Undaunted: Normandy is an interesting hybrid. Part deck-builder and part traditional wargame, it is as approachable for wargamers as it is for those who have never placed a cardboard counter on a battlefield hexagon in their lives. Undaunted: Normandy follows the June 1944 exploits of the 30th US Infantry Division as they move into France to battle Nazi Germany. The progress of the scenarios mirrors the actual actions fought by designer David Thompson’s grandfather, adding an air of authenticity and gravitas to the game.
To start a game, players take the side of either the 30th US Infantry Division or a mixed German Wehrmacht Platoon and choose one of 12 scenarios. The scenario booklet tells players how to compose their decks, how to build the supply that they will take new cards from, how to lay out the tiles to create the unique scenario environment, and winning conditions for each side.
From D-Day to the Bloody Streets of Mortain
Scenarios are varied with different objectives, but their progress doubles as a tutorial, linearly adding more complex troops as players work through them. The problem with this approach is that it hinders replayability, as players who are familiar with the mechanics are forced to play with reduced decks for most of the scenarios. The tragically unfulfilling solution is that the final scenario operates as a sort of ‘standard battle’ with every type of card in play and symmetrical starting situations for both players. This pales in comparison to more robust card-driven wargames, like Command and Colours. More varied scenarios that incorporate more unit card types would have been appreciated.
The campaign, which connects each scenario together to form a long game of many battles, helps to mediate this problem. Victories are the primary indicator of campaign success, but keeping casualties to a minimum is also important as certain thresholds lose campaign victory points. In practice, this has led to several games in which my wife and I had to contemplate giving up an objective and losing a scenario rather than holding it to the last man. Was dragging out a mostly-sure defeat worth the cost to our campaign score? Undaunted: Normandy’s campaign adds a nuance to play that is sorely missing from standalone scenario play and adds weight to the thematic world of the game. It matters when your soldiers die.
A Fascinating Mix of Mechanics: How Undaunted Normandy Plays
The deck-building mechanics are cleverly employed to subtly push players towards an approximation of Second World War small unit tactics while not becoming overbearing. Each card in a player’s hand either represents an individual soldier, who belongs to a labeled squad, a commander capable of influencing the deck, or a useless fog of war card.
Soldiers can be played to activate their squad’s token on the game map and perform a single action. These actions all wonderfully weave deck-building game management into wargaming staples. Scouts can shoot, but they can also add a Fog of War card to the opponent’s deck or remove one from their own. Machine Gunners can shoot with two dice or lay down suppressing fire, doubling their attack dice to flip an enemy token instead of damaging it. This forces a card play to flip that unit back over before it can act normally. These examples highlight how deftly David Thompson weaves the military theme throughout the mechanics of Undaunted: Normandy.
Push Your Luck with Initiative
In a given turn, players draw four cards before putting one up to determine initiative. This card will be discarded after the initiative phase, thereby losing players the opportunity to use it on the field. Each card has an initiative value that corresponds to their overall utility and importance. This is a crucial step as the player with initiative will play their entire hand before their opponent. Giving up a commander to go first might cripple a player’s turn, but they must judge if it is worth it to ensure they can move their squad to cover before they can be torn apart by the enemy’s machine gun.
After initiative players play all their cards, one at a time, carrying out a single action for each. There are some minimal deck-building synergies that players can implement, like stacking a certain squad’s cards in their deck and then attempting to use commanders to draw extras. In most cases though, the deck-building works to enhance the wargaming aspect of Undaunted: Normandy, modeling deteriorating command and control, the relative efficiency of depleted squads, and abstracting officer intuition.
A Visual Experiment that Pays Off
Visually, the game is fantastic. The tile boards that make up the battlefield are sturdy, their cover values are clearly labeled, and the terrain they model is pretty and distinct. Cards on both sides are made up of named individuals in a cartoony style that I admit took some time to appreciate. Playing the game now I cannot imagine it with any other look. The fact that individual soldiers are named helps players connect with their actions. When a unit is hit, and a player is forced to permanently discard a card from that squad, they are saying goodbye to that individual for the rest of the game. It’s a subtle, but impressive bit of thematic chrome.
The deck-building mechanics are a revelation, even after all this time. My wife and I had as much fun with Undaunted: Normandy as we did a year ago when we first played it. The campaign is definitely the way to play the game, and because of the nuance it adds we might even play it through again in a few months. Undaunted: Normandy is definitely worth exploring for wargame fans, deck-building fans, and even fans of design who are interested in seeing what an unexpected but excellent pairing looks like in the wild.
I have seen several reviews of this game, and each one has me inch ever closer to picking up a copy. Unfortunately, I have nobody in this new COVID world around me that would play this with me. 🙁
One quick question, in another review of this game I listened as the reviewer expressed a bit of an ‘overload’ of same-old-list-of-players when it came to WWII game design. He went on to explain that he would like to see some of the less celebrated heroes of that conflict brought into the gaming spotlight (his example was the combat veterans from India that essentially saved Great Britain’s butt in the war). As a game enthusiast and a Historian, what is your take on that subject?
P.S.: Feel free to not answer here, but write a whole article on this topic! I would love to read it.
This might actually make a great topic for article! I’ve spoken before about this issue, and as a historian of 19th century East Asia, there is a lot of crucial topics in my field and many others that I believe deserve their time in the gaming sun. One of the best ways to spark interest is to get someone playing a game, of course!
In short, it comes down to money (big surprise, right?) WWII games, and especially WWII games on the usual suspects of Normandy, Stalingrad etc. sell well. That’s pretty much it. The sequel to this game actually used the success of a Normandy focused game to tell the story of Italians and British recon units in North Africa. Still one of the popular settings but definitely less so than Normandy ’44.