“It is the spring of 1942. The world is at war.” The quintessential strategy board game, Axis & Allies: Classic (A&A) was first published thirty years ago, and remains firmly entrenched in the foremost echelon of the genre. Inducted into the Gaming Arts & Design Adventure Gaming and Games Magazine Halls of Fame, A&A’s longstanding commercial success has led to ten spin-off’s (at the time of this article), two of which, Axis & Allies: Europe 1940 and Axis & Allies: Pacific 1940, can be combined to form a massive 70-inch board spanning the global theaters.
While not Buick-sized, the classic version of the game is still impressive. The box art is well-conceived, portraying two key elements of game play, strategy and combat, by superimposing images of Rommel and Eisenhower over a backdrop of military units in action. Inside, the bi-fold 33×20 inch game board depicts the world divided into land territories and sea zones. Territory colors indicate the starting borders of the five game powers: the Allies – Russia, Great Britain, and the United States, and the Axis – Germany and Japan. Hundreds of plastic pieces represent a variety of units and are color-coordinated for each power. The pieces are highly detailed and durable; my original 1984 Milton Bradley Game Master Series edition is in near-perfect shape. My only complaint is the unit colors of Russia brown and United States green are too similar for the colorblind. As a kid I had to repaint all my Russian units red. Although A&A accommodates 2-5 players, game balance requires all five powers to be played. Also, be prepared to commit three or four hours to a complete game. Some powers play faster than others. Russia can be played quickly for novice and expert players alike, while Germany and Japan offer nuanced purchasing and combat strategies. A typical turn for Russia can take 5-10 minutes, whereas a German turn could easily take twice as long. The flexibility of strategy for the Axis is required to offset the Allies’ advantages in turns per round and IPCs, the game currency. In this way, A&A attempts to render some historical accuracy through gameplay. All things being equal, the Allies are supposed to win, and an evenly matched game with dice rolling as expected will yield that result more often than not. For these reasons, players will find a greater challenge playing the Axis.
Every turn is comprised primarily of three dynamics: Purchasing Units, Movement, and Combat. Territories are all worth some number of IPCs, so an expansion of territory results in greater purchasing power. IPCs can be used to buy land, sea, or air units, infrastructure, or technology rolls. Many experienced players will say A&A is a mathematical game, where the buy phase can be optimized. An example of this is a strategy where Germany purchases nothing but infantry, and by sheer volume it will inevitably overwhelm Russia, even when Russia is executing an identical strategy. This is why the gamblers of antiquity invented dice. A&A employs many, many dice prosecuting battles, so that even the direst defense has a chance. But this is not Risk, where a single unit can occasionally defeat an army. In A&A, all hits are kills, but because combat is simultaneous, the defender always gets to shoot back.
During the Combat phase, each player places his units on the appropriate space on the Battle Board, indicating that unit’s chance to-hit on a D6. Most units have a different chance based on whether they are attacking or defending. Infantry hit on 1’s but defend on 1’s and 2’s. Tanks attack at 1-3 but defend the same as infantry. But tanks cost 5 IPCs to infantry’s 3 IPCs. In a sense you get what you pay for, understanding that units are generally specialized. Battleships, the most expensive unit at 24 IPCs each, attack and defend at 1-4, and also can lend firepower to amphibious assaults, attacking units on the mainland when used in tandem with transports carrying land units across sea zones. Bombers attack at 1-4 but defend only on 1’s, and can engage in strategic bombing to cause an opponent to surrender IPCs. Bombers can move 6 spaces, so long as they land in a friendly territory. Kamikaze is not allowed in A&A. Fighters are well-rounded, attacking at 1-3 and defending at 1-4 for 12 IPCs. Their range is limited to just 4 spaces, but up to two fighters can land on an aircraft carrier, greatly extending their tactical strike radius. Submarines attack and defend on 1’s and 2’s, but have first strike and can withdraw even when on defense. Infrastructure units include anti-aircraft guns and industrial complexes, which are used to expand manufacturing capabilities and fortify the fronts. Combat is the heart of the game, and the combination of units thrust into battle offer diverse strategic and tactical opportunities.
Another engaging dynamic is the decision to divert IPCs from purchasing units toward developing advanced technologies. For a cost of 5 IPCs, a player may roll a D6. He may buy as many dice rolls as he can afford. A result of 6 on any die is a success, but the specific technology developed is another D6 roll. Technologies include extended aircraft range, improved attack and defense chances, cheaper units, and the mother of all weapons – heavy bombers, with which every attacking bomber rolls three dice! With all the units, special capabilities, and technologies available to use in a variety of circumstances, one might assume the game play manual resembles the Manhattan White Pages. Remarkably, the authors have distilled the rules to just 31 pages, including full descriptions of each phase and every unit. Two appendixes detail a full example turn and various movement and combat situations. I’ve never had a question about the rules that the game play manual did not answer succinctly and definitively.
The new edition of the classic game has a few changes. The board art is less detailed, and in my opinion less attractive. A few sea zones were redrawn for strategic purposes. A couple new units increase the diversity of combat, and the addition of major cities offers a new strategic victory condition. Overall, I would say the changes are sufficiently modest, but for the sake of nostalgia I prefer the original, which you can still find regularly on online auction sites.
Having grown up with Axis & Allies: Classic, I’ve used dozens of strategies on both sides, and have been the victim – and beneficiary – of countless runs of cold dice. I get the most satisfaction trying something new that actually works, or, having been outsmarted in a previous game, devising an effective counter. The strategic possibilities are as close to limitless as any game has ever offered, making A&A endlessly replayable. This is a game that attracts strategy lovers without requiring painstaking attention to detail that encumbers lesser games. A true classic, A&A may be the greatest war game of all time.