s ‘westernizing’ reforms and the Chinese Self-Strengthening movement. ‘Uncivs’ are also vulnerable to more powerful casus belli, reflecting how they are not protected by the diplomatic niceties of the European state system; it is much less reputationally damaging for an imperial power to seize territory from ‘uncivs’ than from other states; while the ‘unciv’ label is unfortunate, I have to conclude this mechanic expresses the logic of the period’s imperialist ideology. It really was unfair to be a state that Europeans saw as the ‘other’ and there really was a double-standard in their application of international law and public outrage and in some ways it is good to make the player feel the unfairness of that system.
This is a fairly awful set of terms. At the time the developers suggested that the goal here was to capture the way that states were talked about in the period, but this has the effect of re-centering the attitudes of the western powers. The Chinese, after all, did not consider themselves to be uncivilized! By taking that value judgement made by people at the time and putting it into the game mechanics it transforms an opinion that some cultures had of other cultures into an immutable fact in the game-space, which is deeply unfortunate. I should note that the developers on the sequel, Victoria III have already indicated that they are dropping this terminology in favor of ‘recognized’ and ‘unrecognized’ countries which at least has the advantage of placing the question back firmly into the realm of perception, rather than reality.
(For what it is worth, I understand the development difficulty here. A game set in this period probably does need to mechanically distinguish between powers within the broader European state system and those outside precisely because the Great Powers of that state system interacted very differently with states and people outside of Europe (and a few select independent colonial countries which were, for all intents and purposes, regarded as European powers that just happened not to be in Europe). But calling them ‘uncivs’ along with blocking off the tech tree is just a horribly clunky way of achieving this. Recognized/Unrecognized isn’t a perfect solution either, but it is quite a bit better.)
And area where Victoria II does better is the topic of slavery. Enslaved people are simulated exactly like every other pop. They don’t have advanced needs and can only be made to work in RGOs as farmers or laborers (their pop type remains ‘slave’). The lead up to the American Civil War (‘ACW’) is modeled in game and unlike so many games about the ACW where the war seems to have been about nothing in particular, the ACW in Victoria II is explicitly a product of slavery and the defense of slavery. A United States which manages (by whatever manner of gaming cheese; the USA generally gets the ‘slavery debate’ modifier early on which reflects the intransigence of southern slave-holders and prevents abolition without war) to abolish slavery before tensions burst into war simply skips the ACW because there is nothing left to fight about. I think this is an admirable level of candor from the developers here, though I also think it is reflective of the ‘view from Sweden’ I’ve mentioned earlier; the ACW isn’t the hot-button issue for the Paradox devs that some other wars are (a point we’ll come back to with Hearts of Iron).
(And yes, the American Civil War was fought over slavery. We know this because the Confederates who fought it for that reason were exceptionally clear, in their speeches, statements and letters, that this was the case. A decent sample is gathered here, for instance. James McPherson also assembles quite a few examples in Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) and For Cause and Comrades (1997). We are not forced to infer this motive; we are told it, again and again by the Confederates themselves.)
Slave pops in the game provide both advantages and disadvantages at the state level. The major advantage (again, from the perspective of the state; slavery is bad as an absolute matter) is that slave pops demand fewer goods to survive. The disadvantages are…everything else. Slave pops generate tremendous militancy (gee, I wonder why?) which cannot be channeled into political reform (because they’re not in your political system) which makes that militancy a pure negative impact for the state. Moreover, slave pops cannot promote to other kinds of workers and since all other kinds of workers are more productive than farmer/laborer RGO workers, this is a major drawback. Consequently, for the handful of countries with slavery (either nation-wide or as a set group of ‘slave states’) at game start, moving deliberately towards abolitionism is both a matter of compassion but also of business as one prepares for industrialization.
One thing that Victoria II has going for it here is that outlawing slavery is done through the reforms system. This is the last major design pillar and I haven’t talked about it too much here. Each state has an ‘upper-house’ which must approve reforms (split into political reforms and social reforms) and the party affiliation of those members (who may be restricted to the ruling party, more broadly appointed or elected depending on the structure of your state) determines if they’ll support further reforms. As a rule, socialists approve of social reforms, liberals of political reforms; other parties may be brought to approve of reforms of one or another type with high militancy (typically high militancy can allow liberal-socialist-communist coalitions to push social reforms and socialist-liberal-conservative coalitions to push political reforms; reactionaries always oppose both types).
