David Thompson has been very busy over the past few years designing several games that have been well received in both the wargaming and Euro worlds; games such as War Chest, Pavlov’s House, Castle Itter, For What Remains, Europe Divided and now the recently released Undaunted: Normandy. All of these games are absolutely fantastic and we have enjoyed playing them. David has lots of things on his plate but he is always willing to talk to us and when we reached out to him for an interview on Undaunted, he was more than willing to talk with us.
Grant: Who is your design partner Trevor Benjamin and what did he bring to the table for the design?
David: Trevor is my main design partner when I work on co-designed projects. We met back in 2014 when I moved from the US to the UK. He was part of the design and playtest group in Cambridge that welcomed me with open arms. We began working together on Undaunted in 2014 after I pitched the game to Osprey Games at Essen. I needed someone to help me develop the game, especially with regard to balance and scenario development. But Trevor did a lot more than that. He came in and challenged some of the core tenants of the game. It improved a LOT when he joined me on the design. Over the years, he has also become a close friend. I’m super happy that even after I moved back to the US we have been able to stay in constant contact.
Grant: What was your inspiration for the design of Undaunted: Normandy? What mechanics did you gain inspiration for from other games?
David: Undaunted was really formed from two inspirations: A Few Acres of Snow from a game design perspective, and a desire to pay tribute to my grandfather and his unit (the 30th ID) from a theme perspective. I think the integration of deck-building with the spatial elements of a board game were genius in A Few Acres of Snow, so I started wondering how I could toy with that concept. At the same time, I was visiting Normandy and retracing my grandfather’s footsteps. A fusion of the mechanisms and theme made a lot of sense.
Grant: What is the focus of the game and how does the design tell the narrative of the Allies advance into Germany after the D-Day landings?
David: The game consists of 12 scenarios that tell the story of the 30th ID’s actions as it travels from Omaha Beach (they arrived a few days after D-Day) to Mortain, which was essentially the division’s conclusion to its actions in Normandy. Over those twelve scenarios, the 30th fights through bocage, participates in Operation Cobra, liberates Tessy-sur-Vire, and eventually defeat Germany’s counter-offensive in Mortain.
Grant: What type of research did you have to do and what were the sources you used?
David: Unlike more recent designs like Castle Itter and Pavlov’s House, I didn’t keep nearly the same level of meticulous notes when designing Undaunted. The design started earlier than those other games, and I hadn’t settled into the same research-design process I use today. But mostly the research consisted of occasional visits to Normandy where I would visit the sites the of the battles in the game, coupled with a pretty extensive review of the literature. I managed to collect quite a few autobiographies from men who were part of the 30th ID at the time. I always feel that those personal stories helped craft the best scenarios. I also probably have the world’s largest collection of books on the Battle of Mortain. 😉
Grant: What elements did you take great care to model in the design for a World War II Rifle Platoon?
David: I did a lot of research early on about the structure of the US Rifle Platoon during WWII. Since the game follows the 30th ID specifically, I wanted to make sure it was true to the structure that unit would have used. That mostly meant reading through key US Army manuals on the structure of the Rifle Company (since none were written for the platoon level). I tried to make sure that the game focused on the key contribution of each element of the Rifle Platoon, which included the platoon sergeant, platoon guide, squad leaders, riflemen, scouts, and machine gunners.
Grant: What did you have to sacrifice from history to make the game more playable?
David: There were a few big sacrifices. The game does not attempt to model German platoon structure at the time. That’s for a couple reasons. First, the game features Germans from about 8 different divisions over the course of the 12 scenarios, ranging from infantry divisions to SS panzergrenadier divisions. And second, at the time many of the German divisions were fighting with ad hoc compositions and remnants.
In addition, we ultimately decided to exclude a few elements of the US Rifle Platoon: platoon messengers (since their role as communication between the company and platoon level doesn’t impact gameplay), the assistant squad leader (whose contribution to the platoon was integrated into the squad leader), and the use of grenade launchers.
Grant: What is the story behind the name Undaunted: Normandy? What did you want the title to invoke in the minds of players?
David: There was a period in the game’s development where we called it Platoon Command. But that name was…not the best. It was also restrictive in what we could potentially do with the system moving forward. Fortunately the gents at Osprey realized this and suggested a name change. We brainstormed a few ideas, and Undaunted: Normandy is what emerged as the group’s favorite. I think it was a fantastic idea!
Grant: The game uses cards and is a deck builder. How does the deck building work? What role do Command Cards play in this deck building?
David: Deck-building really is at the heart of things like command and control as well as fog of war (and really denial and deception too). Over the course of the game, you use your platoon’s command elements (the platoon sergeant, platoon guide, and squad leaders) to “bolster” (that is, add cards for) the elements of the platoon you want to focus on. Those elements are abstracted as the riflemen, scouts, and machine gunners of each squad (as well as a sniper and mortar team). The more cards you add of a particular element, the more effective and resilient it will be. If you want to concentrate fire from a machine gun team, then bolster all that machine gun team’s cards into your deck so you’ll draw it more frequently. In addition, when a counter on the board is successfully attacked, you’ll remove the matching card from your deck.
