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H.Q. Dispatches Pt. 2
Justin Webb

Last week I sat down with Mons Johnson, R&D lead for Axis & Allies Miniatures, to discuss some of the design philosophy behind the game. We talked broadly about a variety of subjects, mostly culled from your questions. The following article is an attempt to cover several aspects relating to unit design. Hopefully, at the end, you’ll have a better idea of why we do what we do.

Rarity

Why is the Panzer II Flamingo an Uncommon and a T-34/76 a rare?
- shadowhooch

So, why are some units rare, and some not?

The three biggest factors that determine whether a miniature is rare or not are its size, how many pieces it’s made from, and its number of deco ops.

Deco ops is the name we use when we talk about paint steps. For example, a rare unit will have more paint steps than an uncommon and way more than a common. Basically, every time a paint brush or spray is applied to a mini at the factory, it counts as one “op”. And each level of rarity has to come in under a certain number “ops.”

Big minis obviously use up more plastic and more paint than small ones. A large common wouldn’t look very good because of the comparatively low number of deco ops it would have. So for the A&AM game, all the rares are Vehicles (or Aircraft). The uncommons tend to be the smaller Vehicles or Soldiers that we want to give more attention to. (For example, the Heros and Snipers are uncommons—they have more paint steps than other common Soldiers). The commons are Soldiers.

Also, we generally want the rares to be the high-point-cost units. This is predominantly for draft/sealed play and other alternate play formats.

Mathew Sernett recently wrote a great article about what makes a good D&DM common.

Point Costs

COST . . . all the following are extremely hard to play with considering there are much better alternatives out there.
- shadowhooch

The first misconception I want to clear up about point costs is that they have nothing to do with historical WWII production figures. For example, Shermans aren’t cheap because of the USA’s ability to mass produce them. They’re just cheap.

Do we have a matrix that we use to exactly calculate a unit’s point cost? No. In fact the next thing I’m going to say may come as a shock to some players . . . R&D regularly designs units that have limited playability and that they know cost too much! And they do it on purpose!

Why would we do such a thing? The short answer is that part of the game is about exploration and experimentation. We want you to figure out which units are great and which are . . . er . . . not so great.

Mark Rosewater has covered this subject way better than I ever could here, here, and here. He talks about bad rares from the perspective of Magic: the Gathering, but the general philosophy behind the reasoning is the same and valid for all of WotC’s collectable games.

Power Creep

Will the game evolve from a decent "try to make a realistic and fast WWII mini-game", to a "power-creeping" game with minis with supernatural SA`s?
- LoeweAusNordem

Let’s take a minute to define what power creep is.

Some games are out to make a quick buck. They’re not interested in creating a balanced play environment with a vibrant metagame. All they want is for you to buy them, and lots of them. Whenever a power-creeping game releases a new set, it’s purposefully filled with stuff that was better than the previous set. After a few sets, the stuff that was in the first set has become unplayable, outdated junk. To compete, you need to keep buying the new sets. From my personal experience, these types of games tend to be based on some fad or craze, and are usually very badly designed games too.

Do we have power creep in AAM? No Sir, we do not.

Do we have the occasional fantastic unit? Yes. Guilty as charged.

Do we have units where one variant is clearly better than the other? Yes.

Have we released a set that is strictly better and more powerful than a previous set? Nope.

The Base Set contains many units that are still tournament staples, like the Sherman and the SS-Panzergrenadier. This goes to show that the power level of the game as a whole has remained stable over time. “Three Shermans plus stuff “ is always going to be a good starting point when constructing an Allied army.

Contested Skies, the game’s third set, introduced a new unit type: Aircraft. There was talk on the boards then about power creep too. When the set released and people got to play with the Aircraft, it soon became evident that planes hadn’t broken the game, and that they weren’t required in every single army build.

Ever notice that a Stuka has the same cost as a Sherman? One-on-one, the Stuka should win. In fact, like most units, Aircraft are situational—they’re great in some builds and a liability in others. They’re hard to use and they can’t claim the Objective. They’re an answer to specific problems—if your opponent keeps showing up with mortars and FOs, call in the air force. If this game was guilty of rampant power creep, Aircraft would have been the best units in the game at that time.

One result of having four sets released is that there’s an increase in the number of playable units. However, having great new units to play with isn’t necessarily a sign of obsolescence. Just because something is better, it doesn’t make the worse thing obsolete.

When Aircraft came out, some people complained that the Nashorn had become useless. The Nashorn is an overcosted unit with a splashy special ability. Is it useless? No. Did it become worse? Yes, clearly. Is it still a “beating” when it uses its optics from behind a hill and you have no Aircraft in your army? Absolutely! We like it when the metagame shifts because of a new release. It means that players have to re-evaluate their army builds and come up with new strategies. Sometimes we help out a bit (like when we added Demolitions to the Engineer) and sometimes a metagame shift makes a unit better than it used to be.

Ask yourself this. How boring would the game be if no units were ever released that were better than those in the Base Set?

Just because something is better, it doesn’t make the worse thing obsolete.

What’s up with Aircraft?

