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Axis & Allies: Countdown to Invasion
Week 11: Super Submarines
by Mike Selinker, Lead Developer

"Wolf packs of U-boats prowled the Atlantic, working together to down Allied convoys. The only sure thing about a U-boat was that there always was another nearby."

--from the "Wolf Packs" optional rule in the revised Operations Manual

I started working on Axis & Allies a year ago. Larry Harris started working on Axis & Allies a quarter century ago. In the decades since, Larry has received many questions about his game.

Eighty percent of those are about submarines, Larry says.

With the revision, Larry and I could put those questions to bed. While we likely created just as many questions as we answered, at least they'll all be new questions.

Here's a first look at the new Axis & Allies submarine. Other than its attack and defense of 2, its move of 2 zones, and its cost of 8 IPCs, it hardly resembles its past incarnation.

How It Used To Be

I'm gonna say some nasty things in this section. This is the one major area of Axis & Allies and its sequels that I've hated for years, and I can't hide it easily. If you can't abide someone slamming the way subs function now, you should skip to the next section.

The heart of the previous edition's submarine was its "deadly sneak attack." The sub struck first, and if it hit, an enemy ship was removed from play. Defending ships and planes could counterattack once. The submarine could then withdraw to the zone it came from. Defending submarines could withdraw (to any adjacent, friendly zone), but they couldn't make sneak attacks.

Subs' interactions with other units caused much confusion. A sub could only hit a ship, not air units. On the sneak attack, it was obvious how and why this worked. But if the sub was defending, it rolled its attack die at the same time as other units, and it couldn't hit planes (which could hit it). You had to remember things like "I scored two hits and one submarine hit." This was supposedly a disadvantage for the sub, but against an aircraft carrier it was clearly an advantage. The sub would kill the carrier, leaving the carrier's planes to crash after the sub withdrew or sank.

When Axis & Allies Europe came out, the situation got more confusing with the addition of destroyers. Destroyers forced subs out of their natural combat sequence. A destroyer-saddled submarine couldn't attack first. Instead, it fired in the main combat step, which meant its hobbled interaction with planes happened before the sub got a chance to withdraw. Furthermore, planes in Europe couldn't even hit subs unless a destroyer was present. (That's a three-piece mandatory interaction.)

Another new wrinkle added in Europe was that attacking and defending submarines could submerge during their stage of combat instead of firing. The submarine would turn on its side to show it was underwater. If one side had only submerged submarines in combat, the combat ended. Meanwhile, other ships could skate over the submerged subs during the noncombat move. A special action sequence step was created solely for submerged submarines to resurface.

This led to an unsightly tactic called "sub-stalling." A sub would enter a sea zone with enemy ships and immediately submerge. No combat would occur but when the "attacked" player's next turn came around, he couldn't load or offload his transports because the zone was enemy-occupied. This reduced entire fleets' movements to one sea zone a turn and made the naval game a slog through quicksand.

As I think you can tell, I hated all of this. What especially irked me was that with all of these complex rules, submarines still couldn't do the one thing I wanted them to do: move without being seen. That, I reasoned, was what submarines were all about.

The submarine needed a thorough rethinking of three aspects from which all abilities would flow: how it moves, how it fights, and how destroyers affected it.


The New Submarine Movement Rules

Submarines move two spaces. That had been decided. What was not decided was which two spaces those would be. Larry's proposal was that submarines be allowed to (as we later described air units) "treat hostile spaces as friendly." A submarine can now move through a mighty fleet and end up on the other side. If there is a sea unit in the square it ends up in, combat will occur. This process of treating hostile zones as friendly depicts the cornerstone ability I wanted subs to have: the ability to pass under ships.

When a submarine wants to get out of combat, it can no longer withdraw into a neighboring space. It can instead go straight down. A submarine submerges like in Axis & Allies Europe, by turning on its side. Either an attacking or defending submarine can do this but only during the press attack or retreat step of combat. This should kill sub-stalling in the base game forever, as the fleet in the attacked sea zone likely will blow the sub to kingdom come before it can submerge. (A submarine can still retreat as part of an attacking force, of course, but all attackers must retreat at once.)

A submerged submarine stays that way until the end of the noncombat move, and then it pops back up. (No special resurfacing phase is needed. Movement is over, so your pieces no longer affect movement. It's as simple as that.) While a sub is submerged, pieces can sail right over it. This includes transports, which can offload their troops as if the sub isn't there. In effect, while the sub is submerged, the enemy units gain its "treat hostile sea zones as friendly" ability in respect to that submarine.

This rulebook graphic by the proficient Brian Dumas shows how submarines move.

Submarine Movement

The New Submarine Combat Rules

As I mentioned in the column on combat, there's a new "opening fire" phase of combat. Submarines occupy that step and can never fire outside that step. This is basically a "sneak attack," but both attacking and defending submarines can do it. (Attacking subs go first, then defenders.) After all subs have fired, the next phase has both players clearing both sides' casualties of the submarines' torpedoes.

There's an obvious and a not-so-obvious reason the subs got this step. The obvious reason is that it occurs first, killing units before anyone else but other submarines can fire back. The not-so-obvious reason was that in this phase, we could restrict what subs could hit. Just like antiaircraft guns could only hit air units during opening fire, submarines could only hit sea units. It made no sense in the pre-nuclear age for submarines to be blowing bombers out of the sky, so they can't.

Since everything else fires in the attacker and defender steps, those units can hit everything in front of them. (That is, there are no target restrictions during these steps.) That included air units hitting submarines, since air units don't fire during the opening fire phase. No special rules were built around aircraft hitting or not hitting submarines, meaning if you leave a pack of subs where bombers can get them, you'll lose a few before you can submerge. This is entirely realistic, as Allied aircraft were responsible for a great many U-boats settling onto the ocean floor.

The New Destroyers vs. Submarines Rules

The revised Operations Manual says it succinctly: "A destroyer cancels the special abilities of submarines." That means that nearly everything I described above doesn't happen in a sea zone containing a hostile destroyer. So, as long as the destroyer is intact, these three things are true:

  1. When a submarine attempts to cross the space, it stops and must fight.
  2. The sub can't submerge.
  3. The sub doesn't remove its casualties during step 3 of the combat.

This last rule took us weeks to come up with, and is probably my favorite new rule in the upcoming edition. As the destroyer alerts other units to the presence of submarines, the player hit by the subs doesn't remove her casualties from the subs' attack in step 3. Those torpedoed units get to fire back before sinking in the second casualty removal step. This made the ability about the destroyers, not the submarines. The destroyers turned off step 3 for the other side, and combat continued apace.

Now, after all that, I finally like submarines in Axis & Allies. I hope you will too.

Thanks for letting me blow off steam this week. Next week, I'll talk about another sea unit that morphed significantly: the humble transport. Be sure to come back for that.


Catch up on any previews you missed!

Mike SelinkerMike 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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