"World War II has always been a fascinating period of history for me."
--first words of Larry Harris's introduction to the revised Operations Manual
Hi there. My name's Mike Selinker, and I'm a game designer. Recently, I got (OK, threatened to fight all comers for) the chance to develop the first revision of Axis & Allies in 18 years and the first under the Wizards of the Coast label. I knew it was the best game of its kind, and I thought we could make it even better.
This is the first of fifteen weekly columns taking you inside the new version to show you what's changed and why. Over the next few months, you'll get to see what we did with the map, the pieces, the game rules, and every other aspect of the game. Some changes you'll expect, as you've been asking for them for years. Others will surprise you and be the subject of great debate on the net. Post your comments on the message boards so that everyone can share your delight, outrage, or (heaven forfend) indifference.
Here's the caveat that covers all the columns: Nothing I say here should suggest that the copy of Axis & Allies on your shelf is flawed. The Milton Bradley version of Axis & Allies is a near-perfect game. When we made a change, we made sure we were improving something or we left it alone.
This first column will cover some key early decisions that shaped all the others. Starting with the most important decision of all:
Would this be a simple cleanup or a true revision?
Over the years, Wizards has asked me to take care of several of its treasured games. Whether a card game, a roleplaying game, or a board game, my job was to keep a steady hand and a clear mind. With this sense of clarity, I could keep everyone in the project focused on making the best game possible.
I hope you'll understand when I say that revising Axis & Allies scared the heck out of me. Axis & Allies wasn't just another game, it was the best game of its kind. It had been 18 years since A&A's last revision, though, and it needed a thorough update for the new millennium. What I directed our team to do would define this greatest of games for two more decades.
The way I saw it, we had two options. Option 1 was just to tinker around the edges. Under the "If it's not broken" model, fans would get a snappier but mostly identical version to the one on their shelves. Option 2 was to give it a serious revision. Fans would have to learn new rules but if we did our jobs right, they'd like them better.
If you know anything about me, you already know I chose Option 2. As wonderful as the game is, almost 20 years of playing showed that there were areas where it could be streamlined and others where it could be expanded. It would be foolish to ignore that huge body of player experience and input when preparing a new edition. Revision was the only logical choice.
Whose game would it be?
For all of its history under Hasbro, Axis & Allies was introduced by General Milton Bradley. Everyone reading this column is smarter than this, but I'm guessing that some kids actually believed the game was written by General Bradley. In this age of deserved respect for the military, fake generals explaining game rules had to go.
After all, this wasn't General Milton Bradley's game, it was Larry Harris's game.
A lot of gamers haven't heard of Larry because his games didn't carry his name for years. He's as important to gaming's history as Gary Gygax, Richard Garfield, and Sid Sackson. Before Larry crafted Axis & Allies in the early '80s, the only mass-market war game was the very abstract RISK. RISK never sticks a flag into the Earth as to when it took place, so you never had to think much about why your horsemen could attack Brazil from Africa. Real-world simulations like Avalon Hill's Squad Leader and Gettysburg were limited to the hobby shelves. With Axis & Allies, Larry took a fringe hobby and made it into a top-shelf success.
This was Larry's game, and it would be again. Early on, I received a prototype from Larry of some changes he wanted to make. I expected that the creator of the game would only want to nip and tuck here and there. I expected that, until I opened the map. My eyes bugged out, and I made a phone call to Massachusetts. After I introduced myself, I told Larry, "We're going to do this. All of it. And more."
Who would the game be for?
Chances are, if you're reading this, the answer is you. Though A&A enjoyed great success in the mass market, Avalon Hill brand manager Laura Veasey and I wanted it to rule as one of the world's premier hobby games, just like D&D and Magic: the Gathering. As we went forward, we sought out groups that played Axis & Allies every week, and we geared our changes toward making a game that would lead to many more such groups. That necessitated a few mandates.
First, the game's rules must be crystal clear so that it could be played in tournament format as easily as at home. Questions that lingered from the mid-'80s (such as exactly how submarines couldn't hit aircraft) would need to be answered definitively.
Second, the game must be expandable so that each playing would seem different. The Milton Bradley version had three optional rules. This version would have thirty.
Third, it must be scalable. Most people can't fathom playing a board game that lasts seven hours. While we certainly wouldn't torpedo the seven-hour game (I like seven-hour games), we also needed to make it possible for people to play A&A to a conclusion more quickly. Most importantly, we needed to reduce the tendency toward multi-turn standoffs in high-level gameplay.
To make the perfect wargame, I needed the perfect wargamer. Enter Richard Baker, another creative director at Wizards of the Coast. When Rich last lost a game of Axis & Allies, he wasn't yet married. His kids are now in elementary school. I couldn't beat Rich when we started, and I can't beat him now. If he liked what we ended up with, chances are you would too.
Would the game learn from its expansions?
When Hasbro relaunched Avalon Hill, Larry and his Hasbro Games Group co-designers published Axis & Allies: Europe and Axis & Allies: Pacific. Both expansions won accolades for their innovations to the base game. Therein lay a question: Would the revision borrow from those games and potentially complicate a relatively simple game, or would we leave those innovations for advanced players to learn later?
We agonized over this for some time. The deadlock was broken by two of our Sales guys, Paul Bazakas and Brian Hart, who are Axis & Allies freaks. They personally liked playing the expansions more than the base game, and they wanted that to change. They felt that if we put what was great about the Pacific and Europe games into the base game, everyone would get to experience what they felt. That was good enough for Larry and me.
Exactly what the revision would learn from Europe and Pacific ... I'll cover next week.
Catch up on any previews you missed!
Mike Selinker has been playing, designing, developing, and just plain loving games of every variety for many, many years. He is a gamer in the very best sense of the word. Mike lives in Seattle.