Africa Orientale Italiana:
Design Notes

Several years ago, designers Ottavio Ricchi and Lorenzo Striuli turned in a proposed Panzer Grenadier expansion book they called Abyssinia 1935. I had long been very interested in the campaign, but I didn’t want to publish an expansion for a game (Desert Rats) already out of print.

Instead, I directed that the book be expanded into a stand-alone game, which ended up with eight maps and a new name, Conquest of Ethiopia. From the start, I intended that those maps could also be used for a game on the 1940-1941 campaign in what became Italian East Africa after the conquest of Ethiopia.

And now we have that game on the way: Africa Orientale Italiana. It uses those eight maps from Conquest of Ethiopia – it seemed silly and wasteful to commission new, almost identical maps when we had these very fine ones already available. And it uses the playing pieces left over from the old Desert Rats game and South Africa’s War supplement. Africa Orientale Italiana isn’t a new edition of any of those games: it’s a completely new game making common use of some components that have appeared in other games.

The game uses our story arc approach to trace the campaign in East Africa, which pretty much breaks into three major segments. The primary British effort took place in the north, where a force built around two divisions (4th Indian and 5th Indian) fought some skirmishes along the border between Sudan and the Italian colony of Eritrea in January 1941, and then drove for the colony’s capital of Asmara and its major port and naval base at Massawa.

Barring their path was the very strong natural mountain fortress of Keren, eventually held by six Italian Colonial brigades including Orlando Lorenzini’s crack 2nd Eritrean Brigade of long-service regulars, and the tough 65th “Granatieri di Savoia” Infantry Division, the Royal Italian Army’s equivalent of a guards unit. For two months Nicolangelo Carnimeo, commander of the 4th Colonial Division, conducted a skillful defense against the two Indian divisions and their supporting forces before he was finally forced to give way. The Italians mounted a defense of Massawa, while most of their forces retreated southward, with the last of them finally surrendering at the end of November 1941.

On the southern frontier, the British invaded Italian Somaliland and southern Ethiopia with three divisions: 1st South African Division and 11th and 12th African Divisions, the latter each made up of two brigades of King’s African Rifles (recruits from Uganda, Tanganyika and Kenya) and one of West African Frontier Force troops (Nigerian and Ghanaian soldiers). The Italians attempted to defend the line of the Juba River with two colonial divisions, 101st and 102nd, consisted of tough Somali troops. They could not hold back the Nigerian and South African advance, which soon turned north-west into the Ogaden region and eventually reached the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The third front, which saw less action than the other two, covers British Somaliland, conquered by the Italians in August 1940 and taken back by the British during the following March. It’s a notable campaign for the Italian commitment of their small armored contingent (M11/39 tanks) and a fierce fight with the Black Watch at Tug Argan, but involved far fewer troops than the other two. By the time of the British counter-invasion the best Italian units had been withdrawn to face the other invading forces, and the 70th Colonial Brigade did not resist for long.

Those three fronts are the basis of the scenario set, organized into “battle games” like our other recent releases so that you can play the scenarios in sequence in the service of a higher goal (kicking the Italians out of East Africa quickly, or making the British take far too long to do so). To portray that, we needed to use all eight maps out of the Conquest set, because Ethiopia is a big country with varied terrain.

The northern front, with the battles at Agordat, Keren, Massawa and Gondar (yes, we have scenarios from the Battle of Gondar, but no special leader piece for Aragorn), takes place in rough mountain terrain. It’s mountain warfare with all of the close-range nasty close combat one would expect, the primacy of elevation and the unusual lines of sight. There’s a good bit of forest terrain here too; in 1941, the de-forestation that over-farming, over-logging and climate change have brought to Ethiopia with devastating effect had not yet taken hold. Both sides bring some pretty good troops to the battlefield: the Savoy Grenadiers are as good as any Italian unit to have shown up in Panzer Grenadier (and you know we like to highlight the good ones), while the Indians are very tough professionals as well.

The southern front is very different: the Italians make their stand along a river line, marked by very little vegetation beyond some banana plantations. The battles took place in desert and in rocky, extremely rough ground. The Italians’ Somali colonial troops fought well in the 1935-36 war and in police actions against rebels and bandits, but proved less capable in 1941 than their Eritrean counterparts. The South Africans were not operating at peak performance either, but managed an impressive advance against the over-stretched Italians.

The brief campaigns in British Somaliland are very definitely desert warfare. The Italians invade with some of their best colonial troops, and defend with some of their worst. The British defend with a mixed bag of small units but include the tough Black Watch and Sikhs; when they come back the invasion depends once again on the Sikhs.

I designed Panzer Grenadier as a tactical game system that could model any theater of World War II, from tank battles in the desert or on the steppe to intense jungle warfare. I wanted infantry combat to be front and center, not an adjunct to the tanks. Africa Orientale Italiana is an infantry game with a wide variety of battles, and one I’ve wanted to release since well before the beginnings of the Panzer Grenadier series. It’s an unusual topic, and one we probably couldn’t have addressed if we had to make it from scratch.

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.