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Your first game
This is a guide to help new players get started on their first Hearts of Iron 3 game, through a step-by-step guide to the first year or two of a "typical" game. It assumes some basic knowledge of the interface, and that players have completed the Tutorial. It does not intend to be a replacement for reading the manual, but rather a fast immersion to a basic level of play.
Let's start in 1936, and choose a mid-sized regional power to play: Nationalist China. This will make an interesting first game because they're not too big (so we won't be overwhelmed by choices, and forcing us to make some compromises), we start with a reasonable army (so we don't need to build one up), and we'll be guaranteed some early warfare when Japan invades after the Marco Polo Bridge incident.
It's our first game; make the difficulty Easy. Leave everything set to manual control. The game starts paused, leave it thus for now.
Hearts of Iron 3 is not a game that spoon-feeds you. It rewards play with an overall strategy in mind. For our game, our strategy will be: anticipate an early war with Japan, repel it, and try to expand our territory. Nationalist China is manpower-rich, so we'll aim to do so with a quantity over quality approach. We will dominate on land through superior numbers, won't try to match them at sea, and disregard the glamour of an air force. Only time will tell if this works!
All our decisions should keep this strategy in mind.
1 January 1936
First let's look at our neighbors. Click "Diplomatic Mapmode" in the bottom-right and zoom out. Our country is green, note that Communist China and Shanxi (to the north) and Guangxi Clique (south) are blue - they are allies. Should be no imminent danger from them. Xibei San Ma (northwest) is also green - they are a puppet state of ours. We can't control them, but we'll take over their troops in the event of war.
Have a look around the world. No countries are red - we're not at war with anyone (yet).
Resources & Trading
Take a look at the resource counters at the top of the screen; they're mostly red. Hovering over each counter, you'll see how much we produce, consume, export, etc. We are consuming more energy, rare minerals, oil, and supplies than we produce. This can be sustained for a while, but if we run out of any resource it will be troublesome. Let's address this.
We don't produce enough oil to meet demand, so let's import some. Open the Diplomacy screen, click on 'Majors', then click on the USA. Note that they are producing a surplus of 200+ oil per day - they should be happy to sell us some. Click the "Offer Trade Agreement" button.
Let's offer to buy 10 Oil per day. Click the "Buy" button on the Oil slider until it says 10. Note the indicator saying "Very Likely": this trade is favorable to the US, so they'll probably agree to it. Click "Accept". We'll find out if they accept in a day or so. Let's take a look at the Production screen.
See that no divisions or constructions are being built right now, so we can safely assign none of our Industrial Capacity (IC) to production. Drag this slider to zero (or click on "Need: 0"). Notice that the IC is reassigned to the other areas. We also don't need to reinforce any military units, so make this zero as well. You can lock and unlock a slider by right-clicking it.
We need to get our production of Supplies positive, so drag this slider until we're out of the red. Now we need to balance production of Consumer Goods (keeps the plebs happy, and we sell the excess for cash) and Upgrades (better toys for the military). A good rule of thumb is to always maintain the minimum required CG, or else dissent grows (which cuts directly into your IC). Set the CG to the minimum required, and we don't have enough IC to upgrade our army at full speed. That's OK, we're not at war yet.
Hover over the IC counter again. Note a modifier saying "Crooked Kleptocrat: -3.0%". That's no good - let's get rid of this guy!
Open the Politics screen now. Look at the Security Minister (Chen Guofu): he is our "Crooked Kleptocrat", and is costing us 3% of our IC. On the upside, he does increase support for the ruling party by 10%, but the penalty is not worth the cost (plus, we're an autocracy and don't hold elections). Click on the "Replace" button. There are two options for this post - the existing guy, or Chen Lifu (a "Back Stabber" who adds 0.01 to daily dissent but also improves Counterespionage by 10%, and is also our Head of Intelligence). Increased dissent is also undesirable (it means we have to funnel more IC to Goods), but it's better than a 3% hit to IC. The other bonus is quite useful. Click "Select" on Chen Lifu.
Note that our Armament Minister is also a "Corrupt Kleptocrat"; let's see if we can replace him too. We want to keep our production of Supplies and Goods up right now, so the best of our options is probably Chen Shaokuan, the "Battle Fleet Proponent". We already decided not to build a big navy, but select him anyway.
The Politics screen is also where we can choose more efficient laws. Hovering over the icon in the top-right, it seems that conditions are right to change most of our laws. Change Civil Laws to "Repression" (the extra Counterintel sounds good), Economic Laws to "Full Mobilisation" (for a large bonus to IC and Resources), Education Laws to "Big Investment" (for a Leadership bonus), Press Laws to "State Press" (for a Counterintel bonus), and leave Training Laws as "Basic Training" (quantity over quality, remember?).
