This is the long awaited followup to the first part of our interview with Axis & Allies & Zombies game designer, Scott Van Essen. Scott goes into more details about the game and what might be in store for the future. If you haven’t read the first part, you can read it here.
Dave Jensen: Zombie controlled territories makes a lot of sense and getting a free infantry for liberation us a great incentive. Tell us more about how you came up with this and other ideas you tried.
Scott Van Essen: After we had gotten the core rules settled and were in the balance phase of the playtest, I was happy with the overall play pattern, but there were a couple of specific challenges that were concerning me. The big one was that people weren’t clearing out zombies in their territories that were further away from the action. It might not seem that important to send multiple valuable units to clear out a couple of 1 IPC territories, but over several turns, that lost income really adds up, and pushes you closer to a threshold where you no longer have the income to keep up with the zombies. Even worse, players were losing the game because of this but they weren’t making the connection, which meant they weren’t learning from their mistakes. We needed a carrot (and not a subtle one) to teach people to make the correct play. It also couldn’t be completely arbitrary. It needed to feel like it made sense in the context of the game, both to let people piggyback the rules on the creative concept, and to keep from taking people out of the spirit of the game. At first, we just gave an instant IPC bonus equal to the value of the territory (There’s a lot of stuff around to collect), but it still wasn’t enough, and I realized that part of the problem is that the money goes all the way back to your home factories, so it doesn’t give you the bonus where you need it. When I realized that we could give an infantry reward and concept it as rescuing armed survivors, I actually ran laps around the building so I could pitch it to everyone on the team. The fact that it also furthered my other goal of getting more infantry on the board was just icing on the cake.
DJ: Why is there a winner when there’s a zombie apocalypse? Why not “everybody loses?”
SVE: The initial concept for the zombie apocalypse was in fact exactly that. At the apocalypse threshold (which moved around a bit before landing on 25 IPCs), the game was over and everybody lost. The hope was that this would create some pressures in the game where enemies would be forced to work together against a common enemy. Initially, this worked exactly how we hoped it would, but as we broadened out to a larger group of playtesters we discovered a problem. Some players, when faced with a losing position on the board, get a mentality of “if I can’t win, neither can you.” It turns out that in Axis & Allies & Zombies, it is really easy to turn your own territories into a zombie wasteland. Just make a few suicidal attacks, then move your troops out of any territory that does have zombies and you can quickly and artificially inflate the zombie income to well above the apocalypse threshold. These games weren’t too common but they were very frustrating for the players who had been winning because there really wasn’t any counterplay. It was with some sadness that we cut the mechanic, because we loved the flavor.
That wasn’t the end of the story though. After you’ve played the game a few times, you’ll learn the importance of “cleaning up your backyard”. That is, eliminating zombies and recapturing zombie-controlled territories that are far from the front. As I mentioned above, the drain on your economy is almost invisible until it suddenly not. After cutting the Zombie apocalypse rule, many games were unchanged. We didn’t get close enough to the threshold to be relevant. However, once in a while one or both players got lazy about keeping the zombies under control, or were just so hard pressed that they didn’t think they could afford the distraction. What found ourselves running into that critical point where you have lost so many territories and your income is so low that it’s almost impossible to keep up with the zombies. Even if you’re barely fighting your opponent, the zombies are still picking off your troops and you can’t even build a large enough force to start recapturing territories. Let me tell you, this is a miserable feeling and an interminable stalemate. So, we brought back the Zombie Apocalypse rule with one key difference. Instead of everybody losing, now it’s sort of everybody loses BUT one team loses less. (Or you could say that one team only wins a little bit, but optimists are scarce in the Zombie Apocalypse). The key was to set up the rules of the apocalypse such that intentionally bringing on the Zombie Apocalypse makes you more likely to lose under the alternate victory conditions.
DJ: Recruitment Centers add a great strategic dimension to the game. Why was this new concept included?
SVE: Fun story. This was a case of three challenges all coming together and getting neatly tied up with one solution.
Problem 1 – I wanted China to have a low level of production so that there could be several turns of fighting for Japan to work all the way through, and for there to be a real cost if Japan chose to ignore China. Several of our other versions of the game do this and I like the dynamic it creates. It usually ends up with a variant of China spontaneously generating infantry in one of their uncaptured territories. Pumping out more infantry also does great job of introducing more zombies to that theater, so I was heavily motivated to include this. I was OK with a variant of the version that’s in Axis & Allies Anniversary edition, but I was hoping to find something simpler.
Problem 2 – In the middle of playtesting some of our players were eschewing infantry purchases entirely to cut down on the amount of zombie production. While I believe that this is a valid (if sub-optimal) strategy, it was resulting in fewer zombies on the board than I felt was the most fun, so I was looking for one big way or several little ways to increase the number of infantry (and therefore eventually zombies) in the game.
