Milton Bradley, £30
2-5 players, about 3 hours+
Belatedly Appraised by Mike Siggins
Milton Bradley's Axis & Allies has been lurking in the loft for a while, waiting to be played on the basis of good things often being said about it and a substantial gameclub and convention following in the States. Because reviews of very old games in magazines (such as GRiM reviewing Squad Leader) tend to exasperate, I have steered clear of the full run down of this ten year veteran and confine myself to these notes instead, mainly because I was quietly impressed and would like to pass on the good news. Those of you who have played fifty odd times are asked to be patient with this arriviste, or to skip a few paragraphs.
Three of us sat down to play it, with me as the three major allies and the others taking Germany and Japan. The traditional MB Gamemaster popping out ceremony took about twenty-five minutes with three pairs of hands, though we did lose a bomber somewhere in the shagpile. The pieces are the typically excellent MB plastic mouldings which, as with Shogun, add a lot to the game. The mapboard is the usual area movement job and each country gets an exemplary set up and cost chart. Rules are clear and pretty much run off the sequence of play, and if you have played Shogun or Fortress America you will know the combat system. Almost every rules query in what is a rather freeform game (eg can I relocate fighter bases, can I use bombers against troops, can subs get a surprise attack) were all covered and were found in the logical places. Largely as a result of this, the game itself plays cleanly and the large numbers of combat and movement combinations all mesh together well and are easily rationalised.
The five main participants are broadly equal at the start and have representative forces in their historical locations as at the start of 1942. Pearl Harbour has been bombed and the Germans have made ground in Russia; from there on in, it is up to each player what strategies and hardware they pursue. If you want battleships, an impressive merchant marine and swarms of subs, fine. You can get to play Bomber Harris or if you want thousands of tanks (a la Panzergruppe Clifford) or hordes of Siberian infantry, that's fine too. These purchases are funded by straightforward cash, earned each turn based on the regions controlled. These are based on a combination of strategic and economic value. Libya for instance is worth just 1 point (but indirectly more as a route to the near east), whereas South Africa and India are 3, France is 6 and the Western US is 10. Early on in the game I made a statement to the effect that the US seemed underfunded but lived to regret it when the Germans, Russians and Brits all suffered at the hands of the strategic bombers - the design effect was to make the US relatively rich by virtue of being out of range. This is a typically clever touch. Victory is determined by the Allies taking both Berlin and Tokyo or by the Axis acquiring large chunks of the Allied lands. In theory this could go on and on, but there would be little problem in playing to a time limit.
The game progresses in that odd style where nothing happens very quickly in terms of gaining ground or securing the upper hand, but a lot seems to happen in each turn (bringing to mind rather well the battles involved). The changing tides of fortune however, slowly shifting over a couple of turns or more, are acutely felt. As well as the battles coming to life, there was even some individual relating with the pieces, unusual in a game of this scale. This was particularly noted in a heroic last stand or two and an emigre Russian sub commander who seemed invincible. He ended up prowling around the Philippines while the Japanese navy ran for cover.
Given that A&A uses a fairly simple game system and the 'roll a one to kill' Gamemaster combat, it clearly isn't the height of realism but as a game it is extraordinarily well balanced, flavoursome and has many clever design features that generate a historical feel far beyond my expectations. The strongest of these features is the layout of the map and movement allowances that have clearly had much thought given to them, such that the oceans and continents are all the right size, if you know what I mean. For example, the Pacific is wide enough to make Midway island a crucial staging point for any contemplated invasion of California while at the same time making such an invasion realistically unlikely. Bombing ranges and fighter cover are approximately right and convoy actions work well in the small but difficult to cross Atlantic. The site for a D-Day invasion is pretty obvious as well, because the areas channel your options (fudge them, you could argue) though I did manage a large armoured landing in Norway which has to be a little doubtful. Then again, within the game's parameters, this sort of thing is grist to the mill. Perhaps the telling point was that it came horribly unstuck, so I looked upon it as a Dieppe shifted north.
The feel is very much of a global war where the concepts of second fronts, the importance of North Africa, Hawaii and Burma all become very clear. As this is the first WWII game I have played that features the whole world map, there were aspects I had simply never spotted and, accordingly, the scope of one's strategy improves at the same time. The failing of anything less than the campaign game of World in Flames is readily apparent. It also shows some of the problems of planning for D-Day, the importance of naval superiority and the gradual, but decisive, effect of technological superiority. You can get a strong feel of areas such as the U Boat war, strategic bombing and transport problems. Again, I was pleasantly surprised.
I have the feeling that as good as A&A is on the first playing (and probably for several more to come), it is a game that could suffer from a touch of perfect planning as players become more proficient and are able to try out, identify and re- use the stronger options. Certainly, in our game, the Germans getting bomber technology with improved effectiveness was a major benefit which ultimately tipped the balance their way. Even during the course of the first game, we spotted that tanks are only good on the offensive, otherwise they are the same as infantry (so the tanks accordingly attacked a lot) and battleships are great offensively but die easily and are expensive, leading to PE analysis of the most interesting sort. I'm sure there is more of the same that will show with experience, I just hope this doesn't lead to the fixed opening moves found in Chess and Diplomacy.
Overall, Axis & Allies is a fun, simple, multi-player game but which lets you do all those exciting things like research, production choices, offensives and invasions with minimal fuss. There are lots of decisions relating to all these subjects and most importantly the overall feel is spot on. The game took us about three hours to reach an actual, rather than extrapolated, conclusion (a win for the Axis thanks to a successful Blitz campaign against the UK with the Japanese cleaning up in eastern Russia after a big naval win over the US Pacific fleet) and all participants voted it a winner. I doubt it will appeal greatly to the historical gamers any more than History of the World or Risk (especially those who dislike dice-heavy games), but for the odd two player 'light' session or gamegroups with a tolerance of the subject matter, it is quite an experience. You can still buy it (along with a number of third party expansion packs) and unhesitatingly recommend you pick it up while you can.
It may be worth mentioning at this point that Axis & Allies is rapidly disappearing from UK shops if indeed it hasn't already. However, since I was lucky enough to see some of the many thousands of these games being made at MB's factory, I can tell you that there should be no shortage of them out there if you look around or contact the dealers. Finally, and it is only an unconfirmed rumour at this time, MB are meant to be re-issuing the game soon along with variant rules from the many third party suppliers. I don't suppose anyone can confirm this?
On to Mainstream Games or back to the review of Rave.
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