Hands On: Hearts Of Iron IV

The first time I moved to the unsteady beat of Hearts of Iron IV [official site], I played as Germany and managed to avoid the catastrophe of World War II by fudging my initial invasion plans so badly that the French were preparing to march on Berlin by 1938. France, like every other nation, had been controlled by the AI.

This time around, I played two games. Two games in a world populated by around twenty human players, controlling all of the major powers and some minor players. The first time around, I was outside the main theater, attempting to transform Brazil into a major trading power. When that world tore itself apart, I picked Japan in a draft and set about taming the Russian Bear with a little help from my friends.

Playing Hearts of Iron IV in its current state is a curious experience. There is a distinct tension between the careful scripting of the central events, the fine balance of the Axis-Allies division and the free-form sandbox of Paradox grand strategy. As we found, on both occasions, the German player can be punished severely for stepping out of line and the National Focus feature helps to guide them along that line, a historical bellwether that is instructive and potentially restrictive. This is a sandbox but there are broken bottles hidden just beneath the surface. Digging deep is dangerous.

All of the major nations have a unique National Focus tree (minor nations have generic trees), leading them through key military and political events of the time, helping them to avoid the glass. As Japan, I found myself directed toward either the North or the South, the latter eventually leading to a Pacific War and conflict with America while the former (which I chose) militarises the mainland border with the Soviet Union. While the focus creates a binary choice, nothing is locked down. It’d be entirely possible to focus on northern expansion and then invade China, or jump into an alliance with the Soviets. Choosing a focus provides shortcuts, often avoiding the need to accumulate and spend masses of political power in order to create a wargoal, but it doesn’t preclude seemingly contrary behaviour.

Germany, as you might expect, is an altogether unique proposition. Having watched two accomplished strategic minds and students of the war fail to survive the thirties, I spent a good part of the session pondering the German situation. My reasoning is inexpert (I didn’t play as the Germans in this build) and a great deal will change before release, but I became convinced that Germany lacks freedom of expression in the early game. If the war starts too early, France and the UK are too powerful for the half-reconstructed German military, and if the major landmarks of remilitirisation, annexation and anschluss aren’t triggered in sequence and approximately within the correct historical timeframe, disaster is sure to follow.

Disaster for the Germans, that is. In the first game, while I was leading my Boys From Brazil in a brutally unforgiving war against themselves (more of which later), the German player decided to deviate from history in an attempt to confuse the Allied faction. There was no sign of aggression until, a couple of years into the game, Luxembourg fell. From my South American vantage point, I couldn’t work out exactly what the long-term plan for European domination was, but there appeared to be political pressure in the Baltic States and Scandinavia, where Fascist parties were receiving support from Germany and friends.

The Luxembourg seizure was the highlight of German aggression, however. Shortly afterwards, an ill-timed national decision gave the Allies permission to declare war, and the Americans had landed in Germany long before Christmas 1940. The war was over before it had really begun, Germany contained by the British navy, a giddily enthusiastic France, and a boldly interventionist U S of A. The Americans were a problem in both games. To shift from their isolationist stance, they require political capital and a global rise in tension. At present, particularly in such a large multiplayer game, global tension doesn’t function particularly well.

Represented by a percentage point ticker at the top of the screen, tension rises as certain events occur, either through national focus scripting or other acts of aggression. Hover your cursor over the figure and a window pops up, breaking down precisely what is contributing to the overall score. As well as providing a snapshot of the world’s fragility, the tension score directly controls the actions available to each nation. Depending on your level of isolationism and military preparedness, tension must be at a certain level before you can join a (or THE) war. This ties the Americans down in the early game, as they must move through the gears before throwing their muscle across the Atlantic.

That’s how America should work in theory, at any rate. In both of the games we played, the Americans were on the scene before the Axis powers had even begun their conquest of Europe, responding like a well-trained gundog to the first shots fired. That’s partly because a human player will almost always WANT to be involved in European affairs, pushing everything toward intervention even before the war starts. The early entrance into combat is also a function of the global tension rising too quickly. This is something that will be balanced – and in singleplayer or with two or three human participants it’s unlikely to be as much of an issue – but it highlights the incredibly difficult balancing act that Paradox are attempting to pull off.

At the moment, it feels as if Germany needs to be played by someone willing to sacrifice freedom for ruthless efficiency. No matter how appropriate you might think that is (grand strategy as performance art political statement?), frustration can set in. The German starting position is so precarious that it makes little sense to ignore the guide laid out by min-maxing expert Adolf Hitler, ramping up military production to an extraordinary degree before poking Europe’s soft underbelly. The early years, before the war begins in earnest, may be too restrictive. They’re an opportunity to concentrate on the military-industrial supply chains and trade that are as important to success as combat, but they also seem like an opportunity to experiment. Current evidence suggests that, for Germany at least, experimentation can bring the game to an early finish.

