Ghost Panzer

ghostpanzer

Ghost Panzer is the second game in the Band of Brothers series. Designed by Jim Krohn and produced by Worthington Games (now Worthington Publishing), the series deals with tactical level WW2 ground combat, with units being individual squads, weapon teams, and tanks. Each hex is 40 yards, and each game turn represents two minutes of real time. This particular game in the series features the 11th Panzer Division in some of its battles in Russia, from 1941-1943.

I’m a fan of tactical level WW2 games and am always searching for the perfect game that hits all the sweet spots. This game doesn’t reach that impossible to achieve standard, but it’s a breath of fresh air, clear thinking, and an excellent addition to the hobby.

Components

Inside the box you get seven (page sized) double sided geomorphic maps on stiff card, three sheets of counters, color rule and scenario books, a double sided player aid card, and dice.

The artwork has a decidedly different look to it, possibly falling under the style category of cartoon, but it did not offend me. (I guarantee the font used will offend somebody, but it doesn’t trouble me in the slightest!) I prefer top down views of vehicles in these types of games, but here you get three-quarter views. It’s no big deal, and the graphics certainly do not get in the way of playing and enjoying the game. In short, the maps and counters are fine and dandy.

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The rules are well laid out and clear. I had no major issues, although I would have preferred pictures of all the terrain types instead of having to guess. For example, why should I have to work out what is a tree and what are woods?  (There is a terrain effects chart available on BGG.) There is a very helpful example of play at the end of the rulebook.

The scenarios are also well laid out and clear, starting with a couple of training scenarios and then a chronological run through of some of the 11th Panzer’s experiences.

The player aid card has all the information you will need to play the game after you get up to speed. It’s fine but I do believe the layout could be improved from a readability perspective by using more tables for the lists of modifiers. That’s really a nitpick.

System

Players take it in turns to activate their units. Each activation you may choose how many units you want to activate from a scenario specified operations range. For example, a range of 2-4 means you may activate 2-4 units. You must, if possible, activate the minimum number in the range. So continuing the last example, you must activate at least two. And, tank units and guns count as three from the activation range. The differing ranges generally give the German side more flexibility to reflect their tactical superiority.

When you activate a unit you may either move or fire it. Or, you may mark it “Op Fire” (for opportunity fire).  Once you move or fire a unit it is used and can generally only do Final Op Fire against units that enter an adjacent hex. I’ll come back to Op Fire later. You can also do Assault Fire after moving, though this is less effective.

The next thing to know is that when you want to move or fire an infantry type unit, it must pass a morale check by rolling less than or equal to its morale rating on 1d10. Full strength units which are not suppressed have a morale rating of 10, so there’s no roll required. But after that, you need to roll.

Stacking is limited: two squads or two weapon teams or any combination plus one vehicle, with a gun counting as a squad. In fire combat there’s always only one firer – so no massing of Death Star stacks – with anti-infantry fire affecting every unit in the target hex. This encourages the historical practice of dispersion.

There is no Combat Results Table. You roll 1d10 and compare to the firing unit’s firepower, as adjusted. Roll less than or equal to the adjusted firepower and you get a suppression. Each target infantry type unit has a casualty rating (two for full strength units) and if your roll plus the casualty rating is less than or equal to the adjusted firepower you can inflict a step loss or elimination.

Example: a German squad with a firepower of six fires at an adjacent hex where there is a Soviet squad with casualty numbers of three and six. Firing at an adjacent hex increases the firepower by three to nine.

  • If the German player rolls a 1-3 the Soviet squad is eliminated because adding in the larger casualty rating of six results in 7-9 which is less than or equal to the adjusted firepower.
  • If the German player rolls 4-6 the Soviet squad is reduced (and double suppressed) because adding in the smaller casualty rating of three results in 7-9 which is less than or equal to the adjusted firepower.
  • A roll of 7-9 is a suppression only.
  • A roll of 10 is a miss.

It sounds clumsy – it’s easier to do than explain in writing – but after you have completed a couple of combats it is second nature.

Oh, and about that double suppression, here’s the explanation. The suppression system is clever. Instead of a suppression meaning the unit is inactive – and there for all the world to see as inactive – here there are two levels of suppression: yellow (bad) and red (worse). Each infantry type unit has yellow and red morale numbers. So, remember when I said units had to pass a morale check before doing anything? You can now see that a yellow suppressed unit may not act when you want it to, and a red suppressed unit has a lower chance. But there’s still a chance. So, you can lay down fire and suppress the enemy. But they may still bite. Many is the last gasp situation that has been rescued by a suppressed unit bravely managing to pass its morale check!

Note: combat results do not cause morale checks. Units check morale when they want to do something.

