Two weeks ago I had an opportunity to play Multiman Publishing’s (MMP) redesign of PanzerBlitz, Avalon Hill’s classic game of tactical combat in World War II. PanzerBlitz was my first introduction into war gaming and as a consequence I have a preference for games of this type. A friend of mine and I played the first scenario from the new game and the following details my first impressions from that experience.
MMP’s remake is titled PanzerBlitz Hill of Death (PB-HOD) and models a particular difficult fight between British and German forces for a hilltop just outside the French town of Caen during the Normandy campaign of WWII.
The PB-HOD game map is based on historical maps and the scenarios use only a small portion of the map. The map is niceley printed on thick gloss paper. A corner of the map reproduces the combat tables and combat modifiers much like the old SPI games of the 1970’s. The map is printed in shades of green to represent the slope of the land to Hill 112 which all of the scenarios revolve around. There are 6 elevation levels on the map but no key to match the shade of green to the particular elevation level. The hill is not marked and some experience with war games use of lines to mark crests or map reading skills will help a player figure out the direction of slope. This is important since there are attack modifiers in the game that depend upon if the attack is uphill or downhill.
Like all board war games, PB-HOD is played with cardboard counters that represent the various different types of combat units in play. In addition, utility counters are included to represent a particular state of the counter or to modify the terrain of the hex to show road-blocks or improved defensive positions (foxholes and trenches). The counters for PB-HOD have all of the modern design features hobbyists have come to expect of game components. The counters are double sided and printed in full color. The original PanzerBlitz counters were single sided with black icons and numbers on a solid color background. Like the original game, the new counters are 5/8in in size. Unlike the old game, the new counters are packed with more information due to changes in the game mechanics. For the most part, the counters are very readable and the counters in my copy of the game were cleanly cut.
The utility counters are also double sided but are printed as smaller 1/2in counters. The utility counters represent another significant change from the original PanzerBlitz game.
Someone who is familiar with the original game mechanics and is expecting something similar but with better graphics is in for a disappointment because the new game mechanics have been completely overhauled and modernized. The most significant change is the use of a chit pull system to determine who is the active player for the current phase of the game turn. This game mechanic breaks up the typical I-GO-YOU-GO turn sequence of most war games. Players have their own set of activation chits that are then mixed in a cup or some other handy opaque container. Were PB-HOD has shown innovation is that the chits have a range rating from 0-2 and the number of chits available in the scenario can change during the course of the scenario as reinforcements arrive. Friendly units within the range rating of the placement hex of the chit can be activated to move and engage in combat.
The chit system effectively models the command and control capability of the opposing forces. As one would expect, formations with effective leadership will have more activation chits and more chits with a range greater than 0. In the first PB-HOD scenario, both the British and German forces have been modeled as elite formations so there is not a disparity in the chit pool for either player.
The combat system has been thoroughly modernized by treating anti-armor (AT) combat separately from anti-personnel (AP) combat. AP combat is most similar to the original PanzerBlitz combat system where sums of attack strengths are divided against sums of defense strengths to create an odds ratio. This ratio is cross-referenced on the combat results table to determine what die results are needed to score an effective hit. The anti-tank combat mechanic consists of subtracting the target’s armor rating from the AT rating of the attacking unit.. This difference is cross-referenced on the CRT to determine which column to use to resolve the attack. Both combat mechanics use the same CRT.
Unlike the original PanzerBlitz, PB-HOD uses the sum of two dice to resolve all combat results. PB-HOD includes the expected combat modifiers for the state of the attacker and the terrain occupied by the defender. Also new is a range modifier. Unlike many games in this scale, PB-HOD does not use halving and doubling of attack factors for different range increments. Possible combat results are similar to the original game in that effective attacks can disrupt a good order unit, damage a disrupted unit or destroy a good order unit. In a departure from the original game, disrupted units are not automatically undisrupted at the end of their following turn. Instead, disrupted units can be activated with an activation chit and then roll a morale check to recover from disruption.
The movement mechanics of the game are consistent with most typical war games in that different types of units pay movement points to enter into different types of terrain. The concept of opportunity fire has been maintained that prevents moving units from moving within clear sight of an opponent since the moving unit can be attacked while moving. With the chit pull system, this rule adds another decision point for each player since activated units cannot opportunity fire in the current turn.