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34 Comments

  1. santheocles says:

    To me, this sounds good. Though Paradox games can be very fun MP experiences, I mostly play them solo. And even if the balance between historical or pseudo-historical events and a more sandboxy campaign doesn’t match my taste, I have great faith in the modding community.

  2. barelyhomosapien says:

    The map looks exceedingly lovely, even for a Paradox game. I love the idea of painting front lines and tactics ala the Dad’s army opening, it’s very iconic of WW2 and shows just some of the thought going into the game to capture the right feel.

    I would like to know how easy it is to pick up, relatively speaking. CK2 took a bit of work, to the point where I’ve never really understood alot of the systems in play, but I personally found EUIV alot more intuitive, would you be able to say how it compares at this stage?

    Overall this is a really detailed and well written preview Adam, with lots of information directed at the people most likely to pick it up (Paradox wargame fans) which gives a real idea of how the game feels to play in it’s current iteration, thank you very much.

  3. Myrdinn says:

    Well written preview. Thanks.

  4. Joriath says:

    I think balancing has always been particularly difficult with the HOI series. I admit that I’ve never playing HOI multiplayer, however – as you mention in the review – the player will have always have a desire to go down a specific route, aided by hindsight, that would have been historically impractical/impossible. I have no problem with the UK and France being able to easily defeat Germany in the event of an early war, they were on paper much stronger than Germany until ’39/’40. However, for me the USA player should not be capable of launching invasions in Europe in 1940 unless there is a drastic ahistorical gearing of both manpower and industry towards war, for which there should be a number of obstacles. I appreciate the game still has at least six months of development left so balancing will improve, and Paradox have admitted that World Tension needs balancing.

    I’m hoping that Paradox manage to pull this off as HOI3 was a good yet flawed game, and HOI4 seeks to address many of the flaws. The production system also sounds extremely interesting.

    • WiggumEsquilax says:

      Yeah, the U.S. military of the late 30s really had no capacity for the kind of early direct intervention depicted here. American airpower was decent, and their navy was already quite powerful, but a U.S. army of 1939 taking on the Werhmacht? Not a chance.

    • brgillespie says:

      Perhaps some sort of debuff in production if the American player commits to a war before the Pearl Harbor catalyst event? An isolationist’s citizenry shouldn’t really have any sense of urgency to crank out massive numbers of military arms for a war they have no particular reason to care about.

      • WiggumEsquilax says:

        The lack of said debuff seems to be the single biggest weakness of this pre-release. Not just for America either, as an alliance of Britain and France would be world beating in 1938.

        Every country should have it’s will to fight quantified. An appropriate bonus/penalty needs to be assigned, especially for offensive action into enemy territory.

  5. RedViv says:

    I really, really love their improving the indirect control method. There’s just something more *grand* to this way of dealing with troop control. Set up a really good campaign and battle plan, let the troops sort out your orders according to that. Work on the bigger issues on the background, not assigning each single unit’s possible strategies.

  6. Stellar Duck says:

    Map looks good but I don’t think it’s what I’m looking for in a WW2 game. Can you get rid of the silly model men and get some counters?

    I dunno. I love how CK2 and EU4 looks but it feels all wrong in a HoI game to me. I’m not interested in seeing models duke it out on the map.

    • Behrditz says:

      Well i know you can in HOI3. If you zoom out (or i think theres even a menu toggle) they become these square tiles with the traditional military unit icons. I would be surprised if they left that out of this new version.

      • Stellar Duck says:

        There’s a menu toggle and that’s what I do, but due to the different map perspective I can’t really see how NATO counters would look. :)

        Until this post I’d actually forgotten that HoI3 has anything but counters.

  7. Faldrath says:

    “A combination of interface confusion and my own cackhandedness meant that my troops attempted to board the transports FROM the Amazon. They spent less than two weeks in the deep rainforest, with no logistical support, no supply lines and no direct route to the boats. It was enough to kill 350,000 of them.”

    If it’s any consolation, it does sound like something the real Brazilian army would do if it had to mobilize a huge amount of troops.

