Shadows Over Normandie Review
on Jan 13, 2016
Yann and Clem’s Heroes of Normandie is a great wargame that pretty much thumbs its nose at historical accuracy and the usual impetus of simulation, preferring to give players a more cinematic, Hollywood-influenced World War 2 setting. The heroes are square-jawed Americans (and Brits), the bad guys are the Nazis. Plain and simple. But somewhere along the way, these designers thought it would be a good idea to make a HORROR wargame so they leveraged the Heroes tactical system (as well as materials from Modiphius Games’ Acthung Cthulhu RPG) and cooked up the completely compatible Shadows Over Normandie. The results are a game that feels even further distanced from the usual WW2 tactical fare and really kind of closer to an adventure game.
Across the board, it is 100% the same game under the hood as Heroes of Normandie. You can use every unit, hero, vehicle, map board and action card in Shadows and vice versa. So if you are adding this game to an existing collection, you’ll be bringing on board a lot of cool new stuff to play with for ad hoc scenarios- including map boards with some all-new terrain types including a cave system. If this is your first Devil Pig Games purchase, rest assured that it is absolutely a standalone release and it requires no experience with or components from Heroes. You get plenty in the box to play with, enough to work through ten chapters of the included “Lost Battalion” campaign.
It’s a fun storyline that takes a US Ranger battalion (“Majestic”) through a series of engagements with not only a Nazi black magic cult (the Black Sun), but also Deep Ones and other Cthuloid monsters. The scenarios are varied, and as a whole I think it is a much better campaign than the one included in Heroes. I particularly like the cave missions that play out very much like dungeoncrawls- albeit with WW2 weapons, concepts and gameplay. There are lots of fun connecting points between the scenarios, encouraging players to complete side objectives or to force critical decision points that may have an impact later in the campaign.
But if you didn’t like Heroes of Normandie, then I’m not sure the spooky stuff is going to sway your opinion. Yet it does do some things quite differently. Because the game introduces supernatural elements including the Lovecraftian monsters, magic and artifacts as well as a sanity mechanic that imparts a whole new psychological twist, it is a somewhat more complicated game once you dig into the particulars because all of these effects, statuses and modifiers are even more pronounced. But that all buys you a fairly unique experience- heroes are as likely to be equipped with an Shaggai Sword or an Elder Sign Medallion as they are an MP40 or a Mauser, an evil totem might be giving an enemy a buff making it a secondary target, and battling a unit of Deep One Hunters feels different than taking on a Nazi fire group. There are number of powerful spells that can be granted to characters with a range of effects beyond the mundane. All of the above have effects that fit into the Heroes system’s icons, so most are easy to grasp at a glance of the counter.
The Terror rules are especially fun. Mythos manifestations cause any unit with a suppressed marker during the end-of-round supply phase to roll against a terror value. Failure means that you’ve got to draw from a bag of Madness tokens, which means that your unit or hero can run away, go catatonic or even commit suicide. The unpredictable effects add another great layer of potential narrative. There are also new rules for searching- a unit that ends a turn next to a search token can make a check to see if they find a customization or spell. When was the last time you played a wargame that loot?
The night and fog rules that Heroes introduced in its big-box expansions are present and used frequently, which limit visibility and range. This works well in conjunction with melee-only units and ambush abilities. Another significant change is that there are effectively three factions in this version of the game (Majestic, Black Sun and Deep Ones) so three player games are more viable than before.
I really love Shadows Over Normandie, but like its predecessor, it has a couple of fussy quirks that may put some off it. It remains- after playing Heroes for a couple of months now- a game that I am never quite certain if I am doing it correctly. The translation from French is fine, but something about the rules as written, the iconography and the process never quite becomes as fluid and smooth as I would like it to be. But then again, this is the kind of game where whatever rules disputes arise should be settled with “whichever way is the most awesome” logic. Like Earth Reborn, the game that I think these most resemble, you’ve got to sort of be patient with it, understanding that the payoff in cinematic action and narrative is going to be worth it.
Devil Pig Games is certainly no slouch in supporting its releases and Shadows Over Normandie has a day-one expansion with the oddly titled Cthulhu Mythos Call #1. As is the case with many Heroes add-ons, it’s really just a couple of punchboards in a blister pack- with no rulebook or documentation. I hate this. I don’t mind the low-cost packaging at all, but I think it stinks that I’ve got to go download and print the rules from a Web site where I have to register and create an account. And- get this- the English rules aren’t even complete. As of this writing, there is only a “beta” translation that is not complete. And there is at least one new character that isn’t even worked into the new content but teased in the rulebook, encouraging you to go back to the Devil Pig Web page to get more content featuring him. This is bad form. Granted, a lot of the new units, spells and monsters can be easily be deciphered since it’s all systematic and language-independent as far as the counters go but there’s no excuse for this product to not include documentation. Call me spoiled, but I would be OK with bumping up the retail price of this expansion product in order to sell it as a complete package.
That said, the expansion adds some neat content that I wouldn’t want to miss just because I don’t want to be bothered with printing out a half-finished translation. Per the title, this set adds even more Lovecraftian flavor to the game- including a big ol’ Shoggoth. The included three scenario campaign is great, pitting a Cthulhu cult against the Black Sun. It’s a refreshing change of pace after the US Rangers-led battles in the core box. But don’t worry, they show up again in the finale for a big, three-way battle…that ends in a tease for the next expansion, something called “Desert Wrath”. Guess we’re going to North Africa for that one.
It’s important to remember that these games are part of a product line, so you kind of have to expect those kinds of hooks. Fortunately, it’s a good product line that so far hasn’t disappointed me where it counts. Shadows Over Normandie is a fun, vivid wargame with adventure game influences. It is also a modular kit that you can add to other Heroes products to expand your recruitment options and potential scenarios. As a starting point, I think it’s actually a better choice than the original Heroes of Normandie game for those like me who are more in tune with the “weird” World War 2 concept than the historical one.