Monday, 3 September 2018

Panzer by GMT

The Panzer series is designed by James Day and now produced by GMT.

After dabbling over the past year with two other tactical WWII systems, I have picked up my Panzer system again and set about reading the rules to refresh my memory, while enjoying the detail and some of the sensible decisions falling from the design.

Just to get the rule flow going again in my head, I have returned to the introductory scenario 1, ‘The Crossings : Ukraine late 1943’.

The rest of this post gives way to some general observations and ramblings of a system that remains superbly supported by its designer and that oozes designer knowledge and passion (I must also give mention to system fan Fernando Sola, who also gives unstinting supporting in fielding Q&A at both Consimworld and BoardGameGeek).

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Both game and designer have a long relationship and pedigree, with the initial appearance of this system coming some years ago (circa 1980) with the publication of Panzer (east front), Armor (west front) and 88 (desert) under the badge of Yaquinto Games. As a young gamer, I revelled in, these flat boxed games, with their detailed penetration charts and thick cardboard terrain overlays. They were just so different than anything else, with the Yaquinto production feel having something that was a little unique. It was not particularly solitaire friendly and for me, that was ultimately its achilles heel.

In 1989, Jim took the design into post WWII conflicts with MBT (Circa 1985) and Israeli Defence Force (Circa 1967 - 73), with Avalon Hill handling the publication. I had the former, which though beautifully produced, never really got onto my table.

Later, Jim converted (or perhaps returned!) the WWII part of the system into an east front miniatures game, with the booklets coming in a tough black plastic case (is that collectable now?), but I only ever saw one in a store and they seemed to have that for ages.

Now we hit more recent times, with the design returning to a boardgame format. In 2012 GMT took on a revised version of the WWII system with a release of the core set under the original name of ‘Panzer’, with two expansions published at the same time, to provide complete orders of battle for the Germans and Soviets for the 1939 - 45 period. GMT had wanted some changes so that the system would appeal to a wider audience and so from 1979 through to now, we have an evolution of a system that says much for the resilience of both the design and designer.

The series continues to show strength, with a west front 1944 - ‘45 module (Drive on the Rhine) already out, a France ‘40 module due later this year and last year, the modern stuff hit the shelves with the return of the MBT title, followed by two new expansions, giving the British and West German orders-of-battle for 1985 - 87.

And so here we are, reading the rules to get up an running again. The rule book has a starter set, the advanced rules and optional rules. The starter rules are very easy to pick up and only deal with armour, but importantly they set the framework for the fuller system. The advanced rules have the appearance of being rather meaty to tackle in one go, but a strength of the game is that the newbie can just select those areas of the advanced rules that they want to bring into their game, essentially adopting the rules bit by bit. This is not giving total freedom from learning chunks of rules however, as pretty soon, you are going to want / need to get anti-tank guns and infantry into the game, but you could for example push artillery and aircraft to the back of the learning queue while you do that.

The optional rules bring further nuance and even more so than the advanced rules, these really are a pick ‘n mix of what rules the gamer wants to bring into their game. I like that this is seen as something of a rivet counters game and yet we see something like turrets appearing in the optional rules, showing just how modular these rules are.

The data cards have the gun / armour performance charts on them and can look a bit scary, but they are cleverly put together and all of those numbers are just working to a few easily applied principles. They help keep the counters relatively clean and quickly become second nature in their use as well as imparting a sense of significant detail without any great complication.

Last year I put up a post that covered the gun / armour sub-system of the game. It is a lengthy post that gets a bit dry as it covers statistical matters, but if you go to the last part of the post, there are some examples of play, which essentially show the basic simplicity of the game engine (see link below in the Resource Section).

