"You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months..." Dwight Eisenhower
D-Day at Omaha Beach is a solitaire war game put out by Decision Games back in 2009. In it you command the men of the 1st and 29th infantry divisions as they storm the beaches of Normandy on that fateful day in June 1944. Your mission, and let us not fool ourselves in thinking you have the option to "choose to accept it", is to clear those small valleys called "draws" at the back of the beach so that the heavy equipment and troops of the second wave can push through and liberate all of France. If you fail...so to does the invasion and that is not an option.
The game is split into two different theaters of operations. The eastern half is assigned to units of the 1st Infantry and the west to the 29th. It is forbidden for units of either division to cross the dividing line that runs up the center of the map of their own accord. Thus as you play the game you are really playing two separate mini-games at the same time.
Each turn follows the same steps. American units land on the beach, an event occurs, the Germans shoot at the Americans, then the Americans move and fire on the Germans. It sounds pretty simple but there's a little more to it than that.
First things first. The board. I could try to dance around the issue. I could tell you it has a great personality and a wonderful sense of humor. I could tell you that it's visual appeal is unconventional but I won't. This board is ugly. It saddens the eye. It hurts the mind. It's cluttered and garish. So if you dare...witness the following image...
The thing is though, this board is wonderfully functional. All those egregious colors and symbols and arrows and boxes which at first glance serve only to roil the stomach actually convey needed information in a fashion that is easy to see and grasp at a glance.
The game is primarily card driven. Every phase of the game has one or more cards to be drawn and there is a large track at the top of the board to place the cards as you draw them. This serves to keep you from missing any steps AND if you forgot some aspect of a phase, you can always go back and see what card you drew rather than rummaging through the discard pile not knowing exactly which card it was.
The cards themselves are also loaded with information which is just as cryptic until you play the game and understand what a great job they do fulfilling their role. Does the event section refer to a special rule? Why, they put the rule number right on the card for easy reference. Genius! Such a common sense inclusion that is woefully lacking in many many other games.
"What a plan. This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place." Winston Churchill
The set up for the game is fixed. There are coastal defenses of the Germans and off shore we have the initial units of DD tanks ready to land...hopefully.
In the actual landings these DD tanks, which were basically a normal sherman tank with water wings and a screw propeller, didn't fair so well on Omaha Beach. Out of 29 launched in the initial wave, only two made it to shore. My "Funnies" followed suit. I drew a card for each sector and by looking upon the landing chart and finding the symbol associated with each unit, I found how effective they were at reaching the shore. They could drift east or west, they could take casualties, they could be delayed and arrive on a later turn OR they could be eliminated and sink to the bottom. Out of 8 units, only one lone unit managed to land over on Dog Red beach.
After landings have been determined a card is drawn and the "event" portion of the card comes into effect. These events can be good, such as creating an American Hero or stating that a German position is unable to fire, but more often it brings on German reinforcements or adds strength to existing German units.
"We shot at everything that moved..." Franz Gockel, German Soldier at Omaha
The next step is to find out who the Germans are shooting at and what sort of havoc they will wreak. This is done, as you may have guessed if your pattern recognition skills are up to snuff, by drawing a card. The color icons on the card tell you who is firing and the black symbol tells you who they are firing at. Depending on how near or far the American unit is and what type it is will determine how much damage, if any, it takes.
"There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now lets get the hell out of here." General George A Taylor
Up to now, the Americans have been the unwilling pawns of chance and fate but now they get to act! However, they are limited. Very very limited. Outside of infantry guys clawing their way up the beach to get behind some cover, each division of Americans is limited to two...TWO...actions. Two isn't very many. Certainly not as many as you'll wish to have because the actions themselves are very limited. Move one hex, attack one hex, shoot a tank or artillery unit at a hex. Your advance will seem glacial especially when you cross that killing ground where the German machine guns are just tearing your units up.
Eventually, a precious few HQ units and leaders show up and then things begin to move. They can command all units near them above and beyond the two...TWO...actions you are allowed normally. Finally! Your units can attempt to make coordinated attacks and start to take some of those German positions. Heroes are also created through events and they inspire the units they are with to go above and beyond.
After the Americans have done all they can do, we go back to step one and repeat. The basic scenario is 16 turns long with each representing 15 minutes of time from 6:00am until 10:00. The game takes a good three hours or so to play out.
So how does the game stack up?
Smoothness of Play:
It may not seem it but in my description of how the game plays, I've tried to keep it simple. In actuality there is a lot to remember and a lot to keep track of. Which units have you moved? Who moved under a free action? Was that guy disrupted this turn or last? Did that guy start climbing the cliff this turn or last? There are status markers to help keep track but I found, especially later in the game when the unit density was increasing that it became a bit taxing.
Also, I found that often, in the heat of battle, that I forgot a few of the important rules that certainly affected the game's outcome. Specifically, remembering that the German's only fire on Americans when the symbol matches (unless the unfortunate American is in a "concentrated fire" space in which case everybody takes a hit) and the infiltration rule which gives the Germans a free shot if you attempt to sneak past one of their positions without first reducing it.
Both of these complaints, though, are more a reflection upon my relative inexperience with the game and my ability to be methodical rather than on the game design itself.
On the whole if flows remarkably smoothly. The rule book is a joy. It's not perfect but it is organized and it is clear with a few exceptions such as the American Control and Communication explanation as it relates to end of game victory. Anytime I had to look up a procedure or rule it was quickly found. Other wargame designers could take a few lessons on how to organize and write their own rules from this game.
The game delivers a great challenge. Time is a big factor in this game. You have got to move forward. If you don't the beach becomes over crowded and your guys start taking extra hits. The tide is coming in too. You know that tank you left at the low tide water line...well guess what? That's right, it's under water now and destroyed. And that will happen. With such a limited amount of actions, each decision as to whom to move and where to move them is a heavy one. You don't have the luxury of wasting them.
In the four games I played, I maxed out at 9 victory points out of the 20 that qualify as success.
Also, if I do figure out how to be effective, I can then proceed to the extended game where you are tasked with moving farther inland and dealing with German armor. It takes the game from 16 to 32 turns. So there is plenty of gaming inside that box.
This, as you should know, is what I think is most important in a game. D-Day at Omaha Beach delivers this in spades. I wasn't moving bits of cardboard. I was on that beach. I pounded the table when the currents swept two full infantry platoons far to the east and left them stranded out of the action. I cried out in horror as my men were mown down by the withering fire as they threaded their way through those exposed obstacles. I cheered in triumph when Thompson, a hero, led his squad in a victorious assault on the pill box at the entrance to Draw Easy 1!
The paper AI is designed in such a way as to make sense. The positions taken by the enemy, the increasing strength of these reinforcements, and the priorities they follow when attacking all add to the story. The game, despite my earlier qualifications, flows and the ease of rule references keep the moments of disruption brief and infrequent.
I can think of no better recommendation to give a game other than to say that after playing it for 4 hours, my first thoughts are of setting it up again and giving it one more try. It is that good.