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Impressions of PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA

When this game was first published in 1973 (nearly forty years ago as I write this), it got a lot of attention.  Its only real rival was the venerable Avalon Hill game, AFRIKA KORPS (1964).  But that game was not able to recreate the sweeping maneuvers of the Western Desert campaign; while it was innovative in its day (supply units, overrun, the "Rommel Counter," etc.), it felt very much like a plodding march from El Agheila to Alexandria--and that's if the Axis could win the frequent (and infamous) 2-1 odds attach against Tobruch.  PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA changed all that.  It showed what else was possible.  The features it had truly seemed novel at the time and those of us who subscribed to S&T rated the game very highly.  SPI published a boxed version and the game remained quite popular.

Among the novelties that resonated was the combat system--no longer would odds be the determining factor. No, now it was the strength of the unit counter that mattered--"4" combat factor units were hardier than "2" factor ones in the differential combat system...at least until counterattacked.  The counterattack mechanic was an interesting one and made intuitive sense.  Once the lunge was made by the attacker, he was vulnerable to an immediate riposte by surviving defenders.  Surviving defenders were often the stronger units in the hex (but not always), and these were either doubled (Allied and Italian) or quadrupled (German) in strength, ripping apart the attacker's forces which could not take any terrain advantages since they came out of cover.  We were fascinated by the implications of this; statistial studies soon were the rage as we tried to figure the optimum attacking stack compositions versust the optimum defending ones.  

As good as the game was for its time, particularly in its depiction of maneuver warfare and the superiority of Axis forces (particularly the Germans) against the Allies, some effects in the game just didn't seem to conform to our readings. Some discovered that a defensive minded Axis player could focus on attrition of British units and forego geographic objectives, thus being able to eke out marginal victories through the correlation of forces alone.  The last few turns of the game turned into combat factor counting contests that governed battlefield tactics to ensure a win on points.  For Axis players seeking to exceed the accomplishments of Rommel, such approaches seemed to do an injustice to the aims and ambitions of the Desert Fox.

It wasn't until other, newer, games on the topic were published that this title was eclipsed as an interesting but slightly flawed benchmark in the development of African Campaign wargames.  It still plays quite well despite its age and, if one if forgiving of its flaws, offers an exciting play experience filled with lessons on the operational level of war.

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