Thursday 14 February 2013

further thoughts Axis & Allies Global 1940

This is a follow-up to my previous post, which was a session report of a one-and-a-half-month PBEM game of Axis & Allies Global 1940 (AAG40). Here are some of my thoughts (and my opponent Han's too) about the game. This is based on the ALPHA+3 rules, a.k.a. second edition rules.

It's still all about the economic equilibrium - The Axis starts with more units, better units, and better positioned units, but has lower income. The Allies start off richer, but have fewer units, weaker units and poorly positioned units. The Axis powers will have fun playing the aggressor in the early game, but they are under time pressure to catch up with the Allies economically by conquering territories and fulfilling national objectives. They need to strive for economic equilibrium, and then push beyond that equilibrium to win. If both sides can reach a near equilibrium, a game of A&A can drag for a long time. The long term goal in A&A that you must always keep in mind is to tilt the economic equilibrium in your favour and push it into an irreversible slide. In my opinion the game is more about the economic momentum rather than the victory cities (the victory condition according to the rules). Set the number of victory cities too low, and the game becomes an artificial blitz of the Axis trying to quickly capture enough victory cities, throwing caution to the wind and ignoring long-term implications. Set it too high, and the results of the game will be obvious long before the condition is met.

Game balance is done well - AAG40 is well balanced. OK, having played only one game using the ALPHA+3 rules doesn't exactly make me an authority in this. This is just my gut feel. The heavy bomber tech is toned down. Major factories are not allowed in non originally owned territories. The initial setup presents a number of interesting decisions for both players.

The war in Europe.

Excellent map design - The game is a beautiful temptress playing hard-to-get. There are more territories than other versions of A&A, and very often you will find that your naval task force or air force is just one space short of reaching where you want to attack. You are always just that teeny-weeny little bit out of range. And then there are naval bases and air bases to give you that one extra step. Such bases become very important. When you use a naval base, your fleet can move three spaces instead of two, but there may not be a friendly naval base at your destination, so you may not be able to move back to where you started the following turn. Do you want to risk having your fleet being out-of-position later on? Another very interesting aspect is the straits and canals - the Strait of Gibraltar, the Danish Straits, the Suez Canal and the Turkish Straits all control access to crucial sea zones, making the territories next to these seaways important strategic locations.

Long-term planning - You need to do this. In addition to that economic equilibrium, buying units and positioning them require much foresight and commitment. You need to know how you want to fight and where you want your units to be a few rounds ahead. You also need to watch what your opponent is buying and guess his long-term intentions. You need to have a consistent plan and stick to it so that it can come to fruition.

The Pacific theatre.

Sounds good so far? Despite these strong points, if I want to play a global-scale A&A, I would prefer not to play AAG40. Here's why:

Tedium - Although I greatly admire the map design, I feel it is good execution under flawed orders. Given the (in my opinion) poor decision to make a more complex global A&A game, what AAG40 achieved is probably already the best result possible. I think the map is just too big, making movement too tedious, and progress too slow. It does make certain aspects of the game more realistic, e.g. indeed it should not be easy for Japan to reach Moscow. I think tedium is not a problem if you play only the Europe theatre or only the Pacific theatre. I think I will enjoy these theatre-specific games much more if played separately. At the global scale, I feel there is too much effort required in execution compared to the strategic decisions you are making. It's not a problem with lack of decisions or lack of variety in tactics. It's just that the fun-effort ratio is not high enough. One analogy I can think of is the traveling in the early part of Lord of the Rings (the novel). I don't mind some details, but I don't want to dwell on every waterfall and tree seen and lembas bread eaten along the way.

Actually that's the only problem I have with the game. Here are some other thoughts.

Playing using the TripleA software.

It is not realistic - Don't expect it to be. I suspect the original A&A started as an advanced Risk. Usually one round in the game is considered roughly 3 months. In real life, battleships take much longer than 3 months to produce. A ship does not take 3 months to sail from Hong Kong to Indonesia. Or do we take the movement of units in the game as representing the pushing of the front line, or power projection? I guess that is possible. My view is just don't worry about realism and scale too much. Just accept that there is a high level of abstraction in this game, even if it doesn't feel like so because of the many beautiful sculpts and how the different units behave.

Replayability may not be that high - This applies not to AAG40 specifically, but to every game in the family. Just how many times can you re-fight WW2? Long before I became a boardgamer, I already felt A&A (the 1984 global version) has lower replayability than Samurai Swords (a.k.a. Shogun and Ikusa). WW2 has a fixed starting setup, and for each power there are only a couple of broad strategies to pursue. Early battles can push the game in many different directions. There are still many tactical decisions to make. However I can't imagine myself playing A&A too frequently. It's a once-in-a-while game. It's a good game, but not something I want to play 3 or 4 times in a row. I can imagine playing it 3 or 4 times every year, but not back-to-back.

