THE ROADS FROM SMOLENSK: SPI, DUNNIGAN, AND THE 'PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN' LEGACY


Back in 1976, Jim Dunnigan's simple but wonderfully evocative simulation of the 1941 Battle of Smolensk, PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, was one of several candidates in the "Best Strategic Game" category of the Charles Roberts Awards. Why an obviously operational-level simulation should ever have been nominated for consideration in the "strategic" game category, I have no idea; and apparently, neither did a substantial number of those who took the time to cast ballots in 1976. Moreover, besides having his game oddly mislabeled, Jimmie's design also had the bad luck to be matched against John Edward's hugely popular, 'THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN'; and, whatever the respective merits of the two games, it was 'THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN' and not PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN that took home the honors that year. To be fair, Edward's exciting and fun-to-play simulation of the Russo-German War (1941-45) actually was strategic in scale, and it certainly deserved its popularity with ordinary gamers; on the other hand, because it was largely a clever rehash of design elements from Charles Robert's 'STALINGRAD' and Dave Williams' 'THE BATTLE OF MOSCOW' (S&T #24), with a few "Stukas" thrown in to make the Russian player's life miserable, it also really couldn't be said to have "moved the ball forward" when it came to the field of conflict simulation design. Thus, if the whole awkward issue of arbitrary awards categories is put aside, a pretty strong argument can be made that the wrong game actually took home the designer laurels in 1976. And even after all these years, I continue to hold to this view because — at least when it comes to the sheer number of exciting new simulation concepts that it introduced in 1976 — PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN was simply much more innovative than its competition.

INTRODUCTION


In the course of preparing my recent profile of THE NEXT WAR, I was unexpectedly struck by the fact that this SPI simulation of a hypothetical 1970's era NATO-Warsaw Pact clash, in spite of its complex and richly-detailed (air-ground-sea) game narrative, was yet another example of a design based, at least loosely, on the very successful — and, I should add, astonishingly versatile — PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN (PGG) game platform. This minor epiphany started me thinking about the many other titles that I have encountered, over the years, that have borrowed at least some of their key design elements from Jim Dunnigan's ground-breaking 1976 treatment of "operational-level" armored warfare on the Eastern Front. The list of the PGG inspired games that I was able to quickly cobble together (and which follows) is hardly complete, but it is, nonetheless, illustrative of just how consequential the basic PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game engine has been when it comes to the work of a number of other game designers, both inside and outside the corporate coccoon of (the old) SPI. Moreover, I would go even farther and say that, while a number of other simulation platforms have emerged — in the decades since Dunnigan's game on the 1941 Battle of Smolensk first saw print in 1976 — that succeed in depicting at least some of the important features of large-scale mechanized combat operations; it is also a fact that, although some of these newer ideas have been interesting and a few have actually been quite clever, the PGG game system continues to be both a popular choice with many players and an important influence on contemporary game designers.

SETTING THE SCENE: SPI DURING THE "DUNNIGAN-SIMONSEN" ERA

Simulation Publications Inc. (SPI), particularly during its so-called "golden" age (1972-1982) when James Dunnigan (head designer) and Redmond Simonsen (art director) were at its helm, was the most prolific wargame publisher of its day.
However, SPI was also — for a variety of reasons (some deserved, some not) — a perennial target of criticism from a lot of different quarters within the wargaming hobby. Competing game publishers — the "Boys in Baltimore" being one especially obvious example — accused SPI of being a "by-the-numbers" game mill which, they claimed, favored quantity over quality: an oddly disingenuous allegation given the number of game designs (e.g., titles like PANZERBLITZ, FRANCE 1940, ORIGINS OF WORLD WAR II, PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA, FREDERICK THE GREAT, PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, and CONQUISTADOR) that Avalon Hill's management purchased from SPI over the years and then reissued under their own label. Interestingly, free-lance and amateur game designers were another faction that tended to be skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, Dunnigan and company, mainly because of the "closed shop" nature of SPI's highly-structured design and development processes. And last, but not least, there were the numerous player critics — mainly disgruntled (and vocal) Strategy & Tactics (S&T) subscribers — whose numbers seemed to ebb and flow (I regularly moved in and out of this group, myself) based on their freshly-minted opinions of the latest S&T magazine game.


Some of the flak directed at SPI, of course, was patently unfair, but some of it was not. Certainly, given the pressure to publish six S&T magazines (with insert games) a year — in addition to SPI's many other publishing projects (i.e., non-insert games along with the bi-monthy Moves and Ares "niche" magazines which were launched on the heels of S&T) — it was inevitable that Dunnigan and company were going to miss the mark on occasion (think: SCRIMMAGE, THE FALL OF ROME, DIXIE, INVASION AMERICA, AFTER THE HOLOCAUST, and ARMADA, just to name a few of its more notorious "dogs"); nonetheless, given SPI's perpetually precarious financial situation, it is truly amazing that the company was able to continue to limp along from year to year and, in so doing, to put out as many good games as it did. Moreover, when it comes to criticism of Dunnigan's preference for keeping design and development "in house", what tends to be forgotten is that, on occasion, outside designs did make it into print under the SPI label. And although company policy tended to insure that independent designs were the exception rather than the rule, it is also a fact that outsiders like Dave Williams, James Goff, Phil Orbanes, and John Prados — at one time or another, and with varying degrees of success — all saw their games developed, play-tested, and published by SPI. The upside of the Dunnigan approach (incestuous though it may have been) was that it offered a large number of designer "wannabes" what, at the time, was something akin to a game design apprenticeship program. And a surprising number of relative unknowns can be said to have really made their game designer "bones" at SPI. Thus, now-familiar hobby names like John Young, Richard Berg, David Isby, Mark Herman, Kevin Zucker, Irad Hardy, Joe Angiolillo, Frank Davis, Joe Balkoski, Brad Hessel, and Stephen B. Patrick (just to mention a few) all, more or less, got their start at SPI.