Open the Production screen and advance the game one day. Notice that our IC almost doubled - this was as a result of changing our laws. We've now got the capacity to upgrade at full speed, so readjust the sliders to suit. We should also know if the USA accepted our offer to purchase Oil by now. If they refused (unlikely), try offering the same deal again. Each offer spends two points of Influence; we should still have enough.
Actions in the Technology screen affect a lot of other areas of the game. Firstly look at the Leadership sliders in the upper left. Let's adjust these according to our strategy. We've already got a low ratio of officers, no point in denying it - drag this to 0.5 (quantity over quality!). We don't anticipate a great need to influence other countries - drag the Diplomacy slider to 0.05 (a trickle). Drag the Espionage slider all the way up. This is a slightly gamey tactic to rapidly increase our domestic spies (we'll cover why later). Investment in Research is now very low; we'll change this soon. Let's queue up some Research topics anyway.
The tech tree can be bewildering, but should be approached with our strategy in mind. Lots of infantry, lots of industry, and we'll (mostly) ignore the navy and air force.
By the colored bars beneath each research topic, you can see the that we already have some research into infantry and milia improvements so we'll leave them for now. Click on the Industry tab. We'll put some early effort into improving the efficiency of our research and our IC. Choose "Electronic and Mechanical Engineering" (this leads to Census Tabulation machine, which improves research efficiency), Education (improves Leadership by 5% per level), Industrial Efficiency and Industrial Production (to build more stuff faster). Also queue up "Coal to Oil Conversion" (to increase Oil production), "Rare Materials Refining" (for increased Rares), and "Coal Processing Technology" (for increased Energy).
Note that we're not currently researching anything very quickly, but it's no problem to queue up many reseach topics. In fact, this is a good way to maintain a considered research strategy.
Click the "Land" tab. Infantry units are our bread-and-butter, so choose "Infantry Warefare" (to improves their organization, leading to better battle performance) and "Operational Level Organisation" (reduces the time between your unit's attacks - very useful).
Click the "Naval" tab. Choose "Sea Lane Defence". This sounds contrary to our 'no-navy' strategy, but actually has good reason. War with Japan means that they will raid our Convoys, and this research allows us to build Escort ships for them. Escorts will help reduce the losses to our shipping when the shooting starts.
That's all the research we'll queue up for now. We'll do some of the cooler stuff later in the game.
Open the Intelligence tab. This is where we set priorities to spy on our neighbours (and internally). Remember that we wanted to rapidly build up our domestic spies? We can have a maximum of 10 domestic spies, and this is desirable because they can help raise our national unity, lower our neutrality, and conduct counterespionage (to stop disruption of our research, and similar). Raise the priority for domestic spies to the maximum, and set the priority for other countries to the minimum. All newly recruited spies should now work locally.
Take a quick look at the Statistics screen (click the Military button at the top). On the "Brigades" screen is a sizable list of our infantry units - mostly Infantry and Militia. We have a few ships, a mix of Light Cruisers, Destroyers and one Transport. And we have...two planes. A Fighter and a Bomber wing. Barely worth mentioning! Still, this mix suits our ongoing strategy.
Unpause, and speed up play so the days start passing.
January 1936 to June 1936
Our goals for the first half-year are to get our resource needs balanced, get our domestic spies maxed out, and start conducting some decent research. We'll also reorganise and move our army units.
Resources & Trading
The Production screen is a good place to keep track of how much of each type of Resource we are producing or consuming each day. We have a large deficit of Rare Minerals, so the first order of business is to source more. The Soviet Union is probably a good bet here.
See if we can sell some of our excess Metals to someone. Sort all the countries in the Diplomacy screen by Metal production, and try offering some to those in deficit. Persia might be a good choice.
Note that if you have a stockpile of a Resource (as we do) you don't strictly need to be in surplus. For example, we have a Rares stockpile of about 2000 units, so if we consume 1-2 units per day we won't be running out soon. There's (usually) no need to bankrupt the country to buy resources.
Try to buy enough Rares and Energy from the Soviets and Oil from the USA so that our stockpiles are at least not being depleted too quickly. Note that we also need enough Transport ships to haul this material to our shore - you can see how many we have/need on lower right of the Production screen. We might start getting offers from other countries to buy our Supplies. These tend to be quite small transactions, but exporting Supplies is usually worth it to bring in more money. We can always cancel the trade agreements later.
We will need to build some transports to haul cargo into the country. Aside from this, try to avoid wasting IC and keep as much into Goods as possible, to avoid going broke because of all the Oil we have to buy. There is no need to yet to Upgrade at full speed, or to produce a surplus of Supplies. Our stockpile of money is much smaller!
Keep an eye on how many domestic spies we have. Once we have 10, open the Technology screen and redistribute the majority of our Leadership into Research. Now we're getting somewhere with the Research!
Anticipating a war with Japan soon, take a look around the world map at the distribution of military units. On the northern border of Shanxi we can see a lot of Japanese units. Invasion will most likely come from that direction, so we should begin moving most our Infantry units to our northern border. We are allied with the countries to the south and west, so we should be safe from them in the near term.
