Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Axis & Allies Miniatures Take Flight

The news that Avalon Hill/Wizards of the Coast is releasing a third Axis & Allies Miniatures game in February 2012 -- Axis & Allies Air Miniatures: Angels 20 -- might seem great for gaming aficionados of World War II aerial battles, but recalls several problematic issues regarding the game’s scale and marketing as well as the company’s tradition of annual holiday layoffs, which included Axis & Allies Miniatures lead developer Rich Baker.
Already at issue is whether the release of this game really constitutes “news.” Lead designer Rich Baker announced Wizards was developing the game back in February 2011; and while I don’t consider myself wired into every new development in the gaming scene -- this only recently came to my attention -- I haven’t seen any great deal of pre-release buzz about it online from either Wizards of the Coast or the game’s general fans.
Nonetheless Baker recently released more details about the game both on his Wizards community blog and to Axis & Allies Forumini, an online community with a PDF fanzine supporting the Axis & Allies Miniatures games. The game releases on February 21, 2012, with weekly previews of components and gameplay expected to begin in mid-January (a promotional strategy previously used for releases of other Axis & Allies Miniatures sets). The Air Miniatures: Angels 20 base set retails for $39.99 and includes six 1/100 scale (or 15mm) painted plastic aircraft minis -- 2 Me109s, 1 Me110, 2 Hurricanes, and a Spitfire to complete the Battle of Britain theme -- plus tokens, dice, 4 maps, and a rulebook. Those planes are part of the 30 total aircraft offered in the Angels 20 set, acquired through randomized booster packs of three planes each for $24.99; the collection includes aircraft from the major and several minor players in World War II, from powers like America, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, and Germany to Italy and Finland. The scale remains consistent with the core land-based Axis & Allies Miniatures Game. Previous aircraft minis released for that game were 1:240 (about 7 mm) scale, smaller than the 1:144 (12mm) scale used by Wings of War WWII, now WW2 Wings of Glory. This means planes for the Air Miniatures Angels 20 game average about 3 inches long.
Scale & Marketing Issues

The release of the Axis & Allies Air Miniatures: Angels 20 game in a 15mm scale using the fixed base set with randomized boosters sales model raises some issues for gamers, some minor (the scale) and some major (the marketing).
While the scale means more detailed models (albeit without propellers…), it offers varied compatibility with other games; it won’t work representing aircraft from WW2 Wings of Glory (technically 1:144 or 12mm), but it does fall into the 15mm scale for the popular Flames of War game. This shouldn’t be too much of a concern -- it is Wizards of the Coast’s game, and the company should naturally seek to keep people playing its game and not using its models to play and perpetuate interest in other companies’ games.
For Air Miniatures: Angels 20 Wizards of the Coast is using a marketing strategy successful for the company in the past, a sales policy pioneered by Magic: The Gathering and continued with miniatures and card game releases; randomizing booster packs so players purchase unknown minis from a given set they must then trade or resell to get what they want.
While this is supposed to foster a sense of community among players and a burgeoning after-market industry in cards and minis, it can frustrate gamers who simply want to purchase particular minis they want for a collection without having to go on eBay or find others to trade with in their area (a concern for those of us living in regions one might consider medieval frontiers). The high price tag for boosters -- $24.99 -- is a sizeable chunk of cash to pay for three randomized minis. When was the last time anyone invested in a game without knowing what was inside the box? Granted, the boosters contain three minis from a pool of 30 or so, but that’s not much consolation if someone’s trying to assemble enough planes for a specific campaign or force, such as Flying Tigers versus the Japanese, or Luftwaffe versus Soviets on the Eastern Front. Similar aircraft packs in this scale, particularly for Battlefront’s Flames of War, retail for around $52 for three unpainted minis of a particular aircraft. Gamers must weight their uncertainty options: pay more for specific aircraft they need to paint, or pay half for pre-painted minis they might not necessarily want. At $24.99 this still represents a serious financial gamble with a high potential for consumer disappointment.
Both the scale and marketing issues feed another concern; unlike Wings of Glory, which one can play using aircraft cards included in the base game instead of models, Air Miniatures: Angels 20 does not have an option to use cards or other markers in lieu of miniatures. Gamers will, of course, find a way and aren’t prohibited from porting minis from other games, even if out of scale, or creating their own markers to use, especially since the base game purportedly includes reference cards for all 30 aircraft in the set. But purists prefer similar scale and historical authenticity, something hindered by the scale and marketing for this game.
Designer Involvement

