The German Offensive, code-named ‘Wacht am Rhein’, opened at 0530 hours on Saturday, 16 December 1944, with a massive artillery bombardment along a thinly-held, eighty-mile section of the American front that wove its way through the forested region of France and Belgium known as the Ardennes. The main armored weight of the German offensive — spearheaded by Waffen-SS Obersturmbannführer Sepp Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Armee — was directed against the northern section of the American line near the Belgian villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath and Elsenborn. The capture of the Elsenborn Ridge — a four-mile long stretch of high ground near the northern shoulder of the German attack— was crucial to the 6th Panzer Armee’s offensive timetable because its position overlooked the roads to the north and west. These roads had to be cleared quickly; they were the best and shortest routes for an armored drive west towards the Meuse River.
The initial German moves against the area around the Elsenborn Ridge were conducted by infantry units from the 277th Volksgrenadier Division. At first, the Volksgrenadiers made good progress against the stunned Americans, but their attack soon stalled in the face of stiffening resistance from the soldiers of the US 99th Infantry Division, and heavy and accurate American artillery fire. By nightfall on the 16th, it was clear to the Germans that a greater effort would have to be made against the determined Elsenborn defenders. Despite the difficulty of the ground east of the ridge, the German commanders realized that panzers would have to be thrown into the battle.
During the night of 16 December 1944, the commander of the German Ist Panzer Korps, General Hermann Priess, ordered SS Obersturmbannführer Hugo Krass to prepare his 12th SS Panzer Division (the Hitler Youth Division) for an assault at first light on the dug-in American forces defending to his front. Elsenborn Ridge had to be captured, and quickly. As planned, the German operation began during the early morning of the 17th with preliminary attacks by elements from the 12th SS Panzer against the forward positions still held by the US 99th Infantry. By late morning, survivors from the 99th, now reinforced by elements of the US 2nd Infantry Division, had been driven back into the twin villages of Krinkelt-Rocherath. The American fall-back was orderly; largely because it received crucial covering support from the gallant men of the US 741st Tank Battalion who succeeded in preventing the panzers from overrunning the retreating American infantry, but at a heavy cost in men and tanks. This action showed, yet again, that the thinner-skinned, out-gunned American Shermans were no match for the German Panthers. The American retreat, however, did not bring a pause in the action. Instead, the tanks and panzergrenadiers of the 12th SS advanced and rapidly redirected their attacks against the GI’s in the ‘twin villages’; but, just like the Volksgrenadiers on the previous day, the soldiers of the Waffen-SS could not dislodge the Americans from their defensive positions amongst the ruins of the pair of now-shattered Belgian towns. Finally, at around midnight, the fighting sputtered out. However, both sides knew that the fight was certain to be renewed on the 18th; it was now clear that, with time rapidly running out for the Germans, the tipping point of the Battle for Elsenborn Ridge was almost certain to occur within the next few days.
PANZER LEADER is a tactical (platoon/battery) level game of armored warfare on the Western Front, 1944-45. One player commands the German forces and the other controls the Allies. The game is played in game turns, and each turn is further divided into two player turns: a German and an Allied turn. During each player turn, the phasing (acting) player performs the following game operations in exactly this order: Combat Phase (friendly Minefield attacks are also conducted); Movement Phase (during this phase, Overrun attacks may be conducted); and the Close Assault Phase. Once this series of player operations is completed, the defending player becomes the phasing player, and the sequence is repeated. At the conclusion of the second player’s turn, the current game turn ends and the turn marker is advanced one space on the Turn Record Track. Because of the simulation scale of the game, units do not possess zones of control (ZOC’s), and there are no supply rules. In addition, unlike a number of other games dealing with tactical armored warfare during this historical period — such as, SPI’s PANZER ’44, for example — there are no morale or command and control rules in PANZER LEADER. Stacking limits are identical for the two sides: four units per hex. All combat units display four numerical values on their counters: fire strength; fire range; defense strength; and movement allowance.