Try to organise your land units into stacks of five divisions or so. Too many divisions in one province is counterproductive, leading to supply problems and inefficiency in battle. In addition, try to distribute our HQ units along the front, and attach the divisions in proximity to those HQ units. This will help ensure that divisions remain in proximity to their HQ, and benefit from any leadership bonuses conferred.
There is also the possibility of a seaborne invasion in Shanghai or Quindao (as those provinces have a port), so it is well worth leaving a military presence there. Use some Garrison and Militia units to guard those provinces.
Some time in this period, Ethiopia will surrender to Italy, the Spanish Civil War begins, and Italy will join the Axis. The world creeps closer to war!
July 1936 to December 1936
During this period we should actually start completing some Research. Once "Electronic and Mechanical Engineering" is complete, be sure to start "Census Tabulation Machine" and move it up the queue so it's going full speed. This tech (and those after it) increase the efficiency of all Research, so they are very desirable.
Continue to improve our Education, Industrial Technology and Infantry Organisation for now.
When the "Sea Lane Defence" research is completed, start producing some Escorts (2-3 in serial order). These will be useful in the near future. Some extra Convoy transports might not hurt, either.
January 1937 to June 1937
Marco Polo Bridge Incident
Around the start of January, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident will occur. We are now at war with Japan and Manchukuo, and things start to get interesting. Luckily we're not alone - Shanxi and Communist China will honour their Military Alliance with us.
Being at war allows us to enact some more efficient laws. Open the Politics screen. Change Conscription Laws to "Service by Requirement" and Economic Laws to "War Economy". We could enact "Total Economic Mobilisation", but that inflicts a hefty income penalty. We'll see if we can get by without the extra IC for now.
Resources and Trading
Being on a war footing has increased our resource usage, so we need to increase our imports. Buy what is needed to maintain stockpiles of each Resource, concentrating on those which are being depleted fastest.
Once the fighting starts, we will start losing Transports and Escorts to convoy raiding. Be sure to keep an eye on how how many of these ships are needed to maintain our supply imports. Build more as needed.
Preparation for battle
We should have a solid line of infantry along the border of Shanxi. Now we're at war, we are able to move through the territories of allies. Begin moving your larger stacks of infantry toward the front where Japanese troops have engaged Shanxi.
Now we're going to be a little underhanded: we're going to plan for our ally (Shanxi) to fall to Japan's control, and to then capture their territory for ourselves. That should help us become more self-sufficient in most resources, and to grow our nation's might! As such, we won't move our forces to engage just yet. Make a solid line of our larger stacks of Infantry a couple of provinces away and dig in. Station a series of single Militia division in the provinces between the front and our territory (paying attention to any resource-rich provinces).
After a couple of months of fighting, it's most likely that the Shanxi army will crumble before the Japanese advance. After they lose the capital province (Beiping), the Shanxi government will surrender and the country essentially becomes part of Japanese territory. This is when we make our move.
Battle is joined
As our troops have been digging in for a while (division do this automatically when stationary; the maximum is ten days) which provides a defensive bonus, it is worth waiting for the Japanese army to assault our line. Their troops are probably more experienced than our and are supported by bombers, but we should outnumber them substantially. Once a battle starts, you can click the name of the province in the top-right to see a summary of the opposing forces and progress of the battle.
Depending on how sensibly we placed our divisions, we should beat off the Japanese attacks and can then go on the offensive. Select each large stack of infantry and attack the Japanese territory (do not select HQ units to attack, they are ineffective in combat). The general idea is to push our line forward evenly so that divisions are not exposed on multiple fronts. Try to avoid leaving gaps in the line where enemy units can rush into and get behind our front.
The Militia untis we spaced out behind the main line now perform a dual role: they are acting as a reserve to fill any holes in our primary line ("defence in depth"), and they can also capture the former Shanxi provinces behind the main line. In order to capture a province, we need to place an army unit in it unopposed for a short time. Capture the territory with the Militia, paying special attention to any resource-rich areas. Be sure to capture these before Communist China does!
Our immediate aim is to capture the majority of what was Shanxi; a solid chunk of territory as far north as Beiping. If opportunity to attack a province with multiple stacks presents, take it. Try to position our troops to avoid the same thing happening to us. If pushed backward from a province, try to counterattack quickly to avoid giving the enemy time to dig in. We have the numbers to win, so we should be able to steadily grind our way north over a couple of months.
July 1937 onwards
From this point onward, we can either choose to consolidate our new territory, or continue to push into Manchuko as fast as possible. With the help of our allies, it is entirely possible to capture all the Japanese territory as far as the border with the Soviet Union. We could also look at invading and capturing Taiwan. From this point, Nationalist China has the territory and resources of a large regional power, and it may very well be possible to build up large navy and begin to dominate the ocean war.
You have the experience to set your own course from now on. Go forth!