Review: Shadows over Normandie26 Sep 2016 2
Review: Shadows over Normandie
Released 28 Nov 2015
He might not have been the greatest literary writer in history – with an ear for dialogue about as natural as the cast of TOWIE’s – but there is no denying H.P. Lovecraft’s haunting, hideous creations were as original as they were terrifying. Take Cthulhu himself for starters. Even in his deep slumber, the nightmarish visage of this infamous Ancient One could drive anyone to madness in mere moments.
Its effect not unlike the first time you unbox Shadows Over Normandie, Devil Pig’s Lovecraftian spin off to the esteemed Heroes of Normandie. First, you are overcome with shock as the endless, tiny, seemingly inscrutable cardboard components are painstakingly punched into the box and then creeping dread unfurls as you wrestle with the obscurity of the manual. Definitely, it’s enough to make you wonder if this fantastical World War II table top skirmisher is going to leave you in grid-based combat heaven or dribbling in a padded cell.
The Thing on the Doorstep
Landing with an almighty thud should your delivery driver drop it, Shadows Over Normandie is one weighty box of cardboard – both inside and out.
While punching out tokens and bagging them up neatly is one of the not so secret pleasures of the table top gamer, the piles of seemingly random, often miniscule items that tumble out of this box is both daunting and frustrating. You see, every unit or item, from gigantic creatures from the deep to near microscopic suppressed markers, is illustrated on cardboard tiles or smaller shapes.
Yes, all this thick paper this might conjure the nostalgia of the cardboard hex wargames of yore but newbies wanting to get stuck into their first few scraps it can be an eye-straining chore to find each and every piece needed for a scenario. Also, with no storage inside beyond a big gaping hole where the tokens came from and not a free baggie in sight, you are left with no choice but to meticulously order and store each component yourself. The horror, the Eldritch Horror.
Given the game’s rather premium price tag, you would hope for a little more of a helping hand to keep your Elder Signs in order. Plus, the rather drab, gloomy colour scheme and bland illustrations on the main military units are both underwhelming and confusing once the battling eventually starts. Everything from squads of rangers and demon-like hunters to heavy weapons and destructible buildings are festooned with tiny icons depicting health, assault strength and unique skills – sometimes up to 10 or more on a single one. Couple this with a distinctly muddy look to the double sided map tiles used to create unique scenarios, and you are left with a game where donning a miner’s helmet and a pair of binoculars is sensible playing attire.
Mountains of rule Madness?
Furthermore, ‘Let’s go for obfuscation’ seems to have been the motto for Normandie’s designers, as the manual appears to give no thought to players not already well-versed in Heroes of Normandie game or the Achtung! Cthulhu universe in which this spin off is set.
There is a rich, Eldritch drenched history in the latter’s military vs. forces of darkness series of novels and roleplaying games, which makes for an alluring skirmish prospect on a smaller tabletop scale. Yet, the main manual essentially forgets to mention any of this WWII Cthulhu craziness, preferring to launch headlong into a dry list of unit types and hastily explained rules that become increasingly obscure as you wade through them. Dramatic flavour text be damned, you must instead amuse yourself by trying to commit to memory a nightmarish series of icons and symbols depicting everything from unit movement to the suppression cost of individual spells.
Understanding that combat plays out over a trio of distinct phases (giving orders, activating units to move or fire and, finally, the supply round – in which you move remaining units and restock special order cards that add sudden twists to combat) is not too tricky for tabletop veterans of Memoir ’44 and its ilk. Equally, movement is based on a straightforward value printed on the unit, shooting relies on simple line of sight across the board (with some basic cover rules for good measure) and resolved with an almost coin toss-like d6 roll. Meanwhile melee combat is only an option for squads with the Assault symbol and is resolved in a quite tense head-to-head dice off.
Obviously, the goal was to be succinct with the instructions and trust players are familiar with concepts zones of control. Yet, after already being combat fatigued from sifting through piles of abstract looking tokens, a longer, more light hearted guide to the game – or one with more nods to the Achtung! Cthulhu mythos – would have taken the edge off the almost vertigo-inducing learning curve.
The addition of a quick reference guide on the back is, as always, welcome yet this one is almost unreadable thanks to the sheer volume of information crammed in using the world’s tiniest font. Almost every symbol adorning the units is printed here (More than 40 to be exact) and it’s a real pain on the pupils to find the exact icon you want translated in the heat of battle. Definitely, we would recommend watching a video tutorial or splurging on the excellent Heroes of Normandie iOS game (read the Pocket Tactics review here -ED) for a gentler introduction to the ruleset rather than just diving into the Deep Ones’ territory.
Fortunately, the introductory, 10 mission campaign does appear more welcoming than its Necronomicon-like rules guide. There is an engaging overarching story about rescuing a lost lady hero (with a dragon!) and a definite sense of upping the ante from mission to mission, as you move from platoons of squabbling units to rolling in tanks and gigantic, spell summoned monsters to support your cause. There are even missions introducing the possibility of including a third player – controlling the Black Sun (particularly nasty Nazis)– which leads to a bit of board overload but some scrappy fun for those with a spare pal lurking around.
There is flow to the campaign too and being able to battle onwards with hero units, with special abilities and super stats, you have somehow kept alive from previous missions. This builds a bond with your squad that almost transcends the fact they are cartoony illustrations printed on cardboard.
Sadly, unless your first few games go smoothly – a fairly unlikely prospect given the issues for new players highlighted earlier – persuading even your closest war gaming allies to stick with you through the full fight might need a few spells of your own. Or you can bribe them with the promise of endless peanut M&Ms, which worked for this reviewer, and guarantee you will do all the setting up and tidying away of the endless, endless tokens. Do not ask for help with this.
The Lurking Fear
If you can sustain a friendship through these swampy, cardboard drowned opening hours you may well find yourself hooked on the dark magic hidden beneath Normandie’s confusingly explained systems. Then you can drag in a companion to set up endless skirmish scenarios by building armies of grunts, monsters and bespoke heavy weaponry using a straightforward points system.
Like most wargames, it is in the freedom to create your own scenarios that will keep ardent Normandie and Cthulhu fans locked in perpetual cardboard conflict, so it is just a shame you had to do so much manual mangling paper work and interminable filing of tokens to find these sinister successes buried underneath.