When I first received Hearts of Iron, I was kind of expecting a strategy game along the lines of Axis and Allies, where you could fight World War II on a strategic scale. What I got was that and a whole lot more.
Hearts of Iron is the most complex game I have every played. It took three days of reading and re-reading the manual coupled with copious experimentation to become even mildly proficient with the game. At one point, I nearly gave up in frustration. But, I am so thankful that I didn’t. There is a lot to learn, but once you do you won’t find a more rewarding strategy gaming experience anywhere.
You control almost every aspect of your chosen country from 1936 through 1948. You can play as the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan or the United States. And when I say almost everything is in your power, I mean it. You have to choose who your government officials are, and different historical figures will give different bonuses in different jobs. Sometimes they may even overrule your decisions. Put a navy man up as your minister of armament, and don’t be surprised if all your research goes into nautical technologies. Of course your ministers will be loyal if you control another aspect of your realm: public dissent.
People like to be fed. You will need to devote a significant portion of your national economy to keeping your people happy and healthy. That is difficult enough in peacetime, but in war, it can be impossible. You need to balance civilian supplies, military supplies, research and development dollars and new unit construction. If your civilians don’t get enough to eat, dissent rises and your ministers can eventually rebel.
You will also need to choose what generals will work with what units. You might want to put a sea wolf into a submarine squad, a tank commander into a tank brigade and an offensive doctrine general – a man like Patton who gets a bonus to all offensive maneuvers – into an invasion force.
Besides just a blanket devotion of resources, you will also need to choose what technologies you are going to research. Do you try to create the best infantry forces in the world with submachine guns and magnetic mines, or do you upgrade the armor on your tanks? Perhaps the way to go is to develop rockets and the ultimate weapons of destruction, atomic bombs.
You also have to manage diplomacy. Other countries can be brought into your alliance, or if you are lax in this area, your enemies can slowly turn the world against you.
There are also several special historical events, like the Spanish Civil War that occur that you must respond to. Depending on your country, you will get several other events too, like the Soviet Union deciding whether or not to purge all traitors – or suspected traitors – from their ranks at the cost of experienced leaders.
And most of these tasks take place before you even set foot on a battlefield.
The combat interface is very similar to other titles published by Strategy first and developed by Paradox Entertainment like Legion and Europa Universalis. When you click on a unit on the world map, you can look at its status and who is currently commanding it. You can then merge it with other units or break large divisions down into separate tasks forces.
When you tell it to move to an enemy area, a red arrow will show the path it will take and a game clock will tell you how many days or hours it will take for the unit to arrive and begin the combat. You can thus coordinate your attacks with airplanes bombing first, then your tanks and infantry swooping in following the confusion. If the terrain is flat, you can blitzkrieg armored units into a neighboring province and continue your attack.
The interface is real-time, but you can pause the game to give orders and control the speed. You can set it to go as fast as a month a minute or as slow as several seconds of real time equaling an hour in the game.
The coolest thing about Hearts of Iron is that while the game is very historical in terms of starting units, leaders and technology, you can branch out from there. In one game I conquered England as Germany and brought them into the Axis. We then jointly attacked and swarmed across the Soviet Union. In another game as the United States, Germany became a minor concern as the Allies went after the Soviet Union. As the Soviets I did have my revenge, attacking and rolling over Germany and France in early 1938 before anyone could come to real power.
And while the computer tries to at least keep things going the way they did historically, you can also join or host a multiplayer game. And when humans are controlling the various powers, anything goes.
The game lost some points in the area of gameplay, not through any fault of the game itself, but because the manual is not up to the task of explaining how things work. Many features are not discussed in the manual at all, and several times the manual actually tells you the wrong thing. I had to get the developers to answer several gameplay related questions for me because I could not figure out how to do certain tasks. It’s a shame too, because a game this complex should have shipped with a book about twice the size as the 108 page manual that came with it. As it stands, only trial and error will let you find out how to so some tasks in the game. Also, you need to patch the game when you get it. The patch clears up several balancing issues.
The soundtrack is excellent. There is almost two hours of classical music. All of the songs are ones that go well with battle, like the Ride of the Valkyries. It’s a pretty nice touch to go along with some amazing strategic thinking.
Once you get your head around the game, it will become second nature. It just takes a little while to reach that point. Then the fate of the world is in your hands and your hands alone. So use your power wisely.