Africa Orientale Italiana:
Designer Ramblings

This was supposed to be easy.

Panzer Grenadier: Africa Orientale Italiana would be, I stupidly thought, a fairly simply project. We had leftover pieces from the old, long out-of-print games Desert Rats and Afrika Korps. We had a set of eight beautiful maps created forConquest of Ethiopia, covering the exact same terrain. So all we had to do was craft a new set of scenarios based on the 1940-41 British invasion of Italian East Africa, and we’d have a complete new game.

Nothing in this business ever comes easy.

Decades ago, I designed a game on the East African campaign for a long-defunct series of operational wargames that had the insane goal of covering all of World War II at 20 kilometers per hex. Over the years that followed, I read more about the campaign and collected more source material, in English and Italian. When the time came to do this Panzer Grenadier game based on the East African campaign, having this material available would make it easy.

Part of the whole Ph.D.-having experience is an obsessive need to know as much as possible about a subject, and to write it down. So I wasn’t satisfied to just glance at a couple of Wikipedia pages, jot down six or ten “typical action on the East African front” scenarios, and call it a day. I used to know a game designer who bragged (always in private) of his ability to craft what he called the “one-weekend-wargame”: design, graphics and everything. I don’t want to be that guy, but I definitely went way too far in the other direction with Africa Orientale Italiana.

There are, all told, 43 scenarios in Africa Orientale Italiana, split into six chapters. Each chapter has a historical background piece telling us what actually happened during this segment of the campaign, followed by the scenarios, and then a “battle game” to tie those scenarios together. It’s the model I’d like all of the games in our Panzer Grenadier family (that is, including Panzer Grenadier (Modern) and Infantry Attacks) to follow.

The scenarios begin with the first skirmishes along the frontiers between Italian East Africa and the British-ruled colonies of Sudan and Kenya. There’s a full set on the Italian invasion of British Somaliland, and then we move on to the twin British invasions of Italian Somaliland and Eritrea. We wrap up with the British (actually Indian, for the most part) driving into Eritrea before they are stopped in the First Battle of Keren.

And that’s where the story ends, for now. With the scenario book already at an unwieldy size, and the Second Battle of Keren really calling out for some extra pieces the set doesn’t include (like Italian Alpini), I decided to end it there and come back later with an expansion set sometime in the future. We’ll have some more scenarios, and still more hard mountain fighting between infantry forces.

As a product, the sins of Africa Orientale Italiana are legion. To start with, it’s the bane of our long-ago marketing guru, “Panzer Grenadier without panzers!” There were tank battles in Italian East Africa, but there weren’t very many of them and those that happened weren’t very large. We do cover all of them in the game, but that still leaves the bulk of the scenarios as infantry fights, usually in rough terrain. Sometimes very rough terrain.

That’s exactly the sort of battle the Panzer Grenadier system was designed to simulate. As a teenager, I endlessly played a long-forgotten game called Panzerblitz. Very popular in its day, it had tanks zooming around the board and shooting at each other from a distance (something other wargames did not have back then). But the infantry plodded along at one hex per turn, if they moved at all – you set up the infantry as static garrisons of strong points (unless you moved them in a truck, but you needed the trucks up on the front lines so they could blow themselves up and block roads and bridges, instead of moving infantry around).

And so I set out to design a game in which the infantry could actually do stuff. That game eventually became Panzer Grenadier. It splits its focus between tanks (the “Panzer” part) and infantry (the “Grenadier”) part; you could argue that artillery is even more important than either one of those but I couldn’t come up with a clever way to work that into the title, too. Having already become obsessed with the campaign in East Africa at this point, I had the battles there in mind as I designed the game (along with those of the Winter War, jungle fighting, and of course the usual steppes of Ukraine and green fields of France). Africa Orientale Italiana is exactly the game for which this system was designed.

The second great sin of Africa Orientale Italiana is its subject. The East African campaign yielded 43 really good scenarios for this game, few if any of them having ever been simulated in a wargame before. It’s a rich background, and we probably could have gone to 60 or 70 with a few more new pieces (or even without them). The scenario book explains those battles, but we still have a lot of selling to do.

As in any campaign in which one side won an overwhelming victory, the final result doesn’t tell the story of the fighting at a tactical level. The Italian colonial army, recruited chiefly for internal-security duties, fought surprisingly well on a number of occasions. Colonial apologists have often held up the “loyalty” of African soldiers to their European masters as proof that not everyone objected to foreign rule, and a military career could lead to a preferential place in the colonial order. There was little to recommend one European ruler over another, and most East African cultures held combat in high regard: the Eritrean askaris may have held no love for Mussolini, but neither did they wish to be seen as cowards.

So despite the final, and inevitable, British victory, the Italians came out ahead in many tactical actions, and had their chances to win more of them. The British could not easily bring their supply, artillery and airpower advantages to bear, and many of the battles had to be fought on even terms: infantry against infantry, among the hills and mountains.

From the standpoint of designer ego gratification, I’m very pleased with Africa Orientale Italiana. A great deal of effort went into the design, and it came out the way I wanted it to. Had it actually been easy, I’d even be happy with it as a publisher. Next time, we’ll put that sort of effort into something well-known with tanks.

You can order Africa Orientale Italiana right here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.