Panzer Armee Afrika is a two-player game of desert campaigning in North Africa between the British-led Commonwealth forces and the Axis forces of Germany and Italy, to include Rommel's Panzer Army Africa. Beginning in April 1941, the game spans the entire 20-month campaign, allowing players to recreate the famous battles of the period (and generate a few of their own!). Set at an operantional level, players must manage their military forces and precious supplies better than their opponent to ahieve victory. The Axis aims at capturing Alexandria, the key to the Suez Canal. The British player has to prevent all this.
When orginally published by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI) within the pages of Strategy and Tactics magazine, it was meant to be a very different treatment of a subject made familiar to wargamers in the Avalon Hill Game Company's Afrika Korps (1964). Different it indeed was, introducing a number of novel twists to what seemed to otherwise be a very traditional-style hex-and-counter wargame. It became a classic in its own right alongside Afrika Korps; Avalon Hill republished Panzer Armee Afrika in a second edition.
The game is a very tense, very suspenseful contest of sweeping maneuver, lunging attacks, desperate retrogrades, filled with threat, counter-threat, surprises, and more. The action on the map is akin to watching two snakes wrestle; things move with lightning speed and sudden changes of direction.
While the game has long been out of print, it is still generally available on the collectors' and game auction markets (e.g., eBay) for a very reasonable price.
Basic Setup and FactionsEdit
The Allies consist of the UK and Empire/Commonwealth forces, including units from India, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, as well as a few Allied units under British command. The Axis consists of Germant and Italy. Vichy French forces are not represented as they did not fight in this particular part of the theater.
A glance at the game counters reveals some interesting details. The most striking thing is the very high movement factors in the game. German units have the highest at 60 movement factors; the Allies have 50, and the Italians have 40. Both sides have trucks to move supply markers around with and there are markers for unsupplied units.
The counterset includes variant Order Of Battle units players can experiment with, to include additional panzer and fallschirmjager (airborne) divisions for the Axis and U.S. brigades for the Allies.
The game situation begins with the Axis at El Agheila on the far left side of the map and the Allied defenders strung out along the coastal road from there all the way back to Alexandria on the far right side. Action see-saws back and forth across the map, with the fortress of Tobruk (middle of the map) being a key pivot point for both sides.The coastal road and tracks are high-speed avenues of approach (1 movement point along the road and 2 movement points along the tracks). Movement is constrained by escarpment hexsides (10 movement points to cross), rough terrain and swamps (10 movement points), and fort-controlled hexes (units on them must fight enemy units in the adjacent fort). Trucks can only move along the roads and--to a far lesser extent--on tracks.
This is a traditional "I-Go/U-Go" sequence of play, typical of wargames in the 1960s and early 1970s. Basically, one player moves and fights, then the other player moves and fights. During a player turn, one can move and fight all, some, or none of the friendly units--with one important exception for the Allied Player (the notorious Command and Control Roll):
First Player (Allied) executes the following:
(1) Supply Determination Phase: Checks to see which friendly units are in supply and which are not.
(2) Allied Command and Control Phase: Roll to see what 3 hex numbers are affected--units occupying those hex numbers can't move or fight that turn.
(3) Movement Phase: Move units.
(4) Combat Phase: Judge attack supply and then make attacks.
(5) Reinforcement and Replacement Phase: Bring on reinforcing units and replace combat casualties from cadre status.
Second Player (Axis) then conducts a similar sequence, but without the Command and Control Phase:
(1) Supply Determination Phase: Checks to see which friendly units are in supply and which are not.
(2) Movement Phase: Move units.
(3) Combat Phase: Judge attack supply and then make attacks.
(4) Reinforcement and Replacement Phase: Bring on reinforcing units and replace combat casualties from cadre status.
There are a number of unique mechanics that distinguish this title from just about every other game on the subject:
-- Movement. Movement factors on the counters are LARGE! Given the time scale of one month, mechanized units can easily traverse the length of the map when on the coastal road. This is reflected in the game. Movement off road--particularly across the desert--costs a higher number of movement points but still some units are capable of "screaming across" the open terrain. This makes for an extremely fluid game where penetration exploitations and flanking movements are particularly deadly.
-- Combat. Instead of an odds-ratio table (1:1, 2:1, 3:1, and so on), the game uses a "differential" Combat Results Table (CRT) which was used a lot by SPI in those days. The attacker subtracts the defender's combined combat factors from his own to show a positive differential (+1, +2, +3, and so on) and rolls the dice against this. The resulting number is compared to the combat factors of the participating units--if the resulting number matches or is higher than at least one of the defender's participating units, it is eliminated. Attacker losses are handled using a unique counterattack mechanic. Surviving defenders get to attack back with no terrain modifiers and with increased combat capability--Allies and Italians counterattack at double combat factors, the Germans counterattack with a whopping quadruple combat factor!
-- Supply. Panzer Armee Afrika forces the players to create a chain of supply units as they advance across the map. Combat units are in supply within a particular range and have the option of increasing their combat factors in attacks by expending a supply unit (when attacking fortresses like Tobruk, this is the only way players have a chance to take it). Of course, these chains of supply units are vulnerable to rear area raids by enemy combat units, so one must have secure flanks. In the vastness of the desert, this can be a tricky thing to accomplish! The Germans have the additional advantage that they can move so that they are out of supply, intending to achieve through combat action a restored supply line.
