This is the first post in a three-part series that will be examining the historical assumption of Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy computer game set in the 19th and early 20th century, Victoria II. Readers will find a number of references here to our previous discussion of one of Paradox’s other games, Europa Universalis IV, but I think this discussion will be mostly readable without having to rush back and read (or reread) the previous posts; that said much of what we discuss here will, I suspect, be more interesting if one has read the previous entries. This week, we’re going to be looking in particular at how Victoria II treats what is arguably its central game system: economics and the industrial revolution.
As before, the reason I chose Paradox’s series of titles is not to subject them to withering critique, but because I think they are a particularly rich area to discuss precisely because they are somewhat more historically aware than many similar games. Paradox games, by and large, arrive at their subject matter with a theory of the history behind them and that theory is then expressed in interesting ways through the game mechanics. Moreover, the very presentation of Paradox’s games as historical simulations as much as games both encourages players to think about them as exercises in history and also lends their theory of history tremendous persuasive power.
Finally, I should note that, when I began this series with EU4, I noted that we would do VickyII next as, “I want to bully Paradox into green-lighting Victoria III.” Paradox almost immediately announced Victoria III so I want to note right away that I gracious accept Paradox’s surrender on this point and will happily take credit for ending the long drought of Victoria content. I humbly accept all of your accolades for my heroic service. But I think that the announcement of the next game in the series makes this look at VickyII more valuable, to get a sense of the ways that it succeeded and failed as a historical exercise, in the hope that the best parts of it will be preserved into the next version.
But seriously, if you want to give me accolades, please share my writing. If you really want to throw me laurels, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
Before we dive in, we should set some of the basics of the game. Victoria II (the sequel to Victoria: Revolutions) is a grand strategy game made by Paradox Interactive. In it, players take control of a single state and guide that state’s policy decisions, including military and diplomatic strategy, economics and politics from 1836 (the game’s start date) to 1936. One of the notable quirks of Paradox games is that rather than having just a few ‘playable’ countries, effort has gone in to putting nearly every historical state in the period on the map and they are all playable, so while the designers clearly expect many players to stick to the most common states (the United States, France, Prussia, Austria, and of course Britain, inter alia), if a player wants to play as less economically or militarily powerful developed powers, they can (note that we’ll mostly deal with those countries in the third post in this series as they have quite a different experience in the game).
The game is primarily played on a map of the world, though Victoria II, much more than more modern Paradox games, has much of its gameplay hidden in menus and detail screens. The world map is divided into provinces; each province is controlled by one country in its entirety. Provinces are then grouped into ‘states’ and certain things (like factories) are managed at the ‘state’ level. That distinction won’t actually matter much for us here, so I am going to talk almost entirely about provinces, in part because I will be using ‘state’ as a technical term to prefer to independent polities (or ‘countries’) and I don’t want to be confusing.
While Victoria II does not have an explicit win-state where the game ends, it does rank all countries by three metrics: economic and military power, and prestige. The top eight countries by these metrics averaged together are marked as the ‘Great Powers’ and the game clearly intends it as an informal goal for players to seek to become and remain one of these great powers by the end of the game. That said, players absolutely can choose to ignore this and focus instead on simply surviving as smaller, weaker states or focus on improving the quality of life for their people (represented as ‘pops’) and eschewing the ‘score’ entirely.
Before we go further into the particular mechanics of Victoria II and what they say about its vision of history, I want to return to a distinction I made briefly in our discussion of Europa Universalis IV between trends in different periods of Paradox’s development history, because VickyII is very much an older Paradox game and that shapes how we should understand some of its mechanics. It’s possible to divide the product of Paradox Development Studio, the core studio at Paradox Interactive, into something like three ‘generations.’ The first generation (Gen1) Paradox games are basically all of the games that came before Paradox rolled out the Clausewitz Engine (the core software engine they use in all of their subsequent games) in 2007: Europa Universalis I and II, Hearts of Iron I and II, the original Victoria and the original Crusader Kings. While the introduction of that engine (which brings with it a very distinctive Paradox ‘look’ and ‘feel’) is an easy break point, the next is more subjective. Generation II and Generation III (Gen2 and Gen3) differ from each other in important elements of design philosophy; Gen2 Paradox games (EU3, HoI3, and Victoria II) tend to designed so that major historical events are forced to happen more or less the way they did historically, often by hard-coding certain events to only happen to the countries that did them historically. There is an inflexibility in this design which is quite noticeable as you press the game’s systems. By contrast, the Gen3 Paradox games (starting in 2012, CKII, EU4, HoI4, Stellaris, and Imperator) are structured to allow a lot more flexibility. The games feature fewer forced events and instead more systems which guide the development of play towards historically plausible(-ish) outcomes.
It’s not yet clear to me if Crusader Kings III should be understood as continuing in that Gen3 tradition or if it will mark the start of a Gen4 of Paradox games; we probably won’t really know until we get at least Victoria III and probably the nearly inevitable EU5. But for what we’re doing now, what is important to note is that Victoria II is very much on the older side of the Gen2/Gen3 divide. This is a second generation Paradox title, unlike nearly all of the other current third generation games.
