Friday, February 15, 2019

Axis & Allies Revisited

I recently introduced the original Milton Bradley Axis & Allies to a group of experienced gamers who had never encountered this classic boardgame. After a quick game the discussion turned toward the reputation of the classic version as a largely "unbalanced" scenario.  The design of Axis & Allies attempts to simulate an understanding of World War II as a situation where the Axis powers (Germany and Japan) start out with an abundance of forces that must overwhelm the Allies (UK, USSR and USA).  The Allies begin with a smaller amount of units on the board but have a larger economic potential to slowly build up and defeat the Axis.  Victory for the Axis largely depends on an aggressive and lucky Germany defeating the Russians before they can build up massive infantry forces that eventually wear down the Axis advance.  The luck factor here requiring the player to roll low with a "buckets of dice" approach to combat that gave rise to an entire classification of boardgame: Ameritrash. While I mostly agree that by modern standards the game has inherent flaws, I could not help but ruminate on how fundamental this game was to my development as a historical boardgamer.

Classic Axis & Allies Setup
Axis & Allies was the first game where I finally found a group of players.  My pre-teen efforts had been a solitaire effort with an assortment of the vintage Avalon Hill titles.  However, meeting willing and like-minded gamers in high school really opened up the arena, and the 1984 release of Axis & Allies dominated those years.  We devoured the game whole: constant replays turned to house rules turned to experiments with alternate setups, unit values and production.  We created new nations, alien invaders, and expansive technological development trees.  We developed names for our strategies such as "The Karelian Gambit" or the "Manchurian Candidate."  We plotted and we analyzed.  In short we discovered the power of the wargame sandbox.  It was a tool that could be manipulated to explore history through the potential of myriad permutations.  It was from these experiences that I was forever hooked on historical gaming and it shaped my particular love for operational and strategic simulations.

Karelia dominates the Eastern Front
The other appeal of classic Axis & Allies may in fact be that it provides a playable "unbalanced" scenario. Historical gamers enjoy recreating events where one side is outnumbered, on the defense or has to exploit a momentary advantage before an inevitable outcome. The historical gamer may not always be looking to "win" so much as measure his performance to the historical outcome or hope to gain a better understanding of why certain decisions succeeded or failed.  Any player who is challenged by the underdog position of the Axis and seeks to try again or do better next time is certainly a candidate for the larger world of wargaming. In that respect I think that Axis & Allies still serves as an excellent introduction to the world of historical gaming. I am aware of all the newer editions of Axis & Allies that are reported to fix many of the original game's weaknesses, I have never played any of them, but I would hope that they have not erased the level of "imbalance" inherent to the historical situation and the lessons and challenges it provides.

Axis & Allies and World In Flames.....pretty much the same game, right?

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