PanzerBlitz – Hill of Death

Introduction

If I might be a games addict, I’m definitely a junkie when it comes to WW2 tactical level games. And the original PanzerBlitz from Avalon Hill (released in 1970) was the first such game I owned and played. (And played, and played, and played… you get the picture.)

The game included a good selection of platoon (German) and company (Soviet) sized units, fighting in 6 minute game turns, on geomorphic, mounted mapboards with 250 meter hexes. The system was a basic “I go, you go” one, and had some ahistorical features which most gamers tended to overlook in welcoming the new game on the block, perhaps because it provided such a wide ranging look at eastern front, tactical level combat. One of the ahistorical aspects was Defensive Fire which didn’t operate while the enemy units moved (from cover to cover), thus generating the affectionate nickname for the game of PanzerBush. The game also, somewhat controversially, reflected the German army’s (generally) superior command, control, leadership and quality by giving those units higher attack and defence strengths than they might have merited from the technical capabilities of their weapons and armour protection. Otherwise, the raw numbers would not have allowed the Germans to perform to their historical abilities. This approach was the only attempt to cater for the “soft” aspects of such warfare.

The game came with a dozen scenarios, but the flexibility of the mapboards almost demanded players create their own battlefields and scenarios. There were also plenty of other game situations available in the various hobby magazines. The game led to the follow ons of PanzerLeader (taking the system, with minor tweaks, to the western front) and (with major tweaks) to Arab-Israeli Wars. PanzerBlitz was a gaming phenomenon: a best-selling wargame with an enduring, active following.

Fast forward a few decades, PanzerBlitz is long out of print, and most game companies have a newer WW2 tactical game or two in their inventory. Fans of the original PanzerBlitz are still playing it and asking for a reprint. Avalon Hill is gone, bought out by Hasbro. But MMP – who took on licence Avalon Hill’s Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) rights from Hasbro – announce they are coming out with a new PanzerBlitz. Could the original game claim its crown back? No. At least, not yet. Later on in this piece, I’ll tell you why, but first a brief look at what MMP produced.

The New Game System

The new PanzerBlitz (PB), designed by Darren Emge, is a completely new game system. And the Hill of Death (HOD) tag is because it’s all about the 1944 battle for Hill 112 in the Normandy Campaign. No geomorphic mapboards to put together to create different battlefields. And, inevitably, you only get a part of the respective forces of war. So, for example, the German AFVs include some armored cars, StuG IIIs, Panzer IVs, Panthers and Tigers. But no King Tiger or Jagdpanther or the like. The Allies get some Achilles units, Shermans, Sherman Fireflies, Churchill VIIs and Crocodiles. It may be a historically authentic mix, but it lacks ‘sex’ appeal; what some would call “tank porn”. The scale is given as 250 meters a hex with 15 minute turns. Units are platoon sized.

PB: HOD uses a chit pull mechanism to reflect command and control differences and the chaos of war. Each side receives a number of Ops Chits, coloured and coded to show which side they belong to, and their value. All the chits are put in a single container and drawn randomly, one at a time, to determine who goes next and what they may do. So, for example, an Allied Ops Chit means it’s the Allies who activate. The owning player – so, in this case the Allied player – chooses where on the map to put the chit. The value on the Ops chit is the range over which it may activate friendly units, so placing the chit may demand some thought. Units, however, may only activate once per turn.

By way of illustration, at the start of the first scenario – First Crack – the British receive one Ops Chit of value 1 and two Ops Chits of value 2 to start, and an Ops Chit of value 1 as a Game Turn 5 reinforcement. The Germans also start with one Ops Chit of value 1 and two Ops Chits of value 2. But their value 1 chit degrades to a value 0 on turn 6, with a value 2 chit coming on as a turn 7 reinforcement.

This system is simple and effective; there are no HQ or leader units to keep track of, and consequently no disproportionate attention paid to hunting them down. But, the flip side is that it lacks color and atmosphere. Further, there’s no way to grind down the enemy’s command and control capabilities. The number of Ops Chits is unaffected by enemy action.

