Sunday 15 December 2019

Axis & Allies & Zombies

The Game

Plays: 4Px1.

Axis & Allies is an established brand. I consider the series more mainstream than niche. I have played many games in the series, starting with the 1984 Milton Bradley version. I have fond memories and there is certainly some nostalgia. I'm a fan. When Axis & Allies & Zombies was first announced, my first reaction was this might be jumping the shark. Zombies?! This version is not designed by Larry Harris but by another design team. When Axis & Allies 1914 came out in 2013, the series was already going a little off topic. The 1914 version is about World War I, and the combatants in WWI were not called Axis and Allies. Still, it is understandable that the Axis & Allies brand is leveraged upon. Games are to entertain and need not always be historically accurate. Even the original Axis & Allies is not exactly historically accurate. Well, at least not precisely so. Axis & Allies & Zombies is simply a variant of the well known global arena Axis & Allies game. Think historical fantasy. If you are comfortable with that, it will work fine.

Let's do a quick summary for those unfamiliar with the series. If you are a veteran, skip this paragraph. Axis & Allies is an entry level wargame about World War II. Up to 5 players control the major powers - USSR, Germany, UK, Japan and USA, and they fight it out on a world map. This is a team vs team fight, with the Axis being Germany and Japan, and the Allies being USSR, UK and USA. You fight for territories, which generate income. Money is spent on armies, navies and aircraft, which are needed for battle. You fight until you capture all your enemies' capitals, or until they surrender. You will roll many dice during battles. The game mechanisms are not particularly complex, but it does take some effort to digest, in particular to remember the unique abilities of the different unit types and their interactions. The game takes a long time to play. Expect to spend one full day at it.

The story in Axis & Allies & Zombies starts with an experiment being done by German scientists going awry. A zombie plague breaks out. Zombie infections pop up randomly all over the world, creating trouble for everyone. These random outbreaks are more annoying than debilitating. The bigger headache is whenever any infantry unit is killed, it becomes a zombie. Zombies are generally passive. They don't move about. They aren't organised. However, they do occasionally bite if you share the same territory. When there's a battle, gunfire triggers them, and they may bite both attacker and defender. The likelihood of attackers being bitten is higher, so in battle the presence of zombies is slightly beneficial to defenders. However cohabiting with zombies comes with risks.

The seemingly small rule addition of dead infantry becoming zombies changes the game dynamics significantly. In the Axis & Allies series, infantry is arguably the most important unit type. They are cheap. Their defensive ability is not exactly high but it's good value for money. They serve as cannon fodder, because the battle resolution system allows players to pick which of their own units to lose. Naturally you want to lose the cheap infantry. With the introduction of the zombie rule, suddenly the heavy use of infantry comes with significant risks. You will likely create many zombies, for better or for worse.

The victory conditions are changed too. Now your goal is to capture just one enemy capital, while still controlling all capitals of your side. This win condition is checked only at the end of a round, i.e. after all five major powers have taken their turns. There is an alternative ending - humans losing the world to zombies. If zombies control too many territories, the game ends, and the two sides compare the total economic value of their zombie-free territories. The side with a higher value wins the game. You don't win the war. Both sides lose the war to the zombies. It's just that you enjoy a less pitiful lifestyle compared to your enemies.

The Play

Jeff hosted an Axis & Allies & Zombies event, and eight signed up. We split into two tables of four. At my table were Allen, a couple, and I. The couple was new to the series, while Allen and I had experience. At first I thought it might be better to partner an experienced player with an inexperienced player. Allen suggested not to break up the couple, lest in-game battling lead to real-life quarreling. So Allen and I paired up as the Axis, playing Germany and Japan respectively. These two major powers were far apart and could not collaborate much. The boyfriend played UK and USA, because these two nations usually needed to collaborate closely to plan for D-Day. Also letting him play two nations meant he got to play more. The girlfriend played USSR, which was a less messy nation to play. Ladies tend to be less enthusiastic about war games, so we recommended that she play a less tiresome faction.

This was the full board in the early game. The Germans started the game only one territory away from Moscow, so on USSR's first turn it already needed to decide how to deal with that. The first instinct was of course the defensive one - to kick out the Germans from that territory immediately adjacent to Moscow. However it was also important to consider how much to commit to that battle, and how to position the troops after the battle. The European continent was already fully under German control. UK and USA needed to plan carefully how to break in. Pearl Harbour had not yet happened. On Japan's first turn it had to decide whether to do it. It would deal a heavy blow to USA, but it would also divert some of Japan's navy and air force to the Pacific Ocean front against USA, away from the Asian mainland. Japan had only this one chance in Round 1 to pull off a Pearl Harbour, because its turn came before USA. If it didn't attack in Round 1, USA would consolidate and better protect its navy.

