The Joy of Combat
In my two previous articles on the conduct combat phase, I covered (1) how to make sound casualty choices, and (2) how to avoid making bad casualty choices. Today, I want to discuss something completely different: how to engage with Axis & Allies as a game in the fullest way possible. It believe that it is within the conduct combat phase that the greatest dramatic potential of the game is unleashed, in the pathos and the joy of combat, and that realizing and celebrating this fact can help us get more out of our games.
Let’s Get Physical (& Social)
The dice-rolling part of the game in the conduct combat phase is a welcome relief from the intellectually challenging task of strategizing. Here, players can truly relax and just have simple-minded fun. After all, the only real physical action in the game is dice-rolling (and, I suppose, piece-moving), so it’s unique in an important regard. In fact, the majority of players I game with prefer to stand to roll their dice, or even to passively watch others roll. When the ‘action’ starts, everybody stands, even though no one is under any obligation to do so by the game’s rules.
In this way, combat is also an ideal icebreaker, whether you’re meeting for the first time or the hundred-and-first. Combat gives players reason to stand around and talk to each other, whether to share their assessments of the current situation, or just engage in smack-talk aimed towards enervating each other. However, as all players presumably have a common interest in the game, they are often well-disposed to be friendly to each other, and to express mutual appreciation of ‘good rolls’ and moves well made.
Partly they do this so that all players can see the roll results, but partly it’s because combat represents that magical moment when the fate of your units and/or your enemy’s units are sealed. This invests rolling the bones with a dramatic quality which is quite apart from the drama of building or moving units. The drama of pushing a big stack of your units into a big stack of enemy units is really just anticipatory of the resultant imminent combat phase. It is, for all intents and purposes, a potent in-game ritual, replete with its own punishments and rewards. And the reactions of the players to the results of their rolls directly reflects that underlying dramatic potential. As I’ve said before, one of the things that makes A&A special–as opposed to other strategy games such as chess, for example–is that you’ll see grown men hopping around on one foot swearing after a bad roll, or screaming and pumping their fist after a good. That’s a lot of fun to do, and a lot of fun to watch.
Additionally, there are the pleasures of handling the dice themselves, as dramatic props. Lots of energy goes into the style and physical force of the throws: they can (indirectly) reflect both the players’ character and state of mind. Sometimes players feel the ‘heat of battle’ during the conduct combat phase, and in some part this relies on the manner in which the props are handled: the clatter and boom of the dice as they are rolled and thrown can simulate, to some extent, the rattle of the machine gun and the roar of the cannon. The sounds are simple, immediate, dramatic, noisy. And not altogether unpleasant.
Combat in the game is essentially resolved randomly (albeit constrained by probability), so there will always be surprising battles where things go better or worse than expected. You might see some games where battles are won or lost by a statistical ‘fluke’; and some people may get upset by this. Here’s where you have to either (i) swallow the surprising result and assume that things will even themselves out in the course of the game, or (ii) choose another game whose outcome doesn’t rely on chance (see chess). In A&A, there will on rare occasions be high pay-outs for improbable, daring moves, and heavy punishments for relying on what looked like it should have been an overpowering weight in numbers. I suspect, however, that removing this element of triangularity in the game’s risk management decisions, by removing the dice from the combat system, would destroy a lot of the fun and challenge inherent to the game. Psychologically, people want the possibility of a huge disaster occurring so that they can be relieved when it doesn’t, and they want the possibility of an unlikely win so that they can cling on to the hope of a reversal when everything is looking dim.
“I Never Hit With This Battleship!”
Generally, the value of a hit is determined by the cheapest unit (in terms of IPCs) that the opponent can be forced to destroy in response to it. The lowest value is 3 IPCs for land battles, and 6 IPCs for sea battles, but you can improve this by choosing your targets wisely during the combat movement phase. However, this value is modified by the type of unit you’re attacking with. A destroyer, for example, hits 1/3 of the time, and the cheapest possible target, a sub, costs 6 IPCs. This means that the minimum IPC value for a destroyer shot is 1/3 x 6 IPCs, or 2 IPCs per salvo. Thus, theoretically, a destroyer would have to get a chance to fire 4 times in order to ‘break even’ with the amount its purchaser paid for it. (In practice, it would actually need to take down an enemy destroyer to do this; the four theoretical salvoes might be fruitless in actuality.)
Taken in these terms, the expected value of a bomber or a battleship getting a hit in combat is 2/3 x 6, or 4 IPCs per salvo. However, the perceived value of the same is much higher, because these are the most powerful units in the game, the units with the greatest possible chance of hitting: with these units you are almost certain of a hit. This is why some players may get upset or feel let down when these units are seen to under-perform, i.e. when they don’t get the hits that players think they should. It is always conspicuous when the best units miss: it is a source of glee when your enemy’s battleship misses you, and a source of outrage when your own battleship misses. In thereby noticing how much you rely on the ‘performance’ of your units (something that is ultimately out of your control), you as a player betray a deeper level of engagement with the game.
