Game Reviews

Desert Fox: The Battle of El Alamein

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Desert Fox: The Battle of El Alamein

There is a long and ignoble tradition of historical war games being made as ugly and impenetrable as possible.

This forces players to cut through tough layers of outdated graphics and complex rules before they can get at the sweet strategic meat inside.

Shenandoah has made a career out of challenging this stereotype with its World War 2 Crisis in Command series.

Previous entries Battle of the Bulge and Drive on Moscow were slick, accessible, and brilliant, and took a deserved spot near the top of my favourite mobile strategy games list.

Now the series is back with Desert Fox: The Battle of El Alamein, which focuses on Montgomery's clashes with Rommel in North Africa.

Tundra wolf

If you're new to the series, you need to know that this is turn-based strategy for everyone.

Touch a map area and you'll activate the units inside. This shows you where they can go and, if it's applicable, who they can attack.

You can commit, select another area, or pass. Then your opponent choses an area, and so on until someone wins.

That simple interface hides a wealth of challenge and detail. Some of it's obvious: tanks move faster and hit harder on the offence than infantry, for instance.

A lot of what you need to know is covered in a short series of excellent interactive tutorials. If you want to become a competent player, though, you will need to read the all of the rules.

One of the stand-out things about Shenandoah's games is the stellar presentation. Static strategy titles simply should not look this good.

Desert Fox takes a small step backwards compared to its predecessors though. This is thanks largely to the uniform brown sand of its desert setting and a slightly nondescript soundtrack.

But it's still light years ahead of the competition, and creates a convincing sense of time and place with profuse military diagrams, historical photos, and scratchy wireless samples.

Savanna dingo

Those who've played previous iterations will be thirsting to know what's new. The most notable change is that the harsh desert conditions can cause units to randomly lose supply.

This makes the end of every turn an exercise in agony as you wait to see which of your units get to move and fight next turn and which don't. You can pick a few troops to get guaranteed supply, but you need to choose wisely.

The biggest addition is minefields, which are used liberally in some of the scenarios. These act like immovable units, delaying the enemy advance and possibly destroying troops. Some troop types, like infantry, have a chance to clear them.

These mechanics simultaneously increase the tension and unpredictability of the game, while still retaining a hefty chunk of player control.

It's a beguiling mix. That uncertainty, coupled with a new map, means the game avoids the sort of scripted opening and ending moves that bedevilled previous entries.

Swamp Dog

A choice of scenarios, sides, and occasionally ropey AI personalities to play against ensure replayability.

But the game is far from over when you're done with them. It works brilliantly played asynchronously against other humans, with Shenandoah's customary skill at presentation and interface ensuring it's a smooth and exhilarating experience.

The only thing standing between Desert Fox and the unbridled enthusiasm with which I celebrated the first game in the series is a certain sense of deja vu.

The game has a new setting, and new mechanics, but for someone like me who spent a colossal amount of time on the first two games, Desert Fox feels a little too familiar.

On one hand, I think it's the best of the Crisis in Command games so far. On the other hand, as the third game based on similar core mechanics, it's starting to feel a little long in the tooth.

But if you're new to Shenandoah's innovative, accessible and absorbing take on the strategy genre, you should snap this up.

If only to see how a 21st century strategy game ought to look and play.

Desert Fox: The Battle of El Alamein

An incredibly polished, riveting, and accessible strategy game, but veterans of the series might find it a little over-familiar