This is not a review of Shenandoah’s latest iPad wargame, Desert Fox

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This isn’t a game review. There is nothing objective about anything you’re about to read. Not that making this a review would somehow mean it would have to be an objective enumeration of the game’s features and technical specs, although you and I both know that there are plenty of websites doing exactly that, as though they were describing accounting software. But there is a big difference between a guy getting an advance copy of a game from a publisher and playing a few times over one day before rendering an opinion, and a guy spending a year playing a game, first in boardgame format and then on the iPad, over a dozen major rules changes and a hundred separate builds, and then trying to tell you what he thinks. Each one needs to be taken with an industrial dose of whichever variation of the sodium chloride idiom is currently in vogue in your vernacular of English.

After the jump, it’s up to you to decide which you find more helpful.

Shenandoah Studio’s debut title, Battle of the Bulge, was a brilliant game for so many reasons that it’s easy to see subsequent iterations of that particular system as cheap upgrades with different unit colors and more exotic maps. In digital gaming, the presentation can overwhelm the mechanics so much that games that break new ground in the former are disproportionately remembered for it, while subsequent improvements in the latter are missed because the presentation is seen as “nothing new”.

The Battle of the Bulge and Desert Fox maps are each composed of 61 spaces, but the mechanics have evolved in ways that show how intimately Shenandoah understand their creation, like a conductor choosing pieces for an orchestra that highlight strengths learned over years of familiarity. Desert Fox dons the disguise of a new color palette and some unpronounceable desert names so that workmanlike tax software reviewers can note the changes in the rules (“unsupplied units can move!” and “you can redeploy units in between battles!”) without evaluating whether or not they’re successful, or (more importantly) why that is. Evaluating the actual gameplay reveals just how well the design fits the gestalt of the event it depicts. The thing someone who has been playing the game for over a year can tell you is that it certainly wasn’t that way to start with.

Shenandoah’s take on the climactic desert battle of World War II has undergone numerous changes and tweaks since its original design, and I’ve written previously about how a game using an existing system for a certain battle became a game about a certain battle by changing and customizing an existing system. Rules were introduced, tweaked, changed, dropped, and reintroduced in different forms in pursuit of a game that played cleanly, presented clear decision points, and still held to a historical model that required a fair bit of interpretation and investigation to illuminate the details of sacrifices made on a plain of rocks and sand about to pass out of living memory.

Part of the joy of Desert Fox is peculiar to an appreciation of the historical situation that might not be accessible to everyone who tries the game, because I mean how many people are really interested in a desert battle from 1942 when space marines are dying for the Emperor right now under our noses? And don’t take that as sarcasm because I’m one giant foam-Pope-hat-wearing fan of the Legiones Astartes. But for those who bring previous knowledge of a dramatic turning point in the Egyptian desert to their digital entertainment will be gratified to see how well the historical feel translates to a system that just 18 months ago was all about massive armored surprise attacks over snow-covered Belgian bridges.

Right now, you’ve scrolled down to the bottom of this piece, found no rating, and are now scrolling back up looking for anything about the AI. I know you, because you’re me when I don’t work on games. And my answer to you on that question is this: some people will play Desert Fox and become frustrated with its difficulty and give up. Some will play a couple times, cleverly pick up on the game’s keys, and wrestle out the game’s secrets after a half dozen plays. But those in the middle, if they don’t read my helpful in-game strategy tips (tap “Help” in the main menu and then either “Tips- Axis” or “Tips- Commonwealth”) or the companion article to the opening scenario, may find the intricacies take a little time to master. Will the AI play as well as I do? Challenge me and find out.

Part of this has to do with the smaller size of many of the units compared to previous games. The fundamental tension of Battle of the Bulge was the many against the few, the strong against the weak, and successful gameplay relied on calculating just how much excessive force you could assemble in a given place. Desert Fox is a game of the few against the fewer, requiring bluff, misdirection, and speed to preserve your force while simultaneously wielding it. A couple pips of elite infantry is a lot more formidable, and a single tank pip a lot more useful, than you might expect.

Yeah, okay, but the big change is the ability to reposition your units in the middle of the game, reinforce them, and basically fight incremental battles when you see an opportunity (or feel forced to do so by events). It’s up to you (and your supply stockpile). At one point, the game’s developer stated that he wanted every week to be a tough decision about whether or not to initiate an offensive. At first glance, that might seem very reasonable. But is it?

The funny thing about a game that does a good job of capturing its historical period is that things that wouldn’t have made sense in history just naturally don’t make sense in the game. While it’s a laudable game design goal to make each decision as meaningful as possible, the realities of the desert meant that Rommel only launched two offensives over the entire course of the four-month campaign. As the Axis, you’ll probably do the same thing: you’ll push as best you can at the outset, reposition at the perceived weakest spot, and after a month or two of refit, make a desperate lunge for the Nile Delta. The Desert Fox himself tried to do the same thing.

Yet a good game doesn’t straitjacket you into a historical strategy when it wouldn’t make sense otherwise. Depending on how the Commonwealth plays, you may very well get additional opportunities. In a playtest game against the game’s lead programmer, I failed to appreciate just how brittle the unreinforced Commonwealth position is, and after he had exhausted his Axis push, I waited for a couple refit turns (in which you also get upgrades that increase the strength of your units) and confidently pushed off on the offensive that would clear Egypt of the fascist menace. My opponent evaluated the balance of forces, saw my miscalculation, and launched a vicious counterattack that drove me to the very edge of the battlefield. The margin by which the last-ditch defense of the road to Cairo succeeded was both quantitatively and qualitatively minute.

I love the Western Desert. To me, it’s the epitome of adventure and mystery. I’ve written some things about my fascination with distance and space in gaming, and I could probably write a whole other series about its application to this particular historical moment. At some point maybe I will. But it’s precisely this obsession that got me involved with this particular project in the first place. I’m very glad I did.

I can’t advise you whether or not to buy the game, since I’m pretty invested in it (time investment only; I have not been monetarily compensated). I’ve spent much free time in the past year trying to help the developers make this game as good as it can possibly be. I can’t tell you whether or not it’s worth your time. But I sure wouldn’t trade the past year of work for anything. You can decide for yourself what that means.