Unfortunately, in spite of its dominant position in the "historical" simulation marketplace in the 1970's, SPI was slow (when it didn't drop the ball completely) to recognize and act on new trends in the larger "adventure gaming" universe. In retrospect, this was a major misstep because it meant that innovative new gaming concepts and mediums such as: computer-based games; role playing games (i.e., RPGs like Gary Gygax's "cash machine", DUNGEONS & DRAGONS); card-based conflict simulations (e.g., UP FRONT!, MAGIC, ATTACK SUB, and DOWN IN FLAMES), and card-driven games (CDGs) — whether as a result of tunnel vision on the part of Dunnigan and company, or as a misplaced concession to what was then perceived by SPI's management to be the traditional "map and counters" historical biases of the publisher's core constituency (the S&T subscribership) — were all left for other game companies to design and market.

Now, of course, it is easy to look back at SPI's fascinating, if somewhat spotty, history — with, of course, the benefit of several decades' worth of 20/20 hindsight — and identify some of the main reasons for the company's ultimate failure. They are really not all that difficult to spot.


Certainly, the emergence of affordable personal computers transformed the popular view both of "games" and "game play" for millions of consumers, and, in the process, dealt a severe blow to traditional forms of recreational board gaming. In addition, the moribund (and uninspired) nature of SPI's business model — which focused more and more, as time went by, on capturing (in the finest "buggy whip" manufacturers' tradition) an increasing share of a steadily shrinking market demographic — was, along with the proliferation of innovative new types of "adventure games" and conflict simulations, an equally important contributor to the company's troubles. Finally, of course, a substantial portion of the blame for SPI's financial collapse — followed by its controversial "distress" sale to Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) — must be laid at the feet of James Francis Dunnigan. After all, it was Dunnigan who, in spite of his indisputable talent as a designer of conflict simulations, nonetheless — whether because of his "top-down" leadership style, his ambitious (if arguably self-serving) desire to transform SPI into a combination game publisher/think tank, or his dogged refusal to experiment with non-traditional gaming formats — clearly failed to provide the enterprise that he had founded with effective stewardship when times, and the "adventure gaming" market, got tough.

German tanks move to the Russian front in WWII.

Still and all, if SPI's approach to game publishing had its faults, it also had its advantages. One of those advantages, of course, was that it broke the pattern first established by Avalon Hill's Charles Roberts (and continued by Tom Shaw) of only publishing a couple of new game titles a year. If SPI was nothing else, it was prolific; and because of this fact, it was able — one might even say: obliged — to tackle subject matter that, constrained by traditional marketing and production cost concerns, its older, more hide-bound competitor in Baltimore tended to avoid. Moreover, because of the economics of game publishing and the constant pressure of magazine deadlines, SPI very quickly moved to an "understudy" system of game development: a system wherein Dunnigan, as head designer, would come up with the essential elements for a new game platform on some popular (based on S&T subscriber feedback) simulation topic; and, if the initial design was well-received, he would often then delegate follow-up projects dealing with similar historical situations to others in the SPI designer "bull pen".

Heinz Guderian
Successful examples of SPI's systematic reuse of Dunnigan-originated game engines abound; however, the "grand daddy" of them all has to be the NAPOLEON AT WATERLOO (NAW) Grand Tactical System. This simple, but robust game platform ended up providing the basic design templates for AUSTERLITZ, the NAPOLEON AT WAR quadri-game, NAPOLEON'S ART OF WAR, the NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLES quadri-game, BLUE & GRAY I and II (both quadri-game treatments of critical American Civil War battles), 6th FLEET, BATTLE FOR GERMANY, and a few other SPI titles, as well. Another of Dunnigan's more ingenious (and elegant) designs — and one of my personal favorites — was LEIPZIG which, although sharing some similarities with NAW in terms of its subject matter, took a more abstract, strategic approach to 19th century warfare. Spin-offs of the original LEIPZIG design ultimately came to include titles such as LA GRANDE ARMÉE, 1812, THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR, LEE MOVES NORTH, and THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN. Moreover, there are, it should be noted, actually quite a few Dunnigan game platforms that ended up being used both inside and outside SPI by other designers as game templates. Nonetheless — in my view, at least — the most successful (and widely-copied) of them all was (and is) the "mechanized operations" simulation architecture introduced with the publication, as a "free" magazine game in S&T #57, of PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN in 1976. And, although the lack of pre-publication fanfare that preceeded the mailing of the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN issue of S&T suggests that no one at SPI had particularly high hopes for PGG or the game system that it inaugurated; in its own way, PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN turned out to be as ground-breaking — in its depiction of operational-level mechanized combat — as Dunnigan's earlier, 1970 design, PANZERBLITZ, had been for tactical armored combat.

MECHANIZED COMBAT AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN GAME SYSTEM

Most new ideas, however fresh or spontaneous they may appear at first glance, usually represent an evolutionary synthesis of previous ideas; in other words, when it comes to most things, history really is "prologue". Such is certainly the case when it comes to the design and development of conflict simulations. Hence, it should not be at all surprising that many of the innovative design features that James F. Dunnigan mixed and matched in order to imbue PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN with its historically-persuasive, but still highly-playable and exciting game dynamic, didn’t suddenly just appear out of nowhere. On the contrary, if one knows where to look, the PGG game platform actually has a short and fairly easy-to-trace geneology.
Like the historical basis for the game itself, the origins of the PGG game system seem to have mainly emerged from Dunnigan's repeated attempts to depict events on the Eastern Front during World War II. In point of fact, the roots of PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN can reasonably be said to date back to SPI’s first attempt at simulating the German 1943 Zitadelle Offensive, KURSK (with its introduction of the post-combat mechanized movement phase), in 1971. ['FRANCE, 1940' could plausibly be said to fall in the same time-frame as 'KURSK', but because the rights to this "quirky" Dunnigan design were quickly sold to Avalon Hill, it is usually skipped-over in favor of its East Front cousin]. Yet another refinement to Dunnigan's concept of mechanized warfare was added in 1972 with THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN (this was the designer's first crude attempt at modelling overrun combat); then came EL ALAMEIN and THE ARDENNES OFFENSIVE (both of which severely curtailed operational flexibility by adding "sticky" zones of control) in 1973. WAR IN THE EAST, 1st ed. continued this developmental trajectory when it appeared in 1974 (it introduced a more sophisticated treatment of overruns as a function of movement). Two years later INVASION AMERICA (with its use of "untried" unit combat strengths) appeared; shortly thereafter, Dunnigan's still-evolving ideas about armored combat operations finally came together in PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN when this humble "insert" game for S&T #57 burst onto the gaming scene in 1976. The rest, as they say, is history.

