Let me start with a confession: I’ve been fighting with the Hearts of Iron franchise for years. It’s a tough series to learn – I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. I’ve read about others trying; I’ve even watched others try (and succeed) online. Still, I’ve bounced off of each iteration every time, even with a few dozen hours under my belt.
It’s not because of the subject matter. I love the history of World War II, rife with so many stories of strategy, heroism, and heartbreak.
It’s not because I don’t like WW2 games, either. I’ve put hundreds of hours into games like John Tiller’s Campaign Series, The Operational Art of War, Steel Panthers, Combat Mission, the Company of Heroes series, and even the WW2 Call of Duty games. I was never a grognard – more of a meat and potatoes kinda guy – but the setting made those games come alive.
Yet, I still couldn’t climb the massive learning curve of the Hearts of Iron titles. The impenetrable status of the series is nearly legendary, and I succumbed. This is often a fair critique of many older Paradox titles, and even their newer games can take some acclimation.
But enough of my credentials. The question is: could Hearts of Iron IV be the one to break the mold? Well, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” – it’s bloody outstanding – but I’m getting ahead of myself…
A Quick AAR
Let me start with my very first game. Who did I choose to play as? I knew I might be flummoxed by HoI4 like I had with every other iteration, but I was going to give it my best shot. I also knew that Paradox was on a bit of roll when it came to marrying the complexity of their titles to an improved user interface, as well as simplifying their game mechanics without sacrificing depth. I wanted an easy learning experience. So, I chose Poland. It’s a faction certainly destined to lose the war, but I hoped to learn from them.
I chose to play the “Gathering Storm” campaign which starts in 1936 rather than the “Blitzkrieg” that starts on Sep 1, 1939. Maybe I’d stand a chance, right? I also chose the option to keep the AI tied to their Historical Focuses, to keep it more in line with history – at least this time around.
I started beefing up my industry and concentrated on artillery. I also extended the diplomatic olive branch to my neighbors to the east: the Soviets. Playing as Poland is much easier than playing as one of the bigger countries, but historically Poland was not very powerful. This fact was reflected in my game. I did what I could, mostly flailing about as I learned the interface and tried to understand how the game worked. I kept my eye on the world tension meter, and eventually the icon was literally on fire as Germany started rolling my way. Despite all my efforts, Poland was still toast within weeks. Fortunately, the Polish Socialist Party had taken over my government and, when the Germans came calling, Russia didn’t stick with history and form the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact against Poland. Instead, they came to my aid! The war was on!
Quickly the world descended into madness. A year after Germany rolled over my country, things were no better for my people. Nor for the Soviets. The German units had taken Minsk and were halfway to Moscow. However, by the early summer of 1941, the Russians were starting to push the Reich back. There was no longer a red finger pointing toward Moscow on my map, and the Russians were slowly encircling the Germans to the south.
In early 1942, the winter campaign was still going strong, but the Russians had pushed beyond Minsk with the majority of the fighting was taking place in Eastern Poland. However, my people were starting to swing toward democracy. It seemed inevitable that the democrats would topple my short-lived Communist party. How would the Russians feel about that after the echoes of the artillery stopped and the rifles went silent? I had to take my chances. Then, strangely enough, Spain liberated my port at Danzig – how fortuitous! I thought I was back in the game.
Unfortunately, that was not quite the case. I had a handful of military and civilian factories, but only enough to slowly rebuild some infrastructure and create a very green, very weak division every few months in just a couple territories. The worst was yet to come. Turkey joined the Axis and attempted to strike north into Russia through the Caucasus Mountains. Stalin quickly withdrew from his western front, leaving just a few troops to defend the Motherland, but none in Eastern Poland. I had one division. I chuckled to myself and kept on keepin’ on. Fortunately, Germany was also busy with the Spanish, the UK, and the French, who had (finally) entered the war, giving me a little breathing room.
In late April of ‘42, the US declared war on Japan. It was a little late, I know, but better than never, right?
