By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I’m not sure how many wargames have been published that are based on the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, but it’s a lot. We’ve done three of them ourselves, with one (Panzer Grenadier: Elsenborn Ridge) still in print and another long out-of-print Panzer Grenadier title due to return this year in a totally revised edition.
If we were going to make a third Battle of the Bulge game for Panzer Grenadier, it would have to be something different, and something special. And that’s what designer Philippe Léonard showed me with Panzer Grenadier: Ardennes 1944, and that’s why I decided that we had to publish it.
And just to get this part out of the way: Ardennes 1944 is a completely new game. It has no relation to any game we’ve ever been published, other than to be part of the Panzer Grenadier series and use the Panzer Grenadier Fourth Edition series rules.
Ardennes 1944 is unlike any Panzer Grenadier game we’ve ever published; I’m reasonably sure it’s unlike any tactical wargame ever published but as I haven’t seen them all I can’t claim that for certain. I can say for certain that it is something special.
So what makes it so special? To start with, there’s the historical content.
The story unfolds through 68 scenarios; 49 of them follow the progress of the German 1st SS “Life Guard” Panzer Division’s Battle Group Peiper and some of the other battles that influenced their advance (or lack of advance). The German Sixth Panzer Army sent this tank-heavy detachment, reinforced with a battalion of Tiger II heavy tanks, through decidedly unfriendly hills and forests.
Some of these actions were covered in Elsenborn Ridge. The two games tell different stories; I designed Elsenborn Ridge to tell the story of American success, of the bitter defense offered by the U.S. Army on a battlefield far from home. Elsenborn Ridge pre-dates our story-arc format, with historical background and battle games interwoven with the scenarios, and presents its scenarios by themselves in chronological order. And of course it has completely different maps.
Ardennes 1944 is, by contrast, a story of failure. Joachim Peiper would become the poster boy for fans of the Nazi regime; there’s a whole literature devoted to trying to fathom why any American or resident of the Western democracy would venerate a criminal, coward and loser of this magnitude. Peiper’s command would be responsible for the Malmedy massacre of American prisoners of war; he would be decorated for this.
Battle Group Peiper lasted for exactly one week before its heroic namesake ran from the battlefield, having lost three-quarters of his men and all of his tanks. National Socialist Ardor could not overcome command incompetence, rugged terrain and ferocious American resistance.
Philippe zeroes in on the spectacularly stupid decision by the SS commanders of Sixth Panzer Army to send heavy tanks through narrow pathways and across lightweight bridges. It’s not like they didn’t know what faced them. But panzers had moved through this supposedly impassable terrain in 1940, so the Germans would try again - except those panzers had been much smaller, and they’d passed well to the north and the south of the route charted by Peiper’s band of criminals.
To tell that story, he’s designed a different sort of Panzer Grenadier map. Panzer Grenadier uses what we call geomorphic maps, that show generic terrain typical for the area over which the campaign was fought, which you then place together to form the battlefield for the scenario. They’re usually inspired by actual terrain features; two of the maps in Elsenborn Ridge, for example, are pretty closely based on the “twin villages” of Krinkelt and Rocherath, the scene of multiple intense battles (the twin villages aren’t covered in Ardennes 1944).
Since Philippe has taken the view that the terrain shaped the story of Battle Group Peiper’s failure, the eight maps are central to the game design. They show the actual terrain features of the battlefield, while also remaining compatible with all the other maps in the Panzer Grenadier library. That gives Ardennes 1944 both the historical veracity of “actual terrain” and the flexibility offered by geomorphic map boards.
There’ve always been some Panzer Grenadier fans who’ve claimed they wanted “actual terrain” in their games, but they’ve not backed that demand with their checkbooks. The handful of games we’ve done with such maps (three of them, all long out of print) sold at a far lower level than their sister games with geomorphic maps. Even adjusting for other factors (their topics, their price tags, or the amount of marketing push we gave them) it’s crystal clear. The public has spoken, and it doesn’t want “actual terrain” maps.
But Philippe wanted actual terrain, and he figured out how to get it. His terrain analysis is critical to his thesis on the failure of Battle Group Peiper, and so the new approach to map design is integral to the game. Most wargames don’t have much of a thesis; they’re in no way comparable to a true historical study. This one does have something to say, and in large part it says it through its maps.
The other 19 scenarios of Ardennes 1944 cover a phase rarely addressed in the many books and games based on the Battle of the Bulge, the January American offensive to roll back the German gains. Elsenborn Ridge closes with the near-suicidal attack by the 551st “Get Off Your Ass” Parachute Battalion at Rochelinval on 7 January 1945. Ardennes 1944, despite its name, carries on through the remainder of January.
While I never considered adding 1945 to the game title, I liked this coda to the main event very much. In the first chapters we follow Battle Group Peiper on the attack. In these final episodes, the Americans are advancing and they’re really pissed off. While they face the same terrain that Peiper endured, somehow, they manage to fight their way across it without the benefit of Aryan efficiency.
The playing pieces are the standard die-cut, silky-smooth type we’ve been using for Panzer Grenadier for some years now. The U.S. Army, German regular army, German air force and the Waffen SS are all present in their own color schemes. Being a Philippe Léonard show, Ardennes 1944 has plenty of unusual units and vehicles, though I reined in some of these.
Ardennes 1944 offers immense play value, and it tells a story while it does so. That’s exactly what I want our games to provide, and I’m very pleased to be able to offer 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 faithful dog, Leopold.