Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Panzer Grenadier - Finally On The Table

I'll admit it - I have serious issues with Avalanche Press' games. Their rules are sloppy and subject to frequent new editions with major rules changes, they seem more interested in putting out quantity than quality, both in scenarios for their PG and GWaS/SWWaS games and in actual gameplay for games like Red Vengeance, and they act like the company will fold if they allow people to play their games online. I find that hard to believe, seeing the quantity of different titles that flow from them and the frequent sales they put on. 

I own a lot of their games, regardless. Some, like GWaS/SWWaS I have tried and run into too many rules problems (both lack of rules and poorly worded rules), and won't buy into those systems anymore. Panzer Grenadier was one of their early titles, and I bought games in all three (!) of the different rules editions they put out - the original game, marred by a boneheaded idea that you could easily measure if a piece of terrain took up 10% of a hex, Afrika Korps in 2nd ed which had it's own problems. I'd given up completely on the series until third edition came out, and I picked up the Eastern Front reprint of the original game to see if it had improved. I was impressed by a better (but still incredibly thick) ruleset, especially wrt how leaders were treated, and what seemed to be better scenario design. 

In fact, I was enamored of the system that I bought several other of the games and expansions, especially when they had sales. I now own Airborne, Road to Berlin, Battle of the Bulge, Afrika Corps, Eastern Front, Desert Rats (all boxed games that stand on their own), and the expansions Blue Division, Red Warriors, Sinister Forces, Arctic Front, Iron Curtain, Edelweiss, and South Africa's War. That's a lot of games, counters, and maps. I figure there are something like 400 scenarios all told in that mix, which I will clearly never play. 

And, until last night, I had not. Oh, I'd pulled out the game, set it up, and run through a few turns here and there, but the rules have enough hidden rules that it's hard for one person to learn the game. For example, if a demoralized unit fails it's recovery roll and flees, a leader in the original hex can flee with it. And this rule is buried as an exception in an unrelated rule. Meanwhile, you are told what units you can activate in a turn at least five or six times - the identical rule, over and over. And it happens throughout the rules. A clean ruleset would take up, in my estimation, about 8 pages of dense text, maybe 12 with illustrated examples. So learning this game on your own can be a bit of a chore.

Making matters worse, you can't play the game online, at least not in the modern sense. Because of opportunity fire, you really can't play the game by sending your move as a file and using a dice server to generate the random parts. VASSAL would be ideal for the game, but Avalanche is so paranoid about it's intellectual property that it won't allow any modules to be distributed. As such, I can't play this game remotely. Which is incredibly stupid because the game takes a long time to play anything but the simplest scenarios. I'm fairly certain I'd play this game regularly if there was a remote play option, but there isn't and so I think I'm not going to buy any more PG product until there is an option to do so. I've got plenty of game already that isn't getting played. 

That said, Eric and I have moaned about not having opponents for the game (largely because of the above reasons) in our group, and decided to pull it out and give it a try last night. This was the first face-to-face third edition game for both of us, although he'd played second edition some time ago. He chose the Los Tigres! scenario (#11) from the Blue Division expansion, partly because you got to have Spanish Fascists in 1942 Russia, but also because this was the first appearance of the PzKwVIe, also known as the Tiger tank. The model had horrible problems with maintenance and upkeep, was slow slow slow, and was only produced in limited numbers, but it had an 88mm cannon that was taken from the FLaK gun that did such an incredible job in an anti-tank role, and was perhaps the most feared land weapon on the WWII battlefield outside of heavy artillery. 

The scenario has the Spanish units (and their lone Tiger unit) trying to mop up a pocket of Russian soldiers holed up in a town. The Russians are in dire straits - most of their units are reduced, and thus have low morale, and the handful of guns they have are not up to the task of taking out the Tiger without some serious luck. I think the heavy artillery they have could *maybe* cause some damage on an 11 or 12 on 2d6 *if* the Tiger was adjacent and hadn't moved that turn. An unlikely situation, seeing as the guns have no way to move once they are placed and the Tiger has no reason to assault a city, where the guns are likely to be located. As such, it falls to close assault tactics to take out the Tiger. 

