Hearts of Iron IV Review

Played on Windows.
Also available on macOS and Linux.

So a new month has started, and as such, I look to the Humble Monthly Bundle for a few games to review. This month there are three early unlocks, Heart of Iron IV, Blackwake, and Portal Knights. That’s a lot of games to look at and they’re quite diverse. We start with Hearts of Iron IV, mainly because it was listed in that order.

I personally enjoy some simulation games. I like X-Com and Civilization, for instance, however, the war game simulations that Paradox Interactive put out are a little deep for me. I still will review this game and I’ll try to look at it how it stands as a representative of the genre. Now, I’m not familiar with what players look for in these games so I’ll discuss this game from the outside with the understanding that some piece may not appeal to me, but are a specific way for a reason.

So to begin, let’s look at the story. The game can start in 1936, or 1939, if you’re at all familiar with the history of Earth in those two time periods, there is about to be a massive war started in September of 1939. This means Hearts of Iron IV is clearly a retelling of World War II.

So we know who wins, who loses and the results, so do we have to play? Well Hearts of Iron IV is not aimed at accurately retelling World War II, but instead allowing the player to simulate it, and retell it through their own actions. Perhaps you want to see what happens if France could hold off Germany, maybe you want to see how Germany would have fared if they avoided betraying the Russians and fighting a two-front war. There are many potential variants of the story and the game gives you the ability to pose questions and attempt to answer them with the game.

The game starts in 1936, where Italy is about to take Ethiopia. There is the option to turn off “historically accurate AI” and I didn’t play much with that but it implies that it will take a less accurate look at World War II. That can be interesting, and in some stories that I’ve heard, what happens with that off is interesting. But with each game taking me five to ten hours, I’m not that interested in playing many more to figure out what is going on, especially with so much more learning required.

But really the story here is the world on the cusp of the next great war. England and France are weakened from the “Great War” that occurred only 20 years previous. Germany and Italy are climbing back into world powers, and what happens next is up to you.

Everything is accurately depicted. I’m shocked at the levels of detail and crafting that clearly went into the game. For instance, England has three prime ministers, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill, each appearing at the right time, but that’s assuming democracy stays alive. With a decent amount of work on the player’s behalf, England could become a communist or even a fascist country if the player wanted it.

The game has you play as a country though, so the political system in the game affects your country, but won’t lose the game if your country flips government styles. The different political systems help to change who your friends are.

Every country also has realistic weapons and vehicles from the time period, and the game shows the appropriate upgrades and technology as it would occur in time.

There are historical events that happen. Early on, Germany enters the Rhineland and the 1936 Olympics happen. Many of these events have a minor influence on the game. Germany can be rebuffed by France for entering the Rhineland. That act is a prelude to one of the big early decisions which lead to when Germany and France begin the war. There are a number of ways to do this as France can take offense at Germany early, but as a country, it is a very weak power early in the game. France will get stomped if you let it.

So do we want to rally the flags? Or act meek? (The British won’t come to your aid at this point)

France can make decisions to change the story. They can start to produce military units as early as possible, building a decent sized army to fight back against the aggressors, even becoming a partial aggressor themselves. Beyond that France can also change who the factions are in World War II. Instead of going with a British led Allies faction, the French can build the “Little Entente” faction into a formidable fighting force. This was a real grouping of nations but the game only starts the faction after taking a specific national focus. From there, that can becomes the major faction who stands against the Axis powers.

Like I said, this game is about the world stage of 1936 and 1939, not the actual story of World War II, the question isn’t “Who won world war II” but more “What if X?” What if Germany attacked Poland earlier or later? What if Germany respected the Russian non-aggression pact? What if America drums up support faster or slower for the war? Each of these questions can be answered by the game, and the game takes a lot of effort to have a semi-realistic simulation of the events.

So as we start to talk about the “What Ifs” and what actually happens in the game, I would also start looking at the tutorial, as that’s where most players should begin. In the tutorial, you play Italy as they take over Ethiopia. It’s actually a really effective tutorial and shows the player a lot of features. However at the same time, as good as the tutorial is, I believe I’ve played three “full” games (at least five to ten years apiece) and learned a lot on each game. Most of that information wasn’t taught or was taught incorrectly in the tutorial. The tutorial itself teaches the situations. It’s set up well but really doesn’t prepare you for the main game, with a multi-front war, and a dominant enemy.

