By Mike Bennighof,
When I designed Panzer Grenadier: Elsenborn Ridge, I came away very pleased with the game. And it’s lived up to that opinion; it’s easily the best-selling Panzer Grenadier title and continues to be one of the series’ most popular games.
Since we published Elsenborn Ridge, the series has been through some major changes. It has a new series rulebook (Fourth Edition), which is fully backward-compatible to older games like Elsenborn Ridge, but Elsenborn Ridge still had many references to the old rules set peppered throughout its text. Its 35 scenarios were presented individually, in chronological order, the way wargame publishers have presented scenario-centric games since the dawn of time (or the early 1970’s, which means pretty much the same thing).
Over the last few years, I’ve come to see how games (and in particular, those like Panzer Grenadier that include large numbers of scenarios) can be used as story-telling devices. The scenarios can trace the action, letting the players play along with the narrative if they like, or just reading through the game scenarios to see how the action played out and picking the key points they’d like to see on the game map. That gives each scenario some wight and meaning, in the sense of the broad story being told.
That sort of approach is unusual in wargames, but it’s pretty much the standard in other segments of the specialty tabletop game world (board games, card games and role-playing games). People don’t just want to push pieces or slap down cards; they want to tell a story. And that’s how we’ve re-made Panzer Grenadier, as a story-telling device.
Elsenborn Ridge provides one of the best backdrops for dramatic storytelling in World War II. The Americans, defenders of democracy, are facing off against not just the German regular army that’s been the shield for uncountable mass crimes. Spearheading the German attack are the Armed SS panzer divisions, well-equipped units manned by fanatics. A blood-stained organization that’s not even part of the German armed forces, but a wing of the Nazi party.
There’s no moral relativity here. This is a battle between good and evil.
Over the past few years, some politicians in the United States have embraced (at times through law and policy) whitewashing American history, demanding a story that’s comfortable and safe. Sanitized. It’s a sad and ultimately harmful outlook, this attempt to manufacture a false, feel-good narrative. American history is full of raw horror, starting with the original sin of slavery. Yet that part of the story only highlights the glory: that in December 1944, the United States Army stood its ground and defeated unmitigated evil.
That’s a dramatic story, and it’s the one I chose to tell with Elsenborn Ridge. There’s plenty of source material for it, and the hard part comes in choosing what to leave out.
I saw the story underlying Elsenborn Ridge when I first designed it, and the game reflects that. The maps were designed from the start to serve a dual purpose, to act as the generic terrain that’s standard for Panzer Grenadier (in this case, Western/Central European wooded hills and small villages). But I crafted them to mirror specific locations within that, like the Twin Villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath, or the crossroads dominated by the Domane Bütgenback manor.
The scenarios also flowed into a series of connected actions, at the Twin Villages or the Crossroads, or the defense of St. Vith. That made the revision into chapter format pretty easy; Elsenborn Ridge is in many ways the pre-cursor of our current format. The battles on the “northern shoulder” of the Battle of the Bulge are almost perfectly suited to the story-arc format: the German offensive follows a small number of narrow axes of advance, dictated by the primitive road network of the Belgian Ardennes. Along those routes, the Americans stand and fight them. The Germans either advance, or they don’t. And then the Americans move back down those narrow roads to kick the Germans back to their starting line and beyond – a sweeping maneuver to encircle them might have looked good on a situation map far removed from the front, but that just wasn’t likely in this terrain, especially in winter.
We originally released Elsenborn Ridge before 1940: The Fall of France, but I think 1940 may be the older game design. We recently gave 1940 a thorough overhaul that included adding completely new scenarios, completely revising others, and dropping a couple. That made for a significantly better game, and 1940: The Fall of France is now one of the best in the entire series.
Elsenborn Ridge didn’t require anything on that scale; as my own game design, in my role as publisher I was able to assure that no one got over-enthusiastic during development and fixed things that weren’t broken. The new edition was a chance to make some needed corrections, and to alter some things like just the basic language.
The scenarios already came close to a chapter structure, so it was easy to group them that way and add battle games so you can play them together with a broader goal (in terms of game-play). There was one scenario left over, and that outlier turned out to be well-suited for use as an introductory scenario, and that’s how it appears in the new Playbook edition.
I speak and read German fluently, though I’m much less comfortable writing in it (lack of practice, I guess). Even as a child first reading military history (the “World War II for Kids” stuff that filled the history shelves of school and public libraries in that era), it struck me how German military terms filtered into English-language histories and in particularly wargames. Not other languages – Russian terms were fully translated. But German words continually cropped up, and Armed SS units in particular received not just their number but their name as well while Allied units rarely did.
We often followed that convention in the early years of Avalanche Press, because it was a convention and I simply didn’t really notice. Everybody did it, and that was just the way it was like the AP Stylebook determined newspaper usage in my first career.
I altered all of that in Elsenborn Ridge. Volksgrenadier is translated as People’s Grenadiers; the Waffen SS are the Armed SS (and properly cast as militia, not soldiers, as they were not a branch of the German armed forces). Their divisions are identified by number, not name – we reserve that for deserved honors like “Spearhead.” Language matters, and McLuhan was right: the medium very much is the message. And we’re not going to send a message that puts any positive glow on the Nazi Party’s armed thugs.
I was always proud of my work on Elsenborn Ridge, and I’m glad that I took the opportunity to polish it a little more. This is a first-rate game as good as anything we’ve published.
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Elsenborn Ridge Package
Elsenborn Ridge (Playbook ed)
Winter Wonderland winterized maps
Britain's Battle of the Bulge
Retail Price: $184.95
Package Price: $150
Gold Club Price: $120
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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 new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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