Axis & Allies is like nothing so much as an extremely advanced and complicated game of Risk. The two games are similar in that both use world domination as their basic theme. Both are turn-based, and use dice rolls to determine the outcome of combat. That's really where the similarities end. Virtually any way that the Risk idea could be made more complex, has been done here. And, where Risk uses simple world domination as its basis, Axis & Allies focuses on World War II.
One of the main differences is that while there are five nations--Russia, Germany, England, Japan, and the United States--there are only two sides, the eponymous Axis and Allies. Controlling one nation allows you access only to that nation's armies. However, you can move your infantry, tanks, and aircraft freely through allied territories.
Each turn, you can attempt to develop special weapons and purchase new units. You can then conduct combat by moving units into enemy countries or sending naval units into areas patrolled by enemy ships. After combat is resolved, an additional movement phase to place units into position for the next turn is allowed. After this, the units purchased at the start of the turn can be placed.
The biggest problem with Axis & Allies is the learning curve. There is a nice series of tutorials included in the game. These also contain example moves for each of the five nations. The tutorials are quite helpful, but don't go nearly far enough to explain the way combat is resolved.
The turns of the other nations are slow, even with the fast AI option. You can wait a good five minutes between turns. With the fast option turned off, you have enough time to eat dinner between your turns.
In short, playing Axis & Allies is sitting around waiting interspersed with short periods of being confused about what is going on. If you have played and enjoyed the board game version, you will find this to be an accurate representation. If you haven't, you'll be confused until you've gone through the game a few dozen times. And when you have done this, all you have to show for your efforts is a very advanced Risk.
Graphics: Pretty good. Units are easily distinguishable.
Sound: The music gets a little overbearing, but the sound effects are very good.
Enjoyment: Unfortunately, the learning curve keeps this game from being enjoyable for a very long time.
Replay Value: It's the same game every time.
Wargames tend to run on a sliding scale. There are simple kids games like Risk or Stratego on the one hand and complex, cardboard unit-stackers like Squad Leader on the other. And never shall the twain meet. Except in Axis & Allies, that is. Called a "bridge" game between mass market simplicity and grognard intricacy, it offers a game of World War II that can be played in only a few hours with a couple of friends.
The game begins in 1941, when the sides were roughly equal, and ends, depending on which victory conditions are chosen, with the capitulation of two opposing capitals. Only the major powers of that time are represented: the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the Third Reich, and the Japanese Empire, the first three fighting the last two.
The CD-ROM version brings the exact rules and gameplay of the boardgame to the computer, with some extra options. A dozen or so rule variants can be toggled on or off prior to a game--things like paratroops in bombers; scorched earth; deploying new naval units in an occupied sea zone. There is also a unit editor, allowing you to adjust the cost, attack, and defense values for any unit, either globally or per side.
The graphics look exactly like the boardgame (the more attractive second edition, at least), which is a plus, and they do their job just fine. Additionally, map territories change colors with a change of possession, something impossible on the cardboard maps, and this is welcome, as it makes it far easier to tell what territories you control. Two views are available: a zoomed in view where you see a small part of the screen and make the most of your moves, and a zoomed out view that lets you see the whole world at once, though the latter's main use seems to be to let you admire the pace of your expansion.
Hasbro has also thankfully left out the multimedia clutter that has plagued some of its other boardgame conversions, like Life or Monopoly--cutesy computer graphic animations that become tiresome on or two viewings. But it did not make any use whatsoever of the CD-ROM's ability to do redbook audio, and I can't believe a better soundtrack wasn't provided--the five default national songs drone on and on repetitively. CD-ROM's have plenty of room for music.
The worst complaint about the presentation of the game has to be the unit colors, however. Unlike the boardgame, where each player's pieces are molded in a particular color representing one of the sides, here, only the infantry icon is colored properly, while tanks, battleships, fighters, etc., are left a uniform grey. This sounds like a minor quibble, but it does in fact impact gameplay. For example, if you are the English player, and you have Russian and American transports mixed in with your North Sea fleet when the German aircraft attack, you must choose which transports to remove as casualties, but can't tell exactly whose transports you're pulling out, yours or your Allies'. This matters, since each country has to move in a separate turn.
The artificial intelligence performs adequately in most instances, but the moves it made--most specifically its failure to exploit weaknesses or properly garrison threatened territories--severely diminished my enjoyment of the game. Axis & Allies has been around long enough that veteran players long ago worked out precisely what each side should do on its first turn. The AI in almost every case does nothing even close to these classic openings. The programmers should have scripted the opening moves for each of the powers and assigned a high probability that one or the other of these would be made, rather than letting the AI make its own dubious determinations of what to do.
This would be an improvement because quite simply the AI is not challenging enough, and I never lost a game to it--and I always played on the hardest setting, without favorable game settings, and usually in the more difficult positions. Incidentally, I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of a "free-for-all mode", where the five superpowers aren't necessarily permanently allied--for example, with the defeat of Germany and Japan, perhaps the UK and US square off against the USSR: "There can be only one."
At any rate, the AI is good enough to practice on and get you ready for the main event, which is playing against other people. The CD-ROM version of Axis & Allies does a great service for fans of the boardgame, as it gives them the ability to play each other across the Internet through TCP/IP play. While it will never take place of getting five people together around a real table, it does address a big problem for fans of the game--the difficulty in getting enough people together for long enough to finish a game.
So Axis & Allies sets a good precedent for Hasbro Interactive, assuming it takes the time to fix some bugs and improve the AI. While hardcore gamers are hardly going to care if a CD-ROM version of Scrabble or Monopoly is a faithful rendering of the original game, we should care about Axis & Allies, because Hasbro's acquisition of Avalon Hill's backlog means that we will probably see other classic mass market strategy games, like Diplomacy or Shogun, emerge in new, multiplayer, Internet versions.
On the other hand, playing Axis & Allies on a computer does remind you that is in fact, a boardgame, and lacks the sophistication and depth of a true computer strategy game, as nowhere does it have the depth or complexity or variety of a Civilization, Master of Magic, or the like. The best strategy games on the computer will always be those games designed specifically for a computer, taking advantage of its storage capacity, memory, and display capacities to create newer and more interesting challenges than the old routine of board, counters, and dice.
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