30 August 2019
Undaunted: Normandy brings together deckbuilding, wargaming and the real-life story of a legendary World War II unit. Its five-year journey also forged a close bond between its creators, David Thompson and Trevor Benjamin
Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson first met at a gathering of game designers in Cambridge, after the latter had moved to the UK from the US in the summer of 2014. The weekly playtest group also included tabletop luminaries such as Brett J. Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan; Benjamin had stumbled upon the hub of game creators after moving to the city the year before. For Benjamin and Thompson, their meeting was a chance encounter that would lead to a close friendship and their collaboration on a number of inventive, accomplished games.
The group of Cambridge designers travelled to German game fair Essen Spiel in October 2014. On the journey home, Thompson mentioned a design he had been working on before leaving the US, Platoon Command. After visiting Normandy during his time in the UK, Thompson had redoubled his efforts on the project and wanted Benjamin’s help to turn the core system into a campaign-driven experience.
“The core idea probably was most influenced by A Few Acres of Snow [Martin Wallace’s deckbuilder set during the French and British conflict in North America], because it’s a deckbuilder with the sort of spatial board element,” Thompson explains. “That’s where I got the idea of, ‘Hey, could you have a deckbuilding game with this platoon-level World War II combat, but you’re driving all of the action on the board through deckbuilding the deck itself?’”
“That’s typically how it works: one of us will have an idea and then that person will bring some form of it to the other and then we’ll work through it,” Benjamin says, calling Platoon Command Thompson’s “baby”. “I love A Few Acres of Snow as well and I’d always wanted to do something like that. So I was really excited to get working on something like that.”
Platoon Command would eventually be rechristened as Undaunted: Normandy, but its core remained unchanged. It was a hybrid of deckbuilding card game and tactical board-based wargame set during the Normandy campaign of World War II. Players would play cards to command opposed American and German units across a map, struggling over key objective locations. The deckbuilding provided a squad-level management of troops, as leader cards were used to reinforce the number of cards corresponding to units on the field and infantry cards could be expended to move, attack and hold points.
“One of the main things is that, unlike many deckbuilders, you start with your most powerful cards and nothing has a cost to it,” Thompson observes. “Every card is a card and, no matter how powerful or weak a card might be, it costs one to bolster it. It was important to me when I first started out that you had those core elements of the platoon from which you build the rest of the platoon out the way you needed to, and there were multiple different approaches to each scenario.”
“Ultimately it’s a game of moving your units around on a board and trying to control objectives, so that is the heart and focus of the game,” Benjamin adds. “I don’t know what percentage you’d say it’s [also] a deckbuilding game – it’s both. But it has that heart which many deckbuilding games don’t. That goes back to David’s original inspiration from A Few Acres of Snow, where deckbuilding is a core element of the game – but it’s deckbuilding to do something and to do something on a board.”
The growth of Undaunted from a clever set of rules into a fully-fledged campaign set during WWII required its designers to come up with a series of scenarios based on the conflict. For Thompson, it was an easy decision.
“I have a personal interest in the 30th Infantry Division, so I was like, ‘If I’m going to do a World War II game about whatever I want, it’s going to be tied to that,’” he says.
The 30th Infantry Division was renowned as one of the most important US Army platoons during the European theatre of war, earning repute for its efforts to break through France into German territory – the unit was so formidable in combat against some of the Nazis’ elite soldiers that it was said to have been nicknamed ‘Roosevelt’s SS troops’ among the enemy. Particularly inspired by the 30th’s actions between its arrival in Normandy on June 10th 1944 and the capture of Reuilly and crossing of the Seine that August, Thompson and Benjamin based Undaunted’s missions heavily on the real-life events.
“It was good because it gave me the constraints of, ‘Hey, we need scenarios, I’ve picked the unit, let’s track all of its historical conflicts and see what lends itself well to platoon-level combat,’” Thompson says. “While the game heavily abstracts that, that’s how the scenarios came about.”
The level of detail extended to the scenarios – which included matching the real-life sequence of the 30th’s campaign in-game – embodied Thompson’s starting point for Undaunted’s gameplay: an effort to faithfully model WWII combat within the confines of a deckbuilding card game.
“Essentially we would have to justify the gameplay needed to trump historical accuracy to the point where only then would we remove something,” Thompson insists. “Whereas in a normal, more abstract game you might start in a different place, we started with historical accuracy and then tweaked to get to improved gameplay.”
