After three years of meticulous preparation, the fighting can begin. For this part of the review, I’ve gone straight in with the ‘1939’ starting option – trying out both Germany and Japan as they present very different starting positions.
Not Quite Ready for Prime Time
The German General Staff were Nervous Nellies during World War II but looking at the set-up for the 1939 scenario, they may have had a point. No armies exist, cabinet and staff positions are vacant despite over a thousand political points, support battalions are at 1918 levels, no divisions edited and unbelievably low armed forces experience levels. What has the Reich been doing all this time? It’s a very weird disconnect between what I achieved in my previous 1936-start, and it makes you wonder why anyone would want to skip those crucial early years.
Oh well, since the divisions are in the right place, might as well try out this war business. Research time for Panzer II variants is short so the Wespe, etc. is researched as well as support units. Armies created near Poland will be relatively small, allowing for short, encircling jabs from narrow fronts. Generals will be assigned as no army will contain more than twenty-four divisions. A larger force will hold down the West, requiring a field marshal. Each army is named for quick access. All armies will exercise and have battle plans to build experience. The fighters from eastern airfields will provide air superiority with bombers doing ground support; planes in the West will only fly interdiction initially. The subs will sortie into the North Sea and Atlantic while single raiders prepare to seek convoys; the rest of the fleet moves into the Baltic.
There are some difficulties with making Hearts of Iron IV more sandbox than historical – Gaining Czechoslovakia does not give Germany the PZKW38t, the workhorse of the Panzers in 1939-1940. No Polish airfields are visible so the Luftwaffe can’t destroy its counterpart on the ground early. The navy is especially bland: What few officers listed are all admirals so a single cruiser like Graf Spee lacks a captain like Langsdorf. She can’t even sail into the South Atlantic due to range limitations. Historically, the Germans had pre-positioned fueling stations and ships for the surface raiders, but the game can’t support that.
When late August arrives, a decision must be made. The ‘Danzig or War’ national focus was selected on August 14 but takes seventy days to take effect. Those days would be nice for preparation but is a late October start a good idea? Germany will simply declare war on September 1 via the diplomatic panel and assume Poland wouldn’t have backed down.
As expected, France, Britain and her Commonwealth declare war on Germany. German armies around Poland activate their war plans. Patch 1.1 allows three degrees of advance: cautious, normal and aggressive; all armies go full out aggressive. The border battles show tough Polish defense because, having the fronts set too narrowly, not all German divisions can engage. Players can manually move divisions to the battles as well, instead of relying on the battle plans. Battles are shown by small semicircles with the percentage of victory in the middle and the top curve showing green for winning, white for undecided and red for losing; a click reveals more details of commanders and forces. Continued close air support and manual reinforcements ensure advances and a third of the Polish army is isolated.
German forces from the north and south grind toward Warsaw but Danzig puts up a bitter fight although the AI doesn’t take advantage of open flanks. French forces in the West do nothing but gain air superiority. No bombing occurs but the Royal Navy takes on the German fleet in the North Sea and Baltic. Oddly, the German navy holds its own.
Poland capitulates on October 15. Germany respects the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty and hands eastern Poland to the Soviets. Three German units must evacuate the Soviet zone. The eastern armies are disbanded with some troops garrisoning Posen, Danzig and Warsaw while the rest is transferred west. The border with the Soviets is not defended because Germany and the USSR are BFFs! (ED: I don’t see this ending badly at all.)
Creating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
Japan in August 1939 is far better prepared than Germany was. With seasoned armies in China and a fine navy and air force, her military experience is good. A major problem is supply for the units in China, but improving the infrastructure all the way back to Korea will improve this situation. Two armies are created but they just exercise until supply improves and artillery is researched and produced. The Chinese coast has already been invaded amphibiously so more marines are put in production. Unless players know Japanese terms, the division editor needs opening to figure out unit types for production. Fighters are assigned air superiority in case the Flying Tigers come early. Regular troops can be transferred between friendly ports by convoy. Contested landings, however, require the sea zones leading to the landing site to be controlled by friendly vessels. Preparations delay the move for days after the command to start has been given.
The infrastructure has improved in the north so an army is unleashed against Mao and is successful, regardless of the “little red book”. Resistance is active in a few provinces but doesn’t seem effective. A few MP brigades could help here. The marines on the southern coast are making progress with the aid of naval bombardment. As time speeds up, artillery can finally be added to our infantry. This addition comes just in time as our fight against the Communists is blunted by rugged terrain; the AI is finally learning how to mass forces.
Japan needs to consider the future. The resources of the East Indies are vital but conquering them will bring the US into the war. Hence, the Kido Butai carrier force is needed. All fleet carriers are put in one group with light cruiser and destroyers. Surface fleets and convoys prepare to move south.
Messages indicate that Germany declared war on the Low Countries and Switzerland in late 1939. Such rash acts may make Japan regret any treaty with the Reich. Diplomatic overtures to the US seem like a good idea. Meanwhile, winter weather has stalled operations in China; a corps has been cut off in south central China. What Chinese troops lack in quality, they make up for in quantity. It is going to be a long war.
In its present state, Hearts of Iron IV teeters on the edge of greatness. The 1936 scenario allows players to take nations in many different directions. Innovative abstractions and a smooth UI make feature that can cripple other games (and, in fact, past HOI iterations) –e.g. trade and production – easy and fascinating. Granted, the frequent need to revisit research and national focus becomes boring in an all-nighter but the logic is understandable.
On the other hand, the military angle shown in the 1939 scenario is flawed in terms of history and gameplay. The battle plan concept is fine, relieving players of much micromanagement but the divisional templates are often wrong. Two great powers, UK and Japan, don’t have artillery added to their divisions with no entry for it in their production queues. Sending units into battle without infantry was unthinkable in the eighteenth century, not to mention the twentieth! The naval component seems to be an afterthought. By having all officers as admirals, the emphasis seems to be on fleets when, in the Atlantic, single-ship or small unit actions were the norm. Where are the mines to block harbors or minesweepers to clear them? Both naval and air re-fueling and re-arming need to be addressed. These issues need a patch soon.
A major irritation is the continued lack of a single comprehensive source for mechanics. Searching a forum for a specific item takes too much time and effort while YouTube videos are often long, unfocused or gushy. Paradox Interactive should remember that their niche is populated by literate and clever people who use manuals. (ED: Nobody uses manuals anymore Jim.)
Despite it rough edges, Hearts of Iron IV is a joy to play if players begin in 1936. We hope that the developers continue their tradition of great post-launch support.