Preview: East vs. West: A Hearts of Iron Game

The Cold War heats up

The fall of Communism and the break up of the Soviet Union was undoubtedly one of the most important events in the 20th century, and the culmination of the devastating Cold War. Lasting around 50 years, the world was witness to some of the most tense military and political situations in human history.

BL-Logic and Paradox Development Studio have taken the complex backdrop of this nerve-wracking era and crafted a new Hearts of Iron game focusing on the diplomatic, economic, and military issues so prevalent during this period. Amid the complicated systems, numbers, and potential actions, East vs. West looks like its well on its way to capturing the chilling drama of a world on the brink of nuclear war. 

East vs. West: A Hearts of Iron Game (PC)
Developer: BL-Logic, Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Released: Q1 2013

Set between 1946 and 1991, East vs. West gives players control of any nation, from huge superpowers like the USA, to smaller nations that, while existing on the peripheries, can still have a global impact. The whole world is your military and political playground, rendered in a modified version of the Clauswitz 1.5 engine, which has additional features inspired by other Paradox grand strategy titles.

Several scenarios can be selected — essentially starting points — that give context to games in the form of international conflicts or crises that took place during the Cold War period, such as the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, or the Cold War itself. These can also inspire a player’s choice of country, as they may be more inclined to choose one that was involved in the conflict. 

Each country comes with an impressive amount of detail, and clicking on a province or regions reveals information on production, infrastructure, GDP (broken down into economy, services, and consumption), and even detailed demographics by age. 

The latter was especially informative, allowing one to get an idea of life expectancy, work force size, how many soldiers could be fielded in combat, and even the consequences of war, famine, and sickness. If a state has just come out of a war, chances are that it will have lost a significant chunk of its young to middle-age citizens — the consequence of this is that industry will suffer, as the work force becomes stretched thin.

The lack of workers would definitely be a problem; however, the scale of the game, prevalence of numbers, and the tumultuous period of history encourages a bit of pragmatism. Things might appear to be dire just after the war, but eventually, as those citizens in that age bracket get older, pension expenses will decrease, as there won’t be many of them. Also, with less people in their 20s to 40s, more money can be diverted to social spending, increasing the health and education of the next generation.

Nations are distinguished by their politics, economies, military ideologies and technologies, and look like they will be able to offer the countless new games that one would hope for in such a large grand strategy title. Internal politics also plays an important role, and can represent both a boon and an obstacle for players to overcome.

Countries have national ideas that serve as the basic foundations of the nations, policies, which are easier to change and may alter when a new government comes into power, and laws, which are slightly more static. Within each state exist several political parties, all vying for power, and at a click of a button the player can see how large they are and how much support they have. A party rising in popularity might be a major threat, and may have to be dealt with using assassinations or curbing the freedoms of your people, or it might present a player with an opportunity to make a massive change, and embrace a new government. 

While we often view the Cold War through the actions of the major superpowers of the time, small countries still have the chance to shine, and they don’t have to go it alone. Trade organizations and international factions allow these weaker powers to exert some of their influence beyond their borders. The larger the faction, the greater the consequences. So, through diplomacy, and even subterfuge, a relatively minor country can swing a UN vote to embargo another country in their favor, forcing all other UN nations to embargo said country. 

Speaking of subterfuge, this wouldn’t be a Cold War game without the liberal application of spies. These sneaky agents are represented by spy cards, and what you have access to can be up to the luck of the draw. Each card has specific actions it may take, from offensive missions like assassinating heads of state (even your own), to counter-espionage objectives.

They can’t just be sent in without back-up, however, and require aid from teams, as well as informants already in the country being targeted. Bond got help from Q and Felix Leiter, after all. Successful actions will expand the missions a spy can undertake. It does take some time for a spy to complete their mission, and during that time the enemy could find out about your mission, taking steps to stop you by playing a counter-espionage card. 

When diplomacy and espionage aren’t quite enough, there’s always trusty old war to fall back on. Military resources are manpower and equipment, the former which is easy to employ and only limited by population, and the latter which takes time and more money, as well as factories and infrastructure. You can’t actually “build” troops, instead, you order and place the equipment, such as tanks, and then men are trained and sent to their location. If those tanks are destroyed, the men may still survive, as support troops aren’t necessarily killed just because their tanks have been blown up.