If you prefer different teachers, there are a number of videos online about how to play Hearts of Iron IV, a wiki that is run by Paradox specifically talking about the gameplay of the game, as well as an offline wiki in case you wish to go that route. There are of course forum posts that have asked most meaningful questions already. The resources are there.

Still, I’m a little disappointed in how brief the main tutorial is. This game can take up to 10 hours to play a single game, if not more, and the tutorial barely lasted an hour and gave me a few incorrect interpretations of the rules.

However, failure is the best teacher in this game, and I found new things that I was learning all the time. But, at the same time, failure is expensive. Five years in the game can easily take five hours or more. Losing a game after five hours really sucks, you get a good amount of experience, but you still have to restart from the beginning, especially if you play Ironman difficulty.

One lesson I learned when playing the United Kingdom, was about achievable goals. I contributed my small initial 15 troops to France and watched as France fell, taking my troops with it. That’s understandable and part of reality. However a couple of years later in the game while waiting for America to join the war (they join about 1941, no surprise there) I noticed that most of Africa had fallen to Italy

Sorry my African friends, but the good news is in the Last Look video you can see that we pushed them mostly out of Africa.

You see I didn’t pay attention to the owned countries that belonged to the UK and the game didn’t let me, I didn’t even know there was a battle going on in Africa for my country. As such I neglected my royal duty, and let Italy take a great deal of Africa. Fans online seem to say that the UK should move their early troops to Africa to kick Italy out. A good suggestion, just one that came too late after about 5 hours had been invested. I was playing on “Ironman” so I didn’t have incremental saves. So I went to work to push Italy out of Africa and had a lot of problems with that plan due to the fact that it came too late.

So one of my big problems is that Hearts of Iron rarely assists you. Each country is very different, but I found most countries a bit difficult to play without a few hints. These hints could have been made into a “goal” system so for France, you know you have to militarize as soon as possible, or for the UK you know you have to protect certain countries. I realize this goes against the idea of “anything goes” but for a beginner, it’s hard to know exactly what you should do at the beginning of the game.

This could have been an option, maybe called “guidance” or such where the game makes some hints up. “Learn these abilities” “focus on these technologies” or simply “let France fall and protect Egypt” Instead the game just shrugs and lets you make the same mistakes.

The game does give you alerts and notifications if there’s something that it thinks you need to fix, such as empty research slots. However, these tended to be a mixed bag. They’re often important but “Low manpower” often popped up in France, didn’t tell me much at the time such as ways to fix it. “You can make a decision” pops up often but actually I didn’t want to make those decisions. “You can change your government” is another one that I think has a mixed value. It’s useful if you want to, but often times it’s better to build the political capital than spend it. At least that’s what I’ve learned after my first game when I blew my political capital fast and needed it later.

Again this comes down to guidance and, actually, accessibility. There are a lot of balls this game expects you to keep up in the air, and if a person could juggle three balls relatively well, this game would throw six at you and then beat you every time you drop one until you can juggle all six.

None of these complaints are game breaking bugs, but it does make it harder for the player to access the depth of the game as a first-time player. I put about 18 hours into the game, and I enjoyed my time, but except for the game that I turned the difficulty down to near 0, I never felt like I knew exactly what I was doing. Making a better use of my experience in those first couple of games, or perhaps a scenario that taught me the game more, even a few hints to get me on the right track, and the game may have kept me more interested in the game, or at least taught me better than the forty minutes I spent on the tutorial. It would be harder to program and design, but it would have kept me more interested in the system and maybe made this a game I’d recommend to people outside of the war game genre.

In fact, the idea of “Guidance” or advisors could have been more helpful when dealing with “national focuses” or “technology” as well. I rarely knew what my country was missing. For Britain, I didn’t learn many ship technologies which was probably a mistake, and for France, I over-invested in military specialists, that there are limits on, rather than pretty much everything else. The National Focuses are like military technology in that they are extremely deep and advice would be useful. I made a number of bad choices, or wrong choices in my games and again I feel like the game could assist me. These are the areas which could use the same level of “Advisors” or suggestions to make the game easier or more accessible to early players.

