Saturday, August 22, 2009

Axis and Allies--the relaunch

One of the highlights of my vacation was getting a game of Axis and Allies together with a couple of guys from my regular D&D group. I used to play A&A quite a bit as a youth and into my teenage years, back when it seemed like everyone had a copy of the game. But after loaning out my copy to a friend and never getting it back, and losing interest over the years, A&A had become a distant, pleasant memory of games past, sort of like Runequest or Top Secret.

A couple years ago I started getting the itch to try A&A again. It came about naturally, as a result of my lifelong interest in World War II and the urge to recreate the great battles of the European and Pacific theaters of war. I did some web-browsing and was pleased to discover that not only was A&A still a viable game, but that it had undergone a fairly substantial revision in 2004 and was reportedly "new and improved." On a whim I added it to my Christmas list, and in addition to the usual sweaters and underwear recieved a copy from my wife. There it sat for two more years, until last Sunday, when I finally had the opportunity to once again wage war on a world-wide scale circa 1942.

The new version of A&A includes two new pieces (destroyers and artillery) and several new twists on old units (tanks defend at a 1-3 on a D6, battleships can take 2 hits, fighters are cheaper, transports can carry more, etc.). Perhaps the biggest change of all, however, is that the new game boasts a newly redrawn map. Sure, WWII still takes place in Europe, Asia, Africa, etc, but the new edition divides the land and sea up into more spaces. Crossing the Atlantic is more difficult, Germany and Russia battle along more fronts, and, in general, movement and positioning are more important and require more decision making than before. In short, it's a lot more difficult for Russia to place mass infantry along its border and play fortress Moscow--the Krauts can affect a breakthrough a lot easier by attacking along a bigger front. In turn, the Russkies can counterattack more effectively and the Eastern front becomes more vulnerable for the Nazis as well. There's also more neutral territories and natural obstacles that block movement (the Sahara desert is now a considerable nuisance, for example).

A&A third edition also includes National Advantages, cool new optional rules that allow for events like the Russian Winter, Kamikaze and Kaiten attacks, U-Boat wolf packs, radar, superfortresses, and more. Since this was our first game with the revised rules we reigned in our enthusiasm and picked only one National Advantage each (Niall was ready to go full-bore with all six for each combatant).

On the surface, the new rules seemed to make for a more robust, realistic, and enjoyable play experience, but we were soon to find out.

On Sunday Niall and Steve and I went at it in a marathon session which lasted from roughly noon until 8:30 p.m (yes, I have a great wife who lets me do these things from time to time--you cannot have her). Niall and I took the Allies (I was Britain, he the U.S. and Russia) while Steve played the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. Steve, while also a newcomer to the new edition, had played A&A extensively a short while ago and thus had the important advantage of recent experience over Niall and I, hence the decision for us to join forces. To add to the ambience of the game, I brought along my authentic WWII army helmet and Japanese bayonet, as well as a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. In hindsight, I should have read the latter before we began.

Alas, the combined years of expertise and WWII knowledge that Niall and I brought to the table were no match for Steve's aggressive Axis stratagems, particularly his brilliant handling of Japan. While Germany fought Russia to a stalemate and maintained enough sea and air power to prevent any U.K. sorties across the English Channel, the Japanese went on a conquest of Asia, taking all of Eastern Russia, Southeast Asia, China, and even India and its neighboring countries. Steve's land grab built the Japanese from a starting 30 IPCs (Industrial Production Certificates, or money) to over 50, which he used to purchase an intimidating submarine fleet that kept the U.S. from crossing the Pacific.

Simultaneously, the Japanese fighters (land and carrier-based), harried my meagre U.K. forces off the coast of Africa while sweeping away the light resistance Russia could manage in the East (being otherwise occupied with surging German tanks, artillery, and infantry).

In hindsight, in addition to Steve's good play, we (the Allies) made some tactical errors. As I see it, they included:
  • As the U.K. I should have made all efforts to place and hold an industrial complex in India, which would have allowed me to bring my forces to bear in Southeast Asia and stem the Japanese advance. Instead, I opted to put my complex in South Africa. I eventually wound up holding most of Africa with the help of the U.S., but it was far too little, too late.
  • The U.S should have been more aggressive. Niall played a very good Russia, beating back German advances with good use of fighter-supported infantry, but Russia cannot hold both fronts. The U.S. was hindered by some hard early blows to its fleet by the aggressive Japanese, but could have nevertheless made greater efforts to establish a beachhead in Asia.
By the end of the game, we were whipped, and Niall and I conceded with German troops at the doorstep of Moscow and Japan holding enough territory to make Alexander the Great green with envy. Still, our ignorance of the rules made it too easy for Steve. Late in the game Germany secured rockets with an industrial breakthough, allowing the Nazis to use their antiaircraft pieces for long range, IPC-draining attacks on London and Moscow. With his large number of artillery, captured and otherwise, Steve rained 3d6 worth of IPC terror on our cities, draining our cash reserves and reinforcements to nil.

