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Undaunted: Normandy Review

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Play Matt - Undaunted: Normandy Review

MT Updated October 23, 2019
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Play Matt - Undaunted: Normandy Review

Game Information

There Will Be Games

If there's one thing I can't stand in a game, it's faff. And deckbuilders tend to have more than their fair share. But Undaunted: Normandy makes it easy. A few double-sided squares to build a board, a few soldier cards to make your deck and you're done. Between the two of us, it takes moments, seeming too good to be true.

And we're off, feeling our way like brave explorers in a brave new world. The first scenario is about controlling objectives. But most units can't move into a square until a scout unit has recced it with a Scout card. Naturally, I have none in my opening hand, only a Leader and a Rifleman. So I play the leader which lets me add cards to my deck - I choose a Scout - and take some ineffectual shots with the Rifleman.

My opponent has more luck and begins to Scout. Doing so, though, adds useless Fog of War cards to his deck. Another use of a Scout card is to remove these but, over these tentative turns, their accumulation bedevils our hands. Soon, the game bogs down into a static firefight. Combat, like everything in Undaunted: Normandy is simple. Each tile has a cover value and you add that, plus the range, to the target's defence number, then roll the total or more on a d10. A hit removes a card of the matching type from the enemy deck.

We're dug down in good cover squares, shooting away, trying to clear a path to those objectives. All we're doing is drawing cards and rolling dice, but the hope inherent in every action is like a drug. Drawing and cursing. Rolling and cheering. Neither of us cares that nothing is moving. How long can the game sustain us in this camouflage?

As it begins to waver, my mind begins to wander. I ponder why there are no rules for suppression or retreat. Then, as I take a hit and discard a card out of the game, the brilliance of Undaunted: Normandy, crashes down on me like a wave. The number of cards in my deck *is* suppression and retreat. The more I remove as casualties, the less the corresponding counter on the board can do.

So I start to work the numbers, using Leaders to bolster my deck, protecting me from fire. It works. I quickly manage to push the Germans back. Then I creep forward, capturing the last objective I need. The whole concept of the game has taken my breath away. But the static nature of that first scenario is undeniably weak, and it takes more than a breathtaking concept to make a game.

There is no question but that we're doing this again. A bit more sorting of cards and tiles and we're on to scenario two. This introduces machine-gun teams on the German side which have big attack dice. They also have a Suppression ability which is an attack with more dice that disables the target for its next play, rather than removing its card.

It proves an almost unassailable asset. My task is to move my US forces to capture objectives on the far side of the board. The weight of fire and the weight of luck on the German dice is so huge that it's soon over. I can't work out what I've done wrong so I ask for a rematch.

This time, I try to puzzle through the strategic options. Might hanging back or splitting my forces work? I think not. So instead I use my Scouts for something different. One of their options is to add Fog of War to the enemy deck in a neat simulation of deception operations.

For a few tight turns, it feels like this might work. But then the Germans regain the initiative. They have only one squad rather than two in this scenario which hands them an unexpected advantage. If I have an alpha squad rifleman poised to take an objective and draw a hand full of bravo squad cards, he's a sitting duck. Undaunted's deck doesn't just brilliantly abstract away firefights but command confusion too, with zero added rules.

My opponent is turned off by the apparently one-sided nature of this scenario. So we put the game away. Later, I get out the scenario book and look, longingly at the setup, trying to work out a solution on the board or in the deck. My brain decides to work on it as I sleep since, during my morning shower, a possible solution hits me. It feels like my slower deck is a disadvantage but what if I leverage my extra squad, using weight of numbers to slowly thin his smaller card pool?

Half of me it so absorbed by this that I want to try again and see if it works, see if there's a German counterpoint to work against it. The other half wants to try the other eleven scenarios in the book. That part wins. So I take it to a friend's house to play the third scenario. This involves a river, and for the first time, the sheer simplicity of Undaunted: Normandy disappoints. There are no special terrain effects for the water: it's mere decoration and it feels wrong.

And it turns out that third time's the charm. This scenario is as dynamic and open as the first two felt closed and static. Objectives dot the river and the board corners. My soldiers quickly secure enough to launch a winning bid, but I have a long way to go to reach the final ones I need. The German player adds machine guns to his deck and lays down a murderous suppressing fire. I'm trapped, one square from victory, pinned in a space with no cover.

He begins to inch up the river, adding to his tally and threatening my existing gains. At first, I'm adding Riflemen to my deck to try and get the impetus to unsuppress and move for that final point. But as he gathers momentum, I switch tactics. I add some machine gunners myself and set up a base of fire in a covered hex. It works. His own units are quickly suppressed. But I don't have the firepower to convert it into casualties.

We're grinding out inches here, working on the smallest margins. Then, all of a sudden, I have a winning hand. I've got the cards to capture that last objective. If I go first, I could. But turn order gets determined through the blind play of a card, highest value wins. My other two cards are Fog of War, and the German wins the ties. I have to risk it and let him go first, hoping he doesn't have the one machine gun I know he has left in his deck to suppress me.

Nightmare. Not only does he have it, but he's got the cards to push and flip his last objective and steal the win. I feel energised, thrilled by the closeness of the game. But he's disappointed it came down to random card draw, left cold by the military theme. I'm reminded that not everyone finds it so easy to separate toy soldiers from real ones.