The most difficult rules to understand in the game concern spotting and line sight. The spotting rules have been written to specifically eliminate some of the more annoying features of the original PanzerBlitz game that allowed units to effectively hide by moving from hex to hex that contained concealing terrain. Rules have also been emplaced to prevent non-combat units such as trucks and wagons from being used to spot enemy units. The line of sight rules are overly complex simply because the mechanics implemented are overly complex. However, the line of sight rules are usable and after working through a few examples on our own, my opponent and I were able to come to a consistent understanding on how to apply the concepts. However, my concern is that the complexity of the line of sight mechanics leaves too much room for interpretation so that if I played someone else, a new agreement on the interpretation of the rules would be required.
For the most part, criticizing the look and feel of a game can be a subjective exercise. However, I do believe that there are standards to be followed with respect to game aesthetics and the design of PB-HOD makes a few mistakes in this area.
The game map has been designed more as art than as a playing aid. The map uses shades of green differentiate levels of elevation levels does. This scheme does not immediate lend itself to determining the direction of slope since tint does not correlate to order. Is dark tint higher than light tint? To determine the direction of change of elevation it is necessary to look at the crest lines. A simpler design would have just used different colors to represent the changes in elevation and dispensed with crest lines all together. GDW’s Assault used such a system for determining elevation.
The lack of a terrain key is another significant omission. The terrain key clearly indicates what icons are used to represent different types of terrain features on the map. Most games with a single map typically have the terrain key printed on the map where it is easy to find and use. Games that use geomorphic maps provide this key on the player aid chart or as a specific page in the rules. The different types of terrain are completely described in the rules for PB-HOD, but the icons representing the specific types of terrain used in the game are not described anywhere. Experienced gamers will not have much difficulty in figuring out the game terrain. However, the rules need to be written to assist the novice gamer and as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Using color to convey information is fraught with danger since there is no universal consensus as to what specific colors represent. In addition, the use of green and red colors to convey information needs to be avoided since those two colors are the most common color deficiency in male color blindness and as we know most war gamers are men.
For the above reasons, I consider the use of red numbers to indicate anti-personnel attack information is a bad design choice. I am not color-blind but I have difficulty reading the red numbers on the counters. Using just black or white for the alphanumeric characters on the counter would provide sufficient contrast with the counter background color to make the information readable to the players. This is worth considering since it is likely that future games in the series would contain US forces with green backgrounds making the red numbers difficult to read.
Another aesthetic criticism I have is the existence of redundant information on the counters. For example, the counters use vertical bars to indicate the size of the unit. This is important due to the stacking limits imposed in the game. However, looking over the counter sheets I noticed that all front side counters are worth two stacking points and all flipped counters are worth one stacking point. Furthermore, all flipped counters feature a colored strip to visually denote that the counter has been flipped. This is an example of redundant information. The vertical bars are unnecessary and can be eliminated. Furthermore, the removal of the bars can free up space that could be used to spread out the alphanumeric characters to make them more readable or to add counter numbers so that difference forces could be differentiated on the same map.
The other redundant information on the counter is the nationality symbol shown at the bottom of the counter. Considering that MMP publishes the expansive Advanced Squad Leader series of games, I would expect them to use the same background color scheme of that game for the nationality colors for their new PanzerBlitz design. While not intrinsically obvious, it is an established color scheme and would help players who might actually play both games.
MMP is not alone in misusing color in their games and they are certainly not the worst offender. However, the availability of highly capable graphics software makes it much easier for common color mistakes to be made. In the end, it is essential to remember that maps and counters are player aids first, and works of art second. All game designers need to keep this in mind as they write the rules for the games and design the art for their playing pieces.
The Game Rules
The game rules are the biggest disappointment of PB-HOD. It appears that in order to keep costs down MMP limited the rules footprint to just 16 pages and no color graphics. Multiples of 16 are common for printing since a standard sheet of printing paper can be folded into 8 pages of approximately 8.5x11in.
By comparison, the Avalon Hill’s Panzer Leader rules were 23 pages long and the rules for Arab-Israeli wars were 18 pages long but used a smaller font and a 3-column layout. These two games were the follow-on games to the original PanzerBlitz whose rules were printed on a large sheet of folded paper.
