GrogHeads Reviews Piercing Fortress Europa

A Flash Review by Boggit

Developed by Adanac Command Studios and Published by Matrix/Slitherine

Click images to enlarge

When I saw this operational level game I was very motivated to look at it, as it claimed to emphasise logistics as a key element. I like this dimension, since in reality operations are usually dictated by the ability to supply. Many operational games deal with this only at a very simple level to avoid bogging the game down, so it is interesting to see whether Piercing Fortress Europa gets the balance right between reality and playability. I looked at the game under release version v1.2. The update improves things over the initial release, and adds sound which the release version lacked. In terms of scale each hex represents roughly 12 km across, each turn four days in the summer, up to six days in the winter, and three days for the Sicily Campaign. Units are divisions, brigades, or commando units.

The game menu gives a choice of 6 campaigns, handicap settings, game type (for example single player for either side, hot-seat, or play by electronic mail (PBEM)), and screen resolution. The game screen is windowed, and doesn’t support a full screen mode, which is a bit odd for a game released these days but is not a big deal. I have Guns of August from the same developer, which has been out for a while now, and that game displays similarly, so I’m not expecting any further screen mode changes from the developer.

The menu screen is functional

The menu screen is functional

The PBEM option is pretty basic, and it is a pity it doesn’t take advantage of Matrix/Slitherine’s multiplayer lobby, which is user friendly and a good source for finding opponents. Instead it’s a question of entering a password, saving the game, and sending it by email as an attachment, or by a memory stick. To be honest I wasn’t very impressed, especially since most recent Matrix/Slitherine releases use the excellent Matrix/Slitherine multiplayer lobby. I’m hoping this feature will change in a future update.

Pre-landing planning in Sicily. I have a free choice as to where to land, but pre-invasion recon has been a disaster!

Pre-landing planning in Sicily. I have a free choice as to where to land, but pre-invasion recon has been a disaster!

There is no game editor supplied with Fortress Europa, which limits the potential for what if scenarios beyond the Main Front Italy Campaign, which looks at what might have happened if allied units had not been removed in 1944 for the invasion of Southern France (Operation Anvil/Dragoon). The lack of any editor may also limit replayability once the supplied scenarios have been played out.

For the purpose of this article, I’ve stayed with the single player experience, which is just as well as I don’t know who is playing the game at the moment – a big and not so subtle hint to Slitherine and Adanac Command Studios! There is no tutorial scenario, as such, although the Sicily campaign is described as the introductory campaign, and is definitely the simplest campaign. There are no helpful in-game play hints, although there is a well written and presented manual that a player really does have to rely on if they want to have much hope of understanding the game.

I played the Allies in both the Sicily, and full Italian campaign. I left the handicap neutral to get an idea of “standard” play unless victory turned out to be a doddle. If I had chosen to play with a handicap, the advantaged side benefits from a 33% increase in combat supply and fuel, a bonus of 20% in replacements and get a 20% bonus to their firepower in battle. That seems a fairly hefty handicap, so I was relieved to find the AI competent, and the handicap not a substitute for a decent AI.

 

A minor defeat! I’m sure I can do better

A minor defeat! I’m sure I can do better

The campaign map is uncluttered, and comes with five flavours of terrain; clear, hilly, rough, mountain, marsh and urban, each of which have their own movement costs depending on whether a unit is mechanised or not, and this is further affected by the weather. Likewise terrain provides defensive benefits according to type for both mechanised and non-mechanised units. Whilst clear and urban terrain is self-evident, the manual does not provide a legend for what is hilly, rough, or mountainous. Fortunately, using the mouse over a hex will tell you on the bottom information bar which hexes are what. There is no mouse smooth scrolling around the map – save for left clicking and dragging, or using a slider bar to navigate the map.

Crossing onto the toe of Italy, my troops are in good supply from Messina

Crossing onto the toe of Italy, my troops are in good supply from Messina

Clicking on the British 46th Division, the panel on the right gives me the unit condition, and a choice of orders

Clicking on the British 46th Division, the panel on the right gives me the unit condition, and a choice of orders

The other method is to press the mini map button, and select the section of map desired. This feels a little dated and clumsy, especially as it is now commonplace for map based games to support mouse scrolling. The map also shows relevant features like rivers, primary roads, and supply ports, which have a number on them, which represents a port’s supply capacity. The map has two information areas at the top and the bottom. The bottom has an information bar providing relevant data concerning terrain, fuel, supply, together with sea, and airborne transport points. The top area has game information like the weather, and a series of informational buttons ranging from airpower allocation, supply status, victory progress to saves, or starting a new game.