Let me make all of that design philosophy concrete with an example. Let’s say in your game you want to form a big cultural union, a large state which encompasses a bunch of related cultural groups and is marked in the game mechanics as their national ‘home.’ In EU4, a Gen3 game, you have multiple routes to this; many cultural unions have specific ‘formables’ where if you meet the requirements, you can form that new state on your current territory. There are a lot of these, from the historical to the fanciful. But if you don’t have one of these formables of your cultural union, worry not because there is a game system for you – if you become large and prestigious enough your state can advance to the ’empire’ tier, which automatically makes your state the ‘cultural union’ for your larger culture group. In short, there is a general system for cultural unions which any state can utilize.
By contrast, forming new states in Victoria II is restricted to ‘decisions’ – events with very specific triggers. Even then there are just 14 of these (I am counting all of the steps towards forming Germany as one); most of these decisions are in turn restricted to just a handful of states. Many countries have no cultural union they can form because they lack a relevant decision; there is for instance, I think, no formable cultural union anywhere in Africa in Victoria II. Want to create a post-colonial pan-African national state? Well, you can’t.
Migration in Victoria II is another example of a very Gen2 system. When a ‘pop’ (a group of population; we’ll come back to this) decides to migrate to a new country, there is a complex set of factors which determine where they will go; the presence of other pops in their culture, the power of the target country, its level of political reforms all factor in. Except not really because all of those factors collectively max out at around +170% whereas the last factor, ‘is a country in North America, South America or Oceania’ is worth +300% and utterly swamps the others. In practice, every other factor merely determines which country in the Americas (or Oceania) they go to; the mechanics are hard-coded to make it functionally impossible for an an Afroeurasian country to make itself a meaningful target of in-migration no matter what it does. You could build Wakanda in Victoria II and still no one would want to move there because the game is designed to produce the mass migration to the United States in particular (which gets a number of other bonuses to this effect) and other American countries more generally and there is effectively no way to alter that process.
Consequently, the older ‘Gen2’ Paradox games have a very ‘railroaded’ feel to them: player agency is heavily constrained to the channels that the developers have planned for and provided events and mechanics for. I bring this up here because coming from the Gen3 Paradox games, I think it is easy to mistake the Gen2 railroading for very crass Eurocentrism when I think it is instead borne out of a design philosophy that held producing historical outcomes above providing players a high degree of flexibility. Since the game is set in an era where the historical outcome was the greatest degree of European colonial dominance ever, that focus on producing historical outcomes produces that historical outcome. I will be fascinated to see how Victoria III, built (I assume) with a Gen3 sensibility, provides options for ahistorical outcomes which are less Europe-dominated. Judging from the trend towards a more meaningfully global historical perspective we discussed in EU4 (and also quite visible in Crusader Kings; just contrast the on-release map of CK2 and CK3), my suspicion is that Victoria III will tend to push harder against a deterministic viewpoint.
That said, Victoria II has several sets of systemic interactions which I think work extremely well. While I am sure you are all chomping at the bit to hear about war, peace and diplomacy, I think we actually need to start with a system that is even more fundamental to Victoria II: industrialization.
Pop-ulating the Countryside
One thing I want to be clear about from the beginning with Victoria II: this is a game about pops. It doesn’t entirely shake the Paradox focus on states – pops end up tied to one state or another, after all, and the player still plays as a state, but the game is fundamentally about ‘pops.’ ‘Pops’ in the game are discrete units of population simulated as a group, typically numbering a few thousand, reflecting an amalgam of similar households. A single ‘pop’ is simulated as a homogeneous block of people in a single province who have a religion, a culture, an occupation and so on.
On one level, we have to of course note that this is an example of state legibility taken to an extreme: absolutely every human [edit: technically the game simulates adult males and statistically assumes women and children, as some commenters have pointed out; that’s an awkward choice and I hope it is changed in Vicky3] in VickyII has been numbered, categorized and grouped with the other local humans who are identical in all of the ways the game cares about so that they can be treated a single block of people: a ‘pop.’ But I don’t want to take this criticism too far: attempting to simulate the buying habits, political views and occupations of several billion humans would melt everyone’s computers. This is a necessary mechanical fudge.
More to the point, it offers more detail than almost any other game at this scale out there; wildly more (just look at that screen!). In most games – take the Total War series, Civilization or indeed, EU4 – a city or a province might collectively have a religion, a culture and a population figure. In VickyII, that same province or city is broken down; its pops have many different cultures, several different religions. They have different literacy rates, political beliefs, occupations, militancy levels, degrees of political awareness and so on. They’re also different sizes, so the Jewish ‘laborer’ pop in a European city might be only a few thousand while the ‘North German Protestant laborers’ might occupy multiple pops sitting next to them of many thousands. Individuals can transition between pops too, as they change job, or culture, or religion, causing one pop to get bigger and the other to get smaller. They can also just leave, moving to another province (or another state!).
This is actually an enormous mechanical change from EU4. In EU4 the main resource was land; all of the value was in the provinces. But in VickyII, provinces are little more than containers for pops (provinces also contain factories and an ‘RGO’ – resource generating operation – which provide jobs for those pops): all of the value is produced by the pops. They work the jobs, produce the resources, pay the taxes. Crucially armies are recruited from pops; each regiment in your army is directly tied back to the pop that supports and reinforces it. If the pop is radicalized, so is the unit. If the pop is depleted by losses (or job changes, emigration, etc.) the unit stops reinforcing. I want to put a pin in that mechanic, we’re going to come back to it next week because it is very important. But overall I want to stress here how this changes the game: the most important, most valuable resource in VickyII is your population itself. A province with no pops in it is basically worthless. A low value province (different provinces produce different raw resources and some are much less valuable than others) with a huge population of high literacy pops, on the other hand, is tremendously valuable because those pops will produce soldiers, technology, taxes and more pops; once you have factories, such a province can also be an economic mega-center.
