Panzer Grenadier:
Under the Hood

By Matt Foster
March 2014

One of the keys to grasping the Panzer Grenadier game system, and thus to enjoying the game, is understanding what it is and what it isn’t. As simple as that might sound, it can be a subject of great confusion to many veteran wargamers. They approach what is perceived as a “tactical level” game with a mix of preconceptions that can limit their enjoyment of the system.

Speed, or more accurately pace, is the first preconception “wall” that many veteran players can hit. Most of the familiar tactical-level games engage in some degree of time compression, with “scale” turns that represent one or two minutes. Scenarios generally range from six to 15 turns in length, with the average probably in the eight to 12 turn range. Now, anyone who has even a passing familiarity with “real” military operations should probably recognize that events in those games proceed at an unrealistically fast pace. It often makes for a tense, enjoyable game, but asking an infantry company to clear 400 or 500 meters of urban terrain of enemy forces in 10 minutes is hardly a “realistic” mission. World War II artillery fire missions that are called and resolved in 90 seconds exceed any forward observer’s wildest fantasies. You only need to look at a few slices of those games (all of which are quite enjoyable) to understand that they tremendously compress the scale of time represented.

That degree of time compression is absent from the Panzer Grenadier system. One of the first things you should note when flipping through one of the PG scenario books is the length of the scenarios. Measured strictly in “turns,” PG scenarios are generally longer than scenarios in other tactical system. The scenario highlighted for discussion in this piece is Scenario 3 from Eastern Front: "Fontana Alba." It’s 30 turns in length. That’s 7.5 hours of “scale” time, which is a fairly typical game length in the PG system.

More than one veteran gamer has had a rough go at wrapping his head around the concept of a tactical game in which patience is often a virtue. You don’t necessarily have all day to fiddle around in PG, but you generally have the time you need to execute a fairly realistically-paced battle plan. Time enough to do some maneuvering. Time enough to let your supporting arms (if you have them) do some softening up work.

Panzer Grenadier is not a game system that generally rewards a rushed style of play. Players who charge toward the enemy, pause to fire off maybe one or two turns of direct fire and then try to close for assault combat will, more often than not, get handed their heads.

Taking Ground

On the Direct Fire results table, casualty rates are going to be pretty low as long as you’re taking shots on the “11” column and anything lower. If you’re accustomed to playing tactical games where troops tend to evaporate rapidly under fire, direct fire in PG can come as a bit of a shock. Sometimes you can stand off and blast away all day and generate hardly any casualties.

The game’s direct fire model is morale-based, not casualty-based. For the most part it’s intended to reflect the disorganizing effects of fire on a unit’s capabilities. Direct Fire (and Bombardment, for that matter) is best used to disorder an enemy position (inflict Disrupted and Demoralized results) before you send your guys in for assault combat.

Assault combat is what takes the ground and generates the higher casualty rates. In most PG scenarios, you have to figure out how to make assault work for you if you’re going to capture contested victory locations and win the game. The Assault CRT is shorter and bloodier.

But there’s another catch that can trip up the unwary gamer with expectations carried over from other game systems. In PG, assault is not a one-turn, win-or-run knife fight. Be prepared to conduct and support your assaults over a span of several turns. Frequently, assault combats don’t resolve to a conclusion in a single activation. Keep key leaders handy to support critical assaults, and keep reserve platoons nearby (if you have them) to reinforce assaults and keep the pressure on when you have to pull out reduced, disrupted and demoralized platoons.

Assault is, perhaps, the key mechanism players need to master in order to get the most out of their Panzer Grenadier play. Getting your attacking units into assault combat with an enemy force is a crtical skill you have to develop to win at PG. Organizing to support and manage your assaults once your troops have gotten “stuck in” is equally important. As I mentioned above, running into direct fire range of the enemy, popping off a few shots and then trying to get stuck into an assault hex seldom succeeds.

If you haven’t softened up the enemy position by inflicting some disruptions and demoralizations before you go charging in, your guys can get cut to ribbons by defending fire. Assault is a “Fire” action that (except in the case of cavalry) can only be initiated from an adjacent hex. That means your assault force can get hit by opportunity fire on the turn they move adjacent; and, on the following turn, if you lose the initiative you’ll get hit by the defenders’ direct fire before you activate for the assault.

In both cases, you’re taking fire with some very nasty column shifts on the CRT. Opportunity fire is +1 column, and you’ll suffer a +2 additional shift for being adjacent to the firing unit. Even a single, lowly rifle platoon can inflict formidable punishment with the maximum +3 column shift in its favor. It gets even worse if the position you want to assault contains multiple enemy units, or heavier assets like machine gun platoons. If it’s a multi-hex defending position with a good leader at hand, you may also be facing the coordinated opportunity fire of multiple stacks of units.

