Victoria II - The 19th Century Done Right
Paradox Interactive have a certain DNA to them that make them instantly recognizable. The top-down map view is just as you can see it in Hearts of Iron or Europa Universalis III. You play as one of the states that existed in 1836, or 1861 with the A House Divided expansion. There are no win conditions in Victoria II, but as with all of these types of strategy games the ultimate goal is world domination.
This might be the most complex and detailed release from Paradox. The game includes a tech tree, election simulations, political movements and suppression, reform decisions, industrialization, economic management, trade policies, military composition, battles, military leadership traits, and dozens of event decisions. I am not sure it is possible to communicate all of the different aspects of the game effectively without a Quick Look.
Nations are ranked and the top eight are referred to as Great Powers. Great Powers have diplomatic powers beyond secondary powers, and can create spheres of influence and intervene in conflicts. Rankings are determined by three fields, military, industry and prestige. Military scores are simply a total of your military assets (army and navy). Industry is calculated through the total number and size of factories in your provinces. Prestige is somewhat vague. Prestige, for lack of a better term, comes from glory - victories in war, increasing your sphere of influence, undertaking expeditions, making new discoveries and building colonies.
I applaud Paradox's ambitious, complicated and detailed game design. Trying to recapture the spirit of the 19th century and the form of statecraft of the period is very difficult, but the competing forces of ideology, nationalism, reform and diplomacy are well represented in this game. I have always been fascinated by that era's history and feel this is remarkably authentic.
This complexity comes at a price. The game has a very steep learning curve. Even after over 40 hours of game play I hardly feel like I am "good" at the underlying mechanics. The tutorial is insufficient to help one learn the critical skills. Going online and visiting the wikis and forums discussing basic strategies will be far more helpful. Combat is particularly difficult. Improved army composition helps, but sometimes you'll find yourself with superior numbers and comparable (or superior) tech falling back.
The win condition of the game, becoming the number one Great Power, is incredibly difficult unless you're playing at Great Britain. As with our actual history the British Empire was preeminent after the Napoleonic Wars, therefore unseating that particular behemoth is very difficult, though not impossible. That's perhaps a weakness of Victoria II, it can often not feel very "gamey". It is not always possible to engage in the "power fantasy" idea and rule the world, stretching across it as a behemoth when you start playing as Denmark. Even the other Great Powers at the start of the game face a great deal of difficulty. It's that challenge that makes the game enjoyable. When you win a war, establish a new colony or sneak up the rankings a slot or two you gain a real feeling of accomplishment.
Despite all of the strengths of Paradox's initial release of Victoria II: A House Divided, one of the best features is the active mod community. I personally recommend A Population Divided. This mod adds more historical events, expands the reform system and generally tweaks the game for a smoother and more refined game experience. The tech tree can feel imbalanced and some techs seem far less valuable than others, which is also corrected.
Overall, this is a superb strategy game. Though at times it feels monstrously difficult it has so many systems worth exploring and divergent paths to take that players will find something new to do each time.