Play the game of nation-building

victoria4We’re busy nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, but do we understand how nations are built?

While researching an article on the computer simulations used by the U.S. military to model irregular warfare, I was dismayed to discover that the U.S. doesn’t have any. Simulations that teach our troops how to fight off hordes of Soviet tanks? Not a problem. Computer models on how to win Iraqi hearts and minds so Ibrahim the Insurgent doesn’t plant an IED where a Marine patrol will be walking the next day? That’s a problem.

Strangely, I’ve been learning a lot from playing a six-year-old computer game. Victoria is a strategy game set during the Age of Imperialism. You control one of the major powers like Britain, Russia or the United States, or small nations like Ecuador and Greece.

Victoria is less a game of nation-building than of the game of nations. But it’s pretty much the same thing. You can’t become a major power unless you build up your nation, and that’s where Victoria shines. It’s a model, a peak behind the curtain and a look into the window that shows how a nation functions politically and economically.

There’s a lot going on under Vicky’s dress. Every nation is divided into provinces, each with a mixture of ethnic groups that work in factories or produce goods. How productive each group will be depends on how tolerant society is (Italian workers in Venetia aren’t happy working for their German-speaking Austrian masters), and whether they are granted full citizenship.

Your citizens produce a variety of raw materials, from coal to cotton to fertilizer. They can be exported or used in factories to produce finished goods like clothes, furniture and weapons. Every nation also requires imports, either to create finished goods (France can’t produce fancy furniture without that nice wood from Southeast Asia), or as luxuries for the masses (got to have that morning cup of coffee from Africa).

If this all sounds like dull Economics 101, it’s not. Victoria is a frantic simulation of how nations go broke. Money is the name of the game. As President/Prime Minister/Exalted  Puba of Pubas, you can raise money through taxes (the game divides populations into poor, middle-class and rich), exports, and tariffs on imported luxuries. Soak the poor if you like, but be warned that populations will revolt and stick your head on a pike.

Victoria’s political system is a game in itself. Nations have multiple parties, each of which have various stances on free trade, defense spending, free religion, and the degree to which the state can intervene in the economy. Complicating matters is there a plethora of population groups, including farmers, craftsmen, aristocrafts, clergymen and capitalists. Every group has different hot-button issues, so whatever you do inevitably antagonizes someone. Cutting military expenditures might please the workers but antagonize the aristocrats, while raising taxes to pay for social spending and education might win the hearts of the masses, but not the capitalists.

Of course, governments can change, which brings up the reform issue. Nations can have four kinds of voting rights, from none at all to universal suffrage,  as well as a free press and trade unions. You can give everyone the vote in Tsarist Russia, but it’s going to be awfully expensive.

Victoria is more of a model than a game, and like all models, it makes assumptions. As an American, it’s really interesting to see the assumptions made by Paradox, the Swedish game publisher of Victoria (and the expansion, Victoria Revolutions). If taxes and tariffs are low, then capitalists will use their accumulated funds to build factories and railroads on their own (the Reagan-esque unseen hand of the market). But that doesn’t mean they’ll build what you want, when you want. If a radical political party takes power, then the economic system switches to a planned economy that lets you build the steel factory you need. Have fun paying for it.

I won’t delve into the military part of the game. Like any computer strategy game, there is a conquer-the-world aspect to it. But if you’re playing the Kingdom of Hawaii, you’re not likely to conquer anything than a neighboring rock in the Pacific. War is almost tedious after struggling to keep your nation from bankruptcy or civil disorder. Let’s just say that mobilizing your workforce for war isn’t good for the economy, and you realize why European kings tended to lose wars in the treasury rather than on the battlefield.

Victoria isn’t an easy game. The learning curve is fierce and the graphics drab. It’s a cerebral simulation at a time when most games are eye-candy and body counts. But it beautifully teaches the lesson of cause-and-effect. Every decision has repercussions. Every group has its own agenda. Every policy you make will please one group and infuriate another. It’s the lesson of Victoria. It’s the story of Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s buy a copy for the White House.

Curious about Victoria? Check out the VickyWicki

This entry was posted in Defense, Foreign Affairs, War and Peace, World and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Play the game of nation-building

  1. Jeff Hoard says:

    Sounds interesting, I was actually a huge fan of Sid Miers Civilization growing up, I’ve played with every edition and look forward to what the next evolution of the game is. If you like Nation Building games certainly check it out.

  2. Neal Ungerleider says:

    Sounds like a nation-managing version of SimCity. Interesting.

  3. Michael Peck says:

    I’d actually rate Victoria’s economic and political modeling as superior to the Civ series. However, I much prefer turn-based games to real-time-strategy games twitchfests that don’t simulate anything more than how fast your wrist moves. Unfortunately, Paradox chose to make Victoria an RTS. The perfect nation-building sim would have Victoria’s modeling and Civ 4’s turn-based system and cool graphics.

  4. Michael Hastings says:

    Bummer to hear that it’s RTS, as I like the turn based games myself. But it sounds like a pretty good game nonetheless.

    • Michael Peck says:

      Victoria is pausable real time, and you can also set the game speed. That’s not so bad for the economic part of the game, but it’s a pain to control your troops during war.

      The best game system is turn-based We-Go, where all the players plot their moves, and then the computer executes them simultaneously. So no one gets an advantage because they twitched first, and you don’t have the problem in turn-based games of who goes first. We-Go is used by hard-core computer wargames like War in the Pacific or Combat Mission.

  5. layla says:

    Why stop with buying a copy for the White House? This kind of game should be used in our schools, so kids get an idea of what is really involved in the workings of countries. What a great way to educate informed future voters, who may then be less likely to fall prey to populism or inflated promises on the part of politicians.

    Heck, maybe we adult nongamers should learn to play it!

  6. unkas says:

    Hello, please let my suggest that you also write a review about the new geo-political simulation – it is a very interesting and realistic game.

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