Problem 3 – India. This was the biggest challenge, and also the one whose solution let me roll up the other two. In versions of A&A where you can purchase industrial complexes, I love that a common UK strategy is to have globalized production and to be able to fight in all theaters. Given that we were printing complexes on the board, I wanted to preserve this as an option for players, which was why we put complexes in India and Australia. At the IPC scale of our board, India really wanted to have an IPC value of 2 to be commensurate with similar territories on the board and to be a territory that Japan really wants to capture. The problem was that being able to produce two units per turn made this a “must capture” territory. All of the fighting in East Asia was focusing on whether or not Japan could successfully capture India and it added too much “swing” to that territory. Basically, too much of the outcome of the game came down to whether UK could hold India or Japan was successful in taking it, which resulted in a very one-dimensional strategy in that part of the map, with both players dumping maximal resources into one axis of battle. When we reduced India’s IPC value to 1 the region played much better (it was an objective worth fighting over, but it was also valid for either side to ignore the territory and focus their efforts elsewhere). The problem was, it just felt wrong to have India at 1 IPC and the only other option was to not have a complex at all. We often joke in R&D about how being limited to integers to represent attributes in our games sometimes gives us odd challenges (“Let’s see, 2 is too high, but 1 is way too low. Can we do 1.7?”). In this case, I really was trying to find a way to be somewhere between 1 and 2. Obviously, we weren’t going to go to fractions here, so I started thinking about some kind of limited capacity industrial complex. As soon as I thought of that, I realized that India in the 1940s was not very industrialized, but did mobilize a large army in the war, so the idea of the “Infantry Only Industrial Complex” (quickly concepted as a Recruitment Center) was a perfect fit. It only took one playtest to realize that it was perfect for India and not much longer to figure out that I had solved my first two problems as an added bonus. The neat little bow on this solution was that it had a strong creative tie and could be communicated with a simple icon and a single sentence in the rulebook.
DJ: Some key A&A rules changes were introduced, like eliminating the purchase phase and no friendly fighters on your carriers. What’s the reasoning behind these changes?
SVE: Axis & Allies is a deep and rewarding game, one you can spend a lifetime enjoying (who has two thumbs and could be labeled “Exhibit 1”? This guy). The biggest challenge isn’t making a game that an existing Axis & Allies player will love, it’s making a game that will create new Axis & Allies players. The two most important tasks in support of that goal are increasing “curb appeal” and decreasing barrier to entry. Grossly simplified, if the curb appeal is enough to get a prospective player over the barrier to entry, then they will sample the game. That’s the first step towards creating a new player.
Now, we felt that this new game would have excellent curb appeal. Zombies have been a big part of popular culture for nearly a decade and there are many players who love zombies and zombie games. When combined with the established pedigree of a nearly 35 year old brand, we were confident that the game would be inviting to players both new and old. Our real concern was barrier to entry, which came in a couple of forms.
One was commitment. Some of the larger versions of A&A take the better part of a day, or sometimes even a weekend to play (I’m looking at you Global 1940). That’s very rewarding for deeply invested players, but is incredibly daunting for new ones. So, we made a target of a 3 hour play time so you could finish in a single evening.
Next is complexity, and this can be the real killer if you’re not careful. If people can’t figure out how to play their first game, they almost never come back to give it another shot. We call this “bouncing off the game”, and we do a lot of work to keep this from happening. A game like Axis & Allies has a lot of rules and a lot of special cases and exceptions, every one of which was intended to either improve the balance of the game, increase the fun of the game, or make it feel more historical and realistic. The challenge is that even though each individual rule might make sense, in aggregate they can be overwhelming. For new players, each new rule or exception increases the barrier to understanding exponentially, so we have to evaluate them as a whole and not individually, especially for a game that is focused on the acquisition of new players.
In the case of the rules that let you share carriers and transports with your allies, we found that removing them saved more than half a page out of the rulebook and it made multiple sections that had been riddled with special cases and exceptions flow much more clearly. The clincher when I was weighing whether to cut those rules was when I realized that in the dozens upon dozens of playtest games I had played in and observed, I had never seen either of those rules used. That being said, since the majority of the cost of including those rules is in learning complexity, we included a note in the quick start rules inviting people to bring them back in if they so desire.
In the case of moving the Purchase Units phase, we found that it was a pretty hefty tax on newer players that had little strategic interest for experienced players. A veteran player is able to plot out their turn in their head fairly easily and deduce what they will want to have purchased by the end of the turn, and it is rare that there are large enough surprises during the turn that would either reward shrewd purchasing predictions or create novel situations out of suddenly suboptimal purchases. Meanwhile, for a new player the early purchase phase commits the dual sin of making a player “do their homework” before getting to the fun part, and making your turn take longer. Even one or two extra minutes in each purchasing phase can add more than half an hour to the play time of a 5 to 6 turn game. Additionally, one of our Desperate Measures events (Salvage Operation) gave bonus IPCs during the turn, and we found that people were much more aggressive about going after zombies if they were able to spend the money immediately rather than waiting a turn.
DJ: If and when new versions of A&A are released (I think Axis & Allies 1942 3rd Edition would be awesome), would some of the new rules be introduced? Recruitment centers? Combined purchase & deployment? No friendly fighters on your carriers? No friendly units on your transports? Event cards?
SVE: If the new mechanics and rules are successful, then they are definitely candidates for future versions of the game. The criteria is always what is best for the game and what is best for the players. Every new tool in our toolbox is an opportunity to make each individual version the best it can be, but there is also value in having consistency between different incarnations of the game. We’ll evaluate the new mechanics and rules based on both of those criteria.
DJ: Did you do any market research to find out what demographics might be interested or not interested in the game? If yes, what were the results?
SVE: I can’t give specifics on market research but we did run focus groups with players that captured the 3 different groups we thought would be excited by this game: existing players, lapsed players, and zombie-loving gamers who had yet to try A&A. Much of what we predicted proved to be true and we got a lot of valuable insights and feedback.
There were some fun moments during the focus groups. My favorite was when watching a father-daughter pair play. She had made a suboptimal attack and her dad pointed out she was probably going to lose the battle. She—with a huge grin on her face—said “I don’t care, I’m making ZAMBIES!!!”