This review was inspired by a couple of things. First was the fact that Eagle Games has packed a great game into the two boxes that hold Attack! and its Expansion, but they didn't quite realize it. On a scale of 1 to 10, this game is maybe a 4 that could easily be turned into an 8 with a bit of effort (i.e., yet another expansion!). And second was the "house rule" action cards image uploaded by ProgFlower (it was image #30250 when I wrote this), which intrigued me no end. I think the concept represented by these cards is exactly the fix that this game needs. But first, let me review the game as it comes out of the box. I'll discuss its problems and possible fixes later.
The first thing you notice in any game of this scope are the components--a huge, lovely map (actually two of them put together) that takes up a lot of table space, a million colored plastic miniatures to cut from their sprues, a handful of cardboard counters to punch out, several types of nice plastic-coated cards, and some very odd-looking red dice. Everything seems quality made, but you'll end up wishing you had more of the weird red dice; it would save a lot of passing them back and forth between opponents during combat. The plastic miniatures come in six colors, but three of them were poorly chosen--the brown, tan, and gray pieces all have a real problem with being hard to see after you put them on the board. In terms of strategy, however, that makes these colors the desirable ones to choose at the beginning of a game. If my opponents can't easily see my tan guys on the board, perhaps they won't attack them! That's right, ignore those boring brown guys and go after the pretty red and blue and green ones instead!
The worst of the game's components are the "five dollar pieces." The land units each player gets come in just four shapes--infantry guys, tanks, artillery, and planes. For each of these types of pieces, you're provided with a few larger versions that my group of gamers calls the $5 pieces because they're supposed to represent five units instead of one. Intended to reduce clutter on the board (some map spaces where units need to go are quite small), these pieces aren't nearly distinctive enough for practical use. Except for the tanks, the fives were barely any larger than the ones, which makes them hard to distinguish and therefore completely useless. We were constantly confusing the fives with the ones, and quickly agreed to stop using the fives at all. Other than that, the game's components are all of very nice quality.
Setting up the game takes a bit of time because everybody starts with quite a few pieces and even more choices as to where to put them. Attack! and its expansion rules offer you a chance at creating an alternate history. The setting of the game gives you WWII type technology, weaponry, and politics, but without any of the usual pre-determined political assignments for any of the countries. The communists aren't necessarily in Russia, the Monarchists aren't always in British, and even America can be full of fascists! This is where the cardboard counters for the game come in; each one has a political symbol on it, and after each player randomly chooses his own government type, the rest of the markers are randomly scattered around the board to denote which government type each neutral country has.
One interesting aspect of the startup process is the way each player chooses his starting regions before being randomly assigned a political type to play. You don't know if you're Democracy, Fascism, Communism, or Monarchy when you choose your starting position. The only player really hurt by this is the Monarchy player, who scores extra victory points at game's end for each country he owns that's on a different continent from the one where his capital city is located. If you put your capital city in Asia and then find out you're the Monarchy player, you've just eliminated the largest continent on Earth as a source of extra points. While you could get around this disadvantage by allowing the Monarchy player to move his capital, that would probably give that player too much of an advantage for some people's tastes. As a startup strategy, it might be a good idea to put your capital city somewhere besides Asia just in case you're the Monarchy player.
My first game of Attack! had five players, which immediately presented the group with a bit of a political situation. Because the game only provides four political positions to represent, one of them had two advocates while the others each had just one. In our case, we had two commie pinko players on the board. At first, we all thought that would make them a formidable team as 40% of our group was going to be bent on spreading throughout the world long lines of people waiting to buy poorly made shoes. As it turned out, however, these two players actually spent lots of time competing to take over the same neutral countries. It's easier to peacefully take over neutral countries which have the same politics as your own, so these two guys were constantly racing each other to the neutral Communists. The fact that there were two Communists in the game didn't really bother the rest of us at all.
The politics of the game actually add a lot of flavor to it because each political affiliation scores victory points for different things. In fact, that's really the only difference between one political affiliation and another in this game. There's no economic advantage for the Democracy guy, etc. Everybody scores two VPs for each territory on the board that he owns, but the bonuses vary. The Communist gets an extra VP for each neutral country that's also Communist at game's end. That's a pretty light bonus because by game's end in a five player game, there are few neutral countries left at all. The Monarchy player gets 1 bonus VP for each owned country which is far from his capital, as mentioned above. The Democracy player and Fascist player both have interesting ways of scoring their bonus points. The Fascist player scores an extra point for every country he takes over by force, but only when his opponent loses three or more units in the battle. That not only makes the Fascist aggressive, it makes him aggressive towards better-defended territories. I'm sure that Poland would have preferred such a system back in 1939. The Democracy player may have the most interesting handicap of all--while he gets a 1 point bonus for each neutral Democracy on the board, he gets a 1 point penalty for attacking neutral countries of any type! This tends to force his aggression towards the other players instead of the neutrals. While one naturally expects to be fighting his opponents in a game like this, one normally appreciates having neutral countries to beat up on first--you know, just for practice! But not our Democracy guy! He's out there to kick your butt right from the get-go!
This game also has an economic factor to consider, as well as fuel. There are four suits of economic cards in the game--Rail Transport, Factories, Oil, and Minerals. Of these, Oil is the most important because you have to spend it in increasing amounts for every action you take on each turn. You can take as many actions during your turn as you have oil to pay for doing so, and the price keeps going up! You pay 1 oil point for the first action of your turn, 2 for the second, 3 for the third, and so on. Your turn can last as long as you have oil to pay for these actions, which means that you're constantly hungry for oil and constantly searching for new sources of it, which are found only by taking over other territories. The trick with the economic cards is forming sets--one card from each of four suits. Each card has a point value listed on it from 1-4, the higher the value the better. After each round (one turn for each player), these points are added up and you get a corresponding amount of cash to spend on new units, technology development, and other things. If your hand of economic cards contains a set--one card each from Oil, Factories, Minerals, and Rail Transport--the point values for the cards in the set are doubled! There is actually a fifth suit of economic cards--Population. But all the Population cards have a point value of just 1, and you can't use this suit to help form a set. Whenever one of us would draw a Population card as a reward for victory in battle, we'd complain! "Darn it, who needs more people?"
So the object of the economic cards was twofold--build sets and get oil. Worse yet, the Oil cards could be used either as part of a set for earning money or as a source of oil certificates--but not both at once. If your Oil cards helped you form a set, you would nearly always take the money unless you were completely out of oil and these cards were your only source for more of it. Running out of oil was simply not an option because it meant you got to do absolutely nothing on your turn, and of course, that means game over for you!
You start the game with four economic cards, but they are dealt out randomly, which we felt was a real problem in terms of balance. We had one player in our 5-player game start out with 3 Population-1 cards. After his first turn (rife with unsuccessful combat), he was doomed. Even worse, the game doesn't end until one player is eliminated, so nobody would attack the poor guy and put him out of his misery so that he could go watch TV while the rest of us finished the game. He had to sit there in a hopelessly miserable position until we finally ended the game through alternate means. Meanwhile, another player's randomly constructed starting hand happened to contain a set, doubling the value of his cards and giving him a huge economic advantage right from the start. Of course, the economy cards are kept secret until you cash them in at the end of a round, so nobody knew about his huge advantage until he used it and financially leapt out in front of the pack. On the other hand, once we knew he had that set of cards, he was one marked Communist! Still, for the sake of balanced play, the game really should start by giving everyone the same hand of cards, or at least a hand of cards that have equal point value to that of the other players. A bad hand of economy cards at the beginning of this game can take you right out of the game.
