Monday, August 1, 2011

PMD and GB2 Arrive

The newest wargames in my collection with their original versions from 1992 and 1994 respectively.

Roughly two years ago I placed separate pre-orders for reprints of two board (as opposed to computer) wargames I initially bought back in the early 1990’s. They were being independently re-published by different designers, companies, ideas, and production schedules. I enjoyed both original versions of these wargames and played each for years in times of hobby. Their recent reappearance in my life was coincidentally and spontaneously simultaneous.

That’s the way karma works, or, better, that is the stuff of karma. I want to blog about karma soon but it is slippery territory and you must be able to articulate your meaning well; very tough to do with all those preconceptions out there among other people as well as within yourself.

Both wargames arrived within three or four days of each other about three weeks ago after all those many months of foreign separateness. One game is the second printing of Guderian’s Blitzkreg II (GB2), the other game is the “deluxe edition” of two magazine games I own called Proud Monster and Death and Destruction. Both editions feature various rules tweaks and considerable graphical, aesthetic upgrades over their original versions.

Proud Monster Deluxe (PMD) is a visual feast, featuring a superbly rendered map of the Soviet Union at the time Adolf Hitler invaded in 1941. The map is very useful and informative, yet colorful, pleasing to the eye, one of the best representations of the Soviet Union at this historic time that I’ve ever seen in a wargame.

Meanwhile, GB2 is a huge expansion over the original 1992 game with its absurd, obsessive logistics rules now revitalized into what is actually a great model for how logistics work in modern military planning. GB2 is part of the Operational Combat Series (OCS) of games. OCS is the best modern operational model wargame I’ve ever played. I own five games in that series and no game better simulates how an actual “blitzkrieg” attack works upon a defended area or how the oozing breakthroughs of the Soviet forces can drive the German army back.

Although I own wargames simulating all historical periods (from ancient battles like Kadesh through games on recent operations like Desert Storm), the vast majority of my attention to the hobby over the years has been devoted to the Eastern Front of World War Two and to the American Civil War. That matches the robust military history section of my library, by far the largest section with dozens and dozens of books to choose from.

Most of my wargame life I have played Civil War battles particularly Gettysburg, of course, and Shiloh - which I hold in particular importance. But all my ponderings of southern or northern military prowess when chivalry was not quite gone and when we fought ourselves as a nation are dwarfed by the amount of time I have committed to playing various games on the Eastern Front in my life.

As a teen Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad introduced me to wargames. I played PanzerBlitz and PanzerGruppe Guderian when they were new designs. More recent Eastern Front games include Ukraine ’43, Red Star Rising, Hube’s Pocket, Baltic Gap, and Red Storm Over the Reich. I have always enjoyed playing Eastern Front games and reading about this great, tragic total war unto itself. It is also known as the Russo-German War and as the Great Patriotic War. The Eastern Front of World War Two was a mindboggling, primitive war fought with modern weapons. There was little difference between the savage methods of Hitler and Joseph Stalin and Genghis Khan, for example. The enemy village or town or city was to be wiped out. Surviving prisoners were treated as slaves, forcibly displaced hundreds of miles to industrial regions as labor. Millions were literally worked to death.

The Eastern Front between 1941-1945 featured the most horrific war, mass genocide, and human enslavement in history. By a large margin, more human beings were killed in combat, wounded, and outright murdered on the Eastern Front than in all the rest of the World War Two put together. About 30 million died on the Soviet side. About 5 million Germans died with another 6 million wounded and captured. One-third of the captured died to brutal Soviet imprisonment. These figures do not count the millions who died in enslavement and genocide committed or condoned by virtually every German fighting in the East. That total is guesswork but, altogether, the East Front probably saw a grand total of around 40 million total human dead. The largest total of human dead in a single war in history. (see Weinberg, page 264; Glantz, page 284; Duffy, page 3; Megargee, page xi, Glantz, pp.10-12, Mosier, page 338)

There has never been anything like its size on this Earth. From our tribal days, battles and wars have always been savage. Though today such savagery seems unimaginable, it has never manifested on this colossal scale before or since. At stake, of course, was the complete domination and cultural replacement of the eastern lands by the German race. The Eastern Front was true clash of civilizations in the classic historic sense, full of racial and ideological levels of conflict. Base human killing the size of Armageddon itself. This fascinates me.

So I have both read and wargamed a great deal on this subject in my life. GB and PM were among my favorites, which is why I wanted to own them in their final, “definitive” forms. Both games are large in scale and presentation. So large, in fact, that I can’t even set either one up on my modest gaming table space. They are far too big. So, I will play them either in smaller scenarios that require only a partial setup of the game or, more likely, in digital versions of them on my PC if and when they become available. I’ve already started creating a Cyberboard gamebox of PMD but it will take me months to actually get it into a playable fashion. Though I already have the large game map scanned and placed into a playable digital format, it takes a lot of work to finish a project of that size and I don’t have that much free time right now.

GB2 covers operations near Moscow from late-September 1941 up to May 1943. It is linkable with the even more massive Case Blue game (CB – itself a reprint and expansion of another favorite game in my collection, OCS Enemy at the Gates, which features “Manstein’s Backhand Blow”, my favorite all-time wargame scenario to play) that I purchased in 2007. I have only played CB in bits and pieces, and even then only in a digital program called VASSAL, focusing mainly on the post-Stalingrad time period of operations in the southern Soviet Union. If I were to setup GB2 and CB in its entirety I would need my entire living room floor to do it. Not very practical but it does afford some sense of the immense scope of the Eastern Front.

