Review: Desert Fox -- The Battle of El Alamein

By Jacob Tierney 30 Jun 2014 0
The game will try to warn you away from dumb decisions. Whether you heed those warnings is up to you. The game will try to warn you away from dumb decisions. Whether you heed those warnings is up to you.

Editor's note: Our reviews of Shenandoah's two previous titles were written by dyed-in-the-wool wargamers who eat Eisenhower-Os for breakfast and pad around the house in Tiger tank slippers. But Shenandoah have long claimed that their wargames aren't just for grognards -- non-wargamers who appreciate a strategy experience should love them, too. I decided to put that claim to the test by assigning Desert Fox to FNG Jacob Tierney, who's about to tell you that he isn't a wargamer.


Disclaimer: I am not a wargamer. My battlefield experience is pretty much limited to playing Green Army Men with my brother as a kid, or the one time I struggled through a game of Axis and Allies. So when Owen suggested I review Desert Fox, the highly-anticipated third title from acclaimed history-sim-peddlers Shenandoah Studio, I accepted with no small amount of trepidation. This is the arcane realm of the grognards, a web of charts and tables not meant for lesser minds. Surely I would be crushed under its advancing treads.

Sometimes it's good to be wrong.

My first online game stopped going so well when I lost the Panzer division spearheading my offensive. My first online game stopped going so well when I lost the Panzer division spearheading my offensive.

If you're new to wargames you won't immediately understand every detail of this title, which recreates World War II's battles of El Alamein. These battles shaped the fate of Northern Africa in 1942, but unless you’re a history buff you probably won't know much about them going in. You won't understand the advantages German Panzers had over British tanks, or the proper use of recon units, or the finer points of supply lines. But it won't matter, because Desert Fox provides an intuitive UI and a host of teaching tools to guide the baby-faced recruit and grizzled veteran alike.

The game provides three scenarios of increasing complexity, all of which take place on the same wide desert map. Each of these can be played from either the Axis or British Commonwealth side of the battle, online, via hotseat or against one of three AI opponents. You can take on the Axis' initial five-day assault, the two-week Allied counterattack, or the new campaign mode, which sees both sides making crucial choices on when to attack and when to regroup over the course of months.

Once per in-game week, you're given a choice: refit, or take the offensive? Choose the former and you'll have a chance to lay down barbed wire and minefields, giving your forces a more tenacious hold on the front lines you've carved out. If you choose to attack, you'll seize the initiative, getting to move first every turn and hopefully catching your opponent off guard. Once battle is joined, Desert Fox is a fast-moving game where every single move counts. Out-flanking your opponent and cutting his units off from their supply lines is always your objective, even as you husband your own precious supplies. Desert Fox makes the vast inhospitable desert itself into an opponent.

Every day in-game is represented by a single turn. Each turn contains several "impulses," during which small numbers of troops can move and fight. The first scenario can be completed over lunch, while a campaign could see you glued to your device for hours. It is this latter mode that will likely prove most exciting to the wargaming diehards among you, but for greenhorns like me the tutorials and the first scenario will prove a challenging but thrilling introduction to the basics.

I don't think I've ever been this delighted by a menu screen. I don't think I've ever been this delighted by a menu screen.

Whenever you are about to engage in combat the game will show you the likely result if your action, keeping you from making any particularly stupid blunders. While the finer points may elude you, eventually pieces of Desert Fox's strategic puzzle will fall into place. You'll guard your supply lines and identify enemy weak points. You'll begin to think like a general. Combine this with scenario-specific tips in the help menu and it won't be long before you have the skills to triumph against the an AI opponent in the First Battle of El Alamain.

It's a learning experience well worth taking in, as Shenandoah has left no detail unconsidered in creating one of the best iOS strategy titles I have yet played. Period-appropriate radio music crackles to life as you study an apparently typewritten briefing report. Bullet-holes dent the combat screen to show how your units are faring in battle. Menus feel like physical objects, and rearrange themselves to better suit a tablet or phone. These touches are just the gilded accoutrements to a solid strategic core, but Shenandoah understands the importance of showmanship. The studio seems to know how stereotypically stodgy a genre wargames are and are actively fighting against that with their unusually lavish attentions to their game's visuals.

If you've ever had even a passing interest in historical wargames, Desert Fox is the one to try. Shenandoah has created a game that can be approached by anyone with the slightest strategic inclinations, without sacrificing cunning or depth. And although my own experience is limited, I am confident in my assumption that existing genre enthusiasts will be equally thrilled. Whether as a point of entry or the latest installment in a massive collecton, Desert Fox is a wargame worth picking up.

Desert Fox was played on an iPad and an iPhone 5S for this review.

Review: Desert Fox -- The Battle of El Alamein

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