One of the things that I really like about Panzer and which reveals itself from the very first game, is effects that come from the ground scale being 100 metres to the hex. This is at least double that of some other popular tactical games that involve the representation of single tanks. The significance is that the player gets the scope to have armoured engagements in that common 700 - 1700 metre range, that is much harder to represent in games that have ground scale set at 40 - 50 metres to the hex. Pushing platoons out on the flank or skirting a town or woods or the business of probing just looks and feels right and this is further reinforced by the movement rates per turn being fairly limited, so things feel like they are moving cautiously over the battlefield and there are plenty of times when the vehicles won’t quite get to where you really want them, bringing the player to a closer relationship with the terrain.

The maps have drawn some criticism for their simple look compared to just how gorgeous maps can be made in this day and age and I get that, but I have come to appreciate what I believe is the intention of the art, as it presents the main and important terrain features in an almost schematic style that immediately draws the players eye into reading the battlefield in terms of objectives and routes of approach that emphasises topography without distraction so that the relationship between the terrain features themselves become relevant to deployment and intention. The clearly written line-of-sight rules also add to this sense and ease of ‘reading’ the topography - it sounds an obvious thing to achieve in any tactical game, perhaps I am explaining it badly, but it reminds of long ago playings of GDW’s ‘Assault’ series in which columns of advancing troops used contours to provide safe routes of approach and there was a sort of grand tactical level of play (though admittedly that game system was already at a higher scale) going on that gave the player a battalion or regimental perspective of play.  

Anyway, onto a starter scenario, The Crossings : Ukraine late 1943, which allows for just the basic rules to be used, but is also an open scenario that allows more advanced rules to be brought in as the player desires.

This is a meeting engagement between two company sized forces on the east front in 1943, in which there is an uncrossable river except at three places, where a ford and two bridges are situated. Victory points are awarded for capture of those three crossing points and also for the destruction of enemy armour. This is a pure armour scenario.

At the lower crossing, a platoon of five Panzer IVG’s are trundling along a road that will take them through the village of Kurhva and out towards the nearby lower bridge. Three T34/76 (the 1943 version) are coming along the same road in the other direction. They will pass between scrub and rough terrain and then reach the bridge. At the top half of the map, there is an upper bridge that is attracting the attention of six T-34’s (two platoons) from one direction and five Pz IVG’s (one platoon) from the other direction.

The above photograph shows the lower bridge part of the map and I have laid out the vehicle cards for information / interest to the reader. For our basic game, most of that information will not be used.

Above the Soviet stat card (out of shot) is a single T-34, this is the company commander and he is around 1200 metres away from the unfolding action near Kurhva and the lower bridge.

Suddenly, everyone bumps into each other! :-)

In the Orders Phase at the start of the turn, everybody (both sides) gets Fire orders by the players choosing. In a face-to-face game, these would be placed face down as there are different orders that can be given.

[...... Like a slick outfit, some gunners get their AP shells quickly into the gun tube, while the Commanders call out targets and turrets turn, in other vehicles a mix of combat fright, surprise and new recruits see a less than efficient opening to their engagement ....... who will win the initiative!]

Initiative Phase - The Soviets roll highest, win the initiative and so can choose who fires first (the side that fires first moves second, so choosing who should be the 1st player is not always about firing ....... though at this particular moment it most surely is!) They choose to be player 1 and fire first.

Fire Phase - At the lower bridge, they damage one Panzer IV and knock out two others. The range to the lead units is exactly 6 hexes and this is the point at which the T-34 can just about claim close fire, getting a better chance of hitting and having penetration benefits from any such hits.

In contrast, the German 75/43 gun on the Panzer IVG can claim close fire out to 7 hexes, so they can reach the lead Soviet stack and the follow-up stack with the same penetration benefits, but that sloping armour of the T-34 is making direct knock-outs from the front impossible (in the basic game the Soviet T-34’s get a generic armour value of 18 across the entire front perspective), still, with return fire, the German column damage two of the T-34’s. Damage has important consequences, it reduces the chance of getting a successful ‘To Hit’ roll, it reduces speed and a further damage result will destroy the vehicle.

