This is another game that I have been waiting 30+ years to play. This one demanded my attention more than most, as the box art on both the cover and side show a stern panzer commander looking at me asking, "Why haven't you played this game yet?" Since it is an Eric Lee Smith design and uses a chit-pull system, I had no good answer for that question. Last month I finally got it out and played the introductory scenario, once solitaire and once with an opponent.
My first observation was that I was expecting something a little more operational in scale instead of tactical. This is no one's fault but my own (give me a break, I was 15 when I bought it) but I wanted to mention it because I tend not to like tactical games as much, so that definitely colours my opinions.
The map is gorgeous in that Victory Games way, which I love but not everyone will. Unfortunately, what seems to be the most important feature on the map, crests, are indicated so lightly that they are difficult to see at a glance. The counters, too, are attractive, but feature what seem to be incredibly tiny numbers and letters on them. I don't know if this is characteristic of 1980's wargames or just this one in particular. Suffice to say that I spent a lot of time squinting.
The essence of the game lies in the formations. You are a division commander with 2 or more regiments, each composed of multiple companies of tanks or infantry. A regiment gets to move when you draw its chit. Like Squad Leader, units have a sort of menu of options when their formation gets drawn: move, fire, rally, concentrate fire, entrench (in the advanced game), close assault. Each unit acts independently, so some units can fire while others move, etc.
The most clever thing about this game are the things that enhance and modify chit drawing. Your division can spend one "dispatch point" (which are scarce) to put a second chit for a regiment on the game turn track; next turn, that regiment will have two chits drawn and thus get twice as many actions. You can even spend two dispatch points to activate any regiment on the current turn before the next chit draw, which is powerful but considering the rarity of dispatch points probably not common.
Your division can also spend "direct commands," which are much more numerous than dispatch points, to activate individual units. You can do this when a formation's chit is drawn, to take two actions with a unit or units, or when the "direct command" chit is drawn you can spend as many as you like on any units, regardless of formation. The one requirement for receiving direct commands is that units must be "in command," i.e. within the specified range of their regimental hq. Obviously, direct commands are very important, as they allow you to do things like move up and then fire. (You cannot, however, do the same action twice, so you can't move a long way or take two shots.)
Combat is resolved by the roll of a single ten-sided die. If the roll is equal to or less than a unit's firepower (as modified), you score some kind of effect, the strength of which tends to be greater the higher you roll. Common modifiers include -1 for every intervening hex (for ranged fire), -2 or -3 for armoured units (printed on the counter), and -2 if the defender is behind a crest. Effects can be a suppression (going to ground, so the unit cannot take any other actions until it rallies), a cohesion hit, or, rarely, a straight step loss. Cohesion hits subtract directly from your combat value and the third causes a step loss (while retaining the 2 existing cohesion hits). You can rally to recover cohesion hits, but only outside of enemy unit's fire range.
Opportunity fire is, of course, an important feature. Every time a unit leaves an enemy unit's fire zone, it is subject to opportunity fire. The catch is that the enemy player must either spend one direct command, or else roll a die against a unit's troop quality rating, to merit a shot. Obviously, you are unlikely to spend direct commands on poor shots, but you will always take a troop quality roll to shoot since you risk nothing. In addition, in this game a 9 is always a miss and a 0 is always a hit, which means you always have at least a 10% chance of doing something to a unit if you get to shoot at it.
This brings up the major problem with the game: it is incredibly dice heavy. Tactical games tend to have a lot of randomness in their die rolls, but few of them involve so many die rolls for different things. You move one unit out of a hex in the fire zone of two enemy units; both enemy units get to roll against their troop quality, and, if they succeed, they get to roll to hit. A hit may involve another roll to see if your unit is suppressed; if it is, you may roll against troop quality again to convert the suppression into a cohesion hit so the unit can continue acting. At close range, this results in a lot of die rolls, many of which will have very little chance of doing anything but which you have no reason to pass up. When it's your turn to shoot, any units of the selected formation can fire without a roll; however, you still have to roll for troop quality because success gives you a bonus onto your firepower. Again, every shot takes at least two die rolls.
I don't know if this adequately conveys the sheer quantity of die rolling, but both my opponent and I grew frustrated with it. Partly the problem is that many of the rolls have so little potential affect: roll to see if you can take a shot with a 10% chance to hit, or roll to see if you increase your chance of a hit by 10%. Moving near enemy units can unleash a torrent of rolls, all likely to very little effect. The idea that you can spend direct commands or roll to make opportunity fire is interesting, but in practice it really bogs down.
There are so many other things about this game that I am not including, notably all of the advanced rules (which include indirect fire, air strikes, trucks, and even a Leopard II for comparison with WWII technology). Line of sight rules are lengthy but pretty straightforward and don't include the "tableau effect" used in ASL and other games -- your line of sight is not usually blocked firing off a hill unless there is an intervening crest. You can stack up to 6 steps in a hex (usually 3 units) but you give the opponent better shots with each additional unit, so you tend to spread out. There is a "close assault" option for adjacent units which is basically just 3 consecutive rounds of fire by both attacker and defender; it's a good way to seize a particular hex or perhaps to inflict a lot of damage where you have local superiority but don't want to spend many turns shooting at range.
The most striking thing about the game is the chit-pull activation system. I even read in a forum where Eric Lee Smith claimed that this was the very first game to use such a system, which is certainly a notable innovation. I happened to be a playtester on Rick Britton's "Battle of the Five Armies" game, also from 1984, which also used a chit pull system; however, in that game the chits indicated not which formation would activate, but whether your side could move, melee, or ranged fire (you get to pick one formation to engage in the activity). I know he had a heck of a time satisfying players about the quirks of drawing; ultimately, he allows each player to select one chit at the start of the turn so they could guarantee at least doing one thing that turn. "Panzer Command" doesn't have this problem, since every formation gets activated every turn, and units can do whatever they want when activated. That said, I really like the way the chit pulls are ameliorated by direct commands and dispatch points, both of which can save a player from unfortunate draws.
It took me one play against a human opponent to decide that this game is not one I want to spend a lot of time on. As I said, I am not that much into tactical games so others may feel differently. The use of headquarters is really clever, but actual play bogs down in a deluge of die rolling (one die at a time). It's not the randomness that I object to, but the fact that you have to spend so much time dropping a ten-sided die into a dice tower to do anything. No doubt it has some good historical justifcation, but I would have enjoyed the game more if the designer had come up with some way to handle the randomness abstractly.
Side note: It kind of pains me not to like this game, as Eric Lee Smith designed perhaps my favourite game ever, The Civil War, as well as two other gems, Ambush and Mosby's Raiders. I guess it is not too surprising if I eventually ran into one of his designs that did not resonate with me.