As we’re going to see in all three posts in this series, that pop-focus works in a number of ways to actually make VickyII a more nuanced and compassionate game than Paradox’s other offerings (including Imperator and Stellaris, which both use a much more simplified pop-system which tends to commodify pops rather more). The reason here is that, with the exception of some edge-case strategies (which I suspect were truly unintended) the player is almost always incentivized to try to be a benevolent shepherd to their pops. Literate pops are more productive. Pops that are getting all of their needs met (their jobs provide them enough money to buy sufficient goods which are in turn available on the market) are happier (‘militancy’ is reduced), more numerous (assuming the very basic needs are met), less likely to emigrate out of your country and more likely to assimilate happily into your culture. And of course pops that are cared for multiply and since pops are the most important resource, encouraging population growth is one of the most important things you can do.
That system, as we’re going to see, again and again radically realigns the incentives of the player. I really hope that the mechanics of Victoria III continue this trend (from the developer diaries so far, it sounds like they will).
But I promised factories! But first, let’s get…
The industrial revolution, more than any other set of mechanics (including war, colonialism, etc.), absolutely dominates play in Victoria II; perhaps only the personal relationships in Crusader Kings are so prominent a mechanic in a Paradox game. More than the scramble for Africa, the rise of nationalism or the First World War (which I’d argue are the other three major historical pillars here), the industrial revolution is the core process of the game. So let’s go over the mechanics first and then begin asking what Victoria II has to say about the industrial revolution.
Production in Victoria II is not entirely abstract; instead of some single resource, the game has 48 (+1 but we’re going to ignore ‘precious metals’ which just instantly convert to money) different goods all of which are physical products (there are other systems to represent non-physical goods) like steel, concrete, clothes, paper, cars, merchant ships and so on. Of these, 19 of these goods are raw resources. Each province has an ‘RGO’ (‘resource gathering operation’) which functions as a single giant employer which produces a single output good. The amount produced is dependent on production technology and the number of pops employed (with the latter being the most influential). The RGO goods are all fairly basic things: coal, iron, cotton, grain, wool, timber, etc. Lower class pops (including those who work RGOs, ‘farmers’ and ‘laborers’) can live on just these raw products, but even these fellows want some processed goods; Middle and Upper Class pops will demand such goods.
Processed goods are produced in two ways. The old fashioned way, which makes up the vast majority of production at game start, is production by artisans. Artisan pops will – without any player input or control – pick a finished good to produce, buy an amount of raw materials for it, process them into that finished good and then sell that good. So for instance, artisans might turn timber into lumber (and then lumber into furniture), or dye and cotton into fabric and so on. Some goods have to go through multiple steps before hitting a finished good. Individual artisan pops are not very productive, but at game start there are a lot of them worldwide and so in the aggregate they produce most of the finished goods sloshing around the market in 1836 when the game starts.
Those goods then flow into two markets: first the ‘national’ market, where they can be bought either by the state (typically to maintain the navy or the army which absorb large amounts both of weapons but also food, clothes, etc.) or by the pops living in the state, then to the world market where they are available to other states and other state’s pops. The one quirk here we’ll come back to is that countries which are in the ‘sphere of influence’ of a great power all count as part of that great power’s national market, creating a big insulated pool of production and market demand. The game then dynamically simulates prices: goods that are scarce have their prices increase while goods that are overproduced drop in prices. Artisans, in theory (see below), shift in response to price signals, balancing the whole system. Pops that buy goods consume them and require more and so the system starts again.
And that’s not a terrible model of pre-industrial production. What players will immediately note at the game’s start is that the relatively low productivity of the artisans makes just about any processed good scarce, while the relatively low productivity of the farmers and laborers in the RGOs means that the artisan class remains relatively small. Consequently, at the very early game, it is very expensive to get even modest quantities of the things one needs to maintain an army or navy, which leaves most states feeling long on people and short on goods because they can’t even mobilize a fraction of their total population. Which is exactly correct as a description of the problems of pre-industrial mobilization too; the problem is that per capita productivity is low, leaving societies long on people (even at relatively low populations) but short on stuff.
This status quo doesn’t exist very long in the game (indeed, for Britain and Belgium, which began their industrial revolutions first, it is already eroding rapidly at game start), but it provides a really useful baseline for players to contextualize what’s about to happen. Because that world of artisans and farmers is going to be up-ended by…
But first, we have to lay out the technology system. Technological development is player directed, but rather than being a product of the monarch’s abilities (as in EU4 or CK3), the main thing that generates technological progress is the average literacy of your population, along with the proportion of the two main educated pop types, ‘clergy’ (who also represent state-employed or private-employed teachers) and ‘clerks’ (accountants, middle managers, etc.). Pops have to be literate to be either, and both also produce literacy among other pops, so the key determinant is literacy. To get ahead technologically, you must educate your country (and the player may choose to invest government funds in doing so).
