Undaunted Normandy is so full of familiar features that I initially thought nothing of it. Osprey Games has a good track record, and the designers put out War Chest a couple years ago that is an abstract-slash-skirmish game that is well worth a look, but that wasn’t quite enough to excite. Deckbuilding? Familiar. 2p tactical combat? There’s lots of that now. World War 2…again? However, soon after its release the praise started coming in. Enough was piled on that finally I decided to shuffle up and command my forces, and boy am I glad that I did.
Undaunted Normandy is the story of the US 30th Infantry Division’s Rifle Platoon, and follows its actual operational history in the days and months following the D-Day Landing. Designers David Thompson and Trevor Benjamin did their research in modeling the game’s US forces on the actual structure of the 30th. As their commander, you’ll direct Riflemen, Machine Gunners, Scouts, and their Squad Leaders across the fields of Normandy. In your way will be your opponent’s similarly structured (though less historically accurate) German forces.
The game presents the 11 scenarios as a campaign that follows real events in the history of the 30th, though it’s worth noting that this is not a “campaign” in the traditional board gaming sense. There is no carry-over from mission to mission and thus no necessity to even play the same side from mission to mission. Given the inherent emotional weight to a war game—even a light one—this isn’t a knock. In fact, each card features unique art and a name. It hammers home the human cost of war even without a mission impacting the next one.
While each card narratively represents a unique individual, mechanically they represent command logistics. The board is made up of a number of tiles peppered with objectives and troops as dictated by the scenario. To move your squads around the board you’ll have to play the appropriate cards. Rifleman A cards allow you to move the Rifleman Squad token, Scout B cards allow you to move the Scout Squad B token, and so on. Each card offers different actions and each time you play a card you can choose a single action. Right away, this creates tension.
Winning involves capturing objectives, which requires you to move your Riflemen onto those Objectives. However, your opponent will be heading towards them as well as trying to shoot you. Spending a card to move means forgoing that Squad’s attack; unless you have multiple cards in hand you’ll have to wait a round and hope to draw a card to return fire. This is where Squad Leaders and Sergeants come in. Both give you the option to repeat actions, or Bolster your troops by adding additional cards to your deck. In some scenarios this will allow you to add new units to the board, but typically it means reinforcing your existing units. These reinforcements are literal—when a unit is shot you burn a card out of the game until the token is removed—and figurative. By repeatedly bolstering your Unit you’ll fill your deck with their cards, giving you repeated opportunities to command them.
War isn’t all inspirational speeches however. Movement is mostly limited to spaces you’ve Scouted, an action that also fills your deck with useless Fog of War cards. 4 cards are drawn each round and 1 is used to bid for initiative, meaning your options are heavily limited. If your hand ends up plugged up with Fog of War cards you’ll have a particularly bad time. Scouts can also remove those cards from your deck, however doing so means you aren’t Scouting, Attacking, or progressing towards victory. That balance is one that plays out all over the game.
Focus on advancing and working towards Objectives, and your opponent can fire upon you at will. Stop and fight and you can find yourself in a war of attrition, senselessly trading causalities (there’s the themes of war coming through). Scouts can clear your deck of Fog, giving you clean access to command your troops but it comes at the cost of time. Precious time is the only resource you can’t stuff into your deck. Everything in Undaunted Normandy comes with an opportunity cost. Even filling your deck with Squad A cards means diluting Squad B’s resources; a Commander’s attention is finite.
Each game plays out as a battle of wits and risk. Every card moves you forward in one way, and holds you back in another. Victory will require risking your soldier’s lives, leaving some stranded while you hope to draw a hand full of cards that will let you dart forward and claim an objective. While some games can descend into back-and-forth firefights that quickly lose their luster, most will teeter on a sharp edge, each player gaining and losing momentum with each round’s draw. It’s inevitable that you will draw a 3 powerful cards and a Fog of War, forcing you into the tough decision of bidding the Fog of War card and almost certainly going 2nd or risking the loss of a Rifleman to steal initiative.
This core structure absolutely kicks ass. The action is immediate, every decision is critical, and the rules are so light you’ll have them fully absorbed in a single play. With the exception for remembering to target your Mortars, adding the more advanced units in later scenarios is seamless and simple. There are more cards to choose from and tougher decisions to shape your focus, but no cruft that can often bog down wargames.
Undaunted Normandy takes all those familiar features and repackages them into something that feels fresh and new. The setting gives you familiar jumping off point to develop your strategy and the deckbuilding mechanism expertly drives home the feel of limited resources and spotty communication. A sequel, Undaunted: North Africa has just released and an expansion that will (among other things) allow for 3-4 players has been announced. That’s a great sign for the future of the game and system, and something that has me excited. I highly recommend this one. It’s the kind of game that makes you push to play just one more scenario or to switch sides and try an opposing strategy—anything to shuffle up and play one more time.