I Tried and Failed to Defend Poland in ‘Hearts of Iron IV’
Germany beat me badly, but I still had a lot of fun
by MATTHEW GAULT
Everything was going so well. I had organized my economy, military and political system — and was confident the republic would survive fascist aggression. I knew the history, lay of the land and thought I understood the game.
I was wrong.
It’s 1939 and I’m in charge of the Republic of Poland. The Red Army masses to the east while the Wehrmacht prepares to smash my defenses in the west. The Baltic States to the north look on, ignoring my desperate appeals for support. In the south, Albania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia decide to appease the fascists.
This is Hearts of Iron IV and, not for the first time, I’m wondering if playing as Poland my first time through was a bad idea.
Hearts of Iron IV is the newest installment in Paradox Interactive’s long-running wargame series. Digital storefront Steam calls it a strategy game. That’s not quite right. Hearts of Iron IV is a big, crazy World War II simulator.
It’s about more than just strategy. The game asks players to take charge of a country during the 1930s and ’40s and steer it to success during the bloodiest era in world history. It’s hard, rewarding and a ton of fun.
Full disclosure — I had never played a Paradox game until now. They intimidated me. I once had a roommate who loved Europa Universalis and I’d stare over his shoulder at all the maps, colors and hexes in frightened awe.
But I love strategy games, especially those such as Civilization that focus on the macro level. In Total War games I’ll often auto-resolve conflicts because I want to get back to the business of managing my empire. With that in mind, I leaped into Hearts of Iron IV.
One of the great things about Hearts of Iron is that you can set your own goals. If you play as the United States, for example, you can pursue historically similar goals, pull the country out of the Great Depression and aid free Europe against tyranny. Or you could support a domestic fascist political party and become an Axis power. It’s up to you.
With that in mind, I decided to learn the game by playing as Poland. Paradox paid special attention to Poland during the development and made it the focus of a free content upgrade that gave the Polish faction its own military units and national tech tree.
My goals for Hearts of Iron IV were these — learn the game and keep Poland free.
I succeeded at one by failing miserably at the other.
Hearts of Iron IV has two different starting points, 1936 and 1939. Reasoning I’d stand a better chance of survival given a few years to prepare, I picked 1936. I selected Poland and was dumped right into the action. Right from the get go, the game was more daunting and impenetrable than I first imagined.
I read Paradox Interactive’s beginner’s guide and played through the tutorial, but neither did a good job preparing me for the game. Boxes, numbers and text filled the screen. I had to worry about manpower, national unity, political capital, trade, production lines, infrastructure, ideologies and on and on and on.
The game has so many moving pieces it’s hard to figure out how everything fits together. If I research improved infantry weapons, will the factories automatically start producing them? How do I improve my manpower numbers? How do I enforce conscription? What’s the point of improving relations with a country if I can’t get them to agree to an alliance?
Slowly, after lots of trial and error, more than a few failures and constant trips to the Internet for clarification, the game began to click. Too bad Poland suffered so I could learn the game.
During my first game, I concentrated on getting ready for Sept. 1, 1939 — the date of the upcoming German invasion. I built civilian factories and planned to convert them to military factories later, constructed forts along my western frontier, bolstered those forts with troops and moved a sizable army to the border with East Prussia.
I dumped resources and political capital into three separate democratic coups inside Germany. None panned out, and in the summer of 1939 the Third Reich demanded Poland relinquish control of Danzig. I refused, the Germans attacked, and I pushed my little army into East Prussia. It didn’t reach the Baltic Sea before the Wehrmacht overran Warsaw.
I shut the game down and decided to try again. I watched YouTube videos, read through strategies and asked for advice from friends who had played the game. One told me I might have a better chance if I kept the game ahistorical.
There’s a checkbox at the beginning of the campaign that changes the way the A.I. works. Check the box and all the other countries will maintain a historical focus and act similarly to how they actually behaved. Uncheck the box and all bets are off.
Thinking of Poland, I unchecked the box and loaded up a new game. Then things got weird and I fell in love with Hearts of Iron IV.
As the second game opened, I immediately invested in military factories and hired political operatives to agitate for democracy. I wanted to build a coalition of friendly neighbors, so I spent resources improving relations with the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
I also tried wooing Albania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but spread myself too thin and pulled back. Which is a shame, I really wanted King Zog on my side. Yes, just because I like the name.