Technology comes, I should note, in two forms – the actual technology the player chooses to research (which has its benefits and effects) and then a number of attached ‘inventions’ which have a random chance to happen (and apply their effects, which can be positive or negative) once the associated technology is researched. This will matter subsequently but for now I am going to refer to both as ‘technology’ generally even though that isn’t quite the game’s terminology.
The earliest technologies enable the construction of a new kind of production: factories. Factories turn raw materials into processed goods, just like artisans. Unlike artisans, they employ ‘craftsmen’ (a lower class pop; artisans are a middle class pop), produce only one kind of finished good, require lots of capital and resources to set up, but have the potential to be wildly more productive, especially as more technologies related to them are researched. Initially the advantage in productivity for factories is very modest and unlike artisans, they require expensive things like machine parts to maintain, but early factories producing the most basic goods (especially steel and concrete) can be modestly profitable if they can find a large workforce. Even the most basic factories employ ten thousand workers; each upgrade adds ten thousand more job slots.
Where do you get these workers? The technology screen has the answer to this too: a number of technologies substantially increase per-worker RGO output. As countries research those technologies and RGO production rises, the prices of raw goods fall, which causes RGOs (which split profits between workers and upper class ‘aristocrat’ pops) to pay workers less, which causes those workers to shift to being craftsmen if factory jobs are available. The segmentation of national and world market means that this process doesn’t happen quite evenly: the shift from farm to factory happens more rapidly in countries that are already industrializing because their home market floods first. That said, the other big impact here is literacy: literate peasants and miners are more aware of changing economic winds and so shift jobs more readily.
Over the course of the game, as the player moves down the technology tree, factory production receives more bonuses; artisans do not. These bonuses improve not only throughput (enabling a set number of craftsmen to process more raw materials into more final products) but also input and output – efficiency bonuses which enable the factory to use fewer inputs to produce more outputs. Moreover, a factory can employ a second pop-type, clerks (who require a robust education system to encourage) who can further improve factory efficiency. Consequently, as a country’s technology rises, factories can profitably operate at lower sale prices, eventually undercutting artisans and driving them out of producing certain commodities. Alternately, of course, even if a country isn’t industrializing, if other countries are, they’ll inflict this on everyone’s artisans via the world market.
As a teaching tool, the way technologies are structured in Victoria II has some real advantages over the way they function in EU4. A number of the major innovations of the industrial revolution are represented in the main technology categories. The ‘power’ technologies, for instance, go neatly from ‘Practical Steam Engine’ (which is clearly early atmospheric steam engines because they lead into), ‘High and Lower Pressure Steam Engines’ to ‘Steam Turbines’ and then in the very late 1800s ‘Combustion Engines.’ The ‘Commerce technology’ section includes a number of economic theories (Classical, Collectivist, Neoclassical, Keynesian) which are likely to make for useful wiki-walks.
But perhaps the neatest mechanic are inventions, bonuses which have a weighted chance to trigger after a core technology is developed. What makes these so interesting is that they are often weighted to multiple technologies, reflecting the ways that these different technologies and systems of social organization interact with each other. For instance the ‘Rifled Guns’ invention for ship artillery also relies on ‘Precision Work’ reflecting precision boring techniques for making barrels, which in turn relies on both the Mechanical Precision Saw and having researched Early Railroads along with the Mechanical Production technology. And that makes sense! One of the major technological interactions of the early industrial revolution was that artillery-makers wanted precision-boring machines to make uniform diameter barrels (that is, barrels of a consistent caliber). The thing is, a machine that can bore a precise artillery bore can also make very large, very precise cylinders for pistons. And indeed, one such steam engine designer, James Watt ended up working with John Wilkinson, a maker of artillery, to produce more efficient steam engines using a method of barrel boring with a lathe developed for cannon; one of Watt’s improved engines ended up power Wilkinson’s lathe. This all happened in Britain a bit before the start-date for Victoria II, but it provides a great example of the interrelation of these technologies. The industrial revolution wasn’t about one technology, but a complex of interacting technologies, each magnifying the impacts of the others. VickyII let’s the player actually see this happen as developing one new technology often reveals through ‘inventions’ sometimes surprising synergies with other technologies.
Now of course all of this is nifty but as mentioned, in VickyII as in EU4, the player plays as a state and, as we’ve discussed, the tendency of the player is thus to assess everything through the impacts those things have on the state itself. Here, the immediate, direct impacts of the industrial revolution are clear. At the beginning of any game, the actions the player (as a state) can take are generally very limited due to lack of funds and resources. State revenues generally start low, which makes ideal funding of administration, education and the military difficult (or impossible) to balance; even where funds exist, the goods may not and the early game is generally marked by a crunch in the availability of the basic goods used to fuel military activity (particularly small arms, canned food and ammunition). States buy from the world market in rank order and so if there aren’t enough goods to go around, not only do the prices go up, but lower ranked states may be forced to go without (which leads in turn to those states, generally smaller, non-western states, having to rely on the inferior ‘irregulars’ unit which requires only basic goods, over the superior ‘infantry’ or later ‘guards’ units which demand processed goods. We’ll talk more about the western/non-western dichotomy in the game in the last post). And raising taxes to pry those goods out of the world market can also backfire, since you are often competing with your own pops for those scarce goods; taxing them more (which reduces their money available to buy their own needs) while driving up the price of staples can tip them into insufficiency (and from there into either angry militancy or emigration, both of which are quite bad). Early on, for instance, building programs are heavily limited not by available cash, but by just getting sufficient steel, coal and concrete to actually build anything since there is only so much.