My invading British beach at Salerno is a disaster courtesy of the 26th Panzer Division

My invading British beach at Salerno is a disaster courtesy of the 26th Panzer Division

The game plays out using a WEGO system. Basically players give orders and then execute with the turn button. Unfortunately there is no jump to a movement hotspot in the game where the action takes place, although this does happen when combat takes place. For practical purposes this means that you will not necessarily see your units carry out their movement orders unless the player clicked ‘end turn’ with those units in view on the map. Maybe a nice thing for a future update, but it’s not essential.

Well ahead of schedule the Gustav Line is breached as we push on to Rome – only to run out of supplies!

Well ahead of schedule the Gustav Line is breached as we push on to Rome – only to run out of supplies!

Orders consist of one action, moving, attacking, withdrawing, or refitting with replacements and/or supplies. During a player turn you can organise your logistic support in terms of emphasis on fuel/combat supply, and also air support using the menus located at the top of the map screen.

Air support is handled abstractly, with air points being allocated to air superiority, combat support, and interdiction Moving units is easy: simply click on a unit and click on the map where you want it to go within its highlighted range. Units stop upon contacting an enemy zone of control, and may then attack the enemy occupied hex, or withdraw the next turn. For sea invasions, just click on a highlighted shore hex, and the unit lands: it‘s really very easy.

The only gripe I have for amphibious moves, which can be quite common for shifting reinforcements to the front is that there is no map zoom out, and it can be laboriously slow to move amphibiously, clicking across several screens to get where you want to go when in the full campaign. At the end of each turn, the game auto-saves, which is a good thing. However, to my horror at the end of my Italian campaign game I found 131 auto saves in my save game folder! I have to ask – do I really need THAT many auto saves? I think that’s way too much, and I’m definitely hoping it will be addressed in a new update.

I was attracted to the game for its emphasis on logistics. Does it work well without being a micromanagement nightmare? It does, and elegantly so. The pace of operations is really dictated by fuel supplies, combat supplies and other general supplies available. With low fuel you either can’t move, or can’t move very far. With low combat supply you can’t fight well, and lack of general supply affects your strength, and ability to access the other forms of supply. By mid to late game this can be a real issue as you get further away from your supply base, and need to capture new ports to stay reasonably close to your supply source. Capturing ports is only part of the issue, as you then need to allocate port workers to get a port operational. When a port is fully functional the front line may have moved, and you have to start all over again with a new port… The player will get a fixed amount fuel, and combat supply entering the theatre each turn, and a priority can be set for each. It’s very much a trade-off between maneuver and combat.

The drive to the Po valley is beset by supply problems, despite which the Kiwi 2nd Division takes Florence

The drive to the Po valley is beset by supply problems, despite which the Kiwi 2nd Division takes Florence

My first impressions were that this was not a particularly intuitive game. Before playing it I heartily recommend a player to read the manual, and then constantly refer to it to speed up the learning curve. Once a player has mastered the learning curve, it’s a very easy, streamlined game to play. I think more time could have been spent thinking about the runaway auto saves, and the user interface which as I’ve mentioned is dated, clunky, and not very user friendly. Despite my criticism, Piercing Fortress Europa is still an extremely good game, fast paced, and reflects the historical progress of the campaign, and the logistics very well.

I’d be happy to see this game engine – minus the negative user issues I’ve mentioned – used for other World War II campaigns. Piercing Fortress Europa is very elegant in its own way, and presents a very fresh approach to the operational issues of the Italian campaign.

The Grumpy Grog says ““It is a good ‘old school’ wargame, but it’s a pity that Frank Hunter didn’t give more thought to the interface and obvious issues like the mass auto save files.”

Final victory is bitter. A minor victory, I’m just a hex away from my last two objectives. Perhaps it would be different if I’d managed my supply better?

Final victory is bitter. A minor victory, I’m just a hex away from my last two objectives. Perhaps it would be different if I’d managed my supply better?


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