With the benefit of hindsight, the Second World War would play out very, very differently to that written in the history books. For one thing, it would start a lot earlier and be much shorter, if playing Hearts of Iron IV multiplayer is anything to go by.
This is a game of grand strategy, in a specialist genre that Paradox Interactive cater to better than anyone else, as you manage and mobilise an entire nation’s resources and, with WW2 as the inspiration, has you marshalling your forces towards victory on the battlefield. You’re never focussed on an individual battle, but always at the bigger picture.
Of course, this manifests itself into something that initially appears to be utterly impenetrable and impossible to understand. You have to learn how to build factories and infrastructure, choose new technologies to research, set up and protect trade routes, train troops and create divisions, assign those divisions to a leader, manage the front lines and assist them with air power. There are a huge number of things to juggle at any one time, making the ability to pause the game incredibly useful, even though we didn’t use this when playing multiplayer.
Though making the game more accessible is a goal for Paradox, there’s currently no tutorial, which makes learning some of its many quirks rather difficult – how you assign airforces to battle over a particular region, for example, or adding units to a general’s command – and there are still plenty of rough edges and flaws on show. Getting the best out of a country’s industry is tricky for a relative newcomer such as myself, but luckily the first country that I played as was the relative minnow of Hungary – certainly compared to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and I had the benefit of being surrounded by a roomful of people from whom I could ask advice.
Having twenty-two players sat down in the same room to play Paradox Interactive’s upcoming WW2 grand strategy game certainly isn’t going to be a typical scenario for most of those that plan to play it once released, and yet it also exposed a number of nuances to the game that I likely wouldn’t have found by muddling my way through the single player version of the game. It was also a lot of fun, as Allied and Axis countries conspired and worked together to aim for victory, sweeping up neutral countries to fight alongside them wherever possible.
An artificial limitation, we had the game time ticking by at an accelerated rate. There wasn’t any opportunity to really stop and think, as there is when you can simply press pause in single player, and that added a degree of pressure to get everything set up within your country, to get the production lines rolling and turning out trained units to prepare for the inevitable war.
My stint as Hungary was generally a quiet one – I was the little country near the middle of the above image – as I gradually built up my ground troops and tried to prepare myself for the inevitable war. Italy, meanwhile, was desperately invading anyone and everyone that they possibly could, searching for any and all natural resources that could be used to turn them into a major player in a scrap against the allied forces. That, as it turned out, was our folly, as these relentless invasions saw the new measure of World Tension rapidly head towards 100% after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War – one of a number of scripted events within the game.
World Tension is a very interesting addition to the game, as it really dictates the flow of the game for the major powers. With every aggressive action around the globe adding to the overall percentage, the fascist countries want to keep it as low as possible, and so need to be cautious in their actions if they’re not yet ready for war, and this in turn restricts what the democracies can do. Britain, for example, can’t pick certain paths on the National Focusses tree that head towards rearmament unless a bare minimum of 1% World Tension has been surpassed, while the USA can only start lend-leasing equipment at 50%, let alone joining the other Allied countries.
Italy’s brash actions and those of Japan on the other side of the world meant that as soon as Germany belatedly re-militarised the Rhineland, France could quite comfortably and justifiably declare war, bringing the British Empire and the USA – who had already been able to join the Allies – in alongside them. The war was effectively done and dusted by the middle of 1939, as I personally battled with my neighbours in Yugoslavia, Romania and a surge of Turkish troops.
Taking on the mantle of Italy for a second game saw me knocked out of the running rather quickly. Again, it was the re-militarisation of the Rhineland that saw war break out, in a major difference compared to the more historically accurate actions of the AI, but events played out very differently than before. War, this time around, was even earlier than before, and while I played my part, marching across the Alps and forcing the French to redirect their forces to extend the war, it was ultimately fruitless as the WWI-esque troop-based grind of warfare eventually broke in the Allies’ favour.
Suddenly, with two European powers knocked out, Russia became the big bad on the map to be dealt with. The uncharacteristically militaristic Allies – with the rampant Australian forces in the hands of Paradox’ particularly ambitious Johan Andersson – in a fit of “why the hell not?” declared war and pushed from the west. However, there was also a burgeoning Sino-Japanese alliance to the east that quite ambitiously moved to claim lands that they had historical claims to. Suddenly fighting on two fronts, Russia really struggled to cope.
These grand strategy games can certainly be used to recreate history, or to make a different decision at key moments to shape WW2 in a new direction. You can even do something drastically different, especially when playing in multiplayer and allying or battling against human minds. Though tinged by elements of inexperience and a smattering of bugs in the beta build of the game, it led to hundreds of thousands of troops being lost wandering through the Amazon rainforest, the USA invading Canada, cats lying with dogs, a British landing in Hamburg and march through to Berlin after just two weeks of open warfare – I might not quite have mastered my country’s production lines, but I could spring a surprisingly audacious assault!
Release has slipped a few times over the first half of the year, and there’s clearly still a way to go until Hearts of Iron IV is ready, with bugs to squash, gameplay to rebalance and a tutorial to ease you into what is still an overwhelmingly complex interface. Yet it’s the ability to role-play and to try to rewrite history, managing a country in all its minutiae, that help to make Paradox Interactive’s staple grand strategy games so appealing to me. Doing so in multiplayer just seems to send you hurtling towards what is clearly the darkest timeline.
Travel and accommodation for the two day multiplayer event were provided by Paradox Interactive.