Grant: What happens when a unit is attacked and killed on the battlefield? How does this effect your deck and your future prospects in battle?
David: When a counter (which represents an element of the platoon) is successfully attacked on the battlefield, you find its matching card and remove it from your deck. Depending on the squad element, you’ll have either three or five matching cards. Once those cards are removed, the counter is also removed from the board. By targeting your squad elements, the opponent not only comes closer to removing the counter, but they remove the cards from your deck and make that element less effective.
Grant: What different unit types are represented by the cards? Can you please show us a few examples and explain their abilities?
David: There are two broad categories of cards: Command and Combat. Command Cards represent the command elements of the platoon (platoon sergeant, platoon guide, and squad leaders), while Combat Cards represent everything else (riflemen, scouts, machine gunners, mortar teams, and snipers).
A couple key abilities:
Bolster: This allows you to take cards from your supply and add them to your deck, thus increasing the effectiveness of the matching counter and improving its resilience. A squad leader can only bolster his squad. Platoon sergeants and guides can bolster across the entirety of the platoon.
Inspire: This is the key ability for providing synergy between the squad leader and his squad. It allows the squad leader to effectively give a second action to anyone in his squad during a turn.
Control: This is the key to most scenarios. Only riflemen can control objectives. They do that by occupying a tile where no opponent counters are present and taking a control action.
There are quite a few more abilities, but I’ll leave it there for now, as we’ll describe those later…
Grant: What is the anatomy of the cards?
David: Combat and Command cards share most attributes: Title (the unit type), initiative value (which is used to determine who goes first each turn), squad designation (for elements that are part of a squad), actions (all the various actions a card can be used for), and name (each card represents an individual and features unique art and names). Command Cards also have stars to denote their status.
Grant: How do Fog of War cards work? How do you get rid of these cards?
David: I’ll talk more broadly about the role of Fog of War in the game if that’s ok. One key aspect of the game is that Scouts must first use their scout action to move to new areas of the board before any other unit can enter an area. Although moving to these new areas of the board opens up the possibility for other parts of the platoon to follow, it also stretches the command, control, and communications of the platoon. So for each new space the Scout enters, the player adds a Fog of War Card to their deck. A Fog of War Card can be used to take initiative (albeit at the lowest possible value), but that’s it. So Fog of War Cards will really reduce the efficacy of the platoon. You are able to permanently remove Fog of War Cards through the Scout’s recon action. In addition, the Scout has a concealment action which simulates the impact of camouflage, concealment, and deception and allows you to force your opponent to take a Fog of War Card into their deck.
Grant: Each deck has 54 cards. Why is this the appropriate number of cards? Has this number changed over the course of the design? What were the reasons for these changes?
David: It’s often good to keep components in mind as you work on a design. Multiples of 54 cards in a game is typically a good rule of thumb when thinking about production costs. So that’s what I tried to cap the number at for each side in the game. That number also leant itself well to the number of cards we needed for appropriately modeling the Rifle Platoon.
Grant: The game uses a modular board consisting of different terrain cards. How do players create the map? How does the map effect play?
David: From the beginning I knew I wanted the game to feature a modular board so that I could model a variety of features for the different scenarios. We chose modular square tiles so that we could configure the board in an offset square configuration, thus gaining all the same advantages that hexes offer. Players create the board based on the scenario guide. The board has one major gameplay effect: terrain bonuses.
Grant: What type of cover modifiers are offered by each type of terrain?
David: The terrain bonus of a single tile ranges from 0 to 3, representing defenses ranging from open ground to heavy forests and hills.
Grant: What counters are used in the game?
David: Each of the different types of Combat Cards have matching counters in the game: riflemen, scouts, machine gunners, snipers, and mortars.
Grant: How do Units attack and how do they take damage?
David: Combat in Undaunted is very streamlined. You just add a counter’s inherent defense to the defense of the terrain they’re in and add the distance between the attacker and target to reach the target’s total defense. That’s the number the attacker tries to roll on ten-sided dice. The better the attacker, the more dice they get to roll. The game also features the ability of the mortar to attack an entire area. A successful attack results in the target counter losing an associated card.
Machine gun teams have the ability to suppress targets, with a much higher chance of success than just a normal attack. Suppression doesn’t force the target to lose a card. Rather, it flips the target’s counter over. The next time that counter would act, it must use its action to flip its counter back over.
Grant: What can modify the dice rolls for combats and how do players need to think tactically to succeed?
David: A counter’s defense, the terrain defense, and distance between the attacker and target all affect the overall defense. Very seldom is combat the primary focus of a scenario. Instead, combat is usually just one tool to help in accomplishing a scenario’s objectives. If players are using riflemen or scouts to take long shots across the board into difficult terrain, they’re going to fail. They need to close the distance on their opponent, take advantage of the terrain (both when attacking and defending), and rely on higher chance attack rolls. Players can increase their odds by relying on their snipers or machine gun teams when an attack roll is critical.
