Thursday, June 6, 2013

Axis & Allies: The Board Game revisited

I first played Axis & Allies almost 30 years ago when Milton Bradley (now Avalon Hill/Hasbro) first published it as a board game. It was heavily promoted in Playboy magazine with an impressive print ad campaign.  When Hector Perez, a college buddy of mine, and I were looking for an intellectually challenging pastime, I suggested we look for a copy of Axis & Allies. Even though it was pretty pricey for my budget ($30.00 at Toys R Us), Hector and I went "halfsies" and bought a set. We ended up playing Axis & Allies all afternoon and well into the night, with the Axis (under Hector's command) triumphing over the overmatched Allies (yours truly).

Change the Course of History in a Few Short Hours
AXIS & ALLIES is a classic game of war, economics, and strategy. Victory goes not only to the team that conquers its opponents on the field of battle, but also to the individual player who seizes the most enemy territory.

Axis & Allies has many virtues as a board game. It is set in the spring of 1942, which was the "high water mark" for the Axis powers (Germany and Japan; Italy is, for simplicity's sake, not a player and absorbed into the Axis-controlled Southern Europe region). Germany and Japan are at the height of their military potential but financially vulnerable. The Allies (USSR, United Kingdom, and U.S.A.) are militarily weak but industrially strong. 
Each player had color-coded troops,ships, subs, planes and tanks, plus industrial complexes and anti-aircraft guns, all of which had to be placed on the mapboard as indicated by each nation's quick reference card. Each player also had a certain starting income measured in Industrial Production Certificates (IPCs) based on the total value of the territories under his or her control. Each player placed his forces as indicated, then went through several steps -- Weapons Development, Unit Purchase, Combat Moves, Non Combat Moves, and New Unit Placement -- during a turn to carry out his or her country or coalition's strategic goals (to defend own turf while grabbing enemy territories and more IPCs in the bargain). After either a military victory (each coalition capturing two of the Capitals) or an Axis Economic Victory (based on a particular increase of IPCs), the game would end.

The board game, of course, required quite a bit of time to set up. Units had to be set up "just so," not placed at a player's whims. The mapboard, which was (and still is) color coded for each of the warring nations (brown for the USSR, gray for Germany, light brown for the U.K., yellow for Japan, and olive drab for the U.S.A.) could accomodate stacks of units and even had extra spaces to ease the confusion between land and sea spaces or to solve "overcrowding."

Still, even with the game's reference cards to serve as a guide, this stage of the game still took about 15 minutes, sometimes more. There was also the matter of moving the forces from the main mapboard to the battle board. Also, keeping track of national markers to reflect changes in territorial ownership and IPC levels required patience, attention to detail, and dexterity. 
Photo: Wikipedia
As in most board related war games, units had attack/defense factors built in (Infantry, for instance, attacked at rolls of 1 but defended at 2) and the factors defined both strategy and battle results, since "combat" was resolved with throwing dice. For each unit on the Battle Board (where you placed your pieces in a Combat Move) you had a die, and each unit was placed on the Battle Board according to its attack/defense number. You rolled dice by category (Infantry first, because it had low roll numbers, for instance), so if you had five infantry units, three tanks, and one bomber (with attack values of 1, 3, and 4, respectively) you rolled five dice for the infantry, then the tanks, then the bomber. If three of the five Infantry dice resulted in 1, three defending units were hit. If the tanks rolled 3 or less, they'd hit...and so on. The defender would then place his/her "killed" units behind the casualty line, roll for ALL the units (since combat was considered to have taken place simultaneously), and if he/she scored hits on the attacker, both players would then remove their "dead" and the attacker would decide if he/she would continue the attack or retreat, based on the casualties and remaining enemy strength. (Amphibious attacks and submarines had special rules, as did AA guns.)

Once the player had enough IPCs to warrant the gamble, he/she could set aside 5 IPCs for one attempt to develop new technology. For each attempt one had to buy a die (at the expense of buying a combat unit), and in order to "develop" something the roll had to be a 6. Then the die had to be rolled again to determine what new tech the player had discovered. Most players skipped this step in early stages of the game in order to buy combat units, only risking IPCs when they had a comfortable advantage over their opponents.

