Heroes of Normandie: Observations

Unless I’m writing about a monster game or something similarly complex and time-consuming, it always seems a bad idea to post a gaming AAR based on information gleaned from only a single playing. I thought about this quite a bit since my last blog post, so I’m altering my plan a little bit toward more of an overview approach.

Single scenarios from a ‘system’ game, learning scenarios and other small set-pieces seldom provide all of the experience and understanding I like to have when I sit down to write. Such is the case here with Heroes of Normandie. The focus of my previous written examples was the first offering in the game’s scenario book (which I think was also included in the print-n-play version), but I have played several other scenarios in the box before firing up my keyboard again.

I discussed setup of the starter scenario, “Godsend”, in my previous post. It’s a small scenario — five units per side at the top end — so it’s not entirely representative of the system’s range. After playing a couple of bigger scenarios, it’s quickly apparent that small scenarios expose some of the vulnerabilities in the Heroes of Normandie system. They’re not game-breakers by any means, but worth pointing out because sometimes they can stick out like a hammer-struck thumb.

Some of Heroes of Normandie's counter artwork.

Some of Heroes of Normandie’s counter artwork.

The peculiarites of the game’s Orders system and the mechanisms of card play can have a disproportionate impact on small scenarios. Anybody prone to doing some quick math before diving into a game might predict the issue, and game play seems to support the theory. Card play has the most obvious effects, especially for gamers experienced at other squad-level wargames. Regardless of the number of units on the map and the number of orders available to each side, each player always has a hand of four cards to play every turn. When you have 5 units on the map and just two orders to allocate (as in “Godsend”), playing a card that grants an extra order to you — or a card that cancels one of your opponent’s orders — can have considerable impact on the outcome of the game.

I suppose it’s a fairly common effect in wargaming. Small scenarios suffer more the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Bigger scenarios mitigate the impact of blind luck (dice rolls, card draws, whatever) simply by having more stuff going on. The cards certainly introduce an element of chaos into the system, but I appreciate the uncertainty because I’m a big believer that things seldom go according to plan once the shooting starts. Players who like lockstep control of their cardboard minions will likely not appreciate the occasional wild swing in fortune introduced by the cards.

The vulnerability of the Orders system looms larger than any likely card play issues. Whereas an unfortunate card play or two might make things hard, in a small scenario you can lose the game instantly by losing the only unit on the map that provides Orders for your force. In “Godsend” if you lose your officer, you lose the game. Period. It’s sort of the ultimate in headquarters hunting. Fortunately, it’s a short scenario (six turns) so neither side has the luxury of very much time to spend on stalking the other guy’s fearless leader. Both officers are two-step units, which makes instant obliteration unlikely, but both players certainly have strong incentive to keep their leaders well protected for most of the game.

Some of the set-pieces in the scenario book are thin on units that provide Orders. Frankly, I consider most of the published scenarios to be either learning tools or entertaining oddballs. The game system truly comes into its own when you settle down to play an old-fashioned points-based game, where each side gets to build (or ‘recruit’) a customized force within the limits of a points allowance. The imagination and pre-game planning involved in force building make the recruitment phase of a points-based scenario nearly a game unto itself. There are tons of options, skills and abilities players can buy to customize their forces. The recruitment template system adds a great deal of depth to the game and builds in a high degree of replayability, especially when you throw all of the expansions and Kickstarter additions into the mix.

Gameplay leans a bit in the direction of cinematic, especially with the cards in play, but good tactics generally pay off. As an example, only automatic weapons can reliably generate suppression, so good game play rewards using machineguns and BAR teams as bases of fire. Weapon ranges are less limited than in many tactical games, although in practice fire attacks are usually constrained by the fairly close terrain. Infantry in good terrain, in improved positions or in buildings will likely have to be winkled out the old-fashioned way in assault combat. Armored vehicles have an intimidating presence, but they’re far from invulnerable and must be properly supported with infantry. There’s a lot that the game gets ‘right’ from a tactical wargaming perspective.

The system wobbles around a bit when explosives and ordnance come into play, but that’s pretty much the case with every squad-level wargame. Grenades seem too lethal in the open, but are modeled spot-on against troops in buildings and fortifications. Their uber-lethality is balanced to a degree by their rarity; grenade attacks are ‘bought’ in finite quantities during the Recruitment Phase. Mortars are too accurate, too responsive and used at ranges too short compared to reality. Air and artillery come into play through Recruitment options (‘activated’ by card play), and both are, again, too accurate and too subdued in their area of effect.

At its core, Heroes of Normandie is a respectable, entertaining wargame. Even though the central rules framework is pretty basic stuff, I hesitate to call it a “light” wargame because of the card play and the complexity of all the recruitment options and unit abilities. It’s not ASL- or even Lock N Load-level complexity, but there’s a lot to think about as a game unspools itself. It goes easy on soft factors — no morale checks in this game — but still manages to capture essentials like the impact of leadership and the value of suppression through a straightforward approach. It’s not going to fire any of my other tactical wargames, but it’s certainly going to see a lot of table time.


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