Sunday, March 10, 2013

Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal -- Review with an eye to art

"Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal and the other games in the Axis & Allies series are what could be called an artistic interpretation of the historical battles they represent. I use the word artistic because I'm a designer and sincerely see games to be an art form. If these games were paintings they would have been painted with a broad brush indeed." -- Larry Harris in the Designer's Notes for A&A: Guadalcanal, 2007

Like many Boomer generation wargamers, I was primed for exposure to "real" wargames by the neat series of American Heritage games published by Milton Bradley in the 1960s that included the titles Battle-Cry, Broadside, Dogfight and Hit the Beach. None of these was anything resembling a "simulation." Only Dogfight  might be considered a very light wargame by today's standards -- the others were war-themed abstracts more than anything else.

While not being simulations they did, however, provoke an emerging interest, sparked not only by the theme and play of the game -- but by the nice little booklet enclosed in each game that discussed the historical events that inspired the game in the first place.  Broadside and Dogfight led to Midway and Afrika Korps, which in turn led to Strategy & Tactics magazine games and Persian Incursion.

For later generations of wargamers I think the various Axis & Allies series games have played  a similar role. While hardly simulations, they still exhibit a respect and even love of history that shines through despite their highly abstract nature.

A&A: Guadalcanal is not the place to go for a detailed study of the order of battle, tactics or chronology of the Solomons Campaign. Indeed, the name of the game is somewhat of  a misnomer, because it doesn't concern itself with just the fighting on Guadalcanal, unlike the earlier Avalon Hill Game. A&A:G is about the entire campaign for the Solomon Islands -- or at least that's the area depicted on the map board.

This is unsurprising, as the fighting on the island alone is hard to design a good wargame for. The Japanese were essentially campaigning on a mistaken premise -- that the Marine garrison was small enough for the Japanese to defeat. In fact the Allied land force was several times larger than the Japanese thought and the Japanese land forces were never really very close to winning. The contests was much closer at sea and in the air and, really, that's where the campaign would be won or lost. Had the Japanese won  air and sea superiority the the size of the Allied garrison would not have mattered.

Like all Axis & Allies series games, the presentation of A&A:G is very high quality. The distinctive trait of an A&A game is the little plastic toy soldiers and weapons used for playing pieces. Each of the sides has models representing infantry, artillery, AA guns, transports, submarines, destroyers, cruisers, battleships, aircraft carrriers, fighters and bombers. While the AA guns are generic sculpts, the others are distinct by nation and based on historical examples, with the Americans in green and the Japanese in orange. There was a production error that switched the cruiser models, so the Japanese sculpt is in American green and the American cruiser in Japanese orange. This has no effect on play, but free replacements were (and maybe still are) available from Hasbro's customer service upon request.

Even the "correct" models aren't historically precise. The American battleship is depicted by an Iowa class , for example, which did not fight in the Solomons -- nor did the Shinano, which is used to represent the Japanese carrier.

Other key elements of the campaign are depicted by die-cut cardboard pieces -- supplies and airfields.

There are also cardboard control makers, a token to show the first player and "advantage tokens" used as an optional rule. Red and grey plastic chips are used to represent additional units of the same type when stacked beneath them, with far more than will be needed in play provided.

There's a very nicely mounted full-color mapboard showing the Solomon Islands chain from Bouganville to Guadalcanal with two small supplementary base cards for the main bases at Rabbaul and New Caledonia which abut the main map. The map is divided into land areas and sea zones. There are six land ares representing islands or groups of islands and 11 sea zones. The two adjoining base cards each add a land area and sea zone as well for a total of 21 possible locations in the game, which is not a large number by wargame standards.

There are two cardboard player aid sheets and a 28-page lavishly illustrated rule book.

There are a dozen black dice and a unique "Battle Box" which is used to hold them. This is probably the most controversial aspect of the game, with players either loving it or hating it. The basic function of the box is to randomize the dice and then assign their outcomes to specific unit types. This is a departure from the usual procedure in Axis & Allies games which allows the unit's owner to assign hits as desired, which protects the more valuable pieces. In A&A:G a single hit might go straight to that carrier or vital transport you were escorting.

Critics question the randomization provided by the box, because it appears too narrow to really allow a good spin and the general awkwardness of manipulating it. Some players have come up with an alternative system that uses 12 differently hued dice instead.

