A Complete Game
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
River Fleets is probably the most unusual game in our lineup: a Panzer Grenadier naval game. It takes place on a river, not the open seas, but the fighting is for the most part between armored river monitors with a few ground units (infantry, artillery and such) clinging to the riverbanks and trying not to get shot to pieces.
I always intended it to be a Panzer Grenadier game, but developers Matt Ward and Daniel Rouleau went a little bit nuts with it. Maybe more than a little bit. Rather than an expansion of the rather simple rules for river gunboats in the standard Panzer Grenadier rules, instead they came back with what amounts to a full-fledged new game with concepts like facing, arcs of fire, drift, convoys and way more.
And it’s fun. It’s an enormous amount of fun, so far deeply unappreciated by the wargaming universe. So I’ve decided to change that; as publisher, I have that power.
We’re going to expand River Fleets, to give it a full-sized book and an additional 48 playing pieces, all of them Panzer Grenadier markers. Within that full-sized book, we’ll include a full-sized set of Panzer Grenadier Fourth Edition rules. Well, most of them; I chopped out all the ones that weren’t going to be used (like cavalry and air support) to make the rules set in the book. The special rules for river monitors are still in their own section, so if you already know how to play Panzer Grenadier (and you should, it’s not very hard) you won’t have to go hunting for them. We’ll also include the full-color charts for Panzer Grenadier Fourth Edition.
That makes River Fleets what we call a Playbook: a complete game in a book. You don’t need anything else to play, except for dice. You don’t have to be a Panzer Grenadier treadhead to enjoy the weird, wonderful fun of River Fleets.
We produced the first edition of River Fleets as a limited-edition exclusive for our Gold Club, and so almost everyone buying and playing it would be an experienced Panzer Grenadier player (and thus have ready access to at least one Panzer Grenadier game). You could download the series rules and play it without one, but you’d be missing the game markers (pretty easy to compensate for that) and you’d need a few markers unique to River Fleets (Anchored, Grounded and so on). That would also be pretty easy for a treadhead to get past; it’s not like most wargamers don’t have access to lots and lots of spare marker pieces.
But we want River Fleets to be playable by anyone, including folks who’ve never seen a Panzer Grenadier game before. So the new edition includes all of the markers necessary to play – some standard Panzer Grenadier markers, and some new ones unique to River Fleets – along with all of the rules.
It has two Panzer Grenadier maps, different from any others in the series – these are river maps, with broad streams taking up almost all of the map’s space. In River Fleets the river is always the Danube; we may re-use these maps to represent the Dnepr at some point.
While River Fleets is a Panzer Grenadier game, it doesn’t really play like one. It’s a naval game, one more detailed than our high-seas naval games. For one thing, the battles take place on a river (the Danube), not the open sea, so the monitors have to be careful of not only shallows but drift caused by the river current as well. The monitors have facing and arcs of fire, just like a riverine ironclad of the 1860’s. They’re pretty tough, and usually require multiple hits to destroy.
River Fleets has an alternative-history theme, because I wanted the river fleets to fight each other. Many nations fielded flotillas of armored river monitors during World War II, chiefly Romania, the Soviet Union and Poland. While the Soviets fought the Poles and Romanians, and fought their river monitors, they didn’t fight them with their own river monitors. The river monitors provided very useful artillery support, helped secure river crossings, and at times gave very important anti-aircraft protection (like the Soviet Volga Flotilla at Stalingrad).
I tied it into our Second Great War story arc because it fit nicely there, and I wanted to give the scenarios some broader context. The river monitors are designed for multiple roles: artillery support transport, and of course surface combat against other river monitors. The scenarios follow the story-arc format we’ve been using recently, where the overall story f the campaign (in this case, one we made up) is told through the scenarios, and you can play along.
The Second Great War is also a good setting for the riverine combat I wanted to display in the game; in the actual Second World War, riverine warships (technically “boats” since they operated on rivers) proved fantastically vulnerable to enemy aircraft. That made monitor-on-monitor combat pretty much impossible, yet I wanted to see them fulfill that part of their designed capabilities. In the Second Great War history, fixed-wing aircraft are far less developed then in the 1940’s of our own world.
That clears the way for monitors to fight each other, and most of them are equipped with naval guns and armor for that role (in the actual conflict, many monitors saw their guns replaced by howitzers more useful in the artillery-support role). At some point I’d like to introduce a supplement with the “real” river monitors of World War II, and find some excuse for them to fight each other. The “fighting each other” part is an absolute requirement.
Revising River Fleets into a complete game is an experiment; I’d considered doing the same with Land Cruisers, which is a slightly more fantastical take on the Second World War that never happened and features cool, weird fighting machines. Land Cruisers is really fun and, as with River Fleets, the developers did a fine job making it easy to access and play. But that fun is limited to Panzer Grenadier players (and more limited to those with Elsenborn Ridge and 1940: The Fall of France, but those two titles are extremely popular). I’d like to put River Fleets into the hands of people who’re attracted by the topic but don’t want to enter the historical game series just to play on the rivers.
Don’t wait to put River Fleets on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to add it to your collection!
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. Leopold enjoys swimming.