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.