In the following turn, the German player thinks about playing a ‘short halt’ order on the Panzer IV’s, this would allow them to fire with penalties in the fire phase and then move at half speed in the movement phase. Ideally they want to pull back into the alley ways of the village for some cover - but the damaged units are already at half movement allowance and they pay double movement costs for reversing, plus when they fire, they will pay a huge -4 modifier on the To Hit Table. Reluctantly they will stand their ground and are given a fire order - perhaps they will win the initiative and fire first in the next turn.

Movement Phase - none, as everything fired rather than moving.

Next turn - The Germans do in fact get the initiative and choose to fire first. The damaged unit at the front of the German column is first up. They are firing at short range, which starts off with a 50% chance of scoring a hit, but their damage reduces that position on the chart by 3 levels, to give a To Hit chance of 35%. They roll and miss, though they seem to be in good company as several of the tank crews from both sides seem to be living on their nerves and miss their intended targets (bad 'To Hit' rolls!).

By the start of turn 4, across the map, the number of losses and damage results start to see small nuances come into play. At the top bridge, the Germans have been mauled. They want to pull back a little to open the gap, so that the Soviet tankers have to start firing on the ‘long range’ column, while the Germans can still reply at 1300 metres on the Medium Range values. So they get a ‘short halt’ order to allow both fire followed by movement (both with penalties).

The Soviet Commander receives an ‘over-watch’ order. This gives him a sort of opportunity fire status, but one that will allow them not only to fire at a moving target during enemy movement, but also at the end of the Direct Fire Phase, at anyone who has just fired in that phase. When orders are placed face down in a face-to-face game, it allows for a hedging of bets as to whether enemy units that 'interest' you have been given a move or a fire order.

This brings a wider insurance policy than the typical opportunity fire rules that are common to several other systems. There are some downsides - they might get taken out themselves earlier in the Direct Fire Phase before they get a chance to fire and also they suffer a small -1 penalty on the To Hit Table.

Everything else either fires or moves.

By turn 7, gun ranges have started to matter and the Soviet assault on the lower bridge has collapsed and at the upper bridge, the remnant of two T-34 platoons disengage and fall back to positions behind the light woods. The Germans advance and capture both bridges and the ford, while the commander takes a central position up on the high ground.

They get 215 points for captured objectives and 462 points for inflicted losses (total 677). The Soviets get 384 points for inflicting losses, so a clear German win. The Germans lost 6 tanks and the Soviets 7.

I then set this same scenario up a second time, but this time dipped into the advanced rules and brought in ‘Hit Angles’ for more precise impact locations on the armour, ‘AP Damage and Effects / Track Hits’ for more a accurate relationship with gun capability, plus ‘Ammo Limits’ so that special ammunition could be used, which would give the Germans a potential to use APCR against the Soviet frontal armour.

The engagement opens. T-34’s once again meet the Pz IVG’s head on, but the Pz IV’s get to fire first this time. In the first instance, a Pz IV puts standard AP ammo in the gun tube and fires at a range of 8 hexes (800 metres), which is medium range with a firepower of 18. If it had attempted to use APCR (special ammo), it would still be classed as medium range, but have a firepower value of 23. It seems like a no-brainer to choose special ammo, but special ammo has to be rolled for and with this vehicle, there is only a 40% chance of getting it. If you fail to get it, you fire normal AP instead, but suffer a stiff ‘To Hit’ penalty, so playing safe here for important opening shots against a target that normal AP can deal with anyway (just!), makes sense.

The basic ‘To Hit’ at medium range is 50%, but this is reduced down to 40% because the T-34 is moving. They roll 23% on 2D10, so secure a hit. Under the basic rules, this fire would have been counted as being to the front aspect of the T-34 (i.e. one of the 3 hexes around the front of the tank), which had a generic defence of 18, but in the advanced rules the specific hexside that the shot comes through matters and here it is actually not the front, but the next hex to the right, which is called the ‘Front/side’ and so this is where we use the data on the cards, which give us the armour value at that location.

Above, in the basic game there are just two target aspects and each gets a generic armour value.

