In Germany, board games tend to steer clear of any themes that are tied to World War II. This is hardly surprising. But it also means that with the exception of the wargaming scene, there’s not much of a conversation about how (or if) to deal with the topic in a game. Is it acceptable to play war in the privacy of your home? In what way is a game allowed to depict war? What can games even say about wars?
Undaunted Normandy is set in World War II. It is about individual battles in Normandy, with two players fighting each other, acting as US Army and Wehrmacht respectively. If your ears are already turning red, please refer to the second half of this review. First, though, I want to say a few words about the game design craft in this game.
No matter how close you get, you will only ever look down on them.
Right from the start you’ll note that this is a comparatively light and beginner-friendly game. You have to place („control“) certain squares of thet board with your pieces („soldiers“). In order to do this, you have to play certain cards depending on the piece you want to move. To keep the game from feeling too staid, individual cards let you choose between different actions to perform. Some add new cards to your deck. Others let you remove less useful cards, or force your opponent to discard useful ones from their hand. Sometimes you move your pieces, sometimes you prevent the other side from doing so. In sum, all your considerations revolve around playing cards from your hand tactically and strategically, and changing your deck. Those in the know refer to this as deckbuilding mechanisms.
Undaunted Normandy’s design is strong because even non-experts will quickly grasp the basics. Your goal is always apparent. Even with a very basic understanding of the rules, you quickly understand what you need to do to get to your goal. Only the somewhat fuzzy choice of terms for certain card actions require you to memorize a bit of jargon.
Once you’ve taken that hurdle, however, Undaunted Normandy plays smoothly. If you do get bogged down executing an action, it will only happen the first few times. Once you understand the game’s decision space, choosing an action is no longer an overwhelming task. Instead, you’ll carefully weigh short-term and long-term consequences. This makes for a game that is exciting and entertaining, but also rarely feels longer than 30 minutes.
The game’s depths aren’t necessarily found on the board
Now if a game were just the sum of its shapely and inviting mechanisms, Undaunted Normandy would have hit many of the best-of-the-years lists in the German board game scene. But it is also delves into historical themes and content that is usually reserved for Academy Award submissions from Germany. Mixing fun gameplay and World War II in German living rooms is only allowed, if you can make as much money with it as Activision does.
Alternatively, you may turn this topic into a game, provided you approach it with the serious demeanour and respectfulness World War II seems to demand. You might, for example, offer a paragraph about the game’s historical background that refers to the 30th Infantry Division of the US Army. You may explicitly distance yourself from the claim of simulating history. Similarly, every character in the game might be given a name to remind players that they are “leading real soldiers, not random game pieces.”
Ironically, Undaunted Normandy is at its most problematic when it attempts to presents itself as a respectful and responsible approach to its topic. The unspoken idea of representing fictional battles in a board game also brings with it an obligation to reflect, question and comment on real history. This becomes the game’s undoing.
For it is only in comparison to this high self-claim that the large gaps that the game exhibits through its chosen perspective and nature become clear. Game design’s inherent abstraction means that certain aspects will be left out. Undaunted Normandy, for example, knows of neither injury nor trauma for its soldiers. Battles leave no physical or psychological traces. No moral boundaries are crossed because they kill on command. Whatever responsibility you may have for the men in your own ranks exists at best as a vague allusion in the rulebook. The battles you play have the emotional depth and complexity of finger gun shootouts among children.
I understand the intent behind the rulebook’s explanation. It’s a preventative rebuttal of accusations of trivializing real crimes. It’s supposed to signal that the game wasn’t made from a place of ignorance or indifference.
But at the end of the day, players decide how much knowledge of real-life battles and soldiers’ fates will bleed into the feel of the game. It’s our imagination that decides whether we think of blood, pain and agony when a hit is rolled, or whether we’re annoyed that our tactical flexibility next turn has been limited.
The creators behind Undaunted Normandy understand that a game design affects what you do, think or feel while playing. However, they seem to focus solely on what players are shown, rather than what they do with game’s parts. A game’s narrative is framed by its mechanics and filled out by its setting. But it’s the players who can turn this into a story through play. It’s our imagination that reshapes the application of mechanisms into events of a story. It is the images in our mind’s eye that determine how respectfully and responsibly the game we play deals with the real past.
“You are all individuals”
The game creators’ influences ends with the non-binding suggestion of how rules and setting should be brought together. At the actual game table, it is we who decide what a game rule means to the story. We give it meaning or attribute a statement to it. We can pick up illustrations and terms from the game to do so. We are the ones who decide if a card we played is Private Jones, who has a wife and kid back home in Oklahoma, or just “the card with the 5 on it.”
That is why texts on the historical background are only a suggestion on how to understand and perceive the game. Which brings up the question why this needs explaining in the first place? Does a game become more mature by doing so? The cards show intrepid fighters with names of their own, supposedly implying that not all of them will return home when the war is over. But this sentence alone paints a more tragic picture of war as a place of misery and suffering than the game itself does.
Regardless of criticisms, there is no question that Undaunted Normandy is fun to play. Even if its treatment of World War II doesn’t approach the pathos and desperate humanism of a Saving Private Ryan. When you play, it’s more reminiscent of the fun adventure and scrappy summer camp atmosphere that made The Great Escape so memorable. But even for that comparison to hold, Undaunted Normandy would need the kind of harsh and final losses that ran through the film.
Whether Undaunted Normandy trivializes its theme depends on what we’re willing to make of it. After all, the game design delivers too much light-hearted entertainment and fun to refer to the real military conflicts of World War 2 with po-faced seriousness. It’s a fun game that doesn’t teach, explain, or provide insight into history. But perhaps games don’t always have to do that. Even if they are about wars.