First published in 2005, Hearts of Iron II, with its accompanying expansions, is considered one of the flagship titles of Paradox Interactive and the title that launched the Hearts of Iron series, which at the time of this writing is on its fourth iteration. Following a design formula that would become Paradox’s standard, Hearts of Iron II, abbreviated Hoi2 by the fanbase, is one of the largest scale grand strategy games about WWII that has ever been produced.
Hoi2 takes the setting of WWII and puts the player in an almost godlike position of control over a country. The player must manage national resources, production, politics, and the command logistics and organization of their nation’s military. Many mechanical liberties are taken to showcase the level of removal that the player has from the day to day business in their nation, and to simplify complex processes like weapons research and industrial production. The smallest controllable unit is a division, air squadron, or naval flotilla, with brigades appearing as dependent attachments to divisions and ships. Industrial production involves simply ordering a unit to be produced with parallel and/or serial runs, while ensuring there is enough Industrial Capacity, or IC, to complete the process on time.
Yet the simplification of most of the specific processes in Hoi2 has resulted in many general processes being included, such as the management of specific territorial infrastructure, the direct diplomacy between over fifty potential nations, and the hidden nature of combat modifiers such as weather, terrain, and division overcrowding. This has all resulted in one of Hoi2’s biggest noted flaws: abrupt complexity. Beginner players see the exact same user interface as advanced players do, and must manage all of the same systems. The tutorial covers the basics of gameplay, particularly the movement and organization of divisions, as well as the basic controls for diplomatic and political interaction, but fails to accurately inform and test the player on the nuances of combat or the potential optimizations of even basic systems like industrial modifiers and chains of command.
All of that is to say that Hoi2 is very hard to learn; it’s not to say that Hoi2 is a bad or poorly designed game. Once a player has broken through the wall of ignorance that effectively locks all but the easiest playable nations, they are able to explore and enjoy a wide range of options and possibilities. Although the game is primarily a WWII simulator, with historical events coded in and most national AIs programmed to follow historic courses, the player can take their nation in any direction they please. Radical changes like turning the United States communist or Japan allying with the Soviet Union take time and skill, but more subtle actions such as successfully defending France can be accomplished with only a modest level of familiarity with the game.
An introduction to Hoi2 cannot be made easier for new players, but is absolutely worth the effort for anyone looking to take on the roll of a major world power in one of the most significant periods in human history. Obviously the major powers of the period are the ones with the most capacity for flexibility and outright conquest, but any nation that was present at the period can be played. Most importantly, the game proceeds in a sort of real time, with each hour of each day from the start point (as early as 1936) to the game’s end (as late as 1964) proceeding at a rate between 1 hr every five real seconds to 4 hrs per real second. The player can adjust that rate at will, and even pause the game to issue detailed orders and react to events and notifications at their leisure.
If any gamer every looked at a map, illustration, or diagram of a WWII front or operation and imagined moving those unit markers and shifting vector arrows, than Hoi2 is their dream game. It’s primary learning method is failure, but the player loses nothing but time by exploring different nations and strategies that might end in defeat in order to acquire essential familiarity with the game’s mechanics and nuances. Hoi2’s simple graphics and well designed processes ensure that it runs smoothly on old and new machines with minimal software requirements. The grand strategy genre will not appeal to all strategy gamers, but for those that enjoy the complexity of large scale command, Hearts of Iron 2 is a title worth mastering.