Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Remembering Axis & Allies Miniatures

 Success lasts only three seconds. After that, you’re the same as you were before you had it.”

Robert Shaw

My recent missive on print magazines — particularly my efforts to clip the most relevant articles from years of WWII History — reminded me how much I liked Avalon Hill’s Axis & Allies Miniatures game years ago. (Mark Painter’s nose-art-inspired advertising artwork also reminded me how much I enjoyed the game.) I bought into it when it released in 2005 and purchased occasional booster packs for the original and subsequent sets. Using the point system to create forces consumed most of my time, as I imagine it would for any collectible game where one builds a deck or combat unit. I mostly engaged in solitaire play, commanding each side in turn. I don’t recall much about the mechanics, but I remember I liked numerous aspects of the game; though ultimately the randomized booster packs necessary to maintain the collectible aspect became untenable. Like many games, it’s come and gone, forgotten after the initial buzz and now difficult to find, either in the original starter sets and booster packs or as single figures with cards on the secondary market.

The game released in 2005 with starter sets containing the rules, map sheets, counters, dice, and pre-painted miniatures with cards. While I was interested in the historical period, I was also drawn in by the pre-painted minis; I had yet to really dive into miniature wargaming for World War II, though I had plenty of minis to paint for other periods. The rules seemed simple enough: determine range and nature of target and roll the dice, consulting the attacking and defending units’ stat cards for the particulars. Using the point-build system didn’t take much time to assemble a fighting force. The map sheets provided just enough room for a short fight; I don’t think I ever spent more than 45 minutes playing any action. For a few months it offered a brief diversion on my lunch hour as I tried different nations and force combinations. It proved a satisfying indulgence in WW II combat that evolved into other wargames, both of the board and miniature varieties.

The game offered many positive aspects for the gaming newcomer, though I don’t think it would have appealed much to seasoned experts, the infamous “grognards” of the hobby who generally prefer deeper complexity and historical accuracy in simulations. I prefer lower complexity games; Axis & Allies Miniatures provided just the right level of rules with the interesting historical veneer. I found several elements especially appealing:

Pre-Painted Minis: While the quality of the minis wasn’t always great, having them pre-painted and ready to go meant I could get them onto the battlefield faster. They were good enough that I still sometimes use them in other miniatures games, since they hold up better than metal minis (where tank barrels and other bits tend to break off with mishandling).

Easy Rules: I don’t remember specifics about the rules, but reading the quick-start online reminded me at least of the combat mechanics...determining range, infantry or armor, and rolling dice to determine hits to compare against the target’s defense to see if it’s disrupted, damaged, and destroyed. These conditions added some tactical depth but not too much complexity. The full rules included movement procedures, explanations of specific situations, and plenty of illustrated examples. A good example of clear rules presentation.

Cards for Reference: Each miniature came with a corresponding card noting its game stats, special abilities, and some brief historical “lore” about the unit. This helped in-game reference, especially when fielding a variety of units. I like using player aids like cards for reference in any game, from miniature wargames to roleplaying games...so this aspect helped facilitate play smoothly.

Map Sheets: Using maps avoided the need for buying or crafting terrain used for miniatures games. The hex grid helped make determining range and movement easier. The base game included four double-sided “battle mats,” providing plenty of variation for territory to deploy one’s forces. One could arrange the map sheets in several configurations as shown in the rulebook.

Alas, I did not care for two aspects of the game; although I ignored them in my initial enthusiasm, they ultimately wore down my interest in the game. At some point in the release of new booster sets the scale of the miniatures changed. Earlier releases seemed smaller, perhaps closer to 10mm or 12mm. Later ones were closer to 15mm scale popular with games like Battlefront’s Flames of War. I realized this on a subsequent booster release where two Sherman tanks side-by-side looked significantly different in size. The game’s collectible nature also became unsustainable. Like any collectible game, players want to purchase more boosters to see what they get and add to their existing collection. After a while I kept getting many of the same units, mostly ones I didn’t really want in the first place. This hit the tipping point and I just lost interest, not simply in spending money to acquire more units, but in my overall enthusiasm for the game.

(The collectible aspect of the game isn’t as much of a concern these days, as one can more easily acquire certain units today with secondary market venues like e-bay and Noble Knight Games offering specific miniatures and their cards...but back in the early 2000s this wasn’t a viable option.)

Despite my developing reservations about the game, I still bought into Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures: War at Sea when it released in 2007. Unlike the original game, one didn’t need too many miniatures for an interesting game; a handful of ships often proved enough for a casual game. It used similar mechanics as the original, modified, of course, for naval combat. After the starter set I bought a few boosters and played some solitaire games. At 1:1800 scale they were larger than GHQ’s 1:2400 metal ships but pre-painted (not that naval minis are too difficult to paint). I did not dabble with the aerial combat miniatures game relesaed under the Axis & Allies banner in 2012, Angels Twenty, though I was tempted.

I’ve not returned to the Axis & Allies Miniatures games in years. I suppose I’ve moved on to other WWII miniature wargames, including my own Panzer Kids design and Bob Cordery’s Gridded Naval Wargames. Yet I’ve still used the miniatures in other endeavors. I repurposed my plethora of German infantry pieces to enhance my few 15mm stands, mounting them on Flames of War bases for a few extra units. The tanks found their way into my Panzer Kids playtesting and gaming. I bought a slew of British Tetrarchs and some minefield signs from a friend at a convention flea market, inspiring me to research and design a post-D-Day scenario in the Bois de Bavent; since they were plastic and the terrain minimal, I slipped everything into a suitcase once for a flight to a convention in the Midwest. I’ve since used them testing other games, though these days my collection of 15mm WWII miniatures seems adequate for most of my needs.

I regret games like Axis & Allies Miniatures had such short shelf lives. Avalon Hill’s parent companies, Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro tried sustaining interest as best they knew how, through tournaments and convention promos; but, unlike phenomenal successes like Magic: The Gathering, this collectible game only barely managed to survive, its success probably limited by it’s historical theme. I suppose with the last booster set released in 2010 it enjoyed an actively supported life of five or six years, lingering a bit longer with subsequent releases of War at Sea and Angels Twenty. I haven’t seen it played at a convention in ages. I still smile to myself (and consider adding to my collection) every time I run across an Axis & Allies miniature at Noble Knight Games. It was fun while it lasted — probably still a great game if I set it up and re-learned the rules — but a reminder of the adventure gaming market’s fickle nature and what brief, active lifespans most games enjoy before fading into obscurity in the face of the “new hotness” and other trends.

So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even by ourselves, so it’s gratifying to have something you have done linger in people’s memories.”

John Williams


  1. I was always interested in the naval miniatures. I didn't find them often enough or drop enough cash on them though to make it playable. I wish I had though.

    1. How many games do we miss because we don't notice them in time, can't get them, or don't have the cash to really immerse ourselves in them? The creation and market cycles are so brief before the latest "new hotness" bursts on the scene.


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