Efficiency and More, or Less

There is another game rating – Efficiency – which is a measurement of unit quality. Looking again at First Crack, the British have an Efficiency of 8 and the Germans an Efficiency of 9. Units need to roll their Efficiency or less on 2d6 to recover from Disruption (a combat result). Again, this is simple and effective, but only as far as it goes. For example, all the units on a side have the same Efficiency. It would be good to see some differentiation, but difficult because the units have no identifiers beyond unit type. In other words, there are no historical designations. This decision jars somewhat given that the game is about one battle. It does mean there’s flexibility for future modules and add-ons, but it does seem to have been an attempt at “having your cake and eating it”. And for me, it failed. For the sake of completeness, there’s no way to affect the opposing side’s Efficiency.

By way of comparison, Avalanche Press’ PanzerGrenadier series of games, give each side an Initiative (which affects the roll to see who goes first in each turn). Initiative drops according to losses suffered. And that series also gives different Morale levels – equivalent to PB’s Efficiency – to full strength and reduced strength units. This hints at the possibilities for PB. It’s worth stressing that PanzerGrenadier is not perfect, but that’s a discussion for another post.

Upon activation, units may perform the usual and expected variety of actions: fire, move, assault fire (fire and move), CAT (infantry close assault) and PanzerBlitz Assault (infantry and AFV close assault). While friendly units are moving, enemy units may use Opportunity Fire, so the PanzerBush tag should be consigned to the bin, thankfully. Combat results include the previously mentioned Disruption – a temporary state that units may recover from – as well as step losses. Most combat units have two steps with the reduced side on the back, as usual. The rules include material about air and artillery support, mines, engineers, blocks, fortifications, and improved positions. PB comes with 8 scenarios of which only the first uses the whole, gorgeous, map. That reminds me: the graphical look of the game – map and counters – is outstanding. Artist Nicolas Eskubi did a great job.

The game has no reward for the player who outflanks his opponent’s forces. As this aspect of such warfare is a constant feature of actual battle reports, it’s rarely a good sign for me if it’s not catered for. Similarly, troops in battle are at a greater risk if they bunch together. So, stacking should (as a generalization) increase vulnerability to casualties. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in PB: HOD. I recall some brief discussion about these points, but forget the detail. I was not convinced by the explanation, though others may see these matters as solid evidence of the desire to keep the game as simple to play as possible, and with minimal exceptions.

Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

The game plays reasonably quickly and though the rules are still being polished, the current version is fine. The scenarios, however, don’t show the game system in its best light because they (largely) are constrained to only parts of the map. It may be historical, but that’s not enough to light my fire. See the comment above about lack of historical designations. It is harder to become immersed in the action when one infantry unit is the same as another. (It may also have been harder for most gamers to identify with the British Allies; they surely would have preferred USA forces. That may partly explain the magazine module of Carentan.) Arguably, games like ASL and PanzerGrenadier get a huge payback from just having named leaders, because players can more readily identify with them – or against them! Another MMP tactical game series – the Tactical Combat Series delivers platoon level combat with wads of history; units have historical identification, the Order of Battle is given, and there are decent notes about the battle being portrayed. PB is obviously named at a different niche of the market, but to succeed there it needed (and needs) to deliver more than just a battle in a box.

I suspect that PB: HOD has been a disappointment for MMP. I have no evidence for this; it’s just a gut feel. There’s no buzz. For example, at the time of posting, the folder on Consimworld is not a hive of activity. The forum folders on BoardgameGeek are not exactly bursting with life. This may be because it’s a while since the game was released, and there’s no imminent new game release. I hope this is the case.

If MMP continue PB by releasing another boxed historical module, I’ll probably buy it. (I bought the Special Edition of Operations magazine with the Carentan module.) And I fervently wish that the series will be successful. But, if MMP don’t mimic the original PanzerBlitz or PanzerLeader by providing the east front or the west front in a box, I fear it may be an uphill struggle. A lot like trying to take a certain hill in Normandy, in 1944.

Snapshot Summary

Likes

      Counter and map graphics

 

      The simplicity of the Ops Chit system

 

      The speed of play

 

    Easy for solitaire play

Dislikes

      The blandness of the Ops Chit system

 

      Lack of effect of losses

 

      Absence of historical designations

 

      There’s only one full map scenario

 

      Not enough examples in the rules

 

      No flanking effects

 

    No real downside to stacking units

Conclusion

PB: HOD is a reasonable game, but it comes across as a missed opportunity. At the core is a system with a lot of potential, but it badly needs to tap that potential and develop, or it may be too bland, too lacking in historicity or scope of coverage, to succeed.

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