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.
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" ERASimulation 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".
MECHANIZED COMBAT AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN GAME SYSTEM
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 SMOLENSKIf, 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 TreeIf 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.
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
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.
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.
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 THOUGHTSAs 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 PostsSPI, 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)