On 3 July 1941, the German soldiers of Army Group Center resumed their eastern drive towards the Soviet capital, Moscow. The Wehrmacht’s advance had been stalled for almost a week while the panzer and motorized units of the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups waited for Army Group Center’s infantry to catch up with the fast-moving panzers. That wait was now at an end. The German strategy was for a repeat of the earlier encirclement battles that had already been extraordinarily successful near the Russo-German frontier. Thus, the planned operation was both simple and direct: it envisioned a massive pincer action with Hoth’s Panzer Group breaking through in the north, and Guderian’s panzers forcing a crossing of the Dnepr in the south. Once both panzer groups had gained freedom of maneuver, they would immediately push deep into the Russian rear and then turn towards each other to link up east of Smolensk. While all this was happening, the hard-marching German infantry divisions would be steadily fighting their way east to liquidate the Soviet units trapped in the steadily tightening pocket around Smolensk.
During the relatively quiet days before the battle, however, the Red Army had not been idle. In the short period between the end of June and the first days of July, the Russian High Command (STAVKA) had managed to deploy powerful elements from four Soviet Fronts (army groups) directly in the path of the German offensive. When the battle opened, four Russian armies — the 13th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd — were already dug into defensive positions in the path of the German advance, and two more Soviet armies — the 16th and the 19th — were rapidly forming to help meet the German attack. Although the early stages of the fighting would be around Orsha, Mogilev, and Vitebsk, the central focus of this campaign, both sides knew, would be the ancient, but strategically important Russian city of Smolensk.
The ultimate outcome of the Battle of Smolensk was a victory, of sorts, for both sides. Smolensk fell to the Germans on the 16th, but the panzers of Hoth and Guderian did not completely close the pocket until 26 July. Certainly, the Germans could claim to have won the battle in that Army Group Center satisfied its main operational objectives. However, for the first time in the war, sizeable numbers of Russians succeeded in fighting their way out of a major German encirclement. More importantly, those Soviet troops that escaped the pocket fell back to join in the defense of Moscow; and when the bitter winter battle for the Russian capital finally came, their presence at the front would help to deny Hitler any final chance for victory in 1941.
General Konev Talking with Officers
In retrospect, the Battle of Smolensk was clearly a critical turning-point in the first year of the War in the East. The defense of this important rail and road junction revealed a tenacious and determined Russian Army that, for the first time since the war began, was able to significantly delay the offensive operations of Army Group Center. Admittedly, the price that the Russians paid for this delay was high. The Soviets lost virtually all of the armor committed to the battle: probably at least 700 tanks; they also suffered somewhere between 45,000 and 85,000 men killed and wounded, and another 300,000 soldiers captured during the weeks of fighting. Nonetheless, the Red Army, to its credit, was still able to extricate over 200,000 troops from the pocket while successfully delaying the German drive towards Moscow for three crucial weeks. German losses, although significantly lower, are unknown.
PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN: Battle for Smolensk, July 1941 is a two-player simulation of Army Group Center’s operations — conducted in July of 1941 and spearheaded by both Guderian’s Second Panzer Gruppe and Hoth’s Third Panzer Gruppe — aimed at forcing the Dvina and Dnepr Rivers and seizing Smolensk in preparation for a future assault on Moscow. The various game counters represent the historical combat units that actually took part — or that could have played a role — in the actual battle. The game is played in game turns, each of which is divided into a Russian and a German player turn. A complete game turn is equal to one week of real time. The game is twelve turns long and spans the period from 3 to 26 July, 1941, during which the major events of the battle transpired. The game turn sequence for PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN is asymmetrical, and proceeds as follows (the Soviet player moves first): movement phase, combat phase, disruption removal phase, Soviet air interdiction phase; the German player turn then proceeds with an initial movement phase, combat phase, mechanized movement phase, disruption removal phase, and air interdiction phase. At the conclusion of both player turns, the turn record marker is advanced one space, and the next game turn begins.
The actual mechanics of play for PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN are comparatively simple, but quite interesting, nonetheless. One of this title’s most notable innovations is that all Soviet combat units begin play with their combat strengths unknown, and with their ‘untried’ side face-up on the game map; thus, the actual combat strengths of Russian units are only revealed as a result of combat. Oddly enough, Jim Dunnigan also used 'untried' counters in INVASION AMERICA (another 1976 SPI title), but the effect of 'unknown strength' counters on the two games turned out to be both more plausible (from a simulation standpoint) and much more critical to play in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN than in his dystopian 'future war' invasion of America game. Other game rules are more conventional. Stacking, for both players, is limited to three combat units per hex; the Russian player, however, may stack up to four units in a single hex, as long as at least one of the units in the stack is a Leader unit. Interestingly, stacking limits apply only at the end of a movement phase, but throughout all of the combat phase; moreover, there is no penalty to stack or unstack with other friendly units during movement. Combat between adjacent enemy units is always voluntary. Defending stacks must be attacked as a unitary whole; in contrast, different units in an attacking stack may choose to attack the same or a different adjacent hex, or even to make no attack at all. Zones of control (ZOCs) are both rigid and sticky. This means that all units must halt immediately upon moving adjacent to an enemy unit and may not exit an enemy ZOC in a subsequent game phase, except as a result of combat. In addition, ZOCs block both supply paths and retreat routes; however, the presence of a friendly unit in the affected hex negates the ZOC in both cases.
