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Game Name:  Axis & Allies (1998)
Developer:  MicroProse
Publisher:  Hasbro Interactive
PC Release Year:  1998
Review Date:  August 15, 2014

Skimming through the New York Times a few weeks back yielded an interesting tidbit of information.  Apparently, board game sales are on the rise in the United States, and this trend is being driven by millennials like me who grew up playing video games.  The appeal is easy to see.  Back when the Nintendo 64 was in its split-screen heyday and people were willing to lug bulky computers between LAN parties, multiplayer gaming was very much a social affair.  We lost that, however, as internet speeds crept up.  No matter how clear headsets have become, it is difficult to ignore the loneliness of those dark bedrooms and basements that gamers call home.  Board gaming is awesome because it counters this seclusion and still satisfies someone’s competitive itch.  While Survive: Escape from Atlantis! and Settlers of Catan may be far more popular among my family and friends, Axis & Allies easily tops my own favorites list.  With a desire to rehash the largest conflict of the 20th century and without the time to square off against a fellow human, I decided to boot up the 1998 computer version of the game.  This experience may have quashed my particular urge, but it also made me realize that Avalon Hill’s recent revisions to the classic gameplay are more than a mere money grab.  

For those whose only foray into the world of board gaming has been with mass appeal titles like Monopoly and Clue, the best way to describe Axis & Allies is as a much more sophisticated version of Risk.  Players take command of the United States, Great Britain, and Russia, or Germany and Japan around the time of America’s entry into World War II.  From there, the premise is simple; conquer the world.  To do this, pieces are moved across a giant map and when opposing armies meet, a series of dice rolls determine the battle’s victor.  Where it gets tricky is that different units have unique pricing, movement, and combat characteristics.  So while a tank battalion costs almost twice as much as one infantry battalion, that group of armor can move two spaces per turn instead of one, and also destroys an enemy unit on a toss of three or less, in an offensive battle, when the grunts require rolling a one.  Naval and air forces increase the complexity further, and this is all balanced on a resource system that rewards acquiring new lands.  Given the range of strategic options available to players, the game’s greatest strength is the number of what-if scenarios that can occur, like seeing the Russians counterattack the Japanese in the Orient and watching Germany launch an invasion of the British Isles.

Where a PC edition of Axis & Allies succeeds most is that it actually allows people to experience this beloved board game.  In all reality, the tabletop version is a time sink.  While it may be conducive to a dorm environment where friends and free time are generally available, good luck trying to get a group of working professionals together to deal with the long setup and lengthy wait between turns.  Fortunately, the computer streamlines all of this.  Dice rolls are instant since there are never too few for the battle at hand, planes highlight all of the regions they can land in so there is not a struggle to remember the takeoff point, and captured lands are easily distinguishable since the map changes color to denote ownership of new territories.  Passable artificial intelligence also provides some degree of challenge when human opponents are in short supply.  Sure, there are times when the title’s electronic brain will attack a heavily defended zone instead of its lightly defended neighbor, or fail to press the advantage when lady luck is shunning the gamer.  However, most new players will have to work at their first few wins and past that, there is always the option of playing as a single nation and setting the friendly AI to its easiest setting.

Despite the accessibility that a PC version of Axis & Allies provides, it is still merely an automated version of a board game.  While this means that the title’s colorful 2D visuals and endearing national theme music are no worse than what is found in many of today’s most popular indie games, the player loses the social interaction of a tabletop match with no appreciable gains on the gameplay front.  The Total War series is an excellent example of a direction that could have been taken.  An expanded campaign map would have left room around the major nations for smaller powers like Italy and China to play a strategic support role.  Diplomatic options, like attempting to break Switzerland’s strict neutrality. would also have made for an interesting side objective.  Then, imagine if the battles broke down into the amazing tactical skirmishes seen in Company of Heroes.  I daresay that would be an amazing game.

Even if Axis & Allies is judged on the basis of what it is instead of what it could have been, it is still plagued by the imbalances of its classic forbear.  Historically true to form, the axis powers start off on a weak financial footing, but with a tremendous military advantage.  Success hinges on a lightning advance towards a common foe, like Russia, to knock them out of the war before the productive capacity of the other two allied powers can be brought to bear.  However, this is difficult to execute since Russia gets the first move and can attack both Finland and Manchuria to build up buffer space.  From there, Germany and Japan are already on the defensive and must retake these lands or risk seeing them reinforced by Great Britain and the United States.  In recent printings of the game, Avalon Hill has since altered the world map to counter this problem.  Additional territories have been added to Eastern Siberia and Eastern Europe to make Russia pause before committing early forces to a few pitched battles.  There are also new sea spaces between Europe and America to keep the United States out of the war for a little longer.  Beyond this more balanced gameplay, new units like artillery, cruisers, and destroyers have been introduced to provide a wider range of strategic options to players.  Why am I comparing a PC game’s rule set to that of a board game?  It is because a browser-based version of this fourth edition is available online, under the moniker Axis & Allies 1942.  Despite the need for an internet connection to play, it essentially makes the 1998 version obsolete.

As far as my playthrough went, I definitely had fun returning to one of my high school pastimes.  It reminded me of all the late night matches in my buddy’s basement when we would eat pizza, tell jokes, and generally insult each other in fake accents that were dependent on the nation we were playing.  For me, that is and always will be the best part of Axis & Allies.  Without that live component, though, it really is just a more complicated and imbalanced version of Risk.  If I ever get the hankering to conquer the world again, it will definitely not be with this edition of the game.

Verdict:  Not Recommended