“It’s not a simulationist game in a way lots of other big-W ‘Wargames’ are, but certainly trying to put some of this historical accuracy in the game was something that David was keen to do from the beginning,” Benjamin confirms, laughing: “And I tried to not get in his way.”
The commitment to match reality as closely as possible manifested in the number of cards in each player’s reserves; there are five rifleman and three machine-gunners in each unit simply because that’s how many there were in a real-life platoon. Benjamin laughs about Thompson’s insistence on such details.
“I remember querying some of these things in the beginning and I’m like, ‘Maybe we could make them all four...’ and David’s like, ‘No, there was five and there was three!’”
At the same time, neither of the designers was willing to sacrifice Undaunted’s balance and fun as a game for the sake of historical pedantry. In the earlier versions of the game, only one sniper card was included in each player’s forces – mirroring the lone position adopted by a long-range marksman on battlefields.
“For gameplay reasons we ended up expanding that out to three snipers and then had to sort of hand-wave justify that,” Benjamin reveals. “That was an example where the modelling of historical accuracy had to give way to gameplay. Then there are other examples, but that’s just one.”
Realism and gameplay often met in the middle. A key part of Undaunted involves exploring the board, which adds fog of war cards to a player’s deck. The cards serve to lessen the number of useful cards in a player’s hand and can only be removed by using scouts to recon the battlefield.
“One of the ways in which the game harkens back to other deckbuilding games is these fog of war cards, where you’re managing this junk in your deck,” Benjamin explains. “I was really impressed by the way that David introduced this through the scouting action.
It’s wonderfully thematic and something you have to constantly be dealing with in your deck, or you can choose to ignore it and hope that you rush out a victory and deal with the fact that your deck will be rubbish – or you can be a bit more slow and calculating and try to remove the fog as you’re going. In some ways, you could draw parallels to that in other elements of other deckbuilding games, but at the same time it feels different and it feels thematic and it’s a consequence of what you’re doing on the board.”
Thompson credits Benjamin with helping to refine the game’s card-driven centre without sacrificing its distinctive historical edge.
“All of the core deckbuilding concepts that are in the game now were in the core design but, when Trevor came in, he identified some issues,” Thompson says. “The fog of war cards, for example – they were much more difficult to get out of the deck in the early versions – and also things like when you control an objective, you would have a rifleman and they would go away from the game when you controlled it. When he came in and we started working together on it, he quickly identified some of those areas where we could improve the deckbuilding elements of the game without resorting to the sort of tropes of most deckbuilding games.”
One point where the designers disagreed involved the inclusion of a third squad. Undaunted features squad-specific actions, where players are limited to which units they can reinforce or command – the leader of squad A, for example, can only bolster their own company. Thompson considered a third squad a “fundamental part of a platoon” and therefore key to a platoon-based experience, while Benjamin contended that the gameplay would be stronger with just two squads to manage.
“Of everything we decided to keep in the game that we erred on the side of historical accuracy over gameplay, that would probably be the most contentious point,” Thompson says.
“It was a point of contention but neither of us was willing to throw our toys out of the pram,” Benjamin assures quickly. “It was just I felt like we could have worked without it, but David was quite concerned about maintaining the historical accuracy, so fine.”
In the end, Squad C made it into the game. It plays a lesser role than A and B, appearing in only a few scenarios, but also served as the inspiration for missions created specifically with the management of three squads in mind.
“I was totally happy with that, but it’s funny – because we’ve [since] worked on a lot of games, we’ve put in hundreds of hours working together, we’ve become very close friends, I wonder now if we were to go back how much harder I would’ve pushed on some of these things,” Benjamin laughs, swiftly adding: “To be clear: I’m very happy with the way the game turned out in every way, but it would’ve been interesting.”
Thompson acknowledges that there were are other “key things” that didn’t make it into the game at all, such as assistant squad leaders and platoon messengers, but is confident his vision of a historically-faithful experience wasn’t compromised.
“We both bought into what we wanted the game to be, so it was just a case of what are the core sorts of objectives of the design – it was to make something which was a stripped-down wargame that incorporated these elements and was as tied closely to history – both in terms of what a platoon in World War II and how it functioned – [as it was to] this particular platoon, the historical events and things,” Benjamin says. “It was really nice to have this vision of what we wanted it to be and we both contributed different things to that.” He laughs. “There was no real fighting.”
