Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Axis & Allies Miniatures -- a comprehensive review

Few game announcements excited me more than when I heard Hasbro (in the guise of Avalon Hill) was actually going to produce a line of historical military miniatures.

I mean, it was a cool idea anyway, but the fact that the second-biggest toy maker in the U.S. (and probably its biggest gamemaker) would produce a line of historically accurate military miniatures seemed to me to be an auspicious sign for the health of the wargame hobby. I trace my own heightened interest in military topics and wargames in particular to the old Milton Bradley (now also part of Hasbro) to the American Heritage line of simple history-themed games such as Broadside, Battle-Cry, Hit the Beach and especially Dogfight! These definitely prepped me for the more serious wargames such as Midway and Stalingrad that I discovered a few years later. You can't start with ASL.

In an age when orcs, clone troopers and superheroes get all the shelf space it was gratifying to think that at least some folks would have the opportunity to have their interest piqued in history by coming across Shermans, Panthers and T-34s. I was under no illusions that historical military minis would really compete for attention with sci fi or fantasy, but I thought it might hold its own. And apparently it has, because A&A minis is on it's seventh set with an eighth in the wings -- as well as two sets for the similar A&A Naval Miniatures. So it outlasted DreamBlade.

Perhaps the biggest potential turn-off for many potential players is that it's a "collectible" game, in the same way as Magic:The Gathering or DreamBlade. This format irritates many players, although I think several factors mitigate the effect here.

First, the collectibility isn't extreme. The number of different models is not so high that a determined collector can't accumulate all of them fairly easy. There are no ultra-rare models, no "chase" models and no convention exclusive models so a complete collection is available to anyone willing to make the effort and spend the money.

Second, there are no overpowering combos or units. Because the game is historically based it's constrained by the laws of physics and historical realities. There are pieces that are more cost-effective than others and some small rules adjustments have been necessary (I'll discuss that more later) but even a Veteran Tiger tank or group of Rangers is not necessarily a game winner alone. On the ground tactics matter at least as much as which pieces you have in your army and there are always countermeasures available. Even the Veteran Tiger tank can be taken out any number of ways.

Thirdly, the collectible aspect of the game has the subtle advantage of preventing staleness and introducing players to possibilities they might not otherwise consider. Unconstrained, players will predictably stock up of Panthers, King Tigers and Stalin tanks. Anybody who's played traditional military miniatures games knows that the SS or Napoleon's Old Guard show up on far more table top battlefields than historical facts would support. The collectible aspect of the game means that Hungarian Turan tanks and Japanese-allied Azad Hind infantry and other obscure but fascinating aspects of World War II can get some attention.

The point of the game is having some rules to play with for your collection of miniatures, so it's appropriate to consider the miniatures first.

Overall, considering that they are mass produced by a toy company rather than a model maker, the general quality is pretty good, with a few exceptions which I'll discuss later.

The paint jobs are adequate, with a lot of wash used to bring out mold details, although most models don't have a lot of the fine detailing a modeler would probably include. They are very functional wargaming models, however, made out of sturdy plastic that holds up well under wargame table conditions.

Axis & Allies: Miniatures can be considered to have come out in two groups. The first group of sets includes the Base Set, with 48 different models, and Set II, D-Day, Contested Skies and Reserves sets. These first five sets were designed around the same time and only some limited changes could be made between the sets.

The biggest problem with the first group was the inconsistent scaling of the vehicles. While billed as "15mm" miniatures, in fact most of the vehicle and heavy weapons were somewhat undersized. While not a problem for game play, it did disappoint many purchasers who had expected the models to be compatible with other 15mm models. Instead, most of the A&A vehicles seemed to be about 10-15% too small.

The troops, on the other hand, did seem to be properly scaled for the most part. As plastic models they tended to be "lighter" framed than metal miniatures, but this is pretty much universal and speaks more to the limitations of metal molds than it does to any problems with A&A, which is actually more anatomically accurate.

Another irritant in the first sets was that there were some quality control problems. It seemed like each set had at least one really awful model. In the Base Set, for example, there was the mis-scaled M18 Hellcat tank Destroyer, which was the one model that actually was close to true 15mm scale, but was too wide. Set II had the worst sculpted model of the entire line, the 3-inch M3 antitank gun, which was a mishapen lump of plastic closer in size to a machinegun than an artillery piece and too embarrassingly bad to actually place on a table. And who can forget the infamous "MesserSpit" of the D-Day set, where a factory error resulted in the Spitfire being represented by a Me-109 sculpt painted in Spitfire colors.

Despite these missteps, however, the overall line succeeded. Many of the models were really nice, such as the IS-2, the King Tiger and most of the planes. There were a lot of really interesting units as well, such as the Higgins Boat, the DD Sherman and the AVRE.

Hasbro corrected many of the biggest issues with the second group of sets, which started with the "1939-1945" set and continued with "North Africa". An Eastern Front-themed set is coming out shortly and at least one more set is committed for. The newer sets are coming out at a slower pace than the first sets, but each now had 60 different models instead of the 45 of earlier sets, so coming out more slowly would help collectors keep up.

Most of the infantry and heavy weapons sculpts are re-issues of pieces seen in the earlier sets. While the heavy weapons have at least as many scaling issues as thew vehicles did, there's been few complaints on that score and it doesn't seem to bother players as much. The planes, which are not 15mm scale, are also unchanged except for paint schemes.