Tell Me A Story
To recap: It is in combat that the maximum level of identification with one’s pieces takes place, because it is only in these circumstances wherein they are directly threatened, and wherein they can be individuated, via their good or poor combat performances, from all of their nameless doppelgangers which populate the main board. A lot of pleasure can be taken from this, as some people will keep their eye on ‘special’ units and mentally track their histories in subsequent moves and battles. Thus combat also serves as a story-producing machine, producing sub-plots within the grand narrative of the greater strategic game. Take for example the games of Gargantua, who plays by forum on this website. He uses multiple media (typically old photos and movies) in his posts to convey his impression of each individual battle (or at least the major ones); to illustrate the alternate history that he and his opponent are co-creating. Without this dramatic identification with one’s pieces, a lot of richness would be missing from the game, as the story would be ‘flat’ without characters (individual units), and ‘shallow’ without emotional content (concern about their combat performance).
A Most Palpable Hit
In battles where I have very bad luck, which is a rare occurrence, the only thing that can save me is if my opponent also has very bad luck, which is also rare (this is why battles rarely ever exceed three salvoes–because at least one player in the combat will have an at least average hit rate and will cause casualties to the other’s forces). If I never hit my opponent, it doesn’t really matter how often she hits me–whether her rate of successful hits is good or merely normal–all that matters is she is sometimes capable of doing it… and eventually, if I keep missing, I will be defeated.
So causing casualties, or ‘getting hits’, is the main purpose of units. Although by merely existing some units may take over territories, which yield more IPCs, which in turn yield more units, what their main job is–what they’ll be doing most often–is attempting to kill enemy units. If my units don’t do that, then I’ve wasted my money in purchasing them, just as I’ve ‘wasted’ my money buying a lottery ticket if I don’t win the lottery (although it would be impossible to win the lottery without doing just that). However, if I have merely normal luck, while my opponent has good luck, it may warp the predicted results slightly, but still shouldn’t affect me that poorly, as I’ll still be causing my share of enemy casualties. Thus the enemy’s good luck is not the killer–it only makes a difference, and a slight one at that, when you have merely normal luck–because if you’re unlucky then you’re indifferent as to whether the enemy has good or normal luck; and if both players are really lucky then it’s a fair fight. It is only your own bad luck which can truly sink you: and this will only happen, in all probability, in only a minority of cases. Now when you’re ahead, your bad luck is actually good for the game: it keeps the opponent hoping for a reversal, and indeed makes this a bit more likely; it produces good tension and balance in the game (by degrading your dominant position in it). When you’re behind, as well, your bad luck still good for the game: it sweeps away the last pretense that you had any chance of winning, and mercifully speeds your inevitable end, so that you can finish the game and move on to a less punishing pursuit. It is only when the game is relatively balanced that bad luck is at its most execrable, as it is seen to have had a determining effect on the remainder of the game. With these facts in mind, hopefully you will find it (generally) easier to enjoy combat, even when you’re on the receiving end of some particularly poignant bad luck.
Conduct Combat is the phase wherein the most visible progress occurs: you can see how many units you and your enemy have left on the battle board, as well as how many have already been removed, and you can see at the end of battle whether or not any territory changes hands. The feedback is immediate and obvious, which is very satisfying for the players. In a game which otherwise consists of alternating repetitions–my turn / enemy turn / my turn, and strategy / combat / strategy–visible progress is a very important feature of the player’s experience. There is a lot to be said from the joy of getting good feedback (indeed, it’s my vain hope that this article might generate some… please post your responses below!).
When playing Axis & Allies, it’s important to ask yourself: “What is my aim?” Is it destroying the largest possible number of enemy units? Taking as many enemy territories as you can? Maximizing your income? Building the perfect army?
Perhaps you said ‘yes’ to one or more of the above, or perhaps none. Although I’ve made certain aims salient, these and others can all be subsumed under a greater ‘meta-aim’. This is because, like any game, there will be those who play A&A simply “To have fun.” And for the players who take this as their main goal, no phase is as enjoyable as the conduct combat phase. They simply like ‘the fight’ on its own merits.
And while many of those sub-aims listed above may be fun to achieve in and of themselves, most players do not consciously pursue these in isolation. Nevertheless, each of these aims is important, and are connected with “Winning” (another meta-aim candidate). More importantly, none of them are ultimately possible without success in the Conduct Combat phase. The stakes in combat are therefore high, tension inevitably results, and when it is resolved in our favour we’re ecstatic (or at least mildly pleased with ourselves).
In brief: Winning is fun, and we need to succeed in combat to win. Since combat is an instrumentally un-eliminable and intrinsically rewarding part of the game, we should learn to appreciate and enjoy its nuances, rituals, and pageantry. We should learn to develop The Joy of Combat.