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It has been almost 20 years now since MB first released their famous WWII battle game Axis & Allies as part of the famous "Gamemaster Series". However, while titles like Shogun, Broadsides & Boarding Parties or Fortress America have perished over the years, Axis & Allies still could be found in the shelves of gamestores worldwide. Even more, with the famous strategy games publisher AVALON HILL joining the HASBRO group, a fitting label for new strategy games had been found, and thus several Axis & Allies specialist games now can be found in AVALON HILL's range of products.

Today, let us have a closer look at one of these specialist games. Axis & Allies - Battle of the Bulge focuses on a rather limited specific scenario from WWII, the Ardennes Offensive made by the German army in winter 1944/45. Assembling a massive troop-buildup at a relatively unimportant and uninhabited stretch of the Western Front, the German Military command had issued the order to mount a full offensive against the unsuspecting Allied forces with the hope of using the surprise element to get as far as the coastal city of Antwerp where the Germans hoped to capture an important harbour. And indeed, during the first few days of the battle it looked like the German plan would go well, with the winter weather prohibiting the Allies to use their superior air power to stop the offensive. However, once the weather changed, the use of Allied Aircraft and the quick depletion of the German fuel reserves brought the German offensive quickly to a standstill well short of the city of Antwerp. Thus, all the offensive had brought was a "Bulge" in the frontline which was quickly straightened out in the following weeks.


In gaming terms, the player of the German forces is challenged to do better than the Germans in history. For this reason, the creators of the game had given point values to all towns and cities in the vicinity, and if the German player succeeds in capturing towns of a higher value than the Germans did in WWII, the German player will have won the game. The Allied player on the other hand will try to prevent the German player to reach this objective, and if he succeeds in doing so for eight turns his side will be victorious because massive reinforcements will arrive to defeat all German resistance.

The initial frontline which matches Germany's modern day western border is set up at the eastern end of the gameboard. Preparing for the game, the players place Infantry, Artillery and Tank units of varying size at hex-spaces on their side of the frontline. Also, a number of Supply tokens is added to several of these spaces, and as you will see these supplies will have a major impact on gameplay. Each player also has an off-board playing area, in which he keeps his reinforcement schedules (listing the time and type of reinforcements which will arrive during the eight turns of the game) and a stockpile of figures including Trucks and Airplanes. As might be guessed from the historical setting, the German side has an advantage as far as the initial set up of units on the gameboard is concerned, but on the other hand the Allied player will profit from massive reinforcements during the course of the game.

The central element of the game, the procedure for unit movement and combat, is organised somewhat differently in comparison to the traditional Axis & Allies game. Instead of moving attacking units into the space intended for the attack, units now attack from neighbouring spaces and may only move into a space empty of all enemy units during the following movement phase. However, for attack or movement, all units within the intended space need to receive Supplies. Thus, each time a player decides to use units within a space for attacking or moving, he has to spend a supply token either from the same space or a neighbouring space to activate these units. Experienced Axis & Allies players here will see a major difference to the traditional game, since tactical planning now needs to take into consideration the establishment of supply chains without which a player's units would be unable to move or attack.

A player can commandeer Supply tokens from captured enemy spaces, but new supplies also come into the game from each player's off-board area. Thus, at the end of each turn the players do not only receive the reinforcements listed on their reinforcement schedules, but also a certain allowance of Supplies which the may move onto the gameboard. Here the Trucks play a decisive role, since they are used to carry Infantry, Artillery and Supplies as reinforcements onto the gameboard. Moving along roads, the trucks may move as far as desired as long as they stay on the roads, and thus especially the German player needs to keep his units in supply while they are advancing westwards. However, a Truck remains on the gameboard for the following turn, and if the opposing player should succeed in occupying a space containing one or more enemy Trucks, these Trucks may be commandeered just like Supply tokens.

It is especially the rules for Supplies and reinforcements which add a good degree of realism to the game, and also these rules give the players a unique challenge which they have not experienced in any other Axis & Allies product. However, the aforementioned rules are further enhanced by special rules for tanks (free movement along roads, additional "Blitz" movements for additional Supplies), airplanes (no planes before round 5 due to the historical winter weather, Allied superiority), stacking limits (no more than 12 units allowed within one space) and the introduction of control zones (preventing a player to move his units freely through the vicinity of enemy units). Taken together, this whole set of rules creates a rather precise experience of the "Battle of the Bulge" which I found quite surprising for a game with a complexity degree and playing time which falls well short of traditional conflict-simulation-games.

If compared to the traditional Axis & Allies, it further can be observed that there is no phase for unit production because all reinforcements already are pre-defined by the game. Furthermore, rules for airplanes are slightly different, since each player possesses a fixed contingent of airplanes which he may use every turn regardless of how many planes he may has lost the previous turn. These small differences carry through to the combat procedure, since in this game the units in combat are identified by special combat rulers which are used to find out which units are hit so that a player is not free where to assign hits scored by an opponent. Hits still are determined by a roll of a number of dice, and whereas a unit is destroyed if it takes two hits in one combat, a unit which only receives on hit is forced to retreat (provided it can retreat to a friendly hex).

As indicated, I was rather well-pleased to see such a high degree of realism represented in a game with a complexity much lower than cosim games by SPI or the older AVALON HILL titles. However, to my mind it is exactly this moderate degree of complexity which gives the game its unique attractiveness. Usually a representation of battle details brings with itself a lot of time-consuming rules and specialities, but in the case of Axis & Allies - Battle of the Bulge the AVALON HILL design crew succeeded rather well in creating a game which may claim some degree of historical correctness while at the same time the players are not overburdened with a high degree of rules mechanics. Once the rules are mastered by the players (preferably both players should have read them), the game runs rather smoothly and the players may discover that the it offers a highly enjoyable strategic challenge.

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Copyright © 2007 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany