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Hearts of Iron III grand strategy game for the PC that is an ambitious puts you in control of any nation that existed between 1936 and 1948. The object is to guide the economic policies, politics, and armed forces of the nation of your choice through the war.

A list of hundreds of playable nations is divided into three factions: Allied, Axis, or Comintern (Communist International). The nation you choose determines your allies, your foes, and the political and military commanders at your disposal. From there, the goal is twofold: to prepare yourself for the impending war by managing your nation’s politics, establishing alliances, and solidifying its economic and industrial might; and to successfully fight the war by using effective military strategies to crush the opposition, sustaining troop morale, and maintaining order both at home and within your occupied nations. Completing these tasks will net “victory points” for your country; the nation with the most points in 1948 is the winner.

The outbreak of war provides ample opportunity to test out alternate history scenarios as you control your units on a tactical map that extends across the entire globe. Though the game places sensible constraints on your military action (for example, you cannot invade an ally), you have the freedom to deviate from history—or not. When I played as Germany, I successfully used the same strategy the Nazis employed to take Paris from the northeast. However, knowing that engaging Russia in combat would likely result in a protracted and costly stalemate, I fortified my eastern borders and avoided the Soviets altogether. With this strategy, I managed to conquer the United Kingdom and most of Western Europe before the game ended in 1948.

With its wide scope, Hearts of Iron III is an impressive and immensely challenging strategy game. That’s also its biggest drawback: the game’s high learning curve may intimidate grand strategy novices. Fortunately, the game’s designers incorporated user-friendly interfaces that allow you to adjust your level of involvement. You can manage every single decision affecting your country— raising taxes, running smear campaigns against your political rivals, and researching nuclear technologies, among other things—or you can leave the more detail-oriented tasks to the computer and focus on what interests you. But when the game is hard, it’s exquisitely hard, challenging even the most seasoned armchair general.


Originally published in the November 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here