  8. Fuligin says:

    Good preview, although it’s worth mentioning regarding your concerns about railroading that HoI has never really been a series about grand alternate histories the way Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis have been. It covers just about two decades, focusing around one single (albeit quite large) war, so making sure that that conflict actually happens and is satisfying is always going to take priority, particularly with a Germany whose actions are essential to starting the war. You’re absolutely right that multiplayer with 20+ people is going to cock things up every time, of course.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      The railroading really been putting me off Paradox – I want to love the games and I did the early ones but I get the impression they’ve been spending too much time listening to the history buffs in their forums, I find the fun in historical games is in going a different way, I like what the forum people call ‘blobbing’ and I hate trying to do something in a game and being told “You Vill Play Properly!”. I haven’t played EUIV more than a few minutes because I could see they’d gone that way and it was expectantly apparent in EU III with the colonies “Why yes colonial power you can found a colony, its effectively a debuff to your whole country but you go ahead…”

      • P.Funk says:

        But when you go ahead and make a WW2 grand strategy game you’re kind of forced to follow the script because if Hitler didn’t do his thang things would hardly have been very exciting in Europe. No German aggression, no war, no game.

        HOI is very much about playing in a very narrowly defined sandbox. You do stuff like try and finish Germany’s Z plan before you kick off the war or try to influence Britain to NOT DOW you when you invade Poland.

      • HauntedQuiche says:

        I really can’t say I’ve seen any of this type of railroading in EU4…

        I mean, colonies aren’t a debuff to your nation except when you are setting them up, but that makes perfect sence. Colonising was ridiculously expensive – Scotland managed to destroy it’s own independence with their colonial mistakes – and if you’re nation can’t support it? Then yeah, it’s a big debuff. The idea is you ride out the weaker period in order to get the rewards later.

        I’d call that basic game mechanics, not ‘railroading’.

        • Hedgeclipper says:

          That was III, I haven’t looked at IV’s colonial mechanics in detail but its got those national buff things forcing you down other routes…

          • barelyhomosapien says:

            To address your concerns here’s how my last few games of EUIV went:

            Conquered nearly all of China and all of Japan as Korea, then formed a Pacific colonial empire that extends down to New Zealand, 100 years of gameplay left on that one.

            United Ireland, conquered a bealguered Scotland, then formented rebellions across England eventually conquering the British Isles as Ireland.

            Formed the Netherlands from a small one province minor, devouring the nation of burgundy from the east and dominating most of the North Western coastline, while remaining allied to France.

            United Japan under the flag of the Takeda clan, rather then the emperor then colonised across the Pacific and slowly colonised the North/Central American Pacific Coast.

            Needless to say blobbing and alternate history is what EUIV is all about.

  9. thetruegentleman says:

    The balance between historical accuracy and gameplay is always challenging with games like this: the biggest problem seems to be that the players, and maybe even the game, really underestimate how unwilling people actually were to go to war.

    For example, if Britain and France had moved against Hitler’s annexation of Austria or invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hitler had planned to back off the war and wait. Conversely, if Britain and France had made no moves against Germany after it invaded Poland (opting to build up their military in silence instead), the war with the USSR would have kicked off much earlier.

    However, in the former case, an early move by Britain and France would have diminished US enthusiasm for supporting them, making any extended war an extremely dicey prospect for both powers. As for the later case, the USSR wouldn’t have received aid from the US, greatly reducing its logistical abilities, and thus greatly improving Germany’s odds against Russia. The price of this, of course, would be the US providing more aid to France and Britain, probably going so far as to send troops to help them, leading to one hell of a Western/Mediterranean front.

    In other words, the allied powers need to balance the short-term benefits of early aggression with the long-term benefits of aid from the US, while the Axis powers need to pacify or busy the US until the war can be reduced to a single major front (like starting shit in South America that would force a US intervention there).

    Conversely, the US needs to be made to balance between winning the politically “easy” wars, like interventions in South America, and waiting for as long as possible to start sending aid to the Allies: sending aid too soon should limit the aid to shitty old warships and tanks no can really use, while sending it too late results in costly amphibious assaults that could force a war to end in a treaty. Of course, too many interventions means less aid for the people fighting the important wars, while too few results in the US having to fight a much more expensive war in South America before the US can do anything else, as people in the US would be WAY more concerned over a South American superpower than they would be with anything Germany could do (and possibly Japan as well, if Pearl Harbor doesn’t happen).

  10. v21v21v21 says:

    I. That was a nice piece of writing, methinks. Thank you.

    II. ” People behave in ways that the AI never will, either […]” also, most people play for fun (definition may vary), which make them more prone to not resisting hurtling down the “You know what would be cool? If…” Road to Hell. I am led to believe that is often frowned upon in current-generation AI circles (cycles?).

    III. Too short a time-frame to allow for naughtiness. The stage has already been set.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

  11. wengart says:

    I suspect that the HOI games would be a lot better and much more interesting if the start date was moved back about two decades. Starting right at 1900 would prevent a lot of the railroading that currently litters the game and open up player choice/alternate history options a lot more.

    It would also make learning the game easier as the player starts in a relatively simple time technologically and can then build up towards more industrialized warfare. You start with men and horses and then go to -> submarines -> tanks -> mech. Infantry -> planes -> strategic bombing. In a kind of natural flow.

