Panzer General: Russian Assault01 May 2013 0
The stage and setting could not be more epic: the largest invasion in the history of warfare. Four million Axis troops blitzed across the vast Russian border under orders from German High Command to finally subdue the Soviet Union and eliminate communism from the face of the earth. Metal and men steamrolled through Eastern Europe forcing a sonic boom of armed conflict that reached all the way to the gates of Moscow. This was the turning point of the continental war: this was the moment of intense exhaustion for both the Nazis and their Soviet counterparts. One could almost hear the thunderous and tortured competition between Liszt's Les Préludes and the Soviet national anthem.
German tank tracks leave muddy evidence of their slow advance east while Stalin scrambles to scrap together reserves from Siberia. Would Blood and Iron prevail or will Blood and Soil turn back Hitler like General Winter had done to Napoleon? To feel a taste of this massive conflict, Petroglyph Games offers up Panzer General: Russian Assault, a card and tile board game set in the Eastern theater of World War II.
Panzer General: Russian Assault is the sequel to its Western Theater counterpart Panzer General: Allied Assault and both games focus on tactical simulation of specific battles in their respective theaters. Designed for one or two players, Panzer General: Russian Assault proceeds in a set of turns where one draws cards, then deploys his or her troops and takes actions before resolving combat situations. Scenarios are laid out according to different pre-set battles found in the manual. A plethora of scenarios exist both for single player and two players and represents a large swath of battles from Moscow and Donetsk to Smolensk and the infamous battle at Stalingrad.
Objectives are set out for each map and usually involve capturing strategic points along the map or eliminating a certain number of enemy forces. The map itself is ingeniously laid out in double sided tiles each with several different terrain types such as rivers, cities, factories, villages, and tree lines. Each tile contains information such as the inherent defense bonuses for that particular tile. The rules also take into account supply lines from one's home rows.
The variability of the tiles means that all of the scenarios can be laid out by following the setup instructions without having to have massive boards for each of the many battles. This allows the game to showcase the various battles without being limited by space or production cost. The tiles themselves are sturdy and laminated indicating the high quality of craftsmanship in the design of the board. Although not as easily recognizable as a tactical setup as, say, hexagons, the tiles admirably convey a sense of immersion when one sees how well they mesh together once the entire setup is completed. It did hurt my eyes a little bit to see the double sided text on each tile like the mirroring effect on a deck of playing cards, but it didn't take too long to adjust.
Aside from the board, there were also the unit cards which are beautifully rendered and of appropriate thickness to make them durable over long periods of play. Far from simply cards with sloppy printing, one could tell the professional work that was put into constructing the features of each card and the texting is clear and crisp. The units themselves range from King Tigers to Panzergrenadiers on the German side and T-60 light tanks and 122mm Howitzers on the Soviet side.
These cards contain the kind of unit they were (hard target, soft target, and artillery) as well as the essential game-related statistics such as support value, defense value, effectiveness against certain types, etc. Unfortunately, there was no flavor text on any of the cards although there was admittedly very little room left after all of the relevant data was laid out. I found this shortcoming to be unfortunate considering it might have added a bit of fun to have a short one liner description on each to give it added texture and immersion.
Interestingly, Petroglyph decided that adding small plastic figurines representing the three unit types would be appropriate to package with the game. I found these figurines to be a total irrelevant nuisance. Not only were the black German pieces completely camouflaged against the black and grey cards, but they are too small to be anything but distractions from the images on the cards themselves like tiny rugged moles while the copper tone Soviet pieces resembled pimples on the card portraits. They were eyesores.
If Petroglyph was truly worried about making sure the players could visually see the different unit types, they could have either changed the border colour on each card or otherwise made them colour-coded instead of these tiny almost invisible plastic figurines. It almost seems as if they were trying to make the game feel more ?tactical? by having these plastic pieces, but I find that it forms a real dissonance with the card-based no-dice mode in which the game is meant to be played. Aside from the unit cards there are also the action cards which allow a player to do such things as air strikes or bolster specific unit types. These action cards are pretty straight forward.
The combat itself, in my opinion, is the best part of this game. Initiating combat requires that one declare a target and begin calculating the various factors in order to attack that target. The attack value as well as action card modifiers and allied support adjacent all go into tallying up the total attack strength of any particular offensive action. The attack power level is kept track of on a separate board which demarcates the changes in this mathematical endeavor. At the same time, the defense value of the target is calculated and amassed. Both players then take turns buffing or bluffing as much extra firepower and reserves they care to invest with the cards in their hands. It may seem complicated; and it is to some degree. In fact, there is a checklist included in the game for just the combat phase. At first this may seem rather off-putting, but it actually achieves the opposite result.
By creating this dueling system of power, the combat encapsulates the tug of war that typified the Eastern Front in so many ways. The sheer number of men and firepower rushed on the field by both actors in the war is beautifully alluded to in every single offensive action and reaction on the board itself. This is a case where the thematic immersion of the big picture is present and available in the small picture. One really does get the feel of the critical balancing act both armies had to go through in order to slug through even one kilometer of territory.