So you start the game with four economic cards, four Political Action cards that let you pull all sorts of shenanigans on each other, 30 points worth of Oil Certificates with which to buy your actions, and 30 Production Points, which are the currency spent to buy new units. You get more oil and production points from the economy cards, and you get more economy cards whenever you win a battle. If you win a fight against a neutral country, you get one card from the deck of economy cards, and if you win a battle against an opponent, you get to steal a card from his hand (but without looking at his hand first). When you attack a neutral country, the economy cards have a neat little double purpose. On each card is listed the force you must defeat in order to win the card, such as "3 infantry" or "4 infantry, 2 tanks, 1 artillery." The higher the value of the card, the tougher the force you must beat in order to win the card. One of your opponents uses his unused pieces to represent the neutral country, and joyfully fights against you in such battles. This was a very popular aspect of the game--fighting as the neutral country against an opponent without actually risking your own armies!
The real guts of this game's strategy come from the various actions a player can take on his turn. There are ten things he can do during a turn, most of them simply stuffed with strategic decisions to make:
1. One can trade with other players. The most common type of trade involves economic cards as each player tries to build the sets of cards that allows him to double the value of the cards. You can also trade armies, favors, Political Action cards, etc.
2. One can research new technology. There's a deck of technology cards in the game, and each of these cards confers upon its owner a neat little advantage of some sort. One card lets you treat your Factory cards as if they were Oil cards, giving you easier access to more oil. Most of the technology cards, however, give you some sort of advantage in battle--an extra die, or tougher tanks that are harder to destroy. Winning a tech card isn't easy, however. You have to roll two six-sided dice and get a 10 or higher! That number can be reduced by paying Production Points, reducing your target number by one for each five PP's you spend. The risky part is that the PP's are spent whether you roll successfully or not, so you could be throwing away a $10 tank or a $15 airplane with that bad technology roll.
3. One can make a Strategic Move, which allows you to move units through a chain of countries that are owned by you. This action can really surprise people, because it's easy to forget that a large force can be instantly moved through a long chain of countries that are each held down by a single unit. Just before you get ready to attack that weakly defended chunk of Australia, you can find it bristling with armor and artillery!
4. One can make a diplomatic blitz, which is how you can win over a neutral country without the messy process of blowing up its buildings and killing off its population. You just roll two dice and get a total of 6 or higher after applying a few modifiers. The neat part is that they've built in the domino effect. If you successfully win over a neutral country this way, you can try for another with a +1 modifier to your roll….and then another….and then another. As long as you're successful, you can keep going! This is a very popular action early in the game when there are still lots of unowned territories on the board.
5. One can do some strategic bombing in an attempt to damage an opponent's economy. Your planes try to bomb his hand of economic cards while his planes try to defend them. If such an attack is successful, the defender loses the use of one economic card. This is the only time you want a handful of Population cards!
6. One can move and Attack! There's a ton of map strategy involved, as with any good war game, and lots of military strategy as well. As in Risk, you can overextend yourself quite easily. You can move all your pieces on the board at once, but you must commit to all your moves (and battles!) before conducting any of your combat. Lose a pile of the battles, and suddenly some of those moves don't turn out to be very smart! The worst battles are the ones you can barely afford to win, let alone lose. You attack a weakly defended country that gets lucky and shaves you down to your last unit before finally falling. You take over the country with a single infantry unit and steal an economy card from your opponent. Unfortunately, it's awfully easy for the next guy to steal that country--and he might swipe a much better economy card from your hand after doing so. There's nothing quite like winning a huge battle over somebody's Rail Transport 1 card and then getting attacked by someone else in your newly-won-but-weakly-defended territory and losing an Oil 4 card!
Another neat little strategy we discovered by accident was the "itty bitty battle" strategy. You attack a country defended by 1 infantryman with just 2 infantrymen. If you win, you could steal a very nice economic card at the risk of losing just one piece. Of course, this only works if your newly won country is surrounded by other weakly defended territories that aren't likely to take your new card right back before you get a chance to bulk up your defenses….
