This is basically my favorite topic.
I agree that in most A&A games, transports are too expensive, especially for tournament play (since tournaments usually have fewer rounds, which means there’s less opportunity for the transport to slowly pay for itself over many rounds).
I think it’s going too far to say that expensive transports are the reason why A&A games are unbalanced. I think the reason why A&A games are unbalanced is that most games are unbalanced by default, and it takes an enormous amount of skill and effort and testing to make a game balanced, and historically Avalon Hill etc. have not invested that level of effort into balancing their A&A games, and even if they did put more effort into balancing their games, it’s not always clear that they would be successful.
If you imagine the game designer as an archer who is shooting arrows at a paper target, then getting a “balanced” game is like the bullseye. If the average bid is 5 IPCs or less, then the game is at least roughly balanced. That’s the bullseye – it’s the width of a one-time payment of 5 IPCs. But there’s no special reason why the arrow has to hit the bullseye. Maybe the game will need a one-time payment of 10 or 20 or 80 IPCs. Maybe the game is so unbalanced that you’ve got to add extra national objectives or extra unit types for one side, or change the turn order, or something drastic like that. There are lots of ways to shoot an arrow at a balanced game and “miss.” The total design space is much, much wider than 5 IPCs – it’s hundreds and hundreds of IPCs “wide.”
At the start of an A&A game, the position is intentionally asymmetrical: the Axis will have more armies and planes, and the Allies will control more territory. That means you can’t necessarily tell whether the game is balanced just by glancing at it – it’s not obvious what the conversion factor should be between Total Unit Value (TUV) and Production (IPCs). Do the Axis need an extra 3 IPCs of TUV for every 1 IPC of Allied advantage in the production value of their starting territories? Or is the ratio closer to 2:1? 4:1? 5:1? It depends on what the best-available opening strategies are, and how effective they are, and how quickly and reliably the Axis can expect to conquer Allied territory, and, yes, on how much it will cost the Allies to build up a fleet of transports (or minor factories) with which to project their power from far-away sources of income such as New York City and London. It’s very hard to say what the exact ratio of TUV Advantage to Production Advantage should be without extensive playtesting and/or complicated, detailed analysis. It’s not something you can just eyeball.
So when you make a new Axis & Allies game, it might look balanced to the naked eye, but if you’re even slightly wrong about the proper ratio of TUV to Production, you could easily be so wrong that re-balancing your game will require a bid of 30 or 60 or 200 IPCs.
There’s a kind of horrible paradox in A&A design: if you design a great game, then people will play it to death over many years, and, in so doing, will invent all kinds of new openings that change how rapidly the Axis are able to conquer territory from the Allies. When people first started playing Global 1940 2nd Edition, even moderately-skilled players weren’t necessarily familiar with Dark Skies, or Middle Earth, or Bright Skies, or the Russian tank blitz, or the Yunnan stack – all of which are sort of core parts of the way the game is currently played. But if you’re looking at the game and trying to figure out how large of a bid the Allies need, well, that depends in part on how good the Allied opening strategies are and how good the Axis opening strategies are. So you’re trying to balance a game with literally hundreds of pieces so finely that you don’t want to need to add even two more pieces to one side – i.e., to within 1% tolerances – but you’re also hoping to build a game that’s dynamic and interesting enough that as people play it, they’ll develop new openings and new approaches to the game.
After all, if players could work out the “one best strategy” for an A&A game within a few months after it was released, and nobody could ever improve on that strategy, then it wouldn’t be a very good game, or, at least, it wouldn’t have much replay value. But if you can’t work out the “one best strategy” with 1,000 players in 6 months, then you probably also can’t work out the “one best strategy” with 10 playtesters in 2 years – so the playtesters are necessarily going to miss some of the best opening strategies, which in turn will throw off the balance in the opening.
I do fault the designers of Axis & Allies Spring 1942 2nd Edition, because the balance on that game isn’t even close – ordinary, straightforward play by the Axis should win at least 80% of the games at even a moderate skill level if the Allies don’t get a bid. You don’t have to do anything fancy to win that game as the Axis – just build 1/2 infantry, 1/6 artillery, and 1/3 tanks with both Germany and Japan, leave a couple of infantry at home to guard Berlin and Tokyo, and send the rest of the units to Moscow. Roll some dice, and then the Axis win. This is a strategy that the designers could have and should have discovered during playtesting, so they should have been aware that the game was not balanced out-of-the-box, and they should have changed the rules or the starting setup accordingly.
For the other games, I don’t necessarily fault the designers; they made a reasonable effort to hit the target, and they just happened to miss. World War I is massively biased in favor of the Allies, but it took a little while to figure that out; it wasn’t necessarily obvious that Britain needed to spend its entire budget in India, or that the USA needed to spend its entire budget on shoring up Rome via the Mediterranean. These are ahistorical strategies that haven’t really been tried in previous A&A games, so it’s fine that they came as a surprise to the designers.
Same thing with A&A Anniversary Edition 1941: it turns out that the Italians are able to can-open for the Germans in a way that devastates Russia, and that it’s too hard to stop Japan’s amphibious explosion because there’s nowhere sane for the Allies to build a Pacific factory, but those weren’t necessarily problems that were obvious in advance: these problems were the result of changes in the Italian and Chinese setup that were new to Anniversary.
I would like to see cheaper transports as an option, especially for tournament games, but I don’t think there’s any way to set a price on transports (or to scrap transports in favor of infantry-carrying cruiser groups) that would eliminate the hard problem of balance.