Fire in the Steppe:
Focused Design

I had a lot of fun writing the scenarios for Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe. Too much fun; I wrote far more new scenarios than planned. And so we’ve made some changes to the game to accommodate this.

Fire in the Steppe makes use of the pieces we had stockpiled from the old Panzer Grenadier: Eastern Front, and the same eight maps from the older game (with brand-new artwork by Guy Riessen) as a sort of fan service to long-time players of the series. You can play your old scenarios on these beautiful new maps, or the scenarios from the many out-of-print expansion books and sets we published that also used these maps.

Eastern Front had a staggering 112 scenarios, taking place from the initial Axis sneak attack on 22 June 1941 through early 1942, on all segments of the Eastern Front. For Fire in the Steppe, I decided to slim that to 60 scenarios. About half would be re-developed versions of scenarios from the old game, and about half would be new.

That would have made for a very fine game, yet as I worked on it, I became dissatisfied. I’ve come to see the utility of a scenario-based game, like Panzer Grenadier or Great War at Sea, to tell a story through the unfolding of its scenarios. Background text, the scenarios (including their own introduction and conclusion) and a “battle game” to tie the scenarios together and put the over-arching story line into game terms give the story a structure. It’s a very fine method for alternative-history tales like our Second Great War, but it works at least as well to help the history of an event unfold on the page and the game table.

As I worked on the Fire in the Steppe scenario set, it became clear that the story I wanted to tell was that of the Brody-Dubno tank battles that took place in June and very early July 1941 in western Ukraine. The maps had been initially designed to replicate Ukrainian terrain, and it had been sort of a stretch to use them in other parts of the Eastern Front. There are some pieces that are not used in the Brody-Dubno scenarios – former Czech tanks used by the Germans, the lone Tiger tank piece – but the set of pieces includes everything needed for these battles.

A number of scholars (including David Glantz and Valeriy Zamulin) now class Brody-Dubno as World War II’s largest tank battle, eclipsing the clash at Prokhorovka. About 2,600 Soviet tanks (not including those left behind at peacetime stations due to mechanical breakdowns, lack of fuel, lack of trained drivers or other non-combat reasons) met about 1,000 German panzers. The fighting took place in the Ukrainian borderlands, just north of the Hungarian border and east of the city of Lviv/Lvov/Lwow/Lemberg/Leopolis.

Despite the numerical advantage, Mikhail Kirponos’ Soviet South-West Front could not turn back Ewald von Kleist’s German Panzer Group Three, chiefly because the Soviet mechanized corps attacked individually at best, more often as single tank divisions. And all of the Soviet armored formations had serious deficits in training, transport, artillery and communications gear – the Red Army had expanded its tank forces much too quickly. And in the effort to create the maximum number of tank divisions to feed the egos of Comrade Stalin and his generals, they had retained older light tanks in service rather than concentrate their new T34 and KV tanks in fewer divisions manned by their best personnel.

Even so, the Soviets won a number of tactical victories during these early days – just not enough of them. Many commanders showed both personal courage (Soviet doctrine sent even corps commanders into the front line in their own command tanks) and improvisational skill. But lacking the ability to contact, let alone control, their subordinate units doomed them to defeat.

There’s a good deal of recent scholarship on the topic, if one avoids Victor Kamenir (who takes post-war “blame the dead guy” memoirs at face value). Thanks to the disjointed and haphazard nature of the Soviet counter-attacks, the Brody-Dubno battles provide many actions well-suited to Panzer Grenadier in length, geographical area and the size of forces involved.

Despite that scenario-rich environment, only two of the scenarios from the old Eastern Front game had been set in the Brody-Dubno battles. I sort of kept one, giving it a heavy enough revision to call it a new scenario, and rejected the other. All other scenarios in Fire in the Steppe – forty-one of them – are completely new from the ground up, and all are set among the Brody-Dubno battles.

This battle also saw deployment of the Red Army’s 34th Tank Division, equipped with the T-35 “land battleship.” We have plenty of T-35 scenarios, all of them based on actual battles fought by these thin-skinned, five-turreted behemoths. Actually, we covered every battle actually fought by them, because they are the coolest-looking tanks fielded by any army in the Second World War.

Eastern Front also included 98 Romanian pieces (out of 495 combat units/leaders; 660 including markers) and 24 Romano-centric scenarios. Two of those take place in 1942 and wouldn’t have been included in the new game regardless, and four more are pretty late in 1941 and much farther to the east (in and around Crimea).

The other 18 are set for the most part in two campaigns: the conquest of Bessarabia (a Romanian province between the world wars) and the siege of Odessa. Initially I planned to add a few more to smooth the narrative flow between them, but we already had a pretty good structure for two “battle game” sequences.

That no longer fits my vision for Fire in the Steppe as a game of the Brody-Dubno tank battles. The Romanian battles make for really good scenarios, and they already fit into the story format. So I don’t want to discard them (seeing how we have all those Romanian pieces on hand).

We’ll split the Romanian pieces and scenarios into a separate book, called Armata Romana. It will have the re-developed scenarios from the Bessarabia and Odessa campaigns, and some additional new ones to help flesh out the story line. And the 98 Romanian pieces. That will keep the focus of Fire in the Steppe tightly on the Brody-Dubno tank battles, and give us a tightly-focused expansion book with additional background story.

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.