Above, in the advanced game, each hex face has its own target aspect and each aspect has a hull armour and a turret armour value.

Two D10’s are rolled, the first tells us on the Hit Location Table that the T-34’s Turret Front is hit (there was a 10% chance of hitting a track). The turret front happens to have an armour value of 18 (just like the generic figure in the basic game) and the Pz IV’s AP value at medium range is also 18. Equalling or better produces a penetration, so we have our penetration, in fact just as we would have done in the basic game. However, in the basic game if the AP equalled the armour value or exceeded it by 1, 2 or 3, then the target was only damaged, it was this generic application that made it impossible at short range for the Pz IV to Knock Out T-34 frontally in a single strike, rather it would just damage the vehicle.

Under the advanced rule, the second D10 rolled decides how much damage is done, based upon the characteristics of the weapon. Here the 75/43 on the Panzer IVG will not do any damage on a 1, cause damage on a 2 - 3, Knock Out the target on a 5 - 8 and Brew Up (burns and makes smoke) a target on 9 - 10, so you can instantly see that now, under the advanced rules, the Pz IVG has a 60% chance of destroying the vehicle upon penetration ........ however, the dice gods give us a roll of 2’ and so the Panzer’s shot only causes damage, though in the advanced rules, damage may also result in the crew bailing (a score of 30% or less) in this instance, but they roll 97 for their test and are safe.

This new threat of penetration outcomes being based around a fluid AP Damage result means that with the advanced game, the Soviets in this scenario have to be more respectful as to the capabilities of the Panzer IVG, but it remains the case that the T-34 can still deal with the Pz IVG at 17 hexes distance, while the Pz IV can only frontally harm (i.e. get a penetration result) the T-34 out to 12 hexes (1200 metres) with AP, due to that good armour, while switching out to APCR would only give them another 100 metres on that.

It would be wrong to suggest that Panzer is an easy game to learn (rated 6 out of 9 for complexity on the back of the box), but equally, it does not deserve a reputation of being very difficult or a rivet counter’s game. It is a game for tactical game fans who are prepared to get involved in a learning curve that delivers rewarding play.

The core concepts are very straight forward and the rules are written in a readable style, without a body of rule exceptions. You can largely go at your own pace and if it is a game that you warm to, there are plenty of expansions and official scenarios, as well as the ‘do your own’ scenarios that will give a huge amount of re-playability to ensure regular play for the investment made. This extra involvement with armour thickness and gun penetration, combined with the various movement rates, does draw you in, giving a connection with the various characteristics of individual vehicles and it feels like things matter .... lovely!

There are quite a few YouTube videos on the game on the internet, with Kev Sharpe at Big Board gaming making his fair share (see resources below for his short opening to turn 1 of Scenario 19), which will give you an idea of how the game looks.

I’m just off to bring a few more rules to my next game. I will skip the infantry / GP / anti-tank gun rule sections for now and pick up the Command rules and also how vehicles find Hull Down positions on the battlefield. The scrub and rough terrain that is close to the lower bridge in scenario 1 are both good sources of potential hull down positions, so that may bring some additional nuance to the scenario. Of course each time this is played with some new rules introduced, the earlier learned rules also get reinforced in one’s mind.

Last Years post about system and gun / armour relationships LINK

Big Board Gaming video - looking at scenario 19 and observing the system LINK


  1. The one hex to 100m is interesting, I always struggled a bit with the point blank range tank battles in Squad Leader et al and so preferred Panzerleader/Blitz for more realistic engagement ranges albeit with platoon sized elements.

    AHGCs Tobruk used 75m hexes, which worked very well in the mid-war desert environment (and made 88s v. scary while the 2pdrs, 37m and 50L42 guns had to get pretty close to damage anything).

    1. yes, the scale really allows for some of the differing characteristics of the vehicle to come through, especially at that sort of 1200 - 1600 metres range band. So you get the 'real world differences between say the Pz IVG and the Pz IVH and in our game, the soviets would have had a tougher time against the latter …. though of course by time this was really an issue the T34/85 would have been the Soviet replacement. All good stuff.

