"Tanks attack and defend at 3."
-- from the New Orders rule-changes sheet in the revision
Hands down, that quote will be the most controversial sentence I've posted in this column. Since its initial publication, Axis & Allies has had tanks as 3-attack, 2-defense land units. In the revision, tanks become 3/3 units.
I'm sure some of you are already writing nasty notes to post to the message boards. If you've liked what you've read in the past thirteen columns, hear me out before pressing "Send." Trust me, we would never make a change like this if it weren't better for the game.
Axis & Allies is a mathematical game. The costs and values of units steer the game to certain styles of play, some of which are no fun. In the last edition, tanks weren't worth their cost. They are now. If you want to understand why, you'll have to put up with some math -- apologies in advance.
The "One-to-One" Myth
Some smart people who heard that we planned to bump the tank's defense raised the "one-to-one" argument. The logic goes like this: An infantry costs 3 IPCs and has 3 points of "power" (1 attack + 2 defense). An artillery costs 4 and has 4 points of power (2 + 2). A tank costs 5 and has 5 points of power (3 + 2). By this logic, we would give the tank a huge advantage by making a piece that costs 5 but has 6 points of power.
Every complex problem has a simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answer, and this is it. This math leaves out a crucial feature of any unit -- the ability to suffer a hit. If you have to choose between losing an infantry or a bomber, you almost always take the infantry. The ability to soak up a hit is not free. It's worth about 1 IPC. Many players would pay 1 IPC to get a 0-attack, 0-defense unit that could do nothing but move and die.
If you factor in this into unit costs, then only 2 IPCs of the infantry's cost go toward its 3 power and 4 IPCs of the tank's cost go toward its power. That means the infantry gets 1.5 points of power per IPC while the tank gets 1.25 points of power per IPC. That may not sound like a big difference when looking at individual units but it's colossal when added up over your entire purchasing run.
These values steered the Milton Bradley game to a degenerate style of high-level play. That play style was the "infantry push mechanic," a phrase I never wanted to know so much about. To help you understand the 3/3 tank, I regrettably must explain this tactic. A lot of people know about this, but some don't, so bear with me if you do.
The Infantry Push Mechanic
Premier Axis & Allies essayist Don Rae popularized the phrase "infantry push mechanic" to describe his mathematically preferred buying pattern for the game. (If you want more details on this crucial concept, read Essay 1 on Don Rae's site.) A cornerstone to this pattern is buying infantry after infantry and daring your opponent to attack. After sometimes 15 or 20 rounds of play, someone would attack with their stack of infantry, and the game would resolve itself (or, more likely, end in a concession).
The basis of this mechanic is the fact that infantry are twice as good on defense as on attack. A stack of infantry moving into an equally high stack of infantry will get diced like potatoes. Once the attackers are brutalized, the defender can advance and clean up. It's a nearly surefire strategy for beating a less skilled player.
The important thing to understand is that while high-level players understand and use the infantry push mechanic, that doesn't mean they like it. Some do, but others wish the game could have more choices. The infantry push mechanic makes the game sluggish and dull for all but the most mathematically obsessive players.
What That Has to Do with Tanks
The infantry push mechanic derives its effectiveness from the principle that 3/2 tanks are worse buys than 1/2 infantry. Here's an example: Suppose you and your opponent have 30 IPCs worth of units. You have six tanks (5 IPCs each), and your opponent has ten infantry (3 IPCs each). Your tanks are better on attack than defense, so should you attack him?
From a strictly mathematical viewpoint, the answer is absolutely not. You're doomed. On the first cycle of combat, both of you will kill roughly three units. (You will roll 1–3 about 3 times, and your opponent will roll 1–2 about 3.3 times.) Now you have three tanks left, and he has seven infantry. On the second cycle of combat, your three tanks will be nearly wiped out, and your opponent likely will have five or six infantry left. You won't be engaging in a third cycle.
Scary, huh? You're even more doomed if you wait until your tanks are on defense. When those ten infantry attack, they'll hit about twice, and so will you. (He'll roll a 1 about 1.7 times, and you'll roll 1–2 about 2 times.) That leaves the infantry with a 2:1 force advantage, which only gets worse and worse as you trade expensive pieces for cheaper ones. And you can't retreat.
The 3-Defense Tank
What happens when your defending tanks have a 3 defense? You're in better shape, that's what. When those ten infantry attack, you'll kill three of them as you lose one or two tanks. The next round, you'll still kill two units, and he's more likely to kill one tank. At that point it's 5:3, then it becomes 3:2, then it's probably 2:2, and then you win a pyrrhic victory. Or not. Either way, it's a hard decision for your opponent to make.
Here's what's worse for your opponent -- when you have a bunch of tanks and some infantry to support them. Then you're taking losses from your infantry and nailing your opponent's units with your tanks.
In other words, with 3/3 tanks, a mixed force of tanks and infantry is better than all infantry. That's the game we want to play.
But wait, you say. How does having a 3 defense help my first example, the brutal demolishing of the attacking tanks? It helps if those tanks survive. If you send along some less-expensive infantry to take the hits, a few of your tanks will survive your attack. When the opponent counterattacks, it's harder to dislodge the tanks because their defense of 3 lets them kill an attacking unit as often as not. You can reinforce the newly captured territory with less fear that everything you put there will die.
The Hidden Cost of Specials
Defenders of the 3/2 tank may take refuge in the "blitzing" special ability, shown in the graphic by Brian Dumas. Being able to move an extra territory and capture an unoccupied territory is a great special ability. Surely the blitz should count in the tank's cost, right?
Of course it should, and it does. The thing is, infantry has a special ability too. It has the new "supported by artillery" special ability. This is a pretty good ability. Without doing anything, the infantry borrows a point of attack from a neighboring artillery. The value of both of these is situational (sometimes you don't have an artillery, and sometimes you can't move more than one territory). I think they're about equal, so the special abilities are a wash.
The Other Possibility: Changing Infantry
There was another way we could have gone with this. We could have made infantry a 1 attack, 1 defense piece. We tried this. It transformed the game, but it just became a different kind of no-fun experience. People would throw their infantry into attacks because there was little point in saving them for defense. This was a dead end, so only one option remained: making tanks better. That's what we did.
This is a lot to absorb, I know. I can only tell you that our highest-level Axis & Allies games no longer revolve around buying tons of infantry. Try it with the new edition and post your results on the message boards. It may take a game or two to get used to, but we think you'll like the 3/3 tank much better.
It's hard to believe that there's only one more column left. In that final column, I'll cover the new concept of national advantages and give you a vocabulary primer so that you'll sound like you know more about the new edition than your friends. See you then.
Catch up on any previews you missed!
Mike Selinker has been playing, designing, developing, and just plain loving games of every variety for many, many years. He is a gamer in the very best sense of the word. Mike lives in Seattle.