Which we *almost* got to but not quite. While we only finished about 10 turns out of the 28 the scenario runs for, I figure we got about half way in over three hours, much of that time spent on setup (30 minutes) and rules lookups (another 15-20 minutes). The Spanish, coming from two directions, were knocking on the door of the one-hex town, and being held off to some extent from the other town, with a pair of units and a leader ready to assault the Tiger which had foolishly parked next to a woods hex. I'd had surprising luck with my two laughingly designated "anti-tank" guns, which didn't have enough firepower to damage the Tiger if you were able to *combine* them, much less on their own, but they did a bang-up job popping away with their measly 2-firepower attacks on infantry units. Had we continued the game, it would have been interesting, but to be brutally honest PG scenarios are about history and not about a balanced gaming experience, so I'm pretty sure I would have eventually have been wiped off of the map given another 10 turns, although I might have taken quite a few Spaniards with me. 

Here's the thing - I really like this game. We spent a lot of time early on figuring odds of a result, and there are four different combat tables to get to know, each with different rules. Anti-armor fire uses a differential system, and only single units can fire. Direct fire goes against specific hexes, and can take advantage of firegroups if you have leaders around. Bombardment is particularly deadly, but is harder to get firegroups set up, but can also be done indirectly. Assault requires leaders, no disruptions or demoralizations in the attacking units, everyone is involved, and you have to first get up close and personal. There's also opportunity fire, which is great for direct fire but not so good with anti-armor, and it can only affect a single unit at a time. Every type has it's own table, which used specific firepower totals and column shifts to get a result, and even then the most likely roll (a 7) will result in no success at all - the real wins are when you roll at the end of the bell curve, either side! 

As such, you spend a lot of time looking at the tables early on to figure out how many factors to throw at a given target, and whether to wait until they're one hex closer so you don't get the negative column shift. Even crap weapons can get lucky, though (see my success with the AT gun in an IG role), so nothing is certain. Except the odds of nailing that freakin' Tiger. As the game went on, we got so we knew the columns and shifts and combat got really fast (at least until you got a result, then much morale rolling was done). Because the game plays very interactively, even more so than Combat Commander, you have almost no downtime and both sides are actively involved even in a defensive role. 

The night just flew by, and I was disappointed that we were going to have to stop the game - I really wanted to see how the literary elements would have played out. I felt like this was Combat Commander for control freaks - while your combat and morale rolls are a very strong luck element, there isn't the craziness and random events going on like there is in CC - no blazes showing up in a critical hex, or crappy smoke when you needed the good stuff. You can shoot indirect arty all the way across the board at very specific spots with no checking to make sure it lands where you thought it would (although there are friendly fire rules). This is a God's-eye view game, just the way American wargamers like it. You know *right* where those Tiger tanks are. It won't help, but you know where they are. And, like Combat Commander, a lot of the scenarios aren't going to seem terribly balanced, but also like that game, balance isn't really the point. The point is to get a good feel for history and the issues the commanders faced and how the various weapons systems work together to be effective. And, of course, to tell a story through the game. 

I'm going to work to get this title on the table more, although it will likely be solitaire (the fog of war rules that can end a turn prematurely help considerably in this regard) or occasionally with Eric, who lives a bit more than two gallons of gas away as a round trip. Funny how that's a measure of distance for me now. I won't buy any more of the expansions or games, though, until Avalanche starts making it easy for me to play anyone anywhere instead of forcing me to stick with local opponents. 

And here's a thought on that. Avalanche should take a very hard look at the Days of Wonder model. Provide a proprietary online system that people can either subscribe to, or get a certain number of months access to when they buy the game, enabled by a password. A big box will get you two or three months. An expansion will get you one. The junkies will buy every game that comes out. Make it web-based so that people can't steal it and so it would be platform independent (because the only thing that would piss me off *more* would be to shut out the Mac folks needlessly). Alternately, when you subscribe, you get access to that game's scenarios for life. The initial investment in software would be a bit high, but you'd sell more games and wouldn't even need AI, just a solid interface that worked like you needed it to. Avalanche would control their IP, we'd have the opportunity to play the game remotely. There would be maintenance costs, sure, but eventually you might even be able to sell *just* the online access - no printing costs, distribution, or other costs involved. 

I mean, I like having the physical game as much as the next guy, and in fact with wargames that may be one of the primary reasons I have the game, but as I get older and even *my* closet starts to burst at the seams, maybe it's time to rethink the hobby and how we access it. List prices for wargames are going to start to break the $100 point on a regular basis in the not too distant future (the monsters and small press games already do), and if you can sell the online game for $50 I think there's a successful business model here. 

Avalanche, I hope you're listening. Because there's a good game here that gets overlooked because of your paranoia. I say, keep the paranoia but provide us with a way to play online. I think you'll come out ahead. 

1 comment:

Eric said...

I had a lot to say. So instead of trying to post comments here, I put them on my blog.