Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson’s 2018 breakthrough War Chest was wargaming boiled down to its basics: the chess like tradition of carefully manoeuvring units and planning moves to take your opponent’s pieces combined with modern additions of asymmetrical player armies and bag-building to determine the actions available each turn.
Undaunted: Normandy, released after War Chest but in actuality the design on which the earlier game was based, is likewise an inventive hybrid, this time of deckbuilding and World War II skirmish wargames. Far more thematic than War Chest’s light medieval dressing in its multi-scenario campaign, based loosely on the real-life US 30th Infantry Division, Undaunted plays out on two fronts: the ground-level tactical board game where US and German troops vie for control of objective points, and the card game used to command those same units by gradually refining your deck full of riflemen, scouts, snipers, commanders and more.
The two halves gel seamlessly. The control over your deck provides a level of flexibility in how you tackle each scenario; higher-ranked leaders can reinforce the deck with certain cards to allow their matching units to move, attack and take points more regularly, with the division of troops into multiple squads and unit types – each with their own cards required to issue orders – giving the feel of a properly strategic experience. Do you rush in with nimble scouts, slowly push up with heavier units, spearhead an attack or apply pressure on multiple fronts? The interplay between moving tokens across each modular map and speccing your deck to suit whichever strategy you choose flows naturally, allowing for gameplay that’s greater than the sum of its two parts.
Fixed squad loadouts for each of the scenarios (part of the game’s efforts to maintain historical accuracy, though a custom skirmish mode would’ve been a welcome bonus) make Undaunted a little more restrictive than War Chest’s customisable armies, but the core deckbuilding is wide enough in possibility in itself to make up for the tighter setup – plus you can always switch sides to give each mission a fresh challenge. Undaunted’s approachable deckbuilding and skirmishing never becomes weighed down by minutiae and excessive rules – the main learning curve of the game is adjusting to its lingo, where you ‘command’ rather than draw cards, ‘bolster’ rather than buy units to add to your deck and ‘conceal’ to clutter your rival’s deck with fog of war. This language highlights the immersive sense of the battlefield that Undaunted achieves with minimum fuss, offering an exquisitely trim central system that still manages to feel like a tactical wargame in its clever meeting of gameplay and theme. For example, scouts must lead the way ahead of general infantry, exploring tiles that only then can be moved onto by other units. But spreading your troops too quickly comes at a cost – fog of war cards gained by scouting act as junk in your deck until they’re removed by performing reconnaissance, reducing the likely efficiency of your four-card hand. It’s a creative way of simulating the difficulty of observing and communicating over increasingly stretched battlefields, masterfully captured in the process of continually evolving your deck by adding and removing cards.
Quick dice-based attacks – modified by simple strength, defence, cover and range values – present the chance for terrain to play a part in battles, with the luck factor making for those memorable wargaming moments of lone scouts taking down machine gunners against the odds. Successful attacks permanently remove cards from a player’s deck, reducing units' effectiveness, with only the final card’s elimination removing the matching token from the board – a gut-wrenchingly tangible way of seeing squads gradually whittled down and weakened, rather than endlessly removed and respawned as in other games.
Undaunted’s blend of deckbuilding and skirmishing is a perfect gameplay pairing. Combined with its clean presentation and an engrossing commitment to its historical setting, it becomes a terriffc trifecta. It’s a rewarding experience that excels across the board – and confirms its already lauded designers as two of gaming’s most exciting new creators to watch.
PLAY IT? MUST- PLAY
Undaunted is a brilliantly accomplished design, offering an engrossing WWII wargame in the guise of an approachable deckbuilder. From its immersive campaign to its tight and tense squad level gameplay, it’s a flying success.
Designer: Trevor Benjamin, David Thompson
Artist: Roland MacDonald
Time: 45-60 minutes
This review was featured in the August 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming
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