Sunday, September 7, 2008

Axis & Allies: War at Sea comprehensive review

Axis & Allies: War at Sea naval miniatures follows on the heels of (Hasbro) Avalon Hill's Axis & Allies: Miniatures. Like the earlier game, aside from the Axis & Allies brand name, there's no similarity between this game and the Larry Harris Axis & Allies designs.

Also, although billed as a miniatures game, this is NOT a traditional Fletcher Pratt/Seapower/Victory at Sea style naval miniatures game. Instead it's a fairly simple nautical themed board wargame that happens to use nice miniatures instead of cardboard tokens or wooden blocks.

Still, the miniatures are the main selling point for the game, and, fundamentally, the rules exist to give you a game to use to play with your miniatures.

Like the A&A land miniatures, the War at Sea miniatures are equally well-suited to being used with any set of traditional naval miniatures (play on the floor) rule set. There are no game-specific bases or other distractions to get in the way of using the miniatures with, for example, Victory at Sea. The one drawback of the miniatures is the nonstandard scale, which is 1:1800 (or 1 inch equals 150 actual feet). This means the miniatures are not compatible with existing lines of pewter wargame models, which are generally of 1:2400 or 1:1200 scale. So long as there was just one set I think this was a factor, but with the appearance of a second set, the promise of a third set and the likelihood of a fourth, this is much less of a factor. The existing line of models is getting close to the offerings of some pewter manufacturers.

The miniatures themselves are mostly pretty good. Unlike the land-based A&A miniatures, the War at Sea line has been consistent in scale and there have been no really bad sculpts. That's not to say that there aren't some models that are better than others, but none are so bad that they can't be used on the same wargame table and all are acceptable quality when eyed from typical wargame playing distances.

There's been a lot of thought put into the selection of models, and with two sets there are at least type representatives for just about every fleet and most of the most wanted models are present. It is important to note, of course, that this is a collectible-style game, which will carry very negative implications for many gamers, but the collectible aspect is quite muted here.

First, the line is not so extensive that a complete set can't be gotten. There are no chase or ultrarare models nor any convention exclusives. Prices compare favorably to unpainted pewter naval models, so expense is even less of a consideration than normal. Compared to a straightforward board game, War at Sea is still pretty expensive, but if a boardgamer were ever going to hold their nose and try a collectible game, War at Sea would probably be their best choice.

The rules for Axis & Allies: War at Sea succeed is presenting an entry-level naval board wargame that captures the essential elements of World War II-era naval combat in an authentic way. In many ways it's more successful than the land game in this regard, because the straightforward nature of naval combat (minimal terrain, limited weapon types) seems well-suited to making an entry-level combat game.

Like the land game, in War at Sea the basic combat routine is to roll a certain number of dice depending on the type of the target and the range and count the number of "successes," which are defined as rolls of 4 or higher. While the chance of a success can sometimes be modified (usually downwards) , a "natural 6" always counts as two successes, which accounts for the chance of critical damage that is so integral part of naval combat.

Another critical aspect of World War II era naval combat is accounting for the effect of armor protection. Instead of using some complicated system comparing armor penetration ability against the armor of a target, like most naval games, War at Sea uses an elegant system that indirectly achieves the same results. Every target has two "armor" ratings and a number of hull hits it can sustain. As a general rule, battleships can take five hits, fleet carriers can take four, cruisers take three hits, destroyers two hits and small combatants like PT boats just one hit. Each ship has an armor rating and if the firing ship achieves that many successes, then the target takes a hit. Under most conditions a destroyer won't roll enough dice to have a mathematical chance of getting enough successes to get a hit on a battleship and it's difficult for a cruiser to do so, while battleships often roll enough dice that they'll have about a 50/50 shot of getting a hit. Meanwhile, while firing at a like-sized target like a destroyer on a destroyer or a cruiser on a cruiser, the chances of effective fire are greater, all while using the same procedure.

On the other hand, each ship is also rated for its "vital armor." If a firing ship achieves enough successes to match THAT number then the target is instantly sunk. There's usually some chance of this instant destruction anytime a ship fires on a like-sized target, but the chances go up a lot when a larger ship fires on smaller one, so a battleship blasting away at a cruiser will probably sink it in short order. Some ships, like the HMS Hood, have lower vital armor ratings than similar-sized ships, and are therefore more vulnerable to catastrophic losses than other ships, while a few ships have higher-than-average ratings and are more likely to die a death piece by piece like the Yamato.

The game also includes rules for torpedoes, anti-aircraft fire and aerial attacks, with combat generally working the same, except for torpedoes, which only hit on a "6 and automatically cause two hits when they do. Aircraft targets are also handled slightly differently, with successes that match the armor rating "aborting" the attacking plane and "vital armor" successes needed to shoot the plane down.

There are few anomalies in the system. Very small ships are, perhaps, a little too easy to target (a common naval wargame problem) with insufficient attention being placed on the difficulty of targeting them in the first place. As written there is no effective difference between "armor" and "vital armor" for ships with just 1 hull point,as they are sunk either way. Perhaps tiny ships ought to be "aborted" like aircraft when their armor is matched.

Like most collectible games, most pieces also have some kind of "spacial ability." In some cases these are strictly historically based, such as "extended range" which lets some modern battleships fire an extra zone or two until they take damage. Others add historical "color" such as the "survivor" special ability of the USS Enterprise, which gives it a saving roll against vital armor destruction or the TBD Devastator's "Draw the CAP" ability which lets it force enemy fighters to attack it instead of some more powerful plane, such as a SBD Dauntless, in the same zone.

The game has been pretty stable, with just one important change so far. As originally published all torpedo fire happened after gunfire. While this might seem more realistic, the game effect was to make torpedo attacks by surface ships almost useless. While the game doesn't explicitly distinguish between daylight combat and night combat (except for a special ability) , it does try to average the overall effectiveness of air power and night surface combat. so the overall game effect was actually off. So the rule was changed and torpedo combat was moved into the gunnery phase with the former torpedo attack phase now limited just to submarine attacks.

The standard scenario is a duel between equally matched fleets on a naval battlefield that measures 8 by 10 squares, offset in a brick-like pattern that is the equivalent to hexes in most respects, with a varying number of islands providing some minor terrain to maneuver around. There is also a convoy scenario, although that one seems too tough for the convoy player in my opinion.

Altogether, I highly recommend Axis & Allies: War at Sea for anyone interested in naval wargaming. It's a good introductory level naval board wargame and also a neat collection of quality, painted naval miniatures usable with your favorite set of traditional naval miniatures rules. While not compatible with pewter ship lines, the existing and promised sets will provide a large enough collection of models for most purposes.


  1. Have you ever tried the Avalanche Press game series "Great War at Sea" or "Second World War at Sea"?

  2. Yes, I have quite a few from both series. Definitely a notch up the scale from A&A minis.

  3. I would love to see an article or two on those series... if you take requests!