Friday, June 26, 2009

Axis & Allies: Europe nailbiter session report

Played a 3-player Axis & Allies: Europe yesterday that was such a nail-biter at the end that everyone ended up standing up for the last couple of turns!

Although it's been out for 10 years, I only picked up a copy of this a few months ago, and then only because it was on half-off clearance at a local comic book store. I gather from BGG comments that experienced players have some beefs with the game, but nothing was wrong with it from what I could see -- well, except for some damn dice. You'll see why later.
A&A Europe, unlike most of the recent games bearing the Axis & Allies name, is a true Axis & Allies system game, not just a brand. Its mechanics, strategies and tactics are all familiar to Axis & Allies players. Indeed, some innovations in A&A:Europe, such as destroyers and artillery, have become standard parts of the game. The main difference from other versions of Axis & Allies is that this version focuses purely on the European War, with the player nations being Germany, Soviet Russia, the British Commonwealth and the USA. For a three-player game, such as what we played Thursday, the same player controls British and US forces, but they are still distinct countries, moving and fighting separately during their own player turns.

While the most experienced wargamer in our trio, having played since 1969, I never really played all that much A&A. I did play the old Nova version once, before Milton Bradley (later Hasbro) owned it, and I think I played it once or twice after that, but by the time it came out I was much more heavily into detailed hex-and-counter games such as World in Flames and A&A seemed too simple. Subsequently I find my tastes evolving and something along the lines of Axis & Allies is much more my cup of tea these days. Still, my only recent experience playing Axis & Allies was an Anniversary Edition game against Mike "Private" Powell.

Mike, in contrast, was an old A&A hand, having had a fairly regular group coming over his house to play the original edition game for a while, although he hadn't played much of the newer versions, aside from the previously mentioned game of AA50 and a game of the somewhat similar A&A: D-Day against me. It goes without saying that he won the A&A: D-Day and was ahead in the AA50 game when we had to call it for time.

He brought over his friend Dave, a fellow of more recent vintage than Mike or I, and therefore someone who'd had less opportunity to gather experience. Still, I gathered that Dave had put in a few A&A games and was therefore more experienced in the game than I was.

Based on the relative levels of experience I suggested I play the western allies, while Mike and Dave split up the more critical countries. Mike ended up taking Russia, while Dave was the Germans.

The game more or less followed the course I expected, with Germany embarking single-mindedly on taking out Russia while Russia held on. The main variation was that Germany abandoned the U-Boat war, preferring to use his subs to take out the Allies navies so that he could use all his air on the Russian front. He also barely contested North Africa, so the British were able to clear that area.

My inexperience with the game may very well have cost the Allied side because I suspect my builds could have been more efficient. I ended up with some land troops in both the US and England that never got into the fight, indicating to me that a few IPCs were misallocated.

Despite that, the game came down to a hair-raising finish, with both Moscow AND Germany coming under serious attack around the same time. Unfortunately the dice took a decidedly unfriendly turn for the Allies at this precise moment. Mike noted that the most critical round in any A&A battle is the first one, as a bad set of rolls has a snowballing effect in later rounds. Units killed in Round 1 aren't inflicting damage later. The Soviet defense of Moscow should have been adequate to hold out, but a great first round of attacks by the Germans gutted the Soviet defense, (I think there was just 1 miss) and the Germans took Moscow.

Hope was not lost, however, as the German emphasis on Russia had left its homeland defense at a risky level, with just two tanks and about eight or nine infantry. The Allied plan was for a one-two punch by the Allies with consecutive amphibious invasions backed heavily by air support. The idea was that the British would be expendable, so long as they killed at least 4 or 5 German defenders, clearing the way for an even bigger US invasion later that turn.

Unfortunately the dice again displayed a pro-Axis bias at the worst possible time. Although Axis anti-aircraft fire had been notably ineffective over several turns of strategic bombing raids prior to the invasion, when the three British Lancasters appeared overhead to support the invasion two of them were shot down! As they were expected to get at least two rounds of firing at the Germans and therefore probably would have killed 4 Germans alone (with any hits by the troops or destroyers a bonus, this was a heavy blow indeed. Of course the follow-on invasion only killed a couple of Germans and there simply wasn't any way that the US forces could trade blows with the number Germans left.

Our post-mortem analysis suggested that the Western Allies were a turn or two too late. I agree. While risky, Dave's laser-like focus on Russia paid off in the end.

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