Tiger, Panther and Elefant Tanks, Oh My!
Fearsome German panzers clash with Soviet armor in this huge Battle of Kursk war game
The World War II Battle of Kursk is crack for war-gamers. What lover of historical simulations can resist the largest clash of armor in history? A battle that featured tanks with predatory names like Tiger and Panther? Two massive armies from two ruthless totalitarian regimes locked in a struggle to the death?
Panzer Battles: Kursk Southern Flank covers the southern half of the German offensive at the Soviet city of Kursk in July 1943. It is the first of a new series of games from war-gaming granddaddy John Tiller, a PhD in mathematics whose design team has been churning out dozens of historical games since the mid-1990s.
“The thought of it turns my stomach,” Hitler said before the Battle of Kursk. His nausea was not induced by guilt or squeamishness, but nervousness at how the fate of Nazi Germany rested on the outcome.
Six months after 300,000 German and Axis soldiers had been killed or captured at Stalingrad, the Third Reich needed to reverse the momentum on the Eastern Front or risk drowning under a red tide of Soviet offensives. Hitler and his generals devised a pincer offensive to encircle and crush the Soviet bulge jutting into German lines near Kursk, about 300 miles southwest of Moscow.
The offensive, codenamed Operation Citadel, was supposed to kick off in May. But Hitler kept postponing it in order to build up German forces with new heavy Panther and Tiger tanks. The two-month delay actually benefited the Soviets, who used the time to dig layer after layer of fortifications, including 3,000 miles of trenches and one million mines.
The German artillery barrage at dawn on July 5, 1943 signaled the start of an 11-day maelstrom that sucked in two million men, 8,000 tanks, 35,000 artillery pieces and mortars and 5,000 aircraft. A tactical simulation of the entire battle would be overwhelming, so it makes sense that Panzer Battles: Kursk covers just the southern half of the German pincer.
As it is, the game is big enough. It’s not just tactical but grand-tactical, with scenarios ranging from regiment-sized clashes to battles between corps and armies involving hundreds of units on each side. Platoons or companies maneuver over a map divided into thousands of 250-meter hexagons, with each game turn representing 30 minutes of real time.
The rich menu of unit types includes tank, mechanized infantry in halftracks, motorized infantry in trucks, leg infantry, parachute, engineer, recon, armored car, motorcycle, cavalry, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, mortars and artillery, either self-propelled, towed by trucks or hauled by horses.
All the famous Eastern Front hardware is there, including the German Tiger and Panther tanks, as well as the huge but ill-fated Elefant tank destroyer that packed a big cannon but no machine guns to fight off swarms of Soviet infantry. The Soviets enter the fray with lend-lease British Churchill tanks, Katyusha rocket launchers, mammoth SU-152 assault guns and lots of T-34 tanks.
Each unit has a certain number of movement points, which the player spends to fire, move or both. Terrain costs vary between types of units. Tanks move fast on roads or across open fields. Infantry move faster through woods, while trucks—which carry most of the German artillery and the panzergrenadier infantry of the panzer divisions—move rapidly over roads but slowly when going cross-country.
Each unit is rated for attacking hard armored targets or soft targets like infantry, plus close assault and defense. Various units have special abilities. Combat engineers can clear or lay minefields, but only bridge engineers can erect a span that will allow tanks to cross a river. Recon units can spot hidden enemy units, while flak shoots at enemy aircraft.
The core of the combat system is morale, which in this game includes not just motivation but also training. High-morale units move faster, enjoy special fire bonuses and are less likely to break under fire. The German panzer divisions are Morale A and Berlin’s regular infantry divisions are Morale B, while the Russians are Morale C and D. So a given German unit will move and shoot more efficiently than its Soviet counterpart and is less likely to break under enemy fire.
Panzer Battles tracks losses of individual soldiers, vehicles and artillery pieces. When troops take casualties from fire or minefields, they have a chance of becoming disrupted, depending on their morale. After too many losses, they break and either flee to the rear or end up in a POW cage. HQs can rally disrupted and broken troops.
The summer of 1943 was a time of transition in the Russo-German war. Man for man and tank for tank, the German army was still the best in the world, even if its sharpness was beginning to dull. The Red Army had come a long way since its pitiful performance in 1941, but it still suffered from poor training and leadership.
Panzer Battles captures much of this asymmetry. With their superior morale and equipment, the Germans will win an open-field battle against the Soviets, whose troops break even under moderate German firepower.
The problem for the Germans is finding that open field. As they chew through one fortified line, another awaits them—until it seems that Russia consists of nothing but bunkers, pillboxes, trenches and minefields. It takes precious time to storm bunkers and clear mines.
The Soviet player must resign himself to a subterranean existence. Russian troops are fairly resilient in their fortifications, but in the open they break quickly under German fire. Just as the Red Army did in 1943, the Soviet player must expect lose many of his front-line troops, who are nothing more than suicide speed bumps for the panzers.
But Stalin would not give up and neither should you. The Soviets can gain more victory points by holding on to key terrain than the Germans can gain by destroying Russian divisions wholesale. Historically, the Soviet won the battle by obstructing the German offensive until Hitler cancelled it 11 days later in order to transfer tanks west to defend against the Anglo-American invasion of Sicily.
In that sense, Panzer Battles is a solid historical simulation. But in other areas, it falls short. There are two schools of thought when it comes to war games—make them complicated or keep them simple. One product of the complicated school is Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm, a tactical simulation of a 1989 Soviet invasion of West Germany.
That game has a detailed command-and-control system that imposes delays before units respond to orders. NATO troops respond more quickly than their Soviet counterparts, and thus the game explains how NATO could have—or thought it could have—exploited superior control to defeat larger Soviet forces.
Panzer Battles falls squarely in the simple camp. Units instantly obey orders, which is something that real commanders can only dream of. This is a particular problem for Eastern Front games, where German command should balance Soviet numbers. Panzer Battles portrays the German army as superior, but doesn’t explain why.
On the other hand, a complicated command system for the larger scenarios would be monstrous. The game eschews a certain degree of realism to gain playability. Some players will like the tradeoff. Some won’t. In the mean time, Panzer Battles: Kursk is one mean slugfest of a game.