Democracy spread like wildfire in Poland and the Polish Peasant Party came to power. I built extensive trade relations with Great Britain and the United States, and focused on building anti-infantry light tanks because I didn’t think I’d have enough time to make anything fancier.
Poland begins with relatively advanced computing and radio technology, which allowed me to spy on Germany a little. The Germans’ national focus seemed to be taking them down an ahistorical, dare I say diplomatic, route. The Wehrmacht fought a war to take Austria, but backed off.
The Fuhrer then attempted to arbitrate a land deal over disputed territory between Hungary and Romania. It failed and the world mocked Germany’s diplomatic abilities. I mean that literally — the game produces newspapers that keep the player abreast of world events and the news made light of Germany’s diplomatic failures.
And that’s when Hitler went crazy.
During all this, Mussolini announced a new Italian Empire and set about conquering Africa. Almost all of it. The United Kingdom went to war with Italy to keep its colonies in Africa and protect French interests.
Hungary joined the Axis powers and, backed by Germany, took over Romania. Fascists surrounded Poland. Yet I had three armies — one pressuring East Prussia as before, one along the western border with the Reich and one to the south along Poland’s border with Hungary and Slovakia.
My diplomatic efforts, however, largely failed. The Baltic States seemed content to sit and watch as greater powers than themselves gobbled up their territory. Then, the United Kingdom reached out and asked me to join the Allies. Startled, I accepted and prepared for war.
Unfortunately, I still didn’t understand Hearts of Iron IV’s nuanced military mechanics. After joining the alliance, I immediately pushed into East Prussia and sent my southern forces marching into Hungary. But by doing so, I’d left a huge hole for the Reich to march through and take Warsaw.
My Western border was defended, but it didn’t matter. In short order, the Axis armies ended Polish sovereignty. But then something awesome happened.
In my first game when the Germans invaded Poland, the game ended and gave me the option of playing as the conquerors. But this time around — I’m assuming because I was in the Allied coalition — I maintained control of the Polish government in exile.
It was, hands down, the most fun I had playing the game.
I spent the next six years of game time operating the Polish government and praying for the liberation of my homeland. I took my remaining resources and poured them into sponsoring a democratic coup in Germany. Unlike my first game, this gambit somewhat succeeded.
Konrad Adenauer led a coup from Bohemia and carved a German Republic out of the heart of the Reich. The Nazis eventually crushed it, but not before Soviet and German Republic forces briefly liberated portions of Poland.
I also maintained control of one submarine and 20 air support fighters. Both participated in the war well into 1946, seeking repairs and fuel from Allied bases in Norway. Despite those small victories, the longer the game ran, the more it appeared to be the darkest of all possible timelines.
Japan focused on conquering China and never bombed Pearl Harbor. The United States pursued an isolationist policy and Kansas Gov. Alf Landon won election over Franklin Roosevelt. Landon kept America out of the war until it was too late.
The United Kingdom fought Italy in Africa while supporting what remained of the French resistance in mainland Europe. With Hungary occupying Poland and absorbing the bulk of Soviet aggression, the Wehrmacht burned through the USSR and took Moscow with frightening speed.
Stalin died and the Reich stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
America entered the war … but it was too late.
U.S. forces got bogged down in the Middle East fighting Turkey. Iran joined the Axis and took portions of Africa for itself. Japan absorbed East Asia, and Germany wrestled control of India away from the British.
At this point, I realized I’d just spent hours watching a simulation instead of playing it. That’s the strongest endorsement I can give Hearts of Iron IV. I lost several hours of my life watching the A.I. play out a scenario while I did the bare minimum to manage the failed Polish Republic.
It was an absolute blast. Hearts of Iron IV has a huge learning curve. The U.I. is daunting and unintuitive and you’re going to lose — and lose hard — the first few times you play. But the more time I spent with the game, the more I understood it and the more fun I had.
As I closed down my second Polish game I had an idea. What if Poland went fascist? I could push that ideology just as easily as I had democracy. What would happen if Poland became an Axis country and just took those Baltic countries that didn’t want to join me in the previous game?
I can’t wait to find out.
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