Fontana Alba

For a quick example of this, try the opening turns of Fontana Alba with the Romanians in “impatient mode.” They’re cavalry, right? Just charge right on in there. Pause a few hexes short of the city to spend a couple of turns dropping 12-strength artillery attacks on them. Then just sweep on into the town for some assault combat. If you can.

Chances are, the Romanian assault won’t do so well. Below is a photo of a Soviet defense of the town. The two western-most hexes each contain a rifle platoon (4-2) and a machine-gun platoon (7-4). The northern hex is two rifle platoons. The remaining hex is the leader (in this case, a rather good captain) and a reserve of three rifle platoons.

The proper placement and use of leaders is another big key to enjoying Panzer Grenadier. In this case, the captain is situated to provide useful support to every hex in the defense. His +1 morale bonus can be used by every unit in town. He could activate all of the units in town at once if he desired. And any Romanians daffy enough to attack from the south face the likelihood of the captain acting to combine the fire of four rifle platoons and a machine-gun platoon.

In this particular setup, the Soviets obviously benefit from the luck of the draw. The captain (randomly selected before play) commanding the defense is one of the best leaders in the EFD countermix. The Soviets’ inferior morale (7 vs. 8 for the Romanians) will stand against them in assault combat — but with the 10-morale captain coordinating activations and providing morale support with his bonus, they stand a much better chance of inflicting some pain on the Romanians as they attempt to close for assault.

The Romanian task in this scenario is very difficult. They have to capture the town and hold it against a late-game counter-attack to win the game. In order to do that, they have to exploit a couple of razor-thin advantages.

First, they receive two 12-strength off-board artillery attacks each turn. They must show a little bit of patience and use their off-board artillery—along with their smattering of on-board heavy weapons (two machine-gun platoons and a 60mm mortar platoon) — to hit the defenders with some disruptions (and maybe even demoralizations) before they assault the town.

The excellent Soviet leader hunkered down in the town makes disorganizing the defense a tough chore. All Soviet morale checks get a +1 boost, as do all recovery attempts. In fact, it’s not a stretch to wonder if having such a good leader in charge of things might just make the Romanians’ mission close to impossible.

Panzer Grenadier scenarios that don’t include lots of AFVs and transport — and even some of them that do — have some signature characteristics that players need to understand in order to be successful. The next thing players need to consider is the game’s use of space.

Frequently, a scenario will give you a deceptively large amount of space to play. It’s deceptive in that once you give the victory conditions a good going-over, you’ll often figure out that most of the action is going to be concentrated in a fairly small portion of the map. All of that space may give you a number of initial options for deployment and maneuver, but once the shooting starts the area of the game map that’s really important can narrow down very quickly.

My example scenario, Eastern Front: "Fontana Alba," is a case in point. Two maps present a huge amount of territory for the number of units involved. But the victory conditions make it pretty clear that the four town hexes are going to be the focus of the game.

(Granted, if the Romanian player wants to play for a draw from the outset he might decide instead to occupy the woods to the south of town, but our Romanians here are playing to win, and thus have to capture and hold the town. What kind of weenie starts the game looking for a draw?)

How does all of this come together in the game? Let’s take a look as "Fontana Alba" plays out.

The Romanians have a few maneuver options — they have to decide on a direction to approach the town — but their goal is pretty straightforward. They have to move on the town, soften up the Soviet defense, and then assault to clear out the defenders. They have some time to accomplish this, but not tons of time. The scenario is 30 turns in length, but from the 13th turn (0900) out there is an increasing chance that a Soviet counter-attack will arrive.

In this case, the Romanians approach the town quickly from the west and cross the river. Their cavalry draws up three hexes from the town. This is inside of the range of the Soviet machine-gun platoons, but outside of the two-hex range of the rifle platoons. The three-hex range allows the Romanians to spot enemy units in the town and begin the process of trying to soften up the defense.

The “softening up” involves bombardment fire from the Romanian off-board artillery (two concentrations of 12-strength fire), direct fire from their two 8-strength machine-gun platoons (stacked to allow combined fire), and “Hail Mary” bombardment from their 5-strength 60mm mortar platoon.

The Russians respond with bombardment fire from their own mortar platoon, which is located in the woods south of town. There is an occasional head-game as the two sides trade activations and “passes,”, but the Soviet machine-gun platoons in the town generally don’t respond with direct fire. They elect instead to hold their fire and await a chance to use opportunity fire at a closer range.

Ill-timed direct fire from the Russian defenders could essentially give the Romanians a “free pass” to an assault. As long as the defense remains in pretty good order (not a lot of disruption or demoralization results), the prospect of taking opportunity fire with a +3 column shift will generally persuade the Romanians that an assault is a bad idea.

