By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
As far as I can tell, there has never been a wargame about river monitors, the armored warships constructed by some nations, chiefly in Eastern Europe, to fight on the region’s broad rivers. Why this should be, I don’t know either, though wargamers are by nature a highly conservative lot. They like what they already like.
They’re going to like Panzer Grenadier: River Battleships, too. They just don’t know it yet.
At the heart of the game are the river monitors; small ships by high-seas standards, large boats (anything on a river or lake is a boat, no matter its size) by river standards. They usually were armored against at least small-arms fire and often on the same scale as a blue-water warship, and they carried several heavy guns, both for the potential battles against other river monitors and for their more usual mission of providing mobile artillery support.
River Battleships has 191 die-cut and silky-smooth playing pieces: 45 “long” monitor pieces, 50 standard-sized markers for the river craft (for when they anchor, run aground, drift downstream, that sort of thing), 32 sort-of long gunboat pieces (a new size and shape for our games) and 64 regular old Panzer Grenadier pieces with Soviet and Romanian Marines and some other ground forces.
On top of that are two Panzer Grenadier “river” maps, with a big fat river covering most of the terrain. Usually, but not always, it represents the Danube. We’ve also included the standard Naval Tactical Map from Great War at Sea and Ironclads, so the river monitors can fight it out on the sort-of open seas (generally protected coastal waters).
These are all actual river warships, built and manned by participants in the Second World War. Only one battle between river monitors may have taken place, between the Romanian and Soviet Danube Flotillas in June 1941, but details are sketchy and I suspect the Romanian side (which provides what details there are) exaggerated the action to claim a riverine naval victory. So while the scenarios are hypothetical, the warships are very much real (actually they’re small pieces of brightly-colored chipboard, but they represent real monitors and gunboats).
The biggest river fleet belongs to the Soviet Union, which also boasts the biggest river monitor, the 1,700-ton sea-going Khasan-class monitor (the largest river warships ever built). They also have multiple classes of more normal-sized monitors, captured Polish and Romanian monitors, and clouds and clouds of their fast armored gunboats equipped with tank turrets.
Romania fielded the next-largest, with a quartet of armored monitors built before the First World War and three more acquired from the defeated Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Danube Flotilla after the conflict. Poland came in third place, with six monitors (all of them built in Poland) and Yugoslavia in fourth place with four (all of these former Austro-Hungarian boats).
Czechoslovakia built just one, which was captured and put into service by the Germans. The Independent State of Croatia raised, repaired and manned a pair of scuttled Yugoslav monitors. Hungary and Austria had smaller armored river gunboats on the Danube.
We tell the stories of these river warships, because we pretty much have to; the historiography of the river monitor is, shall we say, rather shallow. The Austro-Hungarian Danube flotilla had performed well during the Great War, applying heavy firepower anywhere within reach of a deep enough river. In a region with limited roads, for nations of limited ability to field mechanized armies, the river monitor, like the armored train, offered a cost-effective means to bring heavy guns to the front quickly.
River Battleships is a complete, stand-alone game in our Playbook format, which means that it includes everything you need to play in the package, except dice: game rules, special rules, scenarios, pieces, maps. The special rules are based heavily on the Second Great War: River Fleets special Gold Club set done by Matt War and Daniel Rouleau some years ago, with some modifications. Chief among them is the switch from gigantic double-sized pieces for river monitors to the standard naval game size; that allows the river monitors to occupy just one hex on the map which in turn enormously simplifies game play.
Panzer Grenadier provides a framework that carries over very well to the riverine environment; there’s not a huge amount of special rules for the monitors. River craft were already included in the standard game rules, and movement and combat are still movement and combat. There are some differences from the land environment: river current is a factor, and tanks generally don’t sink after acquiring a few holes.
The scenario set is based on intentions, but there’s just the one “historical” scenario; as noted above, I have my doubts that it actually happened. Fighting between the monitors takes place on a very restricted battlefield, and the monitors usually have fairly long-ranged weaponry. They have incentive to close, as an enemy boat can be boarded: capturing an opposing vessel is a significant propaganda victory and would have marked career advancement for a winning captain (this is why so many monitors were blown up by their own crews).
Since River Battleships is a stand-alone game, we’ll have to tackle some land-river interactions in an expansion book, so the Romanian monitors can support the crossing of the river Prut in the summer of 1941 or the Soviet flotilla can defend Stalingrad in 1942. While battles with river monitors on either side were exceedingly rare, fights between monitors and enemy ground forces did occur and we’ll use River Battleships as a “toy box” to construct some of these using pieces from other games.
I like including gonzo topics in our game line, things that no one else has ever approached that are little-known but really happened. River Battleships is a unique game, and we’ve worked hard to make this a fun experience. It’s been lavished with original artwork, just like our naval games enjoy, and it’s built on a well-known game engine which already has extensive online and organized play opportunities through Panzer Grenadier Headquarters.
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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 an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold knows the number.