Piercing Fortress Europa – PC Game Review
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.