Saturday, October 4, 2008

Axis & Allies and How the Allies Won

A passing comment by Axis & Allies designer Larry Harris on some forum helped put his classic Axis & Allies design into a different perspective for me. He remarked that in order to be historically accurate the U.S. should have double or even triple the resource points the game gives. The lower number is used for game balance purposes.

Given this design note, I think it's fairer to consider the standard Axis & Allies (and all its related strategic level games like the Revised, Europe, Pacific and upcoming Anniversary editions) as really being an "alternate history" of World War II rather than a model of the actual conflict.

This isn't as unreasonable a design approach as it may seem, either. While the common perception today is that an Allied victory in World War II was inevitable, if wasn't seen that way at the time -- especially from the perspective of 1941 or 1942 when the game starts.

Richard Overy's excellent book, "Why the Allies Won," explains how an Allied victory was far from inevitable. He outlines a number of critical factors that played a huge role in the outcome of the war, but one in particular is notable in the context of Axis & Allies.

One advantage a simple game like A&A has over more complex treatments of the same topic is a certain freedom from constraints. Usually a more detailed design adds more and more restrictions on what the player can do. While certainly justified from one perspective, as the real world is indeed full of constraints, it also means that the game player is forced to accept the designer's premises. The necessity of keeping a complex design manageable will keep the designer from straying too far from his design parameters. A complex simulation of World War II will have to stick to the historical script on the really macro issues such as economic mobilization.

But the differential between the economic efforts of the Axis and the Allies was one of the key reasons for the outcome of the war, according to Overy. In particular, the Americans and the Soviets each, albeit in different ways, mobilized their economies far in excess of what the Germans thought possible. Meanwhile the Gemrans, despite having the resources of all of Europe and an educated, skilled workforce, didn't make the most of what they had. Those interested in the details of the argument are directed to Overy's book, but the bottom line is that the Soviets were able to outstrip the Germans despite having an economic base just a fraction of the size. And the Americans were able to switch over from a peacetime economy to a fully mobilized war effort in a little over a year.

So, while it's true that the Germans were overwhelmed by superior numbers, it's largely their own fault. Had they mobilized an effort comparable to the Americans than the war might have turned out quite differently. Indeed, once Speer took charge of the economy the Germans started to turn things around. But just as Speer's reforms were beginning to bite the Allied bomber offensive started to hinder the German economy effectively. It was a near-run thing. Had Speer been put in charge six months or a year earlier, the bomber offensive might never have been able to really get going. (That bomber offensive is another of Overy's key factors.)

Axis & Allies allows some experimentation with the potential consequences of a better German economic mobilization by increasing the number of German resource points.


  1. I've been making this exact same argument on Boardgamegeek as part of the discussion on the upcoming Anniversary Edition Axis and Allies. The IPC values for most nations are relatively close to historical values except for the US, which as you say about is 1/2 or 1/3 or what it should historically be. It is indeed a very dark alternative history. I intend to experiment with a simple variant that gives the US a more historical level of production and see if there is a reasonable system that would still allow for balanced victory determination despite the Axis getting crushed every game. It would have to be something that encouraged the Axis to expand originally and then hold on to their gains as long as possible.

  2. A technique that's been used in other games is to have suden death victory conditions and/or VP milestones that need to be met in order to go on.

    One could justify these based on an assumption that the surviving Allies may throw in the towel and accept the new status quo.

    For example, had the Germans succeeded in defeating Russia or, perhaps more likely, had the Russians believed themselves defeated. it's possible that the U.S. might have decided to accept the new state of affairs. There's some precedent for this in the British experience.

    Britain always required a continental ally in order to succeed in the European interventions. Withotu Russia it's doubtful the U.S. could have hoped to overthrow the Nazi overloradship. Japan would still have been screwed, because it could be isolated from German help.

    I'm pretty sure that Hitler would have been satisfied with letting his Japanese allies twist in the wind if he achieved his goals in Europe.

  3. Given the benefit of a copy of Axis and Allies in 1940, surely the Japanese would have seen the value in buying a tank factory in China and marching all the way to Moscow in waves of 3 tanks every year.

    Of course that would have forced the British to build an airplane factory in India to stall the march across Siberia.

  4. I wonder if the new Anniversary edition will solve that kind of problem,

  5. It absolutely will. Changes include the new board layout, the inclusion of China as an actual power (controlled by the US player), and a national objective system that heavily encourages each nation to pursue its historical goals. A Japanese invasion of Russia, especially early, is likely to be a recipe for disaster. Overall you will find the game much more historical, though its still a pretty rough simulation and of course still has the ahistorical US production values to keep the game "fair" between the Axis and Allies.