The Psychology of the Conduct Combat Phase

Military Psychology

Written by Christopher Yorke, ”Make_it_Round,” at Axis and, edited and compiled by Rorschach at I Will Never Grow Up Gaming

A Game of Two Modes

In the last article, I contended that Axis & Allies is best understood intellectually as a game of six phases. Psychologically, however, I believe that this is not the way we actually see the game. From the player’s point of view, Axis & Allies is psychologically much simpler: it is a game of two modes. The most carefully-analysed mode, the ‘Grand Strategic’, occupies phases #1, 2, 4, 5, and 6. The less-considered mode, the ‘Tactical’, occupies only phase #3 ‘Conduct Combat’ and it is how to avoid the nuanced pitfalls of this mode that I will be examining once again today.

As previously discussed, some players see very little interest or challenge in this mode; indeed, they consider the choices that need to be made here to be self-evident to the point of being automatic; and thus of no more real significance than phase #6 [Collect Income], which is a simple function, requiring no decisions on the part of the active player. Phase #6 typically doesn’t register as an exceptionally important one, except that players have their eyes on capturing certain territories due to their projected IPC payoffs, which they cannot receive until the end of this phase. In other words, the central importance of Collect Income is a psychological one: players get the reward of handling their play money, and daydream about what they’ll buy with it next turn. [This may be part of the reason that some fans complained so vociferously when paper IPCs were conspicuously absent in the recent 1940 games.]

I’ve also mentioned a popular, persistently fatalistic conception of the tactical mode, i.e.: The dice speak, and that’s an end on it; players have no real agency here. This psychology of futility can, I contend, have a very negative effect on one’s level of play. One effectively surrenders one’s ability to make meaningful choices during combat, and so misses chances to optimize their in-game decisions. In this article I will show that games can be won or lost via such choices, and that understanding the psychology of combat can make a difference to recognizing and acting on those moments where good judgement is required. Just as a general might die in battle because his horse trips, because its shoe is loose, because the blacksmith couldn’t fix it, because horseshoe nails weren’t delivered to the battlefield on time, so too can a power lose its capital, because the stalling battle in the adjacent territory was unsuccessful, because there weren’t enough units holding it, because some were squandered due to previous bad casualty selections, which were due to psychological effects inherent to the tactical mode (and not having read this article in time to counter them!).

Combat: A Sub-Game wherein Destruction is Made Possible

So what makes phase #3 constitute a mode of its own, psychologically speaking? Why is this terminology helpful? First, let us look at what happens during the Conduct Combat phase. Units from both sides are removed from various spaces within the grand strategic game, and spirited away to the battle board, to a sub-game where tactical decisions regarding choices of casualties are required (this shift happens theoretically even if the combat is simple enough to not physically line up units on the battle board). The effect is one of zooming in: what were previously anonymous constituents of the big picture take on a new significance; they become unique and important, because the current battle will be won or lost depending on their immediate efforts (represented as die rolls). Thus, units don’t just look differently in the smaller world of the battle board, they also behave differently: they have numbers lined up and attached to them, and their controller gets to roll dice for them. On the main board these units are frictionless, insubstantial icons gliding along the board; on the sub-board they become tangible: they can remove others units, and be removed themselves. Destruction, in other words, becomes possible on the battle board, in contrast with simply shifting pre-existing units around, and producing new ones. Without the tactical mode, there is no way to get units off of the board, and there is no way to win the game without this being accomplished (compare this to chess, wherein the rules for combat are elegantly–but less interestingly–contained within the rules for movement). The tactical mode is essentially a sub-game, and thus parasitic, but without its rules machinery the grand strategic mode could not function. The tactical mode is thus ineliminable, as well as being importantly distinct from the rest of the game in terms of rules and board (also referred to as a battle strip in the new games; a decidedly less evocative nomenclature). After the sub-game of combat is concluded, the survivors of this gladiatorial encounter are returned to the main board where they once again register as frictionless pawns in the strategic game, rather than as substantial heroes of the tactical game. We zoom out again, in other words, until the next battle.

Two interesting points arise from this analysis of the tactical mode: (1) we are confronted with the symbolic death of units under our control, and (2) we know that, once entered into, there is–barring trick dice-throwing and exercising good casualty selection principles (as discussed in the previous article)–almost nothing we can do that will affect the ultimate outcome of the battle. In other words, there is the possibility of an undesirable or negative outcome in any battle–weaker or stronger, depending on how sound our choice of attacks in the grand strategic mode was–and, typically, an accompanying feeling of helplessness about how it will proceed. This is why you’ll often see players really let themselves go and behave somewhat irrationally during this phase: some will pray their gods, while others will threaten the dice; some will speak in funny voices or take on personas, while others will employ odd physical techniques–particularly violent or exceptionally light throws, or standing on their tiptoes as they drop the dice from a great height–in order to feel as if they have some power over the results of their rolls. If everything that could have rationally been done has already been done, one might think that the only recourse left to them is irrational behaviour: indulging in these little rituals couldn’t hurt, right?