Because outlawing slavery is a political reform it is subject to this system, which means that for a country that starts with slavery legal, abolition is a political movement rather than merely flipping a switch. Support has to be mobilized (often particularly among the elite, depending on your upper house structure) in order to pave the way to making what was for many societies a titanic social change (this is true for the USA in game as well, because the ACW triggers are tied to the percentage of the upper house which is ‘liberal’ and thus ready to vote for abolition).
Again this implementation is not perfect. Victoria II does more than most strategy games to make you care about your pops, but the issue of slavery still very easily becomes an abstract issue of maximizing production rather than a concrete issue of human suffering. I wish that there was a bit more in terms of showing, in the case of the United States in particular, the long push necessary to build political support for abolitionism in the United States (which in turn led the South to sucede); there are a few events to this effect, but most concern the arena of politics rather than shifts in public opinion. Likewise, the role that Britain played in encouraging (and in some cases forcing) other countries to abolish the slave trade in the 1830s and 1840s could be better modeled in events and decisions (and perhaps made a path that any sufficiently inclined naval power may choose to pursue). Still, the representation of the horrors of slavery in video games (historical or otherwise) is generally just so relentlessly bad that VickyII scores well above par simply by doing a baseline adequate job.
One point where I would like to see improvement here is the implementation of Haiti. Haiti is playable in VickyII, but is not given any real unique mechanics or significant events. This is unfortunate. Haiti was the product of arguably the world’s only fully successful slave rebellion and still a very young country when the game opens. It was a unique country and was recognized as such (mostly in the form of hostility from powers, including the United States, which still practiced slavery in the new world and worried that Haiti’s example would encourage their own enslaved workers to rise up). Historically, Haiti was burdened by a massive indemnity (from France) as well as that hostility, factors which have substantially contributed to the currently impoverished state of the island but which are not reflected in game at all. I think some unique mechanics to reflect these challenges but also give the player a chance to chart a different course for the world’s first and only state established by a successful slave revolt.
The other point where I would like to see major improvement is the representation of slavery outside the European colonial empires and the United States. Slavery was practiced in a great many places even into the 1800s; in many cases even in states which had formally abolished slavery or the slave trade (the two not quite being the same thing), slavery continued to be practiced (and in some cases, still continues to be practiced) in areas of weak state control. This is a case where the soft focus on the world outside of the European colonial empires can lead to the mistaken impression, still quite common in the public, that slavery was unique to the West (albeit it should be acknowledged that trans-Atlantic slavery can be fairly characterized as having been an uncommonly cruel form of slavery).
The Gates of Africa
One thing that VickyII attempts to simulate is how European colonization proceeded in different places at different times. It does this through a gating system based on a game-stat called ‘life rating.’ The ‘life rating’ of a province is meant to reflect its general habitability and each province has a different rating. At the start of the game, all countries can colonize territory with life ratings at or above 35, but most of the ‘uncolonized’ states in Africa have values below that (usually around 10 or 15). Apart from regions of, say, hard desert (and most of the ‘uncolonized’ lands are not hard desert or anything close to it), that framing is a bit awkward. After all the people living in these places presumably do not find them uninhabitable. Once again, the cover for this is to argue that the game is framed to assume a European perspective in its terminology, but I find myself wishing both that this system was more flexible (it is odd, for instance, that countries in Africa require prophylaxis against Malaria to colonize in Africa when they themselves are the malaria-resistant humans who actually live there) and perhaps better framed.
The way this system then shapes the colonization process is that countries can only colonize ‘uncolonized’ provinces if they are first accessible (either by sea or through a land-border) and have a life-rating above the minimum life rating that the colonizer-country’s technology supports. This allows, for instance, for Russia to complete its conquest of the steppe during the early game, although I’d argue these conquests probably ought to be modeled as wars even in the game’s logic. It also allows the United States to Manifest Destiny westward in the early and mid-game (though I’d argue these conquests probably ought to be modeled as wars) while still walling European powers out (except for the occasionally British effort to nab the Pacific Northwest), and causing the Scramble for Africa to happen at roughly the right historical moment in each play-through.