THE MANY DIFFERENT ROADS FROM SMOLENSK

If, prior to its publication, Dunnigan and company had not seen anything particularly noteworthy in the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN design, the game's warm reception by S&T's readership quickly changed their thinking. And, like a small boy with a new hammer who pounds on everything within reach, Dunnigan — either directly or by proxy — enthusiastically applied the PGG design treatment to a lot of pending SPI projects which, in some cases, had languished on his "to do list" of possible game titles for years. Thus it was that, in the space of the next few years, eleven new PGG based titles (fifteen, if the LENINGRAD introductory "gamette" and the VICTORY IN THE WEST games are counted) — from S&T "insert" games to soap-box monsters — made the journey, at SPI, from design and development to print. In and of itself, this widespread use, by Dunnigan and his various understudies, of the innovative new PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN simulation platform was hardly surprising; what was surprising, given the PGG game engine's original focus and subject matter, were the various types (and scales) of conflict situations onto which it was ultimately grafted. In fact, one could almost say, in retrospect, that if a potential conflict simulation design included tanks, someone at SPI would at least try the PGG game engine out to see if it could be made to fit. It should be noted that this "scatter-shot" design approach did not always work out; nonetheless, it succeeded a lot more frequently than many of us would have ever expected. And this is probably something that, in its own right, warrants a little additional elaboration.

When it first appeared in the mid-1970s, PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN was, in terms of its overall scale, a fairly typical operational-level SPI game; which is to say: hexes were 10.5 kilometers from side-to-side; game turns represented two days of real time; and combat units were either regiments or divisions. However, its seemingly familiar Russo-German War game narrative differed significantly from almost all of its SPI predecessors [the one possible exception to this being 'THE MOSCOW CAMPAIGN'] in the fact that the two opposing armies (and the player turn sequences associated with those two armies) were asymmetrical. This asymmetry was no small matter: the "untried" nature of all Red Army combat units, the important differences in the supply requirements of the two sides (Soviet supply was headquarters-based, German supply was not), and the total absence of a Russian "mechanized" movement phase all combined to give PGG — at least in the eyes of its many fans, me included — a unique and very satisfying East Front historical "feel". It was also unpredictable, challenging (particularly for the Russian player), and marvelously playable. If the PGG game engine had any limitation at all, it was that it seemed to be almost too well-suited to World War II combat operations on the Russian Front. As subsequent events soon demonstrated, however, this was not an opinion that was widely-held at SPI.

The SPI Branch of the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN Family Tree

If Dunnigan and company were surprised by the warm reception that the T #57 "insert" received from the gaming public, they were, nonetheless, quick to capitalize on the popularity of the PGG game platform; although not initially in the way that many of us, who were die-hard East Front afficianados, expected. In fact, as things turned out, the first batch of games to follow in the wake of PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN were — at least for those of us on the outside of SPI looking in — virtually all surprises.

In 1977, SPI published, as part of its regular quota of fresh releases, four titles — two S&T magazine titles, one regular-sized "flat-pack" game, and one monster game) — all of which were based (however loosely) on the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game system. This brand-new lot of PGG inspired offerings included, in no particular order: Brad Hessel's "insert" game on the Normandy breakout, COBRA (scaled at 3.2 kilometers per hex, three days per game turn, and regiment/brigade/division); Irad Hardy's perversely-frustrating — the game was both open-ended and unwinnable — S&T magazine treatment of the (at the time, still raging) armed struggle between the black insurgents of the ANC (the African National Congress) and the white-dominated South African government, SOUTH AFRICA (60 kilometers per hex, weekly game turns, and company/battalion/regiment strength combat units); Jim Dunnigan's operational simulation of a hypothetical clash between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in the Fulda Gap region of Germany set sometime in the late 1970's, FULDA GAP (scaled at 10 kilometers per hex, 24 hours per game turn, with regiment/brigade strength units); and last but not least, Jimmy's grand-tactical treatment of the "Battle of the Bulge", ‘WACHT AM RHEIN’ (one mile per hex, three game turns per 24 hours, and company/battalion/regiment strength combat units). As might be expected, popular opinions of these titles varied greatly: COBRA and WACHT AM RHEIN were generally well-received (at least among the gamers with whom I had personal contact); SOUTH AFRICA and FULDA GAP, however, were not. Moreover, a substantial number of SPI's regular customers (me included) were both a bit confounded and more than a little disappointed by the the complete absence of any new PGG based East Front games; and these player sentiments (gamers being a vocal lot) were not borne in defferential silence, but were quickly made absolutely clear — both through magazine "feedback" and through private letters — to the "powers that be" at SPI. Whether this surge in customer discontent actually had any effect on Dunnigan and company is, of course, impossible to know; nonetheless, SPI, for whatever reason, did — in terms of pending titles still in the development "pipeline" — announce something of a publishing course correction in time for the coming year.

