Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

What it's like playing as Hitler in Hearts of Iron 4

Recreating that Dad's Army opening.

Being Hitler is really weird.

I feel a little uncomfortable. I've never been Hitler before and I've never had a particular desire to be Hitler. A quick look at my stats tells me I'm a rather grumpy person, a sore loser, bitter about the First World War, and this has a negative impact on my behaviour.

My attitude is tempered somewhat by my cabinet, a slowly-growing circle of advisors whose skills fill the cracks in my fractured personality. With them, I'm a better leader, the head of a more productive economy and also a happier, smarter army. And that army is growing.

The early build of Hearts of Iron 4 that Paradox Development Studio present at its annual convention has journalists playing through the mid 1930s as an emboldened and ambitious Germany. It makes sense for a preview build, as it puts players in a position that is, shall we say, historically interesting, though in saying that I feel like I'm coughing up the most uncomfortable of euphemisms.

My name is Hitler and I like long walks on the beach. Goose-stepping.

I can distract myself with the thought that Paradox itself is also in a historically interesting position. This niche series of real-time, grand strategy games has long been popular with its dedicated and necessarily diligent fans. Like its sister series, the Victoria, Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings games, Hearts of Iron has always been broad in scope and detailed in both mechanics and moving parts. There's a lot going in in a game that models a world's worth of nations, their politicians, armies and economies. Depending upon your personal taste, Paradox's grand strategy games are somewhere between engrossing, intimidating and borderline unmanageable. Thank God for the pause button.

Nevertheless, their popularity has grown. The medieval, Machiavellian Crusader Kings 2 was considerably more successful than the studio expected, and last year's Europa Universalis 4 received widespread critical acclaim. Paradox attribute much of their success to better presentation and improved interfaces. For all their complexity, they insist, these games really aren't so hard to understand, they've just been opaque.

Tentatively, I agree. I've tried to play previous Hearts of Iron games and I've bounced off them like bullets off a panzer. Once a helpful developer tells me how the industry interface works, I build another trade convoy and start research on the radio, navigating clumsily through the many options-within-options in front of me. This time, it feels at least a little easier, but there's still a tremendous amount of information to digest.

I don't feel particularly warlike and so I'm at a disadvantage. Hearts of Iron 4 is all about guiding a nation of your choice through the period of the Second World War. Events are likely, but not certain, to take a course similar to that of history. I decide one of the better things I can do is form a non-aggression pact with Sweden. As a surprisingly pretty sunset rolls across western Europe, my soldiers stare longingly into France, dreaming of what could be.

I swear I thought I was just choosing new routes for InterRail.

Menu after menu, screen after screen asks me to consider how many factories I'm devoting to building which type of tank, or which armies are assigned which battle plans across which fronts. Every region of Germany has its infrastructure modelled. I lose count of how many sub-classes of ship I can build.

I feel a little like I'm sat at a desk, looking at abstractions of my country, something that I imagine is akin to the role of a real leader. There's a lot to consider, not everything requires my immediate attention and not everything is as easy to understand as I might like. With time and patience I may get better at this, but first I have to see if I even develop a taste for leadership, a taste for being the Führer.

Being Hitler is really weird. I'm trying to make the best of it.

This article is based on a press trip to Stockholm. Paradox Interactive paid for flights and accommodation.