Ode to Tanks
By Brian McCue
November 2015

As Mike Bennighof has more than once pointed out, it takes infantry to seize (and especially to hold) ground, and it takes artillery to inflict a lot of casualties. Seen in that light, any fixation on tanks would appear to be a foible, but I’m fascinated by tanks and tank games, and I’m not alone. So what makes tanks so wonderful, especially in games?

The answer is an Ode.

Decisive Combat Power. While Dreadnought battleships (an obvious point of comparison, especially in the context of Avalanche games) pack quite a wallop on an absolute scale, they were also quite resilient and one battleship could not take out another with a single shot, or even a single salvo (battlecruisers are another story). With tanks, it’s different: one penetrating hit was almost always enough to put a tank out of action, and even a non-penetrating hit could stop a tank in (or, more accurately, out of) its tracks.

The first tanks were designed to break WW I’s stalemate on the Western Front by shielding their crews as they traversed trenches and fired modest-sized guns at infantry, buildings, and trucks. WW II’s early Panzer II is perhaps the ultimate expression of this idea, and fact I have long maintained that the Panzer II was the most fearsome tank of the Second World War. With its light armor and armament, it may not seem very ferocious, but if you met a Panzer II on the battlefield, you were probably an infantryman, and you were up against a machine that was fast, mobile, and armed with anti-infantry weapons of great power, while you were too early in the war to have an anti-tank weapon worthy of the name.

Materialism: While one army’s infantry is certainly better able to beat another’s by having better rifles and better boots, it’s said that for infantry, training and morale matter at least as much, and probably more, than equipment. Even in the epitome of high-technology warfare, jet aviation, I’ve read that the pilot is more important than the plane.

But I’ve never seen any such statement about tanks: the focus is always on the gun, the armor, and the factors that make for good mobility. Even if this view is wrong, it’s what everybody thinks and writes, and it translates well into game terms.

Monstrosity: There are two remedies for inferiority in the tank world’s gun-vs-armor contest: quality and quantity. When tank designers choose to compete on quality, “better” almost always means “bigger.” Yes, there is an upper limit to the size of a tank, but if production-model WW II tanks reached the era’s technological limit on size, they did so only at the very end of the war. (Arguably, the German Maus may have even surpassed the limit, but it is all the more interesting for having done so; see also Secret Weapons.) Even in armies that had a good tank and focused on quantity (the Soviets with their T-34, or the US with the Sherman), incremental improvements were inevitable, and the tanks increased in size as their guns and armor grew.

Darwinian stability: While tanks evolved considerably over the course of the 20th Century, they did so almost entirely on steady terms: main gun, armor, speed and mobility, and anti-infantry machine guns. Although some special-purpose variants (such as flame-thrower tanks) arose, and inventors kept trying to come up with tanks that could fly, or maybe just swim, the only departure from the norm that got into the mainstream was the two-gun Lee/Grant. (Snorkels, mine flails, and so on don’t count—they are attachments on normal tanks.)

From the game standpoint, this stability is a great boon, since it means that the same rules can govern all tanks, with changes only in the numbers on the counters.

Stamp-Collector Appeal: Tanks’ variety is great enough to be interesting, but small enough not to be daunting; after reading a few good books, one can have a pretty good grip on tanks, or at least the ones that were made and used, and thereby know what to look forward to finding in a new game. For example, the Ferdinand (a.k.a. Elefant; see also below) has yet to appear in any Avalanche game, but I expect to find it in Kursk: Burning Tigers and I will gaze with interest on the numbers chosen to quantify it.

Hobby cross-over potential: In addition to playing games with tanks, one can build models of them, and I hope it is not too otaku to suggest that each activity enhances one’s enjoyment of the other. The author of a famous article about the tanks in a classic wargame used photographs of his models as the illustrations, and I’m sure that for him, as well as for his readers, the whole was greater than the (considerable) sum of the parts.

Behavioral Simplicity. Tanks are complicated inside, and even on the outside they display a wide variety of armament and armor, but in terms of behaviors they are starkness itself: they can drive around, shoot their main armament, shoot their secondary armament, and traverse the turret if there is one. In contrast, infantry, which moves and shoots too, can also stand up, lie down, adopt a wide variety of postures in between, dig in, climb trees, and a lot else. A handful of numbers and a few pages of rules (or maybe just one) make for a much more believable account of tanks than of infantry.

(In Avalanche’s games a single tank counter represents more than one tank, and a platoon of tanks is more complicated than just one—but Avalanche’s infantry counters also represent multiple men, whose collective behavior has far more variables than that of a handful of tanks.)

Quixoticity. (Don’t ask me how to pronounce that word, because I just made it up.) Tanks’ WW I raison d’être of breaking the stalemate in the trenches ended when trench warfare did, but rather than become victims of their own success, tanks found a new purpose: fighting the other side’s tanks. In service of this goal, tank designers began to add ever-thicker armor and ever-bigger guns, as described above, and to inch away from the original goal of defeating infantry. There emerged the tank destroyer, an often-turretless species that protected its crew while they fired an anti-tank gun at the other side’s tanks, with no claim to being able to wipe out infantry. The above-mentioned Ferdinand was in fact a tank destroyer and as such it had, to the chagrin of its crews when the enemy literally came knocking, no machine guns at all—after Kursk, the addition of an MG 34 was part of the conversion of surviving Ferdinands to the improved model named Elefant. But the tank destroyer idea faltered; in my view, it only had a chance for armies that were on the defensive. Tanks rumbled on, mostly to fight one another, and to reduce—at least as much through their monstrosity and grinding treads as through their machine guns—the morale of the other side’s infantry.
OK, so maybe I do have a robot game or two, but usually I’d rather play Panzer Grenadier, whose materialistic, monstrous, and quixotic tanks are even more impressive than the most humongous humanoid hulk—because the tanks were real.

Play with tanks! Buy some Panzer Grenadier games now. A lot of them.