Even as an avid strategy game fan, I was intimidated when I first watched Hearts of Iron IV gameplay. The level of detail it was trying to achieve struck me as overbearing, unnecessary and, frankly, dull. Hearts of Iron IV is a “grand strategy” game, a subgenre of strategy that has recently seen a big resurgence in popularity with other Paradox Games series such as Europa Universalis (whose focus is the Renaissance era and court intrigue/diplomacy) and Victoria (which focuses on the industrial era and has an emphasis on internal development and social/political changes). The hallmark of this style of game is extreme attention paid to detail, simulation and accuracy – putting the player in the driver’s seat of a particular nation or empire to manage the many intricacies of war and peace. The Hearts of Iron series expands on this formula by bringing the Paradox saga to the World War II age, and instead of the big emphasis being on politics and statecraft, now it is the execution of grand battle plans and the formation of large alliances – bound together by ideology or common interest.
I won’t lie to you, tutorial or no, this game has a steep learning curve, so be prepared to learn a lot through trial and error in your first play through. For my first game, I chose a setup that I thought would be good for a first timer, Great Britain at the 1936 start date (you can also chose to begin the game in 1939) on regular difficulty with historical AI focuses. One of the great strengths of Paradox games is that you can choose any country on the map to play you want, meaning nearly limitless ways you could change history on different playthroughs. I chose the UK because it is on the list of “Interesting Countries”, meaning that it was one of the major powers of the war and has a specific policy tree.
When you start the game can have a big impact on the games result. Should you chose to start in 1939, (if the AI is set to its historical focus), Germany will invade Poland and the world war will begin. However, if you chose to start in 1936, three smaller wars will break out (the Italo-Ethiopian war, the Spanish Civil war, and the Sino-Japanese war) that you could potentially effect or even change the outcome of. Also with the 1936 start is the growth of factions, namely the Axis (fascist nations), the Allies (democratic nations), and the Comintern (communist nations).
In addition to controlling the political momentum in your nation, the diplomatic features of the game include trade and conscription policy, overseeing the appointment of government operatives, industrial advisors and a military high command. You can improve relations with another nation, justify war goals against them and even grow party support and stage coups as part of the espionage elements of the game. Under certain circumstances, you can also begin a lend-lease agreement or even deploy volunteer forces to help out a friend in need. On top of all of this, the backbone of Hearts of Iron IV is logistics. You are responsible for trade and the construction of factories and infrastructure throughout your lands, in addition to the production of armaments and supplies, and the training of new units for the army. You also have to build up a navy and air force, as well as conduct research for new wartime technologies.
This leads me to the beating heart of (no pun intended) Hearts of Iron IV: the battles. Once you have organized your units into armies under the leadership of a general, you can have that army carry out specific orders, including fortifying provinces you already own, forming a front line as the basis for an offensive march, preparing for an amphibious assault, etc. The more experienced your general’s are, the better tactics they will use in battle, leading to a higher chance of victory. The navy and air force is managed in a similar way, being grouped together with other units of its kind and carrying out specific orders. Unlike in games such as Civilization, all players make their moves simultaneously as time goes on. Once the war got underway as Germany invaded Poland, things began to take an interesting turn. Although the Netherlands and Belgium fell, my volunteer forces in France were able to hold off the German invaders, leading the war to shift south instead of west. By 1943, Italy and Germany had divided up North Africa between themselves, and the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan over Manchuria, by extension mobilizing their forces in Eastern Europe as well. Throughout all of this, the U.S withdrew from the Allies, and having never been attacked by the Japanese, stayed neutral throughout the war. In 1944, the seemingly unending Soviet force took Berlin and Rome, while China with help from the French and myself had the Japanese with their backs to the sea.
The game allows for variations in the AI’s decisions within the historical context. That degree of unpredictability makes it a fun world to revisit time and time again. For instance, there are random events that can take place in the lead up to the war, such as Amelia Earhart surviving her round-the-world flight and Leon Trotsky surviving the attempt on his life in Mexico City that can have an interesting, alternate future effect on the rest of the game.
I am quickly beginning to believe that “grand strategy” is the future. If you sit down, give it some time, and know that not everything will go as you want it on your first try, I promise it’ll grow on you. Not to mention the graphics and music are impressive, and the overall tone of the game is right where it should be: serious, without being overly somber.