Thursday, January 19, 2006

PanzerGrenadier: Under the hood

By way of continuing my intermittent look at PanzerGrenadier (pardon all the interruptions, but there you have it), today I’d like to wax all eloquent on a discussion of the game system in general.

One of the keys to grasping the PG game system – and thus to enjoying the game – is understanding what it is and what it isn’t. As simple as that might sound, it can actually be a subject of great confusion to many veteran wargamers. They approach what is perceived as a ‘tactical level’ game with a mix of preconceptions that can screw things up if given half a chance.

Speed, or more accurately pace, is the first preconception ‘wall’ many veteran players can hit. Most of the familiar tactical level games – Squad Leader, Advanced Squad Leader, Advanced Tobruk, Lock n Load – engage in some serious time compression. All of those systems have ‘scale’ turns that represent anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes. Scenarios generally range from 6 to 15 turns in length, with the average probably in the 8-12 turn range. Now, anyone with even a passing familiarity with ‘real’ military operations should probably recognize that events in those game proceed at an unrealistically fast pace. I’ll grant it often makes for a tense, enjoyable game. But asking an infantry company to clear 400 or 500 meters of urban terrain of enemy forces in 10 minutes is hardly a ‘realistic’ mission. World War II artillery fire missions that are called and resolved in 90 seconds exceed any forward observer’s wildest fantasies. You only need to look at a few slices of those games (many of which I enjoy) to understand that they tremendously compress the scale of time represented.

Similar time compression is absent from the PanzerGrenadier system. One of the first things you should note when flipping through one of the PG scenario books is the length of the scenarios. They frequently appear quite long – and some of them are very long indeed. The Fontana Alba scenario I’ll be discussing is 30 turns, for example. That’s 7.5 hours of ‘scale’ time, which is a fairly typical game length in the PG system.

I’ve known a few gamers who’ve had a rough go at wrapping their heads around the ‘tactical’ concept that patience is a virtue. You don’t necessarily have all day to fiddle around in PG, but you generally have the time you need to execute a fairly realistically-paced battle plan. Time enough to do some maneuver. Time enough to let your supporting arms (if you have them) do some softening-up work.

PG is not a game system that generally rewards a rushed style of play. Players who charge toward the enemy, pause to fire off maybe one or two turns of direct fire and then try to close for assault combat will, more often than not, get handed their heads.

Take a look at the Direct Fire CRT and you’ll notice that casualty rates are going to be pretty low as long as your taking shots on the ‘11’ column and anything lower. If you’re accustomed to playing tactical games where troops tend to evaporate rapidly under fire, direct fire in PG can come as a bit of a shock. Sometimes, you can stand off and blast away all day and generate hardly any casualties.

The game’s direct fire model is morale-based, not casualty-based. To my mind, for the most part it’s intended to reflect the disorganizing effects of fire on a unit’s capabilities. Direct Fire (and Bombardment, for that matter) is best used to disorder an enemy position (inflict Disrupted and Demoralized results) before you send your guys in for assault combat.

Assault combat is what takes the ground and generates the higher casualty rates. In most PG scenarios, you have to figure out how to make assault work for you if you’re going to capture contested victory locations and win the game. The Assault CRT is shorter and bloodier.

But there’s another catch that can trip up the unwary gamer with expectations carried over from different game systems. In PG, assault is not a one-turn, win or run away knife fight. Be prepared to conduct and support your assaults over a span of several turns. Frequently, assault combats don’t resolve to a conclusion in a single activation. So keep key leaders handy to support critical assaults, and keep reserve platoons handy (if you have them) to reinforce assaults and keep the pressure on when you have to pull out reduced, disrupted and demoralized platoons.

Getting your attacking units into assault combat with an enemy force is one of the grognard skills you have to develop to win at PG. As I mentioned above, running into direct fire range of the enemy, popping off a few shots and then trying to get stuck into an assault hex seldom succeeds.

If you haven’t softened up the enemy position by inflicting some disruptions and demoralizations before you go charging in, your guys can get cut to ribbons by defending fire. Assault is a ‘Fire’ action that (except in the case of cavalry) can only be initiated from an adjacent hex. Which means 1) your assault force can get hit by opportunity fire on the turn they move adjacent and 2) on the following turn, if you lose the initiative you’ll get hit by the defenders’ direct fire before you activate for the assault.

In both cases, you’re taking fire with some very nasty column shifts on the CRT. Opportunity fire is +1 column, and you’ll suffer a +2 additional shift for being adjacent to the firing unit. Even a single, lowly rifle platoon can inflict formidable punishment with a +3 column shift in its favor. It gets even worse if the position you want to assault contains multiple enemy units, or heavier assets like machinegun platoons. If it’s a multi-hex defending position with a good leader at hand, you may also be facing the coordinated opportunity fire of multiple stacks of units.

For a quick example of this, try the opening turns of Fontana Alba with the Romanians in ‘impatient mode’. They’re cavalry, right? Just charge right on in there. Pause a few hexes short of the city to spend a couple of turns dropping those ‘12’ strength artillery attacks on them. Then just sweep on into the town for some assault combat. If you can.

Chances are, the Romanian assault won’t do so well. Below is a photo of my Soviet defense of the town. The two western-most hexes each contain a rifle platoon (4-2) and a machinegun platoon (7-4). The northern hex is two rifle platoons. The remaining hex is the leader (in this case, a rather good Captain) and a reserve of 3 rifle platoons.

Aside from having a bit of patience, the proper placement and use of leaders is another big key to enjoying your games of PanzerGrenadier. In this case, the Captain is situated to provide useful support to every hex in the defense. His +1 morale bonus can be used by every unit in town. He could activate all of the units in town at once if he desired. And any Romanians daffy enough to attack from the south face the likelihood of the Captain acting to combine the fire of four rifle platoons and a machinegun platoon.

In this particular setup, the Soviets absolutely benefit from the luck of the draw. The randomly-selected Captain commanding the defense is one of the best leaders in the EFD countermix. The Soviets’ inferior morale (7 vs. 8 for the Romanians) will stand against them in assault combat – but with the ‘10’ morale Captain coordinating activations and providing morale support with his bonus, they stand a much better chance of inflicting some pain on the Romanians as they attempt to close for assault.

The Romanian task in this scenario is very difficult. They have to capture the town and hold it against a late-game counter-attack to win the game. In order to do that, they have to exploit a couple of razor-thin advantages.

First, they receive two ‘12’ strength off-board artillery attacks each turn. They must show a little bit of patience and use their OBA – along with their smattering of on-board heavy weapons (two machinegun platoons and a 60mm mortar platoon) – to hit the defenders with some disruptions (and maybe even demoralizations) before they assault the town.

The excellent Soviet leader hunkered down in the town makes disorganizing the defense a tough chore. All Soviet morale checks get a +1 boost, as do all recovery attempts. In fact, I’m wondering if having such a good leader in charge of things might just make the Romanians’ mission close to impossible.

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