Wednesday, February 11, 2015

KGC Blitz: Adapting PanzerBlitz situations to miniatures



I played my first game of Avalon Hill's PanzerBlitz when I was a lad of 10. My friend Richard's older brother went off to the army in 1970 leaving behind his brand-new copy of the just-released game. For Richard and me, being the kind of boys who liked tanks 'n' stuff, PanzerBlitz was nirvana. The counters had silhouettes representing specific tanks: T-34s, SU-100s, Panzer IVsTigers. For boys who liked tanks 'n' stuff, Tiger tanks were the apogee of our enthusiasm. A game of tactical armored combat on the Eastern Front 1941-45, could it get better than this? Even the box art was cool.


I played PanzerBlitz with Richard for the next year until he moved away, taking his copy of PanzerBlitz with him (but he left me his dog, Sparky, who was with us for the next 14 years). I got my own copy of the game, the revised 1971 edition, and continued to play it with other friends for years after that. Of the many games from my youth, few remain. Pride of place for those is my much-worn copy of PanzerBlitz. I even bought two more copies on eBay. One of which is the 1970 first printing with the glossy colored reverse sides of the counters: black for Germans and red for Russians.

All these years later—despite some glaring design flaws, such as "PanzerBush"—PanzerBlitz remains one of my favorite games even though it's been more than 30 years since I last played it with someone. (Also, you can easily adopt the opportunity fire and spotting rules from Avalon Hill's later games Panzer Leader and The Arab-Israeli Wars to fix the design flaws.)

Fast forward to now. I game with a group of people at The Panzer Depot in Kirkland, WA. One of the games we've play a lot is Kampfgruppe Commander II (KGC) using 15mm models and figures. KGC is a later development of the evolutionary strain of tactical WW2 rules that started with the "standard unit" concept in Wargamer's Digest magazine in the 1970s. WD had some rules in mind that never got published, but the standard unit concept was best exemplified in Frank Chadwick's Command Decision (CD) from 1986. Unlike most earlier WW2 rules, CD doesn't represent the tanks, guns, and troops at 1:1. In CD, each gun and tank model represents a platoon-sized unit (the standard unit). Infantry, mounted three to a base, also represent platoons. This is pretty much the same representation used for PanzerBlitz, except that in PanzerBlitz Russians units are company sized.

KGC uses the same representation as CD with the exception that Russian units are represented one level up to account for the smaller size of Russian platoons and the lower degree of tactical flexibility of Russian forces. For example, in CD the basic maneuver element for Russians is a company represented by two tank models or two stands of infantry. In KGC, the basic Russian maneuver element is a battalion of four tank models or four stands of infantry. In addition, mortar batteries and machine-gun companies attached to Russian infantry battalions are not represented as separate units, but just factored into the infantry fire value (at just +1 for all range bands). This difference matters for the conversion, as I'll address below.

Because the representational scale of KGC and PanzerBlitz are so similar, it naturally occurred to me that adapting PanzerBlitz to KGC would make for some good game scenarios. PanzerBlitz has 12 "situations" that represent distinct actions involving forces that could equal several battalions in size. My thinking has been that the situations in PanzerBlitz can be mined to create interesting scenarios for KGC.

In miniature gaming, being free-form in structure, scenarios are the key to enjoyment. Most of our KGC games have involved large forces in set-piece battles, such as the attack/defense of a position. We've played several games set in Normandy with scenarios drawn from Operation EpsomMonty had pretty much all the tactical finesse of Douglas Haig and the Normandy battles in June-July 1944 were about as close to the Battle of the Somme as any other WW2 battles ever came (except maybe Kursk): a terrible expenditure of blood for gains measured in yards. The gist being that even though our games are played on a 60 sq. ft. table, the focus mostly comes down to an area about 12 sq. ft. where one side is advancing against an objective and moves forward no more than about 24" during an afternoon of gaming. What I want to do is get to games that involve smaller forces that allow greater flow. My whole PanzerBlitz adaptation idea, which has been kicking around in my brain for some years, is now a catalyst for this goal.

Conversion issues
Adapting the PanzerBlitz scenarios is not without its snags, however. There are several conversion issues that need to be addressed and some trial-and-error to go through in order to get things right.

Mapboard
One of the first conversion issues to address is the how the game boards in PanzerBlitz can be recreated on the tabletop. We use the extended scale in KGC, which comes to one inch = 66 yards (or 1.5" = 100 yards). In PanzerBlitz, one hex represents 250 meters (flat to flat). The conversion is that every hex is 4" on the tabletop. The three boards in PanzerBlitz are geomorphic. One board comes out to a table space of 3.4' x 10.8'. Most configurations in the PanzerBlitz situations require 10.2' x 10.8' of table space, which is about 40 sq. ft. larger than the space we typically use. In some situations, the board configuration is end on end, which means that we need a table that is 3.4' wide by 32.6' long. We don't have that kind of room.


