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Posted on Sep 8, 2008 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets – PC Game Review

By Larry Levandowski

Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets. PC Game. Developed by Strategic Studies Group. Published by Matrix Games. $59.95.

Passed Inspection: The best operational wargame this reviewer has played this year.

Failed Basic: Replay value is not what it could be. Editor hobbled by lack of AI documentation.

Operational level and turn based, Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets is a wargamer’s wargame.

In spring of 1942, after the hard-fought winter battles that saw German troops at the gates of Moscow, Stalin believed that it was only a matter of time before Germany was finished. Anxious to start Hitler’s downfall, Stalin forced a reluctant STAVKA into a major offensive to retake the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Initially the two-pronged offensive seemed to go well. But within a week, a German counter-offensive had the Soviets reeling.


The fluid campaign that raged on the Donets River in May 1942 is the scenario for SSG’s latest game in the Decisive Battles of World War II series. Operational level and turn based, Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets is a wargamer’s wargame. It is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the best operational level game so far this year. All of the details and features that grognards love are in the game. But to fully enjoy Kharkov, there is a learning curve. The game is somewhat accessible to new players, but they should be prepared for a deep dive into the manual and tutorials.

Strategic Studies Group is the last surviving game company from the days of the C-64, and all that experience means they know how to build a wargame. The Decisive Battles Series, started more than ten years ago with the Ardennes Offensive and now brings us Kharkov, with a game engine that is full-featured and nearly flawless.

At the highest level, Kharkov uses familiar boardgame conventions. The game is turn based, on a hex map, with individual units representing battalions and regiments. Each turn represents one day of real time, and each hex represents four kilometers. Other game elements like six-sided die rolls, combat resolution tables (CRT), unit steps and stacking limitations will be very familiar to players who are used to board wargaming.

But the game engine goes far beyond what is possible in a traditional, paper-based game. Kharkov is bulging at the seams with features players would love to have in board wargames, but the paperwork such games would require would crush any but the most die-hard player. A short sampling of these features include a full off-map area system, allowing units to move their entry locations to different parts of the map; unit detachments that can be left to slow enemy progress; counter-battery fire that zaps any artillery unit that does not shoot and scoot; and air power that can be used to pound enemy units and to interdict and slow movement. 

Kharkov also sports a fully modeled supply system that tracks both defensive and offensive supply. Each unit draws supply from its HQ unit, which in turn draws from a supply source. Move your HQ units too often and they are not as effective in distribution. Don’t move them enough and your units out-run their supply lines. The logistics leash is one of the most critical planning factors for the Soviet southern pincer as it starts open field running in the early part of the game.

A game-engine feature that appears for the first time in Kharkov is the use of areas of operations (AOs), which limits each headquarters and its subordinate units to a specific area where they can move and fight. This represents the control of higher headquarters on the conduct of the campaign. With AOOs, the battle is kept to its historical flow; players can’t wildly shift forces from one part of the front to the other. For those who don’t want Stalin to dictate where their armies must attack, AOs can be turned off for one or both players.

AOs are also somewhat dynamic, have conditions and can change based on events. For example, as the battle opens, the Russian southern pincer has two tank corps. But for the first five turns, these are held in reserve with very limited AOs. Once the Soviet player advances far enough to take two key hexes, the AO changes and the tanks are effectively released.

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  1. just a quick note; SSG have recently released AI editor documentation on their website, and the first user scenario for the Kharkov engine (including AI) has been posted on the Run5 Community forum.

  2. I’ve been a paper gamer for decades, and my few experiences with computer games have not been good. However, this review actually has me excited about trying this game.