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Fronte Russo Designer's Notes
By Ottavio Ricchi
November 2014

Panzer Grenadier is currently my favorite game. What has struck me since I started playing it, back in 2000, is the combination between the excellent visual aspects and its interesting game mechanics. I was initially not very pleased with the playing time, a bit higher than that of other tactical games, and the slowness of the tanks.

After a while I convinced myself that squeezing the playing time would be detrimental to the most important feature of this system: the capability to simulate combat situations in a realistic way and in a simple manner. What struck me most, and convinced me for good that I like the game, was realizing that every scenario, if well designed, could deliver interesting tactical situations. In particular, I could play several infantry battles in a row without feeling bored to death. That factor was pivotal in making the decision to design Fronte Russo.

Tactical Challenges

Back in the ’90s a group of my fellow Italian wargamers had engineered an Italian army Russian campaign module using my former favorite platoon-level tactical game. Although they had designed incredibly good scenarios on other subjects, for instance the 1943 to 1945 Italian campaign, they were ready to admit that this time the outcome was not satisfactory. It proved to be impossible to deliver good scenarios because it was difficult to match Italian infantry platoons against Russian companies. The Soviets just could not be harmed without massive artillery intervention, and there were not enough tanks to make the game decently interesting. With the Panzer Grenadier system I had good chances to succeed.

The other relevant factor was that I liked the idea to offer quite an unexplored subject to the “international community,” especially at the tactical level. The Italian role in the African campaign is covered by many English-language written works. In general, much, much less detail is known about the Italian intervention in Russia.

Without any doubt, many wargamers are aware of Operation Little Saturn, but awareness of Italian operations is, to my knowledge, much less developed, especially at tactical level. This is even more the case for the period covered by this module — July 1941 to September 1942.

Of course, this can be explained. Considering the gigantic clash that took place on the Eastern Front, the role of the Regio Esercito was absolutely secondary. Furthermore, reliable works in English are hard to come by. This asymmetry however remains a bit striking considering that the effort made by Italians was of similar magnitude in the two fronts. The Russian campaign in Italy, especially due to its disastrous final outcome, has remained in the collective imagination. Books on this issue are numerous, veterans' memoirs innumerable.

Scenario Design

In designing scenarios, the wealth of sources was certainly something I had to confront. It took me more than one year to gather (almost) all available information. The reference book, needless to say, is the official publication of the Italian Army, Ufficio Storico dello Stato Maggiore. This book is essential, but many other publications offer precious additional information (and more tactical insight) for scenario design.

The book I want to quote first is by Aldo Valori, La campagna di Russia: CSIR-ARMIR: 1941-1943. It was published back in 1950 to 1951 and, incredibly, it provides often more detail than the Stato Maggiore official history.

Other key volumes containing information on divisions, regiments and even battalions deserve to be mentioned. For the Pasubio Division, La Pasubio sul fronte russo and Dall’Adige al Don. For the Celere Division, Bersaglieri sul Don, Storia del 3. Reggimento Bersaglieri and Il sesto reggimento Bersaglieri. For the Tagliamento Black Shirt Legion, Dal Dnieper al Don : la 63a. legione CC. NN. Tagliamento nella Campagna di Russia. For the Savoia and Novara cavalry regiments, Sciabole nella Steppa, Trotto, Galoppo . . . Caricat! and I Lancieri di Novara. Finally, for the Sforzesca division, In Russia con il 54. fanteria Sforzesca.

Finding rare volumes and information has been a treasure-hunting adventure. The book I researched the most was Le cariche . . . This was the official report by Colonello Guglielmo Barbň, on the operations of the Raggruppamento Truppe a Cavallo — the unit that regrouped the two cavalry regiments and the horse drawn artillery — during the August 1942 defensive battle. I found it due to the courtesy of Fabio D’Inzeo, a member of the Italian Cavalry Association who I contacted via the Internet.

In fact, the Internet has been of tremendous help in several other occasions and thanks to it I made great discoveries. For instance, I learned that the German tanks that rescued the Celere division during the Christmas battle (December 1941) were part of the 10th Panzer Division. These tanks, actually, had been hastily repaired just before the Russian attack.

One more interesting finding I made was the disposition of Russian divisions facing the Italians before the 26-29 September encirclement maneuver in the lower Dniepr area. It was amazing to realize that this information, not reported by the official Stato Maggiore publication, coincided with that provided in the Valori book.

One final success I want to mention is called “Number 652.” This is the number of the independent tank brigade attached to the Russian division confronting the Celere division during the Serafimovich battle. It took me two years to find this information but, thanks to my co-designer Lorenzo, who dug out the right article, I made it!

Orders and Battles

Most of the research on Italian counter values was carried out by Lorenzo. He looked, for instance, into Italian artillery pieces' performance and other information. He also wrote the article on the new counters provided in this book.

Morale values assigned to Italian units were jointly decided. On this regard you might notice that Fronte Russo units are in general more worthwhile than Italian units that appeared in previous modules. This is due to the fact that the three divisions initially sent were of very good quality by Italian standards and a few regiment or battalion-level units were truly elite forces. Average quality declined during summer 1942 when the Sforzesca division joined the Italian expeditionary corps.

Concerning scenario design itself, I would like to mention the main challenges I met. Hard to believe though it might be, one of the most time-consuming tasks was the choice of maps and of their disposition. I often had quite good information on the actual battle ground and on units' disposition (mostly derived by military maps and in a few cases by battle accounts). As a consequence, I strived to find maps matching faithfully to that information. The release of Road to Berlin, with eight additional maps, was definitely a blessing and a number of scenarios were greatly enhanced by that. A special rule very often adopted is assuming rivers represent gullies. I discovered that kind of terrain future was ubiquitous, at least in southern Ukraine, and that it was tactically relevant as often gullies were used to infiltrate enemy lines.

Orders of Battle were not a difficult issue for Italians, for which often I had detailed information. Concerning Russian units the situation was slightly different. Most of the times Italian reports mention the Russian regiment involved and approximately how many Russians were deployed (either number of battalions or a straight numerical estimate). Additional information could be gained by the actual description of the battle — “the Italians came under fire of mortars, medium size artillery . . . machine gun fire,” and so forth.

Another, indirect way of estimating Russian strength was to deduce it from Italian “achievements.” For instance, if two Italian battalions assaulted and conquered a given position in three hours, probably that position was defended by no more than a battalion.

The last relevant part of scenario design was deciding victory conditions. Quite a few times I used loss requirements in an asymmetric way. The Russian player wins, or at least the Italian does not win, if Italian step losses are above a given threshold. Italian, and more in general Axis, casualties count more. The Russian player has most often purely territorial tasks. Losses are relevant for him only indirectly: Too many losses weaken Russian forces and prevent him from achieving the victory conditions in any case.

I hope that all of you enjoy playing this module and find the information in it interesting. I also hope that you will discover that these battles, mostly focused on infantry fighting, are more fluid than you expected.

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