Thursday, 2 April 2020

Thoughts on Hearts of Iron's New Update and Anarchism in Strategy games

Hearts of Iron 4 (HOI) has had a new expansion called `La Resistance`. As the name indicates the update adds more content and mechanics to the role of partisan movements, and also espionage. There's now an extra tab devoted to building up your nations intelligence service and launching espionage operations and counter intelligence operations. Its quite in depth and despite many hours of playtime I still haven't gotten to grips with all its potential.

It also looks like you can ignore it if you wish. So far since installing the update the only enemy activity I've witnessed via spying has been my agents failing missions and being captured.

However. the spy rings weren't why I got the expansion. I got it because in addition to the espionage La Resistance completely overhauls the Spanish Civil War. Previously the Spanish Civil War was a guaranteed event but really sparse, you play as Spain, then shortly after the game starts the civil war kicks off and you're given a choice, play as Republican Spain or play as the Fascists. Both nations use the generic political tree used by minor nations, and the war will usually be decided by which side gets more international support and volunteer divisions.

Thankfully this new update completely overhauls the conflict. I've only played as Spain so far, so I'm not sure how the changes effected the other nations. As the Spanish government the game is almost completely unique. You have to pay a lot of attention to your available decisions and use the intelligence service to your advantage. You also have a timer ticking down to the showdown with the Generals. You're shown by a constantly decreasing red line how many days you have to prepare. You can't stop the plot, though some of your actions will delay it for awhile. What you want to do as the Republic is delay the plot long enough while you take actions through your national focus tree that will hopefully give you an edge when the war breaks out.

In addition, you use the intelligence service to try and block fascist attempts to recruit your garrisons to their cause. You do this by spending political points in a garrison, the more divisions are on the side of the fascists the more points it costs, and you can only flip them back to your side one division at a time. Its like a game of whack a mole really.

But once the war kicks off the game still has some surprises. You can now choose which faction of the Popular Front government to support, but choose carefully, because that ticking red line has now been replaced with another red line marking how many days before the government (right wing republicans and Communist Party of Spain) launches a vicious crack down on the more radical and independent elements. Same rules really, you can't stop it from happening, but you can buy some time, and you may just have enough time for your chosen group to break free, if that happens the popular front is split and you'll take charge of a new group. One of these options is the CNT/FAI Defence Council of Aragon.

This is the route I took, and I managed to win the Civil War. It helped that the fascists also had a schism between the Carlists and the Falangists, and that I was able to besiege a Republican port just as the Soviet expedition forces arrived, so I effectively pinned them down and destroyed them via attrition. So the revolution has succeeded, hurrah! Now what?

Well most of the focuses are set on rebuilding the economy and infrastructure in the aftermath of the war. But there is some interesting features in the tree, several focuses are about spreading the revolution, specifically in Portugal, but after that, the rest of the world. So I diligently rebuilt and developed those focuses, I supported an Anarchist revolution in Portugal and defeated the Portuguese army, then Portugal and Spain federated their collectives.

At that point I waited to see when the "seeds of revolution" would sprout, and I waited and waited.

And this was where the problems soon racked up, there were no options to support revolutions. I eventually looked it up and found out the way the game handles anarchist revolutions is the anarchist entity* has to go to war with another nation, then during the war in some cases you will have the option to support an anarchist revolt in that nation. I don't know what the requirements are, sometimes it didn't trigger at all and in some cases seemed limited to a nations colony. So, I go to war and eventually got a chance to support a revolt, it seems to randomly generate an army somewhere on enemy territory, often spread out and far part. If the territory in question is large then good luck getting them to link up or move to support your main forces before getting cut off and starved.

I'm quite disappointed, I was expecting the revolution mechanic to be more organic, since anarchism is now added as an ideology in the game and it is possible for it to be the majority faction, I assumed based on the phrasing of the focuses that once in awhile an event would be triggered giving you the opportunity to decide whether to support it or not. I thought it would be like this for two reasons, first the Portuguese revolution is a lot like that, once the focus is complete you're contacted by a group of Portuguese Anarchists planning a revolt and wishing for aide. Once you give that aide an uprising occurs and a part of the country becomes their territory, instead of a bunch of random and isolated dots.

And because there are some popular mods for HOI that do this to an extent and depending on events you can respond and support fellow travellers and encourage rebellion without getting into a state on state war immediately.

Overall I'm a bit disappointed with La Resistance, while the development of the Civil war is welcome, and its nice to see different political ideologies have some differing mechanics, the developers don't seem to be comfortable adding Anarchism to the mix, nor thought out how to try and make it work as its own unique playstyle. By 1943 my focuses were all used up and I was just sitting there building my industry up.

Which left me thinking of how potentially incompatible anarchism is in a game like HOI4 and strategy games in general. Essentially societies in these games are ultra absolutist regardless of what the text and dialogue says. You are essentially an avatar of the nation or kingdom. You, the player is the only one that has agency, all the non playable forces are purely reactive, either responding to the player or other inputs. In HOI4 you have a national leader who isn't the player and can be changed, but all that effects is a character portrait and some stat percentages. Anarchism as a movement is about the opposite, maximising autonomy for as many people as possible, and creating organisations that support and encourage participation and destroys or at the very least diffuses power as much as possible. Having on mind essentially dictate the entire social and political direction of a nation or federation of collectives just isn't in keeping with that. The best its managed has been to hide it with flavour text.

*To be honest it functions exactly like every other nation state, the revolutionary phrasing is just flavour text, the only practical difference between your Revolutionary Defence Council of ____ is you have extremely low political stability but a very high manpower pool, and a different flag.

This is the flag of the "Global Defence Council" the final stage in the Anarchist focus tree.

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