There is no separate advance phase – you simply move into enemy occupied hexes, braving opportunity fire.

After you finish with moving and firing your and your opponent’s units, there follow phases for rout, melee, and recovery.

Rout is when units may flee, or worse, vanish. The only quirk is that the first player has to rout first. This is a not insignificant factor because a unit that has to rout first and dies may change the situation on the board enough to make a meaningful difference.

Melee is a deadly affair with each squad rolling 2d10 and inflicting step losses for each roll of less than or equal to its firepower. Weapon teams have lower firepower in melee.

Recovery allows units to, er, recover. Red suppression becomes yellow, and yellow suppression goes. Units lose their used markers.

Now, getting back to Op Fire, I need to mention that infantry type units have two firepower ratings: normal and proficient. The proficient – which is, perversely, less proficient (lower) – is the one the unit uses when doing Op Fire or Assault Fire. So far as actual Op Fire is concerned, the clever part is that every (unused) unit can do Op Fire. However, if you have readied your troops by giving them an Op Fire marker, they add one to their firepower, making them more effective. As mentioned above, used units can Op Fire against adjacent hexes.

Tanks (and guns) do not have morale ratings; instead they have a proficiency rating. In this game the Soviets typically are at 5 for their tanks and a wee bit higher for their guns. The Germans are at 8 and 9.

Tanks and guns do not need to roll when they move, but in certain circumstances need to pass a proficiency test – roll less than or equal to their proficiency rating – when they want to fire. How this works in practice (because of modifiers) is that the German player wants to keep the Soviet tanks at arms’ length, and the Soviet player wants to get up close and personal. This seems spot on. It’s also easy and adds to the tension.

Tanks can move and fire at the end of the move, though with less chance of success. They can also be marked as moving, making them a more difficult target.

Actual anti-tank combat requires a 1d10 roll less than the result found by subtracting the target’s defense strength from the attack strength.

Example: a Panzer IIIG with an anti-tank strength of eight fires at a Soviet BT7 with a defense strength of one. Therefore, a roll of 1-7 (eight minus one) is a kill. The Panzer has a bit more to do to kill a T34 with its defense strength of seven. It will do better to try for a flank shot…

What else is there? You also get concealment, decoys, infantry anti-tank weapons, smoke, artillery, Stukas and other stuff, including some interesting optional rules. (I like the facing rule for infantry.) It’s a jam packed package. Oh, and I must mention the halftrack procedures which mean they are removed from the board after their passengers disembark, thus preventing their ahistorical use and neatly avoiding the need for a slew of rules.

Command Points

On top of this lot, according to the scenario, players may have one or more Command Points (CP). Each turn you can use a CP to do neat things, like grab the first activation, or allow Final Op Fire at a longer range, and so on. (But remember that units still need to pass a morale check to fire.) This is a cool and easy mechanism to supplement the regular activation system and allow the game to portray a range of different capabilities of fighting units.

Tip: if you want to give a novice or inexperienced player a hand, consider giving him an extra CP or reducing your own.

Playing the game

First, I started playing the system with the Band of Brothers: Screaming Eagles game. But the designer has tweaked – ie changed – the infantry fire procedure, making those infantry counters out-of-date. So, as soon as Ghost Panzer was available, I stopped playing Screaming Eagles scenarios and moved on to Ghost Panzer.

In play the first few times using the system, I stuttered along. The main reason was that I needed to get used to the different activation system and try and understand its wrinkles.  This underlines the usefulness of the training scenarios; I recommend them.

Once I had absorbed the basics, I was able to play using just the player aid card for most of the time. So, I was concentrating on the play and the tactical and command challenges and not obstacles in the rules. What a joy.

I found the play enthralling and quite fast. The major challenge – as a mostly solitaire player – was dealing with concealment and decoys. There are some tips in the rulebook, and I applied some of my own rough and ready methods honed over many years of trying to develop a split personality! This aspect is therefore going to be the biggest disadvantage for some players. If I can get over it, you can. But not every solitaire player wants the job. So be aware.

Everything else works to deliver a smooth gaming experience. The need to pass a morale check for movement and combat, and the proficiency check needed for guns and tanks, adds enough friction (or chaos) to take away your control and add to the excitement. Timing is important, as is learning to hold your fire. The CP mechanic is a beauty and adds to the challenge of playing the game well.

Like many tactical games, you will find markers popping up all over the place. It’s certainly not the worst offender in this regard, though I did wonder if a bigger countermix might have allowed combined suppression/used markers.

