So for a few months I have been looking at a game at my local store that has caught my eye: Shadows over Normandie. It is by Devil Pig Games (http://www.devil-pig-games.com/en/) and with the tagline “Achtung! Cthulhu” on the boxcover bottom, I was intrigued. It looked like a World War II mash-up with the Cthulhu Mythos. It also looked quite expensive. The box was heavy, promising loads of thick cardboard punchout counters. From the back, I realized that the game was in essence a table-top miniatures game but instead of the usual 3-d figures, it utilized cardboard counters; instead of elaborate 3-d landscapes, cardboard tiles and overlays took their place. Oh, and the local game store is Toledo Game Room, check it out at: Toledo Game Room
Now I am no fan of miniatures games for three reasons. First, finding something to store all those oddly shaped minis is always a problem. Second, I can’t paint worth a darn, so I can only buy games with pre-painted minis. The quality of pre-painted minis has a very wide standard deviation and you really can’t tell what they are going to look like from the pictures of them. Third, minis games typically rely on purchasing more and more minis (at an ever expanding price) in order to make your army better and better. In short, a minis game that was made of cardboard punchouts could be the ticket for me. Further, the game is part of the Heroes System Tactical Scale system (think Heroes over Normandie) so I figured that the rules would be tight and the game well play-tested.
The following review is based on both my assessment of the materials and playing through the first scenario in the Lost Battalion Campaign Book, “Chapter 1: Fight and Night in Black and White…”.
Box and Materials
The presentation and artwork of the box cover and back are quite impressive. You get the feel that the game is going to be a cross between gritty WWII squad level combat, Cthulhu horror and a touch of campy humor. Moreover, the production is slick and professional. The back of the box lists all of the components inside so it was pretty clear what the game was about: a minis battle with cards to add twists and turns.
The materials inside basically are six cardboard boards, five cardboard punchouts, some dice, and three decks of cards (one for each faction). Again, the quality upon inspection is quite high: the tokens are thick, sturdy, and colorful; the cards are not flimsy and easily read; and the boards are sturdy. The art on the counters and board is clear and the pictures invoke the sort of game at which the box cover hinted. The dice are high quality and the activation markers are painted wooden pieces, again of substantial quality.
There are two center-stapled books inside: a rulebook and the aforementioned campaign book. Both are also of highly production value. The colors are sharp and vibrant and the paper stock is solid.
After having inspected the components, I was still quite happy about my purchase. The game appeared to have a polished feel and had all the quality of a top-notch product. There was however a glaring omission: there are no counter trays, bags, molder plastic insert, or any other means provided for storing the counters and other units. I had to grab my stash of excess plastic bags that I had accumulated from other games to organize all the counters, dice, cards, etc. This was a rather strange misstep from a game that seemed to be doing everything else right.
As it was obvious that SoN is a minis game, I expected a gob of tactical rules…and this is exactly what I found! The first 13 pages contain the basic rules of the game and I daresay it is a dense 13 pages. Now, I have been playing boardgames for over 4 decades and am a veteran of old Avalon Hill games like Advanced Squad Leader, so an encyclopedia of rules isn’t going to scare me away. But, wow, there were so many rules that I feared that the learning curve would be way too steep! And if the first 13 pages weren’t bad enough, the next 3 contained the recruitment options (which I prayed at this point I didn’t have to actually use in the scenarios from the campaign book) and the 3 pages the unit special abilities. Yikes! There was like a bazillion special abilities.
While I took the time to read it all, and summized that most of the rules were fairly common to all mini/strategic boardgames (for example, zone of control and line of sight), there were still a ton of unfamiliar rules (particularly those pesky special abilities). My brother’s assessment of the rulebook was quite blunt: he simple said “there are too many rules.” To be honest, I had to agree with him. I kept hoping that once we got starting on the scenarios that the game would ease us in by only including units with no special abilities or maybe only one a piece. This of course did not happen…but more on that later.
Okay, the actual rules. The gameplay is sequential with the side that went first the previous turn going second the next turn. In 3 play games, the turn order rotates (player 1 then 2 then 3 then 1 etc). Each turn is divided into 3 phases: orders, activation, and supply. In the orders phase each player alternates (in turn order) placing an activation marker face down beside one of its units on the board. Players have a number of activation markers equal to their number of “stars” on their units. Once all activation markers are placed, starting with first player and alternating again, each player activates the unit with the “1” marker and then the “2” marker, etc, during the activation phase.
Activated units may move, fire, or do nothing. A unit that moves can also assault an enemy unit if it reaches it. Combat occurs through assault or fire. In the case of assault, both units are at risk, but generally the attacker has a slight advantage by taking the higher of two dice (the game only uses d6, which I think is a problem, but I will comment on that later) while the defender only uses one die. A unit that fires might inflict damage on an enemy unit in the line of sight. In short, units either have one step or two steps (the usual flip the counter mechanic) before being eliminated. After all activation markers have been revealed, the supply phase begins. During the supply phase the first player has the option to move (and only move, no assault or fire) any or all of his units that were not activated in the previous phase. Once the first player is done, the other player may now move any/all of his non-activated units. Players also redraw cards to replace those which they used in the previous turn.
Thus, despite the massive and scary set of rules, the game actually has a fairly easy and intuitive order about it. You set out activation markers, you reveal and fight, and then other units move. A madness bag of tokens adds the obligatory Cthulhu insanity element to the game. Basically, soldiers who are rattled (“suppressed” in the game terms) and have line of sight to big, scary otherwordly horrors, might lose their grip on their sanity and do random things, like run away or shoot at their own buddies. Cards are randomly drawn and do the various things that you might expect: add bonuses to combat, ignore results, etc.
