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Sim Guy
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Introduction
This is my third review of a Panzer Grenadier series game. If you’ve seen any of my others you’ll recognize significant portions of the following material. I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, so my views on the series won’t be much different from one game to the next, with respect to the bits and pieces involved. So my feelings won’t be hurt if you skim through the review to the meaty parts that concern this particular title. If not, then settle in for a few minutes while I give you my impression of Panzer Grenadier: Elsenborn Ridge.

I’ve been playing tactical armored combat games for a long time, pretty much from the time they were introduced with PanzerBlitz. With the exception of Panzer Leader and Arab Israeli Wars, I’ve tended to play the old SPI titles; Kampfpanzer, Combat Command, Mech War ’77, Panzer ’44, October War and such. I dabbled with GDW’s First Battle and Assault Series’ and enjoyed them as well, but I always seemed to come back to the PanzerBlitz family. So I was reluctant to take a chance on Avalanche Press’s Panzer Grenadier series, and held off for a long time, but I’m glad I finally did. Panzer Grenadier may not ever be able to replace PanzerBlitz in my heart, but I’m objective enough to realize that it’s a great piece of work. Avalanche realizes it too, and they’ve released dozens of games, supplements, and play aids to support the series. I own most of them and eagerly await more. Maybe what I have to say will help me to explain why.

Images used are taken from the BGG game pages. [cocktus][shad][Comrade_Sarayev][slightlyaskew]


The Game
Panzer Grenadier: Elsenborn Ridge, is a Platoon level treatment of WWII combined arms combat on the Western Front, covering the American stand on the northern flank of the Battle of the Bulge. The game was released in 2008, and is practically a full size supplement to the earlier PG: Battle of the Bulge. PG:ER uses a later version of the Panzer Grenadier series rules, revised since the original 1998 release.


First impressions
Elsenborn Ridge is typical of the series and more of what we’ve come to expect from Avalanche Press and contemporary game producers. It’s a professional looking presentation, containing a set of nearly 600 colorful, oversize unit counters, and four heavy card stock map sections. A few simple charts cover the combat tables, terrain effects and turn track, in addition to a good-sized scenario manual. One of the best things about the Panzer Grenadier series is what you DON’T GET: a huge, complicated, densely printed, rule book. What you DO GET, is a set of Series rules that take up a mere 16 pages. Add it all up and you've got what it takes to make your curmudgeonly Grognard a happy camper.



The Maps
– You get four sturdy geomorphic maps, each the equivalent of about half the terrain of a PanzerBlitz map. But significantly more attractive and with a larger, 1” hex grid. As a result, counters are easier to move around, and the set up looks less cluttered. Like PB, the hexes are equal to 200 meters across. The maps, as for all the games in the series, are genuine works of art - looking like they were painted using aerial photographs as guides. The Elsenborn maps are of a different style, commonly referred to as the Red Wine maps, because of the shading. I prefer to think of them as late afternoon depictions. The hex grid is a little more difficult to pick out on these maps, but I don’t consider that too much of a problem. These same maps are available in a Winter snow scheme, to enhance the frigid feel of the battle.



The Counters
– The double-sided unit counters take advantage of the advances in gaming graphics that we are all enjoying today. Instead of just a cold NATO symbol on the troop counters, we have a few soldiers in action poses. The fighting vehicles are highly detailed, top-down depictions, as opposed to the (very cool for their day) PB black silhouettes. Dedicated transports are differentiated from their fighting brethren, with an oblique angle view, and their obvious lack of combat values.
Aside from the graphics, the units are printed in distinctive national colors, and there is quite a bit of information on each counter:
The familiar NATO style symbology, and unit size indication
The unit type name
A distinct national or unit insignia
Movement value
Attack and range, in different colors to denote direct, indirect, or anti armor fire values
Armored defense value for armored vehicle units

Despite all of these symbols and values, the counters don’t appear cluttered or confusing, and there are no mysterious icons to decipher.

Leaders and Air units are also included in the counter mix. Elsenborn Ridge has an assortment of Allied aircraft; P-47s, A-26s, B-25s, and a few German models; Stukas, Henschels along with many other types in the series. Leaders, are central to the Panzer Grenadier system and we’ll talk more about them more below.

Rules
The 16 page series rule book is well organized and understandable – I tell people that the game is simple without being simplistic. It uses the now familiar SPI style case and sub-case outline format. Section 1 is a concise summary of the rules, which may be all the rules you'll need to refer back to, once you’ve given them a quick read through. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more graphics – PG’s not a difficult game, but a few examples of play would go a long way.

It should be mentioned that there is also an ultra condensed, one page, version of the basic rules, that you can download free from the Avalanche Press web site, that will get you up and playing quickly. The site even provides a sample map and counters for a simple scenario, so you can try before you buy.

For a great player resource, providing additional examples, and explanations, I recommend downloading the Unofficial Players Guide 3/2010, found in the Files section for this game page. It’s produced by the friendly folks from the excellent Panzer Grenadier HQ fan site – which you should also check out. http://www.pg-hq.com/

Mechanics
The game scale is Platoon level with single Leaders, hexes are 200 meters across, and turns are 15minutes.



