Europe 1940 is the counterpart to Pacific 1940, released last year. They both work as standalone games, but can be combined into one massive scenario encompassing the entire world and all of the second World War. And I do mean massive — the board for the combined game takes up a lot of tabletop real estate, and there are hundreds of miniatures.
The components are lavish, with each nation represented in the game (Germany, U.K., France, Italy, U.S.S.R., U.S.) getting their own box of plastic miniatures, color coded by nation (technically, the U.S. and France share a box). The boxes are an especially nice touch, storing all the minis and providing the initial setup unit positions on the box tops. The minis are specific to each nation — that is, Soviet tanks are T-34s, German tanks appear to be Panthers, while U.S. bombers are B-17s and British bombers are Lancasters. The map is massive and looks brilliant. You also get a set of combat dice (basic d6s), a chart for tracking each nation’s IPCs, the combat grid, and some plastic chips to use for unit stacks.
Gameplay is functionally very similar to classic Axis & Allies. Each territory a nation controls generates IPCs, which are used to purchase new units. Units can only be placed where there is an industrial complex, so you can’t drop them right at the front. Combat is matter of rolling d6s for each unit involved. Units score hits by rolling a certain number or below. For example, attacking tanks score hits on a 3 or less, while defending fighters hit on a 4 or less. Most units defend and attack differently — one of the most significant differences is that infantry only hits on a 1 on the attack, but on a 2 or less on defense.
A combined arms mechanic allows you to boost your attacks by pairing certain units together. An artillery unit can elevate an attacking infantry from a 1 to a 2, while a fighter escort boosts a tactical bomber from 3 to 4. That makes unit purchases and movement more interesting, forcing you to consider not just which units are the best, but which ones will work together with your pre-existing units.
Politics play an interesting role, as there are neutral countries which can be swayed to one side or the other. The 1940 timeframe sets up some unusual situations. Germany has already invaded Poland, moved into France and taken the low countries, but Paris is not yet occupied. Neither the U.S. nor the Soviets are directly involved in the war. On the first turn, Germany inevitably takes control of France — given the initial set-up, there is virtually no way for France to avoid this. For the first three turns, the games is essentially Germany and Italy versus Britain. Unless the Axis attacks the Soviets early, the Soviets can’t declare war until turn 4. The U.S. suffers the attack on Pearl Harbor (off-camera) at the end of turn 3, entering the war on turn 4.
Once involved, the U.S. enjoys massive industrial output, almost double that of any other nation. Without a Pacific front to draw off resources, they get to send countless units across the Atlantic to vex the Axis. If the Germans have not already taken control of the U.K. by this point, they face a difficult two-front war against an opponent with seemingly limitless resources. So in many ways, the game seems designed to play out along historical lines.
On the other hand, some things are quite different. Italy, while starting with limited industrial capacity, is not plagued by the intangible problems that crippled their efforts in the actual war, so they can become very important. Our game had a major naval battle in the Mediterranean off the southern coast of France, the result being a crushed Royal navy and victorious Italians. Italy was also able to decisively take control of North Africa without any German assistance.
There are a few things that bother me about Axis & Allies. I wish the nation’s military units were differentiated in ways other than the shape of the plastic minis. Every nation’s units have the same cost and the exact same military capabilities (unless you spend IPCs on advanced research). Also, I know it seems strange to say, but I find the minis themselves bothersome. If they used simple cardboard chits like most wargames, not only would it be easier to stack and sort units on the board, but game information such as attack and defense values and IPC cost could be printed right on the units. I understand that the visual impact of all those miniatures is what makes this game so popular and gives it a lot of appeal to people who would not otherwise ever play a wargame, and I love games that simply look good on a table the way this one does, but I also hate when functionality has to be sacrificed for it.
Still, it is a lot of fun to play out World War II at such a massive scale. Few games let you feel like a general and a prime minister all at once. I’m going to have to pick up Pacific 1940 and try a combined game — I suspect the game’s balance will be improved, and that will be one seriously epic WWII experience.