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Three Moves Ahead Episode 113 – CGA: The Panzer General Series

April 21st, 2011 by Rob Zacny · 24 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


Ah, good day, Herr General. The General Staff have prepared this podcast analyzing the strength and dispositions of the Panzer General series. You will have access to some new units for this mission. Bruce will shatter its defenses with an explanation of why he is not very fond of it, and Julian and Rob will go through the gap with an argument for its simplicity and refinement. Troy can provide air cover by placing the series in a wider context of genre and gaming history, but be careful. He consumes alcohol at twice the rate of a normal unit.

Brilliant victory: Complete the podcast in 55:39

Victory: Read Rob’s love-letter to PG2 in the May issue of PC Gamer

Tactical victory: Comment and re-tweet

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24 Comments so far ↓

  • James Cobb

    I was struck by the concept of “gate games”. Yes, I think some games do draw young players – say, undergraduates – farther into more serious games. I wonder why you didn’t mention the Advanced Tactics/Decisive Campaign series. Perhaps, the lack of detailed graphics? I’ve been around long enough not to be seduced by graphics alone, bit I wonder if younger folk find NATO symbols an instant turn-off.

    Jim Cobb

  • Rob Zacny

    Speaking for myself, NATO symbols were a huge turnoff at first. Infantry and armor are easy to distinguish, but there is a plethora of symbology that can get pretty frustrating for someone who hasn’t learned it. Operational Art of War eventually forced me to learn NATO icons because the graphics were too ugly and indistinct to discern exactly what a unit was.

    My first hex-based wargame was Steel Panthers, and that was perfect. The fact that a unit looked exactly like what it was? Hugely important.

  • Bruce

    Jim, any hex game with chits really can’t be a gateway game in the context of computer games, especially now. Decisive Campaigns is a game you need to be gated into, not something you start with.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Young players? Is there anyone under 40 that plays wargames?

  • Ben

    Oh god, I laughed so hard at Panzer General is the Stargate SG1 of wargames. It’s funny because it’s true.

  • James Cobb

    Point taken, guts. AT/DC seems so easy to me. I see it as a gate.

  • Friday Debrief | RobZacny.com

    […] on Three Moves Ahead, we talked about the Panzer General series and got into a whole dust-up over whether it’s […]

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    I haven’t had the chance to listen to this episode yet, but I just wanted to say I love Rob’s introductory blurbs. The thought of Rob playing the commissar at the end of the Dawn of War recording still makes me chuckle.

  • James Cobb

    OK, if AT/DC is too far over one side of the gate, is Empires of Steel to far on the other? Let’s assume somebody gets EoS good graphics. Would that work?

    I’m not rattling you cages here. I think an over/under approach can help better define a gate game.

  • MFToast

    Very nice, “The pope is a huge war gamer”. It was cool to hear the original tank crew on again… Any word on Gettysburg: Armored Warfare? Gotta love alternate histories, time travel and RTS/FPS hybrids all in one game. Where the hell are all the WWI strategy games? Brutal.

  • Sarkus

    I owned three of the four original Panzer General series games (Panzer General, Allied General, and Fantasy General). And I hate to admit it as a near-grognard wargamer, but I could never really figure them out. I don’t think I got to battle five in any of them.

    TOAW, Steel Panthers, Clash of Steel – those were the “gateway” titles I really enjoyed.

  • Chris Nahr

    Hmm. The podcast discussed the Panzer General series as an entrance to the grognard Valhalla of complex wargames, but I suspect the audience overlap is all from one side, i.e. grognards playing anything to do with tanks, rather than other people approaching grognard games through PG.

    Bruce correctly pointed out that PG is really a puzzle game, which is probably also why Sarkus didn’t have much success with PG scenarios (neither did I, by the way). So it’s a strategy game with rock-paper-scissors mechanics, puzzle scenarios, pretty graphics, fairly simple rules, and unit experience.

    Sounds familiar? Of course it does — the design is very similar to RTS campaigns on the PC and tactical RPGs on handhelds! If PG was a gateway I’d say it’s to those popular mainstream genres, not to grognard wargames that have little to do with PG other than the setting.

  • Okke

    A frustrating episode, as I found myself wanting to shout down Bruce on too many occations to mention. Seriously, you should run a do-over of the episode sans Bruce. He managed to derail things to a truly impressive extent.

    He even managed to reduce the discussion of Panzer Corps to a diss of the (clearly labelled) *Concept art* that he managed to mistake for some sort of in-game encyclopedia. Perhaps it will be in the game in some form (who knows?), but exactly how that relates to the game in any meaningful way is beyond me.

    That the topic can be allowed to take up pretty much the whole discussion of the game is testament to the awesome discussion-wrecking skills of Bruce.

    That he didn´t really seem to actually remember much about Panzer General to begin with didn´t help, with him flailing to make up post-hoc reasons for why he didn´t like the game, and why it was a “puzzle game” unrelated to military simulation, etc.

