Review – Axis & Allies & Zombies

Did you ever wonder what would happen if you took a beloved Jane Austen classic, added zombies, then replaced the regency romance with a classic World War II board game ? Well, look no further, for Axis & Allies & Zombies is here to satisfy your curiosity.

Classic Axis & Allies pits 2-5 players against each other in a recreation of World War II (at two players one player is Germany/Japan and the other is Russia/UK/USA, while at five players each player controls only one nation). Each nation has a fixed array of starting territory and military forces (infantry, tanks, aircraft, naval units, etc.). Players must successfully manage battlefield tactics and make appropriate production decisions for use on defense and the next turn’s attacks. Traditionally, the Axis powers had an early military advantage, while the long-term economic advantage of the Allies (especially the United States) would wear the Axis down if given the chance.

Axis & Allies has been around in various iterations since 1981, but Axis & Allies & Zombies is the first time the series has taken a turn for the fantastical (prior alternative versions geographically limited scope of the game, started in different years, or made incremental rules improvements). The core gameplay for AAZ remains the same as other versions of Axis & Allies, incorporating various rules changes and piece additions that have been implemented over the years, from two-hit battleships and protected transports to artillery and destroyers.

The biggest change in AAZ is, of course, the introduction of the zombie unit. Zombie units are not controlled by any player, but represent roving bands of uncontrolled undead. If there are zombies in a territory at the start of the controlling player’s turn, they might inflict casualties. When a battle occurs in a territory with zombie units, the zombies will participate, potentially inflicting casualties on both sides (both sides in the battle may also kill zombies). Battles can produce a lot of new zombies as well, because one of the primary ways that zombies are added to the board is when infantry units die – and, as the cheapest unit, infantry tends to be fairly common on the battlefield. The other source of zombie units is desperate times cards, which randomly drop a zombie on the map every turn. If zombies are left alone in a province, they will take control of it. And, ultimately, the zombies can win if they end up in control of enough territory.

There is also an optional rule that can significantly reduce the threat of the zombies. Each desperate times card is accompanied by an optional desperate measures effect. These effects rewards players for killing zombies, give them technology to better kill zombies, or convert zombie units into something useful (e.g., use the zombies for conscripted labor, get extra industrial production). Playing with desperate measure significantly reduces the change that the zombies can claim a win.

Either way, zombies are not simply a threat to be handled, but add extra strategic wrinkles as well. For example, having zombies in your territories is generally bad – they can kill your units every turn, after all. But if a territory is attacked, the zombies will likely inflict significantly more damage on the attacker the defender. Because only infantry die into zombies, this can also influence the relative value of units. One tactic might be to avoid producing infantry to keep the zombie count in your territories down. Another might be to produce lots of infantry in order to introduce extra attrition on your enemies.

There are less obvious changes for AAZ as well. Production values are down across the board and, while some unit costs have been tweaked as well, this generally results in lower unit production. In absolute terms, this hits the Axis and Allies about equally. Although the Axis overall take a bigger hit in percentage terms, the nation with the biggest percentage drop is Russia, which loses over 40% of its production (in unit terms, from the ability to field an 8-infantry defense to the ability to field 3 infantry and a tank). This is notable because of another rule change, which only requires a single captured enemy capital (and retaining all friendly capitals) to win. This turns the German drive into Russia into a truly game-defining conflict – there is no ability for the Allies to recover from a German capture of Moscow. While classic Axis & Allies is traditionally held to favor the Allies, I think that AAZ will generally lean towards the Axis.

With several Axis & Allies versions currently available, there are a range of price points to suit various budgets and tastes. Axis & Allies 1941 retails for only $30, while the Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition retails for $100. AAZ falls near the less expensive end of this scale, with a $40 price point (lower than anything but the 2014 Axis & Allies 1941) making it more affordable than most of the more historical versions. The low price point does come with a downside, as there are not quite enough pieces to play conveniently (there is a reason why this A&A game does not limit units purchased to what’s in the box). We were frequently at the maximum number of a particular kind of unit on the board, and were only able to stay at that number by shifting fulling to chips so that the actual unit pieces could be deployed. Then we ran out of the chips the game came with. There was one major exception to this, which was the zombies – it takes a long while for the zombies to build up enough to run out of them (it helps that, unlike normal pieces, there’s only the one type and color of zombie unit).

I first encountered Axis & Allies in high school, and I returned to those roots to test out Axis & Allies & Zombies (I also separately played with my eight-year-old). We found that, along with the core rules, the core experience of Axis & Allies is pretty intact in AAZ – but with enough differences that it has its own distinct flavor. For the fan of Axis & Allies, then, AAZ is a worthwhile purchase, hitting that sweet spot where if you like the original you know you’ll like the spinoff and where the two aren’t just so close that there’s no need to own one if you own the other. It will also provide any extra little kick for fans of hordes of undead swarming across the board, as a more casual group can get into the more ‘chaotic’ feel of the zombies and let go of some of the more serious A&A strategies (while more serious A&A players can consider strategically how the zombies might affect those traditional strategies).

My eight-year-old enjoyed it as well, more than I was expecting (children do not always take it well when their stuff gets destroyed, and obviously AAZ involves a lot of your stuff getting destroyed). For mine, I think that direct, head-to-head conflict reduces the kid drama. If hitting other players is optional, or an attack can be directed at any of several players, then they can get upset at this choice. But if the whole point of the game is “attack the one other player” then it seems to go better.

Overall, Avalon Hill has done a really good job of producing an Axis & Allies game that can appeal to both experienced A&A players and new ones alike, without simply repeating what has gone before.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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