The four-color, geomorphic, hard-backed game maps are admittedly a little bland by today’s standards, but terrain features are clear and map ambiguities are almost nonexistent. This last feature is particularly important in a tactical game like PANZER LEADER. In addition, although there are four map boards included with the game, the ‘beach’ map board will only be used in the D-Day Scenarios. Not surprisingly, terrain types are more varied than in PANZERBLITZ, but are still limited to clear, town, roads, woods, swamp, slope, hilltop, slope/woods, cliff, stream, beach, and sea hexes. Because PANZER LEADER is a ‘fire’ oriented game system, blocking terrain, concealing terrain, elevation, and line of sight are critical factors in determining which units may fire and be fired on in any given combat phase. All ground combat is resolved using a traditional ‘odds differential’ Combat Results Table (CRT). Anti-aircraft attacks, on the other hand, are resolved based on the flak strength of the attacking unit or units. Moreover, combat is not restricted to fire attacks, alone. During a typical player turn, four different attacks against an enemy unit may occur: minefield attack; fire attack; overrun attack; and close assault. Destroyed armored units are replaced by a wreck counter, and, upon placement, stacking in the ‘wreck hex’ is reduced by one unit for both players.
PANZER LEADER is played using a multi-scenario or “mini-game” format. Eight back-printed Scenario Cards are included with the game; these cards provide the specific orders of battle, set-ups, and victory conditions for twenty different West Front battlefield situations. Each scenario typically attempts to reproduce a different, but common type of engagement between German and Allied forces — from the landings at Normandy to the final battles for Germany — during the period covered by the game, 1944-45.
PANZER LEADER also offers ‘optional’ rules covering Infantry Quick-Time Speed, Opportunity Fire, Naval Support Fire, and Panzerblitz Assaults. In addition, the designer has included several ‘experimental’ rules for those players who want to increase historical realism at the cost of diminished playability. These ‘experimental’ rules include: Functional Mobility for Turreted AFV’S; Artillery Field of Fire Limitations; and Smoke Shell Concentrations.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONPANZER LEADER has now been around for almost thirty-six years; yet it continues to be my favorite World War II tactical game. I still play it just about every chance I get, and in fact, I completed a PBeM series of PANZER LEADER matches just a little over a year ago. For me, at least, the game never gets stale. I suppose this is because the scope and tempo of the basic game system captures precisely those elements that I personally find interesting about tactical-level armored engagements; and it does so without bogging the game down with a lot of record-keeping, game charts, or die-rolling. Certainly, there are better simulations of armored engagements at the tactical level currently available — James Day’s ARMOR or Mark Herman's study of modern armored combat, MECHWAR 2 (1979), for instance, come immediately to mind — but these other titles, in my opinion, simply don’t match PANZER LEADER either for ease-of-play or for excitement. Moreover, these more detailed simulations often take on some of the worst characteristics of armored miniatures. A good example of this ‘miniatures effect’ carried to extremes can be seen in Harold Hock’s game of tactical armored warfare in North Africa, TOBRUK. Hock’s detailed and carefully-researched design appeared in 1975, a year after PANZER LEADER; I played it a few times and then never looked at the game again. And I was not alone: most of my friends had exactly the same reaction to the game as I did. Sometimes, I guess, there really is such a thing as putting too much research into a game design.
The basic game system of PANZER LEADER, of course, is based on Dunnigan’s 1970 East Front design, PANZERBLITZ. In my opinion, however, PANZER LEADER, viewed purely as a game, is far superior to the Dunnigan original in a number of important ways. For one thing, Dunnigan’s pro-German biases — so clearly evident in the game mechanics of PANZERBLITZ — have been pretty much eliminated by the Avalon Hill design team of Clark, Smith, and Reed. Thus, a player, if he is so inclined, can actually convert a PANZER LEADER Scenario into a somewhat playable SQUAD LEADER Situation. I challenge anyone to try the same thing with PANZERBLITZ and then see if they can find an opponent gullible enough to play the Germans in the SQUAD LEADER conversion. The second big improvement in the original game system is the elimination of the ‘PANZERBUSH’ effect through the introduction of an optional set of rules for Opportunity Fire. And yet other nice addition to the PANZER LEADER game system is the substitution of pre-plotted (spotted) Indirect Fire for the instantaneous and almost magical version used in PANZERBLITZ. Admittedly, the artillery rules in PANZER LEADER are still not perfect — stacking units in a hex dilutes the effects of artillery barrages, oddly enough — but they are still much more reasonable than in their East Front incarnation. The other nice improvement over PANZERBLITZ, is the addition of airpower (even if somewhat abstracted) into the game mix. If nothing else, the Germans at last have something to do with all those flak units that repeatedly show up in their Scenario ‘Orders of Battle’.