Players of Thompson and Benjamin’s War Chest may notice similarities between last year’s bag-building battle between medieval units on poker-like chips and Undaunted’s deckbuilding WWII skirmishes.
While War Chest helped the designers first make their name, the design actually grew out of Undaunted. Whereas Thompson had conceived Undaunted’s deckbuilding gameplay, it was Benjamin that suggested stripping the system back to its core to create a more abstract wargaming experience, inspired by the minimalist approach of designers such as Tigris & Euphrates creator Reiner Knizia.
“I was just like, ‘Okay, how can we pull the core out of [Undaunted] and present it in its most minimal form?’” Benjamin recalls. “For Undaunted, it was much more a development role that I was taking on. Whereas for something like War Chest, we were pretty much equal in terms of our design and development input and vision for what it should be.”
“War Chest grew out of Undaunted as being a desire to how streamlined, how elegant, how minimalist could we get that system?” says Thompson. “The games share a lineage and there are some similarities, but obviously the play winds up being very different.”
Undaunted’s dice-based, terrain-modified attacks were removed, leaving War Chest’s deterministic approach to combat where chips are removed with no element of luck. In place of acquiring and drawing cards from their deck to command units during a series of thematic scenarios, players could customise a bag of chips representing various troops – archers, cavalry, infantry and more – that deployed to a relatively plain, hex-grid board.
“We wanted a game that was sort of built on that same DNA but just offered a different experience,” Benjamin compares. “Undaunted is very much a sort of thematic experiential game; that’s something that we really enjoy about the game, that you can make these crazy shots and cross your fingers and hope for these really high-risk moves, and sometimes it will pay off and sometimes it won’t. It’s a game that feels in some ways sort of cinematic, whereas we wanted to make War Chest much more abstract and calculating in that sense.
“War Chest was even more abstract and pure in its beginnings and then we sort of added on additional complexity by adding all the different units and built in a lot more theme. It’s still an abstract, but we tried to build in theme to that game via the different units.”
“Everything we did with War Chest was aimed at the absolute most elegant minimalist design without those restrictions,” Thompson agrees. “It definitely harkens back in some ways, but we definitely embraced the ability to just go whenever we want with it.”
BROTHERS IN ARMS
Undaunted: Normandy’s subtitle instantly invites ideas of its creators using their wargaming system to tell further stories and explore other settings from World War II, as well as other conflicts.
“You’ll notice that it’s called Undaunted: Normandy rather than just Undaunted,” Benjamin acknowledges coyly.
“The system we think could be used to support other games, other settings,” adds Thompson.
“It’s something we’ve certainly discussed,” Benjamin says.
Benjamin reveals the pair has also considered the possibility of using the same hybrid of deckbuilding and wargaming to depict war at different scales than the squad-level campaign of Undaunted: Normandy, from even more intimate experiences to sweeping frontlines.
“David and I, independently, we’ve discussed and talked about questions of scale and, y’know, you could zoom in or zoom out in terms of scale and still use the same sort of system,” the designer says. “What does a unit on the board represent, and what does each card represent? We’ve definitely talked about it. It’s something that we’re keen to explore, certainly.”
Although they confirm that they’re recently completed an expansion for War Chest due for release later this year, the two refuse to be drawn on whether Undaunted: Normandy may itself see expansions in the future.
“Obviously if the game does well, [publisher] Osprey would probably want to have more in this system,” Thompson predicts.
The designers do reveal that they have plans for another title descended from Undaunted’s gameplay, that they plan to work on alongside completely new projects.
“We’ve got another game which is sort of inspired by this system but again takes it in a different dimension,” Benjamin says. “We are continuing down this path.”
Undaunted was the first project that began Thompson and Benjamin’s fruitful collaboration and burgeoning careers as game designers. Nearly five years on, it’s the latest creation to emerge from what’s become a close friendship and successful creative partnership – one that looks set to endure undaunted.
“This was really the first game that we properly worked on together,” Benjamin says. “This was where we were finding our feet working together – as well as the fact that we’re both still quite new in terms of our designing at all.
“So, for both of us, working on this game was finding our feet as game designers and developers, as well as how we work together.
This review originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.