Paradox released its latest magnum opus last week, Hearts of Iron 2.

Short version: you like wargames? Go buy it. Long version?

Paradox’s earlier effort, Europa Universalis, and especially its successor, Europa Universalis 2 (which is really EU 2.0, but we wont’ complain) is probably the best strategy game ever made. It has an absolutely insane scope – take a country from 1400 to 1800 and try to control the world, or merely survive – and made it actually playable. Every game plays differently, and you may accidentally learn something about a period of history most Americans are woefully unfamiliar with.

Hearts of Iron 1, when released, was fundamentally unplayable. The technology tree was designed to be enjoyed by someone suffering with autistic disorders. The economic model was punishing, and to top it all off, the game suffered from an AI that couldn’t actually play the game (which is understandable, most human beings couldn’t, either). Not only that, but it crashed. A lot. Paradox slugged along and patched it, and more importantly, a fan group, CORE, came up with a patched AI, tech tree, and event engine that made the game slightly more vaguely playable, in an old-style SPI monster game sort of way.

Then came Victoria, which was Paradox’s low point in this series. The topic is seemingly sure-fire – like EU2, but with Rudyard Kipling! And the Civil War! But unfortunately, Paradox made Victoria a paen to the gods of unplayability, as the core of the game involved a completely unpenetrable economic model that involved scrambling for rare machine tools, manipulating the lives of your subjects (can’t have too many farmers! Must turn them into office workers stat!), running unbelievable constant deficits well before economies could support them in reality and finally crashing repeatedly. If that wasn’t enough, Victoria was sadly also leaked to pirates by an unscrupulous reviewer a month before being shipped, which did serious damage to the game’s sales more than word of mouth ever could.

Thankfully, they learned from their mistakes, and Crusader Kings was the first result. My take on Crusader Kings is here; suffice to say it’s different, and accessible, and fun.

Hearts of Iron 2 really completes this cycle. This is the most polished Paradox game ever; in a week of play I’ve had NO crashes. The interface is considerably streamlined, the AI is far more of a challenge – the upshot is really that this game is just a whole lot of fun.

For example, here’s the after action report (AAR) of a scenario from Hearts of Iron 2, Barbarossa. (I posted this originally on Corpnews’s forums.) I played it as Germany. My objectives: Leningrad, Moscow and Baku before Winter sets in. Scenarios in HOI2 are military campaigns only – you can’t do research or politics, don’t control the economy, and reinforcements are alloted to you automatically through events.

It started out really, really well. I sliced through pretty much every Soviet defensive line, and was in Kiev 2 months before the Germans were historically (July instead of September). I wasn’t making huge pockets and imprisoning half the Soviet army; but I thought my conservative play style would win out over risk. After all, we saw where risk got the Wehrmacht!

So, here’s my southern front line immediately after Kiev fell. The Russians are starting to stablize under Konev, who is a fairly bad-assed commander (historically he and Zhukov raced to get into Berlin). I’m sending my reinforcements south to take over from the Romanians, whom I don’t control and aren’t nearly as good as my forces, with the hope of driving across Crimea into Novorossisk and looping into the Caucasus.

Right about then is where the dramatic advances stop. I still have 4 or 5 decent Panzer armies, but the rest of my forces are starting to wear down and can only muster decent offensive action for a few days before wearing thin. Even worse, my air support can’t reach the front lines. I start to make a serious drive on Smolensk just so I can get some bombing action happening again – it’s the only airfield within 500 miles.

It’s not terribly easy. The Russians pull out of Finland, where inexplicably they carved all the way into Helsinki, and start hitting my northern forces in the Baltics HARD. I actually have to retreat a few provinces. Well, guess I know where my reinforcements are going. Stabilize that front, and get within striking distance of Leningrad, but my troops are completely incapable of attacking. My central armies have taken Smolensk, and are hitting Kaluga and Tula trying to yoink Moscow while they can, and in the south I’m holding Kiev (which Konev tried and failed to retake) and moving through the Crimea quickly.

October rolls around and the muds sink in. I start being a bit more reasonable in my assault – a province here, a province there. I’m one province away from Leningrad now, and two from Moscow (Tula falls, which is basically a suburb of Moscow – this historically as far as the Germans ever got). I even start landing troops into the Caucasus after pacifying the Crimea.

Then the snows fall, and everything just falls apart. I manage to hold onto most of what I take, although the Caucasus landing fails and has to be evacuated. Finally the scenario ends with a Minor Victory, which is basically what Germany scored historically – they took a ton of territory, but the USSR isn’t beaten by a long shot.

Oh, did I mention this all happened in about 2 hours? The scenarios are just precisely right for a quick “in and out” session of gaming. Most of them have the global political, economic and research models turned off, which I didn’t really miss as much as I expected. The military game gave me plenty to do already, thanks.

The longer campaigns give you these to work with, however. The political system in particular is much more mature. As a democracy, you can’t declare war. Period. Your people won’t stand for it. So, much like FDR, you have to sort of ease them into the idea gradually, by shifting your government’s values (much like the national attributes in EU2), once a year manually, the rest of the time through events, reacting to things like national elections and the occasional congressional cock-up. Playing as the US, I was able, through judicious manipulation, to get my belligerence high enough to be able to join the Allies in time for Germany’s declaration of war in 1939. Of course, I had also somehow turned into a socialist dictatorship. What are ya gonna do. (It ended badly. The US really wasn’t ready for war back then, but I’m sure the French appreciated the additional dead bodies thrown in Germany’s way to their victory parade.) Here’s an image of Finland’s governmental choices, after being replaced by (an interestingly enough, historically accurate were things to have gone that way) puppet Soviet government.

The research model is also worth noting. Here’s a screen of that.

Note the tree structure. As the Russians, 3/4s of that tree is closed off to me. I’m stuck with the Human Wave tree of this area (land combat doctrine) thanks to pre-game choices. The left of the screen are my research teams. Major powers get 5, small countries get less. You task your teams with research directions, and they do it. These research directions are far less picayune in scope – you research “1939-era infantry” instead of “rifle muzzle loaders” and you spend no resource save a nominal amount of cash on research, so HOI1’s ahistorical result of plowing all your resources into research and launching nuclear-tipped ICBMs at people in 1942 isn’t very doable.

Much of the game revolves around removing micromanagement. You commit your air and naval forces to provincial actions instead of individual attacks – the far saner option of “fly ground support for a month in the Metz area for a month” instead of “hit this division over here once at 5:30am”. Your leaders can be assigned automatically, so your individual divisions will never have generic 0-skill leaders. Upgrading your units to the latest technology is handled automatically, by spending resources on… wait for it… “Upgrades”.

The gripes with the game I have? Trivial, really. You can’t build brigade attachments with divisions pre-built, so there’s some needless micromanagement involved in bundling your artillery with your infantry. The latest patch (there’s already been one) turns off displaying the name of field marshals in the strategic view, which is often helpful in seeing where Zhukov or von Manstein is marshalling to kick you in your rear areas. The events are still pretty generic, and although the CORE team is working on a new mod, they’ve said that the game engine is too demanding for the thousands of events in the HOI1 version. (Although to be honest, HOI2 already models many of the things that had to be done via events in the first game.)

Really, though, this game is unbelievably solid. I’m already thinking about how to come up with a Russian Civil War scenario. I’ll say the same thing I did with Crusader Kings – buy this game. Good games like these need to be rewarded. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m pretty certain I’ve got a strategy for Japan’s actually taking out China worked up…