Despite the fact that Hearts of Iron IV still has some fundamental issues with its design, the HOI team at Paradox Development Studios are certainly doing a great job distracting us by doubling-down on what actually works (and fleshing out areas of the world bit-by-bit). That’s not meant to be an insult – Dan Lind and his team have been doing great work with what they have, but most fans acknowledge there are problems, even now. Thanks to the recently released Waking the Tiger expansion however, those problems feel a little less pressing.

As with every expansion for a Paradox game these days, it’s important to try and unpick what you’re paying for versus what you get for free. That’s why taken on its own Stellaris: Apocalypse was a disappointing expansion: for $20 you really didn’t get much, but it’s better to think of it as subsidising the free patch.

The story in Waking the Tiger is a little bit more complicated, but on balance it’s a pretty content-packed add-on.

For your money, you get new focus trees for China, People’s Republic of China and the various Chinese Warlords (otherwise they will default to the old versions). Along with this, you get an additional ‘branch’ the focus trees of Germany and Japan (their basic trees have been re-worked for free to accommodate this). It’s worth taking a moment to admire what the team have done here – by working Germany and Japan’s in a specific way, they’ve given themselves the ability to allow entire branches (which can equate to a whole narrative experience, such as reviving the German Empire) to be bolted on at a price, whilst leaving a perfectly functional and complete tree to interact with if you decided not to. I haven’t delved deep into Japan’s tree, but I’ve see a Democratic ‘State of Japan’ form a couple of times now. Germany’s Civil War branch I’ve documented a little bit already; while interesting you must be a lot more active once the Empire is revived because removing Nazi Germany makes Europe a pretty peaceful place, it turns out.

In addition to the above, you get new Command Power abilities that function with the (free) command power system, new traits that go with the (free) revamped commander and army management systems, lots of decisions that interact with the new (free) Decisions System, new formable nations like the Roman Empire, and host of other new bits and bobs that essentially just enhance existing systems. For example, the Acclimatisation system itself is free, but the unique unit skins that trigger depending on which end of the scale you’re on are premium. If you don’t have the expansion, your units just look the same. There’s quite a few littler things that we won’t be able to mention here – we highly suggest you check out this post and look at the ‘Waking the Tiger Expansion’ section at the top to see the full break-down of what you’re paying for.

There’s a lot more generic stuff in this expansion than there are things that specifically tailor to the theme of the day, which is China. You’d be quite right in stating that World War Two actually started in 1937 after the Marco Polo bridge incident, causing Japan to invade. Waking the Tiger focuses on the various Chinese factions, giving them new trees which allow the player to take the area in a few directions, as well as a new mechanic that seems like it has potential, but is a bit of a mixed bag right now.

China is in a delicate place at the start of the game – while ‘China’ itself has just successfully fended off the People’s Republic of China’s take-over attempt, they’re still surrounded by various warlord factions and colonial powers. Not to mention that unless Japan completely falls apart (which it can do), the Marco Polo bridge incident will trigger, and you will be locked in a war with the Rising Sun. The new focus trees for all the Chinese factions give them a lot of options with regards to coming together and facing Japan as one, as well as ways of boosting your economy by courting foreign powers for investment. It’s easy to get distracted by trying to get one over on each other as one of the Chinese factions (especially the smaller ones) but really, all this stuff is meant to be saved until AFTER you’ve fended off Japan. The Focus Trees themselves are fine – the HoI team are getting better at making them, and the only thing they could do at this point to up their game is to simply tell us what the optimum path through a tree is. That’d be nice.

The new mechanic that comes with Waking the Tiger and that is exclusive to the East Asian theatre is the ‘Border Conflicts’ system. Using political points, you can trigger small border wars between yourself and another faction that is contained within one state (that is on the border). You can only use so many troops to fight this war, and the conflict itself is automated until someone wins, or it ends in a stalemate. There is an option to just escalate the situation to a full-scale war if you want. The most disappointing thing about this mechanic is that you can’t control the units – I’ve had my most fun in Hearts of Iron making the best out of small armies – using the surgeon’s knife instead of the hammer. Outside of this, its usefulness compared to just trying to declare war normally is still up for debate. Again, part from maybe one early land-grab, this is something best left until after Japan comes a-knocking (of it Japan falls apart, so you know they’re not coming), because it’s easy to get distracted.

It’s not a very well sign-posted system either. The change-log for the expansion says that these border conflicts can be unlocked through the “asian focus tree”, but what that means is unclear. All I know is that, during a PRC play-through, the decisions just appeared randomly after a point.

I’d be hard pressed to say that you could live without Waking the Tiger. If you at all care about the conflict in China (even staunch euro-philes will probably get bored eventually) it’s a bit of a no-brainer. Further to that, the expansion comes with a lot of quality-of-life improvements that occupy that grey area between being essential (so really, should be free), and being additional tools in your toolbox to enhance gameplay. It also adds in a lot more flavour to the new systems brought in with the patch, like decisions/missions, Commanders (easily my favourite bit now), and the alt-history branches for Germany and Japan. I honestly feel a lot of these areas would be a bit dull without the content that comes with this expansion.

Hearts of Iron IV’s march to victory continues, but the big battle still looms in the distance. The old guard of Research, Diplomacy and basically anything to do with manually running your faction outside of warfare is falling back in the face of the new, dynamic and short-cut-frenzied Focus Tree. At some-point, these features are going to draw a line and will make their final stand. It’ll be interesting to see what the outcome of that will be, but in the mean time Waking the Tiger gives us some fun new toys to play around with.