That summer the democrats won control of my country and, after a wartime election – Democracy no matter the cost! – communism was overthrown. The Russians didn’t seem to mind and, by Christmas of 1942, the Axis had mostly fallen, with the exception of Japan, Iran, and Iraq. I sent my handful of divisions home to keep an eye on Warsaw and begin rebuilding. It would be a long, hard road the next four years, even after the war finally ended in 1946.
Hearts of Iron IV dares to ask, “What if?” Early in my game, I quickly formed a democratic alliance with Stalin, hoping to avoid the historical parcelling of my country at the hands of Germany and the Soviets at the beginning of the war. I wanted a chance, and felt that Stalin was my only hope. He came through for me and the German attack on France never came.
Of course, it takes a complex simulation to bring all of this history and possible alternate history to life. Thankfully, after years of development, HoI4 is that game – or at least as close as you’re likely to get until Hearts of Iron V drops.
A Beautiful World
When you load up HoI4, in true Paradox grand strategy fashion, you are presented with a map of the world. Artistically, it’s a wonderful image. Countries are noted by name and color and further broken down into smaller provinces. There are various map modes. The default view shows topography, weather and national borders. There’s also a Strategic Navy mode for sea warfare and a Strategic Air mode for (duh) air warfare.
On all but the fastest time setting, there’s a day/night cycle that crosses the world. Like other Paradox grand strategy titles, HoI4 plays out in pausable real time. I didn’t like the day/night cycle at first but, after I found the option to toggle it on or off, I discovered I missed it and left it on. Night does have a detrimental effect on combat so it can be important to keep track of it.
The music is appropriately epic, considering the scope of WW2. Composed by Andreas Waldetoft and performed by the Brandenburg State Orchestra, it’s a fantastic score, eliciting many emotions like honor, valor, and even sadness. The sound design is also on point: troops marching, planes roaring about, the nautical bell when ships get underway – it’s great stuff.
Okay, so you have your first game loaded up. You need to get your economy started, or at least continued. Sure, the map is pretty, the music is great, but you’re staring at the (thankfully paused) screen thinking, “what now?” Maybe you stumbled through the nominally useful tutorial and you think you know a thing or two but… You don’t, not really. There’s a lot more to learn.
Thankfully, Paradox have provided their now-standard helpful tooltips. HoI4, while easier to learn, still hides a lot of its functionality in small icons and information not covered by the tutorial or the manual. The initial tooltip is just a brief description; hover a little longer over anything – literally anything – and you’ll receive a far more exhaustive tooltip. It’s a great way to learn the smaller details of the game, but it takes some time to absorb all of the information.
Overall, the interface is powerful and easy to use. If you’re familiar with Europa Universalis IV, Crusader Kings II, or the recent Stellaris, you’ll acclimate much faster.. Much of the functionality is only discovered after extended play. I was mostly lost in my first play, but I took my time, read the tooltips, and slowly began to understand the basic concepts. After just a few games I was flying through the menus.
Hearts of Iron IV is about war. It’s about pushing your units across the map and imposing your will on the other guy; or, if you’re a more defensive-minded player or country, it’s about resisting the other guy’s imposition. However, in order to support your armies, you need a strong economic backbone.
Factories and Production
The heart of your economy is your factories – civilian and military. Civilian factories produce consumer goods to keep your people happy. They also construct buildings in your territories. Military factories produce equipment like artillery, planes, etc. Early on, particularly if you’ve chosen to start the game in 1936, it’s important to get as many civilian factories up and running as possible. Later you can convert civilian factories to military factories if needed, at a slightly lesser cost than it would take to construct one or the other from scratch.
Once your factories are up and running, you can concentrate on improving your infrastructure and defenses by erecting anti-air, land forts, dockyards, and more. Each facility takes time to build, depending on how many civilian factories you dedicate to the task. Balancing your time and your resources can be vital to your success.
This is even more important when it comes to your military production because it is limited by your production efficiency. When you first start producing infantry equipment, for example, your efficiency starts at a lower level. It raises at a slow rate so the longer you produce specific equipment, the more efficient your production. It’s also affected by how many military factories are tasked with making the equipment. This makes planning ahead vital. If you don’t get a head start on important equipment, it can be hard to catch up. Also, having to completely stop production of a specific type of equipment in order to make room for another can cause you to lose efficiency. Thankfully, production efficiency can be improved through research and your national focus.