The industrial revolution radically alters these constraints. States that succeed in pioneering the industrial revolution rapidly find that successful factories produce a lot of revenue which can be quite heavily taxed without triggering revolt or mass emigration, while at the same time the availability of goods both increases and the prices drop as production methods improve. Things like nation-wide railroad networks, which would have seemed absurd in the first decade of the game, are quite affordable by midgame because of this. Assuming the player is careful in their management, they’ll also see living standards rise, even as their population increases, since production in industrial countries should more than outpace population growth (but see next week on military spending!).
The player thus experiences industrialization, assuming it is done successfully (see below) as a transition from poverty to riches which radically increases their freedom of action. Letting the player do more and see more things happening provides a fairly immediately satisfying feedback. That said…
All of this sounds great (and it is) but it comes with the relatively massive caveat which is that almost nothing in Victoria II quite works right. The gaming term for this is ‘jank’ – literally meaning ‘low quality’ but also describing games where their systems mostly work (a game that has ‘jank’ is generally not ‘unplayable’ – it runs and its systems can be navigated) but occasionally go wrong in non-game-ending ways. Victoria II‘s ambition is grand and its systems complex, but as a result it has a lot more jank than your average Paradox game (and Paradox games, especially in the Gen2 era, had a reputation for considerable jank). In this case, the most complex game systems regularly go a little wrong; since the economic model (particularly the World Market) is by far the most complex system, it goes wrong the most.
This is most notable in the fit the market pitches when a new game is started or a saved game loaded. I am not a software engineer, so I can’t really say what the problem here is, but on starting a new session, the game has to ‘find’ equilibrium prices for all of the market goods, which typically takes several ‘turns’ (each turn is a day). For large states with big budgets and revenues, these bumps are minor, but small states can swing wildly between economic bursts and crashes in just those few days as prices wildly recalibrate (and as artisans wildly shift production in the background).
The broader problem is that the world market’s system of price discovery also never quite works smoothly, which complicates another one of the game’s aspects: the choice of economic systems. Depending on which party is in control of the government of the player’s state (which in more autocratic states can be selected by the player; in democracies, the player is left to influence the will of the voters in a system that seems to be intentionally opaque and difficult to chart outcomes based on actions, so that the drawback of unpredictability balances democracy’s substantial upsides in happiness and migrant attraction), the player might have one of four different economic systems.
The most common of these is ‘Interventionism,’ typically favored by ‘conservative’ parties (each state has its own unique blend of political parties which might have different ideological alignments) under that system the state must rely on capitalist pops to build factories, but can freely expand or subsidize factories that exist. Laissez Faire systems, favored by ‘liberal’ parties blocks essentially all government intervention in the economy (and thus nearly all player control of the economy), but gives an important 5% output bonus to factories (note that 5% output bonus increases output by 5% without increasing inputs by the same, so this is an efficiency bonus); under this system, capitalists can build factories much more cheaply, so the private sector acts as a huge force multiplier in terms of expanding industry. On the other end, State Capitalism, favored by reactionary and fascist parties allows the player to do everything interventionism does, plus building the factories themselves; capitalist pops can still build factories on this setting, but they are substantially more expensive. Finally, under ‘Planned Economy,’ favored by socialist and communist parties, completely removes capitalists from the system, making the state responsible for all of the costs of running the economy (and gives a 5% throughput bonus which is strictly inferior to Laissez Faire’s bonus).
The clear intent here is for Laissez Faire economies to be relatively more flexible and efficient than their state-managed counterparts, with the downside that the state cannot direct production towards things the state wants but the market doesn’t, the obvious example being surplus weapon production (being a major arm’s producer is a huge help when the outbreak of war causes the need for arms to spike upward as everyone mobilizes). However, because Laissez Faire doesn’t allow industries to be state supported, it will only work if you actually are competitive which – as we’ll see in a moment – is only going to be true of well industrialized, high-literacy states. So for late-comers to the industrial revolution, the more planned economic systems can be beneficial; state capitalism and planned economy can both allow a government to ‘boot-strap’ its industries through early, unprofitable stages and to protect industry against market fluctuations.
The problem is that the combination of the janky world market prices and the often baffling failures of the capitalist AI in selecting what to produce where means that an actual player is wildly better at planning factories than capitalists under Laissez Faire. This is, to put it bluntly, not what happened historically. I won’t argue here that planned economies did not have some upsides, but the fairly clearly established drawback they had was an inability to rapidly adapt to changing market conditions.
(Note that systems of ‘social democracy’ are absolutely possible inside this system, through the ‘social reforms.’ You can absolutely have a Denmark-style social democratic state by having fairly high taxes and generous government social programs running on top of a ‘Laissez Faire’ or ‘Interventionist’ economy.)
