Axis & Allies: Countdown to Invasion
Week 5: The Starting Gun
"Spring 1942: The fleet at Pearl Harbor rebuilds from the ruins. Britons stare across the Channel to an occupied France. West of Moscow, Soviet troops dig out from a brutal winter on the Russian front. Greenhorn American soldiers leave their birthplaces for the first time, unclear whether they'll see the homefires burn again. They face a world at war."
-- from the "Your World at War" opening chapter of the revised Operations Manual
Axis & Allies begins in mid-June of 1942, at the height of Axis expansion. German might stretches west to the Atlantic coast, north to the Arctic Circle, east to the Caucasus, and south into the Sahara. China's entire seacoast is in Japanese hands, as is every Pacific island west of Midway and north of Australia.
As we revised A&A, my co-developer Rich Baker lent me Thomas Carmichael's The Ninety Days: Five Battles That Changed the World, which I recommend to everyone reading this. This book covers five campaigns -- Guadalcanal, Stalingrad, El Alamein, Operation Torch, and the Barents Sea -- that dominated the end of 1942, after which the Axis never won another victory. Had they gone the other way ….
As we both waxed poetical about this book, we engineered the setup of the new edition to match. It would reflect the possibility of all these engagements happening and going either way. We would adjust territory and sea zone boundaries to create a playing field that would make key World War II flashpoints exciting. We put descriptions and board locations of all these epic battles in the rulebook so that players would try new and realistic strategies. (This column reflects the fine work of lead playtesters Warren Wyman and William Jockusch, who helped Larry, Rich, and me craft the best setup.)
This cutaway UK reference chart shows the initial British piece placement. A couple of noteworthy aspects of this chart: Silhouettes are provided for each piece, so you can tell your destroyers from your transports at a glance. We borrowed the sea zone numbering from Axis & Allies Pacific so that you know exactly where to put your navies. Aircraft carriers tell whether they have fighters on them. And so on. It's a nice graphic design, again by the brilliant Abigail Fein.
I have only about 1,000 words left in this column, so there's more I'll have to leave out than I can tell you about where the pieces begin. In broad strokes, here's what each power looks like at the beginning of the game, in order of play.
The Soviet Union
The Soviet Union is a big land mass with a large force to populate it. The army sits in clumps of infantry, tanks, and artillery around the Russian Front. The victory city of Leningrad is well defended but the industrial complex at Stalingrad also demands its fair share of resources from Moscow. It's an intimidating wall that the Germans must penetrate, and they surely will. Stalingrad will be an epic battle in your games.
East of Moscow, the forces thin out. Because of needs at the front, Soviet players must guard against Japanese land forces and amphibious assaults. Maybe that Russo-Japanese nonaggression treaty will last, and maybe it won't.
The Russian navy is almost nonexistent, as it often hunkered down with the British fleet. A submarine in the White Sea could cause the German wolfpacks some trouble.
Surrounded on all sides, the Wehrmacht is hard on the edges and even harder in the middle. The toughest nut on the board, the territory of Germany, is staffed with land and air units. The industrial complex there and another to the south are garrisoned by a solid block of land units and a host of fighters. A buff fleet sits off the coast of Germany, and it can either ferry soldiers to Leningrad or head out in search of British vessels.
There's more to defend in the east. Germany must maneuver Russian Front forces that are farther than a tank blitz from the nearest complex. (There is a convenient complex sited in Stalingrad but its current owner may be reluctant to let the Germans use it.)
The German military stretches south from Southern Europe to Africa, where a small force can hold off incursions from an Operation Torch-hungry USA. The naval force in the Mediterranean can try kicking out the British or can ferry soldiers into Africa.
Stray U-boats are at sea in the most inconvenient places for the Allies. The subs may do a lot of solo killing or team up with destroyers to assert control of the Atlantic coast.
The United Kingdom
The UK is all over the world at the start of the game. England itself is strongly defended, containing at least one of every land and air unit. The fleet sits on the west side of the UK, briefly out of reach of the German fleet. It can head west to pick up troops from Canada or east to engage enemies in the Baltic or the Barents Sea.
The British control part of the Mediterranean but not all of it. At setup, the British surround the German fleet. Because Germany goes first, that may change by the time the British get to act. The British also flank the Suez Canal, which more than ever serves as a gate to the rest of Africa. If the UK loses the El Alamein fight, it may lose Africa.
Australia was a pivotal ally, so we made the south half of the board more active. A small fleet begins off the southeast coast of Australia. The Australians can attack the Japanese on their own or help their US allies sweep through the islands.
With Calcutta's rise as a victory city, the mixed force around India has a lot to defend. It's bloody well equipped, though. A carrier and its escorts off the coast of India can either dig in for a tough defense of the subcontinent or can shear off into the Indian Ocean and rendezvous with other British naval units. (Check out the Imphal "flashpoint," designed by Brian Dumas. It's your first peek at the new rulebook design.)
Like the UK, Japan is a waterbound territory with lots of places to look after. Unlike the British Empire, all of Japan's places are within a couple moves of their home. The Japanese can build a ship off Tokyo and crash it into American vessels in two turns. This demands that Japan itself be well protected and, with at least one of every land and air unit type, it is.
There's so much afloat in Japanese waters that I can't recount all of it. Everywhere you imagine the Japanese to be, they've got something to kill intruders. With pairs of battleships and carriers spread across the ocean, they can fight in multiple fleets at once.
The Japanese hold three territories on the Chinese mainland with a handful of pieces in each. Quite a few fighters can fly in from carriers and islands to help out. The Japanese planes can attack and return to defend their coastal territories.
The most tempting target for the Japanese is the carrier group at Hawaii. Of course, launching a second Pearl Harbor leads to immediate conflict with ….
The United States
Sitting on the west and east edges of the mapboard, the USA is a nation split in half. It takes effort to travel across or around it, so the United States is set up to send its forces in two directions. Even split, these forces are strong.
Well-defended transport groups sit off Washington and Los Angeles, ready to move units to the hotspots. The Washington group can reach both London (to help launch D-Day) and northwest Africa (to launch Operation Torch). The L.A. transport group has even more options. It can hop west to Midway, up to Alaska, or southwest to Hawaii. A destroyer at Panama can support either group or go hunt German or Japanese subs.
The Hawaii group is small but solid with a carrier and some planes. It can be immediately reinforced from Los Angeles, so a Japanese player spoiling for a fight may get more than he bargained for. Should the USA retain Hawaii, it is primed to head southwest to the islands north of Australia, where a lot of action awaits.
Finally, there's a small American force in China and Sinkiang, a geographically difficult area to invade. If these Chinese nationals hold out, they have tempting opportunities at Shanghai and Manila. A careful US player might be able to hit Japan from both sides.
There's a lot more to it than that, but this gives you something to experiment with on your current board. Next time, I'll talk about significant changes in weapons development, meaning some of you will be getting some belated Christmas presents.
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.
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