A related issue is that every country is really different. Every country has similar technologies for research, though there are different units. Mostly, that means the names of the vehicles are different. It’s cool to fight a Panzer tank with a Tiger tank. The National Focus, on the other hand, are the big differences between countries.

National Focuses can be thought of as countrywide agendas. Some of them will just give you eventual bonuses to science research, or a few extra factories to use later, but many of them change how your country evolves or participates in diplomacy. There are also a number of them that give political options to other countries, such as America being invited to the war by the British, or France guaranteeing the protection of Poland. All the major countries have their own national focus tree so they each can follow their own path. However minor countries have a more generic version of the Tree. With 8 major countries (in no particular order UK, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, Poland, and America), each gets their own version of the National Focuses.

With all the technology and choices to be made in the early game, they can set up a country for success or failure, and while you can catch up, bad choices will heavily affect your experience, and potentially your overall success. The high level of importance here is underscored by the fact that if you don’t know what you’re doing you can go off the rails, and it’s a shame there is not a suggestion of what to do next similar to Civilization because there were times I wasn’t sure which technology to research, or which national focus would be important.

With all of this information, it’s not surprising that the beginning of the game is critical, it’s also extremely slow. You simulate each hour of every day, going from 1936 to 1948 and beyond. A year can take an hour or two of real time depending on how fast you are simulating, and how many stops you make. I left the game on the fastest simulation mode and it still took quite a while. As each hour in game ticks by, the game played as a turn, and while you usually are making large moves, the hours still are calculated independently. At first, it seems the game runs quickly but when you get bogged down in a war, the hours appear to take longer to calculate and I believe it slows down the overall time it takes to play a single year in the game, even at the highest rate of speed.

Sometimes every hour or day makes a big impact. However if you’re in the middle of the war and need to resupply you might take weeks, months, even almost a year in the case of a beaten Britain waiting for Russia and the USA to join, and in that case, the speed of the game just feels extremely slow. Also in all the games I’ve played 1936-1939 have those interesting choices, but come off as very slow and plodding, to the point where on one game, I entered into the war early just to have something to do.

Time, though, is critical beyond just development decisions being made. There was a game I played in France and I defended against Germany. I had built a decent sized army and was fighting Germany on the border between the countries. That border was heavily fortified, if you know your history, this is the Maginot Line. In the game, Germany pretty much can’t breach that line, so I felt good.

Suddenly after a couple months of no movement, Italy joined the war. However, I had moved all my troops away from there to fight the Germans. Italy was able to smash into my country and make a beeline for Paris and instantly destroy me because my troops couldn’t move back into position in time for it. It’s actually a good lesson. But again, this was in 1939, so I spent at least three to five hours to learn an important lesson, but with Ironman on, I couldn’t revert to try a different tactic, sadly.

Pretty much, once you have reached the war phase in the game, you’re going to find out how well your preparation has gone. You’ll usually find out pretty fast if you made the right choices. If you have, you at least can begin the war in a good state. If not, hopefully, you can hold out until you can fix those deficiencies.

You see in the Italian example above, I had no troops on the border, and I believe that is what killed me, even a single troop in every space on the border might have saved me as single troops can hold out a surprising amount of time in the game, and will retreat often if possible. The AI can set up a relatively solid line between countries if you plan for it to happen.

The challenge though is every troop in the game must be told what to do either through AI generals/army orders, or player interactions. I had over 100 troops so I had my teams set up into 5 armies, but ultimately I left the border open. The army/general system is solid, except when it starts to break down. The AI often make choices I’m not sure about, but even worse the game never is 100 percent clear on why the AI is doing what it’s chosen to do. It’s “making a plan” but it’s not a plan you will know.