Softening up a defense can take time, though. In this game, the morale boost of the Soviet captain keeps the defense steadfast until the 0800 turn, when the Romanian artillery finally has an effect on the units in hex 1004. The machine-gun platoon in the hex takes a disruption result and the rifle platoon is demoralized, which at last gives the Romanians an opening to assault without having to absorb a huge amount of opportunity fire.

After their artillery strikes home, the Romanians use follow-on activations to execute a two-hex charge assault with some of their cavalry. Opportunity fire from 1003 inflicts a step loss on one cavalry platoon (which then disrupts) and causes the Romanian 9-morale locotenant to demoralize, but they have enough troops that they can get a couple of platoons into assault.

As I mentioned, in Panzer Grenadier assault is usually a multi-turn process, and the attack on Fontana Alba is no exception. The demoralized Soviet rifle platoon fails to recover and flees to 1003, but the Red captain feeds one of his reserve platoons into 1004 to bolster the machine-gun platoon.

In the 0815 and 0830 turns, the Romanians work more troops into the assault, and also manage to send in an assault on 1003.

Results can snowball pretty quickly in assault. One or two bad morale rolls, or one or two good enemy morale rolls, can cause the situation in an assault hex to get out of control in short order.

The Romanians and Soviets trade assault results for several turns. Superior Romanian morale and more numerous leadership help them overcome the defensive bonus of the town and they force a number of morale checks. One unfortunate Soviet rifle platoon consistently flunks its morale checks and ends up eliminated after multiple failures result in two step losses. But the Red machine-gun platoons in particular prove impossible to shake (both pass a couple of difficult “M2” checks).

In the 0830 and 0845 turns, the Soviets suffer a total of three step losses in assault and inflict two on the Romanians (giving each side three step losses total). The Soviets feed some reinforcements into the assault hexes, though, and keep fighting while the Romanians maneuver to bring support fires to bear on the two hexes of the town that aren’t under assault.

The wheels start to come off the Romanian effort, though, in the 0900 turn. The Romanians in 1004 totally whiff on their assault result, while the Soviet defenders score a “1” against them in return. Both sides score “M2” results in assault in 1003, and the Romanians consistently flub their morale checks while the Soviets pass more than their share.

The additional step loss drops Romanian initiative to “1” in the 0915 turn and they lose the initiative roll. The Soviet captain defending the town then personally leads a counter-attack into 1003, which contains (at the start of the turn) a disrupted Romanian leader, a disrupted Romanian cavalry platoon, and two demoralized full-strength cavalry platoons.

The Soviets score a “1” result and the Romanians elect to reduce one of the demoralized platoons. The Romanian leader passes his morale check, but all three combat units fail. This results in two additional step losses from the two demoralized units (who both failed their checks by three or more) and the disruption of the third platoon as well.

Figuring in the results from the assault in 1004, by the end of the 0915 turn the Romanians have lost seven steps against the Russians’ four. They have no good-order units remaining in 1003, which is held only by a disrupted leader and one disrupted platoon after all of the recovery rolls.

The Reds begin rolling for their counter-attack on turn 13 (0900). They have to roll a “6” on a single die to receive their reinforcements. Each hour (four turns), the score needed to trigger the reinforcments increases by one. In this case, they roll a “5” on turn 19 and the counterattack sweeps onto the board.

By the time the counter-attack goes in, the Romanians have managed to contest three of the four hexes of Fontana Alba with assaulting units. The Soviet task at this point largely consists of trying to winkle the Romanians out of those assault hexes.

Sweeping away the few Romanian units that remain outside of the town isn’t a terribly difficult task. The stack of two Romanian machine-gun platoons close to the river bridge gets pounded to dust by the Soviet off-board artillery (3 x 10-point concentrations) and by the three Soviet on-map mortar platoons, before falling victim to a company-sized assault in fairly short order.

The remainder of the game then boils down to the Soviets managing their assaults against the three town hexes while the Romanians can do little more than hunker down and try to hang on by their fingernails.

The northernmost town hex is cleared in a couple of turns, as the two reduced cavalry platoons there lack any stamina at all in the face of a company-sized assault. Romanians in the other two town hexes cling grimly to their positions, but without reinforcements and with no place else to hide, they can only do so much.

It’s a close-run thing, but the Soviets finally manage to clear out the last of the Romanians with one turn remaining in the game.

Had the Romanians suffered slightly lighter casualties in their initial attacks on the town — say, two fewer step losses — they likely would have had sufficient strength to hang on in at least one of the assault hexes and force a draw. As it played out, however, the large Soviet counter-attack — aided considerably by good Soviet leadership draws — was simply too much for the Romanians.


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