Monday, June 04, 2007

Axis & Allies - War at Sea; Darn!

I used to be a sucker for collectible card games.

At the time, I had the advantage of working in a games shop and getting them at a 'knock down' price helped. But none the less they were a draining addiction. Not least because, whatever you spent, there was always someone who'd spend more to be able to cream you in any game. Especially with stuff you knew to be super rare, and that they'd clearly paid well over the odds for.

I stopped with the card games a while ago, when I decided to stick to miniatures gaming. It was for me a good choice.

But those sneaky companies have ways of winning you over.

First there was 'Pirates', of which I've bought a bunch without getting to actually use them as yet. They look very nice made up, if a little fake, and the rules seem reasonable enough. But there is a clear stress on collectibility over game play I think.

However I encountered a new version of Axis & Allies (once merely a massive board game, then adapted to a collectible miniatures game) the other week, and based on positive recommendation decided to give it a try. It deals solely with naval combat, and is presumably designed as an accessible game with a balanced and competitive angle to it. Most CCG's stand or fall on their suitability for competitive play and collectible miniatures games seem to operate the same way.

The game itself has only just been released, well March this year anyway.

So like a damned fool I spent my £20 on the last copy of the game in my local roleplay/CCG/comic shop. When I got it home, I have to say the contents were pleasing:

For your money you get a quick start and full (40 page) rule book, counters, dice, two large map sheets, cardstock islands and 9 unit cards. Of course the main selling point is the prepainted miniatures of which there are 9 also, matching the unit cards.

These are randomised, with varying degrees of frequency (rare, uncommon and common). Obviously 'rares' represent better ships; my rare being the Ark Royal - nice! All the ships are produced to 1:1800th scale and really look remarkably good. The aircraft are 1:900th scale according to the box, though I suspect they could be larger. This is not a problem though, as they nicely appear to be flying above their targets.

So I read the rules, and was keen to see how it would play; not having anything better to do, and figuring it couldn't take long, I set up a game as per the rules:

The rules suggest fleets of 100 points each, or the closest even match of available models, naturally it was the latter I had to opt for; which saw forces of around 40 points assembled. The Ark Royal is 22 points, Swordfish bombers 10 points; and the French Terrible destroyer 9 points. The Axis forces mustered an Italian cruiser and submarine, with a German escort destroyer and fleet support ship.

Each ship has movement, fire and damage stats along with some special rules, which modify the basic rules. This latter feature is a classic feature of CCG's which allows subtlety and complexity in the rules. To be fair the modifiers on the cards here mainly tinker only with the fringes of gameplay; for example the German destroyer is allowed to be in the same sector of the map as two other ships, when normally the limit is strictly two ships per sector.

A close up of the Axis fleet, one of these ships is the wrong way round, can you tell which?

Turns begin with an initiative test and the winner always goes second - a clear advantage; as they can react to the opposing fleets movements. The moves are therefore Igo-Ugo, but firing is simultaneous, beginning with air attacks, then gunnery, then torpedoes. If any vessel is eliminated in a stage of firing it cannot act in subsequent stages. Hence a submarine sunk by Anti submarine fire, cannot reply as torpedoes fire in the last phase.

The moves in my test game saw each side chase objectives, In a full fleet game, these are worth 50 points each. Although the rules don't state it, I would say that you should reduce their value proportionately in a game of less than 100 points. The objective of a normal game is to score 150 points by either securing objectives or destroying enemy vessels.

The Axis captured two objective to the Allies one; in principle, they had already won, but no one had done much yet, so play continued.

The fleets began to approach one another. The Swordfishes harassed the Italian sub; several turns of fruitless attacks.

Then success! Attacks are based on a number of D6 rolled, based on the range and type of attack. it is easy to score hits, but different targets have higher and lower damage values that must be matched or beaten to cause any real damage. Finally after four sorties the bombers struck home on the sub with bombs.

Meanwhile the destroyers managed to sink each other; small ships it seems are frail. The swordfish turned to attacking the main Axis vessels, but fire aborted their attacks several times. Eventually the cruiser's anti aircraft fire destroyed the squadron.

This left the Ark Royal at the mercy of the Axis ships. It put up a stubborn fight for a couple of turns, but it was out gunned around three to one. Firstly the Axis closed to within one sector (normally two ships of each side are allowed in one sector at a time), and managed to cripple the great ship. A crippled vessel loses speed, armour, firepower, the works. Shortly after that the captain had to issue orders the evacuate.

Game over and a clear Axis victory.

So, any good? Well, it isn't what you would call a simulation, naval geeks with rulebooks a hundred pages long will doubtless find it over simplified. But I think a lot of its point would be missed by ending there. This is a game for simple competitive play, but with the potential for doing a lot more. The cards allow for a game with no record keeping that clearly can give a sense of naval combat. The rules themselves make efforts to stick to historical principles, they offer several alternate scenarios, as well as advice on recreating historical battles and fleets. These rules serve as a great introduction to the period.

Furthermore the production values are great. Everything is in full colour, everything is painted and based, nothing else but the box is need to immediately play a colourful and attractive game.

It is also quite obvious that if this takes off there will be more supplements and new ships in the future. The basic set contains a random selection from 64 models, there is lots of room for more.

I also think it would be really easy to adapt the rules to standard tabletop play. Convert the sectors to a scale of centimetres or inches to fit your tastes and you'll be on your way.

I hate to say it, but I really like the look of this, so much so I bought a second starter pack online yesterday! It's the slippery slope, I know, but suddenly I can play naval wargames with out so much as lifting a paintbrush. How nice is that!

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