Axis & Allies Battle of the Bulge

Avalon Hill, 2006, 2 players, ages 13 and up. This is easily the best new Axis & Allies game since the first (way back in the 80s) release, but it's definitely not your dad's A&A- apart from the nifty little plastic toys that we've all come to know and love, it shares very little in common with any previous A&A game.

This is strictly a two-player game, with one player running the Germans and the other running the Americans and the British. The initial set-up has the Germans poised to launch their Winter '44 incursion into the Ardennes. However, since Hitler's goal of reaching Antwerp was completely insane, the goal of the German player here is to simply exceed the gains that Germany made during the real-life battle. Basically what they've done is assigned point values to each city in the game, totalled up the points for the cities that Germany actually captured (23) and then added 1 to come up with the German victory total (24). The Allies win by simply making it to the end of turn 8 (when the game ends) without the Germans having amassed their 24 points.

Trying to explain just how different this game is from previous A&A games would basically involve a lengthy regurgitation of the rules, so instead I'll just try to hit some of the highlights:

First of all, there is no "production", or at least not in the traditional sense (y'know, add up your resources, spend on units, place them on the board). Rather, BotB employs a "reinforcement card" scheme (first introduced in A&A D-Day), where each sides' reinforcements are predetermined in terms of number and type, as well as where (and on what turn) they will appear on the board.

The new scheme for air combat is particularly interesting. Each side has a fixed number of fighters and bombers that can be deployed on turns 5-8 (no aircraft fly during the first 4 turns, simulating the bad weather that both sides had to contend with during the actual battle). The interesting wrinkle here is that planes fly their combat missions and then basically just go away for the rest of the turn (and despite any losses that may occur on any one turn, all aircraft return to play on the next). Naturally, the allies have a huge advantage in airpower (approximately 4-to-1). Once aircraft have been assigned to the board, they first fight each other (if assigned to the same hex), then deal with any anti-aircraft fire (ground units, regardless of type, get a shot), and finally, whatever planes are left over get to attack the ground units. Then, they simply vanish until the next turn (and consequently, have no affect whatsoever on any subsequent ground battles).

Further stirring the airpower pot- at the beginning of each air combat phase, players roll for "initiative", with the high roller getting to choose which player gets to (or more aptly, has to) put their planes on the board first (going second is, naturally, advantageous). And the whole scheme they've devised for anti-aircraft fire is similarly interesting. Ground units get one die for each type of ground unit they have in a given hex. So yeah, six tanks alone in a hex might scare the neighbors, but they still only get one die worth of ACK-ACK when the planes fly in. So it definitely becomes a good idea to keep your forces well diversified (especially on the German side).

Another completely new feature is the addition of supply and logistics. All combat units must pay "supply" units both to attack and to move. Supply chits are ferried around the theatre of combat via trucks. As a consequence, a very important strategy for the supply-strapped German side is to capture allied supplies whenever possible, as well as keeping their own ever-stretching supply lines open.

Probably the most radical new idea (as least as compared to previous versions of A&A) is the scheme they've come up with for ground combat. No longer do you simply line up your forces, roll dice, and then eliminate units until either the attacker decides to quit or the defender is eliminated. Here, the board is laid out in hexes, and units within a given hex are allowed only one attack per turn (and only if they have the requisite supplies), with combat initiative alternating between each player (on a hex-by-hex basis). The first attacker is determined by a die roll, but thereafter, attacks alternate between each player (until both players have neither the will, the opportunity, nor the resources to declare further attacks). The interesting twist is that only the defending forces actually lose units during an attack. Conversely, the attacking forces do not automatically occupy a hex once all of the defenders have been eliminated. They might be able to move in, but only later on during the movement phase (and only after all combat has been resolved), and then only if they have the requisite supplies to do so.

The actual nuts and bolts of rolling combat dice is also completely new. Instead of rolling a die for each unit and then seeing if it scores a "kill" or not, you roll X number of 12-sided dice for your total attacking force (1 for each infantry, 2 for each tank, and 3 for each artillery). Each roll of 6 or less scores a hit. But hold on my son, they might all have scored "hits", but it doesn't end there. The actual numbers you rolled on the individual dice determine which of the defending units you've hit (as determined by a rather arcane scheme that I won't go into here). So, you might score 6 hits against a defending force of 3 units, but if the dice indicate that all of your hits are on a single unit, then that's the only one you actually destroy. And to make matters more interesting, it takes 2 hits to actually destroy a unit. Units receiving only 1 hit get to retreat into an adjacent hex (and very possibly might just counter-attack on the same turn!)

Anyway, I was about to say "I could go on and on", but it appears I've already done so. Suffice it to say, this is a very slick game. The rules are relatively brief and easy to follow. They are blessedly free of vaguries and contradictions, and apart from the occasional search for clarification, we rarely had to re-reference them after the initial read-through. Games go pretty quickly, taking maybe 3 hours or so (yes, that's "quickly" for a war game). And despite the elegant "beer and pretzle" simplicity of the game-play, strategy is surprisingly in-depth.

Overall game balance looks to be pretty good. So far we've played the game twice and, as the Germans, I went 1-1. The key for the Germans appears to be consolidating their forces into 2 or 3 strong spearheads and then being aggressive with them (IE, "bulging" westward as quickly and as deeply as possible). The allied forces are weak to begin with, and airpower excluded, remain weak throughout the game (at least as compared to the Germans). So, keeping the Wallies in a state of panic over your incursions seems like the best strategy. What worked for me (when I won) was to attack the Americans along the entire front on turn 1- the goal being to eliminate as many units as possible, and at the same time capture as much supply as possible. Then, on turn 2, consolidate forces into three basic offensive pushes- Verviers in the north, Malmedy in the middle, and Bastogne in the South. What didn't work for me (IE, when I lost) was to try to push the entire front westward (non-bulging) and basically being cautious and trying to prevent any counter-attacks into my rear areas. As my opponant pointed out "Allied counter-offensives? Are you nuts?" For the allies, ultimately it comes down to just slowing the German advance during the first 4 turns and then getting to the airpower phase (and then making maximum use of said air supremacy to screw with the German supply lines and reinforcements). As in A&A's brother, the old "Invasion: USA" game, settling on one or two key cities to hold until the bitter end (and thus preventing a German win), seems like the best strategy.

So, a great game so far. I guess my only concern is with re-playability. It's a fairly static concept, and I guess once you figure out the winning strategies (for either side), it might just become a boring exercise in die-rolling. Still, that's a way off in the future. For now, I think this game rocks.

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