HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDHitler with members of his general staff.
At 04:40am on September 1, 1939, waves of Luftwaffe aircraft swept down to strike airfields all across Poland. Almost simultaneously, 44 German infantry divisions and 14 armored divisions surged across the frontier catching Poland’s thirty-odd infantry and cavalry divisions almost completely by surprise. Without bothering with the inconvenient formality of a declaration of war, Hitler had ordered the invasion and subjugation of his smaller neighbor to the east. England and France, although incapable of providing the Poles with any immediate direct assistance, quickly demonstrated their support for Poland by declaring war on Hitler’s Germany on 3 September. Seventeen days after the initial German onslaught, Soviet troops crossed a nearly-prostrate Poland’s eastern border to help the Germans complete the Polish nation’s final dismemberment. Poland was the first European nation to succumb through direct military conquest to Hitler’s dream of a modern German Empire, but it would not be the last.
Winston Churchill examines a weapon in the field.
In both London and Paris, British and French heads of state were confronted with the unthinkable: despite repeated concessions by the western democracies to Hitler’s never-ending territorial demands, all hope for preserving peace in Europe had evaporated. Churchill had been proven right: the German Führer’s ambitions were too great even for the most craven of appeasers to satisfy. Thus, for the second time in a generation, Europe’s Great Powers had stumbled into war. Tragically, the greatest military conflict in human history, seemingly almost by accident, had begun without any of its participants fully understanding its future geographical reach, its ultimate magnitude, or its unbelievable human and material cost.
Over and above the standard body of rules governing regular turn-by-turn play, THIRD REICH also includes a collection of specialized rules that contribute important historical detail to the strategic flow and direction of the game. These special rules include, among other things: limitations on Anglo-French and German-Italian Cooperation; restrictions on Axis Forces in Africa and British Forces in Malta; rules for Allied Lend-Lease and Murmansk Convoys; special rules for Poland/East Europe; restrictions on Russo-Allied Cooperation; Airborne Operations; and the effects of the Russian Winter on Axis combat operations. In addition, other rules are included in the game which cover important issues such as: Switzerland and Swiss neutrality; Spain and Spanish Colonies; the effects of Axis control of the Suez Canal and/or Gibraltar; the creation of Vichy France and the operational limits on Vichy French units; and Partisans.
THIRD REICH, as noted previously, can be played by two to six players; moreover, it also lends itself very well to solitaire play. Interestingly, regardless of whether the two-player or the multi-player version of the game is chosen, the players still have the option of beginning their contest at any of three critical junctures in World War II: 1939 (Fall of Poland); 1942 (Axis ‘High Water’ Mark); and 1944 (Germany at Bay). Moreover, in the case of all three of these Basic Scenarios, players have two additional game options: they can continue a particular game up to and including the last turn of the specific scenario, or, alternatively, players can continue to slug it out until either the Axis wins or until Berlin falls to the Allies. For those players who want to refight the entire war in Europe, the Campaign Game begins in the same fashion as the 1939 Scenario and continues through summer, 1945. In addition to the different ‘starting’ scenarios, the game also includes another intriguing design feature: randomly-chosen 'Variant' counters. Just before the start of play, both the German and the British players blindly select one numbered chit from an available pool of 10 different Variant counters. Also, the pool of available Variant counters can also be increased, at the players’ option, to include additional ‘experimental’ game variants. These secret (until played) game variants — because they can affect everything from starting BRP levels, to minor country alliances, to changes in national unit force pools — multiply the opposing players’ strategic options and, at the same time, also introduce the ‘fog of war’ into the game. Thus, between the different possible scenarios and the potentially significant effects of variant counters, it is no exaggeration to say that, given the many built-in strategic alternatives that the game design makes available to the two opposing coalitions, an individual player could start a hundred different THIRD REICH games and never see any two of them develop along exactly the same lines.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONB-26 Marauder over Normandy on D-Day.
When I reflect on the nearly half-century that I have been personally involved with conflict simulations, 1974 stands out as a watershed year for wargaming. During that heady, twelve month period, Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) published the First Edition of WAR IN THE EAST, and the Avalon Hill Game Company (TAHGC) published both PANZER LEADER and the first edition of the RISE AND DECLINE OF THE THIRD REICH. All three of these games — at least, in my view — were exciting new additions to a rapidly growing body of commercially-produced conflict simulations. However, as good as the first two titles were, THIRD REICH still stands out as the one truly “ground-breaking” game to appear in 1974 or, for that matter, in any other year. This is because, just like PANZERBLITZ (1970) before it, THIRD REICH truly rocked the hobby when it first burst onto the conflict simulation scene; and every gamer that I knew, myself included, literally rushed out to buy Avalon Hill’s new strategic game of World War II in Europe. Even more importantly, once all of us had purchased our own copies of THIRD REICH, we all played it — a lot.
German casualties, Battle of Moscow, during the coldest winter in 40 years.
