Panzer Grenadier (Modern)
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
We launched Panzer Grenadier (Modern) a long time ago, in 2013, with 1967: Sword of Israel. Sword of Israel is the largest game in our current lineup, and while it’s a very fine game, that size leads to a fat price tag.
I’m not sure why we didn’t follow it up immediately with more games in the series, so people could buy them at a reasonable price and see how much they liked the game system, but we didn’t. This summer, Avalanche Press reached its Twenty-Fifth Anniversary (at least if you cheat and add up the old and the new; even so, it’s still a long time). That put something clearly into focus for me: I’m not doing this for another 25 years. It’s time to make the games that players want and to make the company what it always should have been. Because there aren’t another 25 years to throw away.
And that brings us to two new Panzer Grenadier (Modern) games, the first such in the six years since we released Sword of Israel. The game system is very solid; it’s firmly based on Panzer Grenadier, which has been well-proven as a model of World War Two tactical combat in all theaters. The system was always intended to accommodate other subjects besides tank combat in the Middle East.
Since we don’t use the hostage model of marketing (the emotional blackmail of “pre-order XXX copies of this game or it will never be made and you’ll be sad”), we have to judge future projects based on past results. We have 25 years’ worth of sales data that tell us that Panzer Grenadier is a powerful brand, that gamers like tanks, and that they like games where American forces fight. Those last two I heard well before founding Avalanche Press; this is not magical insight. Gamers will say that they want to see a game on the War of the Austrian Succession, and that’s exactly what they mean. They want to see it. That doesn’t mean they’ll buy it.
So armed with sales data, I studied our lengthy list of potential game topics. I knew in broad terms what I wanted: two games of standard Panzer Grenadier size (four maps, 517 pieces, about 40 scenarios), on topics we and our distribution partners could sell without explaining them (that is, the title has to do most of the work, ’cause you’re not going to get to say much more than that), and I wanted them roughly in the same time frame as Sword of Israel, so players could interchange their pieces between them (they really, really like that, even if it’s just to compare them).
Two titles leapt off the page. The Siege of Khe Sanh took place during the high point of American-involved fighting in Vietnam. While the North Vietnamese have some conventional capabilities, and their 130mm long-range artillery is highly useful, it’s still an asymmetric fight. There’s going to have to be hidden movement (which we’ve handled in Panzer Grenadier before) and a clash of firepower against stealth. While we titled the game after the most famous battle, we’ve also included others from Quang Tri Province during the same period, most all of them somehow related to the siege.
Vietnam: Khe Sanh 1968 is an infantry-centered game; we’ve shown in Panzer Grenadier that these can be just as fun as the games with lots of tanks. The (Modern) rules play differently with the different stacking limits being the most noticeable. That’s offset by the massive increase in firepower (mostly on the American side). Plus, the Americans get helicopters flying all over the place and supporting fire (artillery and airpower) of titanic proportions. The North Vietnamese (and their Viet Cong allies, but this is mostly an NVA show) are going to need all that stealth, but they can rise up and strike with surprising strength.
Even so, I wanted to balance the infantry-centered game with another filled with tanks and tank battles. There have been plenty of games set against the battles for the Fulda Gap that never happened, but to the best of my knowledge these have all been set in a later time-frame than ours. I’d messed around with another game set against the Prague Spring of 1968, in which the Soviets and Hungarians marched on into Austria to face the Bundesheer backed up by the ACE Mobile Force (thereby allowing inclusion of the crack Luxembourg Reconnaissance Company). Before sanity sank in I dug into the Austrian reactions fairly deeply (the Bundesheer expected invasion and tried to mobilize an armored counterattack with its modern M60 main battle tanks; it didn’t go well).
Pulled back from the brink of madness, I re-sited the game in the Fulda Gap but against the same background. In 1968 the Soviet Army and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia to restore orthodoxy through “fraternal assistance.” In our alternative history, they move into West Germany as well.
Beyond the ready historical hook of the Czech intervention, I wanted to place the game in 1968 to keep it in the same period as Sword of Israel. The game system’s been well-tested in that era, and the 1980’s (the era where most if not all such games from other publishers are set) play very differently: the M1 Abrams and Leopard II were not simply incremental improvements over their predecessors.
Thanks to Sword of Israel, we already know that this game system can produce intense tank battles and do so with immense concentrations of armor on the board. Cold War: Fulda Gap 1968 moves the tank battles to the farms and fields of central Germany. In Sword of Israel, almost every advantage lies with the Israelis: leadership, morale, firepower, artillery, air support, initiative. Sometimes the Arabs have better tanks, and they usually have better armored personnel carriers. Often the Israelis have numbers on their side as well.
In the Fulda Gap, the odds are even. The Americans have the M60, the West Germans have the Leopard 1, and the Soviets have the T62. Both sides have modern fighting vehicles to carry their infantry, lots of artillery, and good chances of air support. While the U.S. Army is feeling the effects of the ongoing Vietnam War, the Soviet Eighth Guards Army is well-primed for action.
I’m not sure “alternative history” is an accurate label for a game like Fulda Gap 1968, given the intense planning for such a campaign and widespread belief in its inevitability. Unlike the Second Great War, I didn’t make this up. The divisions that fight are those that were right there on the border in the summer of 1968, with the equipment they had available.
On the other hand, I did get to make up just how the campaign unfolds, so I gave it plenty of tank battles and made sure that both sides get chances to attack and defend. And as we’ve been doing with other recent games, the scenarios are knit together by narrative text and “battle games” to create a story flow. That makes for more fun.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, 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.