Research and National Focus (oh, and Politics too)
Research is extremely important yet slightly intimidating at first sight. There are eleven pages of research trees, broken into categories like infantry, naval, air, engineering and industry. Each page is its own tree, often broken down by year. If you attempt to research something too early you’re penalized with a longer research time. Early on, the engineering and industry trees are vital towards improving your production, but are also important throughout each game. Research is limited by the number of research slots available, so you can usually have a few different research projects occurring simultaneously, but not all.
National focus is another tree, that allows you to choose foci for your country. The major countries, and Poland as well, have their own unique national focus trees. The rest of the world gets a generic template but Paradox is sure to add more unique trees as the game grows. Anyway, the national focus tree works a lot like the research trees, but you can only “research” one at a time, and they take 70 days each. There are a ton of options, from political to diplomatic to economic, and planning which you might need short term and in the long run can be challenging. I tend to strive for the research options that give me extra research slots early on in order to improve my research as early as possible.
Politics also plays a huge role in how you rule your country – from the sundry day-to-day decisions to the possibility of sweeping political change. Political power is a slowly rising resource you can spend on political advisors, military staff, and changes to your government that allow you to tailor your country to your current and possible future needs. It’s a relatively scarce resource. Hiring that ship designer before your Chief of Army may not be the best idea, but they’re your decisions to make.
Each country also has a handful of different political parties. Depending on your decisions, coups are possible, and elections are often held at the very worst of times. Or you can choose not to hold an election, which of course will anger this or that party, and could make your country unstable. There’s a lot of flavor to the ebb and flow of the party politics and keeping an eye on some of those frisky parties can be quite interesting while you’re mostly engaged in winning the war. Or just surviving.
Of course, a big part of politics is diplomacy, and in Hearts of Iron IV it can save your bacon – or just devour it. For instance, in my game as Poland, keeping my relations congenial with my nearby giants was a key part of my strategy.
The diplomacy of HoI4 is interesting and nuanced. You can justify war goals against others, if you’re looking for an excuse to invade. Or, if you’re a little “nicer,” you can guarantee another country’s independence (yeah, right). You could improve your relations in order to eventually invite other countries to your faction, or join theirs. There are also other options including lend-leasing your own divisions, non-aggression pacts, granting military access, sending expeditionary forces and more.
ARMIES & COMBAT
Okay, here’s where you wanted to get, right? Sure, economy and all that is interesting, but this is – at it’s heart – a proper wargame! Let’s make war! Right?
Not so fast, there, Comrade! First we have to create the finest army, navy, and air force the world has ever seen. And we have to do it while considering not only the size of our forces, but also their composition, training, and morale.
The main army unit is the division. You begin the game with a number of division templates. As your armies gain experience through training and combat, you’re able to spend experience points on division improvements. However, understanding divisions is a tough nut to crack, and it’s one I’ve not yet fully opened myself, even after 50+ hours with the game. It’s not so much the design process that gives me problems, but feedback on just how well my divisions are performing against different armies. But we’ll get into that a bit later. For now, let’s just have a look at a simple division.
Let’s head east from Poland for our next example and take a look at the Strelkovaya Divisiya, a basic infantry division from the Soviet Union. Starting the game at the outset of the war, the Strelkovaya Divisiya consists of nine infantry battalions (three infantry brigades) and a single artillery support battalion. You can see this standard division in the screenshot above. The nine infantry battalions and the artillery battalion are shown as icons on the left side. Also evident is the high number of stats associated with the division, including base stats like hit points and movement rate, combat stats like attack and defense values, and the “bottom line” of the almighty mighty dollar (ruble) – equipment cost! A straightforward division, to be sure, but that was the Soviet way.
