I started playing Normandy ’44 back in June and have slowly worked through the turns in what may constitute the slowest solo-play in history. This week I wrapped up the game and, instead of a review, I figured I’d offer some thoughts on what I liked about Normandy ’44 and what I thought were some interesting puzzles presented.
Normandy ’44 has been on my shelf for a while. I played it back when it came out and enjoyed it just fine. It didn’t like spark my love or anything in the way that say Holland ’44 or Ardennes ’44 did despite being their predecessor. For me, Normandy games fall into two categories broad stroke brush paintings of the landings followed by a game system that’s eager to facilitate the breakout or games that spend their nitty gritty on the landings and D-Day through D-Day +6.
Normandy ’44 is definitely the former more than the latter.
My observations are:
Normandy ’44’s combat factor rules add overhead without much payoff.
The battle for Caen is tense and engaging.
Decisions about strategic movement for the Germans create a wonderful puzzle.
The Cotentin Peninsula feels like the irritation it most certainly was for Allied planners.
While Normandy ’44 is a must play, I don’t know that it’s a must RE-play for me.
The variable storm turns is the way to go.
Let’s take each of these in turn:
Combat Factor Rules: Low Payoff
The way combat factors contribute to the overall combat odds in Normandy ’44 is different from how the other ‘4X Simonitch games work. While other games retain some variation of the 18 combat factor limitation, Normandy ’44 also has an organizational restriction that discourages oddball ahistorical play. In effect, you can bring more combat factors to bear in an individual combat by ensuring that the lead unit’s formation is represented in another adjacent hex.
The payoff is that the Allied player can’t just split up the Airborne forces and use them to supplement combat all over the Cotentin Peninsula with units that land as reinforcements in subsequent turns after the airborne units have resupplied. The troop quality rating generally is going to give you an advantage and these infantry units bring their buckets of combat factors to the party as well. Without the limitation, airborne units would essentially upgrade every other Allied unit in an ahistorical way.
That said … the way the landings work and the way combat is handled, the Allies always seem to have good options for bringing units from the same formation together to maximize their odds for those key battles at places like Cherbourg, Caen, Carentan and St. Lo. In effect, the Allied player IS forced to play “better” but given the preponderance of units that end up on the board, this doesn’t seem to pose a significant issue.
My “hot take” is that this rule prevents edge-case seeking players from gaining significant competitive advantage. Folks who play the game frequently are going to know when and where to “exploit” the combat rules if this weren’t in place and it would make the Germans stand even less of a chance in the game. Whether I like it or not, this is part of the rules and, in the end, it was a low payoff from my point of view because I’ve both just not played enough to see broader implications and b) I don’t tend to play opposed games against so-called sharks.
The Battle for Caen
This may have been the most brilliant part of the game for me. Caen is the centerpiece of an effective German resistance. While there are opportunities to threaten the beaches and disrupt mulberry construction by the Germans, tying up Allied forces in the VP-earning cities is the bread and butter of the German defensive strategy. As a result, Cherbourg (to a lesser degree) and Caen become the crown jewels in the Allied campaign in Normandy.
First, I believe that is an accurate portrayal of the campaign, so major kudos to Mr. Simonitch on that front. Games like The Mighty Endeavor don’t capture this nearly as well.
Second, there’s just so much going on with an effective defense of Caen for both the German and Commonwealth player. Germans are trying to pump the right kinds of units into Caen, keep the supply path open, and look for ways to trick an overcommitted Commonwealth player into leaving a flank open for a dashing sprint toward the beaches.
The Commonwealth player, on the other hand, is looking at how to maximize each combat to get their 18 factors, ensure that HQs are close by and to get a favorable troop quality rating so that you’re bringing as many advantages as possible against the overwhelming defensive combat modifiers the Germans benefit from each turn. Angling to get around the flanks and trying to cut off reinforcements, or at least slow them down even.
The battle evolves smartly as well. Early one, naval bombardment is possible, but once you get into the city proper, there’s no more possibility to get a “free” column shift as the Commonwealth. Consequently, the Germans get an upgrade simply by virtue of geography which makes the struggle feel just that more intense. Once the Commonwealth force do gain a toehold, it is tenuous at best. The Germans have reinforcements that pack a punch. These are not paper Tigers streaming toward Caen and early game reinforcements heavily favor the Commonwealth side of the map which means the entire eastern flank of their forces could come under attack.
