Opening the Toybox
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In my initial design for Panzer Grenadier: Afrika 1944, I stuck with the model we’ve been using for the historical expansions: the new scenarios would be tied to just one Panzer Grenadier game (in this case, An Army at Dawn) and expand on what was in that box.
Hard experience shows that doing otherwise causes all manner of distress in some Panzer Grenadier players. But here I had this wonderful set of new pieces, Tiger tanks and such all in Afrika Korps livery, and I was designing scenarios not a whole lot different than the ones you can play in An Army at Dawn. I decided to throw out most of what I had and break open the full richness of the Panzer Grenadier toybox.
Afrika 1944 already would have had to exceed that “just one game” limit, to give the American opponents of the late-model Afrika Korps some tanks and especially anti-tank weapons that could stand up to them (or at least weren’t so totally outmatched). That meant including Elsenborn Ridge. Unless I wanted the scenarios to be solely Americans-vs.-Afrika Korps, it would need Liberation 1944 too, to give the British some later-model tanks and weaponry.
As I worked on the scenarios, it struck me that three games were already well over the hair-on-fire line anyway. And as I built the background story, I saw opportunity for more fun, if only I could add another game. So what, I thought (well, I actually thought something else, but “so what” will suffice). They’re already going to screech over three games. Why not add a fourth?
The story takes place in an Axis-occupied Morocco in 1944, because the Army at Dawn maps work fine to represent Morocco. Loosely it’s in the same setting as our Long War alternative history (the one with Plan Z), though it’s a tenuous connection at best (you don’t need to know anything about the Long War titles, much less own, read or play them). The Allies come ashore, where they’re met by the Afrika Korps. Fighting ensues.
Fleshing out the story, I saw that in our alternative history, Spain had aligned with the Axis. The Canary Islands would host German air and naval bases while Gibraltar would be under siege (at one time, I had intended to make Plan Z a stand-alone game on this basis). That would give the motive for landing in Morocco (relieve the pressure on Gibraltar). But the Canary Islands would have to be taken first. And who better to capture islands than the U.S. Marines?
The Saipan 1944 maps work just fine for Tenerife, the main island of the Canaries. And now the Marines can fight the Afrika Korps. The Marine Corps against the Afrika Korps – who can resist that? And so I wrote a Marine chapter, and added Saipan 1944 to the list of needed games.
The Marines of Saipan are pretty tough, but what they’re not is heavily-armored. They needed more tanks. Korean War: Counter Attack has more Marines (who match the 1944 Marine pieces) and best of all they have some M26 Pershings. Now we were at five games, but we had Marines fighting the Afrika Korps (and fighting German paratroopers, since we have plenty of those guys in Elsenborn Ridge and so, well, why not?).
The Marine scenarios were so cool, the ones I’d written set on the mainland sort of paled. Alternative history is an easy sell for the naval games, but a pretty hard one for Panzer Grenadier. To make it interesting, it needs to be different – not just different-colored pieces doing the same things, more or less, as they do in the historically-based books and games.
In college, I’d heard of guys playing division-scale Panzerblitz, the ancient, long-forgotten Avalon Hill title at the same scale as Panzer Grenadier. Since I had a girlfriend and she was pretty hot, I’d never participated, but the idea fascinated me. I’ve always wanted Panzer Grenadier to include at least a few large scenarios, suitable for team play, for long-term one-on-one play, or just pretty intense solitaire play by lonely guys without hot girlfriends. Scenarios with huge numbers of tanks on each side. That would also allow full use of the enormous range of those big 88mm guns on the Tiger and Tiger II tanks.
Since I was making up the history, I could make up the battles, too. And I’ve long ago learned that when you’re making up the historical game background, make up a history that suits the sort of game you want to create.
An Army at Dawn only has four maps, which allows for a big battlefield, but not as big as I wanted. Since we were already at five games, I went to six and started including the maps from Africa Orientale Italiana, since it has eight of them and they match the look of An Army at Dawn. That allowed really big scenarios: the old DAK ’44 pieces included in Afrika 1944 have 48 tank units and there are a few more in An Army at Dawn that are suitable, too (including two more Tigers). And now they could roam across six or eight or ten maps, fighting hordes of Shermans pulled from Elsenborn Ridge and An Army at Dawn. And since I wanted still more American tanks, I used pieces from Spearhead Division, too.
I’d already decided to throw a small set of Italian pieces into the Afrika 1944 book, pieces that we printed long ago as a special thingy for the Gold Club. But in those days we had little control over quantities printed – we had to print six or eight sheets at once, all to the same number (since they were all on one huge press sheet). It’s just 42 pieces, but it includes 15 trucks and 18 modern German-designed tanks, including a Tiger II. That, together with the P26 heavy tanks from the Africa Orientale Italiana sheet (that as far as I know we’ve never used in a scenario), give the 132nd “Ariete” Armored Division a powerful armored striking force and two full battalions of elite Bersaglieri to support them.
That’s enough for a chapter of scenarios where Ariete faces Old Ironsides, 132nd Armored against 1st Armored. Tank and crew quality goes to the Italians by a slight margin, numbers and support (air and artillery) to the Americans. And we have a couple of huge scenarios included.
I didn’t go exclusively with massive scenarios – they’re no more difficult to design than a smaller one (and actually much easier than a very small scenario), but they take forever to polish. The sheer size makes them pretty forgiving in play (if you have 35 tank platoons in action, are you really going to miss one or two?), but if someone’s going to devote days of play time to it, you need to make sure they’re having fun.
We’ve published a handful of alternative-history Panzer Grenadier books and supplements; none of them have failed outright but neither have any of them matched the sales of the historical games. Afrika 1944 exists to make use of the leftover pieces from one of those less-than-fully-successful supplements, called DAK ’44. We’ll never reprint the DAK ’44 pieces; plus, the late-model Italian tanks in Africa Orientale Italiana won’t be included when we reprint the pieces for that game. Since there are a limited number of Afrika 1944 copies we can make, I’m fine with the idea that it will never sell half as many as Spearhead Division – we can’t make that many. And since the number of sales is capped, I figured that I might as well indulge myself in designing all manner of fun and strange scenarios and give the true hard-core Panzer Grenadier player something they’ll really like as opposed to just sort of enjoy.
The total score for other items needed to play Afrika 1944 comes to six games (An Army at Dawn, Africa Orientale Italiana, Saipan 1944, Liberation 1944, Elsenborn Ridge, Korean War: Counter Attack) and one book (Spearhead Division). I actually restrained myself from adding Marianas 1944 just for one more Marine tank. I kind of regret that.
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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.