Axis & Allies Guadalcanal

Avalon Hill, 2008, 2 players, ages 13 and up. This game is quite similar to "A&A Battle of the Bulge", at least insofar as it's very different from all of the earlier A&A games. This is a strictly two-player game, with one player commanding the Japanese forces and the other player commanding the Americans. The initial set-up is the same for every game, with the Americans having just landed on the island of Guadalcanal. Virtually all of the American forces are concentrated around Guadalcanal, whereas the Japanese forces are thin and scattered.

Each turn is divided into a number of different steps, with the "first player" performing a step first, and the "non-first player" performing it next. "First player" status alternates from one player to the next after each turn. Turns are divided thusly -

- Load and move transports
- Move battleships
- Move aircraft carriers
- Move cruisers
- Load and move destroyers
- Move and attack with subs
- Move bombers
- Move fighters
- Attack air units
- Attack sea units
- Unload transports and destroyers
- Attack land units
- Determine control of islands
- Land air units
- Build airfields, build reinforcements, repair damaged units

Gameplay is much simplified as compared to earlier A&A games. Each island is a single zone, so there is no movement of land units (not on land anyway). They're either on a ship or they're on an island, period. All sea units move at the same speed (they can move from one sea zone to an adjacent sea zone, and that's it). Fighters can move up to two zones (either land or sea), whereas bombers can move up to three.

Combat is divided into three phases - air, sea and land. Each unit has an "attack" factor for each of the three phases. For example, airplanes can attack all three basic types of units (planes, ships, ground units), and thus can participate in all three phases of attack during a given turn (provided there are targets in their current zone). Conversely, artillery units can only participate in land and sea attack (they cannot fire at planes). Lastly, infantry units do not have an attack factor for air or sea units, so they can only participate in the "attack land units" phase (IE, they can only attack other land units - infantry or artillery). Each unit type is assigned a number of dice it can roll for a given phase (for example, fighters can roll 2 dice when attacking other planes, but only 1 die when attacking ground units). For a given zone / phase, you add up all the dice for all the units that are participating in the attack and roll using the supplied "battle box". Basically it's a cardboard box with a sliding tray that the dice land in. You slide the tray out and count up the hits. Hits are scored for each 1 or 2 rolled. And what exactly you hit is determined by an index on the "tray". Some units (Cruisers, Battleships and Aircraft Carriers) are "resilient" and are only damaged (rather than destroyed) on a roll of "2". Damaged units are sent back to your home base where they will need to be repaired before they can be used again. Destroyed units are removed from the board.

As in "BOTB", this game makes use of supply tokens. These are built during your reinforcement phase and are moved around on transports just like ground units. Unlike BOTB, supply tokens are not used to move forces around. In fact, all they're good for is building/repairing airfields and (as mentioned above) repairing damaged ships.

At the end of a given turn, players earn a number of reinforcement points. And according to the errata page on Avalon Hill's website, the rules have the point distribution wrong. Instead of 5 points plus 2 points for each island controlled, it should be 10 points plus 4 points for each island controlled. These points are used to build supplies and military units (which are placed on your home base and can be used during the next corresponding movement phase). An interesting wrinkle to all this is the "deployment" feature, where you can spend supplies to load and move sea units directly into play (and the more supply tokens spent, the further out you can move them). This is really a "the rich get richer" type deal, since anyone who can afford to waste resources moving stuff this rapidly is probably already well on their way to winning anyway... Still, it does make for some interesting surprises early on, especially for the Japanese (who start out with double the reinforcement points of the Americans).

Airfields are the heart of the game. Each island can hold one or two airfields, which are used for tactical purposes (giving your planes someplace to land other than aircraft carriers) as well as earning you victory points each turn. One point is awarded at the end of each turn for each undamaged airfield you control. The first player to reach 15 victory points wins. Given this limited and arbitrary win scenario, games go pretty fast. Experienced players should be able to complete a game within a couple of hours.

We played this game a half dozen times and eventually came to the conclusion that it just doesn't quite work. First off, we were very disappointed to find that the game has very little in common with the real battle of Guadalcanal. In the real campaign, the Japanese and Americans spent six months fighting naval battles in "The Slot", with the Japanese trying to keep their forces on Guadalcanal supplied and reinforced. And at the same time, there was vicious back-and-forth fighting on the island itself for the control of the all-important airfield. Unfortunately, the land battles in the game are very simplistic (strategic as opposed to tactical) and ultimately this game boils down to air and sea battles well away from the actual island of Guadalcanal. In fact, if the Japanese forces in this game even think about trying for Guadalcanal as a first move, they're doomed. For the Japanese, anything but falling back, regrouping and building airfields close to their home base seems to be a recipe for disaster.

Our next peeve with this game is the piecemeal fashion in which pieces are moved around - IE, one players loads and moves transports, the other player loads and moves transports, the first player moves battleships, the second player moves battleships, and so forth. Yes, it certainly makes things interesting insofar as you can kind of see what somebody is up to and modify your own plans accordingly. Unfortunately, it becomes very difficult to remember whatall you're trying to accomplish and inevitably somebody will forget to move something, or move it to the wrong place, or whatever. The end-result being a system of movement that's probably a bit more complicated and frustrating than it needs to be.

Another gripe is with the end-game system of "victory points by airfields". Frankly, it feels a bit weak and arbitrary to me. The temptation is to think solely in military terms (y'know, engage and kill the enemy), when really you're supposed to be sitting there figuring out how you can build and protect as many airfields as quickly as possible. It's a very odd disconnect for what is supposed to be (at least in my mind) a military strategy game. And oftentimes it felt like one player was actually in a better position to win militarily, but wound up losing the game simply because time ran out and they hadn't built airfields as quickly as the other player.

Ultimately though, our main problem with this game is the ludicrous emphasis placed on sheer dumb luck. Moving pieces around in small groups almost guarantees annihilation. So, it becomes vital that you keep your units clustered together in one main battle group. And as such, every single game seems to boil down to each side's forces meeting up somewhere in the middle and slugging it out in one gotterdamerung battle. And if one player has a particularly bad spate of die-rolling during said slugfest, they're cooked. There's just no way to recover. Every single game we played had basically the same result - despite all the strategy and machinations, it inevitably boiled down to one guy rolling poorly during "the big fight". And, win or lose, it just never quite felt satisfying. I mean, if you can't point to some particularly brilliant bit of strategy (or some particularly bad mistake) as the reason you won or lost, what's the point?

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