Friday, March 13, 2009

Reviewing collectible games from a wargamer's perspective: Axis & Allies miniatures

I've already reviewed Axis & Allies Miniatures in a general sense, but this time I'm going to look at it from the perspective of a wargamer who might be tempted to take the plunge into collectible games by this line's World War II theme.

The biggest caveat is, of course, the collectible format.

The drawbacks are well-known. It can be expensive to acquire a reasonably sized set for playing purposes, let alone for collecting. It tends to favor those with deep pockets who can afford to build up large collections. The blind purchase format can be aggravating, especially when you end up with larger numbers of common pieces than you can ever expect to use.

These drawbacks are mitigated somewhat in A&A Minis, however. One can easily skip the whole blind purchase thing with purchases off of eBay and quite possibly save some money and certainly save a lot of aggravation. The pace of releases and the modest size of those releases means that, unlike most collectible games, it really is possible to collect the entire set. There are no ultra-rare, chase or promo figures. All the promos given away so far have been the same common figures that came out in the main releases, with no repaints, special stats or other hard-to-get characteristics. Deep pockets are much less of a factor because there aren't overpowered units that unbalance the game. Armies are chosen on a point basis that has worked reasonably well, although some pieces have had to be re-costed. The laws of real-world physics and the dynamic interaction of real-world tactics means that even inherently powerful units such as the King Tiger tank have effective countermeasures available, Finally, there are, with a few exceptions, no really useless pieces in A&A miniatures because the figures can easily be used for other purposes.

Indeed, quite a few people don't use the figures to play the provided A&A minis rules at all, but use the figures to play real miniatures games such as Flames of War or Battlefront.

I say "real" miniatures because, in reality, A&A miniatures is not really a miniatures game at all, but a hex-based tactical board wargame that happens to use miniature figures. It's really much more similar to something like Tide of Iron or Memoir '44 than like Flames of War.

That tactical game isn't bad. It's a very basic, simple tactical wargame with some interesting aspects and reasonable fidelity to history. It's primary purpose, however, is to give you some rules to use to play with your toys. Nothing wrong with that, but it's hard to imagine that someone who calls himself a wargamer won't already have some favorite tactical level World War II wargame. A&A minis won't supplant that game, although it may supplement it.

No, the primary reason for buying A&A miniatures are the figures, themselves. They are generally pretty well done and provide an interesting selection of forces, troop types and nations.

The first five sets (Base Set, Set II, D-Day, Contested Skies and Reserves) added up to 228 different units, although there were some duplicate sculptures, so the actual number of models is somewhat less than that. In each set it seemed like there was at least one disastrously bad model or error. For example, in Set II the US 3-inch M5 antitank gun ( No. 19 of 45) is a sorry little misshapen lump that barely resembles any kind of gun and is so out of scale it might be mistaken for a machine gun. Its completely unusable for any purpose. In the D-Day set there was the infamous "MesserSpit" model, where an error at the Chinese factory resulted in the Spitfire being represented by a German Me-109 fighter painted in British colors.

And all the first five sets suffered from inconsistency in scale between models. The first five sets, although marketed as "15mm" were not really 15mm in scale as far as the vehicle models. There were closer to a 12mm scale, which meant they were incompatible with standard 15mm models from other manufacturers, much to the disappointment of many gamers. The 228 different units, however, gave the game a big enough set of alternatives to choose from that the game itself still worked and the problem figures were few enough that they didn't ruin the game.

Still, Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast took a big gamble when they issued the next sets because they changed the vehicle scale to a truer 15mm! This meant that all the earlier models were noticeably smaller than the new tanks. While having absolutely no game effect, it did have mess up the aesthetics of the game a bit. Still, they pressed ahead and the next three sets (1939-45, North Africa and Eastern Front) now add up to 180 different units (with some duplicates) including reissues of most of the important fighting vehicles from the first sets in the new, larger size. Players seem to have accepted this change and with the next set the newer,larger size will constitute a majority of the line. (The newer sets are also larger, with 60 different units, compared to the 45-48 of the first sets).

Quality control seems improved, with no absolutely horrid mistakes like the M3 or MesserSpit showing up, although a few of the models have come in for some criticism from purists.

The new, larger size for the tanks also resulted in a change in the maps being used, going to 3-inch hexes instead of the 2-inch hexes used before. Many of the late war heavy tanks and assault guns were simply way too big for a 2-inch hex.

When I first heard about Axis & Allies Miniatures I was excited, hoping that it might bring more interest to historical topics and history-based wargaming. The fact that it's gone through eight sets and spun off two naval sets with at least two more sets in the wings would have been too much to hope for, especially in the hyper-competitive niche market of collectible games. What helps A&A minis in that market is that I think there is relatively little overlap between A&A players and the players of other competitive collectibles. I also think Hasbro/WOTC seems to have had realistic expectations for the game and it has met their marketing goals (something that Dreamblade did not do, which resulted in its demise, even though I suspect its sales figures were similar).

I think the game is worth a look for the wargamer who might be tempted to trya collectible game. I've generally bought the boosters in small batches with an occasional purchase of a case. When I'm down to needing my last four or five rares I'll go ahead and buy them on eBay to fill out the collection. Following this strategy I've been able to complete the first six sets without breaking the bank and having useful numbers of the uncommons and commons for gaming. Having a little imbalance among my rares doesn't bother me, I consider it to just add a little personality to my choices. But one can also buy whole sets off eBay easily enough.

If just starting out, however, I wouldn't recommend going back and buying from the first five sets unless your a completist collector. Nearly all of the models from the first set will be reissued at some point, if they haven't already. If you're just getting into the game, it's safe to start with the current 1939-45 starter. The most interesting figures that haven't been re-issued as of yet are the amphibious craft from D-Day, the logistic and fortification units from the last two sets and the heroes from those sets. It may be a while before the amphibs show up again, because at the new scale they may be too big, but the other figures are cheap enough on eBay.

Overall, I would recommend the game, despite the collectible aspect.

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