Early on, I knew that Broken Axis would be a very good game, but it turned out even better than I expected and became the model for what we want games in the Panzer Grenadier series to be: good scenarios, well-developed historical background of the 1944 Soviet assault on Romania to put them in context, and “battle games” to tie them together. It worked out so well, I decided that there should be some more of it.
Grossdeutschland 1944 is more of it: an expansion book for Broken Axis, adding 20 more scenarios grouped into four more battle games (with a few rogue scenarios falling outside the battle game structure) and 64 die-cut, silky-smooth playing pieces. We’ve refined our approach to Panzer Grenadier games to favor a narrow focus, exploring a single campaign as intensely as we can (within the bounds imposed by paper and cardboard). Broken Axis does that pretty well, and at first I wanted to take the book down a similar tight path and focus on battles of Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland in 1944, which seemed to match the title pretty well.
The project began as simply a sheet of pieces showing Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland in 1944, with all of the pieces needed to play the scenarios from Broken Axis that involve the division. It would be given to our Gold Club as a free incentive. But a sheet of pieces by itself isn’t really something we can sell to others, not easily anyway, and it’s just not that interesting. And so we converted Spearhead Division and Grossdeutschland 1944 from simple sets of brightly-colored pieces to complete books with scenarios and background.
Because of that origin, Grossdeutschland 1944 still has pieces. It doesn’t really need them – you could play all of the scenarios with the standard German Army pieces from Broken Axis – but they do make the game more fun. There are 64 of them, the ones you’ll need to play the Broken Axis scenarios and the new ones using the new-style silver-and-black set instead of the standard ones. They’re die-cut and silky-smooth, just like the pieces in the core game.
We covered Grossdeutschland’s actions pretty well in Broken Axis; there just aren’t enough interesting ones from the Jassy-Kishinev battles (round one, the April battles) that we didn’t put in Broken Axis left for us to make a good, fun scenario book. The division wasn’t around for round two (the August battles). We covered the April battles pretty well in Broken Axis, but only had one chapter from August (on the Romania Mare Armored Division’s misadventures).
So we’re going to have Grossdeutschland action, because that’s the title of the book and there are some good scenarios yet to be done here. But there are also scenarios taken from the August campaign, not involving the Grossdeutschland division. We didn’t delve very deeply into these in Broken Axis, and this is a chance to study the very successful Soviet August offensive (as opposed to the April failure).
There’s a rich environment for additional study: the Soviets opened a two-pronged offensive on 20 August 1944, deploying massive concentrations of force. Second Ukrainian Front would form the northern prong of the attack with 770,000 men, over 1,200 tanks and 11,000 artillery pieces. Over half of the troops and most of the tanks would concentrate on a ten-mile front held by two Romanian divisions. Third Ukrainian Front with 523,000 men, 600 tanks and 8,000 guns, and planned to aim almost all of them at an equally short stretch of front held by two German divisions.
The operation opened two months after Operation Bagration had jumped off along the central part of the front, effectively vaporizing the German Army Group Center facing the Soviets there. In response, the Germans shifted most of the panzer divisions and six of the infantry divisions that had helped defend Romania in April to the north to try to plug the gap. And while those divisions soon engaged in heavy fight, the Soviet offensive halted primarily due to its having reached the limit of what the Soviet supply services could cover (and a desperate need for tank maintenance).
Re-deploying those German troops, the panzer divisions in particular, violated Germany’s solemn undertaking to defend Romania from the Soviets. When the Soviets struck, they blew through the Axis lines. While the Germans blamed Romanian cowardice, soldiers of both Axis armies fled under the crushing weight of artillery barrages and air attacks.
Romania asked for an armistice on the 24th, and declared war on Germany on the next day. That immediately led to fighting between German and Romanian troops, another rich source of scenario action. By August 1944 both the Romanian rank and file and their officers despised the Germans (a common theme among Germany’s allies in both world wars) and they fought to expel the Nazis with much more enthusiasm than they had ever displayed for fighting alongside them.
Campaigns like the Jassy-Kishinev Offensive (the second attempt, anyway) haven’t had a whole lot of coverage in game format over the years. And that’s probably for one reason: the Germans lost. I don’t really think gamers care much which side won the historical campaign, and if they do, they’re probably glad the anti-fascist side won. I’m pretty sure that my anti-Nazi screeds drove away the “very fine people” on that side long ago and they’re not going to be playing this game anyway.
That said, even in campaigns where one side rolled over the other, at the tactical level there are almost always plenty of incidents where the losers managed to put up a serious fight. So both the Germans and Romanians have plenty of chances to win outright battlefield victories, not just trying to avoid having every piece on the board wiped out.
Grossdeutschland 1944 is a fun little package that adds a great deal of play value to Broken Axis. If you’ve read this far, you’re going to like it.
You can order Grossdeutschland 1944 right here.
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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 scads of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.