Wrong. They have the option to remain emotionally uninvolved. Not apathetic, but guarded; reserved. Although behaving in a wild way during combat might be cathartic (which is undoubtedly the reason that some players enjoy playing this family of games), indulging such whims can actually harm your chance of winning. How?

The Importance of a Good ‘Dice Face’

Just as a good ‘poker face’ in poker helps players conceal information from their opponents, and so make better plays, so too does a good ‘dice face’ in A&A keep important details from the other players. Contrary to this contention, one might think that the two games are disanalogous: after all, poker is a game where some parts of the game-state are hidden from all players, whereas every bit of information in (straight, out-of-the-box) A&A is publicly available to all players. This is mostly true: except for the fact that in A&A–as in chess–your overall strategy is private. Private, that is, until you reveal to the enemy how important (or unimportant) a certain battle, or even a certain piece in a certain battle, is–by letting it show via your reactions in the conduct combat phase. The manifest psychological phenomena of the tactical mode–I’m sure we’ve all witnessed our share of panic, delight, and despondency–can give away players’ intentions in the grand strategic mode, as surely as if their enemies had intercepted a series of critical coded transmissions. Of course, this is generally a worry only if you’re playing against someone of equal or greater skill, or someone close to you who knows you well enough to properly read your reactions (e.g.: “I know that he’s swearing at me because this battle is crucial for his plans, and not simply because this is the third ’1′ in a row that I’ve rolled with my AA gun.”). Nevertheless, controlling your reactive feelings is still something to practice in games of lesser importance, if only for the chances to therein further improve your ‘dice face’ in anticipation of more important games in the future.

Once an appearance of overall inscrutability is mastered, you can move on to bluffing or double-bluffing your opponent, via counterfeited reactions of your own conscious design, into thinking they’ve won an important battle when they actually haven’t, or that they’ve lost an insignificant battle when in reality it is the crucial turning point of the whole game, if left unremedied. You should know, of course, that you yourself are susceptible to identical techniques of manipulation employed by other players, and be on your guard against them. If your opponent is unable to read your intentions, is unable to tell what areas and units are of subjective importance to you, the more likely they are to become nervous and confused, and thus make strategic errors of their own while off-balance. The details revealed–or concealed–in the microcosm of combat can thus have serious ramifications for strategic conduct in the macrocosm of the greater game.

“Carry-Over Down the Strategic Mode”

The phenomenon of emotional carry-over from the tactical to the strategic mode is another thing to be on guard against. Let’s say that a player has incredibly bad luck, and loses a battle that should’ve been a sure win: such a player is, prima facie, more likely to make worse moves than usual in the future–either overly cautious moves, using too much force to achieve his ends (because he wants to [over]compensate for the effects of predicted bad luck), or overly reckless, not using enough force (because, reckoning that all of his efforts are cursed, regardless of the logic of his strategic plans, he gets frustrated and throws all of his plans to chance without bothering to calculate the probabilities of success). This is partly due to our tendency to over-identify with the results of the dice rolls–we (wrongly) feel we are due both praise and blame when desired numbers come up, or fail to do so–and our tendency to put stock in observed patterns being stable and reliable (if three tanks were enough to take the objective last turn, for example, then they should be enough to take an identical objective this turn, probability be damned!). Once again, self-control and reason are the keys for overcoming these negative and/or misleading psychological cycles. One must remind oneself that each battle is, in a sense, artificially probabilistically isolated, and despite appearances, what subjectively looks like a ‘bad turn’ due to an unexpected failed attack or two might actually be–statistically speaking–better than what could be probabilistically expected upon closer examination, considering all engagements in total. Another trick for keeping one’s perspective healthy and choices effective is to zoom out every time one is asked to remove a casualty from the board and consider the likely strategic ramifications, e.g.: “Will I need that bomber on the attack next turn, or is it more important to have another tank in that territory on the defence?” This way, the psychology of loss doesn’t have a chance to get at you: you’re already thinking about your next scheme, and the fine details of your current predicament won’t seem as overwhelming.


I hope that this article has helped you to become aware of some of the psychological baggage that we can bring with us to the tactical mode, the pitfalls that can arise from blindly submitting to this, and a few techniques to outcome them and help keep your play tight. However, I am aware that not everyone enjoys playing A&A in a serious way; some want to play it to maximize the social fun that can be had, and are not primarily concerned with winning or playing their best game. This is the level many of us start playing the game at, and I still feel a great affinity for that breed of casual gamer. The last article in this trilogy on the ins and outs of the conduct combat phase will focus on the “The Joy of Combat”: how players can and do derive the more enjoyment from this phase of the game than any other.

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Category: Board Games, Strategy

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