7. One can start an auction for a Trade Route. Some of the economic cards in the deck are Trade Route cards, which act as wild cards. They have higher numbers on them (ranging from 3-6 instead of 1-4) and can be used to complete sets of cards, increasing their value even further. Problem: the auction's minimum bid is 20 Production Points, so buying these cards is fairly expensive. They can also be attacked and lost, but nothing in life is free….
8. One can Raid Commerce, attacking an opponent's trade route with one's submarines. Did he say submarines? Yes, there are navies in this game! More on that later.
9. One can play his Political Action cards, using them to wreak havoc of all kinds. These cards can be fun because they affect all sorts of things in the game. Some let you change the political affiliation of netural countries, swinging them to your way of thinking and making them easier to take over with a Diplomatic Blitz as described above. Some Political Action cards let you steal things from other players, some give you free units to place on the board, and there's one particularly powerful and unpopular one that lets you change four of an opponent's armies into your own! That's the Revolt card, and it's felt to be much too powerful by a lot of people who play this game. If you pick a country with four or fewer units in it, you just take it over. If the country you choose has more than four units, you have to fight a battle with your four "new" armies against their former mates! Either way you use it, this card can really upset somebody's plans. It's especially tough when used on the first turn of the game, reducing somebody from four starting lands to just three with the turn of a single card. In general, however, the Political Action cards add a ton of flavor and fun to this game.
10. One can spend Production Points to build new units, an action you take quite often in any game that's called Attack!
The combat system in this game is both easy to use and fun, offering lots of strategy while being very quick. Each type of land-based unit has an advantage of some sort. Infantry gets no combat advantage, but it's cheap to buy. Tanks are twice as expensive, but get to roll two dice in combat (all other units roll just one). Artillery is tough on infantry, but more expensive to buy and can more easily be hit by tanks or planes. The planes are awesome in combat, able to pick their targets at will and getting two chances in six of hitting them, but they're terribly expensive to buy. In a 1-on-1 battle, a plane has twice the chance of hitting an infantryman as the infantry has of hitting the plane, but the plane is three times as expensive, so a lucky infantry roll can really sting. Planes only tend to fight with other units out there to protect them.
One oddity of the combat system is that the defender always gets to shoot first in any battle. That means that the attacker very often loses pieces before even taking his first shot. It sounds kind of backwards, but it does have one realistic effect: you don't attack territories unless you outnumber the armies defending it!
As I stated at the beginning of this long-winded review: this game is a lot of fun to play, but it has a lot of holes that need to be filled:
A second and very important function of the Political Action cards is giving you an alternate way of ending the game. Some of the cards have eagles on them, and the game ends immediately if 13 of these eagle-marked cards get played. I haven't played this game enough to be certain, but I'll bet more games end this way than by having one player get eliminated. That's okay with me, because games that end only after sitting around waiting for somebody to get completely eliminated are always tough to watch, especially when you're the guy being eliminated. Such games are often a slow, painful death even when you win them. The drawback to this alternate method of ending the game is rather glaring, however--our guy who got off to a bad start because of his lousy hand of economic cards spent half the game simply trying to get everyone to play eagle-marked Political Action cards. Instead of trying to win the game, we had a guy whose was hurrying to lose it just so he could get it over with. Such games aren't as much fun for the people who are honestly trying to win them. Granted, this guy was a bit extreme about it, but in any game where you're obviously going to lose, throwing eagle cards around has to be pretty tempting.
The naval units are almost completely unnecessary because the game doesn't often last long enough for them to be a factor. For one thing, amphibious movement is far too easy. There are sea routes printed on the map, connecting countries that are separated by thousands of miles of water. As long as there are no unfriendly naval units in the way, you can attack Britain from South Africa in a single move, which is simply ridiculous. You don't even need boats to get you from one country to the other! You just need a lack of unfriendly enemy boats in your way! In our 5-player game, we had a very "target-rich environment" without even bothering to resort to amphibious movement.
