Please forgive me as I ramble a bit before I go into the review proper for this game. Axis & Allies is one of the few board games that I remember playing with my dad when I was a kid. My dad served in the Navy and then in the National Guard, and even though World War II ended before he was in the service, he had an absolute fascination with the war. I must have been about 12 years old the night we played an old Milton Bradley version of the game, and I've only ever been able to remember the tiniest fragments from that night. The one thing that now stands out clearly in my mind from that night is the image of my dad smiling while playing, because it came rushing back to me full force as soon as I cracked open the review copy of Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition that was sent to me.
My dad died in January of 2005, almost 13 years ago at the time of this writing, and while I still have pictures of him, it's getting more and more difficult for me to recall what his face looked like without them. There's a line in one of my favorite songs by Sinking Ships that goes "... and it scares me to death to know that one day I wont be haunted by your ghost... stay with me... that one day I'll lay awake and struggle to remember a face...", and it truly does terrify me to deal with that struggle as it actually happens to me as I get older and farther removed from his death. I say all this because it amazes me that certain experiences can be so strongly connected to physical objects. Even though every board game isn't going to resonate with you powerfully enough to bring tears to your eyes, to instantly rocket you backward in time 25 years, the fact that they exist to bring you together with people you know and love, and create memorable experiences is what I love the most about them.
I can almost feel my dad in the room when I play Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition, and for that reason, assuming I can convince my editor, I am not going to give this game a numbered score. Based on the completely unexpected emotional response I have to this game there is absolutely no way that I can score it objectively, even though I know it's not the best war game, nor is it the worst, and I could probably suss out a score simply by comparing it to other games and deciding where it falls in line with everything else I've reviewed. I want this one to stand on what I have to say about it. It was incredibly difficult for me to open myself up with what I've written so far in this review, and I think I'm justified in asking that you judge the game based on what I have to say about it rather than a number I decide to assign to it afterwards.
On to the game itself then. Axis & Allies has been around since 1981, which means that it still holds to some old tropes of game design that newer, tighter, more elegant game designs tend to shy away from. On the flip side, there's a reason this game has been around for so long, and the Anniversary Edition does a great job of keeping the core of the game intact while offering excellent production values and two scenarios in order to keep things interesting. If you are the player who detests dice combat then you are not going to click with Axis & Allies, and if you want a deeper level of strategy than trying to outgun, outproduce, and outmaneuver your opponents then you will need to look elsewhere as well. But, if you are the type of player who has fond memories of playing Axis & Allies in the past, or if you have fond memories of playing Risk but have always wished it was a little more involved, then you should give this game a serious look.
Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition pits the titular Axis vs the equally titular Allies in a not-so-historical recreation of World War II. There are two starting points in the game, 1941 and 1942, each with a different board position and different starting units and resources, but the mechanics for both are the same. Ultimately, you decide on the length of game you want to play, either 13, 15, or 18 points (I can't imaging the amount of time an 18 point game would take to play) and you prepare to build, maneuver, and fight your way to victory. Victory points are tracked via tokens that represent the strategically important cities of the time, and it can seem easier for the Axis to rush to victory based on their starting board positions etc, but a well played game can go to either side if the opponents are evenly matched.
There isn't much more to do in Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition other than fight, although the game does have a technology board that players can take advantage of, if they are lucky. You can't simply research tech, instead you have to pay for scientists who allow you to roll one die each at the start of your turn. If you get any 6 results then you choose one of the two charts, each with six results, and roll another die to see what technological breakthrough your scientists achieved. You only hold onto your scientists until they make one discovery, and then they are gone and you have to hire more, so you have to balance the desire to make discoveries against your available cash flow, and then hope that what they get you will help out your preferred strategic plan. The upgrades aren't particularly well balanced against each other, so if it weren't random there are a select few that would be taken every time, so the randomization does keep things in check a bit, although having one army grab a few good upgrades early can turn the tide of the war, but such is the capricious nature of Axis & Allies version of the World War II.
Even though fighting is going to take up the majority of your time, it isn't as simple as trying to punch your opponents in the mouth as often as possible. Maneuvering, movement and army composition are important as well. The war takes place on land, sea and air, and it is incredibly rare for one side to feel like they have all three phases, across the entire map, under control, and the luck of the dice mean that even when you think you have an area covered you can just as quickly lose your footing if your opponents counter you with the right units or lucky die rolls.
