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Posted on Apr 29, 2014 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Piercing Fortress Europa – PC Game Review

Piercing Fortress Europa – PC Game Review

By Patrick Baker

piercing-fortress-europa-coverPiercing Fortress Europa. PC game review. Publisher: Matrix Games, Inc. Game Designer: Frank Hunter. $39.99 digital download; $49.99 boxed edition and digital download

Passed Inspection: simultaneous movement, focus on logistics, good AI play

Failed Basic:  lacking examples of play, movement system does not allow for meeting engagements

Piercing Fortress Europa is an easy to learn but hard to master operational level game of the Allied campaigns in Sicily and Italy during World War Two. Unlike most games of this type, Piercing Fortress Europa devotes much of its attention to the sinews of war, the applications of logistics: the supplies, their transportation, and the replenishment of unit manpower. It does this while focusing on a theater of World War Two that tends to get overlooked by wargame developers.

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Historical Background
Winston Churchill famously described Italy as “the soft underbelly of the Axis.” The American military leadership tended to view the invasions in Sicily and Italy as distractions, feints to keep the Axis powers off-balance until the planned invasion across the English Channel that would ultimately win the war. However, British commands favored campaigns in Southern Europe because it played to their strength of sea power. Also, it was traditional British strategy (dating back to the wars of Henry V) to fight on the peripheries of Europe when dealing with a strong Continental enemy.

The invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) was short, the fighting lasting just under six weeks. It cost the Allies about 25,000 total casualties. The Germans lost a little more than 20,000 men. The Italians suffered about 47,000 killed and wounded, and more than 100,000 of their soldiers were captured. These catastrophic losses and the Allied capture of the island triggered the downfall of Benito Mussolini.

The fighting in Italy itself was another matter. While the invasion of the Italian mainland caused the Italian government to pull out of the Axis, the Germans, commanded by Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, were more than ready to conduct a defense of the peninsula even without Italian help. Fighting from well-prepared fortifications, collectively known as the Winter Line and the Gustav Line, the Germans turned the campaign into a hard and bloody slog for the Allies. In fact, for the British and Americans, the Italian Campaign was the most costly of the entire war in terms of infantry casualties.

The Game
Piercing Fortress Europa is a lean game. The graphics are sparse as can be. The maps are hexagon (hex) based and are colored in basic blues, greens and browns. Roads are white lines, towns are black dots, cities are polygon filled hexes, and ports are designated with anchors.

Unit markers use standard NATO symbols for type and size, with stacking ability, troop quality (elite to very low), combat supply status, current strength and disruption levels displayed around the unit symbol. Once the color-coding is learned a player can determine a unit’s abilities at a glance. Unit markers are also colored by nationality; grey for Germans, green for Americans, brown for British, etc.

All this Spartan graphics design is actually good; not a line of code is wasted on fancy but useless chrome, allowing the players to focus on the excellence of the game play.

Game Play
In war, the saying goes, “amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.” Having the best troops in the world does no good unless they can be transported to where they are needed and properly supplied once they get there. In Piercing Fortress Europa the art of logistics is the key element of the game. Players must pay attention to the supply and manpower status of their units while carefully managing their scarce resources. A player is unlikely to have enough resources to launch a front-wide assault on the enemy, so the supplies must be allocated before attacks can be decided on. Attacking with an under-strength or under-supplied unit is a good way to lose the battle. The logistics system forces the player to think two or three moves ahead.

All the actions in the game can be done with a left mouse click, or you can use the icon menu in the top left of the game window. While the game mechanics are pretty simple and easy to learn, a tutorial scenario would be nice, although the Sicily Campaign scenario is basic enough that it can serve as a learning game. The game manual really should have some examples of play in its 44 pages. It took me a couple of turns to grasp how to get my airborne forces to actually land!

Ports are the main supply points and the further a unit is from a port, the harder it is to keep in supply. Resources flow easier on roads than cross-country, so units on roads are better off than those in rough terrain. These elements force the players to focus on the capture or defense of port cities and road junctions, which makes for a feeling of historical accuracy. And the logistical constraints mean a player cannot simply charge straight ahead, but must think where and with what he wishes to attack, when to hold and defend, then distribute resources as required to enact his war plans.

Movement and combat are resolved simultaneously in a WE-GO system. This adds tension to the game as the player is not sure what situation he may be facing when combat resolution takes place. A previously unoccupied hex may end up with a powerful enemy force in it, or an attack may punch empty space as the defenders withdraw. Sadly, no effort was made to allow for meeting engagements, those flashes of history when opposing forces blunder into one another. Instead the unit with the higher combat power gets to occupy the desired hex, while the weaker unit merely sits in its original hex—a surprising oversight for a system based on simultaneous movement.

