For the Kaiser!
Deciding to review a mod is quite a bizarre decision. Just trying to write the opening paragraph for this article required a lot of rewrites. How exactly do you start such a review? What are you going to focus on exactly? After all, a mod, by its very name, is but a modification of an existing product. Yet, I wanted to write about Kaiserreich because I’ve been enjoying it immensely.
Let’s start from the beginning. Kaiserreich is a mod for Hearts of Iron IV, a Paradox Interactive grand strategy game. In Hearts of Iron IV the player can choose to play as any country in the world that existed in either 1936 or 1939 (depending on when the player chooses to start the game). Then, the player is thrust into the role of managing that nation, steering its politics, industry and most importantly – army and diplomacy. The main focus of the game is grand battle, with industry serving to produce the equipment needed to arm divisions which the player researches and designs. These armies can then be deployed against rival nations in wars of conquest or submission.
Of course, the mechanics are a bit more complex than that but that is the gist of it. Many nations in the base game have their interesting quirks and focus trees, which allow for a more historical playthrough or “what ifs” scenarios. From deposing Stalin and installing a Russian democracy to uniting China under fascism or even turning Germany or France into communist countries. The tools of Hearts of Iron IV allow players to have a lot of fun during that historical period, and Let’s Plays exist of things such as pacifist Germany or fascist USA.
Per for the course of every Paradox Interactive game, Hearts of Iron IV has its own lively modding scene. From cosmetic enhancements, soundtrack additions to complete revamps. Just to name a couple, Road to 56 lengthens the game time (from 1948 to 1956, duh) and adds more focuses and technological research. Old World Blues completely changes the game, recreating the map of the United States of the Fallout universe, with many of the factions and hallmarks of that world. Kaiserreich is quite similar to the latter, as it presents an alternate world where Germany won the Great War (or Weltkrieg).
Thus, the world of Kaiserreich is very different than the one we are used to in a regular game of Hearts of Iron IV. Germany is an authoritarian democracy with a large colonial empire in Africa, East Asia and parts of China as well as puppets in Eastern Europe. Russia is a democracy teetering on the brink of revolution, with many of its western and southern domains lost. Japan is also an authoritarian democracy with an uncertain future. The United Kingdom and France were taken over by communist regimes with their old governments having fled to the colonies (Canada and North Africa respectively). The Austrian empire still exists and Italy remains fragmented. The United States is facing a second civil war while the Qing empire is licking its wounds and planning its reunification of China as a reformed Mongolia under the leadership of a madman dreams of rebuilding the Khanate. Oh, and the Ottoman empire somehow still carries on, though some of its vassals have dangerous ideas of their own…
Truly, the world of Kaiserreich is far more fragmented and politically diverse than the base game, which is one of the great strengths of the mod. Nations in the mod are less predictable and many a great power could fall into internal strife and civil war, removing major nations from the world stage and allowing smaller ones to take their place. The second American civil war often rages for years with three, sometimes four(!), sides participating. In fact, smaller conflicts flare often in Kaiserreich with major nations unable or unwilling to do more than lend small volunteer forces.
The second strength of the mod are its focus trees. Focus trees were introduced to the base game to allow players (and the AI) to more efficiently steer their nations. They require time and political power (one of the resources in the game) to complete and can give bonuses, decisions or lead to future events. Focus trees can help beef up a faltering economy, lead to a fascist takeover of the nation or grant war goals which allow players to declare war on rival or neighboring nations without being constraint by diplomacy. In short, Focuses are the main (though not only) tool by which nations can be transformed in the course of the game.
The Kaiserreich focuses are quite detailed and balanced for the major nations. The Russian focus tree for example kicks into gear a year into the game and allows the player to transform Russia from a failing state to the powerhouse it once was, reclaiming its territory and prestige through either war, diplomacy or a bit of both. Likewise, Japan can take advantage of the fragmentation to build its empire and expel German and Western influence from the far east (sounds familiar…). The Ottoman empire can attempt to regain is former splendor while battling internal enemies. Communist France may try to retake the Alsace and Lorraine regions which Germany had occupied after winning the Great War and so forth.
Added to this are a slew of world events, some caused by focuses, others hard coded into the world. Economic crises, worker strikes and colonial implosions will all serve to cripple economies and make the early game a nightmare to navigate through, as many a major nation will see itself crippled by the events. Indeed, half the fun of the mod is simply surviving to the war.
