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Tactical-level combat games are as popular to grognards as romanticomedies are to their spouses. Decades after they were first published, Tobruk and Squad Leader remain popular today in their advanced versions.
Another example is the Panzer system from James Day. It was first published as a board game by Yaquinto in 1979, adapted for Avalon Hill’s MBT in 1989, resurrected as a miniatures ruleset by Lost Battalion Games in 2004, and now published by StrikeNet. A new Panzer board game by GMT and Mr. Day will be published in 2012.
This much-traveled system has continually been refined for increased realism and playability. The result is a comprehensive set of rules that would satisfy the most discerning miniatures expert.
Panzer’s components are serviceable. The 100-page color rules and various player aids are easy to use and read. The player aids are particularly well organized.
However, the rules are organized around the sequence of play. Players have to slog through densely packed air support and off-board artillery rules just to try an advanced scenario.
Key rules are scattered throughout. For example, command-control rules are presented first, their effects then described in separate sections. Programmed instructions would help players gradually learn the system. Although the rules include a detailed table of contents (five pages worth!), a comprehensive index is sorely needed.
The 64 infantry, support weapons and vehicle data cards each contain a wealth of information printed in a space just slightly larger than a business card. They are now in color and printed on one side, saving players the chore of constantly flipping the cards over--and incidentally saving wear and tear on the cards.
The new card layout is single-sided (far left) vs. the old, double-sided data cards.
While the weapons information (when you are the firer) is logically laid out, the target information (when you are the target) needs improvement. The notations are cryptic (see below); players need to refer to another player aid until they are familiar with the system.
Finally, two counter sheets of diecut markers are provided, but no combat pieces. StrikeNet does produce counters for combat units if you don’t have the budget for miniatures.
Note for original Panzer owners: It is possible to use this miniatures rules set with the original components. We simply made a reduced photocopy of the Target Angle Wheel (which shows vehicle hit locations for AP fire) to fit over the old counters.
Panzer covers combat at the single vehicle and squad level. It excels at reproducing the technical experience of armored warfare. Players get very familiar with the range and penetration capabilities of anti-tank weapons in conjunction with the armor protection of friendly and enemy tanks.
Tank-to-tank gaming is fun but incomplete without the combined arms experience. That is where overruns, infantry close assault against armor, and hand-to-hand combat come in. Artillery and air support round off the package. These use general purpose (GP) combat, a standardized system to account for non-AT combat.
The emphasis on achieving technical realism subordinates soft factors such as command and morale. The downside is that the game can feel like it's about the management of hit percentages and modifiers rather than the application of fire and maneuver elements at the right point.
Movement and combat: Panzer bears closer resemblance to MBT than to the original Yaquinto title. Like MBT, Panzer uses order chits, not simultaneous order plotting.
The anti-tank combat system has been streamlined. Weapon ranges are now grouped (point-blank, short, medium, and long). Hit locations and damage effects have also been simplified. Some granularity is lost, but the primary effect is to simplify and quicken play without abandoning the basic technical feel. Conversely, GP combat is expanded to provide slightly more granularity in the results.
Command Control: Arguably, the addition of more robust command-control and troop quality rules have the greatest impact on the system. Force, formation, and unit grade are now considered and each are independently rated.
From largest to smallest unit, a better-led:
--force is more likely to win initiative
--formation will have more orders to assign (keeping fewer units idle) and a wider command range for sharing orders (somewhat like the doctrine rule from MBT)
--unit will hit more often, recover quickly, etc.
With the non-simultaneous sequence of actions, better units fire first and have a higher chance of success. Previously, combat resolution was simultaneous and too many tank duels ended in mutual kills, especially at close range. This created gamey tactics that focused on percentages of success.
Another effect is to tie units closer to historical formations and command-control limitations. In the old system, individual tanks could, with Patton-esque daring and Rommel-esque initiative, happily drive around the battlefield and hit the enemy flank. Now, units maneuver with more historically realistic restrictions. Single tanks can be assigned unique orders for flanking actions, while a firebase shares a fire order to keep the enemy pinned.
Morale: Units are subject to morale checks, while formations are subject to breaking and hesitation. Formations that lose a certain number of units become less effective and more brittle.
There are many subtle improvements to the core system that streamline play. In addition, optional rules such as variable AT penetration try to address criticism that the combat system is too deterministic.
The expansion of command control and morale rules acknowledge the soft factors of combat. Where previously, Panzer felt more like a contest between machines, now, the men fighting in those machines play a more pronounced role.
One example of the improvement is the differentiated morale levels of the different nationalities. For example, Russians are less likely to break than Germans, reflecting their legendary stoicism.
Still, it's a bit odd that a Russian tank crew has the same morale level as a Russian rifle squad. Because the core system is geared toward technical accuracy, Panzer is never going to feel like Squad Leader, but within its design parameters, does a decent job simulating these soft factors.
Rules for support arms--in particular air support--are expanded and can slow the flow of play, particularly without a hexgrid to plot hit locations and to regulate movement. Even a medium-size scenario takes quite a bit of maneuver room to avoid a head-to-head slugfest. Playability decreased with larger forces due to the need to physically measure movement, track turret facings, and so on.
Finally, there is some fiddliness with markers: the average unit easily has two or three markers, with double that a possibility.
This ruleset is geared toward hardcore gamers, especially trackheads who expect technical accuracy. As mentioned, the system retains its signature combat resolution systems. Its complexity has definitely gone up several notches from the original.
While I enjoyed playing this miniatures system, I found the fiddliness of movement and location plotting cumbersome. Based on the issues we encountered, I strongly believe this new system would play better and smoother as a board game. Indeed, I am very much looking forward to GMT's board game version.
Panzer players who were satisfied with the original system’s attractions and limitations will find no solid reason to switch. Those looking for a detailed and technically oriented WWII tactical combat system, will find the new Panzer is a comprehensive and well-tested design.