Review: Heroes of Normandie

By Dave Lane 27 Oct 2015 0

There are no atheists in foxholes... or board game nights.

Sgt. Rock dove for cover in the thick Normandy bocage, stolen German Intelligence documents secure under his jacket, bullets whizzing over his head. Hell of a day so far - already he’d had to grenade a machine gun nest and put a bullet between the eyes of a scarred Nazi officer at point-blank range - and that was just to get into the enemy headquarters. Now he had the damn papers and had made it to cover. The krauts kept taking their pot shots, but under this much cover he was pretty much home and --

What? He rolled a six? Seriously?! Such is sometimes the fate of the Heroes of Normandie. 

Heroes of Normandie is a port of last year's acclaimed WWII board game. Normandie has the core principles of a squad-level miniatures game or wargame. You’ll be working out lines of sight, keeping units in the hedges and away from the death-sentence of open ground, while trying to get a clean shot on opposing infantry or find an answer to a menacing enemy tank. Heroes of Normandie, though, takes that foundation and cross-breeds it with the streamlined design principles of modern board games and the tone of a campy B-movie.

It’s a game with plenty of smart ideas to go around. The system by which players secretly choose which troops activate each turn, and in what order, promotes mind-games and careful prioritisation over brute force. The modelling of buildings is delightfully efficient, making them powerful defensive positions at the cost of vulnerability to grenades and tank guns. The game’s elite units being individual, superhuman officers is another sharp choice, highlighting priority threats and adding to the four-colour tone.

At its best, Heroes of Normandie’s tight scale -- battles feature a handful of units and rarely last more than six turns - and relaxed approach to realism forges some thrillingly cinematic moments. Objectives prioritise eliminating key targets or securing an area over simply annihilating the foe. The climax of one mission might see your heroic, lantern-jawed sergeant dive forward under the cover of suppressive machine gun fire to lob a grenade into the farmhouse containing a German officer, then, at the start of the next turn, burst in through the door to finish off the Nazi bastard in hand-to hand combat. Normandie is a game that wants to be a rollercoaster ride instead of a calculated affair, and its energy is infectious.

If this was a WWI game, all assaults would have a success chance of 100%. Any failures can be attributed to defeatism.

First-time developers Cat Rabbit show affection for the tabletop game in the heavily skeuomorphic interface. While there are some clear inefficiencies in this approach --having to peer at tiny text at the bottom of a unit’s tile to see its stats being the most irritating-- it adds to the game’s charm to see tiles flipped and dice rolled, as well as making some potentially obtuse rules clearer. The game also has a number of baldly board-gamey rules that would be more difficult to accept in a game that looked like a hyper-realistic simulation. It is unfortunate that the manual and an in-game wiki both fail to provide a comprehensive overview of the core rules in an often unforgiving game, but good use of tool-tips helps compensate, so a little poking around is all that’s needed to get to grips with the game’s slim ruleset. And those rules are supporting a broad range of play options.

Most players will start off with the game’s campaign mode, featuring twelve levels each for the American, German, and British armies. Goofy cut-scenes frame a variety of missions, with difficulty ranging from tricky to brutal. More confident players will want to experiment with skirmishes, customising their forces with the game’s point buy system, before possibly upping the stakes with the game’s roguelike mode, which sees players build up their team without dropping a mission, while having to replace losses. For players who find the AI not ruthless enough, Normandie boasts online multiplayer, an environment where the brevity of matches and the game’s elements of brinkmanship really shine, although the player base is still thin at this point. However, some of these modes can’t help but call attention to the contentious role of randomness in the game.

Hans, are…. are we the baddies?

Even accounting for the general human ineptitude at dealing with and understanding probability, random chance should hardly be contentious in a genre wedded to dice-rolling from birth, but Cat Rabbit feeling the need to tweak rolls in the player’s favour in a post-release patch shows something is up. The problem with the dice in Heroes of Normandie is that there’s so few of the blighters. Most attacks are resolved by a single roll of a d6, as opposed to fistfulls of dice or sequences of rolls. When forces are so small, and units so fragile, players are often placed in situations where the elimination or survival of half your troops hinges on a pair of coin-flips. It’s true that generally smart play, and tight focus on scenario objective in particular, can pull out a victory in the face of bad luck, but with tight time limits making meticulous caution pointless and leaving no room for backup plans, there will be situations where players will be checkmated by a couple of unlucky rolls. 

‘Sometimes you gotta roll the hard three’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

In a skirmish,where players can try a different map or tweak their forces in response to defeat, the fun core mechanics still shine. In contrast, the need for a victory in every level to progress makes the campaign feel like an endurance test, while my roguelike runs were halted by mission failure before I could ever get into a groove. Regardless of how high the game’s skill cap really is, it felt like a game where I was always at the edge of failure -- more a Saving Private Ryan feeling than Where Eagles Dare.

Heroes of Normandie gets a lot of things right, with smart ideas that turn out memorable moments at regular intervals. All the same it feels like an interloper in the digital space, an excellent beer-and-pretzels game which doesn’t work as an impersonal strategic challenge. Players who want to feel like battlefield chessmasters may find Normandie cruelly random -- this isn't a game for deterministic gameplay zealots. If you want a game which depicts combat high on tension and unpredictability but low on number-crunching, Heroes of Normandie is going to be a wonderful toybox for you. 

 

Heroes of Normandie is available on Steam and direct from publisher Slitherine.

 

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