The technologies which are tied to allowing states to expand into lower life-ratings thus offer a pretty clear theory of history, essentially positing that under the ruthless logic of imperialist expansion under the balance of power conditions in Europe, these technologies removed the last impediments to European colonization. With those keys to open the gates of Africa, as it were, the Scramble became inevitable. This is a fairly pure technological explanation – in essence arguing that the pressure to expand was always there but that these specific new technologies made it possible. And in fact that is a fairly mainstream historical view, expressed notably by D.R. Headrick in The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (1981). In Headrick’s view, industrialization provides the means of empire which enabled the European imperial project to push into areas that had to that point resisted it; the corollary of this position, that essentially all states are what we might call ’empires in waiting’ and that Europe was set apart by means, not methods or goals is one embraced by the Paradox games (and we discussed it back with EU4).
The key developments in Victoria II are all innovations rather than technologies so they may depend on having multiple technologies researched:
- Prophylaxis against Malaria offers 5 extra life rating. It requires the technology ‘Medicine’ and its discovery change is doubled by researching the technology ‘Inorganic Chemistry” (which is the next tech in the medical tree).
- Mission to Civilize offers 10 extra life rating. It requires the ‘State and Government’ tech from the political thought tree (becoming available in 1840) and is made much more likely to discover from having researched “Nationalism and Imperialism,” “Market Regulations” and “Naval Statistics.”
- Colonial Negotiations offers 10 extra life rating. It requires “Breech-loaded Rifles” from the Army tree (available in 1850) and is made far more likely to develop from having “Machine Guns,” “Economic Responsibility” (by which what is meant is ‘government responsibility for the economy”) and “Naval Logistics.”
(I should note technically each technology reduces the ‘minimum life rating’ that you can settle in, but that’s clunky so I’ve said ‘offers’ life rating.)
Given that ‘Colonial Negotiations’ is mostly dependent on rifle and machine-gun technology, I think we should understand the name of the innovation as being a bit tongue-in-cheek (much like the ‘Aggressive Negotiations’ line from the Star Wars prequels), though Victoria II often struggles, as noted, to signal when we should take its titles and descriptions as humorous. Getting into the various sub-inventions and technologies that offer increased discovery change then, it seems like the Victoria II vision of what made the Scramble for Africa possible was:
- Anti-Malarial Medicine.
- Advanced Firepower (machine guns and breech-loading rifles)
- More complex economic theories (Market regulation and economic responsibility)
- More sophisticated systems of naval organization
- And the ideological framework (Mission to Civilize) to justify this, rooted in nationalism.
And this is a mixed bag. There is some overlap with Headrick’s arguments, but it is far from perfect. We can start with what is right here: anti-malarial medicine and firepower. The impact of disease on European intervention into Sub-Saharan Africa is hard to overstate. Rates of disease mortality among European soldiers stationed at the relatively less malarial port-and-fort posts they maintained (which we’ve discussed in this series) in the period period to the Scramble could still exceed 60%, often substantially so. While disease was almost always in the pre-modern world more of a killer than actual combat, rates of attrition that high created an effective disease wall which could swallow effectively unlimited European armies whole. Likewise, because West Africa was filled with states rather than smaller tribal units, European armies operating at great distance from their base of logistics needed massive force-multipliers to be successful and so the multiplication of European firepower was crucial.
But the rest of this goes rather off of the rails, if you will permit the joke. Headrick’s other two developments were modern industrialized naval superiority and steam power. Now VickyII does have naval organization, but this isn’t what Headrick means. The key elements here are not the organizational structures (for once it’s not about socially embedded organizational culture!) but the actual physical machines. In particular, European warships that even by the end of the Age of Sail (much less the Age of Steam) couldn’t be effectively challenged by local warships; they simply had too much firepower. Improvements in gun-boring technology (combined with the need to punch through thicker ship armor) rapidly meant that non-industrializing countries would find it simply impossible to either build ships or coastal forts which could stand up to such vessels. That, combined with steam engines on ships and steam-powered railways on land, allowed for the vast logistical distances to be spanned, suddenly exposing one ‘remote’ (to Europe) places to European power.