Alternate history or not, Kaiserreich inadvertently leads to the second Weltkrieg. It seems no matter who wins the Great War, the second round is inescapable (though oftentimes prompted by Communist France which wants to retrieve its territory). After all, Hearts of Iron IV is all about war and Kaiserreich sure delivers on it. I have to admit, Kaiserreich has been much more fun in that aspect than the base game as the war is far more dynamic since there are a lot more power blocs around. Playing as Russia for example, you may once again commit to Communism and join the Third International with France and the United Kingdom to present a two front war for Germany. Germany might get Austro-Hungarian aid, or perhaps Austro-Hungary falls apart due to infighting, leaving southern Europe exposed. Perhaps Russia would re-join the Entente and fight a separate war with France and the United Kingdom to restore French Republicanism and British Parliamentary rule. Or perhaps it would be too busy defending from a Japanese invasion as Japan pushes its advantage in the east exploiting the disarray of the Russian army to conquer Siberia…
Indeed, these scenarios can and have happened to me on multiple playthroughs. Sometimes to my delight, sometimes to my dismay (goddamn Japanese >_< ). In fact, playing the mod with friends on multiplayer has led to some hilarious scenarios. From dividing Europe between the Triple alliance, the restoration of Russia while defending the status quo and defeating Communism to painting the world red with a Communist France, United Kingdom, Soviet Russia and the Combined Syndicates of America…
Besides that, the mod doesn’t change anything regarding geography, resources and technology. In fact, all the core mechanics of Hearts of Iron IV remain unchanged. That said, I do have a few criticisms of the mod.
Of course, criticizing a mod is quite problematic, especially one that is still considered in its alpha stage. This is why I put the version number in the title, and would write an update should these concerns/issues be resolved. Regardless, I think its important to point out the flaws and not just sing the praises of a work.
First and foremost, China had received a major nerf. Outside the Legation Cities (basically port cities in China that are few in number), most of the Chinese factions had their focuses stripped down to the very basics. The only addition is a small bare bones focus tree to allow Chinese unification but otherwise there is little to nothing there which is a shame as after the Soviet Union/Russia, China is my favorite nation to play in the base game (I like massive infantry armies, okay!?). In fact most of the far east has been neutered to some extent, with only Japan, its Chinese puppet and Mongolia given robust focus trees. It seems like the number of interesting nations in the whole game had somewhat declined.
Another issue is the faction system. In the base game, though players can change the rules, countries could influence each other’s political systems, pushing towards democracy/fascism/communism. Push long and hard enough and faction leaders of certain ideologies could invite said countries to factions. Better yet, faction leadership could be usurped by nations who managed to outpace the leaders in industry and army size. This allowed for a more dynamic game in the long run, as well as creating surprises to enemy factions. In contrast, Kaiserreich’s faction system is rigid and constrained. Faction leadership is locked in, and joining a faction requires an event or a focus. Ideologies can’t be changed either through political power, only through events and focuses again. This sacrifices some of the freedom of the base game for what I believe is narrative, which I ended up disliking.
The last major issue I have with the game is its lack of decisions. In the base game there is a mechanic of decisions which requires only political power to activate (and certain prerequisites depending). Though Kaiserreich has a few of them for each nation, there are far fewer than the base game. For example, in the base game, European nations had a decision available for them that if they managed to conquer France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg they can form the European Union, something which Kaiserreich lacks.
Outside of these issues the rest are nitpicks, mostly the lack of variety in advisors and the fact that unlike the base game, developing infrastructure does not increase resource gain, which I assume would be fixed in the future (and unofficial mods patching this already exist). Putting these aside, the mod is quite stable, with only a couple of hard crashes in the hundred hours (or more) I’ve played it both single and multiplayer. Both times I believe the crashes were due to other mods rather than Kaiserreich itself. Regardless, I can say that it has proven to be quite stable and runs without technical issues.
In summation, Kaiserreich is a fun mod, giving a different, alternate history start to the game with more wars, more power blocs and far more surprises than the base game. There is more action, more challenge even when playing major powers and interesting paths for nations to take. That said, the faction/ideology system is rigid, certain nations have lost their uniqueness and there is a lack of decisions that allow for more/different goals for major nations.
I’d recommend this for Hearts of Iron IV players who are looking for a new challenge or more flavor for the game, especially for multiplayer games. Considering this is a mod, thus free of charge and accessible (as well as updated) on Steam, what are you waiting for!?