The sun may never have set on the British Empire of the 19th century, but it is finally starting to rise on the Victoria series of grand strategy games. Paradox Interactive's sequel to its buggy and confusing 2003 game about nation building during the Industrial Age has been well worth the wait. Victoria II dumps most of the bugs, fussy micromanagement, and headache-inducing complexity that earned the original game a lot of criticism. In their place is a (mainly) stable game with kinder, gentler mechanics that eliminate most of the finicky tedium while leaving you at the helm of the ship of state. There's also an intuitive interface and a series of comprehensive tutorials that teach you the game's fundamentals. This still isn't a walk in the park, as hours of experimentation are necessary before you get comfortable with statecraft in the 1800s. But it is the game that Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun should have been, and it is both playable and addictive once you get past the initial steep learning curve.
It's a good idea to start with a smaller country while dealing with the learning curve.
Concepts behind Victoria II will be familiar to those who have played any of the many entries in Paradox's grand strategy series like Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron. This is a geopolitical simulation writ large, where you take control of the state of your choosing at the dawn of the Victorian era in 1836 and guide it in real time for a century. The solo game is the primary way to play (there is just the single grand campaign option here), although there is multiplayer support for the truly hardcore who have many hours to spend dealing and dueling with LAN/online rivals. Most of the game comprises map screens detailing hundreds of nations and thousands of provinces (with fairly dated, yet still credible board game-styled visuals--although the text is now microscopic when playing at higher resolutions over 1680x1050). There are also menu lists that cover every aspect of Victorian society, including population, religion, trade, taxation, diplomacy, warfare, and the many technological advancements of the era. Ruling a state involves tricky balancing acts, where you play off things like the taxes and tariffs needed for a country to pay the bills against the desire of the great unwashed to keep a few shillings in their pockets for luxury items. You also have to balance the gradual demand for societal reform against the conservative desire for everything to stay the same. If you go too far in either direction, you wind up with an unhappy populace that might revolt.
All of these complicated factors are put together quite well. Where the original Victoria was little more than a shoebox full of random scraps and ideas, its successor feels like a properly planned-out game. You notice this as soon as the main menu loads up; the game now offers a fairly complete series of tutorials that walk you through the interface and most of the situations that you will encounter in the real grand Campaign mode. The new interface is also a godsend. All of the core features of your nation are accessed via eight buttons on an information bar at the top left of the screen. So if you want to tweak diplomacy, adjust tax rates, order technological improvements, or field an army, all you do is click a single button to access the requisite menus, and then, you can have at it.
Playing a great power like the United Kingdom can offer a lot of rewards, like throwing your weight around diplomatically.