At the same time, the presence of ‘Mission to Civilize” strikes me as off. European notions of bringing ‘civilization’ to the ‘savages’ were not new in the 1860s; you see elements of this posture in the earliest defenses of Spanish imperialism in the Caribbean. While the ‘civilizing mission’ of the 1800s might seem at first more secular, these imperial projects came with missionaries and forced education in boarding schools designed to ‘Christianize’ the natives all the same. Here I must agree largely with Headrick’s standpoint: the ideological framework for the New Imperialism of the 19th century had largely been in place for several centuries. Balance of power politics and the pressures of acquiring resources to fuel industrialization led to a race to essentially ‘catch up’ to the British Empire and nationalism played a role in this, but these were not the factors that initially prevented and then enabled the Scramble for Africa or Manifest Destiny, both of which, in any event, I think could probably be better represented within the game mechanics through the war system.
My own preference for this system would be for the gating technologies to be shifted to medicine and breech-loaders (as before) along with a set level of railroad technology and the development of steamships. New ideologies might add effects that make the process move more swiftly or offer a competitive advantage against other imperialist powers, but shouldn’t ‘gate’ the process. The ideological gate had long been battered down.
Oh, and I think probably this entire system could be better represented within the game mechanics as a series of wars. Did I mention that?
Cultures and States
Once the relevant technologies are researched, colonization in Africa – the last great explosion of colonial activity in the game – proceeds very rapidly. And this is as good a time as any to discuss the system. States can attempt to lay claim to provinces marked as ‘uncolonized’ (this term just as awkward here as in Europa Universalis IV). Doing so requires ‘colonial power’ which is generated by a state’s naval assets (presumably reflecting the overall ability to sustain the ocean logistics network to support the effort). Sending an expedition to lay a claim ties up colonial power until the effort is completed. Assuming no other state sends an expedition to the same place, the original state can then ‘create a protectorate’ to lock competitors out. If there are other states attempting to claim the province, the two states compete in investing colonial power to try to force each other out; if neither backs down it can trigger a crisis.
‘Protectorate’ provinces can then be upgraded by a further investment of colonial power into ‘colonial states.’ This is presumably meant to reflect a greater degree of investment in infrastructure and administration and it allows more resources and taxes to be extracted from the province, along with the recruitment of local troops (that latter point is odd; European colonial powers were using local troops in most regions of Africa before establishing territorial control so the order here is off). However colonial states aren’t represented in the government of the country, their pops won’t assimilate to the primary culture and factories cannot be built there. Also recruitment of troops is less efficient in colonial states (it requires more pops to support a given number of brigades).
Colonial states can then be converted into fully-fledged states by having at least 1% of the population be bureaucrat pops (who generate ‘administrative efficiency’) of an accepted culture. Here some of the Gen2 railroading rears its head; whereas players could add new accepted cultures in EU4 to reflect an effort to push towards a more pluralistic, ethnically accepting state, this is not an option in Victoria II. Apart from a few rare national decisions (like forming Germany), primary and accepted cultures are fixed. None of the major European colonial powers have accepted cultures that are not themselves European, meaning that the only way to transform a colonial province into a full ‘state’ and thus a full part of the country is by shipping out large numbers of primary-culture bureaucrats.
It is thus impossible, for instance, for the Netherlands to decide that its subjects in Dutch Java ought to be full and accepted members of the Netherlands; the best it can do is encourage them to assimilate to Dutch culture (and even there, there are very few mechanisms for this). While at release it was often possible (and indeed sometimes easy) for colonial powers to ‘state-ify’ their colonial possessions (which for democracies with colonial possessions meant including those colonial subjects fully and equally in the democratic process), balance changes (mostly to limit Britain’s ability to do this in India) have made this much more difficult. By and large ‘state-ification’ mostly now is simply the means by which Russia and the United States bring new territories (the last of the Eurasian Steppe and the Great Plains) fully into their countries. Even if a player surmounts those hurdles, they can only do so by shipping out – in our Netherlands example – large numbers of Dutch or Belgian bureaucrats (rather than, say, encouraging Javanese bureaucrats, because those pops do not count for this calculation) which reeks more than a bit of the ‘civilizing mission’ since the only way to accomplish the industrialization of a colonial province is to first import large numbers of ‘civilization bearing’ European bureaucrats. There is no way to encourage indigenous development, nor to declare the local culture tolerated and valued.
