Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Axis, Allies and Iron Hearts

I’m a big fan of the board game Axis and Allies.  Despite having fairly simple rules (by war gaming standards), it does an excellent job of capturing the essence of that historical conflict.  In particular, I really enjoy the tactile experience of moving small plastic figurines around the board rather than the more traditional cardboard chits that most war games use.  Surprisingly, I never took much interest in the Hearts of Iron franchise despite it being thematically closely related.  However, I heard that the latest iteration of the series is the most approachable yet, so I’ve finally decided to try out Hearts of Iron 4.  Having played the game for awhile now, I can certainly say my overall impressions are pretty mixed. 

On the plus side, I really like the world map, research system, national foci, battle planner and ability to play pretty much any country.  Construction is also interesting in many ways, but it’s also a bit strange in that you can’t stockpile resources, nor does it consume fuel when you let loose your machines of war.  In fact the entire logistics model is a bit odd.  It get that the game designers (Paradox Studios) were trying to keep things simple since, let’s face it, micro-managing supply lines isn’t much fun.  The problem is it can be weirdly easy to deploy military units all over the planet, even in places that would demand a herculean effort to keep supplied.  Oddly enough Axis and Allies addresses this issue by movement limitations.  Speaking purely in terms of troopship speeds, Imperial Japan probably could have landed a couple divisions of men on the west coast of Africa in a matter of months, but in the board game it takes a year or more of in-game time to do so.  This might sound ridiculous at first, but when you look at it as an abstraction of the time needed to plan, prepare and set up the necessary infrastructure to keep tens of thousands of fighting men fed and properly outfitted on the opposite side of the globe then a year starts to sound pretty optimistic.  In fact Japan didn’t have the merchant marine fleet or fuel oil resources need to maintain an occupational force on the Hawaiian Islands, let alone the interior of Australia.  I’m pretty sure they lacked the necessary manpower to dominate the vast regions and populations of mainland China or India too, but you can conquer all those places and more in Hearts of Iron 4

Air combat also feels a bit wonky in that over a period of several days against France (I was playing as Italy) my fighter craft lost 400 of their number in exchange for 1,600 enemy bombers shot down.  I was happy with the ratio, but I have a hard time believing that aircrews would blast each other out of the sky so vigorously.  I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic, but I think Paradox Interactive needs to dial back whatever numbers their using with regards to air warfare.  The UI for assigning air wings and warships to areas and mission is also pretty clunky.  Rather than having to manage each-and-every ship or plane it would probably be a lot easier to group them into preset squadrons.  After all, each battleship figurine in the Axis and Allies board game doesn’t correspond to a single warship, but rather a squadron of (by my estimates) 4 or more such vessels, possibly including escorts and support craft. 

The last big problem with Hearts of Iron 4, as I see it, is the AI with regards to the division designer.  This problem might be fixed by the time I get around to posting this, as it stands right now most computer controlled divisions consist of little more than a small number of infantry battalions with little in the way of support companies or mechanized units.

“Paradox games are like fine wine,” is a quote I’ve heard more than once, so I’m sure the problems I’ve mentioned here will get addressed in due time.  For now though I think I’ll stick to Axis and Allies when I feel the urge to play as a World War 2 armchair general.

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