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Posted on Apr 29, 2013 in Boardgames

Axis & Allies World War I 1914 – Boardgame Review

By Peter Suciu

Axis & Allies: WWI 1914. Boardgame review. Publisher: Avalon Hill (Hasbro), Wizards of the Coast. Game Designer: Larry Harris, Jr. $98.99

Passed Inspection: Excellent replay value, familiar gameplay with new spin

Failed Basic: Not enough pieces, not enough variety with the pieces, lacks IPC currency

With the centennial of the so-called “Guns of August” just over a year away, World War I is finally getting the attention it deserves, including with a new board game from makers of the highly popular Axis & Allies franchise.

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However, when a game designer—in this case Larry Harris—makes the statement in the designer notes that, “I’m a World War II buff” and adds “World War I was something that was somehow not as interesting or exciting,” you might find yourself wondering why the publishers—in this case Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast—didn’t find a World War I buff, as there are plenty around.

Even the title of this game is somewhat questionable: Axis & Allies: World War I 1914. There was no “Axis” —evil or otherwise—in 1914. There weren’t even truly the Allies and the Central Powers in the opening stages of the war, which is how we now term the combatants.

In the early summer when those famous shots were fired by Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb nationalist, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and sparked what became World War I, there were really just two loosely aligned groups of nations in Europe. On the one side there was Germany and Austria-Hungary, and with Italy formed the Triple Alliance; while France and Russia, along with Great Britain formed the Triple Entente. So the battle lines were seemingly drawn.

But history took some strange turns. For one thing, both alliances were built on the “defensive” not “offensive” waging of war and this meant that not everyone was eager to get involved in the ensuing conflict. German Kaiser Wilhelm II could be blamed for escalating what very well might have been a simple affair between Austria and Serbia, but once the die was cast the world headed to war—a Great War at that.

This is the backdrop of Axis & Allies: WWI 1914 (A&A 1914 for short).

As with the original Axis & Allies this is a turn-based game in which players lead the forces of a major power; this includes buying new units, moving units, conducting combat, mobilizing (placing) new units and then collecting income based on territory held. Repeat until one side is defeated, which was pretty much how the war was fought.

Static Lines
As World War I remains famous—even infamous—for its trench warfare the game addresses the static nature of the conflict in an interesting way. Where the original A&A game mechanics involved a fight to the death for a territory—unless the attacker retreated—in A&A 1914 territories can be occupied by both sides, and thus in full control of neither. The result is that neither side collects any income for the territory and it remains in dispute. The grizzly nature of trench warfare with no man’s land, poison gas and futile charges against machine guns is left completely to the imagination.

The game play is thus on a macro rather than micro level, which is essentially the same as the original A&A game.

Combat, however, is a little different and involves seemingly “advanced” factors such as supporting artillery and air supremacy. The latter might seem altogether anachronistic as air power is generally thought of in terms of bi- and tri-planes, but in this case it is about the high altitude reconnaissance that the planes offered.

In this regard air combat takes place at the beginning of the combat round, until only one side has planes. The result is that one side will obtain the aforementioned air supremacy, which can thus greatly influence a battle as artillery gets a bonus for the reconnaissance.

Infantry and armor in turn get a bonus for artillery. Fortunately, a battle chart helps clarify all this, but it can still be somewhat confusing the first times through. It also encourages combined arms, a concept that probably wasn’t even considered by military planners of the day.

Where the game is also different from the original A&A is that ground combat only consists of a single round where the attacking units fire, followed by the defending units. If neither side has completely defeated the other then the territory remains contested. This is meant to simulate that both sides have “dug in.” And we’re left with the image of the trenches in the imagination.

The World War
While, again, World War I is thought of in terms of those trenches in France, it was truly a “world war” and the game handles this reasonably well, and depicts the actions in Africa, and the Middle East. These likely will remain the side show and are nothing more than distractions in the opening turns, but they help show the global nature of the conflict. Truth be told Africa could probably have been left out and the concept of “world war” no worse for it. However, the designers felt the need to include Africa and this took some liberties.

To accommodate the scope of the war in a reasonably sized map, the game’s designers opted to squeeze the “world” into a square map with South Africa at the bottom corner. Africa is squashed whilst only the east coast of the United States is represented—the latter making any Mexican variations impossible, not that these were ever truly “plausible” to begin with. Moreover, there is no Japan—an Allied power in World War I but only in a limited capacity in the Far East.

The latter option to exclude Asia does make sense and allows the action to squarely focus on the primary action in Europe and the Middle East.

Violating Neutrality
Where the game also takes a bit of a turn is in how neutral powers are involved. In A&A 1914 there are two types of minor powers: a minor aligned power—which includes such nations as Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Belgium and Bulgaria—and minor neutral powers such as Greece and Spain.

The former powers are actually controlled by a major power yet only come into the game when they are “activated” by the arrival of friendly forces, or invaded by a foreign power. There are some questionable choices in this one—Belgium is in essence controlled by the French player, which makes sense. However, France is also the player that could control Portugal, which historically had closer ties to the British, and worked more closely with the British in Africa.

The minor neutral powers by contrast are only activated when invaded and will thus align with the opposing faction, which again is a questionable decision given that Greece was eventually brought into war on the Allied side. This is one of a few cases where history won’t be repeated in the game.

Major Powers
A&A 1914
is also very “power” heavy and whereas the original game could support up to five players, this one could allow for up to eight players, but with some notable twists.