Grant: What is the Sequence of Play? How does this aid players in keeping the game lite and fast playing?
David: Each round players draw four cards and play one for initiative. The player that won initiative will go first, using their three remaining cards for one action each. Then the other player will take their three actions. This usually results in a turn that takes no more than one or two minutes. Both players are engaged throughout the turn, so the game moves along very quickly.
Grant: What are the different types of Movement Actions?
David: There are three different movement actions: Scout, Move, and Stalk.
Scout I mentioned before. It’s limited just to the scout unit, and it must be used for other counters to move to new areas of the board. Most units in the game (riflemen, machine gunners, and mortars) have the Move ability. This allows them to move to areas that have already been scouted. Finally, there is Stalk. This ability is unique to the sniper. It allows the sniper to move to areas that have not been scouted, but it does not scout those areas — meaning the sniper can not lead the way like scouts do.
Grant: How many scenarios are there? What are your favorites and which are the most difficult?
David: There are 12 scenarios in the game. The first serves as an introduction and then each subsequent scenario introduces a new concept. I’m not sure if I have a favorite. Scenario 3 is really cool, where the US is trying to cross a canal. It’s the first scenario where both sides have access to machine gunners. Scenario 8 is all about the Americans trying to clear the town of Tessy-sur-Vire, which is another fun one. We specifically built scenario 12 as a purely symmetric scenario (in terms of board layout and deck composition), so while it’s not my favorite, I think it gives players a chance to really show who the better player is! 🙂
I’m not sure any of them are especially difficult. But certainly there are some later in the game where player have access to their entire deck. Depending on the scenario objectives, those can run a little longer than the early scenarios.
Grant: How did you make sure to balance the game so each side has a similar chance at success in each mission?
David: By playtesting each scenario about 3,418 times! Seriously, I remember loooong nights in the UK where Trevor and I would spend hours playing and replaying the same scenario over and over and over again to finely hone each scenario. We used different levers like starting deck composition, supply composition, unit availability, and board design to balance things out. And even then, the fine gents at Osprey (Duncan Molloy, Filip Hartelius, and Anthony Howgego) would also test the scenarios and provide us their feedback during development.
Grant: Who is your artist and how does their style add to the theme of the game and immersion by players?
David: Roland MacDonald is the artist. He’s probably best known for his art in Western Legends or the absolutely gorgeous work he did on the most recent edition of Battle Line. I love his work on Undaunted. I think the watercolor look is beautiful. Each card has unique artwork, which corresponds nicely to the personal touch of each card also featuring a unique name. In the end, it helps you build a closer tie to your force during individual scenarios or across the entire campaign of scenarios.
Grant: What does the design excel at? What are you most proud of in the design?
David: The thing I’m most proud of is the accessibility of the game, while also doing a good job of staying true to the composition and interaction of a platoon. Players can certainly play the game and never understand why there are five riflemen cards in a squad, or why the guide can give free movement to a counter. But if you know about the structure of a rifle platoon, those design elements will speak to their thematic inspiration.
Grant: Any future plans for expansions or for other nations to be added with new scenarios?
David: Well that will all depend on how well the game is received, and will of course be up to Osprey. But I can say Trevor and I have plenty more in store for the system if it does well. And while I’m not at liberty to talk specifics, I can say that an internet super sleuth managed to dig up some leads from an online store and share them on BGG.
Grant: What other projects are you currently working on?
David: I have a few things in the works. Just to cover what has been announced, Castle Itter from Dan Verssen Games is set to ship around September or October. For What Remains, my post-apocalyptic skirmish-level wargame also published by Dan Verssen Games, will be shipping late in the year or maybe early 2020. At Essen, the first expansion for my game War Chest (also designed with Trevor Benjamin) will be released. The expansion is called Nobility and I think fans of War Chest are going to really enjoy it. Also releasing at Essen is my game Europe Divided, which is being published by PHALANX. Europe Divided is a post-Cold War game that pits an expansionist Europe against a resurgent Russia. If you like tense, political games, it will be for you. After that, things get a little more hush hush, but I can talk a little about Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms. It’s a game about the defense of the Polish Post Office in the Free City of Danzig on the first day of WWII. I’ll probably be delivering the design for that to the publisher this fall or winter. And the next game in the Valiant Defense line from Dan Verssen Games will be about the defense of Hill 314 in the Battle of Mortain. And of course there will be more content for War Chest and Undaunted if they prove popular enough.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions David and I am really looking forward to giving Undaunted: Normandy a try. If you are interested in Undaunted: Normandy, you can order a copy for $40.00 from the Osprey Games website at the following link: https://ospreypublishing.com/undaunted-normandy
Love this game! Very nice post and a good read. I immediately went out and bought this game when I played it a couple weeks ago.
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Thanks and it does look great. We have a copy that is in line to play soon so I will let you know our thoughts.
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Had a great time with this interview. Thanks as always, gents.
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