A common theme throughout the game is being given greater control over the AI. A leader can delegate, but should have the ability to still dictate the actions of their lessers, BL-Logic believes. In the case of armies, paths can be painted so that troops can flank targets, avoid battles they don’t have a chance of winning, and get behind enemy lines. So, even though the AI is on, you aren’t cut off from making strategic decisions. 

Instead of having all your forces in an army fighting all the other forces, battles are made up of smaller scraps between individual brigades — it’s not a free-for-all. The heavy hitting units are kept behind the front line, so they can be protected, and supported; they can’t be attacked directly. To balance this, players can only field as many rear units as they can protect, as defined by the width of the front line. 

The more victories a brigade has, the more battle momentum they gain, improving their morale and combat skill. This should encourage players to press forward, but also means that they are risking their best troops. 

Naval battles are appropriately different affairs. Guided missiles made all the difference in post-WWII naval warfare, with fleets able to bombard enemies from a great distance with the aid of radar and satellites. In East vs. West, as long as you can see the ship, you can engage in combat. These aquatic engines of destruction are pretty damn customizable, as well. 

Players can take a closer look at their vessels and view all the ship’s components, from missile-based weaponry to defense systems. They can then switch components and weapons, tuning it for specific situations. Each component has its own statistics like range and ammo count, which have to be taken into account when beginning an encounter. 

Naval forces also need to be backed up by air support, as aircraft can launch, come back, resupply, and get back up in the air again for another strike, even though each individual strike might be quite weak.

Sometimes you don’t want to faff around with troops, equipment and tactics, however, and at times like that, nuclear weapons come into play. Players can bring up the nuclear target map, specify targets like military or industry, or just choose a region and watch everything burn. Multiple missiles can be launched, and payloads can be defined, letting players choose between wide-scale destruction or more surgical strikes. If the payload is large enough, neighboring provinces can also be affected.

Despite the power of nuclear weapons, it’s hardly a “win button.” Every nation is informed about the launch, and it takes some time for the weapons to detonate, giving your enemy time to react and attempt to minimize the assault, or even take the missiles out. Such actions also add to the Doomsday Clock.

The Doomsday Clock tracks how much closer the world is to breaking out into World War III. Every time you force an issue and try to dominate others, the clock ticks a bit closer to “the end.” The more you press things, the more your population will expect you to follow through, though, so sometimes it’s worth backing down early, or you’ll lose your “back door.”

Of course, it’s going to be very difficult to be effective in a war without modern technology, so it’s rather handy that East vs. West features an incredibly robust research feature. Players can research technologies individually, but research goals can also be set. They are mainly meant to guide the AI, but you can use them yourself for guidance. When you find something you want to research, instead of clicking it and discovering you can’t because you haven’t researched earlier techs, it takes you to a list that reveals exactly what techs you need, and you can set that as your goal, automatically researching everything that is required.

Project funding can also be altered, depending on your need and how much money you have available. There’s a huge number of techs, and even though some research is an extension on earlier ones, the upgrades are not merely x amount better. The requirements can change, and the improvements can be drastic.

There are different techs for the various military doctrines of the period. For instance, NATO tanks promote flexibility and projecting power from a distance, whereas the Warsaw Pact tanks are all about fire-power and immediate dominance. So, ideals are reflected in the technologies. There is also a neutral doctrine, which focuses on surviving as a minor nation.

There’s a lot to take in, and even with the AI streamlining features East vs. West appears to have just as much complexity as one would expect from a Hearts of Iron title. During my hour-and-a-half introduction to all the features and systems, there was unfortunately no opportunity for me to take control of my own Cold War state. Commanding one will no doubt take a lot of time and patience, though I’m looking forward to getting a chance to do so. Despite my love of grand strategy, I’ve never really been able to get into the Hearts of Iron series, but with this spin-off, that looks set to change.

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Fraser Brown
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