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Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: Heroes of Normandie

By Sean "Throckmorton" Sarah

Do you like war movies? Of course you do. You likely wouldn't be reading this blog if you didn't have some small place in your heart for the old cheesy classics like Kelly's Heroes, The Great Escape and The Longest Day or a fondness for the more gritty modern variety like Saving Private Ryan, When Trumpets Fade, Fury etc...

How about war games? You like.... Well, I think we all know the answer to that.

So what if, like a 7.62 mm full metal Reese's Cup, I told you that you could have your war movie and your war game at the same time? Interested? Yeah, so was I.

Two fine French gentlemen, or should I say Messieurs, have attempted to bring us just that feeling. And boy howdy do they deliver.

Heroes of Normandie by Yann & Clemm, and published in the United States by Iello, is a gorgeously illustrated modular World War 2 tactical level board game based on some of the great war movies of the last 50 or 60 years. In their own words:

We are only concerned by heroes, those you see in Hollywood Golden Age war movies : “A bridge too far”, “The longest day”, “The Dirty Dozen”, “Patton”, “Kelly’s heroes” and, more recently, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Band of Brothers” and “Inglorious Basterds”. Here lies our inspiration, here is what we have to offer: blood and guts.

So,  what is it they have to offer?

DISCLAIMER: This is not a historical reenactment sort of game. It is the board game of the big budget movie version of WW2. Expect cool kit, narrative scenarios and game play depth but do not expect strict historical accuracy.

Overview: Heroes of Normandie is a 2+ player game roughly based on a platoon or two per side maneuvering across the bocage country of Normandy during and just after D-Day. Each player takes control of a number of platoons, a hero or two and possibly a higher command unit. These platoons are broken up into squads or individual vehicles. These squads and vehicles make up the primary playing pieces of the game and are an updated cousin of the old school chit type counters many of us are familiar with from GMT games, Advanced Squad Leader, and others.

The game is played out on a series of modular maps divided off into small squares for movement, much like hexes... but they're squares. Players take it in turn to first assign orders to a number of units and then alternate moving those units based off the activation order they've assigned. Each player also has a deck of cards which gives them additional tricks, counters and bonuses to play through out the game.

Combat is a simple D6 + Attack Bonus vs. Defense Rating + Defensive Bonus. And the game lasts no more than 8 turns.

The Box/Contents:

Man alive, the design of the game is sharp. From the art on the box to the iconography on the maps and counters, the game is easily readable and you get a ton of value out of the starter box.

In the base game both the Germans and Americans are represented by a number of possible platoons each with modular options so that you can create an army to your style of play.

These units, like below, form the core of your army. You select your platoon, plug in the squads you would like to play and the options you want to take (like extra ammo, or veteran status to give you a couple of re-rolls) pick out the specific counters you want and get rocking.

Also included in the main box are the US and German play decks. Each deck has a number of options to do things like remove suppression, counter an opponents card, give you extra cover or dodge an attack. While the starter deck comes with more than 60 cards, during play you only get to choose 40 to take with you so have the opportunity to tailor the deck to your style of play.

Additionally, there are wooden German and American order tokens. At the beginning of each turn each player assigns these tokens to units on the table. The assignment is "blind" so your opponent doesn't know which of your units is activating when and you're also given a number of blank "bluff" tokens to add to the fog of war.

Also included are ALL THE COUNTERS. It is a WW2 board game after all and it would be weird if it didn't have a ton of counters. Everything from objectives, to a fancy turn counter to vehicle damage tokens and more are included.

And then there are the map tiles. Printed on exceptionally heavy cardboard, the base game comes with 6 two sided terrain tiles to let you set up all sorts of different maps. Average games can be played on anywhere from two to 9 of these tiles.

Each of the tiles also lays out the terrain restrictions for each type of terrain shown on the tile. One of the best things about the game is its iconography. Once you get used to the games "visual syntax" very little reference to the rules is needed as nearly every thing you need to know is either on your units or on the board itself. For example, the piece of bocage below gives infantry +2 defense, light and heavy vehicles cannot move through it and it blocks line of sight.