I am about half way through the scenarios – one of which, incidentally, requires ownership of Screaming Eagles – having decided to pick and choose scenarios rather than work my way through them in any logical order! I won’t pretend to offer any tactical advice, but I will say that each scenario has its own challenges to master, and I think there’s a high degree of replayability in them. This is helped by the fact that most have a force exchange allowing one player to swap units for others or early arrival and so on. (OK, so ideally this should be done in secret, but there’s a limit to how far I am prepared to develop the necessary split personality!) Face-to-face gamers will have a ball.

I am sure I have not covered everything, but I hope I have given you a flavor of the game. Before turning to some closing comments I want to stress something. Like the designer of this game, I appreciate the efforts made by other tactical game designers. Indeed, though I really like this system, it will not stop me playing – and enjoying – other such games. Each delivers their own type of gaming pleasure.

Some things I like

I am delighted there are no separate turrets for tank units. If ever there were a tactical detail in games of this type that should have long since been discarded, it was this. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I admire the decision made to remove leaders from the countermix and to build in leadership and command control in other ways. (I do fear, slightly, that the game suffers a diminution of the ‘telling a story’ impact.  In the same vein, I am happy I do not have to worry about separate MG units, carrying them, fixing them when they break, and so on. But some may feel the result is too bland. It’s your choice.)

The smaller markers allow you to still see the (larger) infantry type unit combat values without having to lift the marker up. Good move. Shame about this not working for the guns and vehicles, though. But almost!

The BoB designer’s notes are excellent. Try and get a hold of them.

 Some things I don’t like

The designer changed a key part of the infantry combat system from what it was in Band of Brothers (boB) to the new version on show in Ghost Panzer. You cannot use the infantry counters in BoB with the new rules because the ratings are different. You can download a set of labels, then cut and paste them over your counters. Until there’s an update kit – or you can otherwise acquire corrected counters – that’s a pain.

Something I feel is missing from this game is any idea of unit identity, integrity and command. In other words, where is the evidence of the higher level organizations? For example, if the attacking force consisted of two platoons (say 6 squads), each platoon would have its own area of operations and responsibility. Here, you as player get 6 squads to do with as you want. You can ignore deployment limits and organizational hiccups that tended to occur more often when troops operated in such a manner.  (In fairness, most tactical level games also ignore this.) Part of it could have been offset by giving the units some form, of identity – for example “Ist Squad of 1st Platoon” – but even a non historical designation or label for the units would have helped.

As mentioned above, the concealment and decoy parts of the mechanics make solitaire playability more challenging. It’s doable, but you have to work at it.

The game mentions the online availability of a system Battle Manual, but it’s not completed. Shame. It would have been better not to mention it.

Bits and bobs

Since all full strength unsuppressed units (so far) have a morale of 10, they automatically pass a morale check and therefore will do what they are ordered to do – regardless of whether they are veterans moving up to the front line, or raw conscripts charging an enemy machine gun nest. In actuality, troops often froze or did daft things while in the combat zone and not, necessarily under direct fire. The advantage of this design decision is that you do not spend a lot of time making even more morale checks while activating units. However, it still bites away at the edge of my gamer’s need to tweak…

Wrecks. While I think it’s correct that other games tend to overstate the actual impact of wrecks in battle, I would still prefer to have wrecks in the game – even with no effect – so as to mark the demise of tank units. It’s a neat reminder of the action and it adds something to the game atmosphere.

(I am not suggesting dead body or casualty counters for eliminated infantry units, but maybe that is an approach some other brave soul may work into his design.  For example, do soldiers fight ‘better’ when surrounded by the bodies of their friends, or foes, or do they not notice? Or is it all too morbid, regardless?)

Would it be possible to get points values for units? The game cries out for a DIY scenario generator because gamers will always want more.

The color rulebook is nice. Would it be practical to produce the rulebook as loose leaf? This would mean that updated living rules might only require the purchaser to print a part of the rulebook, instead of the whole thing. I don’t think such a version needs an ASL style binder –which would make it prohibitively expensive.

Jim Krohn has had his science fiction games taken up by GMT. I wonder if he offered them this series and they passed on it because they already have Chad Jensen’s tactical games? Just curious.

Finally

There were several times when I was reading the BoB designer’s notes that I found myself nodding in agreement. So, since it looks like I share much of Jim Krohn’s philosophy as shown in this game series, it should be no surpise that I like this game. With the caveat about the challenges for solo players, I heartily recommend this for any wargamer – especially those interested in tactical level WW2 combat. I had to pay a fortune to get it shipped here, and I still think I got a bargain.

More? If you want to know more about the game, check out Norm Smith’s blog (http://battlefieldswarriors.blogspot.co.uk/) where you will find a replay and some video material. The videos are listed on BGG, also. Recommended.