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Axis Empires

by Eric on February 18th, 2012

I haven’t blogged about boardgaming on here in a LONG time.

That doesn’t mean I’ve quit gaming (though I honestly don’t remember the last time I played a miniatures game), but I’m down to three or four sessions a month. Those sessions generally get blogged on the blog I share with Myk Deans, Two Sides to the Coin.

There is one game I’ve been playing, though, that hasn’t been covered on that blog. And that game is Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg!. (Yeah, the exclamation point is part of the title.)

TK is a grand-strategic game covering the entire European theater for the entire duration of WWII. And I mean all the way back to 1937. Given that it does this on only two full-size maps gives you an idea of the scale: Counters are usually full armies, and each hex is about 60 miles. There are nine turns per year and, depending on how things shake out, the game could carry all the way to 1949.

Decision Games recently released an updated version of the game that links to a partner game: Axis Empires: Dai Senso. DS covers the Pacific theater. You could play a massive combined game if you really wanted to. And I’m sure I eventually will.

This kind of game has always intrigued me. I’ve got a copy of John Prados’ Third Reich and its partner game Great Pacific War, but I’ve never managed to get those to the point of pushing counters. I had known about the prior edition of TK, and had toyed with the idea of tracking down a copy, but heard that a new edition was in the works and decided to wait. I toyed with picking up GMT’s A World at War, but it just seemed to be too much for what I wanted in this sort of game.

I’m glad I went this direction. AE:TK is turning out to be an absolute pleasure to play.

This all started in late November. I’d found a cheap copy of TK online, and pinged Doug to see if he was interested in playing it. It seemed right up his alley. I hadn’t realized that at nearly the same time, he had started blogging his experiences going through the training scenarios. I caught up to where he was and he came over one afternoon to go through the Fall of France scenario (the third training round.) I was hooked. This game seemed to have everything I wanted, including a pretty damn good rulebook. (Not perfect, but it’s close.)

Doug blogged that session, and a couple weeks later Chuck decided he wanted in on the act. As the full campaign is designed as a three-player game (Axis, Western Allies, and Soviets), we were set. In mid-January, we all met at my place and started the campaign right at the beginning in 1937. Doug took the Germans, Chuck the Western Allies, and I took the Soviets.)

We spent about six hours playing (seven hours duration including an hour for lunch.) That got us through the Fall of France, pretty much right on the historical schedule. The political machinations took a decidedly different turn, however. In this game, Finland, Denmark, Norway, the Baltic States, and Poland all became Soviet minor countries by late 1940.

At that point, we called it a day, and I spent a couple hours that evening entering our positions into Vassal. We’ve continued on with the game, and are now just finishing the summer of 1942 (and the tail end of Barbarossa: Doug delayed invading the east for a year).

The mechanism that really makes this game (besides the counter density: 40-ish counters for the Russians during Barbarossa? Yes, please) are the seasonal cards. Each faction has a deck of cards they use to drive the game. These cards do all kinds of things. Add new units to your forces, provide replacements, generate political events, launch offensives, open up other cards for later play, etc. Every seasonal turn (every other turn is a seasonal turn with an extra non-seasonal turn during the summer) you expose a new card, and commit the card you’ll play the following season. This latter bit slows the reaction time down, and can sometimes force you to guess what your opponent has already committed to do the following season.

Your card deck is somewhat like a tech tree, and playing certain cards can open or close other paths through your deck. It is not a randomizer. Your hand is the entirety of what’s been opened up to you at a particular point in the game, and you can choose from pretty much any of those options. The wonderful thing about these cards is they provide the narrative to the game. Every card is tied to an historical event (or a plausible alternative event), and you could write a book about your game using these cards as a guide. The fact that many of these cards generate political events rolled from a table means you’ll never see things fall out the same way in two different games.

Combat is pretty straightforward: a standard ratio-based CRT with a handful of things providing column shifts. The CRT results are a bit interesting, though. There’s usually both a retreat and an attrition result, and at no point is the attacker guaranteed of not losing a step during a combat.

The turn sequence is:
1. Seasonal Card phase (seasonal turns only)
2. Admin
3. Movement
4. Combat
5. Reserve Movement
6. Conditional events (these could come from cards or permanent things in the game.)

The Axis does their turn first, then the Western Allies, then the Soviets. There’s a brief admin phase around those three player turns that provides for VP checks, turn track manipulation, etc.

I could go further into the details, but Doug’s done a lot of that on his blog. Read those articles for more specific information.

The rulebook is fantastic. We’ve only run into a couple situations that weren’t clearly covered. The game gets great support on Consimworld, so posting a question there usually had us an answer within a couple hours. Plenty fast enough when you’re playing this via email. The one catch to the rulebook is that sometimes you have to piece together bits from various locations to get the full picture. But, once you get used to this it’s not a problem.

I’ll go as far as to say I put this rulebook up with Combat Commander, Here I Stand, and OCS as among the best I’ve used. Play the training scenarios in order, then read the whole rulebook again, and you’ll be pretty prepared for your first campaign. You’ll still be looking things up for a while, of course, and there’s little situational rules you’ll forget from time to time, but this game’s worth the effort.

If you’re curious how our game’s shaking out, follow Doug’s blog. He hasn’t updated it in over a year of game time, but I’m sure that’s on his to-do list once Barbarossa fizzles out. (To give an example: even though the Axis didn’t attack Russia en masse until the summer of ’42, there were only five or six hexes of difference between our position and the historical one. The biggest difference from the Soviet perspective, is that Hungary and Romania are both still neutral: this has significantly shrunk the front and let me concentrate my forces. Even though we were quite close to the historical positions at the start of summer, by the end the Germans were knocking on the doors of both Moscow and Rostov. In our game, I still control Minsk but Kiev fell during Operation Typhoon in the fall of ’42. So, I think I’ve got to consider my defense to be a success at this point. We’ll see where things go as I rebuild my forces and commence ejecting the Germans from Russia.

I’m certainly enjoying the ride to this point, in any case.

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