Tobold's Blog
Saturday, December 03, 2022
Playing unplayable games

There are so many games around that it is impossible to play them all, or even just to research each of them in more depth. So we all need to take some shortcuts, where we see a game and more or less instinctively react with "oh, this looks interesting" or not. And there are games where I instinctively react with "oh, that one is unplayable for me". Unplayable in the sense that I don't feel I would ever do reasonably well when playing the game as intended, and that I wouldn't enjoy the experience.

Of course that also poses a challenge. What is it that makes a certain game for me unplayable? Would there be a way to work around it? Earlier this year I played Elden Ring, a game that would normally be unplayable for me, by using cheat codes. The reason I wouldn't be able to play this as intended is my reaction speed, and the cheats enabled me to play Elden Ring for 40 hours and have a much better idea what that game is about.

Earlier this week I stumbled over another unplayable game in my Steam library. Hearts of Iron IV, a game I received as part of a Humble Bundle, but would otherwise never have bought. I also have access to it via my Xbox Game Pass for PC subscription. Now this clearly posed a different sort of challenge than Elden Ring, because it isn't my reaction time that keeps me from playing. Hearts of Iron IV is one of those overly complicated Paradox games with extremely bad tutorials, which simply feels overwhelming to the average player. So I tried to find a way around that.

It didn't start well. I played the tutorial, and failed. The tutorial has you playing Italy, with your main task being winning the war against Ethiopia, and following the instructions I just lost. Then I found a video on YouTube with a tutorial to the tutorial, telling me the things that I needed to know to win the tutorial, which the tutorial doesn't tell you. Only Paradox can make games which prompts Youtubers to make videos that explain the tutorial to you.

At least this got me to the point where I understood what part of Hearts of Iron IV was unplayable for me: Combat. Basically the outcome of battles is determined by a bazillion of different factors, and a lot of them are either unknown to the player, or there is so little feedback from the game that you just don't understand why an attack is successful or not. For example in the tutorial you need to make a battleplan and then *not* execute it for some time (despite the tutorial telling you to), which causes your troops to prepare for that plan, and then execute it better. So I decided to try out Hearts of Iron IV without battles.

The game I played was with a neutral, democratic Switzerland. I "won" the most basic victory condition, being still alive at the end of the game, which ended with the German Reich winning WWII in 1957. As I was playing vanilla, with no DLC, Switzerland had the boring default focus tree, which I completed rather early. I also completed the complete research tech tree. It turned out that having nukes doesn't help you at all in Hearts of Iron IV, unless you are actually at war, have air superiority somewhere, and can drop those nukes. And even then they seem to be underwhelming, compared to the historical role they played in ending the war in Japan.

I now understand the focus tree, tech tree, economic and political aspects of Hearts of Iron IV much better. So theoretically I would now have an easier time playing an actual game as intended, getting involved in the war. I just still don't want to. In Elden Ring, trivializing combat meant I could explore the world and the story, and there was something there. In Hearts of Iron IV, there isn't. The whole economic, political, and research part of the game is very thin, and clearly just there to support the combat part. Understanding the non-combat part doesn't actually solve the problem of the game not giving you enough feedback in combat to understand what is actually going on. And without the DLCs there isn't much point in playing anything but a major power, because only those have interesting focus trees. And you are pushed to more or less follow actual historical events, because there are systems in place that would make it very difficult for a player to make the German Reich democratic, or have the USA enter the war much earlier. Yes, if you know the game well enough and have the DLCs, you can make fascist Switzerland conquer Europe. But what would be the point in that?

Well done for calling out Paradox on their unhelpful tutorials. It seems to have become across these days that any mildly complex game is unwinnable without the aid of user generated supports like wikis and YouTube videos.

I do wonder about the diehard fans who create these guides in the first place. Is there a small army of masochists out there who enjoy figuring out obtuse game mechanics one death at a time?
If you want to play Paradox without Combat Victoria III is the thing.

I bounced off the tutorials of CKII and EUIV hard, but possibly because the theme of Vicky interests me enough that I read the developer blogs for Vicky 3, I've managed to get into this one. I started out with Chile, which has a manageable 3 states, then did a run with Sweden (which stalled out in 1870 when France embargoed my overlord Northern Germany and my economy went into an irrecoverable tailspin). Up until that point I was cruising along, generating economic surplus, having happy citizens and implementing laws to the betterment of my pops.

The main focus of the game is economic, you can do conquests, but you can't even control your generals beyond very basic orders. To me it seems to be two "subgames", the militaristic one where you try to conquer the world, and the political one where you implement a communist utopia, or maybe a hardline dictatorship if that's more your thing.

Free market economies struggle a bit because it leaves more decisions up to the AI.
I'm interested in Victoria 3, but will probably wait a while before buying it. According to Steam reviews it is still in a rather rough state.
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