My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Review of Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures: War at Sea

I have a friend from work visiting and he is a real WW I and WW II naval buff, but he has not really been able to find rules that suit him. We went down to a local hobby shop (Orbital Games, if you must know) to show some support and run through a game or three of the test version of De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) 3.0 and maybe a game of Command and Colors: Napoleonics when lo and behold, there was a copy of Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures: War at Sea on the shelf for Chris to buy.

I was vague acquainted with the game, but not the rules, as I had seen the game on other hobby shops' shelves for some time now. I first began to wonder about the game itself, however, when I saw it being played at the MAG-Con II convention in Houston, TX. I was rather surprised to see it being played, and by so many people (about six, if I recall). I asked one of the convention organizers about the game and he indicated that yes, it was popular, as far a 'light' wargames go. This had me mildly intrigued, as I always like light wargames for certain moods, but I have never been a big naval fan, and less so for post-'Age of Sail', so I never picked it up when I saw it.

Chris cracked open the starter box, which contains two double-sided maps, two 'big boys' (heavy cruisers, battleships, I don't remember), two smaller (light cruisers, I believe), aircraft, submarines, counters, four dice, and stat cards for everything. Note that the starter box does not contain random miniatures, like the booster boxes do.

We played the starter scenario, which does not include movement, and basically just fired at each other, turn after turn, until someone sank. (What do you expect for a starter, learning scenario?) Shooting is fairly simple: your ships are rated for the number of dice to throw at a given range (play in on an offset square grid), with gunnery scoring 1 hit for each '4' or '5' thrown and 2 hits for each '6'. Compare the number of hits to the target's armor to see if you score one damage to the hull. If you score hits equal to the target's vital armor, the ship is destroyed. Once a ship is lowered to one remaining hull it is crippled; once it drops to zero it is destroyed and sunk.

There are additional types of weapons, torpedoes, bombs, ASW, anti-air, and so on, and each of these have their own mechanisms but fall along the same lines as gunnery. Torpedoes, for example, only hit on a '6', but score two hull hits automatically. There are also a number of special rules that modify the basic mechanics, such as torpedo defense, which lowers the hull hit to one, or long-lance torpedoes, which increases the hull hits to three, slow movement, troop carrying, escort fighters and so one.

The game includes a point system, which is also used for determining victory, and a basic game is 100 points of ships per side and 150 victory points to win (you can score victory points by being the first to take objectives on the board). Using the point system you can buy a fleet and try out different combinations. On our third game Chris used a battleship and an aircraft carrier with fighter bombers and torpedo bombers. My task force was a battleship, two cruisers, a landing craft, a submarine, and land-based bombers. It was an interesting mix and it really showed us a lot of the game mechanics in action.

When I first read the rules I thought that the game would simply be a die-rolling contest. In a one ship-on-one ship game, it obviously is. But when you start to get to two ships per side, unless both ships have equal characteristics (which is boring) you do start to get some tactical play. You tend to play more defensively when you've lost the initiative and spring your ambushes when you have won it.

What makes this game good, mechanically, is that it is not your traditional IGO-UGO sequence, which leads to "Gotcha'" gaming (games where you can move and attack before the defender has a chance to react, leading to situations of gotcha'!). Players roll for initiative each turn, with the highest roller going second. Each phase is then conducted with the initiative loser going first and the initiative winner going second. The key, however, is that no effect occur until the end of the phase, so if the first player sinks a ship in the Surface Action phase, the second player still attacks at the full capability it had at the start of the phase.

Being a collectible miniatures game, and one that comes out with successive editions, however, leads me to believe that it will turn out like all before it, eventually degenerating into certain killer units that are always purchased and that beat all comers a greater percentage of the time, thereby rendering the purchase of the non-super units a waste of time and money. Word on the forums is that the Axis units don't have as good a selection of super units as the Allies do, so the Axis will probably lose the majority of the time given their lack of access.

The problem might lie with the inability of the medium-sized units to take down the big boys at all. After all, that is a classic match-up – quantity versus quality – so if the rules favor quality over quantity (or vice versa) the strategy of unit selection is probably already decided. Maybe I am being too pessimistic.

All of that said, generally it is great fun finding out the best strategy and units until you do find that breaking point, and the rules do seem to recognize common design problems and overcome them. I can see myself playing this a fair bit, but not in investing in it. As it stands, there is a Vassal module for the game, so the purchase of the miniatures is not strictly necessary. That is probably how I will play it in the future, especially as Chris lives in Ohio and only visits about once every two or three months.

So, final assessment is that it is a fun game, but probably one of those that you don't want to play all of that often so you don't hit upon the super strategy too soon.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Dale! I have a few thoughts as well.

    The mechanic I liked least was that you can win by taking 3 points in the midpoint of the map (center left, center, center right). That can make it sort of like capture the flag.

    I was just reading a book on the Battle of North Cape and Dale suggested we play that battle. I said it would be a blowout as the Royal Navy greatly outnumbered the Kriegsmarine at that battle. Actually, for almost all the North Atlantic battles the British had vast numerical superiority. I do want to do actual battles more than ad hoc but need to come up with a way to balance out the game goals.

    I was thinking you could make a scenario goal along the lines of Axis must sink 5 ships in the convoy and flee (Battle of North Cape). Or if playing the Pacific theatre, such as the Battle of Samar, the Japanese has to sink 1/3 of the landing craft beyond Taffy 3. These goal would be in keeping with the mission goals in real life and would be better than just racing to a point on the map. Or you could play some of the proposed battles that fell through. The original plan for Operation Rheinubung as envisioned by Admiral Lutjens was to take out the Bismarck, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. That would have been a much more even battle than the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

    I was looking at some of the cards. In referencing the problem Dale talked about (super powered units) I think it can probably be balanced out. If one were to take the Montana or Yamato / Musashi (the strongest units in the game) they take roughly 80 points. You can get something like the Bismarck or Richelieu for much cheaper (roughly 27-25 pts. cheaper) AND have enough left over for a heavy cruiser OR a escort carrier with torpedo planes or bombers. These cheaper battleships don't do as much dice but can still do enough to sink either supership in a single hit. I got a really lucky roll on the Nagato when playing Dale and sank it in one shot. I had enough hits that it would have sank the Montana or Yamato in a single hit as well.

    All in all, it was a fun game and I look forward to playing it again.


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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 50 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ (although I have a townhouse in Houston, TX and a small home in Tucson, AZ) working on a contract for "the next two years" that is going on five years now. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").