*This review is for the full collection.*
It's a slow and number-filled grand strategy game for the most patient of players with an interest in the time period (1836-1936). Same as other Paradox games, it's real-time but you'd be mad to play it without frequently pausing unless you already know what you're doing. Every Paradox game can be said to specialize in one aspect or another of grand strategy. Victoria II does politcs and technology best, but other aspects are generally well-done too.
The period is a time of great powers flexing their muscle across the globe, vying for influence, territory and resources, and not usually through war but through diplomatic influence, alliances and colonization. Great powers ingame have special mechanics that allow them to add lesser counties to their Sphere of influence, giving them first dibs on resources and safety from invasion. That's not to say other countries are not worth playing, but the couple dozen of countries that have potential to be GPs have more flavor to them and really have disproportionate power thanks to a variety of bonuses that GPs enjoy. Much of the dynamic of the game comes not from painting the map (which is harder to do than other Paradox games if you stick to the recommended level of Infamy) but rather from trying to overtake other countries in Prestige, Industrial Power and Military Power for that coveted GP status.
This is where the technology system helps even the odds for some countries, and it is good. Every technology has juicy bonuses as well as possible inventions (which have a chance of occurring each month), which means that every tech brings big progress, giving you lots of freedom to focus on whatever playstyle you want, and making sure there is a great sense of progress all throughout the game. In fact, that sense of progress is done extremely well as different eras go by. You'll see armies and navies becoming faster, population increasing rapidly, industrialization progressing at an exponential rate, and battles becoming ever more bloody and longer, with an emphasis on defense. The scramble for Africa takes place in the 1870s and there's a couple of points where you will need to reorganize and rethink your army composition to account for the new nature of warfare, including new unit types.
The combat in Victoria II is comparable to Europa Universalis - armies face each other with a vanguard and rearguard each, with a variety of bonuses and maluses affecting how much they hurt each other every day. The armies here tend to be large and the combat attrition-based. You're expected to swap armies to and from the meat grinder to ensure that your army's Organization lasts longer than the enemy's. Early on you'll have to worry about supply limits but with technology this becomes less of an issue, as battles in rough terrain accomodate fewer soldiers at a time anyway. This is definitely a game where you want to pause every day or two on large wars. Civilized countries can conscript part of their poor population, making for even larger armies. But later in the game these are pretty much just cannon-fodder unless you have some professional support waiting for them to help them overcome enemy defenses when attacking.
The military AI of the enemy is actually somewhat competent. It'll at least know to avoid dubious battles, even when it outnumbers you but you have other advantages. It'll also use appropriate generals for what each army is doing (the generals have their own randomized bonuses). Still, the player's intellect is a force multiplier and you should be able to win any evenly-matched war. Specifically, the AI neglects to really rotate its reserves like a player would, and pull them back to be reinforced at the start of the month.
Your country's ruling party affects a variety of things, most notably the level of involvement you have in the economy. Monarchies can appoint whichever party they want, except unwashed radicals of course. Many factors will affect which parties your population supports, including events, the standard of living, and Militancy and Consciousness levels. Consciousness reflects how much your population will press for reforms, either political or social. This has the double-bladed effect of boosting your research over time, but leading to rebellions if you fail to pass popular reforms. Which just might happen if your Upper House is not as keen on reforms as the general populace. Still, some countries like Russia can pretty much remain a monarchy throughout the game if you make sure your people are content. Every GP and Secondary Power has a slightly different experience, which is strongly influenced by how you manage the country. Absolute monarchies are much more smooth-sailing overall, but usually come with low literacy. China, Japan and the USA stand out from the rest, each with its own challenges and potential.
There are many tradegoods, but trading and most of the economy usually work on autopilot, especially later in the game when in most types of government, capitalists are allowed a free hand in building up industries. Usually in not a very clever way as they will often just derp out and build a bunch of telephone factories that are just destined to close soon after. But it's the same for the AI countries, so hey. And if you want to micro everything yourself, you can go with State Capitalism or Central Planning policies, found at your local Reactionary, Socialist, Communist or Fascist party, and do everything yourself. At the expense of some efficiency, however. And lots of time, as you will have hundreds of factories by the late game. Still, the freedom is there and a whole different playstyle is available for those who want it.
The diplomacy is fairly standard for a grand-strategy game, there's nothing too outstanding here. You make alliances, with a Prestige hit if you refuse to join a defensive war. If relations are bad enough between two countries, you can fabricate a Casus Belli, but be prepared to take a likely Infamy hit. This is actually the main way of getting aggressive wars started. There are random events that will give you a Casus Belli for no Infamy, but these are pure chance. Take too much Infamy, and everyone gets to fight you for free. The interesting bit is Crises - when a region gets 'hot' enough due to the presence of a Liberation Movement or other cause, the Great Powers will take sides and, if no compromise is met, will go to war. These are major and will change the face of the map in a different way every time. Here, I just wish the same hotspots wouldn't get hot so often, like in one of my games, Greece kept sparking a crisis every year for a while, with few exceptions as it just got hot faster than anyplace else. Still, it's a great system for keeping things fresh and interesting for GPs especially.
So compared to other Paradox games, I would say it's more deterministic in that, short of some really gamey behavior, you're unlikely to paint the map the color of Peru or some other minor country. The focus is on GPs and SPs, expansionist warfare is rather limited except against uncivilized countries. You can only choose from two start dates - 1836 or 1861. The type of freedom and variety here is different from other Paradox games, it comes from the amount of control you have over politics and the economy, as well as how you meddle in world affairs. Instead of grabbing land from your civilized neighbors, you're supposed to humilate them, beat them down, leave them open to rebellion, take their allies away and in some cases fracture them into smaller nations.The game's timeframe is relatively short - though it still takes dozens of hours for a normal playthrough - but every game is guaranteed to be different thanks to the crisis system, rebels and other factors.