If the PGG based SPI offerings of 1977 seemed to completely ignore the East Front cachet of Dunnigan's original design, those of 1978 did not. In fact, of the five SPI titles designed around the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game template that went to the printer in 1978, three were simulations of major actions from the Russo-German War (1941-45). Somewhat surprisingly, however, was the fact that there was only one magazine "insert" in this lot, and that was Stephen B. Patrick's simulation of the Soviet offensive in southern Russia in spring of 1942, KHARKOV (scaled at 6.9 kilometers per hex, 24 hours per game turn, and regiment/division strength combat units). A second East Front game that was considerably bigger in scope was Brad Hessel's much anticipated and — as it turned out — notoriously flawed DRIVE ON STALINGRAD (which used 22 kilometer hexes, weekly game turns, and regiment/division sized units). The third Russian Front title in this batch of offerings was Joe Angiolillo's treatment of the "last gasp" attempt by the Wehrmacht to capture Moscow in the winter of 1941/42, OPERATION TYPHOON. This game, like DRIVE ON STALINGRAD, was a quasi-monster game with multiple map sections and double the standard SPI compliment of unit counters (the game's scale — which almost shifted its feel from the "operational" to the "grand tactical" — was 2.7 miles per hex, 24 hours per game turns, and battalion/regiment/division sized combat units). [Oddly enough, although popular reaction to 'TYPHOON' tended to be mixed (players seemed to either love it, or hate it), the several clever new touches added to the basic PGG game system by the designer (just one example being the determination of combat strengths through random "chit draws") actually spawned a whole new line of S&T magazine games, the 'VICTORY IN THE WEST' Series. This family of PGG offshoots, over time, ultimately grew to include a pair of designs by Joe Balkoski, 'PATTON'S THIRD ARMY' (1980) and 'OPERATION GRENADE' (1981); as well as a third game, designed by Dick Rustin, 'SICILY', also published in 1981.] The remaining two PGG inspired games published by SPI in 1978 were both hugely ambitious monster games. One was Jim Dunnigan's truly massive (and deeply layered) simulation of a hypothetical, continent-wide 1970's NATO-Warsaw Pact clash, titled somewhat omminously, THE NEXT WAR (this multi-map "opus" was scaled at 14 kilometers per hex, game turns represented 2 days of real time, and combat units — of which there seemed to be thousands — were brigade/division strength. The other was Joe Balkoski’s equally massive depiction of the 1944 Normandy landings and the follow-up battles that were fought to expand the Allied lodgement, ATLANTIC WALL; a design that turned out — much like its cousin, WACHT AM RHEIN — to be terrific in concept, but somewhat disappointing in actual execution (map scale was 1 kilometer per hex, there were four game turns (3 daylight and 1 night) per 24 hour period, and combat units were company/battalion sized).

In view of the fresh and oftentimes innovative SPI titles — based on the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN design platform — that had appeared in 1977 and 1978, expectations among players who were fond of the PGG system (like me) were relatively high when it came to the SPI game offerings for the new year. That being said, for those of us who had become fans of the steadily growing family of PGG based games, 1979, when it finally arrived, was — in terms of its good and bad news — a curiously mixed year. On the positive side, the new year saw the publication of two new offerings: Dick Rustin's fun but tiny (map size was only 11" x 17"; with only 100 counters) PGG based introductory "gamette", LENINGRAD (seven days per game turn, division sized units); and the more substantial, FOUR BATTLES OF ARMY GROUP SOUTH: which, whatever else one might think of it, turned out to be the one and only "quadrigame" ever offered by Dunnigan and company which used the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game architecture as its "core" rules system. On the debit side, LENINGRAD, along with the four titles that made up ARMY GROUP SOUTH were — except for the already alluded to VICTORY IN THE WEST spin-offs that appeared in 1980 and 81 — also the last of the standard (easily recognizable) PGG inspired titles to be offered by SPI in 1979 or in any of the years that followed.

Interestingly, the four "full-sized" stand-alone games that made up the ARMY GROUP SOUTH package, although somewhat uneven in terms of quality, nonetheless, were all very similar — in both scope and scale — to the original design that had started it all back in 1976. The first of the four was Joe Angiolillo's depiction of the massive encirclement battle fought near the capital of the Ukraine in the late summer of 1941, KIEV (design scale was 8 kilometers per hex, two days per game turn, and regiment/division sized combat units). The second was John H. Butterfield's simulation of the first successful Soviet counterattack of the War, ROSTOV (hexes were 17 kilometers from side-to-side, turns represented five days of real time, and combat units were regiment/division sized). KORSUN — the third game in the set — was designed by Steven B. Patrick, with help from Milton and Neil Rosenberg, and dealt with the Red Army's encirclement of substantial German forces on the southern Dnepr in winter of 1944 (game scale was 7.5 kilometers per hex, two days per game turn, and regiment/brigade/division sized combat units). OPERATION STAR, the last of the four games to make up the ARMY GROUP SOUTH package, was Brent Nosworthy's treatment of the Soviet winter offensive in February, 1943, and of Manstein's stunningly successful "back-hand blow" against the advancing Russians (each hex equals 10.5 kilometers, game turns represent five days of real time, and combat units are regiment/division sized).

Although 1979 could logically be said to have represented the "last hurrah" for new SPI designs based on the standard PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game architecture (in any of its several permutations), subsequent events would soon show that other game designers — away from Dunnigan and the feedback-driven development regime at SPI — were not so ready to give up on the PGG game "franchise". And, perhaps fittingly (if ironically), the first and arguably still one of the very best of these outside designs debuted in the same year that LENINGRAD and ARMY GROUP SOUTH were published.

New Roads from Smolensk: A Sampling of Non-SPI Games based on the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN Game System

In 1979, a small independent game company, Peoples’ Wargames (PWG), pretty much appeared out of nowhere with a brand new title based on the WACHT AM RHEIN version of the PGG game system: Jack Radey's richly-detailed and wonderfully-crafted simulation of the large and tactically fascinating 1944 encirclement battle on the Dnepr, KORSUN POCKET (one mile per hex, three game turns (2 daylight and 1 night) per 24 hour period, battalion/regiment sized combat units). Like its SPI "Battle of the Bulge" cousin, KORSUN POCKET was massive in size (multiple map sections, a thick rule book and study guide, and sheet after sheet of counters) and grand tactical in both scale and "feel"; unlike its SPI counterpart, however, Radey's design was both impressive to look at and actually fun (for both sides) to play. Moreover, although the game's geneology was obvious, because of the designer's numerous refinements to the original Dunnigan game platform (particularly as regards the rules governing armored operations) it was more than a mere East Front companion game to WACHT AM RHEIN. Somewhat unexpectedly — at least for an ambitious independent game of its size — it was generally well-received throughout the hobby; and, in fact, KORSUN POCKET ended up being chosen as the Game Designers' Guild "Select Award" winner for 1979.