The immediate success of THIRD REICH was, in some ways, a little surprising because, at first glance, it seemed to have three obvious shortcomings when it came to winning wide-spread acceptance among gamers. First, the rules — at least by the standards of 1974 — were very long and very complicated. Second, the heavy emphasis on the economic factors that drove events in World War II meant that players had no choice but to keep carefully-written records of their turn-by-turn expenditures of BRPs (and convenient, standardized forms for this record-keeping were not included with the game). Third, the simulation architecture of the game represented a major, even radical departure from virtually every other game system that was in the marketplace at the time. Despite these factors, however, THIRD REICH became an almost instantaneous hit: the game system was simply so richly-textured, so challenging, and so exciting that players, almost universally, accepted the game’s peculiar foibles without complaint. After all, it seemed to include almost everything a player could hope for; among the THIRD REICH game counters were air wings, fleets, infantry, armor, airborne, and partisans. But, there was more: there were German U-Boats and Allied escorts, Allied bombers and German fighters; there were Murmansk convoys and amphibious landings; and most importantly, there was a workable game system for simulating the effects of Blitzkrieg within the context of a strategic-level game.
Italian anti-aircraft gun, North Africa.
Interestingly, the real genius of the THIRD REICH game system was not that it combined air, ground and naval operations together in a single simulation platform: Larry Pinsky and Thomas Shaw, with BLITZKRIEG (1965); and Jim Dunnigan and company, with STRATEGY I and USN (both in 1971), had already done something at least somewhat similar. The design elements that really set THIRD REICH apart from its predecessors were two-fold: first, it offered a game system that seamlessly wove together the different actions of the various combat arms into a unified whole; second, it presented an economic ‘game-within-a-game’ that both emphasized the importance of industrial productivity to the conduct of modern (20th Century) military operations, and that also clearly illustrated the limits that the differing industrial capacities of the various Major Powers placed on their ability to wage war. Modern warfare is expensive and THIRD REICH showed this aspect of industrialized, total war as no other title had ever done before it. Armies, air forces, and fleets were destroyed and rebuilt as the game progressed; not once, but over and over again. In addition, besides the unavoidable costs of conventional combat, the economic effects of the German U-Boat campaign against England, and the Allied bomber offensive against Germany were also both finally incorporated into a conflict simulation in such a way that they made strategic sense and yet did not bog down the flow of the game. In terms of its overall conceptualization and design, THIRD REICH had all the earmarks of a masterpiece; in terms of the game’s pre-publication development and play-testing, however, it very quickly became apparent that everybody’s favorite new game had more than a few playability issues.
German King Tiger tank and infantry at Kursk.
Among my circle of friends, the first major problem with the game’s design surfaced in only our second or third outing, and it was a real jolt to all of us around the game table. What happened was that — once France was conquered and the B.E.F. had been driven from the Continent — instead of turning east to attack Russia in 1941, the German player instead launched a surprise airborne assault against London. The combination of the Italian Air Force and Luftwaffe allowed the Germans to swamp the London garrison and the badly-outnumbered, supporting RAF. Even worse was the realization by the Allied players that because London was now in German hands, there were no remaining Allied supply sources left from which to support a British counterattack against the German paratrooper in the English capital. This was a real (and non-trivial) defect in the game’s design, and it was not the only one. Because the game was so widely popular, the questions just kept coming. Not surprisingly, a steady stream of fixes and outright rules changes quickly began to flow back out of Baltimore. To solve the ‘London’ problem, English stacking (only) was adjusted to allow three British units to garrison the British capital, and the ‘rules editor’ at the General also imposed new limits on the number of air strength points that could be added in support of ground forces, both on attack and defense. Unfortunately, this was only the “tip of the ice berg.” THIRD REICH rules questions were rapidly turning into a ‘whack a mole’ situation for Avalon Hill; as soon as one problem was solved, another popped up to take its place. For example, in the first edition of the game, it turned out that the Germans could — with careful planning — actually win the U-Boat War against the Allies. And then there was the ‘Gibraltar’ problem: an early Axis conquest of Spain followed by the seizure of Gibraltar made possible a joint invasion of England by a massive combined force of Italian and German fleets and air wings. Even if the invasion failed, the air and naval battles that resulted from the Axis seaborne assault usually left the Royal Navy so weakened that an Allied return to the European mainland, even with American help, became highly problematical later in the war. And then there was the question of Sea Transport to and from small islands; and what happened if a Major Power’s BRP level was reduced by enemy action to below zero? The questions and rules disputes just kept cropping up. Thus, it steadily became more and more obvious that it was only a matter of time before the rule book would have to get a major facelift; and, sure enough, faced with a commercially successful but flawed product, Avalon Hill finally succumbed to popular pressure and published a Second Edition version of the rules.
German Type VII U-boat goes to sea from its base on France's west coast.
Unfortunately for the boys in Baltimore, the THIRD REICH rules odyssey didn’t end there; and as yet more rules problems came to light, a third and finally, a Fourth Edition version of the rules was brought out to, hopefully, clear away the last few bits of confusion that still surrounded the game. Interestingly, besides the game rules, the original game map also underwent a facelift; and even the Scenario Cards were modified two more times before Avalon Hill was finally satisfied with their third and final version. These final fixes seemed, at last, to solve most of the problems that had plagued earlier versions of the game. It had taken seven long years, and the input of thousands of dedicated players, but THIRD REICH had finally become the game that had been promised back in 1974. In the eyes of many of its fans, the wait was worth it.