Starved of opponents, I take to soloing the game. This is awkward, given the first-turn bid, but not impossible since most players use it as an excuse to ditch Fog of War cards. The next couple of scenarios introduce new units. The hard to kill sniper and the lethal mortar, which needs separate actions to setup and attack. The richness, depth and realism these add for almost no rules overhead are quite incredible.

Poring over cards, alone, there's nothing left but to ponder why a game this good has so few takers in my circle of friends. I asked them but got no clear responses. But second-guessing the answer, I think, is the theme.

Some gamers will slaughter a million goblins but turn away at a drop of human blood. Some will slaughter a million soldiers, but only with a million rules to make it a historical simulation. Undaunted: Normandy, proudly militaristic but without a single line of sight rule, falls deep into the wide valley between these two. It would be a shame if this game, brimming with smart design and excitement, got overlooked down there.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

The abstraction of infantry combat with deckbuilding is a stroke of genius, leaving a tactically and strategically rich game which is perhaps too abstract for its subject.
#1 Reviewer 286 reviews
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #299915 22 Jul 2019 08:19
Great review! I know several people (some on this site) who have expressed that the military theme is a turn-off. But hey, I don't want to play games about mushrooms or quilting, so to each their own.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #299918 22 Jul 2019 09:00
A fine review, love the way you weave narrative and gameplay together. But -- a couple of questions. You seem to indicate there is a board of sorts made from cards? A modular thing? How much of the game is position-based and how much is card-play-based please?
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #299919 22 Jul 2019 09:09
I'm gonna have to check this out. The card play sounds fascinating.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #299920 22 Jul 2019 09:27

Sagrilarus wrote: A fine review, love the way you weave narrative and gameplay together. But -- a couple of questions. You seem to indicate there is a board of sorts made from cards? A modular thing? How much of the game is position-based and how much is card-play-based please?

You have it right, the board is modular, made up of squares of thick cardboard which are arranged into an asymmetric grid.

EDIT: here's a photo of the board in play, scenario #2:

The bulk of the strategy comes in handling your cards and deck, but positional-based play is not unimportant. There are different approach routes to objectives, for example, and a canny player can exploit different distances and cover values.

If you look at that photo, for example, the objectives are the brown "1" tokens on the bottom left and bottom right. The bottom left is closer for the US forces but has less cover (the numbers in the shield icons). So the US player has a strategic choice of speed over safety.

This is one of the few aspects of the game that I do feel could be better: some very simple terrain, LOS or facing rules would have paid off handsomely in terms of deeper position play.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #299922 22 Jul 2019 09:44
This sounds great, completely off my radar.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #299927 22 Jul 2019 10:54
I usually dislike deck builders, because they usual feel like theme-less exercises in shuffling and card combos. But this one looks great, and I think that the modular board makes a big difference.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #299978 23 Jul 2019 20:06
I’m very much NOT into WW2 games, but the designers of War Chest certainly grab my attention.
PYF's Avatar
PYF replied the topic: #300924 20 Aug 2019 04:57
Hi, really enjoyed this review and love the narrative style. Many thanks for a great read.

I have a question though: how easy is it to solo the game? I bought it yesterday after seeing it listed on BGG as 1-2 players (I have nobody up for playing it with me, sadly), but then discovered there's no official solo variant.

You mention you solo'd a scenario, and I would be extremely grateful if you could let me/the internet know how easy/satisfying it was to do this?

For some context, I have happily solo'd most of my 2+ player games (Mermoir 44, Concordia, Clank etc) so am happy to put in some faff/legwork if the resulting game is worth it! But I saw a note from the developer on BGG saying U:N is not really soloable due to having knowledge of the opponent's hand, which may spoil the game for some.

What are your thoughts on this please?

Hope you can help, and many thanks for your time.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #300925 20 Aug 2019 05:16

PYF wrote: I have a question though: how easy is it to solo the game? I bought it yesterday after seeing it listed on BGG as 1-2 players (I have nobody up for playing it with me, sadly), but then discovered there's no official solo variant.

BGG actually says 2 players, as does the box: it's a "community" vote that says it's for 1-2 players and I don't know how anyone else might be soloing it.

I did it by working the initiative system a turn in advance. Deal the start player a hand. If it contains a "Fog of War" card, that is always chosen for initiative. If not, choose a card for initiative and set it aside. Then play the turn.

For the second player, go through the same system. If their initiative card is higher, then they get to start the next turn.

Does that make sense? It means the player who wins ties will almost always go first, but that's how it plays out the majority of the time in face to face play. You miss the occasional edge case when going first is a critical strategic move, but those are pretty rare anyway.
PYF's Avatar
PYF replied the topic: #300926 20 Aug 2019 05:32
Makes perfect sense, thank you!

So a final quick question if I may: In your opinion, would it be worth buying purely for solo play?
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #300933 20 Aug 2019 08:49

PYF wrote: Makes perfect sense, thank you!

So a final quick question if I may: In your opinion, would it be worth buying purely for solo play?

Of course, you may. And the answer is: no. But there's an important qualifier which is that almost no games are, IMO, worth buying purely for solo play.

However, bear in mind that Undaunted is NOT specifically designed for solitaire play and so soloing it is strictly worse than playing it with two.
PYF's Avatar
PYF replied the topic: #300939 20 Aug 2019 10:21
Thanks. Very grateful for your help!