For those in the hobby who bore easily: another excellent feature of PANZER LEADER — particularly for players who really like to experiment with their favorite games — is that it has been the inspiration for a number of innovative game variants and expansions. For example, new rules, scenarios, and unmounted counters were published in the General, Vol. 15, No. 2, for Ramiro Cruz’ interesting variant on the first battle for France, PANZER LEADER 1940; rules and scenarios for paratroops were added by Oscar Oates in the General, Vol. 20, No. 2, in PARA-LEADER; and finally, Alan Arnold’s nicely-realized, after-market PANZER LEADER expansion, PANZER LEADER — For King and Country was published in 2002, complete with additional rules, scenarios, and improved (corrected) British counters.
Sadly, PANZER LEADER, like PANZERBLITZ, has gradually lost a number of its once loyal fans as the years have passed; although not, as one might expect, to games like SPI’s PANZER ’44 (1975) or Yaquinto Games’ ARMOR (1980). Instead, quite a few of the armored enthusiasts I know, have, over time, transitioned to Avalanche Press' excellent PANZER GRENADIER series of games. And I completely understand their reasoning: it is a richly-textured and varied collection of titles. Nonetheless, speaking as someone who continues to enjoy the fast-moving (if less detailed) excitement of the older game, this development is still disappointing; even if it probably was inevitable. Interestingly, based on what I have seen within my own circle of gaming friends, more than a few of the players who abandoned PANZER LEADER and its armored tactical counterparts, seem to have migrated first to SQUAD LEADER and then continued on to immerse themselves in the simpler version’s vastly more complicated, mutant off-spring, ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER. One can hardly blame them, I suppose. For many really dedicated tactical players, I suspect that the denser, more richly-textured SL and ASL Game Systems are simply irresistible; they seem to be both a lot more realistic as simulations, and much more challenging as games. I confess that I even tried SQUAD LEADER, myself, many years ago; but something about the game system just didn’t work for me. Therefore, I am — at least for the foreseeable future — planning to stick with PANZER LEADER. It may be a little dated and unrealistic by today’s design standards, but it offers enough detail to suit me. Besides, I can carry my copy of PANZER LEADER under one arm whenever I want to take the game with me; and, unlike my ASL brethren, I am not obliged to lug along a steamer trunk full of gaming paraphernalia every time I head out to meet an opponent, just to be sure that I have everything that I could possibly need for the upcoming match.
- Time Scale: 6 minutes per game turn
- Map Scale: 250 meters per hex
- Unit Size: platoon/battery
- Unit Types: various German and Allied (American, British, and Canadian) Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), self-propelled artillery (SPA), Nebelwerfer (rocket launcher), anti-tank, light flak, howitzer, mortar, engineer, scout (Allied), rifle, submachinegun (German), machine gun (Allied), armored infantry (Allied), security (German), wagon (German), truck, Bren carrier (Allied), halftrack, tank bridge (Allied), truck bridge (Allied), aircraft (Allied), fortification, mine, block, and information markers
- Number of Players: two
- Complexity: average/above average
- Solitaire Suitability: above average
- Average Playing Time: 1½-2 + hours (depending on scenario)
- Four 8” x 22” geomorphic hexagonal grid Map Boards
- 384 ⅝” cardboard Counters
- One 8” x 11¼” back-printed combined Game Chart (with Combat Results Table, Anti-Aircraft Table, Situation Map, and Program Identity Code System (PICS) Diagram incorporated)
- Eight 8” x 11” back-printed Scenario Instruction Cards (with Terrain Effects Chart, Target Elevation Table, and Weapons Effectiveness Chart)
- One six-sided Die
- One 5½” x 8½” Avalon Hill Game & Parts Catalogue
- One 5½” x 6½” Customer Response Card
- One 8½” x 11½” x 2” bookcase style cardboard Game Box