That's the conversation that occurred when I told a friend that I was reviewing Victoria II, the Grand Strategy sequel from Paradox to 2003's Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun. The good news for hardcore Grand Strategy players is Victoria II is a massive improvement over the original. The bad news for everyone else is that it's a massively in depth title which could leave it inaccessible to the casual strategy fan. However, stick with it and Victoria II provides an extremely satisfying experience... and yes, yes you can impose virtual colonial oppression.
In Victoria II, you to take control of a state in 1836 with the ultimate aim of securing a place amongst the Great Powers at the end of the games one hundred year time frame.
Of course, this isn't going to be a simple task, with the balance of power in the Grand Theatre of Europe, War in the Americas, unrest in the Empires, industrialisation, political uprisings and keeping your population content just some of the issues that stand in the way. Essentially, Victoria II gives you the chance to change history. Want to turn Belgium into the world's greatest power? You can try, although it won't be easy.
Thankfully there's a series of tutorials (and a 108 page manual!) to explain the very basics of Victoria II for the beginner. Essentially, the basic goal is to increase the prestige of your chosen nation through industrialisation, military might, political decision making and in some instances, specific goals. For example, playing as a state on the Italian Peninsula will present you with the goal of unifying all of Italy. Achieve this and Victoria II will hand you a bag full of prestige points. Alas, you don't get any extra points if you achieve it before 1871.
Of course, warfare is an essential part of any strategy game, and in the volatile world of the 19th century wars happen a lot. However, you can't just go marching your troops into neighbours territory without reason - before declaring war you need to set war goals. These can range from the relatively honourable ‘Free People' to the purely power driven ‘Conquest.' Achieve your war goals and you'll see your prestige raised, fail and prestige drops. Win or lose, declaring war raises your nations infamy and Great Powers don't appreciate the rise of an aggressive nation.
I discovered this to my detriment while playing as Sardina-Piedmont, my infamy rating had slowly risen over the years thanks to annexing smaller Italian States, Morocco (there's the colonial oppression) and the Italian populated area of Lombardy from Austria. These exploits, combined with some prestige increasing research areas and political decisions eventually raised Sardina-Piedmont to Great Power status. Unfortunately, my infamy score meant that almost every other Great Power - included the UK, France, The Ottoman Empire and Prussia, declared war to ‘contain' Sardina-Piedmontian aggression. The results were not pretty. Perhaps if the Infamy score hadn't been hidden in the Diplomacy menus, I would have been less gung ho.
This occurred many, many hours into the game and yet I was still learning things through trial and error. If you're new to Grand Strategy, you may want to play a couple of ‘trial run' games of Victoria II in order to find your feet.
Outside of warfare, industrialisation and politics also provide the player with interesting challenges and especially so later on in the game. Do you oppress Liberal uprisings or let them continue? When do you allow free and open elections? And what do you say to voters in the run up to polling day? Almost every political decision you make has repercussions that could be felt immediately, or make come back to haunt you years later. Sometimes it seems that revolts take place a bit too often after around 1860, but you could argue that this is an attempt by Paradox to mirror the revolutionary feelings that were reverberating throughout Europe at the time.
Unlike its predecessor, Victoria II isn't subject to historical determinants - or to put it another way, you're not being forced to play history as if it's straight from a textbook. For example, the wars of Italian Unification won't just start because that's the year they did in the real world: Victoria II allows the choices made by both your state and others in the world to change history. You'll see states that have never actually existed (For example, my very own Piedmontian Morocco) appear on the world map, while fictional wars between Great Powers are quite common. If the history of my game of Victoria II were true, Russia invaded North West England in the 1850's.
This unpredictability, combined with the amount of decisions and possible scenarios that could occur, make Victoria II an utterly addictive experience. Can I walk into Parma unopposed? Will I suffer the wrath of Austria if send troops into Tuscany? How can I take the Two Scillies? I asked all of these questions while playing Victoria II. I even dreamed about possible decisions in the game. I enjoyed learning about the theatre of Europe while doing my A Levels, but dreaming about it was something that didn't happen!
When something can have that much influence over your mind, it has to be good.) Victoria II goes to show that even if this day and age, a game doesn't have to look good to play well. (It had to be mentioned somewhere that it looks very basic indeed)
Victoria II is an excellent Grand Strategy game, and highly recommended for veterans of the genre. The more casual strategy fan may have to put many, many hours into Victoria II before getting a real grasp of how the game works, but the experience is ultimately worth it. Essentially, if you enjoy history and you enjoy strategy games you should definitely look into Victoria II.
Now someone be a good chap and bring me some port, I've got a state to run.