Klotzen, nicht Kleckern: An Interview with Klotzen! Panzer Battles developer Maxim Games

Maxim Games is another studio who’s decided to join the Game of Panzer General’s Throne. Their upcoming turn-based operational wargame, Klotzen! Panzer Battles, wants to breath new life into a much loved genre. With Panzer Strategy already in Early Access, the juggernaut that is Panzer Corps 2 marching ever closer and even Unity of Command 2, we sat down with Studio Director Zoran Stanic to find out what his grand battleplan was.

Wargamer: You’re not the first game to emerge recently trying to assume the mantle of Panzer General’s successor – why now? Do you think there’s enough new ground to break Matrix’s hold on this type of wargame?

Zoran Stanic: This game is something that has been cooking for probably 10 years, and I was planning on having it finished some year and a half ago. So unfortunately, the release date was not a planned one but rather a circumstantial thing.

As for Matrix Games, I don’t think we can match the resources they have. I am impressed by the animations of the Order of Battle. But I am trying to breathe some fresh air into the niche. It’s a very hard and a delicate thing to do for such a big fan of Panzer General such as myself: Bringing new things to the table, but also preserving the spirit of Panzer General. By that I mean how it uses simple rules to recreate the essence of the WW2 in surprising detail. The bottom line is, I am making a game I would like to play, with additions that I feel are missing from Panzer General, Panzer Corps and Order of Battle.

I believe the players will appreciate it simply because a fan like me would. But of course, it’s up to them to decide. I think we bring enough of the fun, novelties, and replayability for the centre of the Panzer General world to shift to Zagreb for the time being. And since it looks like Unity of Command 2, also being made in Zagreb, will beat Panzer Corps 2 to the market the centre could stay here for a while.

Unless of course Into the Breach is as addictive as FTL in which case Tomislav (the creator of UoC2) will have a hard time keeping to the deadlines!

Wargamer: You mention a branching campaign – given the nature of any given session, things can play out vastly different each time you play a specific mission. What factors do you take into account when decided which outcome to give to the player?

Zoran Stanic: On the most basic campaign level we are going with the classic Panzer General rule of ‘Major Victory’, ‘Minor Victory’ and ‘Loss’ based on objectives conquered. But we also have primary and secondary objectives, which can be either taken or neutralised by bombing. On some maps, where it is meaningful from a historical standpoint, we have an additional option for Crushing Victory. In order to achieve this, enemy units must be reduced to 20% of the starting total in order to win and the turn limits still apply.

I think it is a good place to mention two other mechanics players could find interesting – Campaign and Scenario events. Campaign events train-switch the course of a campaign. For example, Japan winning Khalkhin Gol could lead to Stalin deciding against an attack on Poland and Barbarossa starting within the striking distance of Moscow. Another example would be France deciding to attack the Siegfried line during the campaign in Poland, leaving the player to deal with the invasion using garrison units until the reinforcements arrive.

Some of the events are random, and some are player’s choices and they move the campaign in very different ways: Barbarossa delayed for a year, German invasion of Spain and Morocco or Normandy a year earlier.

As for the scenario events, these can be both positive and negative and will make each play of the same scenario a bit different. It could be a change in the weather, better or worse supply, change in a unit cap to name a few. All of that combined with a factor of different General types for you and for the opponent, as well as a variable AI skill will make each scenario and campaign playthrough a different experience.

Wargamer:  Alt-history campaigns – what is it you think draws people to ‘what if’ scenarios like Operation Sealion? Even the most casual of historian deep-down recognises that it probably wouldn’t have happened, given the German Navy’s capabilities, yet we still want to fight it out.

Zoran Stanic: I’ve been wondering that one myself. I think it’s a combination of challenge and curiosity. Imagining such immensely interesting battles that could have happened but never did: How they would have played out, what each sides strengths and weaknesses were, and how those strengths and weaknesses would have been used.

In quite a few cases when I was doing the campaign, I needed to decide what were the odds of a historical vs a what-if outcome. And although I knew the probabilities were low, I decided to move the probabilities from say 5% to 30 or 40% just to make the campaign more interesting. One good example would be the battle of Khalkhin Gol, where Japan had no chance against Russia – they simply badly underestimated their opponent. Although, with Zhukov dying in a plane accident, who knows?

