My first experience was with Third Reich.
My friend Pat, our D&D Dungeon Master and the collector of Avalon Hill games, owned it and introduced it to our gaming group. I can’t say I remember much about it (other than that it was rated at a complexity of 10 out of 10, if I recall correctly). We tried to play it once but did not get very far. I picked up a copy, read through the rulebook multiple times, but I just could not grasp the rules (there were just too many). For me, Third Reich was a bust.
Enter Axis & Allies, the now-classic game originally by Milton Bradley.
With its plastic pieces and map divided into territories rather than a hex-grid, it was reminiscent of Risk but its gameplay was a step up in sophistication. There were different types of units (from armor and infantry to battleships, aircraft carriers, bombers, and fighters), each with different strengths and weaknesses. Part of the challenge of the game was to purchase the right mix of units to maximize your military’s potential. This optimal mix depended on the country you played. Russia, being on the defensive early in the game, tended to focus on lots of cheap infantry. The map spanned the entire globe with the Axis powers intent on conquest while the Allies seek to stop them. The rules were simple, so our globe-spanning battles proceeded quickly and bloodily and our games ended with definitive conclusions (usually with the Allies victorious).
I can’t say that Axis & Allies was an accurate simulation of World War II. For one thing, we learned that the best strategy for the Axis was for the Japanese to attack the Russians from the rear. I remember one game where Japanese forces entered Moscow. Obviously, this did not happen for real, and I suspect that the logistical challenges would have made it much harder in real life than it is in the game. Despite its flaws as a simulation, Axis & Allies engaged us, and we played it somewhat frequently (the game’s length – listed on Wikipedia as 2-10 hours – restricted the number of times we played). Clearly, this game won big over Third Reich.
Now that I am older, with much less time at my disposal, I rarely play Axis & Allies. Today, I prefer games that can be completed in an hour or so. Nevertheless, Axis & Allies clearly influenced me. Combined with Ace of Aces, it reinforced my preference for simple rules. Also, if I remember correctly, it was the first board wargame I played that used miniatures for playing pieces (back then, my copy of Risk used weird geometric shapes and Avalon Hill games used counters). It revealed to me that playing with miniatures is cool, even if it’s a board game. Today, my solo miniature games are essentially board games with miniatures, an approach inspired in part by Axis & Allies.