The terrain and movement rules for PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, except for one significant innovation, are familiar and quite conventional. Terrain types are relatively few, and their effects on movement and combat are intuitively logical and hence, are easy to keep track of. For example, units defending in forest or major city hexes, or attacked exclusively through river hex-sides are doubled; units defending in clear terrain, in minor cities, or in swamp hexes, on the other hand, are unchanged. Terrain effects on movement are equally simple. All units, whatever their type, expend one movement point to enter a clear terrain hex and two points to enter a swamp hex. Mechanized units — unlike Leader, infantry, and cavalry units — expend two movement points to enter forest hexes, but both Russian Leaders and all mechanized units double their movement allowance when travelling along roads. Rivers, not surprisingly, pose an obstacle to both armies: German units pay two additional movement points to cross a river hex-side; while Russian units pay only one. In addition, a limited number of Soviet combat units (only) may travel by rail during each game turn. The one truly ground-breaking element in this title’s movement rules is the incorporation of a far more flexible type of ‘overrun combat’ into the movement phases of each game turn. Unlike earlier titles which also used ‘overrun combat’ as an integral part of their game systems, but required overwhelming odds for success; in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, ‘overruns’ do not require particularly large strength differentials to be effective. Even comparatively low-odds ‘overrun’ attacks are, with the right die-rolls, capable of clearing a path through an enemy line for the ‘overrunning’ and/or other phasing units to exploit. Moreover, the ‘overrunning’ unit or stack could, so long as it had sufficient movement factors, conduct more than one ‘overrun’ attack in any given movement phase. What this translates to, in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, is a game situation in which German mechanized units can potentially attack during the initial movement phase, again during the combat phase, and yet again during the mechanized movement phase.
Combat in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, as previously noted, can take one of two forms: ‘overrun’ or regular combat. These two types of combat differ in only one important respect: units defending against an ‘overrun’ are immediately ‘disrupted’ if they receive any type of adverse combat outcome other than an engaged result. ‘Disrupted’ units defend normally, but lose their ZOC and their ability to move or attack until their ‘disruption’ status is removed; in addition, ‘disrupted’ Soviet Leaders also lose their capacity to coordinate supply. Attacking units are never ‘disrupted’. Both types of combat utilize the same combat results table (CRT), and, as is typical of the KURSK family of SPI games, the CRT is relatively bloodless. Battle odds of 6 to 1 or higher are required before a defender eliminated (DE) result even appears on the CRT, and most combat results will take the form of attacker retreat (AR), defender retreat (DR), split results (requiring both sides to take a loss), and engaged results. All terrain, supply, and other effects on combat are cumulative. One intriguing feature of the game system is that German panzer and motorized divisions — if all component regiments are stacked in the same hex — are doubled in combat strength. Another innovative wrinkle in the combat rules is that losses, at the discretion of the owning player, may be taken either as ‘retreat hexes’ or as ‘step-losses’. This is actually a mixed blessing for the defender, however, because in the case of retreats, the attacker always chooses the retreat route for all defeated defending units. ‘Step-losses’ for the two armies are very different: each Russian combat unit or leader, when eliminated, counts as only a single step; German combat units, on the other hand, can all afford to lose multiple steps before being completely eliminated.
The supply rules impose very different requirements on the two sides. German units are in supply if they are able to trace a supply path of twenty or fewer movement points (not hexes) either from the west edge of the map or from an unblocked road that connects to the western map edge. Soviet combat units must trace their supply path to an undisrupted Leader/Headquarters unit that is then able to trace an unblocked line of communication, of any length, to the east edge of the map. Russian Leader units may coordinate supply for any number of friendly units, but all supplied units must be within range (determined by each leader’s rating) of the coordinating leader. All units of both sides are considered to be in supply on the game turn that they first enter the map. Supply effects are identical for both sides: unsupplied units are halved (fractions rounded down) for both movement and combat; ZOCs, however, are unaffected.
The winner of PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN is determined by victory points, and players may — depending on their accumulated victory points at game end — achieve one of three victory levels: marginal, strategic, or decisive. The German player gains victory points by capturing key Russian cities; he may also receive bonus points if the Soviet player chooses to bring in optional reinforcements at any point in the game. The Russian player, for his part, receives victory points (at the end of the game) for completely eliminating German mechanized and infantry divisions, and (instantly) for recapturing previously lost Soviet cities.
PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN offers only the Historical Game; there are no alternative scenarios. Also, there is only one optional rule: the ‘Evacuation of Soviet Leaders’ rule, which permits the Russian player, twice per game, to pick up a single surrounded Leader from the map and to then return the evacuated general to the game as a normal reinforcement during the next game turn.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATION
General Rokossovsky with Commanders
The first time I sat down, back in 1976, to play my brand-new magazine copy of PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I assumed that the game would play pretty much like other, earlier KURSK type East Front titles. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In that first introductory match, I took the Russians and, in keeping with my usual aggressive style of play, attempted a forward defense of the central road and the southern Dnepr. By the fifth game turn, my main line of resistance had been broken and enveloped, and the fascist gangsters were pretty much roaming at will in the Soviet rear. Things just went downhill from there, and by game turn eight or nine, I was forced to acknowledge the obvious and resign. Clearly, I had seriously underestimated the underlying subtlety of what had seemed a familiar game system, and this lack of understanding had produced my unexpected and surprisingly lop-sided defeat. Where, I asked myself, had I gone wrong?
In reviewing this first match, I quickly concluded that I had not appreciated either the devastating effect of the ‘untried’ Soviet units rule, or the lethal potential of German ‘overruns’ to disrupt even a carefully-crafted Russian defense. Obviously, there was a lot more to this seemingly conventional East Front game than first met the eye. This was, I decided, definitely a case of live and learn. In the end, this first humbling experience, while momentarily damaging to my self-esteem, also went a long way towards convincing me that this was one of the best operational-level World War II game systems ever created. Thirty-four years have passed since PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN first made its appearance, and I still haven’t found a compelling argument for changing my mind.
The reasons for my continued affection for this title, and its ingenious design architecture, are several. To start with: the basic game dynamic is great. The PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game system contains a number of design features that make for an exciting, free-wheeling, sometimes frustrating, but always challenging gaming experience. The absence of a Soviet mechanized movement phase, Soviet ‘untried’ units, the effects of disruption, restrictions on Russian air interdiction, and constrictive supply rules, all impose significant limits on the Russian player’s range of strategic options. Nonetheless, the Soviet side is still both interesting and enjoyable to play. The German Army, of course, seems to have everything going for it: mobility, an extra mechanized movement phase, a significant ‘step-reduction’ advantage, air supremacy, a ‘divisional integrity’ combat bonus (for mechanized units), a powerful ‘overrun’ capability, and comparatively liberal supply rules. However, the German player, despite his many advantages, also has his own problems. The game clock ticks very fast, so a would-be Guderian or Hoth must accomplish a great deal in a very short period of time: one wasted turn, and victory can easily slip beyond his reach.
PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN besides being a great game, however, is also interesting because of where it stands in the evolution of armored warfare game systems. Of course, the highly-innovative features that James F. Dunnigan combined to make the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game system unique didn’t suddenly just appear out of nowhere. In actuality, a clear evolutionary path can be traced beginning with SPI’s introduction of the original KURSK (1971), continuing with THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN (1972), then EL ALAMEIN and THE ARDENNES OFFENSIVE (1973), through WAR IN THE EAST, 1st ed. (1974), and finally to PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN (1976). Moreover, like other successful SPI game platforms, this basic game system went on to inspire a diverse collection of other titles including, but not limited to: KHARKOV; COBRA; DRIVE ON STALINGRAD; the quadri-game, FOUR BATTLES OF ARMY GROUP SOUTH; ‘WACHT AM RHEIN’; and even FULDA GAP. This means, for the efficiency-minded players among us, mastery of this one game system opens up a whole library of other game titles for interested players to try.
PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN is, admittedly, probably not a good choice either for the absolute novice (simply too much detail), or for the ‘chess player’ type gamer who both prefers to avoid the ‘fog of war’ and who hates nasty surprises. However, for anyone else who, for one reason or another, has never tried this game — whether they are a casual or an experienced player — I recommend it highly. It may be old, but it has aged extremely well.
- Time Scale: 2 days per game turn
- Map Scale: 10.5 kilometers per hex
- Unit Size: regiment/division
- Unit Types: leaders (Soviet only), tank/panzer, mechanized infantry/panzer grenadier, infantry, cavalry, air (interdiction) points, and information counters
- Number of Players: two
- Complexity: average
- Solitaire Suitability: below average
- Average Playing Time: 2-3 hours
- One 22” x 32” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Track and Terrain Key incorporated)
- 200 ½” back-printed cardboard Counters
- One 8½” x 11” PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN Rules Booklet (with Set up Instructions, Combat Results table, and Terrain Effects Chart incorporated)
- One small six-sided Die
- One 3¾” x 8½” SPI Customer Complaint Card
- One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and Title Sheet
Related Blog PostsSPI, KURSK (1971)
SPI, THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN (1972)
SPI, EL ALAMEIN (1973)
SPI, WAR IN THE EAST, 1st ED. (1974)
SPI, COBRA (1977)
SPI, 'WACHT AM RHEIN' (1977)
SPI, DRIVE ON STALINGRAD (1978)
See my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.
THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU
Also recommended is Davud Glantz' new treatment of the battle.