The biggest twist is that the Americans—even in an eight-player game—don’t come in until turn four. The American player starts with practically no units and thus spends those early years building up, and this does create a somewhat realistic race against the clock for the Central Powers (“Axis”). This is quite a departure from the actual events where it seemed that America would truly sit out the war, and only came in when Germany began to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare.

In a true eight-player game this leaves the American player watching, and could mean that the war is won or lost without his/her involvement. In real life that might be desirable, but in a gam, players tend to want to be involved. Perhaps making the American a part of the British might have been a better way to handle matters.

The other questionable move—and one that will surely spark “house rules” and “variations”—is how Italy is automatically an Allied power beginning on the first turn. As noted previously Italy was actually part of the Triple Alliance but withdrew when the war broke out, as neither Austria nor Germany were truly attacked. Italy only entered the real war in 1915 after promises were offered from both sides. Italy opted to side with the Allies but could have gone either way. The inclusion of Italy in the first turn also makes Austria’s options somewhat limited, and here, too, history is not entirely repeated.

Technology of War
The game utilizes plastic pieces for the various units—and we’ll get to that in a minute. The breakdown is infantry, armor, fighters, and artillery for land, while there are transports, submarines, cruisers and battleships for the naval units.

There is no technological research system, but instead players merely start with infantry and artillery as ground units. There are no cavalry or other specialized forces; instead, all these are merely somehow lumped into the general armies. Armor and aircraft can make an appearance almost immediately as well.

Clearly the designers didn’t know how to handle their respective slow introduction in the conflict. Neither side starts with planes or tanks but can purchase these at the beginning of the first turn, and these get placed on the board respectively. As the timeline is very vague it isn’t clear when these show up, but this is a game, not a lesson in history.

Units on the Map
Despite the fact that World War I is remembered too for its massive casualties, the game doesn’t actually offer a ton of pieces and in some ways it almost seems like there might not be enough. However, in playtesting this didn’t seem to be the case. Fortunately there are also options for players to purchase additional pieces if they so desire.

The game, like the other A&A titles, is built around individual soldiers representing infantry, and these are the standout pieces in terms of national identity. The depictions are from various periods in the war so the Germans can be seen wearing the early war Picklehaubes (spiked helmets), while the British have the tin hat “Tommy helmets,” and so on.

Sadly, the game’s publishers opted for very standard tanks for each power’s armored units. So everyone gets to roll across the map in MkII British tanks. Planes, ships and other pieces are all the same and just appear in different colors. As with the original game chips are used to allow for stacking of units, and wisely these are broken down into four colors: light/dark blue for the Allies and light/dark red for the Central Powers.

The game’s flag markers are a bit better, although in dark light the tri-color French (blue/white/red) could be confused with the German’s black/white/red.

Where the game does shortchange players, however, is in the lack of IPC (Industrial Production Credits)—the paper money used in these types of games. Instead of money, the game suggests “have one player act as a banker and track each power’s current IPC treasury on a piece of paper, or use another means.” Would it have cost that much to print out some fake game money? The most obvious solution is to use the money from another game!

The game’s designers also failed to provide a battle board for naval engagements (like the one for land and air battles shown in picture 4 below) and many players may be forced to print something out to remember the hit rolls for the specific ships. Why these simple things weren’t included is another questionable move on the designer’s part.

Victory or Quit
A&A 1914
is like other A&A games: there is a lot of pure luck and the same strategy in two games can turn out very differently based on the rolls. However, like other A&A games dumb luck won’t be enough to compensate for stupid moves. This is a game where some strategies, notably a German push against Russia instead of France, while an Austrian push to Rome can mean a quick victory before America can become a threat

On the other hand, unlike A&A this is a game where there aren’t numerous options to whittle down a player’s defenses. Without strategic bombers or the advanced weapons available in the WWII version players are often forced into direct assaults and the game can bog down into a series of build-ups, attacks, counterattacks and that breakthrough that might come next turn.

In other words just like the war.

Armchair General Score: 85%

Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 1

About the Author
Peter Suciu has been collecting militaria and playing military simulations since he was a child. He’s been reviewing computer games for nearly 20 years, and when he’s not waging battle from his desktop he is a business reporter for several magazines and websites. His work has appeared on CNBC.com, Fortune.com and Forbes. He also collects military helmets and runs the MilitarySunHelmets.com website.

5 Comments

  1. Yes. This review is right on target. I have played three games so far and the game does get bogged down at times, and takes longer than other A and A versions. But the game is enjoyable. You just need to devote more time to play a full game. I recommend it though as a good game.

  2. Tanks cannot be made until turn four. It’s an easy to miss rule as it is only one small sentence on page 15.

    • Also the timeline seems to represent one turn equals one year. Turn four is 1917 same year USA joins.

      • Though the Americans enter the game on the 4th turn, they cannot get to a European combat zone until near turn 6 or 7 due to the time it takes to cross, unload and move. Therefore when you do the math it works out to be very roughly 6 months a turn: turn 1 – 1014; turns 2-3 – 1915; turns 4-5 – 1916, turns 6-7 – 1917. Bingo the Americans enter when they should as do tanks! If one plays the game to a true win then it will take much longer than 9 turns though.
        Generally I love the game. Needs an artillery in German East Africa as well as one German cruiser in the Indian Ocean. UK should also have a larger starting Army.

  3. Sorry, I meant UK should have a larger starting Navy.

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