An example was in the campaign I had in Britain, I had a front line between two countries, a UK country and Italy. I then made an offensive line for my generals to make war plans to give me the land that I wanted. Then I told my generals to execute an offensive plan to move forward. I just wanted them to start moving forward. I waited days, weeks, months, even most of a year, and the AI never moved forward. A search online finally explained it. My soldiers needed supplies. There was a little marker that is hard to see, or find that says “need supplies”. So I fixed that.

Again weeks, months, no change. The AI has some issues. While I like the AI a lot as it means I don’t have to focus on every aspect of the war, the AI tends to be less aggressive then it should be. Ordering a unit to take a specific spot makes them do it. Having the AI make a front line as well works great. The problem is, the offensive plans that the tutorial teaches the player should always work, but only seems to have a success rate of about 75 percent. Sometimes the AI will do it, sometimes the AI will flounder around.

I did find setting the AI to “aggressive” seems to improve these odds, but the fact is there’s nothing that explains why the AI isn’t working unless you dig down deep and find the right reason. It’s a shame because I’d like to be able to make the large war plans but it seems that the right move is to manually order some troops some of the time.

There is also a lot of percentage based math going on. You can make a large plan and the general will claim it’s risky. Why? Well, there was a 10 percent loss due to having to cross a river, a 20 percent loss because the plan isn’t ready, a 30 percent loss because troops aren’t in line. You only get this when you hold your mouse over the “execute” button for the plan long enough.

The same is true for diplomacy. “Oh the Americans have a base dislike of 20 percent, but have the same ideology so that’s a bonus, but don’t want to get into a war, but if they liked you enough maybe they would.” This type of percentage based gameplay is all over the game, and while I understand it, it’s critical to know and it feels like it’s often hidden in the tooltips. There are places where it’s shown but most of the time I had to know where to look before I could see anything, then hold my mouse there long enough for the initial tooltip to expand to a larger version to show all the information and then hopefully it would be enough information to do something about.

Not that the tool tips are always that informative.

So let’s assume everything has gone right, you’ve dealt with the AI and win a war. Well, you get perhaps my favorite part. You see, every action in a war is calculated, and the more you contribute to a war effort the better it is. If you play America and never send troops to Germany you really haven’t done much (though you can help with production). However, if you are France and constantly fight Germany and Italy, you’ve almost certainly given up quite a bit.

So when the war is over you start the peace conference. Really this is the “demands” table. I beat Germany and Italy in a game (with heavily biased difficulty settings), and from there I started claiming every part of Italy and Germany I could, by the end I had taken almost all of Germany and Italy over. If there is an issue with this, you can demand almost anything you want until there are no more countries left, and there are not a lot of reasons to be humble. Gobble up anything you want in these conferences.

From there you have to hold the land you have taken, avoid a civil war and prepare for a potential second war over the land, but the act of splitting up a country is enjoyable. It’s done in a round robin style of choices, where you have a limited number of decisions to make each turn depending on your contribution to the war effort. In my example, France did a lot so they could make a good amount of demands, but each choice I made usually ended with me ending my turn and then another of the Allied powers would make a demand, then I’d eventually get another chance to demand.

The entire peace process is really interesting and fun, the only issue is that it takes almost forever to reach that point of the game. The few times it happens before World War II is over, you’ll have single-handedly taken over a country so you get all the decisions, but by the time World War II is over, you pretty much are just deciding on a final map. There is the potential for a war between the Allies and Russia but that’s up to you. For the most part, World War II is pretty much the core of the game.

I’ve given the game a glossing over and part of the reason is that is what I’ve played. There’s a really good and interesting game here and there’s a ton of depth that I haven’t discussed here. Heck, there’s a depth that I haven’t even explored in the actual game, such as the Unit designers and such, but the game really allows you to play as you like. If you want to go in and manually tweak the units you train, you’re allowed to. You can name all the units you want and there is the ability to make small changes to the vehicles you’re producing. There’s an amazing amount of depth, but it’s more amazing that most of that is not required by the game itself.

With that being said, I do have to say the game is a bit hard to access at first, and really for entirely too long. If you play on regular, you will be challenged and the game doesn’t pull punches. However, there are five difficulties ranging from very easy to very hard. Beyond that, you’re able to “Customize” the difficulty by strengthening most major countries. Running a very easy campaign with fully strengthened France, UK, and America made the game a joke to play. The Allies beat the Axis in a couple years, and America never entered the war, nor did Japan ever join the Axis powers. It wasn’t the true history, but it was a lot of fun to mess with, which is the point of Hearts of Iron IV.