    Funny, but I remember most standard military gaming tropes being in the game – infantry not so hot against tanks in the open, but good in urban and rugged terrain, artillery or airpower needed to reduce fortified positions, german tanks not so hot compared to french ones in 1940, the drive on Moscov getting bogged down in (first) mud, then blizzards, tanks and planes being “duel weapons”, with quality, speed and armor having disproportionate impact on outcomes, the Invasion of Norway having the desperate relief drive to Trondheim as the centerpiece, the dilemma between driving on another few miles or stopping to resupply fuel and ammo, etc. etc.

    For being a beer-n-pretzel effort it had a lot of standard wargaming concepts in it. But that got lost in Bruce´s effort to conceal his ignorance behind a huge cloud of hot air.

    Seriously, take advantage of him having to work his butt off so often and just do this one over. Panzer General illustrated how wargames can have relevance beyond the people who are prepared to suffer through what most normal people consider to be mind-boggling boredom and tedium in order to have their fun. Narrative flow matters.


    You should do a re-analysis of Clash of Steel, a great wargame that was probably my gateway drug of choice back in 1993. An excellent analysis of what makes the game so good can be found here:


  • Bruce

    Okke, sorry you didn’t like my take on the game, but it sounds like you mistook my honest opinion of the game for some kind of obfuscation. The fact that standard military tropes or wargaming concepts are included in the game doesn’t refute my point, which is that it was the way they were used that wasn’t so appealing to me. The game was indeed a puzzle game in that scenarios had “best solutions” that you had to follow pretty closely to get a certain result. Ironically, I’m not sure you got the point that this was something I kind of enjoyed about the game. I agree with Chris that this and the mechanic of gaining experience are something the game shares with RTS games, and strategy RPGs which I believe I even mentioned on the podcast. One thing which I didn’t mention was that this “narrative flow” was one of the things that actually turned me off to the game, because it gave an artificial relevance to your actions that didn’t feel very historical to me. I can’t really say much beyond the fact that I tried to elaborate on why I honestly didn’t enjoy the game. The fact that you obviously did enjoy it a lot doesn’t invalidate either of our opinions. Especially since the fact that I didn’t enjoy it and you did are two facts which are not mutually exclusive.

    On the Panzer Corps screens, I understand that the unit model screens are not in any way part of gameplay. That is my point, which is that it doesn’t need to be included in any way. Why use those as four of the screenshots you’ve chosen to promote the game? That’s exactly what I mean by an anachronistic approach to game design.

    Interestingly, unlike with Panzer General, I have very fond memories of Clash of Steel. A lot of it has to do with presentation. Narrative flow definitely matters, but Clash of Steel lets me create my own, which is how I prefer it.

  • MikeO

    I think Bruce made the salient points early with his dead-on observation that much of the appeal of PG was as a puzzle type game with RPG type level-up allure, along with the linked scenario campaign. Regarding the puzzle aspect, I remember when PG was released, I was in transition on Compuserve or maybe even AOL at the time, and there was a gaming forum which had people avidly discussing in detail their strats for getting a decisive victory (or whatever term is used in the game) in the Norway scenario, or whatever. These people engaged in the avid discussions were not generally wargamers as I know them, rather casual gamers, the type of people who would play Risk or Axis and Allies. It’s easy to forget now that at that time there weren’t nearly as many gaming options as there are now. There is almost no comparison. So the casual gamer who wanted a fairly light theme might play PG back in ’94/’95, but this same demographic would probably be playing something on their phone or iPad or whatever now, or maybe on XBox Arcade.

    I like the game more than Bruce did, I think, but I can still remember buying the game, thinking it looked to basic for a ‘serious wargamer’ like myself, and being disappointed on having my suspicions realized once I began playing it. But, I did grow to appreciate it for what it was, and played it quite a bit, mainly due to the appeal of the puzzle aspect.

    I just don’t see the phenomenon of its widespread popularity happening nowadays, simply due to the massive crush of games of every type available now. Some casual game player who got hooked on PG back then is much more likely to play Angry Birds, or Advance Wars perhaps now.

    Troy’s observation that there is a lot of middle ground between a PG like game and, say, WitE is true, but the more important question to ask is if there is a market in that middle ground, and how large is it? Matrix knows that they have a market for WitE, or the Panther Game sims, even if it’s relatively small, but that hard core market may not be there for a more casual game. So that gap would have to be made up by a more casual audience which may not materialize.

    Lastly, I have no doubt that a game like PG may function as a gateway game for some people — heck, Memoir ’44 probably does that for board wargames, and M’44 is more lightweight than Stratego — but for most casual gamers who played it, I would bet it was just a fun little game that they enjoyed, but they weren’t about to go buy, say, Age of Rifles because of their PG experience.

    I really enjoyed the podcast, guys. I kind of wish it had gone on longer. :)

  • Rez

    “I really enjoyed the podcast, guys. I kind of wish it had gone on longer.” -MikeO

    Me too.

  • Tom Chick

    Me three. I hate that TMA feels the need to keep things to an hour!