But what if we want to do more? Say, give them anti-air because we expect the Germans might one day be pounding the hell out of them from the air, somewhere south and west of Moscow. We can give them as many frontline anti-air battalions as we might want, but we’re limited to just a single support battalion of any one type. We’ll give them the latter. We can keep the AA back from the front lines, at a slight reduction in anti-air efficiency, but it’ll still be an improvement over the planes dropping bombs in an unmitigated fashion over their heads, right?
Choosing which battalions to add or remove is somewhat of a puzzle. Your division strength compared to that of your enemy can likewise be hard to fathom. This is one area in which HoI4 can be as simple to play and understand as you might like – just count stacks of divisions and throw them at your enemy – or you can take your game that much deeper and attempt to understand all of the army factors at work out of sight. It takes some work to delve deeper, and there are many factors that make up army strength.
Dammit! The AA support battalion costs ten army experience points. We only have five. Combat is usually how we gain army experience but we’re not at war (yet). Even more importantly, our divisions don’t even have a leader. So, we create an army unit consisting of the land units in the western Motherland and assign to them General Georgy Zhukov. He can only handle 24 divisions without penalty, so we give him twenty. He also has two traits that improve our new army – winter specialist and panzer leader. We know we’ll be fighting in the snow eventually, right? Winter specialist halves our winter attrition. Panzer leader improves our armor speed and attack. We’re currently without much in the way of tanks, but we’re going to change that.
Zhukov immediately sends our forces on an exercise. Training gives us army experience without engaging the enemy. But we only gain 0.062 army experience per day. Our boys are tough, though, and have agreed to training for the sake of this review.
Eventually we have enough to add the anti-air support battalion to our division. Unfortunately, after having a look at the Logistics page, which shows the equipment you need to support your current forces, we notice we have nowhere near enough towed anti-air to improve our many existing divisions. We’re already running a deficit of -2.88 AA, and our balance is falling every day. Since training expends both equipment and readiness, we cancel our army exercise, then we quickly queue up AA production and assign ten military factories to the task. AA equipment requires steel and we have plenty.
Resources and Trade
Speaking of steel, there are six resources important to production: oil, rubber, steel, aluminum, tungsten, and chromium. We are in the green for most of it but are short on rubber. That is already slowing some of our current air production. Thankfully the United Kingdom has a large surplus of rubber, and we’re able to trade up for enough to get our production running at a decent speed.
Trade is very abstract in HoI4 and involves trading civilian factories for the needed resources. It’s not always a good idea to trade your civilian factories off for these resources, but sometimes you really need them and don’t have much of a choice.
Now our basic infantry divisions are slowly gaining the needed AA equipment while they recover from their long exercise designed to get this reviewer ten army experience points. But, hell, Hitler is on the move! We have a pact with him to split up Poland. We allow our tired troops another week of rest. Then we set out for Poland. We’re historically late to the scene, but that’s okay.
Battle plans are the main tool for directing your armies in HoI4. They allow you to set strategic offensive plans for invasion or defense and leave the more tactical considerations to your leaders (i.e., the artificial intelligence).
Let’s get back to our Strelkovaya Divisiya – the twenty divisions under Zhukov, specifically. We’ll send them toward Warsaw. They won’t mind overmuch. The troops may still be a little tired, and short on equipment, but they won’t mind parcelling up Poland a bit, will they? We’re feeling confident.
First, with Zhukov’s army selected, we set up a front line along the border with Poland. We do this by drawing a line along the edges of the various territories. Once this front line is active, our divisions move on their own to take up positions. Then we draw up our offensive plan, much like we drew up the front line. We make orders for a drive toward Warsaw and a gambit for Danzig as well, because we could certainly use the port for naval affairs. Will twenty divisions be enough? Our intel on Poland is certainly lacking, but we’re going to make a grab anyway.
There’s a lot that goes into a successful battle plan. After drawing up the offensive line, it’s usually best to wait for some time to allow the division to prepare. We’re kind of in a hurry – this review is late – so we’ll give them oh, let’s say, just a week to prepare. The tooltip tells us the plan is risky, but our foe is inferior, so we reckon we’ll be fine. Stalin assures us this is true. He has every confidence, or we might just get shot.
