By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Though it’s the oldest Panzer Grenadier boxed game that’s still in stock, Afrika Korps has a lot more in common with those games that came afterwards than with its predecessors.
The topic is, as the name might suggest, tactical combat in North Africa from the summer of 1940 until the fall of 1941. There are four nationalities present: British and Australian on one side, and German and Italian on the other. The battles range from small, tough infantry fights (the war in North Africa wasn’t always about huge tank battles) to big, sweeping tank battles (because sometimes the war in North Africa was about huge tank battles).
Afrika Korps comes with 737 pieces; 165 of them are the standard Panzer Grenadier Third Edition markers and the rest are mostly combat units and leaders (there are a few special markers, too). The Germans come in a special Afrika Korps pattern that we would use again in Desert Rats and An Army at Dawn. The Italians also have their own desert-yellow pattern. The Brits come in the same style they would rock in later games, while the Australians make their only official appearance in Panzer Grenadier in this game (they would eventually appear in the now-discontinued downloadable module Waltzing Matilda as well).
At the time we first published Afrika Korps, we were putting hard-mounted game boards in Panzer Grenadier games. Those big tank battles sometimes need a lot of space, and we’d have needed to put at least eight boards in the game to provide enough room. Eight of them would not have fit in the standard game box we used then (same size as our current one) and would have been really heavy. And expensive.
So we hit on the notion of using large paper maps, with special markers to denote when hills were in play and how high they stood. They could be used together to create massive battlefields, or separately. Terry Strickland created the map art, with the texture based on her indoor-outdoor carpeting.
A dozen years later, I’m still not sure how I feel about the big paper maps: they’re easy to set up and play on, and the hill markers do make it easy to change the terrain from scenario to scenario. But they’re not as flexible as the smaller, heavy cardstock maps we use now, in terms of the terrain pictured, and they’re not easily interchangeable with the cardstock maps. We used them again in Desert Rats, but afterwards developed the cardstock version of the hard-mounted maps that gave us lower weight and cost.
With fifty scenarios, Afrika Korps makes good use of those maps, and the hill-marker system concocted by designer Brian Knipple works really well. The “hills” are often ridge lines, either channeling the flow of combat or presenting formidable defensive barriers, depending on which way the attacker is trying to move. The scenarios don’t reflect the years of design/development experience that show in more recently-published games; I think some of them tend to run a little too long and morale values are sometimes a little too high. There are some interesting ones in there, with the little Italian tankettes actually getting to see some useful action.
We also missed an opportunity to include some more colorful forces in the game: the Italian Blackshirts and Libyan Colonial forces use the same pieces as the Italian regular army. You can take Blackshirts from the Fronte Russo book and Italian Colonials from Desert Rats to correct that, but it would have been good to have these in the game from the start. Of course, you don’t really need these pieces – the scenarios play just fine with the standard Italian army pieces – but exotic pieces are just cooler. We had not yet mastered that concept when we made Afrika Korps.
We never gave Afrika Korps as much support in Daily Content as it probably deserved; I find it a lot easier to do so for games on which I worked myself and so I gave more love to the companion North Africa game, Desert Rats. We did post a nice piece on Italian Bersaglieri that another wargame company liked enough to steal for their own website under someone else’s byline, without even acknowledging me or Avalanche Press. Yes, I’m still pissed off over that. Steal this piece and post it on your site.
Afrika Korps also pre-dated our book supplement line, and we never went back and gave it much support through that avenue, either. Despite the lack of love compared to the Content we poured out for the Gazala game, Afrika Korps sold very well and went through two very large print runs, one in the United States and a second in the Far East. With thousands of them sold, it didn’t seem to make much sense to upgrade the game to Fourth Edition standards. So we’re selling off the last copies at a steep discount, and before the year’s out we’ll toss out any leftover games/parts in an ecologically sound manner.
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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.