Knowledge of the game’s rules, maximizing combat, and using ZOC bonds are all part of gaining a foothold, keeping it, and proceeding as the Commonwealth. That’s the very definition of a well designed game when you HAVE to bring your full knowledge of the game to bear in order to find success.
German Strategic Movement
I don’t have much to say here because I think I only scratched the surface with the options for how to best use German strategic movement. You can, of course, rush units anywhere on the map for the most part. While the Commonwealth and the American forces have a dividing line across which they cannot sustain operations, the Germans have a fairly free hand in where they go and how.
The great VP “desert” of the southwestern part of the map has a German reinforcement location. Germans also come in from the eastern and southeastern map edges. As I just mentioned, a lot of those units are dedicated to getting to Caen, or around it, as quickly as possible. Since the American’s can’t sweep west and begin confronting the German reinforcements, there’s no threat to these reinforcement hexes. That said, the American player can threaten south from Omaha pretty quickly. Ideally, they’re also headed to Carentan initially to support opening up reinforcements from both beaches being able to reach Cherbourg, but following that there are enough US reinforcements to play around with a strong push directly south to the interior of France.
So, the question is how do you continue to support Cherbourg, Caen, and the many VP cities that lie directly south of Omaha beach? I believe the answer is smart use of strategic movement by the Germans. I’ve certainly not figured that piece out, BUT there are a lot of possibilities for how to work an adaptive solution that slows down the American march south.
That Damn Peninsula
I’m not talking about Florida here.
I’m talking about the Cotentin Peninsula and it’s unique reinforcements, the Cherbourgh Fortress hexes and supply rules and the complication of getting sufficient firepower into the right hexes to make a dent on Festung Cherbourg itself. Like Caen, this is the primary Allied objective on this map and this one is up to the Americans to crack. Unlike Caen, time is on the American’s side.
While the Germans can threaten to get around the Commonwealth by Caen, the number of American reinforcements coming from two beaches and the distance from reinforcement hexes mean that the Americans have to be asleep at the wheel to have their plans derailed by German reinforcements once the assault begins on Cherbourg.
This was a meat grinder for both German and American forces. I was still chewing away at it when I ended up finishing my game. The approach to Cherbourg presents few challenges once the peninsula is cut in half. Keeping additional Germans away by threatening to the south of Omaha seems like a valid strategy to ensure the Germans can’t focus all their reinforcements on breaking through the Cotentin to relieve the beleaguered defenders. That said, the artillery fire, defensive bonuses, and supply rules make Cherbourg a damn tough nut to crack.
Historically, that tracks. Even on July 1st there were still defenders in the city making life uncomfortable past the surrender. In that sense, the game succeeds even if it feels tedious turn after turn to get EX, A1, and D1 results.
Damn Fine Weather We’re Having
There is an optional rule that I read was essential before playing. While the game offers historical weather conditions, that means Germans and Americans alike can predict the weather. They know how regular their reinforcement, strategic movement will be. The optional rules, instead, provide a framework to let that happen and then to sustain the bad weather for the three subsequent turns.
This denies Allied player reinforcements, gives Germans their full movement, and depending on when it happens can be a significant issue for the Allied player. In my case, it happened when I was just gaining a foothold in Caen. The Germans were able to get up to the city faster than I could threaten them and without air support or reinforcements, I had to halt the attacks to try and preserve my forces so I could just hang on.
In practice, I couldn’t and the Germans use those three turns to regain ground and get their units into a better overall posture to effectively threaten the Commonwealth’s eastern flank. Without reservation, I would say use the variable weather rules to place the storm as fate would have it rather than history.
Helluva a Game
So…my final thought is that Normandy ’44 is a must play for every wargamer who wants to give Normandy a try. It is pretty quick to play, the rules are top notch, and you get a good feel for the campaigns against Cherbourg and Caen. I can’t see myself coming back to this game over and over again though.
While it’s definitely fun, and I suspect there may be plenty of people who feel the exact opposite…I like more variability to explore. This game is always going to give me the grinding battles for Caen and Cherbourg, no matter how many times I play it, and I suspect that’s great for a lot of folks. That’s like saying a WWII Pacific game is going to give you the Mariana’s campaign and Pearl Harbor every time…of course it is!
That said, I prefer a game like Liberty Roads where I get to be the war planner. I prefer a game like The Battle for Normandy, where ALL the battles feel important and engaging and build up to the WHY for a confrontation at Caen for example. Normandy ’44 just feels like it’s on rails and I don’t necessarily like that as much even though those rails are smooth, polished, and expertly laid for players to enjoy.