Elsenborn Ridge, like most of the games in the series, is generally a two player game, but some larger scenarios may be conducive to team play. Avalanche Press believes in providing players with plenty of scenarios in their tactical games and Elsenborn Ridge comes with a 35 scenario booklet, the scenarios ranging in size from a couple of dozen units fighting over a single map board, to one hundred and more on a side, ranging over all four map sections. You’ll probably be able to find something to fit your taste and time window.

Set Up
Like most tactical games, set up is freer than in a themed battle game. Each scenario will describe a map board configuration, the initial and any follow-on forces, special rules, objectives and victory conditions, and either entry points or area boundaries for both side, along with initiative and morale values.

Game Play
Players roll for Initiative, modified by the initial Initiative value of the side, and any step losses taken so far. The winner is the first to take action, possibly quite a lot of it, before his opponent will be able to respond.

During the Action Phase players alternate activating unit stacks, or stacks of units under a leader’s control, for movement and combat. Additionally, players may fire off-board artillery and take Opportunity Fire on moving enemy units. Players take turns to activate, move, and fight units, until every unit each player wishes to activate, has been. Leaders are the key to multiple unit activation, as a leader may activate the units stacked in his own hex, as well as units in each of the six hexes around him. If one of those surrounding hexes also contains a leader of lower rank, that leader and the units under and around him may activate as well, and so on. Large numbers of units may be able to activate at once, if there are enough adjacent leaders. Leader activated units may take any legal action during their segment of the Action Phase. While units which self activate may not do much more than shoot and hide as they cannot move closer to an enemy unit that can fire at them. Leaders are vital for mounting any sort of offensive action.

Combat
Large caliber artillery and mortars attack using indirect fire, called Bombardment in PG. All other units employ Direct Fire, while armored and infantry units may also Assault. Direct Fire may be normal or Anti-Armor and uses different set of attack defense and range values for each. Most armored fighting vehicles have both Direct Fire and Anti-Armor combat values. Assaults take place in the same hex and can be somewhat complicated, but they come easier with practice.
Combat may result in step losses, or loss of morale, rendering the unit disrupted or demoralized. Demoralized units may be forced to retreat to cover, if they can't recover their morale. Leaders play a major role in maintaining unit morale and rallying the troops.

Scenarios
The 35 scenarios, by my estimate, are about 2:1 superior German forces (at least in number) vs mostly unprepared Americans. If you been playing the Germans in some late East Front scenarios, say from PG: Road to Berlin, it’s a nice change to be able to use some of those fine late war tanks in the offensive role for which they were designed.

Feature Study: Leaders
Leaders are a tricky concept in a tactical game. Designers can either assume they are part of a unit and ignore them, or separate them out and dedicate rules to them. PG actually does both as armored vehicles are assumed to have a Leader associated with the unit and other Leaders are represented by their own piece. In PG, the leader is involved in activation, attack, defense, morale, and morale recovery. Careful management of your leaders is almost a defining characteristic of this series. They are busy units and it slows down the game, but IMHO it adds more than it costs to the game play. My main problem with Leaders is that they aren’t attached to any particular units: any Leader can command any unit of the same nationality.

What’s missing?

As with the majority of the Panzer Grenadier series, players wishing for a long term campaign game will be disappointed. Other titles in the series, namely Cassino ’44, along with the Campaigns and Commanders sets, provide material for playing campaigns. It isn’t exactly what I’m thinking about, but it would probably satisfy a fair proportion of the campaign junkies out there. I would like to see a way to link games together so that the scenarios aren’t just isolated contests, but events which are affected by what has come before and have a bearing on what comes next. Something designed for the particular situation.

I’d also like to see organizational charts, like the one in Cassino '44, included with each game, so that I can build a higher echelon unit, such as a Battalion or Regiment. It would also be handy for home made scenarios and campaigns.

Solitaire
- Tactical games are notoriously difficult to play solitaire, PG:Elsenborn Ridge is no exception. There are no rules supplied to accommodate solo play in any of the series games. I would like to see this addressed eventually.

Overall Impression

With the advancements in the state of the wargame designer’s art, the components and maps are excellent and are pretty much what we expect in a top-tier contemporary wargame. The counters are attractive, colorful, informative, and uncluttered. The maps provide an attractive background for the bloodletting that some consider a little too busy for easy reference, but generally they are very good. The rules are well written and very concise, for a detailed tactical game, but they could use more examples. The scenarios are plentiful and well written, and do a good job of putting the player into the boots of the disorganized Americans, or the time driven Germans.

