By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Some time back, Panzer Grenadier super-fan Brian McCue suggested a Panzer Grenadier expansion featuring the late-war German armory (Tiger tanks and such) in Afrika Korps livery and fighting in the desert in a campaign that somehow became extended by a few years.
We published those in a comb-bound booklet we called DAK ’44, but I was never really satisfied with it and wasn’t overly sad when it fell out of print. But we had plenty of playing pieces left over (those comb-bound books never sold on the same scale as our “real” books).
That gave me the chance to create a new book, called Afrika 1944, with a completely new story and new scenarios, using those pieces. They’re really nice pieces, almost on par with the silky-smooth ones we make now. I decided to add some additional leftover pieces, the 42 Italian pieces we made for the Gold Club many years ago featuring German-designed tanks built under license plus additional Italian trucks.
The extra pieces (they now total 130) set up a pretty obvious division for the book: three chapters, each of eight scenarios, each with a battle game, for a total of 24 scenarios and three battle games. One chapter sends the re-armed Afrika Korps against the Americans, one chapter sends them against the British, and then one pits the re-armed 131st “Centauro” Armored Division against the Americans and the British.
So far, that’s pretty standard for a Panzer Grenadier expansion. And I could have designed a pretty standard Panzer Grenadier expansion based on An Army at Dawn, with more powerful German and Italian formations (using those new toys) and then written a background story to match. We’ve done those before (DAK ’44 was one of them), and for the most part they’ve been quite good, but I’m pretty sure players would rather have another historical set than an alternate history that plays the same way, just with different-colored pieces.
It’s one of wargame publishing’s dirty little secrets, that only a fraction of the games are ever played, and only a fraction of those are played more than once or twice. Afrika 1944 gave me a chance to write a scenario set designed to be played: since I get to make up the history, I made one up that lent itself to large-scale tank battles. Well, not so large that they can’t be played by two people. I still want to publish a set of division-scale scenarios and battle games, but Afrika 1944 is not that set – there just aren’t enough new pieces to allow that.
What it does allow is a whole series of tank battles, with the action centered on those big, powerful tanks in the Afrika 1944 set. We have these powerful Panthers and Tigers and long-barreled Panzer IV’s, and so we use them. And the Italian M22/41 (PzKpfw IIIJ) and P23/41 (PzKpfw IVF2), too.
Afrika 1944 draws on An Army at Dawn for its maps; keeping the battles to a large-but-playable size means that the four maps from that game are plenty. We’ve been trying to make sure that expansion books for all of our games draw on only one, or at most two, other books or games for their pieces and maps. I decided to break that rule for Afrika 1944, because I’m the designer and publisher both, so I can do that. And it was necessary to make the scenarios interesting, since the pieces weren’t designed for this use. An Army at Dawn’s action takes place in 1942 and early 1943, when many of the newest Allied weapons of 1944 had yet to be deployed. The Americans and the British need something more than halftrack-mounted French 75’s to stand up to Tiger II tanks.
So the scenarios draw pretty heavily on multiple games: Elsenborn Ridge for more Americans, Liberation 1944 for more British, Saipan 1944 for maps and Marines, Counter Attack for Marine heavy tanks, and Africa Orientale Italiana for more Italians (finally, a use for all those Italian tanks included in the game). Plus of course An Army at Dawn.
And I moved the setting a little as well, since the scenarios are supposed to make sense as part of a larger story. So I brought the action to the Canary Islands and Morocco, where there would be no confusion with the actual Tunisian campaign, and placed the mythical campaign within our Long War story arc (the one with Second World War at Sea: Plan Z). That gives the action some framework, which is useful from a design standpoint and for defining the battle games. And it advances the narrative of the Long War just a little, which is something its fans like to see.
As hinted up above, the pieces also dictate the action. Usually you get to write the scenarios and then finalize the pieces, so you can add or delete to match (within a limited number of pieces, of course). The leftover DAK ’44 pieces are decidedly tank-heavy: about a battalion’s worth of Panthers and PzKpfw IVH (with the long-barreled 75mm gun), a couple of companies’ worth of the almost-as-capable PzKpfw IVF2 and the slow but awesome Tiger II, a company each of assault guns, Hetzer tank destroyers and T-34 tanks in German livery. Plus a battalion of Wespe 105mm self-propelled artillery and (with the pieces from An Army at Dawn) a battalion of Tiger I tanks.
The little sheet of Italian pieces adds a battalion’s worth of M22/41 (PzKpfw IIIJ) and P23/41 (PzKpfw IVF2) each, plus one P70/44 (a Tiger II in Italian livery). There’s also a battalion’s worth of ancient, Great-War era light tanks, so I came up with a scenario to use them too, because they’re there.
All of that heavy metal makes the scenarios lean toward tank-on-tank action. It takes a lot of Shermans or Cromwells to overwhelm a pack of Tigers, but they certainly will do so if the German player is careless or simply out-played. The side with the better tanks holds an advantage in Panzer Grenadier, but it’s not an automatic win for the big battalions: initiative, morale and leadership are often even more important. And then there are the anti-tank guns, like the Tiger-killing 17-pounder found in Liberation 1944.
I’m pretty pleased with this little book: it presented a tough design challenge, since the mix of pieces was pre-determined. We’ve since learned that while wargamers love alternative-history naval games, and strategic games, they are far less enamored of alternative-history tactical games. Given that reality, I went with a set that still tells a story, but emphasizes fun scenario play. I think you’ll like it.
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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. Leopold is currently in print.