American soldiers on a forest road in the Ardennes.
Of course, 1974 was a long time ago, and popular tastes inevitably change. In 1992, Avalon Hill brought out a ‘super-sized’, expanded replacement for the original game, ADVANCED THIRD REICH. And, although a number of diehard fans immediately moved on to the bigger, still more detailed game, a substantial number of us stayed with the 4th Edition of the original. Nowadays, a brief walk through the ‘open-gaming’ area of any of the major wargaming conventions will show that THIRD REICH, even after thirty-six years, still retains a loyal following within the hobby. In fact, in the eyes of many traditional, long-time players (myself, included), John Prados’ design is still the best ‘tabletop’, strategic-level treatment of the European Theater of World War II ever published. Doubtless, a number of contemporary players will disagree with this opinion, but it is, nonetheless, a tough proposition to refute: the game, in spite of its age, is still just that good. And whatever else one may think of this title, given its colorful history of modifications, rules changes and design tweaks, probably no other conflict simulation has gone through — or, ever will again — as thorough a game design process, based on post-publication feedback, as has THIRD REICH.
Marching through the mountains, Sicily, 1943.
This all leads to the obvious question: Who should own a copy of THIRD REICH, 4th Edition? After all, Prados’ design is not the only game to cover World War II in Europe; in fact, quite a few other strategic-level, normal-sized (non-monster) games have attempted to tackle the same subject over the years — WORLD WAR II (1973), HITLERS’S WAR (1981), WORLD WAR II: EUROPEAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS (1985), AXIS & ALLIES: EUROPE (1999) and WORLD WAR II: BARBAROSSA TO BERLIN (2002), just to name a few — and all of them, to varying degrees, are successful games. So, what really sets this aging Prados design apart from its many competitors? The short answer, I think, is that, as interesting and enjoyable as some of these other titles are, none of them — not even an exciting ‘card-driven game’ (CDG) like WORLD WAR II: BARBAROSSA TO BERLIN — can really match THIRD REICH when it comes to its historical sweep, the competing strategic options (both operational and economic) that the multi-layered simulation platform makes possible, or the tense, nail-biting action that this game produces, turn after turn, particularly when played by evenly-matched experts.
Stuka dive bombers.
Of course, the richness and density of the THIRD REICH game system, in spite of its many virtues, also pretty much guarantees that it will not be a suitable choice for every type of player. Thus, given the fact that the 4th Edition Rule Book — counting charts and designer’s notes — is thirty-six pages of small print, it is probably a good bet that most novice or casual gamers would find the simulation too detailed and much too complicated to really be engaging or enjoyable. In short, THIRD REICH is really not a game for dabblers. On the other hand, both for experienced players and for serious collectors, I believe that this title is absolutely a MUST OWN. There may be better ‘tabletop’ treatments of the Second World War in Europe and North Africa, but if there are, I have yet to encounter them; and until I do, THIRD REICH, despite its age, will remain my personal favorite.
For those players with one of the earlier editions of THIRD REICH, the 4th edition rules are available for download, thanks to the yeoman efforts of Lewis Goldberg, at http://www.boardgamegeek.com/filepage/50134/error/expired/3r-4th-edition-rules. Please note, however, that the 4th edition rules should be used along with the 2nd edition map boards and the 3rd edition scenario cards.
- Time Scale: 3 months (seasonal turns)
- Map Scale: 100 kilometers per hex (estimated)
- Unit Size: corps, fleet, air group
- Unit Types: armor, infantry, airborne, replacement, partisan, fleet, air, air base, strategic warfare (SW) units, and information markers
- Number of Players: two - six
- Complexity: high/expert
- Solitaire Suitability: high
- Average Playing Time: 3-20+ hours (depending on scenario)
- One (four section) 22” x 32” hexagonal grid 2nd Edition Map Board (with Turn Record Track, BRP Costs Chart, Combat Results Table, Attrition Results Table, Strategic Warfare Tables, Interception Table, Minor Country Forces Chart, SW Holding Boxes, and Off-Map Holding Boxes incorporated)
- 560 ½” cardboard Counters
- One 8” x 11” THIRD REICH, 4th Ed. Rules Booklet (with National Air and Naval DRM Charts, Air Attack on Naval Forces Table, Naval Advantage Chart and Intelligence Table incorporated)
- Six 5½” x 8” back-printed 3rd Edition National Scenario Starting Forces Cards
- One 5½” x 8” Avalon Hill ‘Silver Jubilee’ Catalog and Order Form Booklet
- One 5½” x 8½” back-printed Avalon Hill the General Ad Slick
- One 5½” x 7” Avalon Hill Customer Response Card
- One six-sided Die
- One 8½” x 11½” x 2” bookcase-style Game Box
Recommended ReadingSee my blog post Book Reviews of these titles; all of which are 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