These trees on the other hand give an infantry unit +1 defense and subtract one from the attackers roll for each square fired through while light and heavy vehicles are barred from traveling through "the heart of the woods" or the three squares deepest into the Forrest.

Additional terrain expansions currently include D-day, with all the gubbins including a German Festungs platoon to hold the beach and an American Engineer platoon to assault it, barbed wire, anti-tank obstacles, bunkers, landing craft, Bangalore torpedoes, scenarios and all sorts of other goodies.

And a big ole river set with blown bridges, demolition tokens and additional buildings.

Again, terrain features are clearly spelled out on each of the tiles. The doors and windows are well marked along with the structure rating of the house and the defensive bonus it gives to infantry inside.

Those boards looked a little empty though right? Well, that's where all these wonderful terrain overlays come in. Each scenario, whether planned out in the scenario book or randomly generated by a chart in the back of the scenario book, allots a certain number of terrain pieces to be added to the board adding visual interest and tactical fun.

Also, in the finest tradition of Saving Private Ryan, there are indeed dead cows.

Army Building: Like in many games we're familiar with you and your opponent start out by agreeing on a number of points with which you'll build your army. From there, you'll choose your first platoon. Your platoon choice will look something like below, with a core HQ section and 2 to 4 additional options for you to choose from. Each one of those options must match the color on one side of the empty box (in this case either Yellow Red Blue or the standard American support color Grey Black Grey).

Those 4 little counters above in the center of the platoon card tell you which dudes you need to pull out to make your first squad. In this case, as it's a weapons platoon, you need your Platoon Commander (Lt. Jones) a .30 Cal team (which can be deployed, i.e. flipped over, for greater rate of fire), a bazooka team for the tank killin and a 60mm mortar team which can be deployed to give you smoke or small bombardments on the table.

Note the gold star over Lt. Jones. That means he confers to your platoon 1 order. Counting up the total number of stars from each of your platoons gives you the number of orders (those wooden tokens) you hand out at the start of each turn.

So let's take a time out to look at the anatomy of an infantry base. Again, pretty much everything you need to know is presented cleanly in well designed iconography right on the unit.

Take Lt. Jones here: The purple arrow (bottom left) is how many squares he can move each turn. The large center shield is his defensive value while the 3 shields around it are his attack bonuses against Infantry (orange), light vehicles (purple), heavy vehicles (grey). Next to that. the skull with the arrows around it shows his wounded state. As it's clean (no red color to it) this unit is un-wounded. Above that is his weapon range, while most units in the game have unlimited weapon range (and take a negative for shooting more than 7 squares), folks with SMGs or Bazookas and the like tend to have a shorter range (in this case, 4 squares). Finally, comes his special ability, Lt. Jones is able to give an order to multiple of the same type of support weapon to all fire at the same time. This is indicated by the star "reaching out" to the three black and red icons.

When wounded you flip the token over. Note, due to his wounded state Lt. Jones has a lower attack value. If wounded again, Lt. Jones would be no more.

Alright, back to army building. Once you've got your core squad it's time to flesh the rest of the platoon out. Each box has a different size (there are two different sizes) and color markings. Your options need be the same size as the empty box and match at least one of the color bands on the side of the box. In this case I went for a mortar squad (to give Lt. Jones' special ability some use), the horn of plenty (to give those mortars a better template), an ammo bearer (a cheapo infantry unit) and some more bazookas (because... Americans)

Next, simply pull those units out of the box, like so.

And you've got your fully complete platoon. Note each squad has a few red boxes on the platoon card. If that number of units from the squad are killed your opponent gets a certain number of victory points, normally between 1 and 6.

But of course, the game is called HEROES of Normandie, not Platoons of Normandie. So there are indeed heroes. Some of whom I'm sure you'll recognize.

Stop sending out those negative waves man.

Heroes are add on's to your platoons and do not need to be slotted into an empty box in order to be taken. Each one normally represents one guy or vehicle that can be a difference maker on the table. They're not un-killable by any stretch of the imagination but each has certain skills that will lend you a hand on the battlefield. Clint here is particularly good at assaulting, while Otto has an up-armored PZ IV that doesn't take penalties to shoot its main gun while moving and gives you an extra command.