That white thing is a zombie. This is the German and Soviet front. This is a place you can expect many infantry units and thus zombies. The game we played was more a learning game than a serious competition. Axis & Allies & Zombies is not a complex game by wargame standards, but to players new to the genre it is daunting and it requires some effort to digest. I tried to help the new players by reminding them of their options, and alerting them in case they made any obviously bad moves. Sometimes this meant exposing my own agenda and the possible countermeasures, but I think it was right to treat this as a learning game and to be open about all this. We should not just bash the new players and let them learn from the pain.

My hometown Sabah (on Borneo Island) was infected. That lone British infantry unit now had to worry about getting bitten whenever it went into the bushes to take a poop.

In Round 1, the UK orchestrated a massive attack to capture Thailand (and the Malayan Peninsula) from Japan. UK's turn came before Japan's, so Japan could not do anything to prevent this.

After the Australian army went off to fight in Thailand, a zombie popped up in Alice Springs. Trouble. Australia has a factory pre-printed. This is one of the differences between Axis & Allies & Zombies and the standard Axis & Allies. In AAZ you don't get to build new factories. That's why they are pre-printed on the board as opposed to being represented by game pieces. Also there is a special type of factory which only produces infantry. Both China and India have such infantry-only factories (called recruitment centres).

The skull marker indicates that a territory is zombie controlled. A territory becomes zombie controlled if there are only zombies and no units from the Axis or the Allies. If the territory has a factory, it is controlled by the zombies only if the number of zombies exceeds the territory's economic value. Zombies have no leaders and don't proactively invade neighbouring territories. So even if there are many of them right next to you, you don't really need to worry about them coming after you. However in general they are still annoying and they disrupt your plans. Battles in zombie infested territories are slightly more unpredictable. Zombies which randomly emerge in safe territories far behind the frontlines can be a pain in the neck. Sometimes they capture your safe territories and deny you income, and thus force you to divert energy to recapture the territories.

Our USSR player (girlfriend) played aggressively. Our session was at Black Horse Cafe, and they closed at 1am. We didn't have a lot of time, and knew we likely wouldn't be able to finish. So we just went all out and didn't really plan very far ahead. Just whack and see what happens. USSR pushed back strongly against Germany, but it was a costly counterattack. Under normal circumstances this likely wouldn't be sustainable.

My Japanese forces recaptured Thailand and destroyed the British fleet protecting it. Infantry units killed in combat became zombies and now they were becoming a real problem. Chinese armies (in this game represented by American pieces) had all been destroyed now, and had become zombies too. Although there were no more Chinese defenders, China still had a factory which could produce new infantry units. Also those hordes of zombies made sure Japan conquering China was going to be painful. One of my Japanese bombers was forced to land on the Chinese coast, and was now colocated with four zombies. This was a dangerous situation.

UK had a factory in India which could produce infantry units. It sent a fighter and a tank from the Middle East to protect India. My Japanese forces in Thailand was no serious threat to India yet. In fact I had to worry about UK attacking Thailand again. Further north, I started to make headway into Chinese and Soviet territory. I had decided not to attack Pearl Harbour. I committed the Imperial Japanese Navy to support the land grab on the Asian mainland.

The Soviet offensive went all the way to the gates of Berlin. However the attrition was severe, and things didn't look good now for the Soviets. Germany had built up a formidable army of tanks and infantries and was poised to counterpush.

In the end, we only managed to play up to the middle of Round 3. The cafe was closing and we had to pack up. Japan was now pushing towards Moscow, but it was not a major threat yet. The frontline between India and Thailand was a hot spot now. The Imperial Japanese Navy still hung around Japan supporting the transfer of fresh troops to the Asian continent.

The Thoughts

Axis & Allies & Zombies is still very much Axis & Allies. The designers did not try to dumb down the game to cater for the masses, just because the zombie theme was a wide-appeal one and would help to attract new players. If you are hoping to convert some friends to the Axis & Allies series and you don't think the standard Axis & Allies would work, then Axis & Allies & Zombies would not work either. This is not a gateway game. It's more a variant meant for people who already like the series, or for people who can accept this kind of complexity in games and this genre.

You will see the familiar dilemmas in Axis & Allies & Zombies. The Axis often opts for the Kill USSR First strategy, while the Allies usually try to squeeze Germany from both directions. USA needs to decide how to allocate its resources - Pacific theatre or European theatre or both. Zombies throw a wrench in your plans, and I find that a welcome challenge. I see the game as historical fantasy and I don't mind the silliness of the story. It translates to an interesting predicament, and I find that enjoyable.

Some subtle optimisations were made to the board design. I find that some territories are designed such that they are more easily reachable. Many territories are in range of many combat units. This means fewer turns needed for just moving troops. There is a higher sense of danger and threat. It feels you are going to start fighting sooner. I like this urgency. I think the tedium is slightly reduced.

Now I am hoping to schedule another session, and to be able to complete a full game.

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