Monday, December 31, 2007

Featured Game: PanzerBlitz

Few games have had an impact as big as PanzerBlitz. It's probably the third most important commercial wargame aside from the very first Roberts game of Tactics (which invented the idea of the commercial wargame) and Gettysburg (which was the first wargame based on a historical battle). PanzerBlitz opened up entirely new ground for wargamers and it had an immediate impact.
I remember seeing it for the first time on the Battleship Massachusetts during one of the Spartan International conventions held there (I believe it was 1971 and PanzerBlitz had been out for just a few months). Everything was new back then, but even then PanzerBlitz stood out.
PanzerBlitz either introduced or first popularized many features that became standard fare in wargames, such as multiple scenarios, ranged combat, different classes of units and weapons, "geo-morphic" boards, extensive historical notes, terrain elevation and line of sight rules. It did this within the familiar framework of hexagons, cardboard counters and and odd-based Combat Results Table, providing just enough continuity to the Afrika Korps-style game for acceptance.
It did usher in an explosion of new design approaches, prompted in large measure by PanzerBlitz's designer, the prolific Jim Dunnigan. Dunnigan had already started to shake things up with his more analytical approach to wargame design with his earlier Avalon Hill games Jutland and 1914, but those were hindered by being set in the less dynamic First World War and uninspired graphics. In PanzerBlitz Dunnigan's design skills were teamed with Redmond Simonsen's graphic design talents and the synergy was electric.
PanzerBlitz still boasts one of the most striking wargame box art ever published.
Since PanzerBlitz was published there have been probably a hundred games on the same or similar topics, nearly all inspired by designer's attempts to fix the "flaws" of PanzerBlitz. Some were even done by Avalon Hill itself. Panzer Leader, which moved the action to the Western front changed the artillery rules in order to discourage the unhistorical game tactic of crowding units together in the same hex to dilute incoming fire and got rid of the ability of trucks and wagons to spot for other units which had resulted in some pretty bizarre game tactics as well. The biggest PanzerBlitz problem fixed in Panzer Leader was the infamous "PanzerBush" syndrome, where units scooted from one covered spot to another across open spaces that were literally "under the guns" of the enemy. The "Opportunity Fire" rule in Panzer Leader has been in the standard toolkit of tactical wargame designers since. Avalon Hill's later Arab-Israeli Wars further refined the game system by gutting down the range and speed of units, which the original game formula has miscalculated. This was noted early on, but a desire to make Panzer Leader fully compatible with PanzerBlitz meant to older game's incorrect values were retained. Dunnigan himself felt no qualms about starting over based on new research and his Combat Commander and later SPI games used different factors and different game mechanics as well.
For face-to-face play most players retrofitted the opportunity fire rule (and ban on truck/wagon spotting) to the earlier game but many play-by-mail games skipped using opportunity fire because of the complications it introduced to the turn sequence. Unlike most of it successors and imitators PanzerBlitz was well-suited to PBM because of its IGO-UGO turn sequence, in contrast to the multiphase and interactive turn sequences that followed. The advent of Internet-based play has reduced that consideration, and more recent designs are more sophisticated with improved historical research, leaving PanzerBlitz behind. Although once wildly popular, and still played a bit, it's a game design that does seem dated now and is most likely to be played between two old-timers than by someone new. Although Squad Leader, for example, is only seven years younger than PanzerBlitz, a lot happened during that seven years in game design and Squad Leader still seems much more modern. ASL, which came along just a few years after basic Squad Leader is still very much alive and winning over new players.
There are plans for Multi-Man Publishing to offer a new edition of PanzerBlitz, but this is not a straight reprint of the old game. Instead it appears it will be a completely new game, which may include some updated elements from the old one, but probably many new concepts as well. As such, it's really just using PanzerBlitz as a "brand name" similar to what Hasbro has done with "Avalon Hill" and "Axis & Allies."

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