There are a number of "generic" heroes, like those I'm showing here, who can be taken with any platoon. But many of the platoons have a specific hero you can take that synergizes especially well with that group of guys.

Gameplay: The game turn is divided into three phases. The Order Phase, The Action Phase and The Supply Phase. During the order phase you count up the number of gold or grey stars on your units and allocate that number of wooden order blocks to any of the units in your army you choose. Grey blocks (like Oddball's) must be assigned to that unit (so Oddball will activate every turn as he can't give his order away).

During the action phase you and your opponent will activate one unit at a time starting with 1 and working your way up. The units that get the activation orders are the only ones who can shoot or assault that turn.

Here I moved my halftrack full of dudes through the hole in the bocage. Shooting and assaulting only happens during the action phase so a limited number of squads or vehicles will be able to hurt things each turn. Importantly, infantry teams that move cannot shoot, only assault.

However, during the final "supply" phase every squad or vehicle that hasn't already activated gets the chance to move. They're just not the stars for that scene. I like this activation system because it will inevitably force you into making some hard choices about where to allocate your resources for the turn. That sort of decision making happens through out the game, weather in terms of card play, who to activate when and how and so on.

Finally, lets take a look at the anatomy of a vehicle. Take Mr. Oddball here. Riding along in his custom Sherman he's got a front armor of 8, side armor 7 and back armor of 7. His main gun (in the red boxes on the left of the unit) shoots at -1 on the move, does 2 damage to a building, has +3 to damage infantry, +5 to damage light vehicles and +4 to damage heavy vehicles. He can move 4 squares per turn and his machine gun shoots at -2 on the move. The MG also has two special abilities (most vehicle MGs do) as he could choose to spread its attack bonus across multiple units or add a suppression token to a unit instead of actually hurting it. The MG has a +3 to wound infantry, a +3 to kill light vehicles and cannot harm heavy vehicles. As a special character Oddball also has a special rule "Positive Waves" allowing him to force the attacker to make two damage rolls against him while allowing Oddball to choose the favorable result.

Importantly, heavy vehicles like Oddball here have a different system of damage, rather than flipping the marker over like with infantry, once he's hit the attacker rolls a die and the number he gets determines the type of damage the vehicle suffers from. A roll of 1 being shaken (the crew can only use one of the vehicles weapons at a time), 2 being immobilized (the vehicle can no longer move), 3 and 4 giving the vehicle 2 suppression tokens (a -4 to hit and -4 squares of movement), 5 knocking out the main gun and 6 killing the vehicle outright. If you don't roll a 6, once a vehicle has two of any other damage it is flipped to its destroyed side staying on the table as terrain.

While you only get 5 or so Platoons for the Americans and Germans in the starter set, Yann and Clem have also come out with army boxes covering more forces from Normandy for the Yanks, the Germans and the Brits!
Yes... I bought them all. 
Inside you'll find higher command options that give you more toys to play with, new dice and markers (and your deck of cards for the Brits) along with a number of new units. And this fancy schmancy insert allowing you to organize all the gubbins.

It doesn't take long for that tray to fill up though so I pitched it and went for the old stand by: small plastic bags.

And there's even more. The main box comes with a number of scenarios from saving the generals dog (Saving Private Rex) to grabbing a key piece of intelligence that drops randomly on the table. As noted above, the D-Day expansion gives you the opportunity to play out the invasion and more expansions are coming as well including Pegasus Bridge, Carentan and St. Lo (which will feature night time rules).

All in all this is an exceptionally charming, well thought out tactical board game with heaps of fun and flavor added in for spice. My only major concern is that the original rule book (the one that comes in the box) is not well written and was clearly translated from French. The newest version of the rules, however, is available for free online and does an excellent job clearing things up.

Bottom line: Do you like fun? If you like fun you should own this game. You'll need to take off your "serious war gamer" hat, but when you do you'll end up having a blast.

Over all I give it 5 out of 5 dead cows.

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