The three factions are divided up into the American WWII soldiers, the Cthulhu Mythos units, and dark Nazi magicians (or something like that). Not only is there no back story to really explain in detail the history or composition of each of these factions, their names are downright confusing. Why in the fact are the US Soldiers referred to as “Majestic”? Majestic?!? What the heck is that supposed to mean? I have no idea and I couldn’t find a good explanation in the rules either. I can understand “Deep Ones” for the Cthulhu units, that makes sense, but Majestic? The Nazi units are called the “Black Sun”. And again, I have no idea why.
The H.P. Lovecraft meets campy WWII atmosphere comes through loud in clear. The pictures on the units, the art in the two books, even the scenarios carry through with the theme (e.g. scenarios titled “Escape from Hell”, “And now for Something Completely Different”, etc.). By doing some searching online, I discovered that the Achtung! Cthulhu tag on the boxcover referred to a gameplay world that has some pre-established heroes, villains, factions, etc. My best guess is that my confusion stems from not being immersed in the Achtung! Cthulhu universe. Maybe a short, little page or two about this background could’ve been included.
But the proof is always in the pudding, so how did the game actually play? Well, let’s return to the scenarios in the campaign book. My brother and I decided to start at step one and play the first scenario. Because all of the rules are translated from French into English, issues of connotation prop up. For instance, page 5 of the campaign book goes over “creating armies” in some detail. However, it looked to me that the first scenario (Chapter 1: Fight at Night…) did not utilize these rules. The army recruitment section of the scenario displays the needed units (in other words, it doesn’t list them, it shows them to you). However, the printed units are so small that my brother and I had a very (and i mean very!) difficult time determining exactly what units were pictured. This was not, and I mean not, a good start to things.
The next big issue was that all, and I mean all, of units had multiple special abilities. So much for easing us into the kiddie pool. Nope, we are dropping you off of the 10 meter board into the deep end! I hope you can swim! Needless to say, my brother almost abandoned the project right there and then. So we reluctantly kept passing the rulebook back and forth for about 30 minutes trying to memorize all these darn special abilities. We were not happy.
Then things got worse. We both had scout units. Basically, they may deploy a number of spaces away from each sides “deployment zone”. My brother was the US Soldiers (ahem…Majestic units) and his scouts could deploy up to six spaces away from their deployment zone. My Deep Ones deployment zones were within six spaces of the US deployment zone. Could he deploy his scouts inside my zone? We had no clue…and neither did the rules because we couldn’t find a single mention of this issue anywhere. Uh oh, the very first scenario has a rules problem in it during set-up?!? Did anybody playtest this game? I do both alpha and beta playtesting for a historical simulation boardgame company (think lots and lots of chits) and one of the first things that I always try to get straight is set-up. Having these sort of problems at the start of a game is a real killer on player enthusiasm.
Anyway, we muddled through by house-ruling whatever we couldn’t find an answer to. We got to playing the game and quickly discovered that despite the encylopedia of rules and unclear scenario set-up issues, the game plays very quick! It really is move and shoot and on to the next turn. Once we got the hang of the rather simple combat mechanism, playing the intro scenario took maybe an hour. The back of the box says 30 minutes, but that is a wildly optimistic opinion of how long the game will take. Set up is going to take more than 10 minutes alone. If either player has any ability to think in a tactical/strategic manner, there will always be that inevitable moment where the decision to assault or shoot will be 50/50 and a long period of thinking will be required.
In short, the game plays fast and furious. Combat is fairly lethal. Assaults almost always hurt one side of the other and firing seems to inflict a step wound about 50% of the time. We found that almost all of our units were eliminated by the end of the scenario (which was only 6 turns long). The action is fast and furious and any role of the d6 can bring happiness or pain.
The one scenario that we played was indeed fun. A squad of US Soldiers gets ambushed and has to get off the map to get away from the Deep Ones that surrounded them. My brother (the US player) was constantly debating whether to shoot or move, and the best strategy wasn’t always obvious. I wasn’t certain either what exactly would be the best thing to do with my swamp monsters, who seemed to be good at assaults but not so hot in fire-fights against those well-trained American soldiers. I enjoyed the game but I did encounter one nagging issue: results are determined by a single die role. To be honest, I felt like that as long as I chose reasonable actions, most of the time the game seemed to devolve down into a “if I roll 4+ I kill your unit and if I roll 3- I don’t” fest of coin-flipping randomness. For all of the rules and special abilities, in the end, it felt like a series of coin-flips determined who won.
Now, maybe some people out there like games like Monopoly, where you get the deception of having a lot of thought in your actions, but in reality the die rolls determine the entire game, but I most certainly do not! Don’t get me wrong, playing Talisman can be fun, even if you realize that the random dice rolls and card draws are basically playing the game for you, but the rules of Talisman are much, much simpler than Shadows over Normandie. If I am going to devote hours of my life figuring out the rules to a game, I really do not want coin flips to determine the winner. My brother also felt that the game played like this as well. This was indeed a great bummer. My only hope is that the rest of the scenarios give the game a different feel.
Shadows over Normadie has some strengths. In no particular order, here are the ones that I see:
- High production value of art and components
- Fast gameplay
- Theme is excellent
- Plays like a miniatures game without all the 3-d minis
- Over-complicated rules
- Learning curve too high
- Intro scenarios not simple enough
- Game feels like a series of coin-flips
Like any game, there are some good and bad elements to Shadows over Normadie. In general, the game is quick, fun, and evocative of the Cthulhu Mythos/Campy WWII movies/miniatures combat games that are its theme. Whether the quick, fun shoot-em-up is worth all the time going through the rules, sifting through the pieces, the coin flip feel to it all, and house-ruling the rules problems, well I will leave that to the reader. In my mind, it is, but my brother seems to disagree with me. I guess you can play the game and figure out which side you are on for yourself.
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