Secondly, the sea routes printed on the map leave out a lot of details, probably for the sake of map clutter. As a result, you can attack Egypt from India via sea route, but you can't stop off and attack Saudia Arabia even though it's on the way. You can attack Great Britain from South Africa, but you can't attack Nigeria from South Africa even though it's only half as far away as Great Britain. The whole "sea route" concept is flawed, and needs to go. Movement through oceans and seas should probably be a point-to-point affair. This could be accomplished with hexes on the map and would certainly be a lot more realistic without being too complicated.
The most basic naval handicap is simply one of time. This game offers you a million strategy options that you don't have time to use before the game ends, usually by playing 13 eagle-marked political action cards. The problem is even worse in a game like that I've described, where the losers start begging for people to play the eagle cards just to hurry the game along. Because of the world-wide scope of the game, you can choose between lots of strategy and a short playing time, but you can't have both and really enjoy all the features the game has to offer. 20 Production Points for an aircraft carrier? We had one aircraft carrier hit the board about five minutes before the game ended. It never did a thing. It didn't have time! And I can get four destroyers for that same 20 Production Points. In a head-to-head naval battle, I'll put my four destroyers up against your single Aircraft Carrier any day of the week!
Randomly drawing your starting economic cards almost borders on insanity because the range of results is so wide--you could start with anywhere from 4 (four Population 1 cards) to 32 points worth of cards (four 4's, doubled because they form a set)! Everyone should start with the same hand of cards, or at least equally balanced hands.
One strategy we discovered accidentally involved the Turn Order. After every player but one had taken his first turn, somebody suggested that the last player should start an auction for a Trade Route card. Everyone else had spent money building new units, guaranteeing that the last guy to take his first turn was the only one at the table with 20 Production Points to bid on a Trade Route! He did so, and was mopping up economically for quite a while. This problem is probably easy to fix, however--just outlaw this action for the game's first round. Personally, I wouldn't require a minimum bid for it, either.
The worst aspect of the game, however, is easily the DOWN TIME. By letting each player perform actions as long as he had oil to spend, and then giving each player 30 Oil Certificates with which to start the game, you're guaranteed to have an outrageous amount of waiting around for your next turn. You could reduce the amount of starting oil handed out, but I think the problem is more basic than that--each player is simply allowed to do too much on his turn without giving anyone else a chance to react. The problem is compounded by rotating the starting player in each round. I went first in the first round, which meant I went last in the second. There was probably an hour between my first and second turns!
I think the best way to fix this problem was suggested by ProgFlower in Image 30250--the one I mentioned at the beginning of this review. That image shows a deck of cards ProgFlower made up. Each card in the deck has an action listed on it, as well as various tips and house rules that his group apparently uses. Each action was also numbered from 1-10 as well. According to this house rule, each player secretly picks his first action by laying one of these cards face down. Everyone reveals their chosen action at once, and resolves them in the numbered order, lower numbered actions occurring first. Ties can be broken any way you like, but the important thing is that everyone gets to take ONE ACTION before anyone gets to take a second one.
Now that system sounds like a blast! Everyone tosses his 1 Oil Certificate into the bank and lays down his action card face down. Then the actions are revealed, and hopefully you've decided to build your new units an action or two before someone else decides to attack you! No? Well, maybe you can fix it in the next round of actions, where everyone has to pony up two oil certificates in order to play a card. When someone no longer wants to take an action because they're getting too expensive, he just stops playing the cards. When everyone stops playing the cards, the round ends. Personally, I think this house rule is going to save this game for my group of players. While everyone liked playing the game when their own turn came, the downtime in between turns was just killing the whole game for us. Allowing everyone to take just one action at a time would make a huge difference in this game.
Overall, then, I can't complain too loudly. Sure, the game is less than perfect. But any "flawed" game that can be vastly improved with a few simple house rules can't be all bad. And in the case of Attack! and its expansion rules, the gains made by a few house rules could turn this game into a favorite! I'd have to give this game a qualified thumbs up. If the house rules I already have spinning around in my head will work, I'll give this game an enthusiastic thumbs up!