    • slerbal says:

      I agree with you.

    • silentdan says:

      If it started in 1900, you’d have to fight WWI in a way that preserves how it really ended (the Treaty of Versailles) in order for any of that Axis/Allies stuff to ever even happen 20 years later. Maybe starting in 1920 would be cool, but pushing it back any further than that would at least double the scope of the game.

      • Cinek says:

        IMHO the optimum would be starting right after Treaty of Versailles. It could give quite interesting playthrough for those more interested in economy and an alternative history.

  12. harley9699 says:

    -Too bad about the German limitations. Hate to see any major power limited to a certain tract. One of the best parts of EU/CK is the ability to go off (historical) track.
    -Know I’ll get major grief: Having been a wargamer since—well, forever—I now enjoy a lot of games not strictly tied to NATO counters. I like counters for the variation. I’m SICK of NATO counters by this stage of my grog-ness.
    -wengart has some Really Very Good ideas about start dates. The WWII games that do star a little further back only add to the freedom-leaning-more sandbox/ahistorical fun and feel.
    -Finally, my Major concern is that this launch goes a Ton better than HoI III’s went. Man, that was ugly.

    • P.Funk says:

      ” Hate to see any major power limited to a certain tract.”

      Germany was always horribly limited in reality. If it weren’t for the reluctance on the part of the one day Allies to act against them beyond toothless economic sanctions then Germany wouldn’t have had any chance at all.

      Given the foreknowledge that HOI players have that real world leaders didn’t if it weren’t for the heavy scripted limitations as they are the war would be over in 1938 no matter how Germany played.

      The limitations of Germany force it to follow a path that when examined in history is as easily disrupted and prevented as it was remarkably left to unfold as it did.

    • Cinek says:

      NATO was founded in 1949, that’s a long, long way into the game.

  13. slerbal says:

    I have many hundreds of hours logged with both CK2 and EU4 but Hearts of Iron 4 does not appeal to me at all. I love the grad strategy but have always found the actual combat to be the least interesting bit, plus I’m not interested in the period (at least from the perspective of playing a grand strategy / wargame).

    I’ll just hold out for a hoped Victoria 3. I hope those who are waiting for HoI4 really enjoy the end game. I suspect it will be far more niche than CK2 and EU4, but there is nothing wrong with that :)

    • mike2R says:

      Not to try and argue with someone who doesn’t like a game I like :) but I feel the need to defend HOI combat a little when compared to the other games.

      I’ve played a fair amount of HOI3, along with tons of CK1/2 and EU3/4 (never could quite get my head around Victoria 2). I agree with you regarding the combat in the other games being the least interesting part, but in HOI3 its something of a different beast – its the focus of the game rather than a necessary but peripheral mechanic, and is much deeper than in the other games.

      The mechanics are very different – combat starts as soon as a unit is ordered into a province, rather than when it arrives, and units are pretty much never destroyed unless they have nowhere to retreat to. They have two health type variables – strength (the usual Paradox thing, recharged by manpower) and organisation (which recharges naturally over time for free), and they lose a battle when their org falls to 0 (though typically only losing a small fraction of their strength). At which point they retreat.

      Mixed in with supply, frontage and stacking systems, that limit the number of units that can usefully fight from a particular province, it leads to long fronts and wars of attrition. Breakthroughs, pockets and encirclements. Cycling fresh units in to allow weary ones to rest up, defending or attacking river lines and other natural and man-made fortifications, and always trying to create and close a bag which will allow you to take whole units prisoner and remove it from the game, rather than just let it withdraw to fight another day with manpower losses on both sides.

      In the other games, a long war starting up has sometimes made me quit since I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle. In HOI3 I’m always impatient to get to it.

  14. Press X to Gary Busey says:

    Perhaps it’s time to consider a bit of lore retcon to allow more dynamic setup synergies or the IP license holder to hire a new Lore Master.

  15. Chiron says:

    I’ve spent an insane amount of time on Hearts of Iron 2 but find the later attempts at the series a bit to… hands off, with the painting attack plans and HoI3’s big bundle of crappy AI attack groups combat just seems like a pain in the arse.

    Pity, the little I’ve played of 3 had some interesting Tech Tree idea’s but the core game was just, erg…

  16. GreatBigWhiteWorld says:

    My only hope is that this is highly moddable, because I know the base game is going to be tainted by the EU4 effect.

    • Cinek says:

      EU4 effect? What the heck is that? Is that one of these things that nay-sayers made up to justify their displease with the fact that instead of getting another DLC to the old game they are getting a new one? …

  17. kronpas says:

    A game like this should be played cooperatively as 2 persons team for each country. I dont know how Paradox solve the notification spam issue from the previous game which made playing in real time a real pain.