By Mike Bennighof,
For some reason, we’ve waited for over a decade to publish an overview of Panzer Grenadier: Elsenborn Ridge in Daily Content. With the game now back in print in a Playbook Edition, it’s well past time we corrected that oversight for Panzer Grenadier’s best-selling title.
Elsenborn Ridge is set during the Battle of the Bulge, on the so-called “northern shoulder” of the German penetration. So it doesn’t include the epic battles for Bastogne (that’s on the southern shoulder) but it does have most of the other famous clashes: St. Vith, the Panzer Graveyard, the destruction of Battle Group Peiper, the Twin Villages. It’s one of just two originally Third Edition games (out of sixteen currently in print) that we carried over into the Fourth Edition of Panzer Grenadier (1940: The Fall of France is the other).
We had good reasons for that, in both cases. We’ve made huge changes to Panzer Grenadier games since we published Elsenborn Ridge, yet the game holds up surprisingly well in comparison to the most recent releases. It’s not organized in the chapter format with battle games to tie the scenarios together, but they do follow several sequences of battles and the scenarios themselves represent the action in exactly the form I want to see in all of our games.
Elsenborn Ridge shows American troops in many different sorts of battles: against crack German Army and Waffen SS panzer divisions, against hastily-assembled and poorly-motivated German Volksgrenadier outfits, against tough German paratroopers. They fight them in the open fields, in the bitter woods, in tank battles and in brutal close-quarters infantry fights.
It’s actually slightly larger than what we consider the Panzer Grenadier standard, with 583 pieces against the usual 517. It does carry the standard four geomorphic map boards. At 35 scenarios, it’s right at the sweet spot of having plenty of play opportunities, but not so many as to seem overwhelming.
The scenarios take place on the northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge, where the German Sixth Panzer Army attacked the American First Army and made some progress before the offensive stalled. Germany’s Supreme Leader, the self-appointed greatest commander of all times, personally selected the units to participate and their objectives. The attackers overwhelmed elements of the American 7th Armored Division around St. Vith and pushed the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions back to the feature the Americans named Elsenborn Ridge after a nearby Belgian Army barracks.
From there, the Americans would not be moved. The 99th Infantry Division lost 465 men killed in action, while over 4,000 German corpses piled up in front of its positions. In the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt, the 2nd Infantry Division held its ground against the German “Hitler Youth” Division for three days. Dozens of burned-out German tanks formed the Panzer Graveyard” while six American soldiers would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Hono0r.
The Germans were always unlikely to achieve a major breakthrough, and the staunch resistance of the American divisions on the spot assured that they would take no more than a small slice of the rugged Ardennes semi-wilderness. The area had been weakly held for a reason: there wasn’t much there worth taking.
The powerful German commitment here included the well-equipped if somewhat over-rated I and II SS Panzer Corps. The SS party militia had a great deal of combat experience on the Eastern Front, and initially they faced American formations with little of it. While the German offensive might not have succeeded, on the tactical level – where Panzer Grenadier lives – the fighting was intense as the Germans committed their armor into dense village and forest terrain where the Americans could hunt them with their bazooka anti-tank rockets. The Germans also sent in the 3rd Parachute Division, and a half-dozen infantry divisions of somewhat less combat capability.
At the high-water mark of the German advance, the American 3rd “Spearhead” Armored Division destroyed the 2nd SS Panzer Division, as word spread of repeated massacres of American prisoners by SS militia units. “They were a bunch of murdering bastards,” veteran Belton Cooer recalled, “so we just devastated them.”
Panzer Grenadier uses what the wargame end of our tiny industry calls “geomorphic” maps – they don’t represent a specific location, but rather typical terrain of a particular region. The Elsenborn Ridge maps have a mix of villages, forests and hills, but I crafted them to closely resemble a couple of key locations that saw a great deal of fighting, the spots the Americans labelled the Twin Villages and the Crossroads. So they’re not completely generic, but they can stand in for many places. We make use of them in many other game expansions.
While we’ve been negligent in supporting Elsenborn Ridge with Daily Content, we’ve given it some nice extras. Winter Wonderland is a unique item, the four maps from Elsenborn Ridge shown in winter snow coloration. Spearhead Division gives you 88 special pieces showing the 3rd Armored Division in its own special color scheme plus 25 new scenarios, organized into four battle games.
The segregated African-American 761st Tank Battalion fought in the Battle of the Bugle as well, and Panzer Grenadier: Black Panthers adds 24 scenarios depicting these brave men as well as the battles fought by them and other Black units. And British troops also saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, as depicted in our new Campaign Study by Philippe Léonard, Panzer Grenadier: Britain’s Battle of the Bulge. Our Golden Journal No. 37: Heavy Metal also takes place on the Elsenborn Ridge maps.
Philippe has also designed an additional game for us, Panzer Grenadier: Ardennes 1944, that concentrates on the destruction of Battle Group Peiper. It adds to the story we told in Elsenborn Ridge, but doesn’t replace it. And we’ll continue to tell more of this story in the years to come.
Elsenborn Ridge is the best-selling game in the Panzer Grenadier lineup, which is a testimony to its solid design and fine set of scenarios (its longevity doesn’t hurt, either). Given the number of Panzer Grenadier games we’ve released over the years (and even I’m not complete sure how many that is, but I think it now totals thirty), that makes for what the industry calls an “evergreen” title. And one you’ll want to keep on your game table.
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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 staggering number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.