Thursday, 12 March 2009

my problems with Axis & Allies

Having spent a lot of effort writing up two session reports for Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition (AA50), and also a review for the game, I now venture into the problems I have with the game. So, this is kind of an extension of my previous review.

In my previous review, I said that everything in AA50 has been improved, to different extents, and I definitely will not go back to earlier versions of the game. That still holds true. The problems that I have with the game are actually problems that I have with all versions of the game, and not specifically the Anniversary Edition. And I am talking about the world theatre versions, not the regional theatre versions (e.g. A&A Europe, A&A Pacific) or battle specific versions (e.g. A&A Guadalcanal, A&A Battle of the Bulge). I still think this is a great game, and writing about these "problems" is more like accepting limitations of the game rather than complaining about the game being poor. I don't really have solutions to all the "problems", and I am not trying to offer any.

1. Too simple and too clean. In translating World War II at the world level to a boardgame, Axis & Allies has simplified many things. Many details need to be abstracted away. Precision has to be greatly reduced. 0.1423 is rounded down to 0, 0.7253 is rounded up to 1. In the Atlantic Ocean, if a naval battle is fought between UK and Germany, the end result will likely be one of the navies will get completely wiped out. In A&A, the Atlantic Ocean is a small pond, that cannot really allow two big opposing navies to co-exist for very long. In real life, the German navy probably wasn't as strong as the Allied navy, but they definitely had presence. In A&A, I think Germany often loses all naval units, and doesn't bother rebuilding it. This is just one example. In other areas, e.g. Egypt, India, China, Soviet Far East, this problem can be seen too - the situation where one side is completely wiped out, and the victor becomes completely unrestrained. One sad thing about Italy is once it loses its navy, it will likely never be able to rebuild it. Italy cannot afford it.

2. Sometimes the game becomes not historical / realistic. Japanese fighters protecting Berlin, Japan conquering Africa, Russians defending India. This probably should not be considered a problem. You just need to stretch your tolerance for alternative history. Where's the fun if every game turns out exactly like real history.

3. Battles are usually fought to the death. Two big stacks that have taken many rounds to build up can be almost completely wiped out within one battle. This can be a big swing of fate, and a big change in the balance of power in that front. Compare this with A&A Guadalcanal and A&A Battle of the Bulge, where battles are only fought for one round, and both sides may have units surviving to fight again next round.

4. Technologies can be a big luck factor. If you get a useful tech at the right time, it can be a very big advantage. But there is quite a bit of luck in investing in technology, in whether you succeed in making a discovery, and also in what tech you discover. Well, techs are an optional rule, so you can play without it.

5. The fall of your capital is crippling. You lose all your money, and you can't build troops for at least one round. This gap in your production cycle of even just one round is devastating. It is a big loss of momentum, and it takes a while for you to catch up. Also it is painful to have given your opponent a windfall. Now indeed losing your capital should be bad. That's reasonable. But I prefer the penalty to be less severe. Sometimes it feels like winning or losing is determined by capturing enemy capitals. Well, at least it seems losing (or becoming a non-factor) is determined by losing your capital. This felt like the game is all about capturing enemy capitals, just like in the original (1984) game. That is a pity, because I think that makes things less fun and less varied.

6. The victory condition may not really matter. In my two games of AA50, we set 15 victory cities as the victory condition, which is the standard victory condition. In both games, one side conceded before the victory condition was met. In both games, it felt as if the victory cities didn't matter at all. We never got near 15 victory cities, and by the time one side conceded, it wasn't nowhere near being beaten down to 3 victory cities. So it seemed the victory cities didn't really matter. Capturing capitals was actually more important, because of how devastating it was to your opponent. So perhaps we should have set a lower number of victory cities as the victory condition. That would make capturing capitals less necessary, and both sides would need to pay much more attention to every victory city. It may be tricky to decide the ideal number of victory cities to use. Set it too high (I think the default of 15 is too high), and it becomes meaningless. Set it too low, and it may be too easy for the Axis to achieve it quickly, because they have more starting forces and these starting forces are better positioned to make quick gains.

Despite all these complaints, I am actually not very keen on introducing any variant. I'm generally not too keen on inventing variants for games, or using fan-created variants. I trust the designers and their play-testing teams more. Some fan-created variants may be unbalanced, or may make things too complex. But one thing that I may do when I play AA50 again is to play with fewer victory cities as the victory condition. That should be interesting.


Aik Yong said...

Grand strategic wargames usually are more prone to breakdowns than say tactical or operational level games. However, since I treat A&A more as a game rather than a historical re-enactment, the a-historical beef doesn't bother me. In fact I kinda liked trying to break the game.

The only problem for me with this game is that there could be an 'optimal solution' to what I see as an intricate 2-player puzzle. In which case, there is always an optimal move and countermove such that the game will become stale. That is my only problem that I foresee could happen in the future.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I think A&A can get repetitive after a while, because the starting setup is always the same, unlike, say, Samurai Swords, Wallenstein. At the start of the game, each country probably only has a few general strategies that it can pursue. And games probably can't develop very differently, because of being constrained by the starting setup.

But I think one thing good about A&A is sometimes there is no optimal move, and sometimes the optimal move doesn't give you the best outcome. You can get screwed by the dice. Sometimes the game develops in an unexpected direction. I think that can keep the game interesting, and that's probably one argument against using the Lowluck rules (which I haven't tried yet myself).

Whether a game (A&A or other games) becomes a 2-player puzzle probably also depends on how you play it. If you really do want to analyse every possibility exhaustively before you make your move, then indeed the game becomes a tedious mathematical exercise (and if you are playing F2F you'll be labeled "AP guy", ha ha...). If you play half from your guts, then it can be enjoyed with a lighter and more relaxed mindset. It's up to each individual's preference I guess. But I sure did enjoy shouting "Yamato!" in my previous game (by myself, in front of the PC).

Cecrow said...

I'd agree the victory cities are fairly pointless; National Objectives on the other hand offer good medium term objectives on your way to capturing enemy capitals. I think they've also served to add a taste of history to the game (that and adding Italy).

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Victory cities may be more interesting if there are fewer required to win. The next time I play AA50 I'll probably try 12 victory cities. That will shift focus to the fronts instead of the capitals. You'd need to worry about your fronts way before your capital ever gets threatened.

Aik Yong said...

I feel the victory cities objectives will somehow skew the game towards a short-term or mid-term victory strategy. As much as I hate playing a 12 hour game, I will feel satisfied only if I played the game to its world domination conclusion.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Using fewer victory cities will shift the focus to these cities, and away from capitals. That does change the nature of the game. I have not played it this way yet, but I am guessing doing this will help avoid the scripted feeling when the focus is on taking down your opponents' capitals. Well, it may just create a different "script" (but a script anyhow), but I suspect there will be more variety in such games, because there are 12 non-capital victory cities, compared to 6 capitals.

I think a lower victory city count game can feel unsatisfactory if it is possible for one side to completely screw up its board position to achieve victory. That victory would be rather hollow. But probably the number of victory cities can be set just right so that it would not be possible for this to happen.