Back in January, BBC journalist Paul Mason documented his attempt to re-fight WWII in real-time strategy game Hearts of Iron III. Playing as France, Mason was putting a historical theory to the test: if the Allies had declared war in 1938 to defend Czechoslovakia against the Germans, the war might have ended much, much earlier. But the plan backfired —not because the theory is necessarily incorrect, but because France’s stats in HoI3 disallowed Mason from going to war:
At first I thought this was a pretty unforgiveable glitch. But digging into the rules, hacks and kluges of HoI3, and real life history, the game is frighteningly accurate.
Firing up the “Politics” interface I was at first amused to find my president, Albert Lebrun, classified as “barking buffoon”, prime minister Albert Sarraut as a “happy amateur” and my intel boss as a “dismal enigma” – but not amused to find that I could not change any of this before the scheduled election in 1940. My finger itched over the military coup button, and I immediately resorted to installing a far-right French police chief to quell dissent and abolish strikes.
But it was not ultimately the politics that defeated my cunning plan: it was the French people – and for that matter the Brits and Americans – and their “neutrality”. My neutrality score remained stubbornly high – and in that the game is superbly realistic.
HoI3, as it turns out, does not allow one to play through a fantastical, but timely, accurate depiction of history where popular and political sentiment hold as much (or more) sway as tanks.