What the game clearly seems to want is a system where planned economies make sense to jump-start early industrialization, but that successful states will gravitate to Laissez Faire, which ought to outperform the others in raw production once it gets rolling. Instead, skilled players will learn to manage sudden, intentionally triggered periodic shifts from liberal, laissez faire parties (because the bonuses are still powerful) to brief stints where reactionary or socialist parties are in power so that the player can clean up the incompetent mess of unprofitable factories the capitalists left and build a lot of very obvious factories (like steel mills in regions that produce both coal and iron, etc.). That seems fairly clearly an unintended outcome. As we’re going to see in just a moment, the game absolutely has its critique of capitalism, but assuming that capitalists are just generally worse at business than governments isn’t it. For one, when the game was actively being patched, repeated efforts were made to improve capitalist decision-making (with only limited success). Moreover, it would be an a-historical outcome, given that capitalist market economies (notably the USA and Britain) are quite well represented among the historical economic ‘winners’ of the period (1836-1936).
But I said this game has a critique of capitalism, so let’s get to…
Perhaps the area where VickyII sets itself most apart is in its willingness to embed unforseen (at least to the first time player) consequences in all of these systems. So far, after all, I have been presenting industrialization in the game as a completely positive thing: more goods, more money, more population, more security, more everything. And in a great many other games featuring building and industrialization that is precisely what you get. Compare factory-games like Factorio and Satisfactory, where you plant assembly lines in what is effectively empty green-field settlement (plus or minus hostile alien wildlife): at most negative externalities are limited to ‘polution’ in some abstract form. There is no human cost because there are no humans. Or, alternately, look at how the same transition is handled by the Civilization series: researching ‘industrialization’ enables various kinds of factories and power plants which create production (‘gears’) with no negative impacts at all. You just get more stuff. Building enough factories opens the choice to adopt communism through the ‘class struggle’ civic, but you don’t have to and there aren’t any negative impacts for doing so. It’s all benefits.
By contrast, VickyII‘s mechanics and systems attempt to simulate both the social and political disruption of industrialization. While industrialization as a whole is still presented positively (a view with which I concur! I rather like modern industrial technology which makes things like mass-produced electronics possible) the game wraps all of these systems in unintended consequences. That’s actually an extraordinarily interesting game design decision which runs against quite a lot of industry consensus: consequences in game design are often supposed to be directly foreseeable based on player action. But consequences in history are often unintended and VickyII in some ways relishes in this fact. Let me get specific here and talk about what I mean, starting with the implications for industrialization on pops.
Remember? This is a game about pops. And that’s where this system starts to shine because it can create situations where major changes have positive and negative impacts on different people because those different groups are simulated, which can in turn cause these changes to have both positive and negative effects on states. Let’s walk through some of them.
As countries research new industrial technologies, as I mentioned, the productive capacity of the RGOs that each province has increases, without a matching demand for more workers. Some of these increases are very large (one innovation – representing tractors – increases farm production by 50% on its own), as they spread, they cause the value of RGO products to drop compared to the final products (you can actually see this in the trade tabs I screen-shotted above). You, the industrialist, hope this will push those farmers into factories, but that only works if there are factories to go which can hire, especially because while the demand for, say, farmers is decreasing, the population is increasing. Moreover, those shifts are disruptive; as price of basic products drops the income of farmers and laborers drops with it, which makes it harder for them to get their basic needs (some of which are processed goods whose prices are not dropping at the same rate). Moreover, their own basic needs increase with technology too – slower than production, but remember while their production is going up, their wages are going down or stagnant. Meanwhile, ‘aristocrat’ pops, which own the RGOs, likewise may see their income fall or stagnate as a group (even while capitalist pops, fat off of their factories, are driving up the prices of goods both groups compete for). Meanwhile, of course the biggest ‘losers’ from industrialization are your artisans, who are being steadily competed out of their jobs and become stuck in situations where they cannot buy the raw materials to produce finished products. Initially they’ll retreat into complex goods you don’t have factories for, but one by one those options will be lost as technology advances. Eventually they’ll demote to a different class (typically into the lower class, though if they are literate they may move laterally into being clerks), but obviously they are going to be upset by this process of impoverishment.
As pops get upset they gain ‘militancy’ – a statistic that reflects how bothered they are by the status quo. Militancy is, for the most part, a bad thing and this directs the player’s eye back down to the pops. Unlike in EU4, where the player, implementing policies that were good for the state but bad for people often had little feedback on this harsh reality, in VickyII, militancy is the direct feedback. The game’s population windows directly note pops who are not having their needs met. High militancy, among other effects, pushes out-migration which, because that means losing pops and pops are the most important resource, is to be avoided at all costs. Consequently, the player is made very aware of the negative impacts industrialization is having on their people; those impacts have real consequences for the state.
Meanwhile, you are pushing education too, trying to get a large block of literate citizens, because literate citizens more readily switch jobs to being craftsmen or clerks, who you need for your factories and they also produce faster technological advancement. But literate pops also gain ‘consciousness’ – a statistic reflecting how politically aware pops are. All pops have a set of ideological views (which can change over time), but low consciousness pops are generally both less bothered by a government that isn’t doing what they want (because they aren’t aware of it) and less active in pushing the party that matches their ideological preferences (because they’re not politically active). But pushing literacy unavoidably means raising consciousness. And, to be fair, consciousness can be a good thing for you – if your pops want to implement the same reforms you do, consciousness helps you overcome the old aristocracy which is invariably reactionary and already very politically engaged.
