Fire in the Steppe:
Playing All Alone

I wanted Fire in the Steppe to help set a new standard for Panzer Grenadier games in terms of its history and game play, and developer Matt Ward has added new a feature that is a true great leap forward in this regard: a solitaire campaign game. It’s easy to use, requiring no additional pieces. You don’t have to buy an extra module; it’s right there in the game.

I always intended Panzer Grenadier to be a two-player game, but I knew that most players would play it solitaire, and designed it to play that way pretty easily. Matt and fellow series developer Daniel Rouleau had already added the notion of the “battle game” to Panzer Grenadier, to tie groups of scenarios together with a set of victory conditions, and the solitaire campaign game follows a similar structure.

Fire in the Steppe’s 42 scenarios are drawn from the Brody-Dubno tank battles of June and July 1941. As Matt points out in his introduction to the solitaire games, many wargames based on the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union have an implicit bias toward the German point of view (and often it’s outright explicit). In some ways that’s understandable, since in a wargame format it’s the German player who’ll get to do all the exciting things, attacking and advancing and winning. The Soviet player gets to watch the Red Army crumble, its seemingly powerful units usually hampered by tight restrictions representing the Soviet lack of preparedness (and related lack of fuel, ammunition and competent leadership).

That’s not the case in the Brody-Dubno battles, which is why I chose them as the setting for Fire in the Steppe. Col. Gen. Mikhail Kirponos and his South West Front were not prepared for war, but the invasion caught them less off-guard than was the case in other sectors of the front. According to pre-war plans the front’s mechanized corps set out to counter-attack the enemy, often following out-dated plans and at times wandering aimlessly behind the Soviet lines, all the while exposed to German air attacks and losing vehicles to mechanical breakdowns.

When the Red Army’s tank divisions finally made their attacks, they retained enough force to inflict serious losses on the German panzer spearheads and disrupt the enemy’s timetable for the advance into Ukraine. Eventually the Germans diverted another panzer group away from the advance on Moscow and southward to assist in the capture of Kiev, sparing the Soviet Union an early defeat in the Great Patriotic War.

South West Front suffered a terrible defeat all the same – just not as terrible as the Red Army’s other front-line forces endured. On the tactical level, despite poor doctrine and often a lack of supporting arms, the Soviet tankers engaged the Germans willingly and often successfully. New tanks – the T34 medium and KV heavy – helped balance German advantages in leadership, doctrine and tactics, but even Soviet formations equipped with older tanks had success on occasion.

I organized the game scenarios and wrote the supporting text in large part from the Soviet perspective on these battles, mostly because I just really hate Nazis in either their historical or their current iterations. In this case, it’s also the more interesting side. The German objectives are well-known to wargamers, and easily understood. The Soviet task is much more difficult, and the achievements of the Red Army on this front received little notice (since the eventual outcome was defeat).

That’s the perspective of the solitaire campaign game as well. The Soviet player is facing an overwhelming onslaught of Nazi hordes and must do his or her best to slow them and give them a bloody nose where possible. The campaign continues through all 42 scenarios, with the Soviet player tracking not only the individual scenario and the battle game victory conditions (if you’re going to play all 42, you might as well play the battle games, too) but performance in the scenarios – you don’t win the campaign game by winning the individual battles, but instead based on the overall damage you are doing to the Hitlerite invaders. It’s not likely that you can win the campaign game without winning at least some scenarios, but a “defeat” in a scenario can still advance your march to overall campaign victory, if you made the German pay in blood and time.

Fire in the Steppe’s scenario set is written and presented as a comprehensive story, as though the reader is playing each of the 42 scenarios as he or she reads along (you don’t have to play them all, or even in sequence, to enjoy the story, but it’s presented as though you did play them). The campaign game dovetails very well with that presentation, helping to further the goal of making Panzer Grenadier games a melding of history and game-play.

It’s fun, it’s simple, and best of all, it’s right there in the package: no additional purchase is necessary.

You can order Fire in the Steppe right here.

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.