I mentioned earlier that PG:ER felt like a full size supplement to the PG: Battle of the Bulge game. What I mean by that is that there is really nothing new, conceptually, in this particular title. Add another counter sheet, a couple more maps, and the scenarios, and you could have it all in one game. But then we would have another Cassino ’44 sized, and priced game. By doing it the way they did, Avalanche produced a pair of affordable titles, and if you eventually buy them both, you get even more counters and maps, along with all of the scenarios they came up with in the meantime. Don’t mistake my meaning, PG:ER is definitely worth picking up, especially if you like to design your own scenarios, like I do – extra maps and units are always welcome, and the scenarios by themselves are almost worth the cost of the game.

And the scenarios really do make this game. Aside from the defense of Bastogne, the Northern shoulder of the Bulge was where the Germans met some of the stiffest resistance of the battle, often from some very unlikely units. In the early battle scenarios, the Americans almost always seem overwhelmed, while at the same time the Germans are under enormous pressure to meet a very ambitious timetable, often leaving them little opportunity for much in the way of tactical finesse. Add to this situation the fact that the quality of the troops varied wildly on both sides: the American side has the 82nd Airborne and the Big Red 1, along with a hash of troops that were either very green, or in pretty rough shape; The Germans had Peiper’s famous Kampfgruppe, seasoned Panzer troops ‘fresh’ from the hard fighting in the East, all mixed together with Volksgrenadier divisions of uneven quality. Dumb luck seemed to rarely pit equally matched forces against each other, and some of the least elite troops made heroic stands, while hoards of poorer units battered themselves against small forces of elite troops. These situations are well represented in the scenario book, which I think holds some of the best scenarios of the series. This may explain the popularity of Elsenborn Ridge among PG fans.

These games are basically Bulge I & II, so if you can swing it, both should find their way into your game library. If you’re going to pick them up one at a time, your choice is essentially: which fight? Bastogne, or Elsenborn?

My Collection Rating:
Panzer Grenadier: Elsenborn Ridge: 7.5
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Drew Heath
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Another nice review.

Since you compared them on roughly equal terms towards the end, I think it's worth noting that Battle of the Bulge (2002) and Elsenborn Ridge (2008) were born of different conceptual approaches to what constitutes a "good" scenario.

Bulge is old school PG, where top priority was placed on historical reenactment. Creating a scenario that was fun to play was more an accident than an initial proscription.

Elsenborn is new school PG, where scenarios track historical but are (generally) competitive and enjoyable throughout. This is based primarily on a different approach to victory conditions.

So while they are topically equivalent, many Bulge scenarios show their "age" when stacked up against Elsenborn.

If you can only afford/want one, it should be Elsenborn every time.

All of the above points are born out by PG-HQ's Play Data. Wherein, Bulge has 157 plays (~20 per year) to Elsenborn's 88 (~40 per year) and Bulge is rated 3.15 overall (slightly below the global average) versus Elsenborn at 3.52 (second only to Cassino).
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Tom Stearns
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Thanks for this review. I just picked up Elsenborne in a recent auction. It is my first PG game. Is this a good first time PG game? I have been playing a lot of CCE, which I really enjoy. I wanted something also that wasn't a CDG. I think there is room for both because they are such different systems.
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Drew Heath
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I recommend it wholeheartedly as the best current entry point into the series.
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Sim Guy
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Shad wrote:
I recommend it wholeheartedly as the best current entry point into the series.


I agree with the fish.

Elsenborn is actually a slightly bigger game than PG: Battle of the Bulge, but for some reason it costs less.
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Drew Heath
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SimGuy wrote:
Elsenborn is actually a slightly bigger game than PG: Battle of the Bulge, but for some reason it costs less.


Smaller box!

(that sound you're hearing is all the groaning coming from people who use counter trays... devil)
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Sam H
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Thanks for the review. I hadn't thought of trying this system, but your review is making me reconsider... Don't know if that's a good thing though!
Have some , as promised here.
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Sim Guy
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I recommend checking out the free downloads at the AP site, if you have doubts.

But beware, I've sunk a lot of money into this series - it can be addicting and dangerous if you are inclined to collect.

Thanks for the GG!
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nick P
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Thanks for the excellent review. I'll take this opportunity to remark on something that bugs me about PG generally (bearing in mind that I have nearly everything in the series): to date there is still no available informational tracking sheet on which counters can be placed to indicate each side's initiative and losses (which impact on the former). True, there is a downloadable sheet somewhere on the web - I've got one I retreived years ago. Nevertheless, given that these factors are so central to the game I really think the counters marking initiative and loss and a tracking sheet should be included with each game. I also feel that OBA markers marked with relevent fire power should be included with each game as well. It would make things far simpler for players. I personally would like to see assault markers as I like to see where assaults are occuring (I currently use a skewed spotted marker) but perhaps this latter has less urgency than the other cases I mention.

Anyway, none of this detracts from the regard in which I hold this game series, it would just make things far easier for gamers.
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Drew Heath
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(I prefer minefield counters for assaults, as then I move the stacks off-board or into a clearing and can match them up quickly visually (1 to 1, 2 to 2, etc.))

PG-HQ has an automatic scenario record sheet generator on the drawing board. I'm not convinced a lot of people would be willing to print off a sheet of paper for each scenario they play though... hell, we don't even own a printer over here.
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