The addition of rockets seemed very powerful at the time--game-unbalancingly-powerful--so afterwards I checked the rules, which clearly state that a industrial complex may only suffer one rocket attack per turn, and cannot lose more IPCs than the territory's income value (of which London and Russia each have 8). Our error allowed Steve to make multiple attacks and wreak more financial loss than the rules dictated.

But in all fairness, the handwriting was on the wall and our defeat was inevitable by that point. Steve had us beaten even before Nazi V-2s started raining havoc from the skies.

Still, I'm very much looking forward to the rematch. I can definitely say that a great day was had by all, and that A&A very much holds up as a great game and a nice change of pace from RPGs.


Atom Kid said...

It's been years since I've played A&A, I've still have my 1984 version. I'll have to con my wife into playing it sometime!

Did you ever play Conquest of Empire, MBs Roman version of A&A?

ze bulette said...

A really great game I played absolutely tons as a kid... As I recall, it always seemed as though the Axis had to play with more skill to pull off a win. Nice to see a game hold its own over the years, it truly deserves it.

The Badger King said...

We used to play this a ton back in the day, but the one I think we played MORE saw SHOGUN. I fondly remember the zany hijinks of everyone trying to buy the damn ninja to assassinate various oyabuns. Good times. Is this game still around too?

As for A&A, I played more Risk, and for simpulated war games, we preferred SUPREMACY. Now THERE'S a game that I pray every day will come back into print. My buddy used to have the old giant floor mat map, and we spent many a lost weekend, starting Friday night, sleeping over, and playing until SUnday night, only to suspend the game until the next weekend. 8)

Brian Murphy said...

Atom Kid: I had the 1984 version as well, and it was a great game, but I think the third revision is an improvement on the original. I never did play Conquest of the Empire, but I wanted to. I did play a bit of Fortress America--remember that one? The U.S. gets invaded by (I believe) the Chinese and the Russians? Fun times.

Ze Bulette: Yes, I always thought the original was tipped in favor of the Allies too, but the current version seems to make the Axis quite a bit stronger... Germany now has 40 IPCs, I believe, trailing only the U.S. in buying power, and just barely. And the Japanese naval and air fleets are intimidating at the beginning of the game.

Badger King: I can't speak about Supremacy or Shogun, having never played them. But I too had many late nights with friends playing epic games of A&A (and Risk) and recall leaving battle-boards set up for a week or weeks on end so that we could complete a lengthy game.

Unfortunately, traditional table top war games seem to have been done in by the advent of the computer war game, which can keep track of turns, pieces, combat resolutions, etc., without any fuss or mess. Still, to me a computer will never replicate the thrill of seeing a nicely drawn, colorful game board on an honest-to-God tabletop with plastic soldiers, planes, and ships strewn about.

Falze said...

Would the rules of the new version allow me to recreate my classic strategy of blowing all my money trying to get a 'technical advance' (or whatever they were called) until I'm completely demolished?

(I didn't say it was a good strategy.)

Pericles said...

Well Brian,I've never played this game, but what lucid and intelligent piece of writing on your part. I pretty much felt like I was there in person.

The internet is full of wretched and confusing prose, so it's a pleasure to find something this clear and readable for a change.

Btw, what a patient and understanding wife you have!

Brian said...

Falze: Yes, happily, you can still blow all your money on industrial breakthroughs. The difference now is that, if you succeed on the roll, you get to pick which breakthrough you'd like to get, instead of it being randomly generated.

Pericles: Thanks, what a complement! And yes, my wife is pretty cool.

Scott said...


I've never played this game, though I used to be a Risk fan back in the day.

Eric D. Lehman said...

I'm buying this and introducing my wife to it NOW. I loved this as a teenager and in college, and now it's time for the world to shake in the conflict against fascism once again!

P.S. I found that the easiest of all to play and thrive with in the old game was Japan, and only Germany's defeat or the successful use of China or India as industrial sites by the allies (as Brian mentions )could stop them. Can't wait for the new version...

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Eric, that's the spirit!

Eric D. Lehman said...

Apparently my wife is game! It's a go.