However, there are parts of the game that have issues beyond whether I enjoyed them or not. Sea combat seems broken. I played very poorly with Britain, and yet no one ever seemed to try to land on my shore. It can be a big hassle for a human player to do it, but the AI never attempted it once, and this was a Germany who had taken over all of Europe and Russia, the manpower was there, I’m not sure why it wasn’t attempted.

As I mentioned the AI itself can be bad, the player probably should manually move troops some of the time just to keep the front line moving, when the AI stagnates for unknown reasons. Even solving those reasons the AI is not aggressive enough on balanced gameplans.

One thing that I have an issue with is that I find diplomacy is a bit weak in this game, even asking for peace seems to be a crapshoot. I really wanted to bring France, America, and England into a faction early, and crush Germany. Well, if you’re already at war with Germany, countries don’t want to get dragged into a war, which is a bit silly because America was itching to get into the war at the time, though most countries should realize that Germany would eventually turn on them, so there’s a reason to join earlier.

Diplomacy made all of that difficult. I think there are probably a lot of important diplomatic moves but I didn’t see a strong reason for it in all three of my games. The game doesn’t make it easy to really tackle the diplomacy options, which is understandable. Hearts of Iron IV is about going to war, not talking out our feelings. It’s just that parts of the diplomacy feel lost, even though there are a large number of things that can be said.

I’ve talked a bit about playing on Ironman difficulty, and people might wonder why I chose a specific difficulty setting that didn’t allow me to save off in the middle of the game. Well, I like achievements, and in this game there are achievements, but they are set up so that you have to be on regular difficulty, start the game from 1936 (Which means you have that very long build up to look forward to each time) and be on Ironman difficulty. This isn’t necessarily a negative but it does mean that the devs seem to think there’s a “right way” to play, at least if you want to be awarded achievements.

So overall how is Hearts of Iron 4? Well as an outsider to the genre looking in, this isn’t the game that’s going to make me into a wargamer. There’s a complexity to the game that is hard to access and there are a lot of decisions to make that aren’t instantly apparent.

But there’s a bigger problem for me. I played three or four games and that took me over 17 hours to play. Even when I stopped playing different attempts early I still spent a good amount of time in each game. I’ve played a lot of other games that are shorter than 4 hours, and while I do prefer longer games, the fact that I usually felt that I had to invest between two to four hours before getting to the “good part” of a game of Heart of Iron IV eventually got to me.

However, I try to judge games more based on the genre rather than personal preference. I don’t like rugby but if I play a rugby simulator I shouldn’t let my opinion of the sport affect the score. In this case, I’m not a wargamer. While this game isn’t going to change my opinion, I can see a lot of solid gameplay in the game, and while I have issues, I feel that the person who likes this style of game will enjoy the game quite a bit.

The AI though is a big problem for me. I want to give this game a four because it seems pretty good for a war game. But there are enough little complaints here with the AI that I can’t even call it a great game. I’m sure people learn all the quirks and can figure them out. Still, I feel like the lack of meaningful sea combat by the AI, the issues with the AI just stopping on your plans, and the lack of a better tutorial and goal system diminishes the game a bit.

Hearts of Iron IV does a very accurate simulation of World War II and does it extremely interestingly. If you want to simulate World War II, or really any conflict at that time with a “what if” scenario, Hearts of Iron IV does that, but it will refuse to teach you the entire game itself. You can learn it, and it is a remarkably deep game, but ultimately I have an issue with the accessibility of the game here beyond what is a genre issue.

So while I’m not a huge fan, and probably won’t play much more, I can see why someone will enjoy it, especially if they are a huge fan of World War II, it has its flaws, but I give it a


Final Thoughts: Well, probably what the fans of the genre are looking for, it’s still a deep game, that’s a little hard to approach for outsiders. However, there’s a good game here, though the AI does have flaws.

Stats: 19.4 hours played. 7/71 achievements earned

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