The most noticeable change is with the vehicles, which have all been redone in a truer 15mm scale and are now about as compatible with other 15mm scales as any other. (There are always slight difference between manufacturers anyway, and rarely perfect compatibility) Hasbro took advantage of the larger sculpts to improve the paint schemes as well, and the new models are really quite nice for the most part with more detailing touches. Some models have been corrected as well, notably the M4 Sherman, which has had the turret moved forward a bit into its proper spot.

So what about the rules?

First, it's important to note that you don't have to use the Axis & Allies: Miniatures rules to get full use of the figures and models. Unlike games such as HeroClix or DreamBlade, there's no game-specific information cluttering up the bases. Vehicles have no bases and the troop and weapon unit bases are plain. so the pieces can easily be used with any suitable rules. Plenty of people use the minis to play Flames of War, for example, at a considerable savings in time and money over FOW minis.

But if you do use the A&A rules, you have a nice, simple tactical wargame that captures a lot of the flavor of World War II tactical combat without a lot of fuss.

The game includes the usual sorts of terrain effects and turn sequencing seen in tactical wargames over the last 30+ years.

Combat is handled somewhat unusually, however, compared to most tactical wargames. There are no combat results tables or the like. Instead each unit is rated for its ability to fire on vehicle or "soldier" (all non-vehicular) targets at close (0-1 hex) medium ( 2-4 hex) or long (5-8 hex) range. For example, an M4A1 Sherman has a rating of "14" against tanks at close range or a "6" against soldiers. That rating entitles the firing unit to roll that many dice, so the Sherman can roll 14 dice when firing at a Panzer IV at closer range. Every roll of 4 or higher is a "success" and the number of successes is compared to the target's defense. In the case of the Panzer IV, if it's fired at from the front it's defense is a 5, lower from the flank. If the number of successes is less than the defense, nothing happens. If it exactly matches the defense then it scores one "hit." If it exceeds the defense it scores two hits and if it doubles the defense it scores three hits.

Hits in the same phase accumulate. The first hit disrupts a unit, reducing it's defense against subsequent attacks and stopping it from moving. It also reduces the effectiveness of the disrupted unit's attacks by one, so only 5s and 6s count as successes when it fires. A second hit damages a vehicle, which basically means it suffers the effect of disruption for attack and defense permanently and cuts its movement in half. A second hit on a soldier unit destroy it, as does the third hit on a vehicle unit.

Most units have some sort of special ability. Some of these are historical, such as the Tiger's "Extended Range 10" which lest it fire out to a range of 10 hexes with its large and powerful gun. Some are not strictly historical, but do add some color to the game, such as the Italian soldier's "Bravado 2" ability, which lets him roll two extra attack dice so long as his side hasn't lost any units.

The Expanded Rules that came out simultaneously with the second group of sets made a few minor changes to the game, but did make some changes to the standard battle scenarios and the point system used to draft armies. The game also switched from the 2-inch hexes used on early maps to 3-inch hexes in order to fit the larger vehicle models.

Axis & Allies: Miniatures can be played in two formats, according to the interests of its fan base.

It can be played as a regular scenario-based tactical World War II miniatures game, similar to ASL or Tide of Iron. There are dozens of scenarios on the Hasbro Web site and the Expanded Rules includes 8 scenarios. These provide many fascinating historically inspired battles to fight. The drawback to this format is that many players, especially beginning ones, will not have all the units they need, unlike a game such as Tide of Iron which has everything you need in the box. Many of the early scenarios were criticized for having too many of the Rare units (one required 10 copies of the same rare tank!) but the more recent ones seem to be more careful not to require more than one or two of a particular model.

The other common way to play is tournament style, with each player having so many points available to construct an army using the point values printed on the card. The difficulty with this format is that the battles tend toward straightforward slug fests and revolve more around the metagame of army construction than good tactics. This problem is endemic to collectible games, and A&A is not immune. Some pretty odd or impossible historical armies can be seen on battlefield in this format.

The game rules provide some ways to mitigate this. Players can agree on historical army limits so you don't have German and Japanese troops in the same Axis army or date limits so you have to use the less-powerful early war weapons. If all the units in the army are from the same nationality you can use more points, which provides some incentive to use some of the less effective armies like the French, Romanians or Nationalist Chinese. The Expanded rules also added "formations" which are pre-set "platoons" that allow a player to field set units at a lower cost and provide other advantages.

As an expandable, collectible and scenario-based wargame, there's really no limit on the playability. The collectibility means the game is more expensive to get into than typical boardgames, but if compared to otter miniatures-absed game the game is not very expensive at all, especially considering that the models are pre-painted and ready to play from the box. For the cost of one unpainted traditional tank model you can get a booster with one or two vehicles and three or four soldier units.

Overall, I think it's a good value. I've built up an extensive inventory of models that I expect will be useful for years of play, while also being a nice collection.


  1. Wow, thanks for that. Very informative.

  2. Great review, thanks a lot for the writeup. It sounds similar in difficulty level and scale to Heroscape. Heroscape probably has more complex terrain considerations but this sounds like it has a slightly more complex combat system.