AAG40 is epic. Among those who have played it, I am probably in the minority in that I prefer Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition (AA50) if I want to play the global game. Unfortunately that is out of print, so the next best option is probably Axis & Allies Spring 1942. I have not played AA42, but I understand it uses similar rules as AA50. What I am looking forward to now is Axis & Allies 1914, which covers World War I. Now that's something different.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Axis and Allies Global 1940 session report

In mid November 2012 I started a PBEM (Play-by-E-Mail) game of Axis & Allies Global 1940 (AAG40) (i.e. the combined game of Axis & Allies Pacific 1940 and Axis & Allies Europe 1940) against Han. We played for one and a half months. He played the Allies and I played the Axis. This was the second time I played this game, the first time being in Nov 2010. That time it was a face-to-face game. We spent almost the whole day playing and only got up to Round 5. We didn't finish the game. This more recent one-and-a-half-month game went up to Round 16, and this time the game concluded. We used the latest ALPHA+3 rules, which is also the official second edition rules. Here is how our game went.

Note: The screenshots are not in chronological order.

Germany (played by me) opted to go for USSR first, and did not contemplate Operation Sealion to invade UK at all. France fell without much surprise. In the ALPHA+3 rules submarines are very powerful in denying opponent income, so I sent three subs to attack the UK destroyer and transport off the western coast of England. I would be able to sink the valuable transport (a unit I greatly fear, despite being defenseless), and then on UK's turn I would deny it income. I had forgotten about the scramble rules. British and French fighters scrambled from England and Scotland and destroyed all my subs. Oops.

On the eastern front, the German units started pushing towards Moscow. The Soviets were ill-prepared for war, so Han had a tough time deciding where to concede. He eventually had to give up Novgorod, which was painful, because it meant I gained a factory quite close to Moscow. In this game, events in Europe unfolded in a familiar way. It was a race between Germany killing USSR or the Allies killing Germany. Germany spent money on techs, and obtained rockets, which allowed air bases to bomb enemy factories, air bases and naval bases. This was a major pain in the neck (and also another lower body part) for Han, because UK kept losing money to the rockets.

In Round 2, Germany sent all its ships, supported by its air force, to attack the British fleet. That was a major showdown, and all ships on both sides were sunk. The British and French fighters which scrambled to support the defense were also lost. Only German planes returned, and after that flew eastwards to support the push towards Moscow. The Germans had superior numbers. Such an attack was intended to delay the Normandy landings, so that Germany could focus more on USSR for a little longer.

Unlike previous Axis & Allies games that I have played with Han, this time as USA he decided to not focus on the Pacific theatre only, which he used to do quite often, to keep Japan in check. USA started sending ships and land units across the Atlantic from the early game, steadily building up a combined fleet with the British. Other than that early strike against the British fleet, Germany did not further commit any effort in pushing back on the western front, preferring to focus its energy on USSR and hoping the western front would hold strong long enough.

In the Mediterranean, UK had a good start. UK's turn comes before Italy, so UK attacked the Italians first, capturing Tobruk, and also sinking two Italian ships off Tobruk.

With few land units left in Africa, Italy decided to attack Malta instead, because of the two juicy British fighters there. The Italians attacked with overwhelming force, but the Battle of Malta went very badly. UK lost only one infantry, while Italy lost two infantry, two tanks and two fighters. The only consolation for the Italians was the small British fleet in the Mediterranean was destroyed.

Due to this early setback, the Italians never managed to push further into Africa. In hindsight, perhaps I should have tried harder as the Italians. UK sent it's Indian fleet towards Egypt to contest the Mediterranean. That left India vulnerable, but also deterred an Italian invasion of Africa. UK controlled Egypt and Trans-Jordan, which meant it controlled the Suez Canal. Because of this, my Italian fleet could not attack the UK Indian fleet on the other side of the Suez Canal. These two fleets had a nervous stand-off for quite some time.

The Italians could not sit still, and later sailed it's fleet westwards to capture Gibraltar. By controlling the Strait of Gibraltar, Italy denied American and British surface ships entry to the Mediterranean. Later the Italians became even more adventurous. By making use of the naval base at Gibraltar, it sailed three spaces to invade Central America and West Indies, and threatened the American mainland.