Some players have been very vocal about the Aircraft rules. Some have argued that they don’t make historical sense. Some people have said that we should have done how Aircraft attack, and are attacked, differently.

R&D made a conscious decision for Aircraft to participate in combat simultaneously. We didn’t want them to be able to attack and “run away.” And we didn’t want only a small subset of units able to attack them either. Why? We don’t like “hosers.”

Its simply not fun if you can’t shoot them down. We don’t want a situation where if you field an army without any units with an Antiair ability (say, you only had units from the Base Set or Set II, or you fielded a Soviet army), you’re hosed.

We don’t ever want you, as a player, to sit down to play and look at an initial board layout and know immediately that you have no way to win. Where’s the fun in that?

Special Abilities

I think the design team should go back and reconsider some of the units and their SA's
- lybo

Ah, special abilities! I love special abilities. But why do we have them?

Special abilities are a tool for the designers to represent things that are different from the norm.

  • Some are historically reasonable (like Inaccurate and Shrapnel on mortars or Double Fire on machine-guns).
  • Some aren’t really historical but do introduce interesting decision making to the game (Battlefield Awareness)
  • Some are abstract representations of concepts we want to evoke (Paratroopers, Heros, etc.)

We are of the opinion that special abilities make the game much more interesting. We also realize that we have to sacrifice some literal historical accuracy to make some special abilities interesting.

In addition to their basic design, special abilities also have to follow certain rules.

Da Rules

  1. Every special ability on each stat card has to be understandable as if it were the first stat card that player has ever seen.

    This rule is really really important. But what does it mean? Well, it means that a special ability must work without oodles of additional rules support. When a new set releases, a player should be able to crack open a booster pack, read a new ability on a stat card, and immediately know how to play that ability with 95% certainty.

    This is especially important since many players don’t learn the game from the Rulebook—someone teaches them. A new player might not get their hands on a Rulebook until they’ve already purchased several booster packs.

    This rule means that special abilities have to be concise and avoid unnecessary complications.

    (Transport is an exception to this rule, which is why it’s in the Rulebook Glossary. Exceptions are generally bad.)

  2. A special ability may not mention any other ability, type, or subtype that has not yet been released.
  3. You only have an inch and a half, some of which is art.

Beam Me Up Scottie

Do you think "insta-spawn" is a sound game-mechanic that we will see in future sets? (P.S.: I like the paratroopers!)
- Tico303

In a miniatures game you know exactly where every friendly and enemy unit is at all times. In real combat, you don’t always see the enemy or know where he is—in a large battle, you might see only a small number of the participants.

We can’t do hidden deployment—its just way too complicated for a simple “beer’n’pretzels” game like A&AM. (We do it a little with Camouflage and Snipers.) So, anything that mimics it is a Very Good Thing™. However, to do so requires a level of abstraction that some players like but some players despise.

Could we have used some elaborate scatter mechanic involving dice rolling to emulate drift and/or tardiness for Paratroopers? Yes, but see Da Rules above. We’re also very happy with the Paratrooper ability’s level of abstraction. It simply evokes the notion of units suddenly showing up on the battlefield. It also, more importantly, introduces some really interesting game decisions for players.

Do we realize that historically paratroopers routinely landed off target? Yes. If you are uncomfortable with the level of abstraction on this ability, please feel free to House Rule it.

All Tigers Are Not Created Equal

Tiger I vs Vet Tiger: No real need for Tiger now. I understand Vet Tiger should be better; but should it actually replace another unit?- shadowhooch

So lets take all of the above into consideration and take a look at shadowhooch’s example.

Both are large Vehicles with lots of deco ops, so they’re both rares. When the game released, we wanted the Tiger I to be the primo scary German unit. I don’t think we quite succeeded. Lets look at their stats.

The Tiger I costs 63 pts, while the Veteran Tiger costs 65pts. There’s not much difference. Their armor and attack values are identical. So apart from their special abilities, they’re very similar.

They both have Extended Range 10 and Superior Armor 2—abilities that are historical. The Tiger I also has Overrun, which is an OK special ability. It’s an example of an ability that, while not strictly historical, introduces interesting game decisions.

However, the Veteran Tiger has Crack Shot, which is a very, very good special ability. This ability is flavor-driven and when taken into consideration with the unit’s name, is the first clue that the Veteran is clearly better than the Tiger I.

Hopefully, after comparing them side-by-side, your conclusions are that the Tiger I is overcosted. It’s not terrible, but it’s not very playable either—it’s probably not worth 3 Shermans worth of points. It didn’t end up being quite frightening enough. The Veteran, on the other hand, is a very good unit. It’s aggressively costed and very dangerous.

Has the Veteran made the Tiger I obsolete? No. Is it better? Yes.

What we want you to do is be able to look at them side-by-side and realize that the Veteran is better (and be able to do this when comparing all units). If you are the type of player that always plays the “best” units, then you’ll want the Veteran over the Tiger I every time. However, if you do, I bet you’ll sometimes find yourself in situations wishing it had Overrun. Conversely, if you want to keep playing with your Tiger Is, you’ll still find them potent against many Allied builds.

That’s all for now.










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