Monday, September 07, 2009

D-Day at Omaha Beach - Initial Impressions

I've been a fan of John Butterfield's work for years, having played all of the Ambush!/Battle Cry! solitaire games, and recently picking up RAF, both in it's initial WEG version as well as the new Decision reprint (worthwhile just for the better components even if the new solitaire version for the Germans isn't as interesting). Having a brand new game come out, especially one as unique as D-Day at Omaha Beach (from here on out "Omaha") was very exciting.

Since I pre-order so much stuff directly from the wargaming companies, I wanted to give my good friend Jesse some business and so waited the nearly six weeks it took for Decision to get all of it's pre-orders out, and at the end of last week my prayers were finally answered. My wife was going to be out of town for a week on a cruise to Alaska with my sister, and I thought I'd get a great chance to play the game in. Or would, if it had come with a map. I guess I was lucky, as I hear a lot of games are missing the cards and other parts, and it took nearly a full week for the map to arrive by surface mail, even though I'm right up the coast from Decision. Oh well.

After going through the rules, I finally felt comfortable enough to run through the introductory scenario that covers the first four hours of the invasion on the east side of the beach (the full game is about twice as much area). After five or six turns, I feel I have enough of a grasp to give an out-of-box assessment of how well the game works at what it's trying to do.

I'm sure there must be some good board games on Omaha at this scale, but I can't think of any offhand. Certainly there haven't been any that weren't part of a game that included scenarios on a wide range of subjects, not just Omaha - Panzer Leader, ASL, even Memoir '44. There are tons of games that cover Normandy completely, but the only other one I can think of is Paul Koenig's D-Day: The American Beaches, which has a game solely devoted to Omaha. However, it's nowhere near as close a study as Omaha is.

The game is at what must be the battalion level, with two full divisions represented in the game on the US side. Since the game covers the first 12 hours of the invasion, before the Germans really started pouring troops into the fight (thanks to Allied air cover), it makes a huge amount of sense to make this a solitaire game, as the Germans are basically just shooting at the Allies as they come ashore and try to make their way forward. The various sub-beaches (Easy Fox, Dog Red, etc) are all represented with each section taking up around five hexes of area, and the individual German strongpoints are all represented as well. Even the draws running up the beach are included, as well as the "shingle". If you've seen the early scenes from Saving Private Ryan, this is the game that evokes that kind of action (but without quite so much of the noise).

Interestingly, the game has two "sides" to it that are pretty interesting. The first half of the game takes place in 15 minute turns. During that time, you will get shot at by various German strongpoints, but also have the chance to move some of your units. And by some I mean four. There are "free" actions you can take, but in general until you get some command staff on the beach you're going to be spending a lot of time trying to get units up to the shingle and trying to take out the strongpoints as quickly as possible. It's a bit of a balancing act, made more difficult by the fact that you never know which German positions will be firing on you at any given time.

The second half simulates the eight hours that make up the rest of the day, which featured the US forces trying to reach the high ground, largely through the draws that led up from the beach, and fighting with the reinforcing units that arrive as the day progresses. These turns are 30 minutes long, and the sequence of play changes accordingly to give the correct feel and operational tempo. It's a very clever way to handle the different phases of the first day of the invasion, and kudos to John Butterfield for thinking outside the box. I will not discuss that part of the game, as the introductory scenario doesn't get that far, but you can play the game and only cover that part of the day if you wish.

The components are very nice, lots of 5/8" counters that are easy to read, about half of which are markers. This is not a high counter-density game, although of course the action is largely limited to the beaches early on. There are three player aid sheets that have a lot of information on them that is *not* in the rulebook, so I strongly advise having them handy as you learn the game. There is also a nice color booklet that contains several examples, as well as a card/counter breakdown and the terrain chart. The map is the one part that people have complained about, and with some reason. To start with, the German positions (which they never move from, so no tedious AI management in this game compared to a lot I've seen) are all color coded, from brown to bright red, blue, orange, and purple. That's already going to be a big issue for those who are color challenged, but to make matters worse each position's hex has corresponding "fields of fire" on surrounding hexes that are also color coded. Because there are three "degrees" of fire (depending upon how dangerous each is for the US units), there are three different symbols out there. Some hexes will have several field of fire designators in them to cover several fields of fire. The result is a map that looks like the Skittles Fairy threw up on it.

Don't get me wrong, the concept actually works pretty well in practice, assuming you can see colors (or can guess which FoF symbols go with which defensive position). The effect is jarring the first time you see it, though, so be prepared. Given that the rest of the map is colored naturally as you would expect from an arial view, there's no question about what is an actual terrain feature and what is an artificial feature. I'm not coming up with a better way to represent the information (which is a great way to do it, btw - managing German defensive fire is about as straightforward as it could be in a game of this scale and scope), but it will be controversial to some point.

I found the rules to be a little difficult to get through the first time, as several game mechanisms require the player aids. For example, each US unit has a "target symbol" on it in one of three shapes. If the unit is in a German field of fire that is Steady or Sporadic (as opposed to Intense), then that symbol has to be on the unit for it to be eligible to take damage. However, you'd never know this from reading the rules, it's only mentioned in the German Damage table. There are also several instances of global rules that are mentioned occasionally in specific rules. For instance, if a unit is Disrupted, it *must* use a free action during the US Action phase to remove the Disrupted marker. However, under the Climb Bluff action description, it repeats this rule, but omits it entirely under the Climb Cliff action. The effect can be a bit confusing, and I'd have appreciated a tighter editing job. I'd also like to have seen game terms capitalized (as I'm doing in this review) to distinguish from use of those terms as verbs or nouns.

