Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Axis & Allies Battle of the Bulge

On 10 Nov 2007 I played my second game of Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge. It was Han's first time. This time I played as the Axis. The last time when I played against Chee Seng I played the Allies.

Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge is about the famous Battle of the Bulge battle during World War 2, between Germany and the Allied forces. At the time the tide had turned and the Allies were gaining ground on Germany, after having landed in Normandy and liberated territories previously conquered by Germany. This battle was one of Germany's last major offensive operations, with the objective of capturing the port of Antwerp, thus cutting off the supply line of the Allies. In retrospect the objective was overly optimistic, even though the Germans were initially successful in this battle, having planned it well and used the element of surprise well. In the end, the Germans failed to capture Antwerp. They did create a bulge in the front line at one point, thus the name of the battle.

In this game, instead of setting the same goal as the Germans had in history, the designer Larry Harris gave the Axis player a different (and more realistic) goal - to outdo the Germans. You can say it is to create a bigger bulge than was achieved in real history. For the Allies, the goal is to prevent this from happening. The game is played over 8 rounds. The Axis wins if at the end of any round they capture 24 victory points worth of towns. Else the Allies win. The Axis start with a strong presence on the board, and also some reinforcements coming in the first few rounds of the game. The Allies start with little presence, but have more reinforcements coming. In the first four rounds, the weather is bad and aircraft cannot fly, but in the subsequent four rounds, aircraft comes into play. The Allies have an advantage in the air. There is a very clear change of momentum in the game. The Axis are strong at the start, and must utilise this advantage well and play aggressively. The Allies need to try to hold on for the first four rounds, balancing between conceding ground, falling back and regrouping, and at the same time trying to hold back the Axis and not let them advance too easily. The second half of the game is when the Allies see the tide turning. This is an interesting asymmetry.

One difference between Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge and other games in the Axis & Allies series (Axis & Allies, Axis & Allies: Europe, Axis & Allies: Pacific) is that you don't get to build new units. Instead, you have a more-or-less fixed timetable for when reinforcements will arrive at the scene. This is similar to Axis & Allies: D-Day, the only game in the series that I do not own. Another big difference is how casualties are handled. In the standard Axis & Allies fare, the defender decides which unit dies, and usually it'll be the poor cheap infantry. In Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge the casualty system assigns hits randomly. And not all units die when hit. Infantry, tanks and artillery are only forced to retreat if hit once, and die only when hit twice. There can be times when the same unlucky tank is hit more than twice (i.e. will be destroyed) and the joker next to it doesn't get a scratch. Or sometimes when you attack, your (incompetent) men end up destroying all those supplies and trucks that you are hoping to capture and neglect to kill that lone infantry guarding the supplies and trucks. This casualty system is interesting and I find it is in a way more realistic too.

Trucks and supplies are another important addition. You need supplies to attack and to move. Without supplies, your men (and tanks and artillery) cannot even return fire when shot at. They will be sitting ducks. So supplies are important. The Allies have more than enough supplies, but supplies can be a bit thin for the Axis. So far in my two games supplies have not yet been a major difficulty for the Axis, but it did provide some challenge. Trucks are important for transporting supplies, and also for transporting infantry and artillery to the front lines (otherwise they can only move one step at a time).

Overview of the initial setup of the game.

One of the three reinforcement sheets for the Allies. This has a mixture of British (biege) and American (green) units.

The cool black German reinforcements.

Aerial view of the initial setup.

Slightly up close and personal with the troops.

In our game, I (as the Axis) had some pretty good die rolls from the start. In contrast, Han's die rolls were not exactly auspicious, to put it in a nice way. He had lots of 11s (you need 6 or below to score a hit, since those were 12-sided dice). The Allies do not get to shoot in the first round, and can only move after all shots were fired. This is to represent the element of surprise that the Axis had. The Axis caused some major damage in the first round. In the next few rounds, the Axis offensive was quite successful, in some areas completely wiping out the Allied resistance. However, in some towns, notably one of the northern towns, Verviers, the Allied soldiers fought bravely, despite being outnumbered. The attacking Axis forces could not kill off the defenders or force all of them to retreat and vacate the town. Some of the defenders were very stubborn and held on to the important town (3 victory points). In round 5, the bombers and fighters arrived, providing much needed support to the Allied forces. Unfortunately it was too late. The Axis were already well poised to conquer the last few towns to score more than 24VP. The Allies did not have enough ground troops to stop the still strong Axis forces. In retrospect, the Allies probably should have conceded more ground earlier, and only left token defenders just to waste the Axis' supplies (you need to spend supplies to attack, even if only attacking one lone infantry). Han had underestimated the value & scarcity of his units. He probably should have retreated a bit more to regroup, rather than standing his ground. And the not-so-auspicious die rolls definitely didn't help. One heroic moment in the battle was when a lone British tank blitzed through a hole in the German front to recapture a small town. Tanks can blitz, i.e. move twice, by paying two supply tokens instead of one. This British tank created a zone of control (also a new concept, meaning any hex adjacent to any enemy combat unit) such that I had two hexes which had no retreat path, i.e. any units there being shot at and forced to retreat will have nowhere to retreat to, and will be destroyed instead. I paid dearly for my mistake in leaving a hole in my front line.

The bulge I created when my southern force wiped out the Allied defenders. Actually I'm not even sure whether the bulge should look like that. I hope I didn't get the front line marker placement rules wrong.

The brave British tank that broke through the German defenses to recapture the town of Houffalize.

I quite like Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge. There are some new interesting concepts introduced. There is an interesting asymmetry. So far it seems that the game is very difficult for the Allies. In both my games the Axis won, the first time by round 6, and the second time by round 5. Well, maybe for the first four rounds the Axis have the advantage, so it feels as if the game is much more difficult for the Allies to win. I suspect the game will often be decided by round 5 or round 6, and need not be played to the end of round 8. If the Axis are not near achieving their objective by then, they probably should concede defeat, because by then the advantage would be on the Allied side already. Maybe only very close games need to be played to round 8. Well, that's just my guess. I may be totally wrong.

The game (in my humble opinion after only 2 plays) seems to be more "fun" for the Axis, because you can (almost) mindlessly attack and cheer on your troops. However it may be more interesting for the Allies because that's when you need to think hard about how much ground to concede, how to plan your retreat, how to execute your counter-offensive, which towns to hold on to and which ones to give up. It seems to be more challenging to play the Allies.

Now I'm looking forward to the next game in the series, Axis and Allies: Guadalcanal. It is being released this month, and after reading some articles about it, it is already a must buy for me. I heard that the next Axis & Allies game that Larry Harris will make is going to be about Stalingrad. That will be for 2008 I guess.


Cecrow said...

Yeah, I don't think you have the front line markers right in that picture; there's no reason you should have control of the hexes to either side of your advanced army, for example. But then, I'm not sure myself, either.

When I won a game as the allies, I did it by planting pockets of resistance in front of the most advanced Axis and ensuring that my pockets were stronger than those forces they directly faced.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I'll need to check the rules again to be sure, but I remember I read somewhere that any unoccupied hex to the northeast and southeast of a hex occupied by the Axis are automatically controlled by the Axis.

It's a pity that I have not had the chance to play this game again. I would like to try that pocket of resistance strategy.