As in Risk, the more combat situations each player could carry out in one turn the better, assuming that there was enough of a mix of air, land, and sea forces to ensure victory in as many as possible. Of course, the attacks not only depended on the ratio of attackers to defenders, but also on the randomness of the dice. Often, what looked like a flawless plan involving Navy battleships and transports, Army tanks and infantry, and Air Force bombers and fighters would fall apart because the die rolls were

It wasn't a game that required a degree in modern history, obviously, nor did knowledge of the actual war matter, but a certain amount of patience and analytical skills was essential. Players had to be aware that a certain mix of units was necessary to defeat an opponent; sending Infantry units alone, no matter how numerous, against an enemy territory defended by Infantry, Armor, and Fighters was and always would be suicidal, and sending a Fighter or Bomber to attack a space defended by a single Infantry unit was a waste of effort, since even if the defender was destroyed, the air unit could not occupy the territory desired. So a player with a head for numbers and some tactical savvy could nearly always defeat a player who knew his/her history but was clueless about random numbers and attack/defense ratios.

Nevertheless, I thought Axis & Allies was a good game and loved to play it, even though I rarely did once my friend Hector moved out of town. I've recently introduced it to a few friends of mine, with mixed results. Some liked it and played when they had a free day, while others found it nice to look at but tedious and time consuming to set up.

Axis & Allies contains
299 Plastic Playing Pieces
1 Game Board
Industrial Production Certificates (money)
Instruction Book
7 Charts
Control Markers
12 Dice
6 Storage Trays
Plastic Chips
2-5 Players

Recommended: Yes

Amount Paid (US$): 30.00
Type of Toy: Board Game
Age Range of Child: Other

Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: A Book Review

Nos·tal·gia: Pronunciation: nä-'stal-j&, n&- also no -, nO-; n&-'stäl- Function: noun Etymology: New Latin, from Greek nostos return home New Latin -algia; akin to Greek neisthai to return, Old English genesan to survive, Sanskrit nasate he approaches 
1 : the state of being homesick : HOMESICKNESS 
2 : a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; also : something that evokes nostalgia 
- nos·tal·gic /-jik/ adjective or noun 
- nos·tal·gi·cal·ly /-ji-k(&-)le/ adverb 


For most of us, the past sometimes seems more attractive than our present or somehow less frightening than the undiscovered country of the future. It's an illusion, really, but memory has a way of dulling all but the sharpest pains, the saddest memories, and the rest of all our yesterdays become a series of sepia-colored memories in which we take refuge from our 21st Century red state-blue state, conservative vs. liberal, war-on-terror, and bad news on CNN realities. 

Most of us, too, indulge ourselves with trips to the past through many gateways. For some of us, certain foods or beverages will trigger off happy memories of days gone by: a slice of homemade pie, perhaps, or a distinctively-shaped bottle of chilled Coca-Cola, or a particular brand of chocolate. 

But there are other gateways to the rose-colored days of the past we sometimes crave, as well. Music, of course, springs to mind; who among us doesn't have a song that stops our hearts and makes us think Oh, I remember the first time I heard this.... or makes us misty eyed? Almost any medium...a movie, a television show, a magazine, or a book, particularly one that is well-loved, dog-eared, battered almost to the point of disintegration because it's been read and re-read so many times. 

For me, one of those books is the late Douglas Adams' comical science fiction satire, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I first read it when I was 18, and for the past quarter century, this masterpiece of humorous wordplay has lightened my moods, brightened gloomy days, and taken me back in time to my own nostalgic utopia. 

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has -- or rather had -- a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

So the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
 -- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 

One of my favorite books to re-read has always been Douglas Adams' wacky "sort-of adaptation" of 
his scripts for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe hilarious BBC 1978 radio comedy. I bought my first copy of the Guide in 1981 after hearing some of the episodes on National Public Radio and laughing till my sides ached at the insane and inane misadventures of poor, befuddled Arthur Dent and the beings he meets when he's whisked off the Earth a few moments before its destruction. 