And then, in spite of the impressive success of KORSUN POCKET, seemingly nothing ...

The 19th century Prussian military theorist, General Carl Von Clausewitz, is said to have caustically observed — while critiquing the writtings of several of his contemporaries — that "it is for each new generation of military thinkers to rediscover the decisive battlefield effect of the flank attack." This comment by Clausewitz, without stretching its author's original intent too much, could probably also be applied to the field of game design. Which is to say: ideas and design concepts tend to emerge, enjoy a (usually relatively brief) period of popularity, and then disappear only to resurface again, in a new game, oftentimes years later.

Such has certainly been the case with the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game system. Whether one picks 1979 (KORSUN POCKET) or 1981 (SICILY), the fact remains that new titles based on the PGG rules package largely disappeared in the years following the publication of ARMY GROUP SOUTH and KORSUN POCKET. [For the purposes of this discussion, I probably should note that I am discounting the reissue (by other publishers) of existing designs; e.g., Avalon Hill's redo of 'PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN', or Decision Games' overhaul of 'WACHT AM RHEIN', just to name two examples.] Like Dunnigan before them, other game designers moved on to experiment with newer, alternative methods of simulating armored combat, and the PGG game engine fell into disuse. Or so it seemed.

Then, in the mid-1990s — as if to prove Clauswitz' observation regarding "old" ideas and "new" generations correct — the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game platform reemerged, after a decade and a half in designer limbo, to support Vance von Borries’ and Tony Curtis’ intriguing and highly-playable BARBAROSSA series of brand new titles dealing with operational combat during the Russo-German War (1941-45). Published by GMT Games, the first in this fresh batch of East Front simulations, TYPHOON appeared in 1995; the second, ARMY GROUP SOUTH, in 1996; the third, ARMY GROUP CENTER, in 1998; and the last, ARMY GROUP NORTH, in 2000. Although each of these simulations examined a different aspect of the titanic struggle between Hilter's Third Reich and Stalin's Russia, they all were similarly scaled and employed (with the exception of TYPHOON) almost identical design architecture; which is to say: game turns represented two days of real time, hexes were 5 miles from side to side, player turns were asymmetrical, and combat units were battalion/regiment/brigade/division in size.

Interestingly, impressive as it was, the six year burst of creative energy displayed by Vance von Borries and Tony Curtis was not the end of the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN design saga.

In 2006, Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) followed in GMT's footsteps by introducing Japanese designer Tetsuya Nakamura’s A VICTORY LOST to American wargamers (the game used ten-day game turns, 15 kilometer hexes, a chit-based "Headquarters Activation" subroutine, and battlegroup/division sized combat units). Nakamura's award-winning simulation of the Red Army's 1943 offensive to smash Army Group South, codenamed "Operation Saturn", and of Erich von Manstein's brilliantly conceived "backhand blow" which saved the Wehrmacht in southern Russia from complete disaster, was notable both for its PGG patrimony, and for the sheer volume of exciting new ideas that the designer managed to successfully graft onto Dunnigan's thirty-year-old game platform. Three years later, MMP followed up A VICTORY LOST with designer Adam Starkweather's East Front simulation, A VICTORY DENIED. Based on Nakamura's hugely successful earlier design, but with a few changes to the rules governing supply and command and control, A VICTORY DENIED simulated Army Group Center's attempt to seize, and the equally desperate attempt by the Red Army to protect, the Soviet Capital in the summer/fall of 1941.

Finally, although the preceding list of PGG inspired games is fairly extensive, it is virtually certain that it is not complete. Whether because of forgetfulness or ignorance on my part (it is, after all, hard to keep abreast of absolutely every new development in the hobby), I am virtually certain that there are any number of other titles that probably deserve to be included along with those catalogued above. Nonetheless, whatever the flaws in this highly-subjective chronicle of the long and colorful history of Jim Dunnigan's 1976 brainchild, the fact remains that the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game system has shown itself to be one of the most versatile and robust in the whole history of conflict simulation design. And, if past events are any guide, its influence on the work of future game designers will probably persist for many years to come.

FINAL THOUGHTS

As anyone who has been involved in wargaming for as long as I have (nearly half a century) will attest, the story of the PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN game system, and its decades-long infuence on wargame design is hardly unique. Certainly, there are any number of examples of other game platforms that have demonstrated either the PGG archetecture's versatility, its longevity, or both. The LA BATAILLE Series of Napoleonic games from Marshal/Martial Enterprises is one example of a durable game platform — introduced in the early 1970s — that has held up surprisingly well over the years. Another is the hugely ambitious and extraordinarily maleable (consider: DNO/UNT and then NARVIK) EUROPA World War II game system from Game Designers' Workshop (GDW). Yet a third game system that, in its own way, probably comes closest to matching, if not exceeding, both the long-term success and the sheer versatility of the PGG platform is the "block-based" QUEBEC 1759 game system — a joint creation of three Canadians: Steve Brewster, Tom Dalgliesh, and Lance Gutteridge — which was first introduced by Gamma Two Games (now Columbia Games) back in 1972. Originally a "musket and bayonet" oriented simulation platform, Columbia Games' signature "block-based" game system has been expanded to cover military situations as diverse as the Roman Civil Wars, Medieval conflicts, and even a number of the major campaigns of World War II.

So, what does all this mean? Only this: that the vast majority of new designs that daily enter the wargaming market actually have relatively long conceptual "tails"; and that, to know the history of the "adventure gaming" hobby is to also know that there is startling little that is truly fresh or innovative when it comes to game design. Even a truly new and ground-breaking game platform like that introduced in GDW's DRANG NACH OSTEN! (1973) — by Frank Chadwick's own admission — drew its first whiff of inspiration from Dunnigan's almost forgotten (and largely unplayable) LOST BATTLES (1971). And I'll never forget a comment from one of my wargaming friends upon first examining a copy of the then unknown Dalgliesh and company's QUEBEC 1759. "This looks," he noted, disbelievingly," a lot like 'step-reduction' STRATEGO meets RISK. Why the heck didn't any of us geniuses think of this?" Why, indeed? Particularly when one remembers that the first copy of STRATEGO saw print back in 1947, and the first edition of RISK appeared in 1959.

