Next to Hearts of Iron, the Victoria series is the Paradox Interactive grand strategy title I have the least experience with. There are a couple of things that have contributed to this, but the most influential one is my declining interest in historical periods as they get closer to the 20th century.
I've been seeking new challenges recently, though, and after Paradox announced a new expansion to Victoria II, Heart of Darkness, I decided to spend more time with the complex political and economic simulator. I'm glad that I did, because it's really got its hooks in me now.
With the Heart of Darkness' release drawing ever closer, I had a chat with designer David Ballantyne to get the skinny on the latest expansion.
Heart of Darkness will add a slew of new features to Victoria II, and some pretty significant changes. "The major changes in the expansion Heart of Darkness include the Crisis system, all new naval combat, a new Colonial system, and the Newspaper system," explained David. "We've also revised land combat somewhat, and tweaked and polished various aspects of the game that we felt could use it to improve the gameplay."
Newspapers are a curious new feature, providing easier-to-digest information, along with national opinion. There are over 60 newspapers in the game, many of them historical, and they sometimes reflect the ideologies of the nations they are published in.
I asked David what practical applications the publications have. "Past newspapers are saved, so they give you an easy way to review past events in your game. The Newspaper system in Heart of Darkness keep track of all the events happening in the game and will periodically publish a one-page newspaper article that you can read by clicking the Newspaper button. It lists things like wars, peace treaties, battles your nation has fought in, large price change in the World Market, game events, news about Crises, etc.
"The articles about who AI nations are seeking to befriend or who they are afraid of give you some insight into the AI nation's thinking in your games too. So you might read about how one of your neighbours is afraid of your large army, or that France is getting friendly with Spain."
Changes in ideologies are reflected somewhat in certain national newspapers, David reveals. "Many of the larger nations have multiple newspapers to cover different ruling party ideologies, and some article types also have changing tone." This is particular to certain nations, however, and most will not. "An example of one that does is a Communist nation's paper will publish a favourable story when Communist rebels take over another nation and install a Communist government."
Colonization has always been an important aspect of the Victoria series, but Heart of Darkness puts even more emphasis on it, fleshing it out as colonial powers compete for control over Africa. The new system makes it less likely for a power to gain a colonial monopoly, though I wondered if that would make building an overseas empire less challenging.
"Not really. While you'll get a basic amount of Colonial Points from naval technologies, you really need a decently-sized navy and naval bases," David clarified. "Without that you may be able to grab an uncontested area, but any actual naval power is going to be able to out-spend you in a bidding war for the colony."
The bidding system also preserves the sense of conflict and competition. "If another nation is trying to colonize the same area as you it becomes a matter of having to decide how many points you are willing to our in to out-bid them in the colonial race.
You get them back if you win, lose, or withdraw, but in the meantime your other rivals may be snapping up prime locations uncontested. Added to that, being in colonial contention makes it easier for nations to fabricate war justifications on each other, and a long enough bidding war may result in a Crisis, so you need to decide which areas are worth fighting over -- both in colonial points and with actual troops."
The modern view of the rampant colonialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries is an extremely negative one, with Western nations being seen as exploitative villains. Paradox is avoiding such anachronistic judgements in Heart of Darkness, however. "[I]t's too modern a viewpoint. In-game, the race for colonies is seen in an entirely positive light. With the colonization system, we have decided to take the angle of the European powers sitting in drawing rooms in Europe drawing arbitrary lines on the maps."
Without a strong navy, colonial hopes will be dashed against the rocks. With that in mind, and after requests from the playerbase, Paradox has significantly overhauled the naval system. Naval bases have been limited, so dreadnoughts can no longer be spammed, and they will have a significant impact on colony points, which David talked me through.
"Naval supply is a value based on the number and size of naval bases you have, and it affects how large a navy you can maintain without penalty. Colonial points are generated both by your naval bases and your active ships, so a higher level of naval supply allows more ships which equals more colonial points."
Naval combat has also seen some, hopefully, welcome changes. "The main change with the new combat system is small ships become a lot more important once torpedoes are invented, both to torpedo your rival's ships and to prevent the same being done to yours. It also makes certain technologies more interesting, as they can make your ships faster or fire from longer range which has a direct effect on combat now."
Out of all the new features, it is the Crisis system that intrigues me the most, as it encourages the sort of global thinking that was just starting to take root during this period. "The Crisis system adds a new source of conflict to the game. You could have things fairly under control and just be cruising along, when suddenly a flashpoint turns into a crisis and you need to deal with it. It also adds a new way to expand as a minor nation. Someone else owns your core provinces? Make friends with a great power, drum up some tensions, and hopefully get you land back in the resulting crisis." It's great to see minor nations being given more options, as they often end up becoming a bit boring due to the limits of their military and naval power.
One does not have to participate in a crisis event, though certain factors may mean that sitting on the fence will have a negative impact on your nation. "It depends if it's local to you or not. Great powers are expected to get involved in any crisis on their capital's continent, if they don't they take a hit to their prestige. If a crisis happens overseas they can ignore it with no penalty, or get involved if they want."
David pointed out that the Flashpoints -- areas where one nation holds a core province of another nation -- will be dynamic, but they will also be based on historical scenarios. He gave an example of the Ottoman Empire's control over the Balkans. "[T]ake the Ottoman empire, they historically start off owning a lot of the Balkans, which contains several flashpoints, but if you manage to keep all your Balkan subjects either pleased with your rule or totally suppressed these flashpoints never amount to anything. Or you could take your Ottoman Empire and make it so powerful that none of the other nations want to support any of your rebellious subjects."
On top of the major new additions, Paradox has tweaked the AI in Heart of Darkness in the hope of providing players with a more challenging experience. "It's now a lot better about launching overseas invasions, picking who to attack and what war goals to add, how it manages its economy, and who it adds to its sphere of influence." I am, quite frankly, still pretty awful at playing Victoria II, so no doubt the AI will give me a proper run for my money in Heart of Darkness.
The new naval elements reminded me a bit of Hearts of Iron III, so I asked David if there were any other Paradox titles that inspired parts of Heart of Darkness other than the World War II simulator. It turns out that Crusader Kings II had an impact.
"Crusader Kings II has a great system of ticking warscore. Victoria II: Heart of Darkness takes this idea and adapts it to Victoria II's multiple wargoal system, so you can have multiple goals in a given war and gain ticking warscore from those you have fulfilled." It seems like most of Paradox's grand strategy titles are taking at least some cues from CKII, which is a good move, seeing as it's been their best-received title.
Victoria II: Heart of Darkness will be launching on PC soon, so keep an eye out for it.