You need to plan out how you want to spend your precious IPCs as the Axis, and you have to figure out how to leverage your incredible economic wealth as the Allies if you want to win. There are some opening moves that make sense every time, but the randomness of the dice prevent this game from being truly solvable, at least in my experience. There are some dedicated Axis & Allies aficionados who would probably disagree, and who most certainly would wipe the floor with me every time, regardless of the dice, but for players of equal experience and skill the balance feels just about right, and the dice-factor leaves enough room to create memorable stories about those times that a few units held out against impossible odds, or for a suicide attack to turn into a route of the much larger enemy force. The different starting positions and optional National Objectives also help add life to the game, and increase replayability by changing things up just enough to require different strategies based on where you start, and whether you use the optional objectives or not.
All told, I am incredibly happy that this game is back in my collection again (for the first time really), and while it will only get played once or twice per year, it's a great option for those times where I want to play an epic-scale game but don't want to have to spend 3 hours explaining rules intricacies to my players. It's a bit clunky, and its age shows, but I can't wait to make memories with my kids while playing it. I can only hope that they hear the unspoken "I love you." in every rustle of cardboard, in every shift of tokens, and every click-clack of rolling dice. Who knows; maybe someday after I'm gone one of them will blow the dust off of some game that we've played together and it will bring tears to their eyes, and a smile to their face. Even if that never happens I'm eternally grateful to Axis & Allies for the gift of memory that it's given to me.
A note about the Anniversary Edition: The version reviewed here is a reprint of the Anniversary Edition that was originally released in 2008, and not an entirely new version of the game.
A note on player count: Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition plays 2 to 6 players, although it's at it's strongest with four or fewer. All six armies are always used, but downtime becomes an issue when you put in too many people, and some of the armies are just more fun to play than others, especially early in the game. If you were to try to play as only the Italian army, the game would be a pretty long and boring affair through the majority of that play, so stick to four or less. I think I actually prefer it as a 2 player game overall, because each player controls 3 armies, and the turn structure is laid out in such a way that it becomes a you-go-I-go affair, where both players are involved and interested throughout.
A note on play time: Axis & Allies is a long game. Go into this one with the expectation that you will need to set aside at least 6 hours to see the game through to its end. If you don't have a group that's willing to set aside an entire day, or an entire weekend, or a place where you can leave the game set up in order to play over the course of a few evenings then this isn't going to be the game for you.
A note on “chrome”: Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition hits a couple of minor snags with its production, although overall it's a great physical product. First of all, the box isn't very tall, but it is awkwardly long and wide. I have no idea where I'm going to store this thing. Secondly, the paper IPC's (money) is just bad. On the bright side, the box, while wonky, is gorgeous and features incredible art. The tuck boxes for each nation form a beautiful mosaic if placed in the box properly, and they make setup and tear-down a breeze. Each army has unique sculpts for their units, and even though the board is three pieces that simply sit next to each other, they are large enough to be stable, and the map looks great.
The bottom line:
Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition is a well produced update to a game that has been around for decades. This is pure Axis & Allies, even with the different starting point, so don't expect this game to convert you if you've tried and disliked Axis & Allies in the past. If you are a fan of the series, or you like the sound of the game, and have the time to put into playing it then this version is a great addition to your collection. This game definitely feels dated when compared directly with more contemporary designs, but there is a reason that this series of games is still being produced after all these years. The mechanics may be relatively simple, and a touch overly reliant on dice, but Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition is still fun, especially when you want to play a grand-scale game that doesn't take a monumental effort to learn and remember the rules.
Get this game if:
You love dudes-on-a-map games and World War II themed games.
You enjoy Risk, but want something more thematically and tactically rich.
You have fond memories of older versions of Axis & Allies and want a well produced, updated version of the game.
Avoid this game if:
You hate dice driven combat.
You can't imaging spending 6 hours playing one game.
You prefer Eurogames.
You dislike head to head competition.
The copy of Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition used for this review was provided by Wizards of the Coast.