In the end, I suppose that it is the all-too-rare ability to synthesize a few simple spatial and mathematical concepts into something that is both historically convincing and yet easily understandable (read: playable) that really separates most of us (especially the designer "wannabes") from the handful of genuinely creative hobby personalities who, each in his own way, has been influential in the ongoing progress of wargame design. And, using this admittedly subjective criteria, I think that James Dunnigan's seminal design, PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN, really stands out. Not only was it a successful game in its own right, but, even more importantly, its robust and amazingly versatile game platform laid the foundation for the marvelous and varied games — often the products of younger designers — which have followed in its wake. And that — at least in the "closeted" world of wargaming — is no small accomplishment.

Related Blog Posts

SPI, PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN (1976)
TAHGC, THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN (1976)
SPI, 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, FULDA GAP (1977)
SPI, ATLANTIC WALL (1978)
SPI, DRIVE ON STALINGRAD (1978)
SPI, OPERATION TYPHOON (1978)
SPI, THE NEXT WAR (1978)
PWG, KORSUN POCKET (1979)

22 comments:

  • Dunnigan can safely be considered a "genius" of wargame design-he had an instinctive grasp of what made a great "game" while also constantly introducing new concepts that brought the player closer to the "feel" of command. PGG in just the 18 months I've owned it has become a favorite-in part because it is a great "solo" game that one can break out anytime.I'm lucky enough to have the version with the mounted mapboard which adds to the pleasure of play....

  • Greetings Brian:

    Yes, Jimmie Dunnigan may have his personal foibles; but, say what you will, he has been responsible for the design of an amazing number of very good (and even occasionally great) games. The fact that he was lucky enough to have the talents of Redmond Simonsen (in the graphics department) to help translate his ideas into reality didn't hurt either.

    Best Regards, Joe

    PS: I just noticed that I forgot to add links to some of the games mentioned in the essay. When I get a chance, I'll see if I can't do that, as well.

  • The original KURSK system came from a prototype done by the late Sterling Hart. The prototype was not all that good, but there was material which, when meshed with the two-impuse system that JFD had come up with in the late 60s (Barbarossa, 1918, etc.), worked quite well.

    Sterling Hart did ARMADA. Again, poor prototype but some good ideas. Alas, by that time, there was no time or money to set it right. The developer, Brent Nosworthy, was thrown in at the deep end and allowed to sink in his first effort, where a few years before there would have been resources to retrieve the situation.

    Sterling died suddenly back in the 90s. Grand fellow. Our last conversation was about the Koufra Oath, and how no one remembers precisely the same words, because LeClerc was obviously making it up in the heat of the moment. Now that one can travel to Libya again, I wonder if the monument the French put up at Koufra in the 1950s is still there.

    As for development, PGG is a Berg success. However, the idea of untried units being flipped over was from JFD.

  • Greetings David:

    I'm sorry to hear that Sterling Hart passed away; none of us, I suppose, are getting any younger.

    Ironically, although I credited Sterling with the design credit for 'KURSK' when I profiled the game several years ago. Because I had just started blogging and was -- if the truth be known -- still unclear as to how much verbage my readers were prepared to plow through when they visited my site, my early profiles tended to be much shorter (and less detailed) than those that I began to publish once I had acquired a small following.

    And yes, I do remember the various early SPI experiments with different ways of adding more mobility to the "battle space" (1918, KOREA, NORMANDY, etc.) before the idea of a "mechanized" movement phase finally took hold.

    Thanks Again for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Personally I think you're a little harsh on Invasion America which was a fun game and much better than MBs Fortress America IMO. If I had the space I would put it on my table today.

  • Greetings thelloydbakers:

    Thank you for commenting; I appreciate your interest.

    So far as 'INVASION AMERICA' is concerned, while I know a number of gamers who, like you, actually thought highly of this title back when it first came out (mainly because of its playability and dystopian fantasy narrative). For my own part, I found it and its oddly banal companion game 'OBJECTIVE MOSCOW' both a little too "cute" in terms of some of the design concepts, and a little too much like a simulation set in the 1940s rather than one ostensibly set in the 1970s.

    As "quasi-monster" simulations go, I grant you that 'INVASION AMERICA' was certainly far more accessible to the average gamer than a "true monster" like 'THE NEXT WAR' was. On the other hand, for me, the game just had a "slap-dash" unserious "feel" to it.

    When it comes to 'FORTRESS AMERICA' -- which I still like -- this Milton Bradley offering, while certainly not a simulation in any genuine sense of the term, did have the twin virtues of not taking itself seriously and, because of the "card-driven" aspect of the game, of delivering -- in my view, at least -- a bit more replay value than Dunnigan's game.

    On the other hand, different things appeal to different players; so who's to say which is actually the "better" game.

    Thanks Again for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Another wonderful post, with great insights and history.

    In terms of legacy I think you could also add The Gamers OCS and its simpler derivative SCS systems to the list. Whilst OCS is more complex than PG it has roots in the dual movement in a turn or exploitation that PG exposed us to.
    Kevin

  • Joe

    Great review as always and so good to see David Isby chime inwith his thoughts.I think we forgoet about RHB being the PGG developer(developers do seem to get forgotten)

    Well I'm one of the Invasion America devotee's.matter of fact I combined 2 counter sets and made up 2 new enemy factions invading the US-Pan Arab League(uses PAL units) and the Socialist African Union(uses SAL unints) besides adding in marines,mountain,Arm Cav,Air Mobile, etc to everyon.Objective Moscow I never cared for the Nato/Warsaw Pact scenario.it had too many errata mistakes to deal with. I always played out the straight forward invade Russia with everyone(combined 2 sets of counters there too for added forces)

    But back to the PGG system,it and the GBACW systems have held up the best over these many decades.The Kursk system is still enjoyable but it shows it's age much more.As you well know someone is always doing a AAR of their most recent PGG styled game over on Consimworld and not a week goes by where there isn't talk on one of it's many derived games

  • Greetings Kevin:

    Thank you for your kind words.

