Duel on the Steppe

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This is the game in Strategy & Tactics 285, featuring the winter campaign in the Ukraine of January to March 1943.

I have had an opportunity to read the rules, cut out the counters, and play a few turns, a couple of times, (of the first scenario) so as to get an initial impression of the game. I will stress that it is an initial impression, and a personal one.

Overall, there’s a nice system struggling with some less than stellar rules (writing or editing or both) and a tough to replicate historical situation and result.

For example, the rules do not clearly explain the activation system. (I posted detailed comments and queries in the Consimworld folder.) As another example, Von Manstein’s backhand blow is recreated in the game by dint of a one turn combat bonus for the German side. I’m all in favor of simple solutions, but this seems a bit crude to me, and I’m not sure if it even works. My playing experience with the game is so limited – and I did not play the second or third scenario – and therefore this is pure guesswork. I would be intrigued to know more from the playtesters and other gamers about their experience.

To balance that criticism, it seemed that the first two scenarios were well balanced. So, as a game, this presents a challenge to both players. My one detailed comment about this is that on one or two occasions, a defensive line was a whisker away from being shattered. Had that happened, the result would have been a walkover. Maybe that’s fair enough.

The chit pull activation system makes it good for solo play, and increases the replayability. However, I just don’t understand the need to recycle activation units:

“Note: Some game turns call for more activation chits than are provided for that side (or that front); During those particular turns, when the last of the activation chits for that side (or front) has been drawn, mix up all of those drawn activation chits and then randomly place the remaining necessary quantity of activation chits back into the cup, and then continue to draw them normally to conduct more activations for that game turn (until all the activations as specified by the turn track have been fulfilled).”

I found this mechanic a pain in the neck. I’d like to know the rationale behind it. For example, for those scenarios that mean an HQ gets two activations, why not have two activation chits?

The railed reinforcements rule is a nice touch:

“Both players are permitted to place some units directly into any friendly-controlled town or city hexes during the end of the Movement Phase, instead of moving them onto the map via a map-edge. The quantity of units that each player may place directly (i.e., rail to) a town or city hex is based on a die roll; the railing player must roll one 6-sided die at the end of the current Movement Phase, and the die roll number is the maximum amount of units that he may place directly into any friendly-controlled town or city hexes during that game turn.”

If you put aside two units and roll a “1”, one unit doesn’t make it on to the board this turn.

I expect to see that copied elsewhere, and quite right too.

I thought the bolted on anti-tank system jarred. It did not, to me, match the game scale. Perhaps this would have been better addressed by having mandatory armor losses built into the CRT.

The air system is OK, though again it doesn’t seem to match the scale of the game.

Physically, the game components are ok, but let down by some curious decisions. For example, you roll for weather, but there’s no weather track or marker. As another example, the formatting used for HQ unit values is the same three number alignment as for combat units. But HQ values are different. Fair enough, you can tell it’s an HQ unit from the symbol. But why not help the players a little bit more by highlighting the difference and, for example, square bracketing the HQ numbers? The counters are otherwise OK. The map is absolutely fine.

It’s not a bad game, but that’s as far as I am prepared to go just now. I do wish Decision would tidy up the rules for this system and get it right. That might help make future releases more conducive to being played longer and appreciated better.