Instead, we use tables that are 5' x 10' or 6' x 8'. (6' is the maximum width practically possible. The 3' stretch to get to the middle of the table is a strain as it is, given the middle-aged bellies we all sport.) To design the table space, you have to look at the configuration for a given situation and then mark out the salient features to use. This requires an elastic interpretation of the mapboard features. Some things have to be thrown out or morphed with other features. In short, the mapboard configuration should be an inspiration for the tabletop layout rather than a template to be followed exactly.

If you don't want to be inspired on a situation-by-situation basis, you can design modular tabletop sections based on the three boards and then configure them for the scenarios.

Unit sizes

German units translate very well at 1 counter from PanzerBlitz equals one tank model, gun model, or stand of infantry. Russian tank and infantry counters in PanzerBlitz represent companies for the same reasons mentioned above, although gun counters still represent a single battery, just like the Germans. The problem for converting Russian counters to KGC units, if you use the KGC organization for Russians, is that you wind up with four tank models or infantry stands for every three PanzerBlitz counters, which greatly reduces the effectiveness of a Russian force. In addition, because Russian battalions abstract battalion mortars, you need to leave off the Russian mortars when you convert. This significantly reduces the firepower of the Russian side.


It also poses a problem for Russian formations. A PanzerBlitz situation that calls for nine counters of Russian rifles, which is typical, equates to a Soviet rifle regiment. In KGC organization, that's a single formation of three four-stand infantry units plus regimental assets like a 45mm AT gun, 76mm infantry gun, and the regimental 120mm mortar battery. This organization puts too many eggs in one basket.

In KGC, a unit is 1 to 4 stands. A formation is 1 to 4 units. All the units of a formation need to stay within the command radius of the formation commander (8" to 15"). When a unit is attacked, a failed morale result can effectively put that unit out of action for a few turns, meaning that multiple stands are affected. The command/control structure in KGC is in stark contrast to PanzerBlitz where any counter can act independently and is usually attacked separately.

Adopting the CD organization for the Russians, addresses some of this issue. With the CD organization, the rifle regiment (represented by nine counters in PanzerBlitz) is now three formations. Each formation is three units of two rifle stands, plus MG assets, and an 82-mm mortar unit. Also, the regimental assets can be made available. The result is more tactical flexibility, more resilience, and more firepower.

Scenarios
The scenarios in PanzerBlitz are the main reason I got interested in the project. However, most scenarios provide a challenge when it comes to converting them to KGC. The forces for each side often come down to a collection of unit counters that don't conform to historical TO&Es. This is especially true for the Germans.

In most PanzerBlitz situations, the Russian forces conform pretty well to historical TO&Es and usually fit nicely into KGC formations. For example, in Situation 6, the Russians have the following:


Using the CD organization for the Russians, this works out pretty easily to,
  • Four battalions of T-34cs (three two-stand units in each)
  • Two SMG battalions (three two-stand units in each, plus an MG asset per battalion)
  • A two-company recon infantry battalion (or split up into four recon infantry assets)
  • Two batteries of 45mm AT guns (or two assets assigned to the SMG battalions)
  • A tank destroyer regiment of SU-85s (two two-stand units)
  • An assault gun regiment of SU-152s (two two-stand units)
  • Two batteries on 76.2mm "crash-boom" guns (or used as off-board artillery)
For the same situation, the Germans have the following:


This is a hodge-podge and nothing translates easily to KGC formations. However, it was typical for the Germans to use kampfgruppe in many situations rather than the regulation TO&Es. To make sense of the situation's forces, you have to create ersatz formations with the mix you have. For example, you could give the Germans the following:
  • A panzer kampfgruppe with a two-stand PzIV company and a one-stand Panther company
  • An infantry kampfgruppe with one three-stand infantry company and a 120mm mortar (you could also add an MG asset)
  • An antitank kampfgruppe with two 75mm Pak 40 batteries and a single Jagdpanzer IV stand
  • A Flak panzergruppe with an 88mm battery and a quad 20mm battery
  • Wespe and Hummel as off-board artillery batteries
Of course, the question is whether this provides adequate play balance.

Historical inaccuracies
The situations in PanzerBlitz are genericized scenarios based on historical actions adapted to a somewhat fixed mapboard using a limited counter set. There are bound to be inaccuracies. The game is said to represent the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1945, but the situations mostly fall into the range of mid-1943 to mid-1944. As you research the situations—being an adult boy who likes tanks 'n' stuff with access to a lot more data—you realize that the game designers fudged a lot.

