Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Review of Axis & Allies D-Day

Axis & Allies D-Day represents the point where Axis & Allies became a brand, not just a the name of a game. While Axis & Allies: Europe and Axis & Allies: Pacific came before D-Day, they were recognizable offspring of the parent game, sharing the grand strategic scope and most game mechanics.

Axis & Allies D-Day is a clear break from the earlier A&A titles. It focuses on one particular campaign while using a largely different game system. It does use many of the same pieces as the original game, and most of them have similar combat values, but that's about it for similarities.

Axis & Allies D-Day depicts the first part of the Normandy Campaign, from D-Day to roughly the point where Operation Cobra was launched. Units represent roughly regiment and brigade-sized forces of infantry, armor and artillery, with support from coastal fortifications for the Axis and air units and naval gunfire for the Allies.

United States forces are green figures -- a U.S. Army rifleman representing infantry, a Sherman tank for armor and a 105mm howitzer for the artillery. The figures are not in scale with each other, but are all around the same size, around an inch. The U.S. Army Air Corps is represented by four P-38 fighters and a B-17 Bomber model. The British Commonwealth forces are similar, but in a light tan color. The British also use the Sherman tank (accurate) and 105mm howitzer (not) to represent their armor and artillery forces, but have a specifically British soldier for the infantry and four Spitfire fighters and a Halifax heavy bomber representing the Commonwealth air forces.

The Axis are all black or very dark grey, with a Mauser-armed German soldier representing the infantry, a Panther tank for the armor and the infamous '88' representing the artillery. There are also some small pillbox figures representing the German coastal forts. These pillboxes are unique to this game and don't appear elsewhere in the A&A line.

Units have varying combat values, depending upon their type and whether they are the attacker or defender in a specific combat. Combat is always resolved by rolling a "hit number" or less on a single die for firing figure with each success causing a casualty on the enemy. For example, a British Sherman tank attacks with a values of "3" so it hits on a roll of 1-3, but if it's firing as a defender it's value is just a "2" and it hits die rolls of 1 or 2.

The map depicts the Normandy region using irregularly-shaped areas of roughly similar size. There are no terrain effects at all, but three areas, containing the cities of Caen, St. Lo and Cherbourg, are important for victory.

The map also contains holding boxes for the five invasion beaches and three parachute divisions, a turn record, holding boxes for the air units and spots for the order cards (which I'll discuss later). The entire map has a very muted look but is very clear and functional with no questionable borders or unclear functions.

The game also includes three light card stock reinforcement charts (one each for the Americans, British and German) and a battle board.

The rule book is 24 pages, done in a World War II-era graphic style that's since become the standard for all Axis & Allies line games. Rounding out the components is a small turn marker disk, eight dice and 48 cards.

These cards are the heart of the game system and drive all the action. 16 of the cards are "Order cards, which cleverly lay out the sequence of play in a way that will be especially useful for players with no previous wargame experience. The cards are drawn in a set order. As each card is turned over the player executes the functions named on the card. Once the deck is gone through a turn is completed and the players start over. This approach save a lot of rules reading and memorization. Some cards are used just once and removed from the deck, but players can also save time by removing any cards that no longer apply. For example, once all the pillboxes are gone the Allied naval bombardment cards and German pillbox firing cards can simply be removed from the deck.

As optional rules the players can by mutual consent add two other 16-card decks which add variability to play.

The first set are called "Fortune" cards. These are drawn just before a regular Order card is drawn and may effect that card. Each works the same way. A die is rolled. On a die roll of "1" something that affects the player positively happens, on a 2-4 nothing happens and on a "6" something happens that affects the player negatively. For example, Fortune Card 13 affects the "Axis Attacks/Allies Defend Order card. On a 1 the Axis player benefits from "Coordinated Infantry -- Axis infantry hit on a 2 in this phase." (Normally it's a 1 to hit.) On a 6 the Axis player suffers from "Uncoordinated Attacks -- Axis land units can attack in only two zones in this phase." (Normally there is no limit.)

These Fortune cards are a mixed bag and I'd hesitate to actually recommend their use. They add a lot of diceyness to a game that's already pretty dicey to begin with. Unlike the regular diceyness of the game, which is mitigated somewhat by the sheer volume of rolls, which will tend to even out over time, the fortune cards can have a dramatic effect on the game from just a single roll. A couple of them, especially Fortune Card 9 which increase the effectiveness of the pillboxes and card 10 which blocks landings from all but two beachhead boxes can be devastating to the Allies chances if they take effect early in the game. In their favor they do add some flavor to the game.

There is also a deck of Tactics cards. These are drawn after the order card, and generally give the player a one-time option to do something that benefits them. These add a lot to the game because they give the players meaningful decisions to make. While very card is beneficial to use, the timing of their use can be critical. For example, Tactics Card 10 "Combined Assault" increases the attack value of Allies infantry to 2 for each matching artillery unit in the zone, so the Allies player will want to spend the effort to set up a turn that maximizes this benefit of this. These are recommended for use.

Both sets of cards are optional, but the rules state that all the cards from a set should be used if any are used. I do think that there's room for adjusting this somewhat, especially if you're an experienced player teaching a new player. You could strategically include or exclude certain cards to balance the chances a bit.

The game takes about 15 minutes to set up and is easily playable in 2-3 hours. It also scales well for three players, dividing the Allies side into British and American.

I think both sides have an equal chance at victory, but the game will tend to disappoint history-oriented folks because it doesn't really unfold like the actual battle did. Indeed, it has a sort of Retro feel to it. Like many 1960s-era Avalon Hill wargames it tends to degenerate into a "last man standing" situation where a handful of surviving units are scrapping over the last victory space.

This is cause partly by the victory conditions, which revolve solely around the possession of the three cities of Cherbourg, Caen and St. Lo in theory, but really St. Lo is the key zone. Cherbourg is too far from the German reinforcement zones and Caen too close to the British beaches for the Axis to have a realistic chance of holding, so the battle usually ends up being decided at St. Lo.

Contributing more to the last-man-standing character of the game is that the combat system is simply too bloody. With the minor exception of a couple of cards there's no provision for returning eliminated units to play and the battle losses will tend to outpace the arrival of reinforcements. This was a common problem back in the 1960s with games such as classic Gettysburg but most designs since then have done a better job of balancing the ability to take losses and inflict them so that armies don't evaporate during the game. This isn't a complete surprise, of course, because the original Axis & Allies often suffers from the same problem.

The historicity of the game suffers from some other peculiar design decisions. For example, even though the U.S. fielded dozens of independent tank battalions, enough to equip several armored divisions, they disappear in this game instead of beefing up the infantry units. Meanwhile, German Panzergrenadier units, which were also mostly infantry with a few assault guns, get beefed up into tank units.

On the other hand, there are a lot of nice touches, such as identifying the participating divisions on the map and in the reinforcement boxes and the figures, themselves, which can provide fodder for game table discussions about history.

There's not much here for serious historical wargamers., who probably already have several more authentic D-Day wargames in their collection, but Axis & Allies D-Day does have some usefulness as a teaching or introductory game. It's also a good game for more casual gamers who might want to try a wargame now and then or have a wargame in their general game collection. Axis & Allies is definitely not a euro-ized wargame, but it is a wargame presented in a very user-friendly way. Unlike most wargames, I think this one is one that a virgin player could teach himself, instead of having a wargamer teach him.


Wargamers (Conditional Yes) Good teaching game
Collectors (No) Unless you are an Axis & Allies completist.
Euro-gamers (Yes) One of your best choices for an accessible wargame

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