There are also rules for Command and Control, but these are similar to other treatments in SPI games of the period (called "panic" rules in those games) and do not work quite so well. Basically, the Allied player does not have full abilities to use all his units; a die is rolled and a table consulted to determine which units are so affected, based on the last digit of the hex number. Three different hex numbers are affected each turn; hexes ending in "8" and "9" are the "safest" as these only come up once in the chart--all other numbers come up twice. This just feels too arbitrary and artificial. Strongly recommend using the rules in this article instead.
There is an optional ruleset covering the controversial issue of the invasion of Malta by the Axis as well as Allied options to bring in units which were not historically committed to the campaign (to include U.S. units that ended up conducting OPERATION TORCH). On Turn 15, corresponding to June 1942, the Axis player can make the decision to launch OPERATION HERCULES. Success is dependent on a single die roll with adverse modifiers for Allied unit(s) in Libya. If the invasion succeeds, the Axis gets the largest number of potential variable reinforcements available. If it fails, the Axis gets the least amount of variable reinforcements. If the Axis decides not to attempt the invasion, there are some variable reinforcements that can still be had.
Whatever optional reinforcements are brought in, the victory conditions become a little harder to accomplish. So these are double-edged swords; getting more forces always helps to improve the battlefield situation, but then getting those additional forces means that higher headquarters demands a higher standard of performance!
There is only one scenario in the game and that is full North African campaign from start to finish, Turn 1 all the way through Turn 20, although some games will end before that. There are optional variant OOB for this scenario, but this is an option, not really considered a separate scenario. This is typical of SPI operational-level games produced in the early 1970s, particularly the "Division-Level" series games.
The better player should take the Allies in this game as they are the most difficult to play...and play well. The game will revolve around the battles for Tobruk in both 1941 and 1942--if the Allies can hold it, they will most likely win. If the Axis takes it in 1941, things will be very tough for the Allies; if Tobruk falls in 1942, there may still be a good chance for the Allies to win, especially if they've gained sufficient time and strength compared to the fortunes of the Axis.
The counterattack rules coupled with the Allied Command and Control issues make it very difficult for the Allies to take on the German Panzers directly. Indeed, Allied players setting up forces for offensives would do well to always consult the Command and Control chart, ensuring their forces are spread in such a way that no single die roll will render more than a third of their force out of the action. Allied offensives are also disproportionately aimed at the Italians holding important ground to both eliminate these weaker units and deflect the counterattacks from the survivors. German casualties tend to come from counterattacks mounted by surviving defenders--it's best for the the Axis player to always pick on weak defenders so that there are few to no survivors that can chip away at German strength. That won't always be possible, but such situations should be sought as much as possible.
A key weakness in the game is also the calculation of victory based on casualty levels inflicted on the opponent (measured through what's left on the map) in addition to possession of one's own base. While the game can end immediately if the Allies capture El Agheila or the Axis capture Alexandria, between equally experienced players this is unlikely. What this means is there is little incentive for the Axis to proceed into the Quattara Depression bottleneck near El Alamein, robbing him of the maneuver room his German offensive machine so exels at taking advantage of. While this ensures the action remains swirling, it also isn't the most realistic depiction of Rommel's ambitions. However, if the British player retreats to that bottleneck early on, Panzer Armee Afrika may have to follow in order to inflict enough casualties to have a chance of winning at least a marginal victory. But it won't be a full-blooded offensive since all the Axis needs in that case is to inflict enough casualties to make this possible. In any case, the British won't retreat that far unless Tobruk is lost--and that's quite properly and historically the fulcrum for the whole campaign.
Evaluation as Warfighting ModelEdit
Fog of War: Low. All pieces are seen all the time by both players.
Friction: Low (Axis) to Moderate (Allied). The Axis player has a great deal of control over its own situation in moving units and conducting battles as in most wargames; the Allied player must contend with the capricious Command and Control rolls every turn and therefore does not.
Fluidity: Low. Given the turn structure, there isn't the sense of not being sure you'll get to do something before your opponent does. That said, the high movement factors in the game create an illusion of fluidity and dynamism in the game.
- •Physical: Low. There is not a great deal of force differentiation in the game beyond combat and movement factors for the pieces. The Germans do get more benefits than any other nationality, but that's it.
- •Mental: Low. No explicit treatment of superiority in this regard; this is typical of most wargames in that the player provides this.
- •Moral: Low. No real definition of moral will and/or morale in the game.
Disorder: Low. The game is very chesslike, despite the turbulent nature of the action on the board.
Complexity: Moderate. The game is easy to learn, but hard to master. Usually there are many options and obvious (and not-so-obvious) consequent dangers that must be judged and acted upon; it takes a while to get comfortable with this.
Where to get itEdit
- •Rommel’s North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942 by Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani
- •The Crucible of War: Wavell’s Command - The Definitive History of the Desert War, Vol 1 by Barrie Pitt
- •Desert War: The North African Campaign, 1940-1943 by Alan Moorehead