Overall the game is very attractively presented.

Aiding setup, all the starting locations are printed directly on the map, so setting up should be completed within a few minutes.

Each turn is divided into three phases, with each player taking alternating actions throughout, so there is little of the bane of wargames -- downtime. Both players are fully engaged all the time.

The first phases in MOVEMENT, with the First Player and then the Second Player moving in turn, in sequence: Transports, battleship,s, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, bombers and finally fighters. Players alternate within each sequence, so, for example, the First Player moves his transports, then the Second player moves transports, then First Player moves battleships, and so on. This creates a lot of scope for strategic play.

Phase Two is COMBAT, which is likewise done in an interactive sequence, although this time divided by target: Attack air units, Attack sea units, unload transports and destroyers and finally Attack land units/airfields. Again, a simple system that creates some interesting tactical decisions.

The Third phase is REGROUP, which like the other phases is conducted through a sequence where each player alternates doing the steps: Determine island control, land air units, build airfields, repair/reinforce/deploy, score victory points and finally, pass the First Player marker -- so players alternate being First Player each turn.

Each unit type has unique characteristics. Infantry, for example, costs 1 reinforcement point to build, has no ability to attack air or sea units and has  a "Land Attack" value of "1," which means it adds one die to number of dice rolled when attacking land units.  In comparison, a battleship costs 12 to build, but adds 1 die when attacking air units, three dice against sea units and 2 dice against land units.

Some units, battleships cruisers and artillery, have a range which allows them to fire into an adjacent zone as well.

Units also differ widely in their movement. All sea units can move one sea zone, while land units can't move on their own at all, but have to be transported. Air units have a range (2 for fighters, 3 for bombers) which they get to use twice per turn, once in the movement phase and then again in the Regroup Phase.

Reinforcement points are earned by controlling islands, starting from a base level of 10, with four per controlled island. Here there was another critical error in the published game, which lists the values as 5 and 2, respectively. Errata with the correct value was published online immediately, although the game is playable with the lower values. Presumably both sides would find themselves starved of resources with the lower figures. Besides getting new units, players can spend reinforcement points to buy supply tokens. Supply tokens, which cost 2 reinforcement points each, are the game's real 'currency' and can be spent to build new airfields, repair ships and airfields and deploy sea units closer to the front. Like any good resource management game, A&A:G will never give you enough supply to do everything, and proper attention to logistics is just as critical as battle management for victory.

Victory is achieved by being the first player to score 15 victory points. The most common way to earn VPs is by controlling an undamaged airfield -- one per airfield per turn. Players can also earn VP by sinking enemy capital ships (battleships and carriers - one each). This builds in a de facto time limit of  four, or maybe five, game turns. Each player starts with one airfield and can easily build 2-3 more shortly, so 15 will likely be reached by one or both players by turn 4 or 5. IF players are tied, they play another turn until the tie is broken.

So that's the basics: A very abstract, military themed game -- or is it a wargame?

It's clearly not a "simulation." No time scale is specified or implied. There's no direct correlation between the game pieces and the historical order of battle. The game''s geography is accurate, but highly simplified.

But there's some fidelity to history, nonetheless. There's interplay between services and scope for combined arms tactics. The essence of the land-sea-air campaign and its components are present and interact with each other. A battleship isn't just differently named than a destroyer but is functionally distinct as well -- something many "real" wargames of the SPI era didn't do.

And there's definitely some game, there. Players have real choices to make and strategies to try.

Five years on, the consumer verdict on Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal is in. It wasn't a breakout hit, but clearly it's not a flop. It appears to be out of print -- the few copies on Amazon are listed for more than $100 and it's not seeing a lot of play on eBay, so getting a copy now may be more trouble than it's worth -- but if you already have a copy I think it would be worth pulling it out again, as it appears to be somewhat underrated. It may not have been enough of  a "simulation" to please many wargamers and yet there's far too much wargame there for most non-wargamer tastes, but there is an interesting game there and a good impressionistic take on the Solomons Campaign. I think Harris' characterization of a game as a form of art is a useful context to use.  Just as a photograph and a painting of the same topic can each provide different insights into a subject, so can different styles of wargames.

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