Don't get me wrong, this is not Fields of Fire with a ruleset that was simply missing entire sections of information (that rulebook is up to something like 10 pages of errata nine months after it's release, with more added constantly). As I've needed to find information, it's all right there as a reference. For learning the game, however, expect that you'll spend a little time piecing things together. I recommend that if you can, learn by playing a cooperative game with a friend, where each of you commands a division separately.

The cards are the narrow "euro" size, which means they don't really fit in standard card sleeves well. The art/graphics are less than inspiring as well, but on the plus side you can see them clearly from across the board (you play the cards on a track as the turn advances), so they are quite functional. Apparently there is only one bit of errata, and it's easy to spot because it involves events, which change in different phases of the game (turn 1-20, for example).

As for game play, you'll get started and realize what the word "elegant design" really means. The game whips along. I really like Fields of Fire, but it can take a very long time to run the AI in a given turn. So far, I'm averaging around 10 minutes for a full turn, of which about half of which I'm making choices. The other half involves the standard recordkeeping chores for any wargame, and about 2 minutes of AI management when it comes to the Germans getting all shooty-shooty on your ass. Even the landing phase is quick, and organized to demonstrate the difficulty of the first waves getting to shore compared to later ones, as well as different types of units.

Perhaps my favorite part of the game has to do with US attacks. Each unit has a specific set of weaponry at it's disposal, from Bangalore torpedoes (made famous by the Private Ryan movie) to tank barrages. Full strength infantry has a complete set of elements, but they lose some as they take losses. The German units, on the other hand, which start out hidden, will have a set of weapons that are needed to take them out. Depending upon whether or not your units match up, the strength ratios of the attackers to the defenders, and whether you're attacking coastal pillboxes or the inland reinforcement points, you'll end up eliminating, disrupting, or actually *helping* the Germans. Add to this the brilliant "in depth" counters that are also hidden and can be added to the defenders as they go, and much of the time you need to go in with a pretty well-stocked set of units. If you can generate a Hero via an event, they act as a wild card for one weapon system, and are really good to have. I have not seen them yet.

For example, I managed to get two infantry units (both reduced one step) and a reduced tank up to the shingle to the edge of a German strongpoint that had a hidden unit as well as a hidden depth marker. I flip the German, and it showed I needed a BG (Bangalore torpedo) as well as a BR (Browning automatic rifle). The unit was on the other side of the shingle, so it's value was doubled from 2 to 4. I had 10 points, which put me at the 2x/Right Weapons row, which I cross referenced with the WN with Unrevealed Depth Marker column. It tells me to reveal the Depth marker, which has an additional 1 point and requires an AR weapon (artillery, fortunately provided by the tank). Since Depth markers are *not* doubled by the shingle hexside terrain, that put the Germans at 5 to my 10, so now I check the same row on the WN w/ Revealed Depth column, which tells me to eliminate the Depth marker and Disrupt the WN unit. This is great, as I've taken out a big part of this strongpoint (there's one more hex with a unit in it to take it out completely). However, the next event that comes up tells me to add a Depth marker to a German unit closest to a US unit, which of course is the one I just took out. Since it took both of my Actions to activate these units for the attack, that means other units such as the tanks on the beach didn't move, and the tide is coming in do I keep attacking, or move the tanks up while I have a little breathing room?

As you can tell, this game gives great story. And I'm five turns in to the short and small intro scenario. I'm gonna love this game!

Once you get to the "extended" game, where you move inland, things change up a bit as I mentioned above. You also add HQs and Generals who add more actions per turn (they essentially give every unit with and around them free actions, and you can establish bases to increase that range). There are various German reinforcements that can be added to the pot as events come up, some of which are "what-if's". There's even a variant to throw additional German armor that went to other beaches (or were successfully interdicted by Allied airpower). There's also artillery, tank barrages, infantry preservation movement, and various optional rules.

In other words, there's a lot in the box. Based on my short playing time, I feel that this game is very playable to completion within five or six hours for the full game, more like three for one of the shorter scenarios (and two for the intro scenario, which I do advise you try out first). Reports on the 'Geek seem to favor the Germans initially, but most players will find out very quickly that pulling units in Intensive Fire hexes is a good way to wipe them out quickly, at least if you don't move them equally quickly off of the space. Most importantly, you'll feel like you're making very interesting choices most of the time. I like RAF quite a bit, but it feels like there are really only two serious decisions made per raid - what squadrons to put on patrol, and which squadrons to respond to a raid with. In Omaha, the decision about which units to activate and what to do with them feels like a very rich decision set in comparison, especially when you expand it across the entire beach.

All in all, I find that this game has tremendous promise and may well become one of my favorite solitaire games. It solves a lot of the problems inherent in solitaire games (re-playability and the AI management issues especially), it has a great story with the same sorts of wacky last-second heroics like you see in Combat Commander and Ambush, and it plays fast even right out of the box. Aside from the color issues on the map, the rules issues I outline above, and I'm sure one or two other things that I haven't run into yet, it's a winner. Even with those issues, it's a winner, because the rules aren't an issue once you've played two turns, and the map is only jarring until you realize how effectively it portrays the situation.

I'm really looking forward to another game using this system. Based on the very positive buzz the game has received, here's hoping they do one using another situation, perhaps Iwo Jima or another assault on a strong defensive position such as Stalingrad. This has the potential to be my favorite solitaire game ever. Wow.


Joe Steadman said...

Great Review

Geoff Campbell said...

I was looking for a solitaire D Day game and playability is all. A game with rules so dense it only comes out the box once is of little value. I found out about D Day at Omaha Beach but I couldn't get playability detail from games reviews on gamer websites but your review gives me all the detail I need. And some rules issues straightened out out too. Thanks for taking the time to put so much down.

Rui Serrabulho said...

It is a great review.
I have in this instance the game set to play the first scenario.