Germany is always the favorite country to play. Why? Ironically, because they lost – gamers love a challenge! They also live for conquest, and who better…Germany has a challenging situation, surrounded by many powerful potential enemies. But Germany also has many advantages with regard to research, industrial strength, military potential, etc. Not to mention Axis members are able to declare war more easily, while the western powers are still figuring out the meaning of “threat.” Later scenarios can be very interesting too. There’s rarely a more challenging game than fighting off mighty enemies on three fronts, as in the 1944 setup. And the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union is interesting in any game!
Advantages and obligations – the UK has a worldwide empire, which is both a blessing, and a curse. You have to defend it all, but it also means you have a lot of resources, and your navy was built with the intent of defending your vast holdings. As Prime Minister Churchill once said, “Only the navy can lose the war, only the RAF can win it.” The navy is your shield, and the army and air force are your only means of finally retaking Europe from the Nazis, unless you can talk the USA into joining with you…
Many scenarios feature interesting UK setups – Montgomery’s struggle across North Africa in 1941 and 1943, the D-Day scenario, etc. One of the classics will be trying to hold off the Germans in the 1939 scenario, and dealing with the consequences if France falls. Naturally, many players will enjoy alternate histories, trying to outpace the historical buildup for war so they can do a better job in the early years of war.
Keep in mind that the various “Commonwealth” countries (Australia, South Africa, etc.) are playable separately, and so you could also command their military forces instead of the UK’s.
United States of America
The United States has some serious penalties which should prevent it from playing too strong a role in the early years of the game. However, it’s an economic powerhouse, and so when it finally joins the war, it will play a commanding role. There are several challenging scenarios for the USA – Pearl Harbor, of course, along with the fights in North Africa and the Pacific in 1943, and the reconquest of France and Italy, and much of the Pacific in 1944. The USA can also have interesting alternate history games – maybe the USA decides not to join the Allies, and only fights Japan in the Pacific, then goes on to an early Cold War with the USSR. Or maybe the Japanese will invade the Panama Canal Zone in 1938!
Soviet Union (USSR)
The Soviet Union is an interesting bird (er, bear?). She fought on both sides, at different times, and really carried the brunt of the fighting against Nazi Germany through two or three years of the war. Not to mention that the epic clashes of armour, aerial and infantry forces across the blood-drenched steppes are some of the most interesting challenges in the game!
But alternate history offers a whole range of possibilities. The USSR has the potential to be an aggressor. You could start your conquests early, against countries the Soviets never attacked historically. Also, you’re not forced into alliance with Germany – you could start your war early. Or, you could ally with Germany in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and then find that Germany never invades you.
The ultimate “what if” scenario can take place after the defeat of Germany in the 1944 scenario (or play through from an earlier one). You could take on Europe and the USA in a “hot” war with nuclear weapons and jet fighters!
Japan is one of the most challenging majors you can play. She’s terribly constrained by resource limitations, and literally must grow to survive as a militaristic power. But, cleverly played, Japan can provide one of the most interesting gaming experiences. Since Japan didn’t join war against the majors until midway through the timespan of the game, alternate history could mean war with the USA in 1938, or in 1943 after you’ve finally defeated China (good luck making it that long if you haven’t somehow captured the East Indies by then!). But even an early war against the UK and Netherlands is possible, without the involvement of the USA. Later scenarios allow you to try to turn back the American tide, as they advance purposefully from one island to the next.
Many players have a lot of fun with Italy as a conquering power. You are able to invade a number of small countries in the early games. In fact, it’s even possible to rival the territorial expansion of Germany if you play your cards right! But Italy is hampered by a difficult position in the Mediterranean – she’s surrounded by potentially hostile powers, just like Germany, but hasn’t the military or industrial advantages of her northern ally.
Historical scenarios from 1941 to 1944 offer interesting challenges in Africa, or on your home turf. Starting in 1936 allows you to gain experience in Ethiopia. And if you start in 1939, you get to choose when (or if!) to join the war against France. Lots of options to explore!