    You put your finger on one of the built-in challenges implicit in a project like this: Where do you draw the line? Or in the words of the farmer's wife: "When you set about gathering fresh ingrediants for a stew -- although you can -- you still probably shouldn't clean out the whole barnyard."

    Certainly, a case can be made that the OCS game system offers hints of having been influenced by 'PGG', but is the connection a direct one or merely roundabout. That's why, in the end, I basically stuck with titles where I personally saw a clear (and direct) link between the current game's architecture and at least some of the key elements of 'PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN'.

    On the other hand, I am absolutely sure that a different observer could look at exactly the same collection of games and yet come up with a very different (and probably equally valid) list.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Greetings Kim:

    Thank you, as always, for your kind words and your comments.

    It is interesting that you bring up the 'GBACW' series of Civil War games, because my old friend, Russ Gifford, has probably been as instrumental as anyone -- via the many play aids that he makes available (through his website) to novice players who are just starting out -- in bringing a whole new generation into the 'GBACW' fold.

    So you probably have a point. On the other hand, although I probably could have added the 'GBACW' game system to my list of examples, the ones I did pick -- I hope, at least -- managed to convey the richness of the sometimes decade-old, but still very influential, game systems that continue to influence the direction of our hobby, even today.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Very intrigued regarding your observations of the PGG "descendants," particularly WACHT AM RHEIN and its progeny, ATLANTIC WALL and KORSUN POCKET. I confess I'm hard pressed to see the PGG lineage there; more seems to trace back to systems in some of the old SPI WWII quad games such as NORTH AFRICA QUAD, ISLAND WAR QUAD, and WESTWALL QUAD. The resemblance there is unmistakable and these games came out before PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN did.

    Regarding the VICTORY IN THE WEST series, I think you are on the mark and the further evolution of the PGG system is evident. THE NEXT WAR to me seems a bit of a stretch--I see more ideas from the old CENTRAL FRONT SERIES games (FIFTH CORPS, HOF GAP, and BAOR) than I do PGG itself.

    Certainly the Vance von Borries EASTERN FRONT SERIES shows the PGG resemblance, particularly in the asymmetrical nature of the two armies and the fact that active HQs control the Soviets in most of these games.

    The success of the PGG engine can be seen in the longevity of the immediate "spin-off" titles: PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN is supposed to (someday) see a Third Edition from L2; COBRA was republished by Decision Games in S&T (again) in an "expanded" new edition somewhat similar to the TSR second edition that included the Normandy landings. DRIVE ON STALINGRAD was completely redesigned by Decision Games but still retains a very strong PGG flavor--indeed, many of the "follow on" games to that effort (DRIVE ON MOSCOW, DRIVE ON KURSK) are very similar to PGG in a number of ways. LENINGRAD has been redone by Decision Games but looks and feels a great deal like the original SPI game. Two of the BATTLES OF ARMY GROUP SOUTH games were redone for an S&T issue by Decision Games.

    Even the old KHARKOV game, which I personally felt was a one of the weaker efforts, has its devotees (just ask Jim Werbaneth--it's his favorite game in the series).

  • Greetings Eric:

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments; your interest is appreciated.

    Actually, left to my own devices, like you, I would probably not have included 'WACHT AM RHEIN' and its several "grand tactical" cousins on this list. However, in an uncharacteristic bit of personal deference, I was persuaded by the comments of both the designer and developer of 'WACHT AM RHEIN' -- made shortly after the game first made its appearance -- of the connection (gauzy though it might have been) between the newly-released Bulge "monster" and 'PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN'.

    In a way, I suppose that this odd geneology (or lack thereof) is analagous to the somewhat tenuous link between 'LOST BATTLES' and 'DNO/UNT'. If Frank Chadwick -- in commenting on his own approach to the design process -- hadn't brought up the intellectual connection between the platforms of these two very different games, himself, I certainly would never have seen it. And I say this in spite of the fact that I was quite familiar with 'LOST BATTLES' (who could ever forget the "road march" rules or the "artillery unit of fire" rules) and -- at least for the space of several years -- deeply engrossed (along with several of my friends) in the various titles that emerged from GDW's 'DNO/UN' inspired "EUROPA" project.

    Regarding some of the titles from this list reissued by Decision Games: I actually think that the DG version of 'COBRA' is, on the whole, a nice improvement; however, when it comes to my view of the DG versions of both 'WACHT AM RHEIN' and 'DRIVE ON STALINGRAD', I'm afraid I'm inclined to go with Borat and say "not so much".

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Anonymous said...

    Joe

    Keep the posts coming; I very much enjoy reading them, and thank you for putting in the effort. As one who got started with wargames in the late 70s, these posts ring home.

    I must confess that I have been on a little bit of a '1940 invasion of France' tear since I read your old post on the France 1940 game (I like to clump my gaming into 'studies' where I play the games along with reading some of the better books on the subject). This led me to collect some of the older (France 1940) and newer (Case Yellow) games on the subject.

    A few weeks ago (through the magic of eBay) I garnered Victory in the West, GMT's version of the invasion from the early 1990s, designed by David James Ritchie.

    And then I read this post, and lo and behold: what did I just read in Victory in the West? There the designer notes that the game uses SPI's move-fight-exploit system a la PGG. So while not, perhaps, a linear descendant of PGG, Victory in the West remains a near cousin.

    While I did not appreciate it as a teenager in the 70s playing the games, I find the design process and evolution of wargames in the 70s to be quite fascinating; the various 're-uses' of SPI systems, with tweaks and such, through the various games is fascinating to chart.

    Please keep the posts coming....

    Mike

  • Greetings Mike:

    Thank you for your kind words and for your interest; both are appreciated.

    Yes, the history of wargame development is both surprisingly colorful, and surprisingly old.