Another example would be the French attack on the Siegfried line – there was little chance for that given the state of the French army at the time. For Sealion, I was surprised how improbable it was once I started digging into it. But with slight tweaks it might have been possible. Say Bf-109’s had an external fuel tank ready and that the British didn’t bomb Berlin? So the Luftwaffe continues with their airfield attacks and possibly breaks the RAF. Most of the historians agree that the German HQ was right when they stated that Operation Sealion was impossible without air supremacy and a completely decimated RAF. However, there is a chance that Sealion might have been doable.

With the RAF broken, the heavily mined English Channel, the full Kriegsmarine, and the full Luftwaffe it would be difficult for the Royal Navy to reach the invasion fleet. The He-111 could carry two torpedoes, so we are talking about a few thousand torpedoes per day plus the Ju-87 dive bombers. If the invasion forces were divided and possibly used as bait, would the Royal Navy have been able to make successive strikes and survive? I’ve read what historians say, and they are very careful about concluding what would have happened in counterfactual scenarios. There are so many unknowns that strategy games could actually be the best way to test different scenarios. I will agree that Panzer General and consequently Klotzen are not good simulators for hardcore naval operations, but I still like to fantasize on how it would play out. For myself and hopefully other players – we’ll take what we can!

Wargamer:  There are a lot of units in Klotzen! How much true diversity is there between the units? Are you trying to offer historically accurate participating combat units that look different but fundamentally play the same? Or do you genuinely have 600 units with noticeable differences?

Zoran Stanic: We are trying to be as historically accurate as possible. We have 600 unit types divided into 22 classes and they SHOULD give the same results as if the actual brigades of those types had clashed. Of course, we use division-sized units, so we are not realistic in that point, but we tried to capture the essence of finer details such as the increased manoeuvrability and a decreased firepower of the Bf-109 Fritz over the Bf-109 Emil as an example.

Also, an increased ground defence for the Panzer IIIG over the Panzer IIIF is another such example. I considered myself a WW2 enthusiast and I always liked the fast-paced advancement of weapons and equipment that was happening in WW2. So, I would say we are as realistic as possible – I wouldn’t have it any other way – and each of the 600 unit types is unique.

Wargamer:  Tell me about your air combat system. What does it do that’s a game-changer?

Zoran Stanic: I would say we introduced four major changes, each of which gives interesting strategic opportunities to the player. The most important one is strategic bombing. Since historically supply was coming either through railroad or ports, bombing any town on the supply chain decreases a chance the supply will reach units at the end. This effect is not visible for light bombing as units can absorb some disruption, but a dedicated bombing campaign has a potential to paralyse ALL the units on the map, or a sizable portion of them. Therefore, the defender will need to carefully balance between protecting the frontline and protecting the major supply chain hubs. But it also works both ways and a dedicated bombing campaign by the defender could cut off the attacker’s supply and leave those rapidly advancing panzers idling in the middle of the field somewhere.

The second game mechanic is an air interdiction, by which we consider attacking exposed moving columns, Normandy-style. By placing an air unit over enemy units, you force the opponent to either sit in the trenches and the forests or risk the air attacks interrupting any movement in the open. There is a chance a unit will not get attacked, but if it does, the attacking planes receive a nasty bonus to damage. I believe this brings air power much closer to how it was actually employed.

Both mechanics come from some research I did. What happened is I realised there were 16000 Ju-88 leverl bombers produced during the war, while Ju-87 tactical bombers were at some 6000. And I never used level bombers while playing Panzer General! So, I realised something was off and started reading. It turns out light level bombers were used for everything, mostly terror bombing of course, but also bombing moving columns, bridges, supply, airfields, anti-shipping, night fighters… I realised this must be modelled into the game. Terror bombing was hard to model since it is mostly dependent on the morale of the population and if the populace thinks it has a chance of repulsing the attacker, but I tried to introduce everything else.

Another major addition is the bombing of airfields. Planes are always considered based at some airfield, and even if they are away on the mission they do receive damage if their airfield is attacked.

This was used extensively by Germany and later by all sides, but what actually made me include it was the US bombing of the Wewak on the New Guinea. Although minor in terms of numbers involved, it had large strategic impact and I felt it was too important of a strategy to ignore. This gives a lot of flexibility to the player on how to use their air power, allowing lots of surprise moves and it helps to keep the game unpredictable.