It is not only for aesthetic considerations that this is an effective combat system: it's also a rather fun way of going about it. One can't help but think of the wildly popular, though tongue-in-cheek, combat of Munchkin where hero and monster levels are constantly being modified and added onto. If this analogy seems out of place to the serious-minded wargamer, then I shall rather compare it to the thrill one gets in Thunderstone when one tallies up all of his available heroes and buffs in order to defeat a difficult monster. Role-playing comparisons aside, it is not a merely deck game, but the positioning and terrain of each attack or defense is a major part of deciding the victor in any scenario. While combat is a joy to calculate (and an ease to do so with the help of the counter board), it does not dominate the tactical battlefield. Positioning is vital especially in analyzing the deployment and usage of what type of units one is utilizing and what type of units they are expecting to be up against. One, for example, would want tank-busters or something equally as tough against incoming Panzers or deploying a particularly tough target in an area with high defense value in order to stall the enemy advance while you cut off their headquarters from the right flank.
The provision for many solo scenarios is a rather nice touch although it's true that the best way one can play this game is through a duel with another human who can successfully attempt to thwart your moves with his or her own wit. The nature of playing as many cards as one can or as prestige allows in order to counter enemy breakthroughs is one of the most engaging parts of the game. Furthermore, the large number of scenarios available in the booklet allows the game to be revisited several times by prospective gamers looking for new strategies and new ways of beating their rivals. This duel setup is not only excellent for stoking excitement, but it also adds psychology into the mix. Do you burn through all of your cards in order to stop an enemy advance or do you let the enemy win the battle in order to save your powers for a coup he himself doesn't see until it's too late?
Game length is also reasonable, as it takes about an hour or two to complete one scenario to any point of satisfaction; a perfect enough time frame to get a duel in during an evening or afternoon, although this game is certainly not a party piece and probably a game between strategy lover best friends. However, there is something to be said about the setup length. Setting up each scenario is very straight-forward. Following the instructions in the booklet only took about five minutes or so to set up a game. It is the initial reading of the rules and understanding the order of turns which can be very difficult. There is luckily a step by step tutorial of the combat turn included in the handbook, but it's only after pages of describing each card and its attributes in detail. I think it would have been more effective to introduce the various elements of each card and tile while going through a practice game. It would have at least made the learning experience a bit more interactive instead of the narcoleptic journey through the first few pages of the manual.
Aside from the scenarios in the book, it is the genius of the tile setup that custom scenarios agreed upon by the players is possible and is easy to set up. Don't want to fight at Leningrad? Easy, make up your own winter battle scenario. Since the tiles are interchangeable, the serious wargamer can create challenges or even their own solo scenarios giving massive re-playability for the game. The only real concern is what to do with those irrelevant plastic pieces. If only Petroglyph had made them larger, they might actually seem like cool icons to place on top or in lieu of the unit portraits of each card, although this admittedly would have probably increased production cost significantly.
Speaking of cost, while the original game is slated at sixty dollars, one can find it for as low as twenty to forty depending on the site and sale. The slashed price is eminently reasonable for the type of game this is if one is interested in this kind of tabletop duel. The original price is on the expensive side. Although there are a lot of hours to be spent playing each scenario, Panzer General doesn't reach the level of re-playability more dynamic tabletop games possess such as tile based games like Settlers of Catan or card based games like Dominion. However, Panzer General satisfies the catering needs of the discerning World War II connoisseurs and appeals to their need for blitzkrieg.
The game has little actual storyline attached to it although I have no doubt in my mind that those interested in a game like this ready to take on the role of a Field Marshal and would have no need for any particular prelude to each battle. All he would need is a willing counterpart or an afternoon listening to Wagner while setting up a solo scenario. Lastly, although one is faced with the choice of playing one of two villains in this game (i.e. the Axis or the Soviets), you might think from my previous reviews on tank games that I'd prefer the Axis side for their better made hardware. You might very well think that. I, of course, couldn't possibly comment.
Review written by: James Tanaleon
About James Tanaleon
James Tanaleon grew up in the sunny suburban sprawl of Orange County, California and has had a long history of console and computer gaming thanks to his avid gaming father and his tech savvy friends. While receiving his education from both the University of California in Irvine and Franciscan University in Ohio?graduating with a Bachelor's Degree in Western and World Literature?he never lost his enjoyment for games. During this time he also cultivated his knowledge in music, history, religion, and international studies. He currently works in Orange County as lead writer for the startup game company Diecast Studios LLC and produces freelance writing on the side. James once served as editor-in-chief of Paradox Interactive Forum's monthly magazine The AARlander, and has written over a thousand pages of after action reports in his preferred genres of grand strategy and RPG.
Forum username: Aristocrat