While the rules themselves are mostly well written except for the overly complex spotting and line-of-sight rules, there are three topics missing from the rules. The most significant omission in the rules is a table of contents or an index. War games describe complex concepts and players need to be able to find specific rules quickly. That is the function of the table of contents or index. There is room for a table of contents but the first page of the rules if covered by a full size black and white graphic. It would have been better to reduce the size of the cover page graphic and use the space for the introduction (short) and the table of contents.
Another significant omission in the rules was the lack of a complete description of all of the utility counters to include a sample graphic. All modern game rules detail each utility counter used in the game and even in the 1970’s, SPI also included a counter roster. Adding a simple graphic of the utility counter adjacent to the rules that describe the use of the counter make it much easier for players to find the rules they are looking for when they need to.
The final rules omission is detailed examples of play. For this game in particular, detailed examples of play are needed so that players who might be familiar with the original PanzerBlitz games understand how the game plays differently than the original. These examples also help players new to the hobby understand the mechanics of war games. The example should be based upon the scenarios in the game and use actual playing pieces in the game. There are examples in the rules but they are sparse and not representative of actual playing pieces. Since the rules actually consume the 16 pages it easy to see that the imposed limitation forced the designer to remove this information from the final product.
While these omissions do not prevent the game from being played, they do make it harder to play the game. For experience players who are use to the style and nature of war games, this is just an annoyance but for new or novice players to the hobby this could turn them off to what is otherwise a very good game design and a worthy successor to the original PanzerBlitz.
A good reference for guidelines on how to design rules and use color in games is Dave Wood’s two articles that he wrote in GameFix magazine issues #2 and #3. The articles were written in 1994 and the magazine has long been out of print but copies can be found at used game stores and periodically on ebay. I consider these two articles essential references for any game designer.
The Sherman Firefly
All design is compromise and game design is no different. As a game, I have no real criticisms of the game mechanics or rule concepts PB-HOD. The one game I played showed clearly that the mechanics work and do generate an enjoyable experience. In fact, the only criticism I have is what exactly does the Sherman Firefly counter represent?
It is difficult designing war games since they do not actually model real combat. What they model is the designer’s impression of combat. Many tactical games try to model doctrine and unit order of battle to fine detail. At the scale of PanzerBlitz where tank units represent from 3-5 vehicles and infantry units are platoons of from 18-39+ individuals (more or less).
However, there are several vehicles that pose particular problems in this scale. They are: the French Char B1, the US M3 Grant/Lee, and Soviet T35 and the British Sherman Firefly. The first three vehicles are difficult to model due to their mixed armament of howitzer and anti-tank caliber weapons. The British Firefly is difficult to model due to the organization of British Sherman tank platoons. Since only Firefly’s are represented in PB-HOD, I’ll only speak about that unit.
The Firefly was a M4 Sherman that replaced the normal 75mm gun with a British 76mm 17pdr anti-tank gun. The 17pdr anti-tank gun was a superb anti-tank weapon and probably the best such weapon the western allies fielded. It was capable of defeating all German threats at the typical engagement ranges in Western Europe. However, the addition of the 17pdr to the Sherman caused problems. Most importantly, the 17pdr rounds were significantly longer than the normal 75mm rounds. As part of the modification, the British added a larger loaders hatch to the top of the turret to make it easier to load the tank with these rounds. Larger rounds take up more space so to keep the number of rounds available to the tank useful, the British deleted the hull mounted machine gun so that an additional 15 rounds for the 17pdr could be carried. This essentially left the tank with just the turret mounted 0.50in machine gun since the roof mounted 0.50in machine gun was not always carried as the use of this weapon required that the commanded man the weapon while standing on the engine deck behind the turret.
Another problem with the 17pdr was the lack of a high explosive round for the gun until late in the war. The lack of a high explosive round was a common feature of British anti-tank guns and is one reason the British liked the Sherman since it fired both an anti-tank and high explosive round. My references indicate that a high explosive round was developed and deployed with the 17pdr during WWII but does not conclusively state when this occurred.
Since the Fireflys were initially not available in large numbers, the British reorganized their tank platoons to consist of 4 M4/75mm Sherman and 1 M4/17pdr Firefly and this was configuration used during the campaigns of Normandy. By 1945, enough Fireflys were available to form 5 vehicle troops of Fireflys.