  • spelk

    I enjoyed the podcast, I think Bruce brings interesting angles and questions into play – certainly highlight aspects of the game I’ve never dreamed about questioning. Like the need to include excessive detail for the sake of it. A throwback more to whats expected to draw in grognard types rather than any functional information, there certainly needs to be more evolution in the wargaming scene.

    I only have vague memories of playing Panzer General, however they are pleasant ones, mainly because it was an accessible wargame. In my development as a wargamer, it was in the same stable as Steel Panthers and Age of Rifles. All of these games gave me a way to pleasantly join in, in playing war. Easy to control, visually appealling (at the time) and with some level of depth to them (for the novice to explore).

    I think Bruce’s comment on War in the East giving you a layered approach to play, where you don’t need to plough into all the detail, and you can still get something out of it at a more superficial level is spot on, and I feel that games like PG gave you a similar platform. I found them accessible but in no way easy to master. The depth being present by understanding the mechanics and systems to become fluent in their play.

    I think we’ve had PG successors here and there, but they’ve never presented as great a front on the wargaming public, titles such as the Commander series. A new game which takes the PG formula to another level and into the future is Battlefield Academy. I see that game as today’s equivalent. Panzer Corps will be more of a tribute band act, I think. But one that looks good.

    Lastly I want to say a little on the PG:Allied Assault board/card game on XBLA, its abstracted much more, because play fits on a relatively small rectangular board, so a lot of motion involved is lost. However, it focuses heavily on combined arms and the support of each other in combat. So its essential to know what units you want where to get the positive outcomes. The cards give you plus and minus modifiers to add into the mix, along with territory grab affecting the amount of points you can spend on the cards you have. Its a cool concept, but I find it poorly implemented. The turn time is very lengthy, because there are so many times pauses between choices and confirmations etc, I don’t know how Julian can play it in 15 mins, because usually a straightforward game will take 1 hour plus for me. I usually lose interest in the game situation due to phase processing and card drawing/manipulating fatigue. Shame that. Worth looking at the trial if you like boardgamey stuff though.

  • Quinten

    I think Memoir ’44 is an excellent gate, mostly because it has what Bruce kept saying appealed to people: tanks and soldiers. I think it is far from being a wargame, but has the same base appeal that PG had. I think of them in similar respects, though I don’t think that PG is nearly as random or casual.
    Replaying the original via PG Forever, I found it harder than I expected. I wonder how many people would be willing to move on to a more complex game after that, who didn’t already enjoy that type of game.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    While listening to the podcast, something occurred to me – Panzer General’s niche HAS been filled. Not just by one game, but by a whole franchise that has enjoyed resounding mainstream success.

    Total War.

    At first glance, they have nothing in common – one is a hex-based WW2 TBS, the other is a series of pre-industrial grand strategy/RTS titles. But everything the panel said about Panzer General being approachable, not requiring the player to look up supply rules, dressed in historical clothes without being strictly accurate, appealing to strategy gamers who aren’t wargamers… that all applies equally well to the Total War games.

    Arguably, the different gameplay of the Total War games is simply due to the progression of technology in between the original Panzer General and the original Shogun: Total War – now we can use 3D and realtime in our “gateway”, military history-flavoured strategy games.

  • Jon Shafer

    I’ll echo the comment of others saying that this episode should have been longer. Maybe a sequel? :)

    I also would have liked more discussion on the specific elements of Panzer General, the differences between the games, etc. I’m obviously a big fan of the series (well, 1 and 2 anyways), and something I found interesting was the changes they made to the air combat system. While the mechanics in 2 (and People’s General, for Troy and others who’ve played that game) could be called more realistic, I actually enjoyed the system in 1 quite a bit more. It was even more finicky (the need to constantly monitor range and fuel), but there was just something more visceral about it.

    If you do another episode on this series I’ll be happy to pitch in my commentary if that’s desired. ;)


  • Mark

    Bruce, I don’t think Okke was annoyed with your opinion of the game as much as the effect you had on the conversation. I agree with him. TMA is at its worst when it bogs down into arguments over how a game or genre should be defined.

  • Jimmy Brown

    I appreciated the comments about the late 1990s’ happy convergence of technological power with general human capabilities. I’ve considered it from time to time, though for a different reason than Bruce. It seems to me that gamers used to play more different genera than they do now, and the reason seems to be that there were more games in various genera that did require one to be a specialist in that genre. Even with shooters, there are now a number of conventions one must catch up on in order to play a current game.

    On a related note, I think this relates to why gamers of my generation bemoan the death of the detailed manual. Due the limits of computing power (and in many cases, design limitations), the manual was an integral part of the experience. The experience couldn’t be fully contained in the game itself. I am currently playing the original Fallout and reading through the manual. The text sets the scene of the world and the developers’ angle on it. Plus, there are *6 pages* detailing the effects of a nuclear explosion! Now that would kind of information would be included in a line of dialogue here and a short e-mail in a lab there.

    Anyway, this a good episode of the podcast. I really wish GOG would get the original Panzer General since I never managed to finish it at my friend’s house back in the day.

  • Puzzles

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