This was fun, and definitely something out-of-the-box. However, I underestimated the strength of the American Atlantic fleet parked off the UK coast. When the Italian fleet decided to return to the Mediterranean, the Americans struck, and destroyed the Italian fleet before it could return to safety beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. With no Axis naval presence in the Mediterranean, the UK Indian fleet could now arrogantly strut around the Mediterranean, and Han could now safely build a factory in Egypt to start producing units to threaten southern Europe.

In the Pacific arena, Japan spent the early rounds on careful manoeuvring, delaying the declaration of war until it's units were well positioned. Also Japan could focus on killing off China in those early rounds, and China could do little about it. French Indo-China was left alone, because there was a Japanese national objective that gave Japan extra income as long as Japan had not declared war and had not captured it. The Japan - USSR - Mongolia relationship was very interesting. Mongolia was neutral, but if Japan attacked any Soviet territory next to Mongolia, Mongolia would support USSR and become USSR controlled, except if USSR was the one attacking Japan first. So Japan and USSR danced a precarious dance around each other, neither willing to make the first move. Also their units along the Japan-USSR border were mostly infantry, i.e. poor on offense. Japan could more easily assemble offensive troops from Japan, but I didn't want to suddenly have to deal with Mongolian soldiers, when my land units in China were already stretched thin. It was much later that as Japan I struck first, and it was after I had stationed some land units around Mongolia to contain the new enemies that would spring up.

As Japan, I went for my usual approach - kill off China, and grab land. I usually prefer to do this because fighting for those tiny islands in the Pacific will only get me coconuts. Japan needs money. I built factories on the Asian mainland to help me push westwards. In this game I made a rule mistake of allowing a major factory on the Asian mainland. Major factories are only allowed on your own originally controlled territories. Thankfully we realised the mistake and agreed on a solution that didn't require us to undo our moves. I had produced one round of units at the time. I just changed the major factory back to a minor one, although I have spent $20 for the upgrade. Han said we could easily imagine some Chinese traitors accepting money from the Japanese to help secretly ship some Japanese units to the mainland.

USA split its money between the Pacific and European theatres, so Japan did not have to deal with the full economic power of the Americans. ANZAC was mostly shy, but still presented a threat that the Japanese navy had to be mindful of. Japan could have hunted the ANZAC fleet down, but it would require much commitment and it would draw the Japanese fleet far from the Asian mainland. Japan had many airplanes, which was very convenient, but the shortage of land units was a challenge. In Round 3 Japan captured Malaya, which had a naval base and was strategically important, but due to the shortage of land units, Japan could not hold on to it. It required a second invasion to hold it more permanently.

The Japanese ships stuck together, making them one powerful force that the US fleet hesitated to engage full-on and the ANZAC fleet avoided. Han made one crucial mistake in the Pacific arena in Round 6. At the time he had already built up a strong US fleet. My Japanese fleet had supported the initial conquest and subsequent recapture of Malaya, and my troops were pushing towards India. The Americans were coming, and many of my Pacific holdings like the Philippines, Borneo and Java were undefended. I positioned my Japanese fleet in Hong Kong (Kwangtung on the map), which had a naval base and would allow my fleet to move three steps instead of two. Han overlooked that, and split his US fleet. Half his ships struck south and captured Java. The other half turned north to threaten the Japanese homeland. My fleet swooped down to Java and destroyed his fleet, with few casualties on my side. His other task force was soon sunk by my planes attacking from the Japanese mainland. That was a painful loss, and Han had to rebuild his Pacific fleet from scratch.

Having lost so many territories, UK Pacific (in AAG40 UK is split into two separate economies and earn / spend money separately) became poor and could not compete with Japan's growing wealth. A new Japanese factory in Malaya produced lots of Japanese land units to invade India. Eventually India fell.

Japan used its three new factories on the Asian mainland (Kiangsu, Manchuria and Malaya) to keep churning out units to push westwards. However the distances were large and it was difficult to maintain a strong enough pressure. In the Pacific Ocean, the Americans continued to build up. With the Americans discovering improved shipyards, ships became cheaper for them, and they soon out-produced Japan.

In Europe, by the time the Germans amassed enough units at the gates of Moscow, the Normandy landings had occurred. Between Berlin and Moscow, the German forces were spread thin. The Germans had to seriously worry about defense on the western front now. The assault on Moscow was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The odds were slightly better than average. It was the best I could orchestrate. I knew I had to take the chance at that point in time, because if I waited for another round, I would not be able to get more units into position than Han would be able to produce to defend Moscow. So I attacked.