  2. Very interesting to compare the basic rules to the more advanced ones and how both sides decision making might be affected.

  3. Steve, the good thing about the basic set is that it removes obstacles for the new player to get a game going, while still laying a really good systems foundation. Looking at the Advanced game, there are just so many interesting bits being brought to the party. I am just applying the hull down rules and this allows tanks in some terrains to hunt within the hex for a hull down position, with a +20% modifier to find partial hull down cover, suddenly this brings some terrain types a new significance to the battlefield …. of course you could do all of that and then receive a turret hit!

  4. Good post - as usual!

    Funnily enough, it's the 100 m scale that often gets in the way of me playing the game. Why? Not really sure. There is something that does not work for me. Your points are well made - I think you are right on the money there - but it's not quite enough.

    I think the command system is past its sell by date, and the C3 implementation is awful.

    I bloody hate turning counters to different sides. It's too easy to get it wrong, or accidentally wrongly adjust a status by bumping a counter unintentionally. Now what was that status again?

    But I keep coming back to it, and of course have all the WW2 modules. Each time I do come back to it, I start with a new (home grown) bastardization of other game turn sequences to see if I can get something that - for me - is more fun, less fiddly, and more enduring. So far, I have failed. But I will keep trying.

    Love hate relationship.

  5. Hi Ellis, all good. I have returned to get myself up to speed for the France '40 release.

    I do like that the command system not only controls the 'ordered' group, but that the control span limitation is then also applied on what elements of an enemy group can be targeted by the firing group.

    The 100 metres to the hex is an interesting place to stand for single vehicle combat. It borders other systems that do single platoon at 160 - 250 metres and companies at 500 metres (Panzer Command - it would be nice to see that back in print).

    Going in the other direction, ASL uses 40 metres per hex and Lock 'n Load 50 metres, both with single vehicles. I did wonder whether the ASL scale or rather the original SL scale came from the need of being able to fire a SMG from one building, across a road and into another building.

    I wonder whether the tactical market is now too crowded or rather dominated by a few designs to the degree that a new kid on the block is unlikely and we have what we have. When Compass Games bring the Tank Leader series back out, there will be even less wriggle room left for new designs.

    Hope you enjoy your purchase of France '40 :-)

    1. Hi Norm

      "I wonder whether the tactical market is now too crowded or rather dominated by a few designs to the degree that a new kid on the block is unlikely and we have what we have. "

      Check out The Last Hundred Yards coming from GMT. Doubt that will be the last tactical game.

    2. My wallet thanks you :-)

      I'm not keen on the way that the contours are represented on the sample map sections, the rest of the map art is lovely. Interesting to compare that to the Panzer maps which a presently in front of me. One highly functional but rather two dimensional art, the other gorgeous, but at the cost of functionality perhaps.

  6. Hi Norm
    Great work as usual, I thought you had forgotten about this great game��

    I don’t like the fact that there is only one map. MBT has four double sided. GMT definitely missed a trick here. I do like their functionality and the scale doesn’t worry me.

    I think the game plays better with the optional staggered initiative. Combined with the command rules the game comes alive.

    I am having to learn it solo but am getting through it. I will then start on MBT as I really enjoy that period.


  7. Hi David, there are a lot of nice rules in the optional set, some of them surprising that they are optional, but I suppose they are only as optional as the gamer wants them to be :-)

    The map seems to have drawn a lot of criticism, odd as it was released with the other expansions at the same time and they went straight to standard boards that now appear across the series, so one might have expected that first map to follow suit.

  8. Nice overview of the game mechanics and discussion of the rules. I was unfamiliar with this brand, but now I feel like I know it. 😀

  9. Thanks Stew, more to come on this one I think.

  10. Interesting post, the distance makes real sense to me, however as I am a strictly a 28mm gamer,Ill be using unrealistic distances! Sounds like rivet counting is optional but there if you want/need it.
    Best Iain

    1. Iain, there are so many tactical WWII boardgames around these days that it can be difficult defining 'real world' differences between them, but I think the distance / range / movement relationships in this game do give us something different - as an aside, I think you may like my next post …. Doh! I shouldn't have said that!