One questions Wizards of the Coast’s dedication to the future support and development of the game line when it fires lead developer Rich Baker two months before releasing the latest Axis & Allies Miniatures game. Sure, the company has a long, infamous history of firing staffers (at the December holidays, no less) and hiring them back as freelancers, especially to create supplemental articles and scenarios to post on the website; there’s nothing (to my knowledge) prohibiting Baker from freelancing for Wizards of the Coast, as many former employees have done in their post-Wizards career, so one hopes for the benefit of the Air Miniatures: Angels 20 game that he contributes to it going forward. Overall, however, the move to fire the lead designer doesn’t bode well for development or release of new sets.
Kudos to Rich Baker for his excellent work on the entire Axis & Allies Miniatures line and good luck to him in his future work.
Personally Speaking

Readers who follow Hobby Games Recce know I have an interest in World War II games and a soft spot for aerial games like WW2 Wings of Glory. I plan on checking out the Axis & Allies Air Miniatures: Angels 20 game for myself when it releases (the base set’s already on my Amazon.com wish list…), since World War II -- and the Battle of Britain, along with other aerial campaigns -- remains a focal interest of mine.
I’m happy the base set focuses on a particular aerial campaign, one early in the war and perhaps the most integral to the course of the overall conflict; and I’m encouraged to hear the base set has a non-randomized roster of miniatures inside. I’m not a fan of randomized booster contents, and, given their high price point, I doubt I’ll buy into the game much beyond the base set given the financial investment in booster packs and the content uncertainty of their randomization. I’d love to see other “starter sets” with non-randomized miniatures focusing on other classic aerial campaigns, such as the Eastern Front and Pacific Theater (including the Flying Tigers).
Having played past Axis & Allies Miniatures rules I’m sure the gameplay remains fun and relatively easy to grasp; Rich Baker and his design team have always made sure the game had an authentic feel without overbearingly complex rules, making for a comprehensible “light” wargame to introduce newcomers to the concept of the miniatures wargaming hobby.
I’d be happier if I could also interchange the minis with my WW2 Wings of Glory game and use those game’s minis in Air Miniatures: Angels 20, depending on which game system I ultimately prefer. I’d be even happier as a consumer if I could purchase the planes I wanted instead of gambling that I’d get Finnish and Russian planes.
These personal concerns aside, I view the Axis & Allies Air Miniatures: Angels 20 game as a worthy addition to the Axis & Allies Miniatures game line; I’m still on the fence about whether to recommend the game to others based on its high price point and randomized-booster sales model. I encourage readers to research the game before buying it and take an inward look at what they and their player-friends enjoy in an aerial combat game.
Resource Post Script

Fans of all the Axis & Allies Miniatures games will find the Forumini site serves as a good online resource for the game. It hosts an online community with active forums promoting all aspects of the Axis & Allies Miniatures games, from house rules, new scenarios and campaigns, and rules clarification discussions to upcoming events and new developments (there are already forums set up for the Air Miniatures: Angels 20 game). The infrequently published newsletter contains a nice mix of articles about the historical background, modeling, after-action reports, and opinion with a good-looking layout. Finding the newsletter on the site, however, remains a challenge; right now links sit at the bottom of the right-hand sidebar on the forum pages themselves, not on the home page. If you’re an aficionado of the Axis & Allies Miniatures games Forumini should be in your internet browser bookmarks.