A Little Time with Hearts of Iron III

Against all odds, I had some time to play games over the weekend. Thanks to feeling generally unwell and staying in, anyway. I elected to spend that time not in an MMO but re-acquainting myself with Hearts of Iron III.

For those who don’t know, this is one of the grand strategy games from Paradox. I’ve had a long fascination with these titles but the actual time I’ve spent playing them hasn’t reflected that in every case. They are all open-ended, brutally complex and not terribly user-friendly. They are also among the only strategy video games that, for me, capture the majesty of old school hex-and-counter board wargames.

The Hearts of Iron series is the World War II iteration of the line, and is probably the most complicated of the bunch. I’d made a few passes at HoI2 and HoI3 before, but it’d been quite a while, so to refresh my memory I watched a bunch of video and played out the 1939 invasion of Poland. It didn’t go especially well — it took me nine weeks to complete the conquest (as opposed to the five weeks it took historically,) but afterwards I saw what I did wrong. Making better use of air power, not ignoring the relevant victory points and better exploiting breakthroughs with armor and mobile units would make the campaign go significantly faster. This experiment took maybe an hour or two.

For an actual game, I again settled into playing as Germany, starting in 1936, because I’m pretty aware of their prewar situation and know, pretty much, what they need to do to get ready for the conflict. Even so, I made some dumb errors. I built a lot of units as regulars instead of reserves, costing me Industrial Capacity and time.

I’m at the beginning of February 1939 and France and Poland are already mobilizing, and I’m not quite ready. I also let dissent get a little high, and while this didn’t cause any direct problems it did delay a couple of national decisions. An ill-considered attempt to launch a coup in Britain failed. Still, much else went according to plan. The Anschluß with Austria happened a little ahead of schedule, as did the annexation of the Sudetenland, and later the rest of Czechoslovakia. I am gearing up industrially as best I can. The Axis is formed with Italy and Japan and an unholy alliance has been signed with the Soviets… probably a little earlier than it should have been (that’s probably why the French are pissed.) The Wehrmacht is efficiently organized; if you start in 1936 it’s a mess. Technologically I’m a bit ahead of the historical timeline, and I have invented radar – but I’m still building the radar stations.

Perhaps most significantly, spies in the US have massively boosted the popularity of the German-American Bund. This is likely to lead to a messy 1940 election and may keep the US out of the war for a while, which in principle should help Japan. Speaking of my polite far eastern partners, they’ve managed to enforce a truce on the Nationalist Chinese. My plan is to start the war early — the national decision to demand Danzig and the Polish Corridor becomes available in May 1939. But I’m not sure I will be ready that early, because I want to take out France in 1939 instead of waiting until 1940. This will leave 1940 for the minor operations to secure Denmark, Norway and the Balkans while building for the inevitable war with the USSR and bombing the stuffing out of Britain.

Hearts of Iron III is a slow-building game. I have probably sunk 6 hours into this playthrough and the war hasn’t even started yet. But I can’t wait to resume, and I’m already looking forward to the next game, probably playing as the Soviets. It’s a lot to manage, though. You can basically automate everything including the military, but the AI won’t perform as well as a decent human player. Which I’m not, yet — so I am doing everything manually. So I expect to have to be careful in my invasion of Poland and also think I will be challenged by France. Then again, my spies have national unity there really low and I shouldn’t need many victory points to make the French crumble.

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