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Fire & Sword:
Designer’s Preview

Some years ago, I decided that Avalanche Press needed to keep an “emergency game” in its files - something we could insert into the schedule when cash flow dipped for whatever reason without too lengthy of a design/development cycle. We’ve published a couple over the years, usually announcing them during particularly hard winters.

Panzer Grenadier: Fire & Sword was easily the best of them, and so I held it back for the most severe business emergency. I think that moment has arrived: while sales are still steady, but I can see severe supply chain disruption looming down the road. Wargamers want new toys, and without new toys, the old toys - even the old toys totally unrelated to the new toy - don’t sell. I’ve seen that happen way too often to doubt it will again.

Panzer Grenadier: Fire & Sword uses the playing pieces originally printed for Road to Berlin way back in 2006. They’re very fine pieces and have been protected in plastic wrap ever since. In those days we had to fill a shipping container with stuff coming from China (even if you wanted to, you couldn’t just pay for empty space in the container), so we made way more than we needed. And they’ve been waiting for this moment.

So, what about the game? I’ll tell you about the game.

Following their successful offensive in Romania (seen in Panzer Grenadier: Grossdeutschland 1944), Soviet armies overran much of Hungary in the autumn of 1944. In October, the Soviet Second Ukrainian Front began an offensive aimed at capturing Budapest; it failed, and so they tried again in November, and failed again.

Then Third Ukrainian Front arrived in December, and the Soviets this time avoided the head-on assault and surrounded Budapest, closing the ring on 26 December, St. Stephen’s Day (St. Stephen the patron saint of Hungary is a different Stephen, celebrated on 20 August).

Next the Germans tried to break the encirclement, with a series of offensives in January and February. These failed, and the city fell on 13 February. To keep the Soviets away from the oilfields at Nagykanisza, the Germans launched yet another offensive in March, spearheaded by many of the panzer divisions that had fought in the Ardennes in the previous December and representing Germany’s last armored reserves. This offensive failed as well, and the Soviets launched one of their own in response.

That provides what they call a scenario-rich environment. We have armored assaults by both the Soviets and the Germans, using their most recent heavy tanks: JS2 and Tiger II monsters. There’s horsed cavalry on both sides. Hungarians. Infantry attacks. The stories to be told here are almost limitless.

We touched on this theater in the old Road to Berlin game; that’s why the pieces include Hungarians, which was a good thing since they get a workout in Fire & Sword. I designed Road to Berlin in 2004 and 2005, and we released it in 2006. It had a lot of scenarios: 75 of them, all from 1945, with a dozen of those set in Hungary. The rest were scattered across the last days of the Thousand-Year Reich, though it did include several multi-scenario sequences from the same battle.

I was, at the time, stumbling my way toward the story-arc format we use these days. But Road to Berlin retained much of the structure of the early Panzer Grenadier games, which in turn were much like their ancient, long-forgotten inspirations like Panzerblitz. Each scenario stood alone; our games differed by presenting a great many of them (to a high of 112 in one game).

In our more recent games, we’ve been using a much tighter focus to craft chapters in which the scenarios follow one series of actions over a number of days; Fire in the Steppe and Grossdeutschland 1944 are a couple of examples. Road to Berlin had evolved from the shotgun approach we used in our early games, and (as far as I know) most other publishers use with their paltry 12-scenario games. It still wasn’t the historical study in game format that I want to create here at Avalanche Press.

The campaigns in Budapest and western Hungary offer many stories to be told, and that lets us pick out some of the most interesting from a Panzer Grenadier standpoint, so you can use those Tigers and Stalins against each other. There’s been a great deal of scholarship published over the last decade, some of it actually good, and that provides a wealth of material from which to draw. There’s enough interesting action to spawn multiple scenario expansions down the road.

That will include a new type of Panzer Grenadier expansion, based on a proposal from Philippe Léonard (designer of games like 1940: The Fall of France and Road to Dunkirk) that we’ll probably call City Fighting, which is based on city fighting. It takes Panzer Grenadier into the realm of Military Operations in Urban Terrain, and in this case it lets us track the fighting within Budapest as well as without. That will be a separate expansion, since it has its own urban maps with large hexes and I need to keep Fire & Sword within its budget.

Fire & Sword includes four maps, all of them completely new. I considered creating new artwork for the maps from Road to Berlin, as we did with Fire in the Steppe. But that decision led to pushback that Fire in the Steppe was therefore somehow “not new.” Since it costs us the same to commission new artwork to follow an older map or one that I drew from scratch, I decided to go with new terrain features.

The title’s borrowed from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s magnificent Polish Trilogy (along with Fire in the Steppe). The cover painting’s by Georgi Ivanovich Marchenko, with design as always by our Susan Robinson.

Fire & Sword is another historical study in game format, much like Fire in the Steppe, and it’s very much the sort of game I want to publish. And like Fire in the Steppe, I’m sure I poured far too much effort into researching the history and crafting the story. But it’s a game we’re publishing during the time of corona, when small businesses are melting away like an Alabama snow. It’s a reminder that any of our works could be our last, the one for which we’ll be remembered. Fire & Sword won’t be the last game we publish, but it’s good enough to be.

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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 over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.