19th Jul2019

‘Normandy: The Beginning of the End’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

normandy-box

If you’re familiar with the War Storms series of games, then you’ll know the basic rules of Normandy: The Beginning of the End already, but even with a grounding in the system that supports this squad level war game, you’ll still need to familiarise yourself with some specific rules that are unique to the setting. Indeed, Normandy is a detailed, complex system that requires a fair bit of effort to get into, but my goodness it rewards players who take the time to understand it with a detailed, visceral representation of squad level combat.

Fans of Nerdly’s ongoing series of war game reviews will already know that I have limited experience with hex and counter war games at this scale. Mark Walkers ’65 is the only other hex and counter war game that we’ve reviewed so far and as a pure measure of complexity, Normandy feels as though it is several orders of magnitude harder to come to terms with. With that said, the additional complexity (which deals with every possible eventuality you could imagine) also leads to more strategic and tactical possibilities that will delight players as their experience grows.

The base game (which in my case also includes a few extra boards, scenarios and tokens associated with the Kickstarter) contains a large number of largely American and German troops, including individual infantry units, officers, weapon teams and vehicles. When you add these units to the different board setups (and there are many) and introduce scenery such as buildings, forest, trench works, beach and so on, there are many different combinations that can be created, the majority of which will be demonstrated through the preset scenarios.

Normandy does an excellent job of taking the players through a series of missions that represent the progress made by Allied troops, as well as the counterattacks made by the Axis. Broadly speaking, fans of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan will be familiar with a lot of the scenarios and will no doubt relish recreating them at this scale. The use of armour, vehicles and mobile artillery is more prevalent here than you might have seen on the big screen, but from a tactical perspective these pieces are a really nice inclusion. I should also mention that Normandy: The Beginning of the End even includes aeroplanes and the rules for them, although I haven’t delved too far into their use just yet.

By way of a proper introduction for those who are not frequent war game players, the idea of a hex and counter game like this is simple; the players will compete for objectives (in this case usually victory points, earned based on scenario specific rules) by moving units across a map. Each unit, from infantry to artillery, has a set movement pattern and a firepower that will ultimately be capable of damaging enemy units. Normandy is typical for this kind of game in that many factors vary a units ability to damage another unit based on whether it has moved, what kind of weapons and armour are in play and most certainly because of factors like terrain and line of sight.

Each game turn in Normandy is split into four phases, including Command, Initiative, Activation and then a sort of clean up, and a turn is said to represent about fifteen minutes of elapsed time on the battlefield. During the Command Phase, the first thing to do is to ascertain which units are in or out of command range. This is done by checking how many hexes are between each unit and their officer. Squads that are outside of the of their commanding officer must be ordered individually (making them less efficient) whilst those units in range can be ordered together.

These orders are relevant for the next phases, where the initiative of each side determines the order of activation’s in sequence, and begin to carry them out. Players will alternate taking actions until there are no officers or out of command units left to order. There are many available actions in Normandy and certainly more than I can realistically list here, but they include orders such as moving, firing, performing an assault or bombarding an enemy position. Each one comes with its own set of rules and modifiers depending on the given scenario – for example wheeled units move a certain distance modified by terrain, whilst firing might be affected by the level of fortification that the target benefits from.

Since combat is really the most exciting bit, I’ll linger on it for a moment and mention that in Normandy: The Beginning of the End, the system is complex but powerful, allowing for some fairly realistic scenarios and outcomes that leave little to the imagination. A colour coding system is used to indicate different kinds of attack – yellow is anti-personnel and white is anti-tank, for example. Most attacks require line of sight and for the enemy unit to be within a set range in order for the full value of the attack to be used, but there are some rules that vary this, or allow a reduced strength attack at greater range.

When combat is declared, a number of tables are used to calculate the outcome based on the combined fire factor of the platoons/units opening fire, the range (either in or out of weapon range) and then the roll of two dice. Once the absolute number is calculated, it will then be reduced by certain modifiers (such as the kind of weapons being fired) and then divided by the terrain tile upon which the defender is sitting. Whilst this might sound complex, what it usually results in is what you would expect – machine gun fire against an exposed enemy will cause heavy casualties, whilst light weapons will have little effect on an enemy that is dug in.

Any residual number after these modifiers have taken place will result in a loss of steps for the unit under fire, which results in a -1 token being placed on them for each step lost. This can result in platoon, vehicle or officer elimination and will always have a negative effect on the morale of the company that is losing steps. Should a morale check need to be taken, each lost step will then contribute to the likelihood of a unit routing or being destroyed – with the difference between the two being determined by how much is rolled on the dice over and above the current modified level of morale.

A really nice action that can be taken is the ability to react to the enemies movement. This can be done in two ways, either when it is your turn, by placing a reaction marker on the unit (which is equivalent to lying in ambush or keeping a high guard) or by simply stating that you will react to an enemy activation at the moment it happens. In either case, the unit reacting will be able to fire first, but in the case of the second mode (which is not choreographed in any way) the firepower of any attack will be halved, to indicate that it was a somewhat unplanned counterattack.

The loss of steps and the destruction of units (either outright, which is rare or through morale checks) is ultimately how most victory points are gained in Normandy, and players will learn to approach disadvantageous gunfights cautiously. To combat this, there are various scenarios that change as time goes on – perhaps by introducing units on one side or another that will swing the balance, or by offering victory points for aggressive offence or heroic defence of a given location. The scenarios are laid out in a fairly simple way and almost all of them could have used some of the white space on their sheets for useful things like step tracks, but as it happens, the structure they do provide has led to very fun games in my experience.

The more I played of Normandy, the more I realised that the complex web of rules that it uses are actually just there to allow common sense scenarios to play out. The idea of step losses, based on each turn lasting about fifteen minutes, makes sense when you think about the effect of withering fire and the kind of battles being fought. As World War II was the first “relatively modern” conflict, losses in most firefights would have been limited to two or three men per side before a withdrawal was sounded, and that feels exactly like what is happening in Normandy.

Similarly, the ability to react to enemy movements is completely natural yet so often overlooked, and I really like that it’s possible to react in two different ways, each with a clear and logical difference. There is also so much more to discuss than what I have chance to write about here. I hinted at the range of vehicles earlier, and I must say that I’ve never played a game that handles the complexity and variety of different weapon, armour and movement types as well as Normandy does. I may not have a lot of experience in hex and counter games, but I feel strongly as though the next one I play will have a lot to live up to if it is to excite me as much when it comes to combining forces of tanks, infantry and artillery all at the same time.

Whilst I must reluctantly wrap up this review at some point, I fear that there is a lot more to say about Normandy, and that’s without having really covered the exclusive rules that differentiate it from the core War Storms series that it takes its rules from. Reviewed as a boxed product in its own right, Normandy might be the only World War II hex and counter war game that you’ll ever need. It is probably too complicated for players with no experience to go directly into, but I can’t imagine how a system could offer more potent options with less or even equal straightforwardness.

The icing on the cake is the excellent production, the detailed and informative manuals and the myriad of supporting sheets. The only downside for me was that we had to track a number of features (step loss, morale, platoon loss) using our own system, but that could easily be resolved by making your own sheets in Powerpoint (or similar) and printing them out. For the casual game, creating specific stacks or using labelled tubs should do the track just fine. Normandy: The Beginning of the End is a superb game, and I look forward to seeing how other counter based games compare from here on out.

**** 4/5

A copy of Normandy: The Beginning of the End was supplied by Draco Ideas for review.

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