I’m not a very active forum member, but I have played quite a few rounds of A&A 1914 since it came out. I thought this topic was a good place to answer your questions, say something nice about the game and discuss a little strategy. Although, I will have a little moan to start with. My group and I absolutely love the game, but we also recognise there are some serious issues. We never felt the need to use any house rules to balance an A&A game until now.
That said, the balance issues really aren’t all that big. In addition to the rules update/clarification in the FAQ we only needed two minor adjustments. I won’t go into it at length, because this shouldn’t become another topic full of complaints and suggestions for new rules. I’ll just say that we are very happy with the game mechanics, including movement, but we feel the map design screws the Germans. A map where the distance between Berlin and the French border territories is equal to the distance between Berlin and Moscow, or the distance between Vienna and Paris, can’t possibly be balanced. So, in our games, new German units get a one time boost where they’re able to move two spaces. And Switzerland now spawns 6 units instead of 2, because it was too easy for France (early game) and Austria (late game) to use this back door to outflank an enemy advance. Invading Switzerland is still a powerful move. It just takes more commitment now.
As for Serbia. My group and I quite like this rule, because it makes Austria a more challenging faction to play. You really have think about how you’ll spread your forces. After all, you’d rather your units anywhere but Serbia since it’s the only minor aligned territory that can’t be activated by the Allies. You’re right that you can attack Serbia with whatever number of units you like. Just one infantry will fulfil the rule’s requirement. Right now my group often attacks Serbia with a pretty heavy force that is able to take it with average dice rolls. Actually owning Serbia as opposed to contesting it gives you a chance to react when the Italians in Albania contest Trieste one turn one. Incidentally, we are a little peeved that France can activate Albania for the Italians. Clever Austrian positioning and decent dice can deal with this threat, but my group certainly wouldn’t mind if this was addressed in any future rule update.
I’m not sure what kind of starts your friends are using, but I’m with you when it comes to the navy. It has been instrumental in all of the games I’ve played so far. Whoever establishes naval dominance is pretty much in the driving seat. The Allies need it so America and Britain can quickly re-enforce weak spots all over the board. The CP’s need it in order to isolate and overpower France and Italy. Like yours, my games have always involved a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Though we don’t always come to blows. Usually, we’re happy to stay in port. The risks of an actual confrontation are big, while the disadvantages of a steady arms race and having to stay in home waters are comparatively small.
After all, the CP’s can live with the occasional British or American landing in France or Italy. They just have to prevent landings in Kiel and Leningrad. And the navy can provide cover for small invasion of Scandinavia. Two or three transports with some infantry and tanks can are all you need to take 8 IPC worth of territory. Meanwhile, the Brits prefer to spend most of their energy on conquering the Ottoman empire and contesting southern Russia.