Broken Axis: A First Look
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Panzer Grenadier began as a game set on the Eastern Front of World War II, so it’s good for us to be returning there with Broken Axis. Broken Axis is a Mike Perryman design (Burning Tigers, Liberation) that covers the 1944 Soviet offensives against Romania.
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, 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 Targu 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.
Broken Axis includes scenarios from both of these campaigns, by Mike Perryman. Some years ago Mike designed a series of small scenario supplements based on some of these same battles; Broken Axis covers some of the same actions but the scenarios are very different (Broken Axis has its own maps and a set of pieces more accurately reflecting the forces of 1944; plus the innate desire of all game designers to do things differently if you’re lucky enough to get a do-over; plus the strong hand of John Stafford developing them).
It’s a good set of scenarios, with a range of sizes and types of action. 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 players know, at this scale both sides will find themselves attacking and defending. The Targu 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.
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 Gold Club members can get hold of the Grossdeutschland 1944 set of special pieces and play with those in place of the standard German Army ones from Broken Axis.
Romanian troops appeared in Eastern Front, now permanently retired. 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). So 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 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, all by Guy Riessen who’s done all of our recent Panzer Grenadier maps. 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.
Broken Axis adds up to a fine package of tank battles. And it has Romanians in it. So I think you’re going to like it.
You can order Broken Axis right here.
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.