...and it all fits in one box.
Undaunted – both in its Normandy and North Africa flavors – is a masterpiece. David Thompson and Trevor Benjamin created what is, at this point, the only game with a World War II setting that I want to play. Sure, it’s not as narrative as the seminal Up Front or its relative successor Combat Commander and it certainly isn’t as detailed or rife with historical verisimilitude as heavier designs in this space, but I don’t care. Because I don’t care about gaming World War II anymore.
I think the breaking point for me was when I played Undaunted: Normandy with my son for the first time. I was setting up and I was like “OK, do you want to be the US or the Germans”. He immediately put two and two together – “why would anyone want to be the Nazis?” And suddenly decades of Boomer WWII fetishism (which is often quite close to Nazi fetishism) came crashing down. So I took on the role of the Nazis, bothered the whole time that I was gaming as commanders and soldiers fighting for a racist, fascist regime not unlike that which today’s conservatives are pushing us all toward.
Regardless, he loved the game and still does. And I do too, but I’ve not reviewed it or written all that much about it even though I think it is one of the better games of the past few years. Osprey’s release of the new Reinforcements expansion, which the publisher kindly provided for review, seems like a good opportunity to issue forth on it beyond my socio-political reservations about its subject matter. And I think it’s significant because it’s one of the best expansions I’ve seen for a game in years.
Reinforcements essentially takes both games and makes them a “big box” version with modular additions, a killer solo mode, a so-so multiplayer option, new scenarios and most importantly storage for everything. I was pleased as punch to recycle the original two boxes with the quickness and delighted that the games are now cohabitating a single box not that much bigger than the old ones. Beyond the logistical benefit of this expansion, it also delivers quite a lot of worthwhile content.
One of the more significant additions is bringing the North Africa vehicle rules, which I think are really fun, to the Normandy. After playing North Africa I felt like Normandy was to some degree a lesser game without tanks and fighting vehicles involved. My son agreed and Normandy was all but shelved in favor of armor, but now here we are bringing tanks to the bocage. There are new Specialist units for Normandy and four new scenarios accommodating it all, and I especially like that this package effectively updates the first game to be as robust as the second. Mines and air support are also added to North Africa and its four new scenarios, as well as some new units to play with.
I’m not really into multiplayer options where two players control one side, and that remains the case here. This is a head to head game, designed as a head to head game, and should be played as a head to head game. But the option is here if you really want to do a four player game, and with some groups I suppose that could be essential in order to get the game played at all.
The solo mode designed by solitaire maven David Turczi is also a new way to get this game tabled when you can’t muster another player (for example, when my son has gone to bed on a school night). And it is outstanding. With that said, expectations need to be carefully metered here as it absolutely does not simulate the nuances and squishiness of playing with a live human being. But what it does is create, through a series of triage cards that are unique for each scenario, is a simulation of an AI working toward specific objectives, prioritizing targets, and taking actions that seem mostly reasonable based on the game state. The key, to my mind, is that Mr. Turczi has essentially crafted a solo mode for each scenario rather than applying an all-over system like you might find in other games and it is quite a bit more sophisticated than the “run toward player/attack nearest player” kinds of logic often seen in cardboard AI mechanisms. Each unit type acts like it should, and I think that’s an impressive feat in a tactical wargame such as this.
I’ve really enjoyed my solo sessions and I’ve been thrilled to get this game played more often. I think Mr. Turczi’s work completely captures the spirit of the game, which is crucial. The frisson of bidding valuable cards for initiative that you really need on the upcoming turn is there, as are the tough decision points of how to best use your hand each round. The AI will react to your actions, and it will often surprise you with the kinds of decisions that you’d likely make if you were playing two-handed solo. Sometimes, better than I would, if I’m being honest here. You’ll run into occasional glitches where you have to make a judgement call or pause to sort out what the best of a couple of choices are for the automated opponent, but I’ve found that it rarely feels “stupid”.
It’s just such a great package overall and I’d go so far as to consider it essential. It feels as if it completes both Normandy and North Africa. It’s like a victory lap for this system, bringing in a couple of new options that enhance play and expand the available content. For newcomers, I’d stick to recommending a look at North Africa first but those interested in this add-on, you do really need to have both previous releases and then we are getting into big bucks. But they’re likely to be big bucks well spent because this is a game with lots of meaningful content which rewards repeated play as players become more skilled with its deckbuilding and tactical manuevering.
Finally, a word about the supposedly mismatched card backs that had some folks demanding replacements and questioning Osprey’s QC standards. I don’t care and neither should you. For sensible players, it will never impact play in any way.