But the impact of consciousness is heavily dependent on what the pops in question want (and how able you are to deliver it)! High consciousness pops who find that the government doesn’t reflect their views begin to develop militancy if they cannot effect reform. This can be very tricky if the view that those pops have is that they are a subject people in an empire who deserve to be free! Consequently, for large, multi-ethnic empires, high literacy can actually be dangerous. On the flip side, consciousness among the new industrial classes – craftsmen, clerks, capitalists – will push them to demand liberal or socialist governments that accord with their views (generally), which is fine if you want to go that way, but if you intended to maintain an old fashioned style of government (or a more extreme one!), those pops will start to get angry. On the flip, flip side, remember that industrialization has produced a whole lot of angry farmers and laborers whose jobs have vanished, alongside a smaller number of upset aristocrats. These can easily build in militancy and coalesce into a reactionary movement if their consciousness is allowed to rise.
Consequently, the game presents a situation where, at game-start, much of Europe (and the world) still has a fairly stable social system: high consciousness conservative aristocrats and low-consciousness conservative peasants. But as a state industrializes (and it must, for reasons we’ll get into in just a moment) it disrupts that stable balance, leading to rapid social change. The good news is that productive, wealthy states can manage this transition, enacting reforms (either political reforms to deliver actual freedom or a Bismarck-compromise of social programs without political reform) to transition into efficient, industrial countries where the steady flow of goods and state benefits (combined with fairly low taxation because factories throw off so much money) keep everyone happy through the transition.
But that’s not going to happen for everyone.
So far we’ve been looking at this from the perspective of a state at the forward leading edge of industrialization, but what about everyone else? For states that begin with lower literacy rates and less favorable economic situations, the way forward is a mine-field. Simply refusing to industrialize can maintain the stable social fabric in the short term, but in the long term the decline of raw material prices will immiserate your pops, while stagnant state revenues will fall behind militarily with disasterous effects (recall the interstate anarchy of our EU4 series). Leaping forward through industrialization can work, but only if you actually get to the pot of gold on the other side of the rianbow. But what can equally happen is a country becomes trapped; it has partially industrialized and built the initial, foundational factories making first stage raw goods (mainly steel and concrete, the demand for which remains very high throughout the game). But moving to more complex goods means competing with other economic powers who (due to their higher literacy) have more economic tech than you do, which means they have more efficient factories than you do. Your entry into the market depresses the price and you promptly price yourself out; the factory closes and the people riot. Obviously you must improve literacy, but that means increasing consciousness, with all of its perils.
The result is a ‘middle income trap‘ of sorts. But the stagnation often pushes a state into more violent politics as militancy rises. High militancy can push pops to migrate out of a country, but it can also push them to revolt. While these revolts are often easily managed militarily (an event chain causes the 1848 ‘Springtime of Nations’ to occur on schedule in each game, but badly managed countries often see this as the beginning of long periods of instability), crackdowns damage the very resources (pops and factories, the latter close when a province is occupied, for instance by a revolutionary army) that you need to advance. Meanwhile, high militancy pops that aren’t of the core culture of the state might, instead of demanding political reforms, demand freedom and begin petitioning outside powers to try to get it, either in a war or a conference. Consequently, while industrialization is good for the ‘winners,’ it can also trap less successful states in the abyss of perpetual violence and revolution that gapes between the stagnant, stable pre-modern social structure and the modern industrial societies. As we’ll see next time, the game is perfectly willing to measure that abyss of revolutionary violence in blood and every dead pop weakens a country. Meanwhile, countries that don’t industrialize at all remain internally stable, but become weaker, and weaker, and weaker.
Those unintended cross-pollination of technology now has its impacts too. One category of technology is ‘political thought’ – each level of this increases the number of national foci (which you can use to encourage a certain kind of industry, or job type, or push colonization, etc.) you can have, reflecting a government that is able to do more. But the later levels have some surprises hidden in their inventions. While ‘Nationalism and Imperialism’ will improve your troop morale and reduce war exhaustion (and so is necessary to keep pace militarily), it also substantially boosts separatism and nationalist rebel organization. The subsequent technology, ‘Revolution and Counterrevolution’ opens up much more dangerous revolutionary movements. Suddenly militant pops aren’t turning into relatively harmless (or even modestly helpful) liberals and socialists, but into positively dangerous fascists, communists and violent anarchists (the last bizarrely named ‘anarcho-liberals’ but who clearly represent the anarchist bomb-throwers of the period). Just as there are hidden bombs lurking in the economic technologies, so too there are hidden bombs in the cultural technologies – the unexpected consequences of trying to harness popular movements for state ends.
So while on the one hand, VickyII clearly presents industrialization as good on the whole in the long term, in the short term, it does not shy away from the idea that these processes hurt some people, and break some nations. This is a welcome level of nuance compared to EU4‘s ‘state power good’ framework and it comes out of the game’s focus on pops. A player that relentlessly focuses on short-term state power at the expense of their pops will ruin their nation in the long run. Put bluntly, Victoria II presents industrialization much like the proverbial ‘powerful servant, dangerous master‘ even before we get to its impact on conflict (which we’ll get to next week).
This is actually, I think, a brilliant bit of design. Students often find the halting, two steps forward, one-step back industrial and political policies of places like Austria, Russia and China in this period utterly baffling. Looking from the safety of modernity they ask, “why couldn’t these fellows have seen that the factory and the ballot were the way of the future and go that way?” One of the great virtues of the simulation here – much as EU4 presents the same problems for war and peace in a system of interstate anarchy – is that VickyII provides the answers to that question with the power of a simulation. One merely need to play a game as Austria or Russia (especially as a new player who doesn’t have mastery of all of the systems) and watch as your state shreds itself under the pressures of nationalism and industrialization (as both states did historically) to immediately understand why so many of their leaders attempted to ‘stand athwart history, yelling stop!’ You see, as they saw, the abyss – and also feel the same pressures they felt which impelled them towards it.
