Broken Axis: A First Look
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2022

Panzer Grenadier: Broken Axis is based on the Red Army’s 1944 offensives against the Axis along the border between Romania and the Soviet Union. The first operation, launched in April on the heels of previous advances across Ukraine, met stout opposition and eventually collapsed. The second, better-prepared offensive in August broke through Axis defenses and knocked Romania – Germany’s most important ally - out of the war.

The two operations are known as the Jassy-Kishinev Offensives, after the capitals of Moldavia and Bessarabia, respectively, which were the major Soviet objectives. Panzer Grenadier began as a game set on the Eastern Front of World War II, so it’s well-suited to telling these stories.

We initially released Broken Axis in early 2016, sending the game off to press in the last days of 2015. It was one of the first new games to receive our die-cut and silky-smooth playing pieces, and one of the first to run through that print run and need replenishment. With that reprint, we shifted from boxed format to Playbook – everything you need to play, right there inside the book (well, some of it’s packed behind the book, and there are no dice). That allows easier inventory management, and lets us produce more of the final product within the United States, which makes for a more reliable shipping supply chain.

The Playbook is what we in the trade call a “perfect-bound book” and people in the real world call a “paperback.” Stapled books (like our scenario and rulebooks in the boxed games) have page counts in multiples of 4 (look at one closely and you’ll see why). Perfect-bound books are printed on large sheets that are then folded and cut, and so their page counts are in multiples of 16.

Broken Axis is already a great scenario book, filled with historical background; for the Playbook edition, we added still more to bring it from its current 68 pages (multiple of 4) to 80 (multiple of 16). We could have cut it back to 64, but that would have been very wrong.

So what made Broken Axis such a fast-selling game? It’s partly the topic, and partly the approach we took to it.

First, the topic. The mother of all tactical board wargames, the ancient icon Panzerblitz, was set during 1944 on the Eastern Front (though with scenarios based pretty much on fantasy) for a reason: most of the famous big tanks are present on the battlefield, and even though the Axis is operationally on the retreat the Germans still have the tanks and troops to fight the Red Army of Workers and Peasants at even odds. While the makings of good Panzer Grenadier scenarios can be found in just about any conflict of the period – we’ve published some nice ones from the 1941 war between Peru and Ecuador, or the 1948 Indian invasion of Hyderabad – this phase of the war does lend itself to the large tank battles that gamers love.

The campaign in Romania took part in two phases. In April 1944 the Soviets launched a massive offensive, which was slowed at first by mud and then by stiffening German and Romanian resistance. Usually known as the First Jassy-Kishinev Offensive, by early June it had ground to a halt at a cost of massive Red Army casualties. The highlight of the campaign came at Târgu Frumos, where the German Grossdeutschland Division conducted a famous counter-attack that shattered the Soviet offensive in that sector.

Soviet focus shifted northward during the summer, for the enormously successful offensive known as Operation Bagration. Once many of the best German formations had been drawn north to try to plug the gaps blown in their lines in Belarus and Poland, the Soviets resumed the attack on Romania. This time they did much better, shattering Axis defenses and surrounding large bodies of German troops. The German Sixth Army was destroyed for the second time in the war. With the Germans unable to meet their obligations to defend Romania, the kingdom broke off relations with Germany and joined the Allied side.

Those campaigns are the basis for Broken Axis. Designer Mike Perryman provided scenarios, mostly from the April campaign. These broke naturally into several groups, so I wrote a few more for the August 1944 operations involving the Romanian Royal Armored Division, and that let me break them into chapters, each following a specific part of the overall battle with a series of scenarios.

That leads us to the second factor in the game’s popularity, the approach. Each chapter leads off with historical background describing the situation, with the scenarios that follow helping to tell more of the story. And then there’s a battle game that lets you tie the scenarios together. You don’t have to play all of the fifty (50!) scenarios included; because they’re part of the story, you can choose the point in the story where you want to take part and affect the outcome.

Broken Axis doesn’t just tell its own story; it also has an introductory chapter to help guide you into playing Panzer Grenadier. The game system isn’t hard to play, and you can even hook up with mentors to teach you how through Panzer Grenadier Headquarters. But Broken Axis can be your entry point into the world of Panzer Grenadier as well as an immersive game experience once you’re familiar with game play.

Beyond the intro scenarios, the set has a good range of sizes and types of action. Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland gets a lot of play, but so do the Romanians because I made sure of that. The Soviets are operationally on the attack and so are often the attacker, but as long-time Panzer Grenadier players know, at this scale both sides will find themselves attacking and defending. The Târgu Frumos scenarios feature masses of Soviet tanks flinging themselves at outnumbered, well-led, high-morale Germans – for once, the myths the German generals spread after the war are actually true.

Panzer Grenadier was designed as a “universal” tactical game system, able to model any form of World War II combat: in the jungles, on the Steppes, in the desert, in the mountains. And it achieves that pretty well. But it was created for tank battles from the Eastern Front, and that remains what it does best. Broken Axis is filled with them.

There are four distinct armies represented in Broken Axis: the German regular army, the Royal Romanian Army, the Red Army of Workers and Peasants and the Soviet Guards. The German Army is not at its peak for the most part – that passed about two years previously – but is still a formidable fighting force. It brings Tiger and Panther tanks to the battle plus the usual array of infantry, support weapons and assault guns.

The exception to that is the Grossdeutschland Division, which is very much at its peak as a fighting formation. It does not appear in its own color scheme in the game, but you can get them with the Grossdeutschland 1944 expansion book.

Romanian troops appear in the Armata Romana expansion, which takes place during the 1941 campaign. The Romanian Army of 1944 has rebuilt itself after the massive casualties suffered in late 1942 and early 1943, and there are some noticeable changes. Similarly to the Germans, the Romanians reorganized their infantry platoons with fewer soldiers but a greater proportion of automatic weapons (submachine guns in the Romanian case). Like the German GREN infantry, the new Romanian VAN infantry (Vanatori, or “Rifle”) platoons have greater full-strength firepower than the old-style INF, but drop more sharply once they lose a step.

Romania is short of support weapons, particularly of useful anti-tank guns, and the available armor is woefully inadequate. Leadership is actually improved from 1941; the Romanian military held back recent military academy graduates from the front lines between 1941 and 1943, preferring to weed out the military bureaucracy back home. These young officers went to the front in 1944, but their superiors are less enthusiastic about combat.

The Red Army of Workers and Peasants marches to war with the array of troops and weapons long-time players have seen before: infantry, mortars, field guns and the T-34c tank. The T-34/85 is also available (and pretty awesome) as is the JSU-152 assault gun, and there is a much larger assortment of Lend-Lease tanks than usually found in a Panzer Grenadier game: Valentines and M4/76mm Shermans and more. The Guards bring the JS-2 heavy tank and their Stalin Organ multiple-rocket launchers, plus the infantry, artillery and support weapons to back them up.

There are four new maps in Broken Axis, and as befits the battleground (northern Bessarabia for the most part) they have plenty of hills and lots of forest cover. For those keeping score at home, they’re numbered 60 through 63.

We’ve tried to craft better games than Broken Axis in the years since its release, but so far, the best we’ve managed is to match it. Broken Axis is a splendid game, with enormous work and love poured into it, and you need it on your game table.

You can order Broken Axis 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 NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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