This mechanic is a touch trickier than the also-awkward ‘westernization’ mechanic because at least westernization had fairly clear historical models in this period. In the end the state-ification mechanic is in most instances a counter-factual: none of the great imperial powers did simply decide to embrace pluralism and incorporate their colonial possessions as full core elements of the state except for a handful of relatively small islands. They didn’t do so even under the pressure of two World Wars. Heck, to some degree the United States still hasn’t (though Hawaii may otherwise be one of the most notable exceptions to ‘colonial powers never did this’). Nevertheless, especially for countries that begin the game with substantial colonial holdings, it seems like the counter-factual of pluralism and toleration rather than exclusion and exploitation ought to be offered and in a more meaningful and fleshed out way (and probably with substantial political opposition to be overcome from the imperial core who would be loathe to share).
More troubling to my mind is that the colonization process is all about competing with other European powers but generally not with resistance by the people being colonized. Even in Eu4, the local population would occasionally attempt to destroy a colony and reclaim their land (at least until control was firmly established) but this doesn’t happen in Victoria II and in deed apart from a few events triggering militancy among Native American pops who find themselves inside the borders of the USA, the existing population of ‘uncolonized’ lands are presented as being almost entirely passive as their territory is seized. Indeed, they’re only actively simulated as pops once their territory is seized; before then they are simply represented as a population number which is only converted into pops once the province is incorporated into a state.
This is part of why – broken record here – but I think these systems could mostly be better represents through the game’s existing war-system or something like it to make clear that there is conflict happening in this and that these spaces weren’t ‘settled’ but rather ‘conquered.’
Victoria II is an odd game to assess. It is a very niche game even when compared to the other very niche games Paradox produces. When it was in development, Fredrick Wester, then CEO of Paradox promised to shave his head if the game made a profit (it did and he did, by the by), which speaks to the degree to which the game’s appeal was understood to be limited. I rather wonder if the success of games like Factorio and Satisfactory were what prompted Paradox to consider actually developing a third game in the series (though of course we all know the decisive push was my relentless, brutal campaign of bullying the devs). The long, long reticence I think ought to be taken still as a sign that this has always been a niche title. Victoria has pretty much always been the last of the core Paradox titles to get a new issue and indeed has been lapped by Crusader Kings which has had two releases since Victoria II.
And it isn’t hard to see why: of all of Paradox’s games, Victoria is perhaps the most complex (rivaled only by their WWII series, Hearts of Iron and even then having played HoI 2, 3, and 4 it feels like a lot of the complexity of those games has been smoothed out in successive iterations though perhaps this is just the product of coming to each game with more experience of the systems), it lacks the iconic subject matter of Crusader Kings or Hearts of Iron or even Europa Universalis. And, as I’ve noted a few times, nothing in VickyII ever quite works right.
But precisely because this is the closest Paradox has ever gotten to attempting a pure simulation, it has some pretty impressive virtues. I should note that I haven’t covered everything there is to cover here either. We’ve barely touched on the complexities of Victoria II‘s political system, for instance, which attempts to simulate the complex changing political consciousness of entire nations, pop by pop. And I should also note we haven’t cataloged all of Victoria II‘s flaws. The ‘substate’ system for China, for instance, which splits China up mostly as a game balance mechanic rather than having anything to do with history (China in 1836 was certainly still very much a unitary state!) is frustratingly a-historical. And the game suffers from the very soft-focus that most older Paradox games have when it comes to affairs outside of the great powers of the European state system. Those are flaws I hope will be addressed in the sequel – and I should note we have heard promising noises from the develops in this regard (though the proof will be in the playing, of course).
But more than the systems, I think Victoria triumphs because of the focus on pops and through that on actual people. Some other Paradox games (Stellaris, Imperator) ask ‘what do people mean to the state’ but Victoria II is the only game that really asks, “What does the state mean for people?” Militancy in particular gives the player direct feedback to know when their actions are making their own people angry or hurting them and the game does not back down from imposing real penalties for failing to make life at least passably decent for the pops under your care and the digital humans they represent. And the game relentlessly counts each pop (and each pop is given meaning through the things they can produce or the future pops they can create). The game makes the player care about the people under their governance through its mechanics.
One of the great weaknesses of nearly every historical game out there is that they almost always set the player in the role of either a ruler or an institution, a situation where the common people are largely instrumental rather than central. People in most historically set games end up feeling more like tools to a larger purpose. Victoria II doesn’t quite entirely escape the pull of this kind of presentation, but for all of its many flaws, it gets far closer than almost any other game I have played.
That is, I think, for all of the jank of the game, a considerable achievement. And one I hope to see continued (with, we may pray, a fair bit more polish) in the sequel.