Moscow and environs as depicted in GB2. Each hex represents 5 miles.

The heart of GB2 is one of the greatest battles of all time, the Battle for Moscow in late 1941, the Wehrmacht’s first major defeat of the war, which most historians consider Hitler’s best chance to achieve his diabolical (and out-of-fashion imperialism, World War Two essentially marking the end of the Colonial period of western civilization) goals of lebensraum. The Battle of Moscow beginning in October 1941 was a result of the Wehrmacht’s and the Nazi Party’s inherent prejudices against Soviet capabilities. The Soviet people rallied and formed a bigger, better army than Hitler ever conceived. Though most Soviet units are weak and mediocre there are some good troops from Siberia (and better trained Guards divisions) helped make a difference. As such, GB2 is an entertaining aid to experiencing and understanding the military challenges for both sides during this historically critical period. The game also covers the Soviet offensive known as Operation Mars, which occurred in late 1942 simultaneously with Operation Uranus, the Red army’s counteroffensive at Stalingrad. Unlike that major victory for the Stalin in the south, however, Operation Mars was probably the very capable commanding Soviet marshal Georgy Zhukov’s greatest defeat.

The same area on the 20 mile-per-hex scale of PMD. What was arguably the largest battle of World War Two happened here in late 1941 and early 1942.

PMD is much smaller in terms of scale (20 miles per hex versus 5 miles per hex for OCS games) and it consists of four oversized maps that have a smaller footprint than the seven maps of GB2 which can be linked to the ten maps of CB, even though PMD still won’t fit my game table. PMD is an ambitious attempt to capture the war from Operation Barbarossa in 1941to the end of the various Soviet winter offensives in April 1944. Historically, the Eastern Front became even more gruesome from May 1944 to May 1945 and ended with the capture of Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna by Soviet forces. A decisive strategic victory. But, PMD covers only the most competitive part of the war. Extending it further would entail, of course, more maps and playing pieces.

I have not played PMD yet. When have I had the time? But, after reading the rules a couple of times, I know that probably 80% of the game stands as it did in 1994 when the original version came out. I played that game probably a dozen times over three or four years. It was highly entertaining. I’m sure many of the differences are improvements over the previous design. If nothing else the revised game’s developer could draw on over 15 years of playing experience in the previous version. The basic mechanics are the same with some additional “chrome” as we say in the wargming hobby. Chrome is little rules that add historic flavor and, generally, more realism and depth to a game.

PMD is an interesting design in the way it depicts the German and Soviet armies. At first, the German units are of a consistently superior nature. The Soviets are variable, but usually mediocre. Over time, the Soviets can start massing stacks of units against the German. Some of these mass of units during the course of the game will become much improved fighting units, Guards units usually. When these begin to stack the Soviets suddenly start bringing more firepower, particularly in the form of artillery support, onto the map and the complexion of the game changes. The Germans will never counter this mass of artillery, though they will deploy some highly destructive artillery of their own. You reach a point when the Soviets can overwhelm the German line at any given weakness. By 1943, the German infantry is greatly reduced and it becomes impossible for the German player to be strong everywhere. And that is, pretty much in my opinion, the way the war historically played out from a strategic perspective.

As in history, Germany’s only real chance of winning the War in the East is early on before the full potential of the Soviet army is realized. After that point only a stalemate is militarily possible for Germany and the chance for victory swings to the Soviets. Politically speaking, a strategic stalemate was never a prospect. The war was far too ruthless, racial, and cultural for that. The Germans attacked with the intent to perform ethnic cleaning beyond all human reason. It is simply human nature not to compromise with an enemy like that. But, Stalin was no compromiser in any case.

The game shows the military aspects of all this very clearly to the player. As the Germans slowly start running out of replacements it becomes more difficult to concentrate their forces while the Soviets can stack many hexes to the max in any given area of the map. When these stacks strike, if the player knows what he is doing, it should create a small, secured breakthrough enlarged with deep penetration. The Germans did this primarily in 1941 and 1942. By mid-1943 the Soviets started doing it; over minor areas to begin with, then over large swaths like they managed at Stalingrad. Historically, the Germans chose strategic retreat in spite of Hitler’s reducing it to incremental steps at the expense of many German lives.

The Soviets are highly replaceable and upgradeable whereas the German side is of deteriorating quality but for their Panzer divisions and Waffen SS. PMD sports a rule that, in 1943, limits the replacement of German infantry division and the slow attrition and bloody combat eventually tilt things toward the numerically superior Soviets. Though I have played the
Barbarossa Scenario of War of the Motherland (predecessor of Red Star Rising) numerous times, my recollection of PM and now PMD is that it reflects the sheer “bulk” of the Soviet army better than any game I’ve seen. Its RVGK (Soviet High Command) rules, from a strategic perspective, represent Soviet maskirovka better than any game I’ve ever played. So, I am looking forward to getting back into this one sometime in the next year or so.

GB2 is more of an investment than a serious game to play. Although I can (and probably will) play some of the “small scenarios” in VASSAL as well as admire the glory of the full GB2-CB setup in VASSAL, as I said, OCS is my favorite operational representation of the modern art of war. But, attempting to consider the war strategically takes forever to play in an operational game system. So, beyond the admiration of the OCS mechanics and the short scenarios, I lean toward PMD rather than GB2 to ultimately provide me with some great East Front wargaming in the true game sense of playing over time into the “deep war” where winning and losing take on a strategic rather than operational context.

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