A week later our plan has improved quite a bit, our divisions are mostly ready, and we tell them to execute. Zhukov’s army sets out for Warsaw and Danzig.
The Vague War
Combat is shown on the map as divisions and arrows showing division movement or attack. At the furthest zoom, divisions are national flags with a number representing the divisions. At the middle zoom levels you get more information: unit type, nation, entrenchment, organization, and strength. At the closest zoom you get animated units rampaging across the terrain and firing in combat. You can also choose to let the automated battle plan system do most of the work or you can command divisions manually, allowing you to tweak your plan in case it goes wrong in some way (most plans do) or you just need to lend a personal touch to save your guys.
Conducting war in real time can be exciting, and seeing a plan through to successful completion is also a thrill. On the other hand, seeing your plan flop and can be equally disheartening. My biggest qualm with Hearts of Iron IV is I wasn’t always able to understand why my plans didn’t work out as “planned.” There are a ton of factors at work when it comes to the combat, including air support (which is abstracted on a zone level), army composition, preparation, day or night, readiness, weather, and more. Paradox has done a great job of making the strategic decisions simple and intuitive, but when it comes to discerning what has gone wrong (or right) it can be a tough task to delve into the numbers and glean the information needed to improve your chances.
Also, in the original release, armies only had a single default aggression setting. However, before the developers took a well-deserved vacation in July, they released the first patch: Red Ball Express. This patch added three aggression settings for armies: careful, balanced, and rush. Balanced is the original setting, careful allows your armies to avoid heavy fortifications and such, and the rush setting tells them to get there hell or high water – mostly useful when attempting to run over a weaker opponent. This has improved the AI somewhat, but sometimes I felt like I still needed to step in and lend a hand manually.
There’s so much to like here. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Hearts of Iron IV has to offer. I mean, it encompasses the entirety of a short historical period – economically, diplomatically and militarily – and the combination is an intoxicating brew.
But HoI4 is not without its flaws. At release, the AI was a pushover. The Red Ball Express patch made some inroads to solving this, but there still seems to be some work to be done. Designing effective divisions can seem frustrating. Intel on enemy units is not always available, making it tough to plan ahead, but that might also be a nod to realism. You don’t always know everything in war, right? The combat itself can be lacking in the feedback needed to give a picture of the overall effectiveness of your forces. And, finally, HoI4 is also victim to the late-game chugging also found in their other Clausewitz engine games. When the fighting has reached critical mass it can slow a game on the fastest speed setting to a crawl.
But, still, it’s a wonderfully orchestrated game. Moment to moment I am consistently anxious and intrigued. The Hearts of Iron series has finally managed to keep me engaged by eschewing the complex micromanagement of past games and replacing it with a beautifully designed grand strategy wargame. Don’t get me wrong, the game is still very complex, with a moderately high learning curve, but Paradox boiled the experience down to a manageable and enjoyable whole. It’s not a perfect game, even after the first patch, but it’s well on its way to being a modern strategy masterpiece. Hearts of Iron IV provides an entertaining and engaging trip through WW2 guided only by your own invention and attention to detail.
TL;DR: Hearts of Iron IV is a big, beautiful grand strategy wargame lovingly crafted over a long development cycle. Those more interested in the micromanagement of past games may not enjoy the new iteration, but there’s still plenty of detail to pore over in order to make your plans successful. HoI4 successfully brings the complexity of the series into a new era of excellent UI design, mostly intuitive mechanics, and a love for the time period that exudes from every facet of the game – from the march of units to the swelling music.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You love Paradox grand strategy – and tanks too
- You’re a big WW2 history buff or…
- …you’re a history buff with a penchant for alternate history
- You’re power mad and like to run EVERYTHING
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- Too many numbers make you nervous. There are LOTS of numbers
- You abhor managing down to the smallest detail
- You don’t really care for WW2 or wargames in general
- If you want to always stick with the historical outcomes
Chris reviewed this game on a gifted copy and has played 55+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4790 CPU (3.60GHz), 12GB RAM, nVidia 4GB GTX 745.