It was a costly battle, but I managed to sack Moscow. It was immediately liberated afterwards by Soviet units coming to the rescue. USSR had a big setback. I had a windfall because I looted the Soviet treasury. But now I had to start playing defense on the western front, and it would be quite some time before I could try to attack Moscow again. USA and UK kept doing a one-two-punch on Germany. The control of Denmark was very important because it meant the control of the Danish Straits and access to the Baltic Sea and Berlin. The Americans, having captured Normandy, kept producing tanks there. I was unable to kick them off the European continent.

As Germany I tried to delay the advance of USA and UK while I worked together with Japan to try to choke USSR. Japan had been doing well, and at one point even managed to send jet fighters to help defend German territories. However USSR was robust and even pushed back against the Germans. One thing the Germans did was to let France be liberated. With the French government reestablished, USA must return all originally French territories (and thus the factories on them) to the French. That meant no more American tanks produced in Europe. Alas, Northern Italy soon fell to the Americans, and my nightmare of American factories spewing out Sherman tanks resumed.

With no Italian fleet in the Mediterranean fending off the British fleet, the Brits soon activated their allies in Greece and Yugoslavia. New Allied infantry popped up like rabbits. British subs also barricaded my Italian ports, grinding the Italian economy to a halt. I knew the European Axis were doomed, and my only hope was Japan being able to capture Moscow while Berlin and Rome fell to the Allies. The German and Japanese units near Moscow pushed forward desperately.

Soon, Western Germany fell, and Berlin was surrounded by the Allied forces. The isolated German army next to Moscow did not have the strength to assault Moscow. In a desperate ploy, I built three subs in the Baltic Sea hoping to target the Allied fleet, but that didn't quite work out, and only took away money I probably should have spent on land defense.

Germany fell to the British. UK needed the money more than USA, so USA let UK do the honours. Italy lasted longer only because it posed too little risk to the Allies.

Japan was by then the strongest single power. It had been churning out units from its three factories on the Asian mainland and moving them westwards across Asia. After the conquest of India, Japan added two more factories in India. However I might have been a bit too wasteful in my builds. I tried to keep up a steady stream of units, but I did not amass them into any single strong punch. Even now I am still not sure whether it would have worked better that way. If I hadn't kept up the constant but moderate pressure, USSR might have had too much of breathing space to properly build up its forces. As Japan I had a lot of money and didn't really plan my purchases very carefully. I might have been less efficient than I could have been.

At the height of Japanese expansion, my infantry unit went all the way to the Suez Canal to wash its dirty sand-filled socks. That closed the Suez Canal for a short while, until the Japanese were pushed back.

Japan did not manage to capture Moscow by the time Berlin and Rome fell to the Allies, and was nowhere near doing so. So I decided to concede. I had hoped to be able to create a new equilibrium and new world order of Japan vs the world, but without being able to at least capture Moscow, Japan's economic strength was too far behind the combined economic might of the Allies.

This next screenshot is Europe, North Africa and the Middle East at the end of World War II.

This is Asia at the end of the war.

In this game of AAG40, I (as both Germany and Japan) invested heavily in techs. Techs here work differently from Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition (AA50), in that if you fail to roll any 6, you don't get to keep any research tokens for the next round. The money is just wasted. So techs become a gamble again, like earlier versions of Axis & Allies. Germany wasn't very successful with techs (Einstein defected to the Americans very early in the game I bet), but the discovery of rockets did greatly annoy UK and USSR. USA's shipyards (cheaper ships) and long-range aircraft were very useful. It also had heavy bombers, but in AAG40 they have been toned down and are not as devastating. Japan benefited most from jet fighters, which made tactical bombers obsolete. It discovered long-range aircraft quite late, so that didn't help much. Most other powers were reluctant to gamble on techs, given how stretched their money was.

This was one very very very long game. The PBEM format meant I could take my time to analyse every move, consider all possibilities, and calculate the odds of every battle. I still made quite a number of mistakes though, some of which I paid for dearly. Having the luxury of almost no time constraint, I was able to appreciate the many intricacies in the game. Having now played a complete game, I could also put together my thoughts about the game. I asked Han to share with me his opinions of the game too. This post is already quite long, so I will write the thoughts about the game in general in my next post.

This game of AAG40 was certainly exciting. The TripleA software works well and we had few problems using it. The rules are slightly modified though, and a few detailed rules are not enforced by the software. You have to remember them yourself and make sure you don't violate them. The Calculate Odds feature in the game is very handy. It does the tedious maths for you. Before you commit to your combat moves, you can calculate odds, and then adjust your moves or even completely undo them. You have plenty of time to try to work out the best move. The game becomes a little chess-like, and that's without timers. There are many die rolls, but given the luxury of time and the convenience of analysis, you really feel like any bad move is completely your own fault. Don't blame luck. Well, except for that damned Battle of Malta!