One of the strongest countries in the game, sitting behind the strongest fortress complex in the world, you should be able to do pretty well with France. But then again, France should have done better historically than she did! In HOI 3, you get to try to change history.
Starting in 1936, you can attempt to secure your frontier, and build an army that can break through into Germany before she really gets going with the conquest thing. By starting in 1939, you face the historical reality of a hostile, rearmed Germany on your border, and knowing full well what the military potentials can be! Good luck. But France can actually do pretty well in the 1936, 1938 or 1939 scenarios. Playing a “government in exile” in later games has serious limitations, but such “no win scenarios” are what some gamers crave!
One of the most fascinating, and exciting, setups in the game is playing Republican Spain in 1936. You could choose to play the same Civil War in 1938 if you want, with the frontiers already established and a more simple war ahead. But there’s not much that can challenge you more than having a mixture of friendly and enemy reserve divisions at minimal strength trying to fight each other when no one knows which direction “home” is! By saving a game, and re-starting as the other side, you can choose to play Nationalist Spain after the Civil War starts. Either side in this war should be interesting. Each side has advantages and disadvantages, and they aren’t always set up to be the same each time. It gets more complicated if a neighboring great power actually decides to send combat troops! Later scenarios as Nationalist Spain can be fun too. You hold all the cards – everyone wants to be your friend, because the security of Gibraltar depends largely upon you!
Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist China fought doggedly through eight years of war, and come out on the winning side! How can you beat that? Even though China has many limitations, she can actually fight a creditable war against Japan. Alternate historical options might allow you to fight your own Chinese neighbors, too.
The regional power of Central America, Mexico can fight on the Allied side, or could try to join the Axis and make things really interesting for the USA!
Brazil has a wide range of choices for alliances, and has the potential to be a South American superpower. Lots of things you could do with Brazil, including fighting World War II on one side or another in a faction.
Like Brazil, Argentina (and other Latin American countries) has the potential to be a “bad boy,” and take over some of its neighbors, or to play along with one of the factions and help determine the course of the war.
Although a veteran of World War I, Turkey opted to stay neutral during World War II. You could play her straight, and see if anybody tries to attack you, or you could align yourself with one of the factions, and see what kind of contribution you could make. With the colonies of the UK and France nearby, you could introduce a serious complication to Allied war plans! Turkey could also open up another front against the Soviets, or could be the country that saves the Balkans from German domination (with some very clever gameplay!).
Poland might seem like a lost cause, because that’s how it turned out historically. In many cases, that will be true. But occasionally, a player will be able to slow down the German advance in 1939 enough that French or British allies can distract them from the other frontier. It’s possible for Poland to survive if the right combination of factors comes into play. But some players enjoy the challenge of a losing battle – just see how long you can hold out!
Like Poland, Czechoslovakia can be a lost cause, or it could make a desperate stand until some other major power saves it from annihilation. Czechoslovakia has some advantageous fortresses set up, and has a decent pre-war military-industrial setup. But you’ll have to play the diplomatic game carefully, or you may end up as someone’s lunch.
Historically, Hungary joined the Axis side in World War II, and sent military units to Russia who fought with some distinction until late in the war when Hungary itself was enclosed by the Iron Curtain. A player in HOI 2 actually conquered the world with Hungary – that’s not as likely to be possible in HOI 3, but don’t dismiss the potential of this smaller European power.
Romania had a sizeable army fighting on the Eastern Front against Russia from the beginning of the Barbarossa campaign until the bitter end. But Romania is not locked into only playing for the Axis team. You have a number of options, including allying with the USSR, or even trying to join an alternate-historical “eastern alliance” against German aggression. Lots of possibilities.
The Scandinavian country of Finland actually held off a Soviet invasion for a while in 1940, and players who start in 1936 or 1939 might have an interesting replay of the Winter War. But even later scenarios, where Finland is busy holding down the Axis’ northern flank, can be a fun play.