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Posted on Nov 10, 2011 in Boardgames

Axis & Allies War at Sea: Surface Action – Miniatures Game Review

By Paul Glasser

Axis & Allies War at Sea: Surface Action. Miniatures Game Preview. Publisher & Developer: Wizards of the Coast. $15.99/Box

Passed Muster: Lots of new abilities and units.

Failed Basic: Quality issues, numerous reprints.

Despite prices increasing by $1 per booster box and a number of reprints, the newest War at Sea set is selling well, according to online retailers. War at Sea: Surface Action went on sale Oct. 25 and includes 42 new pieces for British, American, French, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Canadian, and Polish fleets.


A heavy shore battery is one of the most sought-after pieces in the new set. The shore battery can be used by any navy and opens up the possibility of several new play styles and scenarios. The battery is based on Fort Drum in the Philippines, which was known the “concrete battleship.” Armed with 14-inch guns, the shore battery offers enough firepower to threaten enemy cruisers and an array of 6-inch guns will be able to attack destroyers. The battery is heavily armored and will take a lot of punishment but is vulnerable to air strikes. However, it has special deployment rules and is immovable. Instead of blasting the battery into submission an enemy fleet can use landing craft to invade it. Players can incorporate the battery into a standard fleet or design a scenario based on invading the objective.

Other popular units include the new FW 190 fighter and the revised Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber. The FW 190 will give the German fleet its best defense against both enemy fighters and bombers. However, it’s also very expensive and can’t be based on carriers. The Germans also gain the light cruiser Konigsberg, a minesweeper, the battle cruiser Moltke, the U-2511, and a reprint of the Bismarck. The Bismarck offers a powerful new special ability where the commander can delay deployment for several turns in order to avoid being attacked by enemy aircraft.

The Swordfish biplane is now less expensive and less vulnerable to ship-based AA fire. Although it has less attack strength it is still popular with players. The Royal Navy also gets two new cruisers, a minesweeper, the aircraft carrier Eagle, the battleship Nelson and a Vospers torpedo boat. The Nelson has improved anti-aircraft defense and the Vospers torpedo boat can score additional points by landing commandoes on an enemy-held island.

Unfortunately, both German and British minesweepers are too slow to actually fulfill their role.

The Japanese fleet also gets an updated version of the battleship Yamato based on Operation Sho-Go, the last-ditch offensive where the battleship was sunk. The Yamato gets a slight increase in AA defense but also gets a powerful new ability: once per game the fleet commander can move any three ships one sector towards the enemy. However, the player automatically loses initiative next turn. Other additions include an expert Zero fighter, an improved B5N2 torpedo bomber, a landing craft, a light cruiser, a destroyer, the heavy cruiser Mogami and two aircraft carriers, the Ryujo and Taiho. An unlucky ship, historically the Mogami collided with several friendly ships during the war and its release here reflects the bad luck. Mogami‘s special ability is called "Bad Luck" and if the Mogami rolls four 1’s on a gunnery attack or two 1’s on a torpedo attack, the Mogami and a friendly ship in the same sector both take one point of damage. In addition, neither ship can move next turn. Although it will rarely occur, "Bad Luck" could easily turn the game against the Japanese commander in a smaller engagement with only a few cruisers and destroyers on the board. Players despise the cruiser because of this negative ability and have commented online that it will not see much action.

The American fleet gets several new support ships including a victory cargo ship and an LST which will work well as additions to any invasion fleet designed to knock out an enemy shore battery. Other additions include a reprint of the Corsair, the destroyer USS Edsall, escort carrier Guadalcanal, carriers Wasp and Hornet, the cruiser Phoenix and battleships Montana and New Jersey. The Hornet has an interesting but somewhat ineffective ability to embark a B-25 as it did during the Doolittle Raid in 1942.

The Italians get a cruiser, destroyer, and the battleship Andrea Doria. The Andrea Doria gets a special long-range attack that is good for harassing enemy cruisers. The light cruiser Giovanni Delle Bande Nere is lightly armed but fast. The destroyer Camicia Nere is a good escort with high anti-submarine defense.

The Polish, Canadian, French, and Russian commanders each get one unit. The French get the Strasbourg, a reprint of the Dunkerque battleship but offers the Marine Nationale its first flagship with a +2 bonus to initiative. The Russians get a lend-lease Hurricane although many players had hoped for a Yak or MiG fighter. The Polish get a light cruiser, the Dragon, which was originally scheduled for Set V but was delayed. The Canadians get the Algonquin, a destroyer packed with special abilities and a serious threat to enemy submarines.

However, the fact that nearly half the ships in Surface Action are reprinted (but revised) copies of previous pieces has created some complaints among players. I recognize the reason behind them – there are a finite number of ships produced during the Second World War, and at some point War at Sea will have produced them all. War at Sea is an extremely popular gaming series and it makes sense from a business perspective to come up with ideas to keep the franchise alive. Reprinting models with new abilities is certainly one way to do it, but instead of producing another Hurricane many players would have liked to see a Yak or MiG fighter instead, as mentioned above. A simple rules update or errata allowing the Hurricane and other fighters such as the P-40 to be used as Lend-Lease would be sufficient, and many players use an informal house-rule to that effect already.

Similarly, there has been high demand for an improved British fighter such as the Spitfire (land based) or Seafire (carrier-based) that would be comparable to the FW 190. Also, the British had a vast submarine fleet during World War II but only have one submarine to use in War at Sea, creating an opportunity for vast expansion without repetition. In addition, French air support is lacking without an escort fighter, seaplane, or patrol bomber.

There are situations where a reprint is appropriate, such as the Black Cat PBY which has enhanced night-fighting abilities or the new B5N2 which is suited for special long-range engagements. There are also cases where ships have been priced too highly (in game points) and a sister ship has more utility, such as the Naka being very similar to the Jintsu but costing 5 points less. However, printing a new stat card and making it available as a PDF download would probably be a cheaper and faster way of making corrections.

In addition, several players have commented online about poor quality with several units. They have said the turrets on the Montana are either loose or missing and several LSTs were bent or deformed. Some FW 190s also lack propellers and several players have said they have received stat cards that don’t match the miniatures in the booster box.

Lastly WotC offered some product support at the start of the series by publishing scenarios, but that stopped several years ago. Many of the perks offered by WotC originally have now been taken over by fan-based groups, such as scenario writing, a newsletter, and tournament sponsorship. It would be great if WotC could cooperate with fans to stimulate support for top-selling game like War at Sea.

Overall, Surface Action adds many new possibilities for tournament and scenario play but faces a number of complaints based on quality and repetition. Reprints and updates to existing models are fine, but ought to be used less frequently as there is still a lot of room for the franchise to grow. Nevertheless the game is great fun and the Surface Action release is a welcome expansion to the series.

Solitaire Suitability: 2

Armchair General Rating: 88%

About the Author

Paul Glasser works as a political journalist in Kentucky. He holds a BA in history from Purdue University and spends most of time free reading and writing about military history. He writes and edits freelance articles for a number of on-line publications, but focuses mainly on miniatures gaming.


  1. Great review! I love this game but have also wondered how much longer new unit production can continue. As the years go by I have amassed hundreds of ships, subs and planes and don’t really see the need to purchase more. Every so often I do pick up a booster set for fun though.

  2. If you are going to make reprints at least pick a different ship of the class, by doing that you can keep going for some time.