    The Ancient Romans, for example, were the first "wargamers" to incorporate die-rolling into the play of one of their early boardgames, 'LATRUNCULI'. And even little 'STRATEGO' (1947), old as it is, actually traces its ancestry back to an earlier French board game -- designed, somewhat unexpectedly, by a woman -- back in 1910.

    In any case, I am happy that you find my musings worthwhile, and if I can resolve the two PBeM tournament matches that I currently have going, I may even be able to finish at least a couple of the five or six essays that I currently have sitting around waiting for their finishing touches.

    Thanks Again for visiting and
    Best Regards, Joe

  • Joe,

    Another great article--great background and history. I think your commentary on SPI is balanced and accurate.
    I have "Army Group South" and played the various games quite a few times, and I also feel the games are of uneven quality.
    You mention Jack Radey in passing, and I would put forward the system he used in "Black Sea, Black Death" as one of my favorites. It's a game I find myself going back to play, or even just read through the rules every few years.

    Paul

  • Greetings Paul:

    Thanks, as always, for your kind words and for your interest.

    The driving force behind Peoples' Wargames, "Red" Jack Radey, was (and is) an interesting character. So far as his and my politics are concerned, we were then (and probably still are) poles apart. Yet his historical research and design work were both almost always interesting and -- at least in the case of 'KORSUN POCKET' -- truly first class.

    As an odd little aside, at the time that 'KORSUN POCKET' was published (1979) Jack and I had both come to the similar conclusion that there were way too many in the hobby (both amateur players and professional developer/designers) who seemed virtually oblivious to the long list of crimes commited by the German Army and many of its senior officers during World War II; and who, instead, almost exclusively on the Wehrmacht's and Luftwaffe's sometimes astonishing military accomplishments. Thus it seemed that, in the eyes of some members of the wargaming fraternity, the Germans (when defeated) always "lost" their battles; in contrast, Germany's enemies -- whether on the Eastern or the Western Fronts -- never seemed to actually "win". This was patent nonsense, and both I and Jack found this whole aspect of the early hobby downright "cringe-worthy".

    Finally, Jack Radey, so far as I know, gave up on regular "map and counters" wargames in favor of miniatures some years ago. I can understand the appeal; in fact, I have had a number of friends, over the years, who have both collected miniatures (particularly old 'Brittons') and wargamed with them, but -- for my own part -- all of the work and expense necessary to get seriously involved with miniatures has always been a little too much for me, personally.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment and
    Best Regards, Joe

  • Joe,

    If you haven't seen it, the excellent documentary "The Unknown Soldier," addresses the myth that the Wehrmacht was innocent of war crimes. It caused quite a stir here in Germany when it was released, I can tell you.

    I think the German Army performed well in both world wars, but not as well as many would present. In my own area of focus, the Great War, there is a lot that is not flattering about the "German way of war." Reading German military journals between the wars is an interesting exercise--they are often much more critical of their own performance than modern historians!

    Paul

  • Greetings Paul:

    Sorry to be a little late in responding to your thoughtful comments; alas, I was bogged down with other projects for the the last day or two.

    I have not seen "The Unknown Soldier" but, given the crimes brought to light at the Nuremberg Trials (1945-46), I find the collective amnesia in contemporary Germany interesting, but not totally surprising. In a similar vein, the Japanese still refuse to acknowledge the many atrocities committed by Japanese troops both before (in China) and (everywhere) during World War II.

    On the other hand, having served in the army in a combat zone (a long, long time ago), I am also convinced that war crimes (rather than the random acts of callous brutality that tend to accompany all armies in all wars), when they do occur, are usually the direct result either of established political/military policy (the Wehrmacht during World war II) or a breakdown in discipline (the US Army at Mai Lai in Vietnam).

    No, my basic complaint (then and now) is that, because surviving German generals like Guderian and Manstein were able to rush their memoirs into print after the war, they were able to largey shape the World War II historical narrative that still survives to this day. That is: If it hadn't been for Hitler, Germany (and by extension, its generals) would have won the war; and when it came to Germay's depredations -- both in Russia and in the Occuppied Countries -- tended to parrot the immortal words of Sergeant Schultz, of TV fame: "I know nothing, nothing."

    The unvarnished German post-war operational assessments by military professionals that you allude to are, interestingly enough, also found in the analysis developed by career army officers in the US. In fact, some of the conclusions that emerge from their research is so unflattering that, one actually wonders why some of the more incompetent commanders escoriated in these reports were never actually brought up on charges.

    In any case, I've rambled on long enough; thanks again for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Hi Joe

    Another great article; thanks for your sterling efforts, and please keep them coming. I must say, this is some of the best board wargaming journalism I've seen.

    I'm not convinced about some of the claimed genealogy; I think you've thrown a somewhat wider net than I would have, but can understand the wish to be inclusive.

    PGG is the most recent game I've played; our group includes it in our annual competition. I wish I could say the game is played to a nicety; after 35 years its subtleties still fox some, which is testament to its quality.

    Best wishes, Tim

  • Greetings Tim:

    Thanks, as always, for your kind words and for your interest.

    So far as the "throw of my net is concerned" when it comes to the 'PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN' game system, as I explained to Eric -- who, it should be noted, raised the same issue -- had I relied purely on my own instincts, I probably would have pruned back the PGG family tree a bit.

    On the other hand, since Dunnigan and friends seemed to see a connection where I did not, when it came to actually writing this piece, I decided to defer to the guy who really started it all. Moreover, given my own quite unimpressive attempts at game design, I am modest enough about my own talents to acknowledge my own limitations when it comes to the sometimes inscrutable mental workings of truly gifted designers like Jim Dunnigan and Frank Chadwick.

    Best Regards, Joe

    PS: Like you and your friends, I still return to the "classics" (whether Avalon Hill, SPI, OSG, or GDW) over and over again; and like you, it seems that every time I revisit one of these great old titles, I discover something new.

  • Brings back happy memories of some great games!

  • Greetings Anon:

    Thank you for visiting and for your kind words.

    Yes, many of these old titles -- nondescript though they may be both in their graphics and in their overall appearance -- are still great games when it comes to the issue of their actual play.

    Best Regards, Joe

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