The last major change is airplane range – planes have a range around the airfield and they can move and attack in any hex in that range during one turn. This gives both more flexibility and unpredictability to the air power, which was its main asset in WW2 – the possibility to strike at any target over thousands of square kilometres. Since fighters have a significantly shorter range, the attacking player must choose to either limit the bombing range to the range of fighter escorts, or to risk unescorted bombers, but over a four to eight times larger area to pick the targets from. In this way capturing of the enemy airfields to provide fighter cover becomes a necessity and spreads the attackers focus.

Wargamer:  How do logistics factor into a typical game of Klotzen?

Zoran Stanic: I think it adds one additional layer of strategy – attacking the enemy supply and keeping yours intact. I’ve already mentioned bombing of supply centres. Supply comes from the map edges or ports, spreading through the railroad lines and then through the truck transport. This is abstracted in the game, meaning we consider all of the hexes in a certain radius around the railroads supplied – provided that a truck could reach the hex in one turn. This means that the supply range is modified by the terrain, meaning that the roads increase the radius, thus making them strategically important.

This introduces two additional factors – supply can be cut off by placing your unit on the road or railroad, or by taking a town on the supply chain. Again, this is just an option for the player, and the old Panzer General strategy of simply destroying all of the enemy units still works, but I wanted to give the players the feeling of what WW2 was actually about.

Guderian has described the concept of Blitzkrieg as an attempt to avoid the bloodbath of WW1. The idea was to cut of the supply to the enemy and disable them without the need to kill them. And if you look at the casualty rates in the first few operations, it worked – until everybody adapted. I feel this lack of supply dynamics as the most important problem of Panzer General.

In Klotzen you can see why you need to take certain towns or remove an entrenched infantry from a strategic road or a choke point in the hills. It also allows for surprising thrusts to the enemy’s rear guard where one well-placed unit can cut off the supply to the entire army. It’s up to the players if they’ll use this tactic but if used properly it will give the right feeling of the WW2 battles and make the whole game much more dynamic, with moves and countermoves happening on each turn.

Wargamer: Along with Generals, there appears to be a management-like layer wrapped around the core gameplay – dealing with high command and ‘selling’ equipment etc… how much impact will these elements have on how your force performs in the field?

Zoran Stanic: Most of the HQ options are designed to add flavour and ease the management of the core units. Examples would be buying experienced troops in 1944 if your treasured veterans get steamrolled, or paying to do an air reconnaissance of a certain portion of the map in order to spare you from save/loading. But there are a few options that should have quite an impact on the campaign – changing unit prices based on supply/demand, initial low supply of prototype units, and speeding up the development of advanced equipment. So, if you put your mind to it, maybe you could have those Me-262 flying cover over Kursk for example,

Wargamer: You’ve talked a lot about the scenarios and the ‘PvE’ systems, but how do you see this game evolving in the PvP space? How much of the force management, generals etc… systems will make their presence felt in head-to-head matches?

Zoran Stanic: Generals become really powerful only through the campaign, so the Generals will be of a lower level during PvP. This means that they will have less impact than in the PvE. However, since PvP is much more balanced, having 10% more supply or 15% more units will give a lot of potential for the players to gain the edge over the opponent. So Klotzen should be considerably less symmetric and unpredictable because you will not know which General your opponent has chosen. This can be further enhanced by agreeing on higher-level starting Generals for the scenario PvP play.

Wargamer:  This initial game only covers Europe and North Africa for the most part, have you given any thoughts to other WW2 Theatres?

Zoran Stanic: We are focusing on covering major land engagements of the WW2. Pacific theatre was very interesting from the naval war standpoint, but it doesn’t work well with the system we have – ship combat is much quicker than land operations, so our naval combat system is far from realistic in that sense. Which, by the way is making me miserable but that’s another topic. I have some ideas about interesting DLCs that will cover other theatres as well, but we will most likely not be covering the Pacific theatre in the future.

Wargamer:  When developing a game at this operational scale, what factors do you think are most important to provide a dynamic and challenging experience?

Zoran Stanic: First and foremost, the AI. WW2 resolved the problem of static warfare by schwerepunkt-ing, and this consequently made it all about counterattacks. One problem that I see in the genre is a very passive AI. Except for the Unity of Command of course, but that is a different type of game. We have spent a good year trying to make the AI sting and hit where it counts which will most certainly make players think and react, and I believe we’ve accomplished what we initially set out to do for the AI. It’s still being tested so I wouldn’t want to overpromise anything, but initial tests are encouraging, and I think players will enjoy it.

Thanks to Zoran for taking the time to answer our questions. Klotzen! Panzer Battles will be arriving sometime in Summer 2018.