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Fire in the Steppe:
Thoughts on History and Game Design

I designed the first Panzer Grenadier game and was pretty satisfied with the outcome. We called it “Eastern Front,” but the box itself didn’t actually say that (just “Panzer Grenadier”) and it proved wildly popular, as wargames go.

That was right at the turn of the century, and as the years followed we released many more Panzer Grenadier games. I didn’t design all of them, but for the most part they followed a very distinct pattern: the standard rules and charts, four to eight “geomorphic” map boards, two or three sheets of playing pieces, and a scenario book jammed with many, many scenarios.

We made some very good games along that pattern, that game people a great deal of enjoyment. But as the years passed, I became dissatisfied with the format. The artwork steadily improved, and as we switched from laser-cut pieces to the silky-smooth ones we use now and adopted full-color player aids, the physical presentation became first rate. Still, I was not satisfied.

I design these games to reflect history. I’m not under the illusion that they in any way compare to a true historical study, but I do want them to tell a story of the historical event they represent. And when done well, they can lend at least a little insight into the history behind them.

Our games with large numbers of scenarios sort of told that story, but in a disjointed fashion – you had to intuit a great deal of it. The answer seemed pretty simple, and as I worked on Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires, which isn’t a Panzer Grenadier game but uses a closely related system, I bridged the gaps between scenarios with historical text.

That wove the scenarios together in a much more coherent form. There’s not much published in English regarding the 1914 campaign in Galicia, so lending context to the battles is crucial to making the game a good product and a fun experience. It was also a long and grinding effort. Even so, I wasn’t satisfied. And then series developers Matt Ward and Daniel Rouleau had a new idea for The Kokoda Campaign.

We’d done campaign games before – the old Kokoda Trail book had one – but these were very involved affairs, complex to play and extremely complex to design. Players who used them found them very rewarding, but most don’t seem to have bothered. It was really a system for managing a battalion- to brigade-sized force over a protracted period of combat tracking losses and reinforcements and replacements and such.

Matt and Daniel turned that around, crafting a very simple and elegant system they called a “battle game” that links a group of related scenarios together with victory conditions for playing the entire sequence. It works very well, and proved well-suited to the topic in The Kokoda Campaign. We quickly adapted it to Invasion 1944, Broken Axis, Road to Dunkirk and Korean War: Counter Attack as well.

Adding a game function to the historical text linking the scenarios together goes an enormous distance toward integrating the game and its history. Finally, we have game and history fully enmeshed with one another. I like this. The game still has plenty of scenarios, sixty of them, and you can pick them out and play them individually just like you could before. But now taken as a whole they tell a coherent story, something you can’t do with a dozen scenarios drawn from “typical actions on the Eastern front.” We’ve put the history into historical wargaming.

Fire in the Steppe is the first game designed from the start with this concept in mind. The game re-uses the pieces from the old Eastern Front game – we still had plenty in storage – and new versions of the maps from that game, with new artwork to match other recent games in the series.

Within that framework, I’ve altered the focus from the entire Eastern Front in 1941 (with a scattering of scenarios from early 1942) to the Brody-Dubno tank battles of June and July 1941, plus Romanian operations in Bessarabia and at Odessa. This clash was second only to Kursk in numbers of tanks committed, yet has received comparatively little attention both in the historiography of the Eastern Front and in wargame coverage. I’m not aware of any published game on the topic.

The Germans attacked without warning in the early morning hours of 22 June, having brought their assault troops up to the border without alerting the Soviets. Unlike other Soviet commands, Kiev Military District (re-named South-West Front with the start of military operations) had strongly suspected a coming German attack and done its best to reinforce and prepare its front-line units despite direct orders from Moscow to avoid provoking the Germans.

Thus instead of an easy rollover, the German Army Group South faced a real fight almost from the first moment. The Red Army remained ill-prepared, with trucks and tractors still loaned out to collective farms, ammunition stockpiles in the wrong places or non-existent, divisions attempting to carry out sealed orders prepared before the war that had no bearing on the actual situation, and countless more handicaps. Even so, the Soviet soldier stood and fought in this sector.

That fighting yields a broad choice of battles from which to construct scenarios. On an operational and strategic level, South-West Front was rolled back to Kiev by August. But Panzer Grenadier is not concerned with that level of command – you, as the player, are fighting with your platoons on a tactical level.

For the battle games, I decided to organize the scenarios along the lines of the German attack. The scenario/battle story lines follow the three motorized corps (the term “Panzer Corps” came later) of 1st Panzer Group, along with the infantry formations of Sixth Army fighting in the same sectors. While I have a decided prejudice against Nazi themes in wargames and would have preferred to tell the story from the Soviet point of view, the Germans had the operational initiative and dictated the pace of events. The Soviet counter-attacks often set out in a haphazard manner, at times not coming off at all.

The operations here involve many types of battles: river crossings, infantry assaults on prepared positions, delaying actions. But most of all there are tank battles. Though popular histories emphasize the massive numbers of breakdowns among the Soviet tank divisions’ machines, they still got enough of them into action to outnumber the Germans. And while many of the Soviet tanks were of the light T-26 and BT types, they still fielded modern KV and T-34 tanks that outclassed anything in the German inventory. And this sector also included the 34th Tank Division, which had all of the Red Army’s operational examples of the T-35 “land battleship.”

We probably could have continued making games with a box full of loosely related scenarios; it’s an old model and we did well with it in the past: they sold well, and players liked them. They were very good products. But I wanted to make something substantially better, and with Fire in the Steppe, I think we have that.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.