For example, Situation 10 is Prokhorovka, the climactic armor clash of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps in the southern salient at Kursk in July 1943. The Germans have a lot of Panzer IVHs and Panthers. In fact, the SS panzer troops had no Panthers at Kursk and the mainstay of their tank strength was the Panzer IIIN. In the same situation, the Soviets have SU-85s, which weren't available until later in 1943. In other situations, the Soviets have T-34/85s and the Germans have Jagdpanzer IV/L70s in 1943 scenarios, when neither of these AFVs were available at the time.

For any situation, you have to clean up the innacuracies, which may mean replacing some units with others that match the time frame or historical organization better.

Rules systems and play balance
Of course the rules systems also play a part in balancing the games. Between PanzerBlitz and KGC, the play balance of units is different. PanzerBlitz uses basic factors for attack and defense strengths, which are modified according to the rules' Weapons Effectiveness Chart. KGC uses to-hit and armor penetration values at various ranges and an AFV's defense against antitank fire is based on its armor value. In some cases, this means that some tanks are nearly invulnerable to some AT guns and some tank vs. tank encounters can be wildly lopsided despite a great numerical disparity.

For example, the Panther was probably the best AFV of WW2 (it says so in the designers notes for PanzerBlitz). The 75/L70 gun could slice through the best Soviet armor and the Panther's armor could bounce most shots from Soviet 76.2mm and 85mm AT guns except at close range.

In PanzerBlitz, the Panther has an attack value of 16 and a defense value of 12. The T-34c has an attack value of 12 and a defense of 9. This means that at a six-hex range, three T-34c counters firing together at a Panther counter have a 3:1 attack, which has a good chance of disrupting or destroying the Panther.

In KGC, it's not that easy. At the same range band (6 hexes = 24"), the 76/L42 gun of the T-34c has a 20% chance to even hit. The KGC equivalent of the three counters would be four stands, using KGC organization, or six stands, using CD organization. This means either four D10s or six D10s needing "2s" to hit. One hit may be possible, two lucky, three luckier, and four or more highly unlikely. But the number of hits is just a start. The penetration value of the 76/L42 at 24" range is a 6. The Panther's frontal armor value is 14. This is no penetration; however, KGC still gives any attacker a long-shot chance by making the maximum defense roll a "9." So, any unmodified defense roll of "10" counts as a hit. (I've grumbled about that a few times.)

By comparison, in KGC, the 75/L70 gun of the Panther has a 50% chance to hit and a 13 penetration value at the 24" range band. Against the T-34c's frontal armor of 9, this is an automatic penetration (no defense roll). In fact, even at the Panther's maximum range of 36", any hit is an automatic penetration against a T-34c.

All this means that in KGC, a single Panther has a good chance of standing off an entire battalion of T-34s, but not so much in PanzerBlitz. In some PanzerBlitz situations, there are up to 12 Panthers. In KGC, a force like that is nearly invincible.

As you convert the forces in any PanzerBlitz scenario, you may think there will be a huge disparity in numbers against one side or the other (though usually in favor of the Russians). You can address this disparity with the formation ratings, something that KGC advertises as one of it's strengths.


Postscript
This is one of the many draft blog posts I've had languishing for a long while in cyber-limbo. I had to post this because I spent so much time on it and I'd hate to see it never see the light of the Interwebs. It still has relevance to WW2 gaming on an operational scale; however, I must disclose that I sold off all my painted 15mm WW2 minis at Enfilade! 2014. I can't say that I regret having done it, but it makes completing and posting this article a bit poignant.

I still have a lot of unpainted figures (as in a lot) and models in boxes. If I don't sell them, there's a chance I'll revisit KGC or some other operational-level rules set, like Battlegoup Panzergrenadier from Partizan Press. I've had a copy for many years, though I've only played them once. There is also a second edition out. BGPG may make some of the scenario translation issues easier. I could also just bathtub the scenarios and do a 1:1 translation of units for stands for something like BGPG or Crossfire.

2 comments:

  1. What a cool intro to gaming (if this was your first game that is). I assume your childhood friend's brother went to Vietnam or at least it was during the period. I never got into gaming proper until coming here to WA State in 2005/6, with Adrian and Dan. However, I had a good buddy who turned me onto tanks and such when I was still into Hot Wheels. Oh, and very kind of you to keep Sparky for all of those years too!

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  2. I'm pretty sure Richard's brother went to Germany, not Vietnam. Sparky was my only dog and a great companion for my brothers and me. We got a cat a year or so before Sparky. They coexisted fairly well for a number of years after that. Sparky almost got me thinking I was a dog person, but the ailurophile in me came out at last. Hence the blog is not called I Live with Dogs.

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