For the last couple years, Victoria 2 was my go-to example of ambitious and detailed game design crowding out fun and playability. I admired it at a distance, dismissing it as the brainier and hopelessly awkward sibling of Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 3.
Now, with the Heart of Darkness expansion for Victoria 2 ($20 / £15), Paradox have finally uncovered Victoria’s potential. In doing so they’ve made a fascinating game about politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, weaving a tapestry of domestic unrest, technological progress, philosophical upheaval, and devastating wars.
Victoria II’s distinguishing feature is its model of population and politics. Most strategy games abstract population, making it little more than a number. But in Victoria II, your population is made up of people with different ethnicities, occupations, and beliefs. You don’t just have a factory in Prague: you have a factory staffed by a seething mix of Czech nationalists, German socialists, and a bunch of anarchist clerks.
Which means you can’t just snap your fingers and transition from absolutism to modern liberal democracy the moment you get the memo about the rights of man. Instead, you have to enact or resist change via the political system. Different ruling parties will favor different reforms, and movements will form around issues like minimum wage law and representative government, pushing your elections toward the parties that favor their preferences.
It’s like trying to manage an avalanche. If you reform too quickly, you risk a major backlash that could spark a civil war, or you could find yourself shunted to the side. For instance, the aristocracy and capitalist classes are happy to have a representative government as long as they are the only ones who get the vote, so if you open your government too early, they will do their damndest to stymie progressive initiatives. But if you ignore the democratic impulse, you may wake up one morning to discover half the country is in armed revolt and calling for a people’s republic.
This is all old news to Vicki veterans, but Heart of Darkness puts it in a much more interesting context via the crisis system. Crises break out over colonies and occupied territories. Who should have dominance in Dakar, and what shall be done about the plight of subject Poles in the German Empire? But the moment a crisis occurs, the world’s Great Powers (the eight most influential nations measured by prestige, industrial strength, and military) begin taking sides on the issue.
At this point there is no escaping the crisis without some change in prestige. If someone backs down, they lose face in the eyes of the world. But if nobody backs down, a war breaks out that involves everyone who took sides. All Britain wanted to do was get the Czech people a nation of their own, but now they’re fighting Germany and Italy on two fronts while Russia suddenly has German and Danish armies pouring across Poland and Ukraine. In the late game, these wars become cataclysmic “Great Wars” where no settlement is possible without total capitulation.
This changes everything about power politics in Victoria 2. Minor powers can use these crises to make gains of their own that would have been impossible with the world at peace. My Bavarians stormed Bohemia and Moravia while the rest of the world was distracted with a crisis in Denmark. Then Germany was pulled into a massive war with France and Russia, and I took that opportunity to escape their influence. They declared war, but their forces were stretched so thin that my Bavarians crushed their armies in Poland and in Stuttgart, then started driving on Berlin. They capitulated, and suddenly Bavaria was a Great Power.
The prestige you get from these showdowns is hugely important, because your rank among nations influences your access to goods and resources on the global market, and it impacts how much leverage you have with other countries. For a Great Power to be relegated to Secondary Power status, it means going from the driver’s seat of the world to the passenger seat, and taking an immediate economic hit. It really gets at the kind of desperation and fronting that led to debacles like World War I.
The price of power
There is also the undeniable fact that Victoria II occurs in a time period when the imperialist getting is no longer quite so good. Technological progress overwhelmingly favors the defender, but wars are not won on the defensive, so they inevitably get bloodier, making a measurable demographic impact on your country. Running low on factory workers? Maybe it’s because you drafted most of them, then led them to their death outside Vienna. That modern democracy you were building? You’ve been encouraging people to become soldiers and officers for twenty years and suddenly you’re within a hair’s breadth of becoming governed by right-wing reactionaries, and the Communists are on the brink of revolution.
There is always colonialism abroad, largely centered on Africa. Heart of Darkness makes imperialism a more intricate process as well, dependent on naval technology and infrastructure, the state of your empire (overstretching means you cannot expand into new uncolonized areas). It’s also easy to find yourself in direct competition for a given territory with another colonial power, and if nobody yields, it can precipitate a crisis. On the other hand, having a reliable supply of raw materials can be a massive strategic advantage over other major powers.
Victoria 2: Heart of Darkness has two drawbacks. The first is that its Steam version seems troubled. I never managed to get it working on my desktop, and getting it running on my laptop required deleting a folder from Vicki’s Steam directory. This isn’t really acceptable: if you have a Steam version, it should just work, without any arcane troubleshooting rituals.
The larger drawback is that it remains deceptively complicated. This is very much a game about seeing the whole forest, but it communicates in trees. Heart of Darkness is very well-documented, but it takes a long time to fully understand how Victoria 2 responds to your decisions. It rewards that investment, but that investment is still sizeable.
Still, Heart of Darkness is a stellar expansion, one that massively improves on the flawed original. What was before an intricate but uninvolving model of Victorian era politics has become a strategic epic about high stakes politics during a time of massive upheaval.