Board games ported to electronic format is a genre in itself, or at least it should be considered so. Alternative gameplay labels like “strategy games” or thematic ones like “World War II” are just not precise enough to describe the experience that we will encounter playing these titles. Board games, in fact, are inherently slow, methodic experiences, at least when compared to strategy games, even the turn-based, more pensive, ones.
So, it comes without saying that a big part of this board game genre is how well the port conveys the experience of this physical medium on a screen. It is an added layer of analysis that we have to take into consideration if we want to understand whether the game in question is actually fun, or not.
Axis & Allies is an important piece in the history of board games, a game that is not universally loved nor unanimously appreciated, but it is one that occupies a very important sweet spot, that between the simple mindless fun of Risk and the border signaling the beginning of light wargames. It is too convoluted for the hyper-casual players, but definitely too simplistic for even the most casual of grognards.
But its success has been huge, being in production for ten years and receiving as many as twenty different editions, follow-ups, versions; starting from the original, born in 1981, to the very latest Zombie, inevitable, spinoff, in 2018.
The electronic version is now in production by developer Beamdog (known for the enhanced editions of Bioware RPGs) and is available in Early Access on Steam since July 2019; it already received five juicy patches and is definitely in a state worthy of a preview.
The developer’s vision for the port is to bring the board game experience unadulterated to the electronic version by streamlining as much as possible the administrative chores. This means that both the strategic part on the world map and the tactical combats are there and strictly follow the original rules and progression.
Players can choose between Axis powers (Germany and Japan – no Italy, since its end is just a year away, in 1943) and allies ones (Great Britain, USA, and the Soviet Union) and they can mix and match human players and AI as they wish, in single players, hot seat and multiplayer modes.
Every player, both human and AI, follows a strict list of phases during his turn.
The first phase is dedicated to purchasing units; this means spending industrial points to build land, sea, air units or industries (that generate those industrial points in the first place). This is a straightforward affair and it’s done quickly and efficiently in the game UI.
Next is the Combat Move Phase in which, guess what, you get to move units around, but only if they will participate in combat as a consequence of that same movement. Here things get a bit more complicated and more clunky; every movement is traced on the map by a big fat arrow that also bears the symbol of the unit moving and the quantity of pieces participating in that movement.
It sounds ok on paper, but attacks are usually a multiple country affair with units participating from several spaces, even far away (in case of air ones), so those arrows keep on piling up. It can get messy pretty fast, especially when you are following the enemy’s moves instead of just acknowledging yours.
In the Combat Phase, the engagements get resolved. This means that every combat gets its own resolution screen.
Here you get to throw dice and assign losses to your units following the original Axis & Allies mechanic. Units engage in a precise order and have different roll objectives to reach in order to inflict losses. This part is pretty tense, and the UI is efficient in delivering both the information and the drama of the battle. The original mechanic is also straightforward and efficiently communicated to the players; in short, you will learn it fast and you will have fun with it.
Next in line is the non-combat phase, where you get to move units for different purposes than combat; the arrows galore is back here.
The last phase is the mobilizations one where you place the units (and the factories) that – remember? – you bought it at the beginning of your turn.
This ends your turn and begins the agonizing process of watching your adversaries going through the same process. This is the inherent issue with games that try to port the board gaming experience, the straightforward transposition of these dynamics is hardly a match for the electronic medium. If you decide to carefully watch what your opponents are doing you are in for minutes of arrows popping up, infinite screen panning and a lot of double guessing. The alternative, skipping the enemy’s turns, is also problematic as you will end up with a new state of the board and you will have to reverse engineer what happened.
Also, Axis & Allies 1942 Online is not making any of this easier by failing to come up with good UI ideas in this department. In short, if you watch your adversaries play on the strategic map you will get motion sick and will lose a lot of what’s happening anyway. The actual combat are, instead, more easily watchable and understandable.
On the plus side, the online multiplayer is efficient and smooth and this is a big plus for a game that will shine with a lot of human opponents…after all, human to human interaction is what solves the downtime issue in real life boardgames sessions with friends.
Another big plus is the developer continuous support that produced six patches so far that made the game better and smoother. So this leaves us pretty optimist for the future of the game, especially if the developers will focus on the user interface and in general quality of life improvements. For now, it is a very promising Early Access transposition of a legendary board game that didn’t get old at all.