There are six scenarios, from the quick Sicily Campaign to the long and relatively complex Italian Campaign. Five of the campaigns are based on historical events, along with one “What If” scenario: the Main Front Campaign, which supposes that the invasion of southern France does not take place, leaving in place many units that were in reality withdrawn from Italy.

All of the campaigns can be played from both sides. Along with playing against the well-programmed AI, the game can also be played as a “hot seat” set with two human players, as well as being played by e-mail. The AI is a worthy opponent, at its best when playing the defensive-oriented Axis.

Bottom Line
Ultimately, although Piercing Fortress Europa is niche game, it is a very good one. Gamers interested in exploring the effects of logistics on modern warfare will enjoy this game, or those equally interested in the Sicilian and Italian operations will find the challenge enjoyable, engaging and educational. However, the game’s nearly $40 dollar US price, its unflashy graphics, and its somewhat restricted historical focus may keep others away. But they’ll be missing out on a well-designed operational simulation of the Second World War.

Armchair General Rating 90%

Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee. He has degrees in Education, History and Political Science. He cut his war-gaming teeth on Squad Leader and Victory Games’ Fleet Series. He bought his first PC in 1990, a Wang PC-240, specifically to play SSI’s The Battles of Napoleon (much to the annoyance of his wife). He continues to use all his education to play more games and annoy his family. 

7 Comments

  1. I have purchased dozens of Martix wargames. I haven’t really gotten into this game yet because of a problem. When I installed it on my high end gaming laptop the screen resolution buttons were all unclickable except for the highest resolution. As a result the viewable game was way too large for the screen, making the game unplayable, since the buttons needed to play the game were off the viewable area. Ironically, I tried to install it on my old XP laptop and it displayed properly. I tried to find a fix on the Matrix forums, but so far no help has been forthcoming. Rather disappointing that I spent $40 on a game that I can’t play on my main gaming computer.

  2. A fine review but I disagree about meeting engagements. Given the 4-6 day/12 km scale, I think colliding forces would not have a pitched battle but would size up their opponent and, if weaker, fall back and form up for a set-piece attack the next turn.

    • I will buy this game. The review mentions the focus on logistics and this interests me.Not a lot of games have this emphasis. Frank Hunter is noted for this, going back to his self published Napoleonic games, games which I enjoyed.

      Another reason I will support Frank’s games is this….maybe 8-10 years ago he was selling his work himself. I read about it somewhere and decided to buy at his price which was 10-15 bucks at the time. Well, I didn’t have my checkbook with me and so I dropped the cash in an envelope and sent it to him, got my game back in record time.

      It wasn’t a large wager on my part but showed Mr Hunter’s integrity. I’ll be playing this one tomorrow.

  3. Tony,

    Frank has posted on your issue today on the Matrix forum.

  4. Frank’s reply:

    “First, to Armchair General, thank you!

    Jim, agreed. The time scale is such that a unit should only be dong one thing at a time. Attacking, withdrawing, moving etc. So when two opposing units are moving and one is about to enter a hex the other has just occupied I looked at that and decided that that would necessitate new orders. So both units halt. There certainly might have been a small action with platoons firing at each other but nothing at the division level.

    I had originally experimented with a time scale of 10-14 days and orders had to be more complex, such as move to this point, attack if met by a weaker force, fall back if met by a stronger force, etc. But I felt the player should be making those decisions as they occurred, not trying to guess ahead of time what might happen and what to do if it did. Going to a shorter time scale and dropping complex orders and allowing a unit to do only one thing at a time works much better.

    At this scale, you could say battles brought on by a meeting engagement happen, but its over two turns. A unit moves, contact is made, the player decides whether to withdraw, hold, attack or reinforce. I know it doesn’t have quite the same feel, but it seems to work without the need for complex orders. Or at least I hope it does.

    So yes, I agreed with your point in the comments.”

    • First thanks for all the comments on my review and I hope how much I truly enjoyed and liked the game came through.

      But I must defend my statement about meeting engagements.
      While it is true that the weaker unit would generally lose any meeting engagement to the stronger, the game simply assumes that the “division commanders” have prefect knowledge of the strength of the units they are facing in such a situation. That is to say, that the weaker unit knows, without a doubt, that it is facing a stronger unit and vice versa. Such intelligence would, in fact, not be evident.

      According to historian Geoffrey Perrett, in “There’s a War to be Won” even late in the war, the Germans were still wedded to the local counter attack and often pushed bad positions when falling back would have been the wiser move, that is to say: “poking with a finger, rather than hitting with a fist.” So a meeting battle where a German commander would simply stop and fall back without at least trying to develop the situation would be a rare event.

      What I would suggest for meeting engagements would be that both units suffer some damage and loses dependant on their relative strengths and that the weaker, losing unit, then be forced to fall back only one hex; back to its starting hex or a hex along its line of march.

      • I continue to disagree. The scale of the game is usually division. Of course, skirmishes happened but they were not big enough to be modeled at this scale.

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