National Success Sequence
There is, I think, one more thing Victoria II wants to say about the industrial revolution, which is that the game mechanics clearly suggest a ‘success sequence’ of sorts, a set of tactics and processes that a player can use (assuming they manage militancy well) to pull off the transition from pre-industrial to industrial country. Countries that succeed avoid ruinous wars, build literacy aggressively from the beginning, wait to industrialize until they have a literate population which can compete globally. While state funds may then jumpstart industrialization, excessive subsidies are to be avoided – you need factories which can actually compete globally. Finally, you want to either be a great power with your own Sphere of Influence (which functions as a jumbo-sized national market) or a secondary power inside of a large Sphere of Influence. Either will actually do. Use political and social reforms (whatever you can get your political class to tolerate) to keep militancy low. Finally, anything and everything that encourages pop growth and discourages emigration is important; your people are the most important resource. Since social reforms to the former and political reforms the latter, these are valuable as ends unto themselves.
The success of this sort of open-societies, open-markets approach to fostering national economic growth is of course not without its critics, but it certainly does accord with prominent strains in the literature. As noted, the game is also open to a more state capitalist approach where the state takes an active role in the economy and provides social services to keep the peace (roughly mirroring the trajectory of Germany in the late 1800s) as well as a full planned economy (roughly matching the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialization in the last decade the game covers), but these are mostly minor variations on the standard success sequence; literacy, factories, etc. are still required.
Of course that success sequence also embeds some values. VickyII‘s mechanics fairly clearly prize dynamic, industrial and free societies over static, pre-industrial, closed societies. On this last point it is worth noting that the political reforms mostly lack explicit drawbacks for a state intending to move towards liberal democracy (social or otherwise). The social reforms are more of a mixed group; health care, unemployment subsidies, public school system are all clearly more than worth the cost is nearly all situations. Minimum wages and safety regulations have to be introduced with care as they can push factories into the red, but in the long run benefits outweigh costs. Maximum work hours, with its factory throughput malus is the only truly ‘situational’ reform from a mechanics perspective. Consequently, I’d argue the game also presents shifting towards liberal social democracy as the desirable path.
Those values are baked into the mechanics but they represent a theory of history which views the movement towards modern post-industrial economic systems along with modern liberal social democracy as ‘progress’ – a clear movement from systems which were ‘outdated’ (that is, both ‘older’ but also ‘worse’) to systems which are ‘modern.’ The general term for that historical view is ‘whig history,’ a vision of history which imagines it as a progression from a bad, dark past to a current, enlightened, superior (and perhaps perfected) present. The phrase is often pejorative, a critique that the historian is assuming the end-point of a process whose final end is as yet unknown (and indeed, a process which may not have a single final destination as such) and moreover accepting as obviously good systems of value and organization on the value of which people may and do disagree. On the other hand, there are few historians who, if pressed would admit to pining for serfdom or the return of polio.
The deeper problem with ‘whig’ formulations of history is the general sense of determinism; not that conditions are shown to be better now than they were then, but rather the assertion that history must move inevitably towards this current point. The neat phrase for this trap of thinking is that it is ‘teleological’ from the Greek telos (τέλος) meaning an decisive or final point. It is the trap of assuming that because this is where we ended up, this is where we must have ended up. And VickyII‘s vision of industrial change is, in fact, teleological in that sense – there are only so many technologies, you will research most of them and they lead this set of systems, quite inevitably to this particular conclusion. As with EU4, the sense of inevitability is strengthened by the persuasive power of the simulation. And precisely because VickyII is a Gen2 Paradox game, with a greater degree of historical railroading, the end-point is relatively more fixed, making it feel like the historical end-point was the only possible end-point, which it wasn’t.
Though, to be frank, I have trouble imagining how this particular game could avoid some of those traps, given its time frame. It’s not clear to me how, by 1836, the genie-in-the-steam-engine could be put back in its cylinder, short of some sort of vast catastrophe consuming much of the globe. Consequently, I am inclined to pardon VickyII a lot of its teleological nature (far more, for instance, than EU4, but EU4 is mercifully less railroaded) given how short its time-scale is. By 1836, the broad outlines of what was to come (that is, industrialization and the new imperialism, but not particular events more narrow than that) seem to me to have been substantially baked in by the combination of the establishment of Europe’s colonial empires over the previous three centuries, the economic developments in Britain going back decades and finally the legacy of the American and French revolutions. There was a lot of space for variation within that framework (and there is in the game, just look at the Austria screenshots), but many of the factors which shaped the rest of the century were already active. I hope that Victoria III will be a bit more open and a bit less teleological in this regard, but that seems a tall order for a game such as this.
At the same time, I appreciate that VickyII is willing to demand the player think about what these momentous changes meant for actual people and to grapple with the idea that these changes did not always leave people better off.
Next time, we’re going to turn and look at what all of this industrialization means for how Victoria II treats war, which I think even more than the industrialization system itself is perhaps the crowing achievement of the game’s historical vision.
Published by Bret Devereaux
[ comments ]