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Monday, March 30, 2009

A world at war

The history
Lugged home 5 weeks ago amid much grump and bitching, and having started to lurk on the sidelines just a bit too long, my shiny new Axis & Allies: Anniversary Edition finally hit the table yesterday; and in a full 6-player game to boot. This was a landmark Sunday session for more than one reason:
  • We hadn't been 6 on a Sunday since the first session of my WFRP campaign (back in the days before RD/KA! believe it or not!).
  • This was the WW2 strategy game I'd waited all my life to play.
The setup
Saturday night gave the first hint of what the A&A:AE experience was going to be about. I'd read somewhere that setting up in advance was advisable to speed play, and I could easily see the point:
  • There are a lot of pieces to set up.
  • I wanted everything to go off as smoothly as possible so that everyone would like the game.
The subsequent hour and some spent sorting out and deploying pieces across the expansive board gave me a foretaste of what turned out to be Sunday's key experience, that of a game strangely compelling despite being uncommonly gruelling.

The choice of sides thrown open as we awaited Dave and Tony, Donald chose the Japanese, and Andy plumped for the Italians because he thought that their tiny forces would enable him quickly to cut his losses should his worst fears about the game be realised. My suggestion of smokers versus non-smokers lined us up thus:

Axis
  • Germans: Me.
  • Italians: Andy.
  • Japanese: Donald.
Allies
  • Americans: Dave.
  • British: Tony.
  • Russians: Gav.
We played the 1942 scenario because I assumed that starting later in the war would shorten the game (an unfounded assumption it now seems); and I'd figured we should play the short 13VP game, because I thought that'd give us our best chance of getting finished (another unfounded assumption it turned out).

The game
We started at 2pm and played until about 7. It was taking us an hour per game turn, which meant that we each played 5 turns in 5 hours. That was a bit of a shocker. I mean to say, we've all become used to playing games in which you get a turn every few minutes or less, and in which you might well be engaged during other players' turns in any case. This is very much the cutting edge, be it Euro, Ameritrash, or just plain wargame.

By contrast, 45-50 minutes downtime per 5-10 minute turn is about as 'old-school' as it gets, and it certainly proved distracting, if not outright burdensome. Turn structures of this ilk are not to everyone's taste, and it has to be said that some were heard yesterday to wonder why they were bothering at all. The turkey's clucks were almost audible.

Yet, the game's qualities rode out our frustrations so that we're all looking forward to the next time despite yesterday's inconclusive outcome after all that effort. We realised that it wasn't just a matter of the first-game learning curve; A&A:AE just isn't a game for a Sunday afternoon with a Monday morning to follow.

I certainly enjoyed my first taste of the A&A economics engine and combat system: attacking with the Wermacht at the height of its powers; capturing Leningrad, Stalingrad and Moscow by early 1943; Russia was mine as the game came to its inconclusive end. Andy - a possible sceptic because of his professed lack of interest in WW2 boardgaming - was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed his ramage through the Mediterranean and into Africa. Tony's highlight was surely his 2-phase 2nd front which captured France while I was preoccupied with conquering Russia.

These and other events in the game were really exciting. As the battles unfolded round by round we often found ourselves stood around the table, cheering our sides on. And I relished the groans of dismay (echoed even by my allies) as Germany's resource base and income burgeoned thanks to my exploits on the Russian front.

Teething troubles aside then, Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition was a success, if not an instant hit. As Gav said, it's "advanced Risk". This mechanical simplicity makes the game accessible and quick to master, while the wider range of units and the expanded economic system give it real depth. The secret of the game's success yesterday, I expect these qualities will be put to the test again just as soon as enough of us can find the time. ;)

Addendum
For those who might want to take a look at the rules before their next game, look here: A&A:AE rules.PDF.
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