A Study in History
For some years, I had a notion that wargames – particularly scenario-based games (which would be almost all of those that we publish) could do a much better job of telling the story of the event they purport to simulate. That they could be more than just a scattershot collection of scenarios; the scenarios should help tell the story, with still more historical background interwoven with those scenarios.
Most games, including ours, followed the pattern laid down by the ancient, long-forgotten Avalon Hill Panzerblitz, a game purportedly based on tactical combat on the Eastern Front in 1944. which set the pattern for dozens of tactical-level wargames that followed from many other publishers and game designers. There would be a mix of pieces and maps, and a set of “scenarios” – separate game situations using those parts. Usually there were a dozen of them, because Panzerblitz had 12. Many publishers and designers still follow this ancient ritual; we certainly did in many of our early games (though we went way past a dozen scenarios, even then).
With Panzer Grenadier: Broken Axis, we broke the pattern. I’d experimented while designing an Infantry Attacks game, Fall of Empires, but Mike Perryman’s design for Broken Axis presented pretty much what I wanted. The Soviet assaults on Romania in April-May and August 1944 were massive operations involving thousands of tanks and hundreds of thousands of troops. There are enough interesting actions to give rise to dozens if not hundreds of good Panzer Grenadier scenarios. Designer Mike Perryman chose 46 of them for Broken Axis, and I added a few more to flesh out the handful of gaps.
Broken Axis has 50 scenarios; since we launched the Panzer Grenadier series, we’ve made it a point to include many scenarios to give players plenty of play value. Usually these have been scattered snapshots of the campaign covered by the game, to give small vignettes of the different actions that occurred. And they’ve usually been pretty effective from that standpoint; each scenario told its own story, and often told it really well. But we left the overall story for the players to pick up from the context, to read between the lines.
Broken Axis fills in those gaps between the lines. Broken Axis is organized into five chapters. Each has its own historical background, plus a varying number of scenarios (six to 10) and then the innovative new part, the battle game. The battle games in Broken Axis tie together the historical scenarios into what might be thought of as a meta-scenario. You can play them separately or together, as you wish.
Since the scenarios need to be individually as accurate as we can make them (there’s no “typical action on the Eastern Front” rubbish in Panzer Grenadier), the forces, terrain and so forth don’t change based on the outcome of the previous scenario. Each scenario stands alone, but you play them in sequence to determine the winner of the battle game. It’s a simple and fun innovation, originally laid down by former series developers Matt Ward and Daniel Rouleau, and it has completely changed the way we make Panzer Grenadier games (and those of its sister series, Panzer Grenadier (Modern) and Infantry Attacks).
This structure – what we call the story-arc format – has also meant a profound change for how we support our games after publication. We’ve introduced a series of new, small books that we call Campaign Studies. They fit right into the story-arc structure, adding an extra chapter or two (like we did with 49th Mountain Corps and Tank Battle at Raseiniai for Fire in the Steppe, or Legend of the Iron Wolf for Lithuania’s Iron Wolves). We’ll do this with more games in the future, including Broken Axis.
The chapters (each with a battle game) in Broken Axis include:
• First Battle of Tirgu Frumos. Having driven the Axis out of Ukraine, the Soviets continued their offensive into Romania without pausing to regroup and resupply. The key road junction of Tirgu Frumos (spelled Târgu Frumos in some sources) became the prime target of Marshal Ivan Konev’s Second Ukrainian Front. The attack began on 2 April 1944, and the Soviets reach the town a week later. The German Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division, aided by the Romanian Royal Guard infantry division, retook Tirgu Frumos in a fierce two-day battle.
• Second Battle of Tirgu Frumos. On 2 May 1944, Second Ukrainian Front tried their luck again. The German Grossdeutschland division, along with 24th Panzer Division and the Romanian Royal Guards, repelled their attacks in what became a textbook example of mechanized forces fighting on the defensive – though the textbooks appear to have been based on some pretty self-serving German accounts. We’ve done our best to correct the record, delving into some Romanian-language sources.
• Tashlyk Bridgehead. The Germans struck back on 10 May 1944, attacking a Soviet bridgehead over the river Dnestr. Three panzer divisions and two assault gun brigades - totaling about 115 tanks and assault guns between them - struck Eighth Guards Army, the Heroes of Stalingrad. They fought their way close to the river, but were finally repelled by a stout last-ditch defense led by Guards Captain Vasiliy Zaitsev, the famed Sniper of Stalingrad (and unlike Zaitsev’s duel with the fictional German super-sniper Erwin König, this is a thing that actually happened).
• Operation Katja. In late May 1944, the German Eighth Army gathered all of its mechanized formations to launch a spoiling attack against the Soviet divisions gathering north of Jassy, disrupting their offensive, securing communications with the important Romanian city and obtaining better defensive positions. The offensive gained its objectives, though at a serious cost in men and machines that the Germans could no longer afford at this stage of the war. The front then became quiet while the Soviets prepared for a renewed offensive and the Germans shuttled their best panzer divisions northward to shore up the crumbling Army Group Center.
• Romania Mare. The Soviets resumed their offensive on 20 August with a well-prepared attack. The Sixth Tank Army struck the Romanian VI Corps after a heavy artillery bombardment, and soon broke through the lines of the 5th Infantry Division. The Romanian 1st Romania Mare (“Greater Romania”) Armored Division had begun moving to counter-attack the breakthroughs even before the Soviets attacked. A series of fierce tank battles took place over the next four days, until Romania agreed to an armistice with the Soviet Union, beginning operations against the Germans the next day.
The massive battles of April through August 1944 in Bessarabia are little-known in Western or Russian historiography; the Soviet general staff’s history of the Great Patriotic War simply pretends that the April through June operations never happened. David Glantz’s Red Storm over the Balkans is probably the best/only work in English, but even it contains some serious errors. Glantz continually confuses the Romanian 1st Armored Division and the Royal Guard Division (a straight-leg infantry outfit), placing the armored division (and its tanks) at the front in April. Among others, Cornel Scafes’ Armata Romana 1941 – 1945 and Jipa Roatru’s Armata Romana in al Doilea Razboi Mondial (there’s apparently a title shortage in Romania) put the armored division (and its tanks) back on its training grounds where it apparently spent the entire April-June period.
Broken Axis offers outstanding game play and solid history. Not many wargames can make that claim.
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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 an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his new puppy. He will never forget his dog, Leopold.
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