Axis and Allies: A Fan’s Perspective

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

I’ve been a fan of board games my whole life. Many of the classics like Monopoly, Clue, Sorry, Battleship, and Life occupy spots on my game shelf even today, often in multiple editions. When I was in junior high school, I discovered Risk and thought it was the greatest board game ever. And it was, until I went to a youth group party and was introduced to Axis and Allies. Since the party was on New Year’s Eve, everyone planned to stay up late anyway, but only our group managed to stay up all night because we were so into this game. From that day, I was hooked. All of the themes of Risk (troop placement, reinforcement, economic management, border protection, global conquest) were amplified and refined into a historical setting of World War Two to create a game unlike anything I’d seen before.

Fast forward to today. I’m still a big fan of the game, which now exists in many different versions and updated editions. Some focus on one specific campaign, such as D-Day, Guadalcanal, or the Battle of the Bulge. Others focus on just the European or Pacific theaters. Still others encompass the entire globe, demonstrating how truly widespread that war was. For diehard fans of the game, there are websites, blogs, forums, and videos that discuss strategies, weigh the pros and cons of each edition, and time-lapse actual gameplay. I’ve decided not to add to the considerable amount of demo material available, at least not here. All I want to do today is review the versions I own. Without getting too far into the rules (which can sometimes be rather complicated), I will operate on the assumption that you may have played the game at least once and understand the basic rules and weapons properties. If you haven’t played before, I’ll briefly touch on a few of the basic elements. On the other hand, maybe you have one version and were thinking about getting another. My goal is to inform you and help you decide which one to acquire next.

Classic: 2-5 player global version featuring Russia, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, and United States. Ground forces are made up of infantry and tanks; air forces are fighters and bombers; naval forces consist of submarines, battleships, aircraft carriers, and transports. This one opened up a new world for me. Still a fun game after all these years, but things were just getting started.

Europe: Smaller map limited to American East Coast, Atlantic Ocean, European continent, western Russia, North Africa, and Middle East. 2-4 players (Germany, UK, Russia, USA). Introduced artillery and destroyer, which are both big improvements over Classic. Artillery increases infantry attack. Destroyer neutralizes submarines for much less money than battleships. Improved tank properties encourage combined arms and discourage stockpiling of infantry. As the game designers began to see the drawbacks in the Classic game, they began to make rule changes and upgrades to correct them. This version was the first of several expansions designed to balance the two sides, encourage new strategies and do away with old ones, and generally make the game even better than it already was.

Pacific: Smaller map of East Asia, Pacific Ocean, and American West Coast. 2-3 players (Japan, UK, USA). Introduced naval and air bases, which improve mobility of ships and planes. Also introduces China as a separate power from US (though still controlled by that player). Probably my least favorite of the versions I own simply because I feel the game is unbalanced, making it nearly impossible for Japan to win. (I did read one review which disagreed and said if Japan can’t win, you’re not playing the game right. But I have yet to witness a game where Japan even came close.) The designers were onto something with Europe and Pacific, but it took the next version to see where the game could really go.

Revised: Updated global map. 2-5 players (same as Classic). Takes the improvements of Europe and Pacific and adds them to the original version. Improves weapons development and victory conditions. Also adds optional National Advantages, giving each player special abilities. Probably the version I’ve played the most and definitely the one I’ve taught to the most people. Effectively replaces Classic to the point where I don’t really play the older game anymore. This is the first one where it seems they “got it right.”

1941: Smaller global map. 2-5 players. A very scaled-back version of Revised. Fewer territories, simpler rules, less money, and much shorter. This is the one I would use to introduce brand-new players to the game. The best thing about it is that you can finish quickly. One of the only aspects of A&A I wish I could change is the playing time: most games take way too long and become less fun toward the end after the outcome is all but inevitable. This version plays fast enough that you don’t get bored with it. However, once players experience the larger-scale games, this one seems like a lightweight. I’m glad I have it for instructional purposes, but I don’t know how much I’ll play it compared to the bigger ones, time being the main determining factor in that decision.

Anniversary: Large global map. 2-6 players. Introduces Italy as third Axis player. China’s role is much expanded. Adds cruiser to navy, with powers between destroyer and battleship. Weapons development and factory damage rules are improved, and National Objectives are introduced. This is “the big one,” second only to Global in size and number of pieces. It had a limited print run, so it’s much harder to find and is consequently much more expensive to buy. But it’s worth it. This is easily my favorite version: best map, best game mechanics and rules, best-looking pieces, everything. The only reason I haven’t played it more than Revised is that it takes a lot longer: unless you have a whole evening to devote to it, you might not finish the game in one sitting.

Global 1940: Massive global map. 2-6 players. Introduces separate colors for ANZAC (Australia/New Zealand) and adds France as a separate playable power. Adds tactical bomber to air forces and mechanized infantry to ground forces. Improves abilities of anti-aircraft guns. New rules are added for neutral territories, naval and air bases, factories, and declaration of war. This one really is the “biggie”: the board itself is 3-4 times larger than most gameboards you’ve seen. It won’t even fit on my regular coffee table–I have to commandeer the dining room table! One reason it’s so big is that Global is actually two games combined into one: Europe 1940 and Pacific 1940. These games were designed both to play separately and for the maps to fit together, unlike the first Europe and Pacific versions. I’d recommend this only for serious players. There is a considerable investment required to purchase both boards. (Incidentally, there are first and second editions of both printed. Supposedly the second fixes most of the errors from the first.) There is also the issue of physical space–is your table large enough? Lastly is the question of time. One online reviewer said he and his buddies played Global for 11 straight hours and still did not finish. As I mentioned before, games that are overly long can require too much time for the fun you get out of it. If Anniversary takes a whole evening, Global could take a whole weekend or even longer. But if you’re into the A&A world like I am, you might love the idea of playing the game for that long.

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