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Fire in the Steppe:
Modeling the Red Army

Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe presents Panzer Grenadier players with a vastly different Barbarossa. You will still find the powerful German Army with its highly trained core of mobile troops capable of slicing through the immobile and demoralized Soviet rifle divisions. But you will also find the Soviet mechanized corps with their surprises of T-34s, KV-1s, a few KV-2s, and the T-35 land battleship, weapons that led to consternation, confusion and panic (and a crash course of upgrades to German armored units that lasted until Tigers and Panthers arrived on the scene in 1943). More importantly, you will find Soviet units that are able to take the offensive against the first German penetrations, and do so capably.

Oh, these aren’t the bludgeoning behemoths of the later war. Stuff breaks down too often. There are never enough leaders at the level of contact to match the Germans in maneuver. The crews in the tanks are still learning how to use the darn things. And no one knows how to use combined arms or even what combined arms really is. Due to the confusion and disruption of Soviet higher command and the lack of transport (famously off in the fields helping with agricultural activities), the Soviets are often fighting without the Red God of War (artillery). Nevertheless the Soviets are consistently on the offensive in Fire in the Steppe and, at least in a limited way, will have success.

Let’s face it, the Soviet attacks by the Southwest Front that led to the battles around Brody and Dubno were poorly planned and performed haphazardly as maintenance failed and the novelty of the advanced tanks was often a challenge to their crews. Their path was defined by a trail of broken-down vehicles and stranded “mobile” infantry. They attacked because, well, they had to do something and they did have some papers that called for attacks. A mobile defense was clearly not anything in Soviet doctrine in the summer of 1941 and, in any case, was beyond the capability of the Red Army and its leadership at this point in history.

To help to reflect the capability of these corps we have given some extra support to the higher-quality mechanized corps troops. First, unlike the early war Soviets in the old Eastern Front Deluxe these Soviets often have decent morale, occasionally even better morale than their German opponents. But upon playing the scenarios we found that this often failed to permit the repetition of historical results.

One impediment is that the leader mix was initially developed to represent the halting and poor performance of the Western Front when confronted with Army Group Center in the summer of 1941. If you own Eastern Front Deluxe you know that the scenarios often call for a ratio of one leader to three, four or even five combat units. In such cases the loss of a single leader could make offensive action virtually impossible. However even brief histories of the Brody and Dubno battles present the Red Army as persistently aggressive.

The easy answer to this problem would have been to simply add a bunch of Soviet leaders when the unit performance was historically good. Unfortunately this led to Soviet units being entirely too flexible. The ratio of leaders to combat units (one to three to five) is correct for the Red Army of 1941. Post-purge, the ability of the Red Army to use units below company size as maneuver units was quite limited. So the ratio was right, the problem in playtesting was that if one leader was eliminated then a significant portion of the force would be sidelined.

As a result we have provided for the ability for certain units to have the ability to replace lost leaders. “Dead” leaders can return to the game thus preserving the momentum of the attack or defense. This isn’t a Walking Dead thing, it represents a “Next man up” approach where junior company leaders would rise to the occasion, as actually happened. Leader casualties in the mechanized corps were significant yet attacks continued to be pressed. This makes the Soviet troops much more active throughout a scenario rather than turning into a demoralized mob, without providing them the ability to maneuver in ways that were beyond doctrinal capability.

The Soviet tankers had a similar problem with leadership. The tanks often were deployed in large units but continued to fight well after less well-trained and -drilled units would have disintegrated. We have added a different concept for tank leadership from the standard rules which avoids identifying individual units as leaders but provides for the loss of tank leaders as combat continues. As noted above with leader pieces, the existing rules provided for a too-quick loss of combat capability as each tank leader loss could be devastating. With any luck, it is possible that the tank forces will be able to remain functional well beyond that time period under the existing rules.

Finally, the appearance of vastly superior weaponry in the Red Army did provide for a meaningful operational surprise to the Germans. The T-34s and KVs were simply far beyond German armored designs and beyond German antitank doctrine. Ultimately the German Army would use improvisation and initiative to cope with such weapons until their own designs were improved (1943 with the Tiger and Panther designs), however Fire in the Steppe covers the period of complete surprise. To model the impact of this surprise we have taken away some of the advantages German forces often use to deal with these weapons; advantages that were only developed after a sufficient amount of experience had dulled the surprise. Assault combat, in particular, is less effective against Soviet stacks containing T-34s, KVs and (because they are really cool) T-35s.

I must note that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. When Mike told me that we were going to use the existing Eastern Front countersheet which had a paltry number of leaders and whose Soviet tank units included no individual markings upon which to assign leaders I, at first, wondered if we had enough leaders and the whole “which T-34 was the leader and which were led?” issue nagged. Mike offered to include additional leaders and possibly resurrect the Workers and Peasants countersheet which had individually identified tank units but I already had that countersheet and found that the addition of more leaders led to too great an operational flexibility for the Red Army. The use of the standard tank leader rules with the lettered Soviet tanks, while addressing the ability to identify tank units with leaders left the Soviet tank force less effective than was actually the case. Thus continued fussing led to the above changes, ones that, I believe, more accurately reflect the state of the Red Army at this point in the war.

By adding these changes we have created a different Red Army than Panzer Grenadier veterans may have seen before. This is not the grinding force seen in Road to Berlin, nor is it entirely the fragile and wilting force from Eastern Front Deluxe (although battles against Rifle Divisions and the few Cavalry Divisions may seem quite familiar). This army, especially the mechanized corps, is a unique beast which has pronounced strengths which often will provide a significant and worrying challenge to Army Group South and the drive to Kiev. If you are the German player and feel that you have been in a significant fight, that’s good. If you get through three-quarters of the scenario you are playing and see how to win, but aren’t quite sure if you can pull it off, we have done our work well. If you are the Soviet player and have reasonable hope on the last turn we have definitely hit the sweet spot.

One of the main reasons that I find Panzer Grenadier to be the standard for 1935-1950 tactical combat gaming is that it has permitted the ability to portray a bewildering variety of armed forces, countries, weapon systems and operational tempos with a strikingly low rules overhead. Fire in the Steppe represents another innovation in representing such armed forces. The Soviet Mechanized Corps were unique, powerful units with staying power, despite their “two left feet” dance style. The changes in the leadership rules permit Fire in the Steppe to model this effortlessly. For those of you who have been waiting for this game, it was this issue that was the most significant development hurdle. I’m really happy with the solution and believe that this game captures the chaos of the Brody-Dubno battles.

Turning points are often unseen until well after the fact. The strategic turning point of the Second World War would have to wait for another 18 months and Stalingrad/Uranus (and for those hopelessly western in their outlook, Tunisia). The operational turning point can arguably be the Battle for Moscow and the Soviet Winter Offensive of 1941-1942, where the initiative was first taken from the Germans. Tactically, the Brody-Dubno battles, although an operational loss, were a singular moment in time when it became clear that the Nazi war machine was NOT invincible. Get Fire in the Steppe and be there as it all starts to slip away from the German army.

You can order Fire in the Steppe right here.