In PB-HOD, it is obvious that the Firefly counter represents a full troop of 5 Fireflys. It is a very powerful and capable unit in the British forces. What I find surprising is that the Firefly’s have a stronger anti-personnel rating than the normal Shermans. The lack of the hull mounted machine gun and an effective high explosive round should significantly reduce the AP rating of these vehicles. These vehicles were optimized for anti-tank combat and deployed to provide much needed anti-tank capability that the M4/75 Shermans did not provide.
It should be noted that the US equivalent of the Firefly were the M4/76mm variants of the Sherman. The US 76mm gun was not nearly as powerful as the British 17pdr but was a more capable anti-tank gun than the 75mm. However, only the US tank destroyers carried this weapon at Normandy since it was felt that there would be more need for the 75mm Sherman to support infantry than a tank designed to fight other tanks. It should also be noted that the high-explosive round for the 76mm gun carried less explosive than the 75mm round due to the geometry of the shells so that the 76mm gun was considered less useful as an infantry support weapon.
I have a feeling that the 17pdr high explosive round had similar issues that would help explain why the Fireflys were initially deployed with M4/75mm Shermans. The M4/75mm Shermans would provide the high explosive fire power needed to support infantry while the Firefly provided superior anti-tank capability to fend of the German Panthers and occasional Tiger tank that might be encountered.
The design of the Firefly unit in the game does not negatively impact the game and since it does simplify the design of the counter I can see why this design choice was made. War gamers loves to debate the nuances of the forces that are modeled in the games they play and my comments about the Firefly should be understood to be in that context.
Comparison to Other Games
There are only two games currently in print that are similar to MMP’s PB-HOD. These two games are Avalanche Press’ Panzer Grenadier (AP-PG) and Lock’n’Load’s World at War (LNL-WW).
Panzer Grenadier has the most in common with PB-HOD in that it is a WWII platoon scale game. The main difference between these two games is that Panzer Grenadier uses leader counters to model command and control. Panzer Grenadier is a rather successful game with many different modules in print and more being planned. In my opinion, PB-HOD is a better game since it is a simpler design and the chit pull system effectively models the command and control system of the leader counters in Panzer Grenadier.
Lock’n'Loads World at War also uses a chit pull system but that game is concerned with a hypothetical NATO vs Warsaw Pact war in 1985. When compared to World at War, PB-HOD is potentially a more flexible game since the chits are not tied to specific formations in World at War. This makes the PB-HOD much more suitable to design your own scenarios should MMP decide to continue the series. However, World at War is a much more accessible game since the rules and game mechanics are more simply designed and written and the counter density of the scenarios is kept rather small. Lock’n'Load has a World War II version of World at War on their P500 list so if that game is published then there will a direct competitor to PB-HOD. I like the World at War game system and if modern combat is more to your liking then it is worth looking into.
What I Want to See in the Future
I hope that MMP continues to develop their redesign of PanzerBlitz. My aesthetic criticisms are easy to correct and the rules can be updated using a living rules model that has already been adopted by MMP’s competitors.
I would like the next game to generically describe the mid war on the Russian front just like the original PanzerBlitz. I would like this game to use geomorphic maps and includes enough counters to model the company and regimental formations that would have been in common use in Russia. I also like the idea of continuing the practice of modeling specific battles in detail with smaller games using maps based on the historical terrain. I can see the publishing of several large games with geomorphic map boards and large counter sets (Russian Front, Western Front, North Africa/Western Desert, Modern Wars) and smaller games focusing on a specific battles (Sedan 1940, Arras 1940, obruk 1940/41, Mortain 1944, Chinese Farm 1973).
I would also like to see the game series extended to topics beyond World War II. MMP’s new game design should be capable of modeling more modern conflicts and even a hypothetical NATO vs Warsaw Pact war.
The ultimate test of any game is simply was it fun and enjoyable to play. On that account I must say yes. My friend and I enjoyed PanzerBlitz Hill of Death and I look forward to our next game. As the Germans, I lost the scenario due to poor placement of my forces. I’ve learned from my mistake and believe that I could do better the next time.
If you are a fan of the original PanzerBlitz game are looking for a more modern treatment of the topic then this game is worth purchasing. Players new to war gaming may find PanzerBlitz Hill of Death a little difficult to grasp but the ConsimWorld forum can help with any questions. I see great potential for MMP’s PanzerBlitz game system and I hope that PB-HOD is not the last of the series.