Because most of the characters and situations Adams created are so bizarre, he gets the reader to buy into the premise by making Arthur someone we can identify with. He's not a heroic figure like Buck Rogers or Indiana Jones, but rather a very ordinary fellow, 

about thirty...tall, dark-haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too -- most of his friends worked in advertising. 

Poor Arthur. To understand what he goes through in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, imagine yourself waking up one Thursday, looking blearily out your window, seeing a bulldozer, going on about your morning routine, then having the word "yellow" pop into your head with something to connect with. Wander about. Do more morning stuff. Look out your window. Yep, the bulldozer is still there. Hm…is that a hangover you have? Yep. Were you at a bar, perhaps? Mad about that expressway the city commission approved several months before and now your house is to be demolished? Oh, and you drank way too much, too. Better rehydrate. What? Where are you going? Are you crazy? Lying down on the mud in front of a bulldozer is NOT going to save the house….. 

That his house is going to be knocked down by a crew of workmen led by a direct descendant of Genghis Khan is actually the least of Arthur Dent's worries, for unfortunately the world is, in fact, going to meet the same fate but in a vaster scale: the Vogon Constructor Fleet has arrived; its big, ugly ships -- yellow, of course -- primed to demolish the Earth to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. 

Fortunately for Arthur, his friend Ford Prefect has managed to flag down a ride off the Earth with the Dentrassi, the happy-go-lucky cooks of the Vogon fleet, allowing the very unprepared Englishman -- still clad in his bathrobe -- to survive his home planet's demise. Over the course of the novel, Arthur and Ford will survive being tossed out of a Vogon airlock, encounter the very trippy -- and two-headed -- Zaphod Beeblebrox (and his lovely girlfriend Trillian), endure the complaints of Marvin the Paranoid Android ("Life. Don't talk to me about life."), discover the true nature of the Earth on the lost world of Magrathea, and start off on a new quest for the Ultimate Question to the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything. 

On Adams' Style: 

First-time readers should be aware that this is not a conventional novel spiced up with "funny bits," nor is it a funny-on-the-surface, seething-on-the-inside satirical look at a real place a la Carl Hiassen's Skinny Dip. It's more along the lines of Monty Python's Flying Circus, poking fun at every science fiction storyline ever written and then some, taking gentle sideswipes at almost every aspect of modern life, ranging from local politics and planning boards to the global presence of McDonald's hamburgers. As the book critic of The Atlantic stated,The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is "lively, sharply satirical, brilliantly written....Ranks with the best set pieces in Mark Twain." 

Adams, who died a few years ago at the age of 49, was a master of gentle puns and sharp satire. He was fond, for instance, of exaggerating the ridiculous situations to get the reader to laugh. He'd take an idea and literally stretch the language for comic effect, sometimes subtly, and sometimes not. For example, he came up with a character who comes up with a bizarre explanation of what, exactly happens to ballpoint pens when they go missing: 

There followed a long period of painstaking research during which he visited all the major points of ballpoint loss throughout the Galaxy and eventually came up with a quaint little theory which quite caught the public imagination at the time. Somewhere in the cosmos, he said, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, fishoids, walking treeoids and super intelligent shades of the color blue, there was a planet entirely given over to ballpoint life forms. And it was to this planet that unattended ballpoints would make their way, slipping away quietly through wormholes in space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely ballpointed life-style, responding to highly ballpoint-oriented stimuli, and generally living the ballpoint equivalent of the good life. 

Adams also was fond of one-liners, as in this exchange between Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect: 

Ford stared at [Arthur] blankly in the darkness. He helped Arthur to some peanuts. 'How do you feel?' he asked him.

" Like a military academy," said Arthur, "bits of me keep passing out."

Interpersed throughout the main plot of Arthur's misadventures with Ford, Zaphod and Trillian are the "reference entries" of the Hitchhiker's Guide itself. Ford Prefect, after all, is a roving researcher for the Guide, which is one of the best-selling books in the known Galaxy, partly because it is slightly cheaper than the Encyclopedia Galactica, but mainly because its definitions are wickedly funny.