  11. Incredible read, with so much to take in. Greatly appreciated the build up of the historical evolution of the game, through details of the system to the report of the intro scenario. As always enjoy your thoughts and views, as the article progresses. I know I'd not buy it, but perhaps one day it'll be on the table between us.

    1. How about next Friday :-) while the rules are fresh in my head and we can stay down at the easy end.

  12. Excellent overview on design and detailed mechanisms on this one, Norm. Like Stew, I feel like I know this game simply from your detailed description and play throughs. With all of the choices possible in this genre (of which you have described in past posts), which is your favorite? I would enjoy seeing you add in Advanced Tobruk and the original Squad Leader into this mix.

  13. Thanks Jonathan, I dabble with quite a few systems and still have one under the table that has not seen the table yet. Of those available, I do not really have a firm favourite and tend to live in one system for a few months and then immerse myself in another set etc, as to play each of the all the time would just have me not just getting mixed up, but more importantly, I would lose that intimate grasp of the rules that comes from weeks of playing them.

    I'm pretty sure my favourite could become a game that has never been published or is ever likely to be …. and that would be Basic Squad Leader Second Edition, it would be basic squad leader, with the Cross of Iron armour System replacing the basic armour rules, it would be expanded to included the British order of battle, have a couple of extra boards (board 5 and something else, maybe with a river crossing) and a dozen more scenarios. The person writing the rules would bend over backwards to keep the text and complexity as close to Basic Squad Leader as possible and of course it would be done with the worlds most glorious counters.

    But until then, I will no doubt cycle through the various titles. I am hoping to get a good grasp on Panzer this time around.

    1. You know what, Norm? After selling off my SL/COI/COD/GI games many, many years ago, I decided to repurchase those games and give them another look. After years of describing to a gaming friend the virtues of the original series, he bought sets for all of them and began teaching the system to his son this week. Well, I could resist no longer. SL and COD are on their way. Still looking for a reasonably priced COI.

      I like your dream...

  14. That has just made me smile. The potential audience for a SL remake must be huge, it must the most iconic of the iconic and the nostalgic of the nostalgic games out there. You know in this day and age, I suppose one could completely remake the game on a home computer and self publish just for oneself. I would be a project and a half, but you would end up with something marvellous.

    I have done a couple of SL post under the 'Comparing Games' and 'Squad Leader Basic' labels

    This is a UK dealer who has copies of COI

    1. Thanks for the link. You may not be surprised to read that I picked up a copy of CoI Stateside and it is on the way.

      I plan to revist your SL posts.

  15. All good, it is hard to put a finger on it exactly, but there is a certain magical attraction / connection with the game for those who came up through the SL ranks.

  16. How's this as a solo game? I've seen people use 6mm for more eye candy. Looks interesting

  17. Hi Bruce, it plays OK solo in the same way that many 2 player games do. I suppose the weak area in that regard is that when you issue orders to both sides, you will know what those orders are, while in a face-to-face game, those orders are placed face down. However that is negated to a large degree by the fact that it becomes fairly obvious what most of the pieces should do and also initiative is rolled for AFTER the orders are placed and that is a very solo friendly aspect to the sequence of play.

    It would suit 6mm from the point of view that most game information is held off the table in charts, so figures are fine, the downside is that up to 5 vehicles can stack without penalty and there are quite a lot of times when you want to stack because that particular hex offers good positional benefits, but the hexes that come with the game would not allow for multi figure occuancy.

    I am working on another post now which may help you decide and that should be up here sometime over this weekend. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  18. Norm....I'd love to hear your opinions on what would be a good set of WW2 rules (or board game....been looking at Tide of Iron) for 6mm, solo play, company sized games on a 3x3 or 4x4 table




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