Back in 2013, Devil Pig Games fed their board game – Heroes of Normandie – into Kickstarter. It was an overwhelming success, with over 5 times the requested amount pledged, and a mass of stretch goals reached. As it turned out, people desperately wanted a streamlined, cinematic, cartoon skirmish board game.
Now Heroes of Normandie has seen another Kickstarter succeed over five times the requested amount, one to restructure the rules of the many expansions, and also to store the many extra tiles, terrains and units Devil Pig had launched over those years. There’s even a Cthulhu mythos inspired expansion on the tables, with the English version launching this year.
Quarterly Gazettes – a subscription-based expansion system – as well as campaign packs, added new mechanics into the games: Flamethrowers, Mines, Trains and much, much, more.
To say that Heroes of Normandie has a large, dedicated following is an understatement, and this is mostly down to the easy to understand rules, the fast-paced nature of the game, and the modular, standardised components.
With all that said, it seemed obvious that we would see it join the ranks of the many titles transitioning into digital format. Sure enough, in late 2015 the PC version of the game launched, developed by CatRabbit and published by Slitherine, with an iPad version to follow. In the middle of December, a free update added an in-depth level editor, which is what I’ll be spending most of my time talking about in this review.
Part 1) Heroes of Normandie (PC Edition) In Review.
Heroes of Normandie combines a fast, synchronous-turn play style, with an extremely malleable, flexible choice of units – meaning you have a game which (in relation to other turn-based tactical strategy titles) is quite fast to be learnt, and easy enough to pick up and play.
While the name might immediately infer that it revolves around a certain, strategic beach landing, Heroes of Normandie, in fact, serves as a veritable smorgasbord of iconic films – with characters clearly inspired by the heroes and villains of some of the greatest war films of all time. These characters are the game changers within each of the quick, timed skirmishes which make up the game.
Within these skirmishes, as opposed to large open battlefields which might have been expected, is a cleverly balanced game of tactics – one revolving around positioning, cover and obstacles. All of these serving to improve or reduce the combat strength and survivability of your troops. Said troops are made up of a variety of infantry roles, vehicle rolls, and the titular heroes.
The board game style of Heroes of Normandie is retained, and well animated, with pieces swaying as you hold them aloft over the board, and the pieces snapping to the tile. Die rolls are also clearly visualised, and the game manages to display a lot of information in a clear manner by keeping a lot of the visual information from the physical pieces from the game in place on their digital counterparts. Character art and the campaign briefings retain the charming caricatures of their media influences that helped keep the games’ tone chirpier despite the subject matter. And when pieces are destroyed, or fire on one another, it is done with short, well-made animations.
The ease at which you can get playing manages to mask the more advanced complexities of Heroes of Normandie. Each unit (as to be expected) having set effectiveness against different enemy types, as well as different abilities and movement amounts. This is all displayed on the unit’s tiles – which, as with any tile in the game, you can take a closer look at with a simple right-click.
The only non-cement variable in the game comes from a single roll of a D6 (sometimes 2, in the case of assaulting, or a few other instances), which means that if your squad aren’t laid out correctly – with suppressing fire, and cover – then volleys between two parties can go on for the entire skirmish. The ammo pick up can increase the range of dice which will serve up a hit against the enemy, and this – as well as the maths behind each attack – is all fairly well explained in the sidebar and tooltips for the icons on the screen.
What this means is that the game cleverly dodges the normal “Rock-Paper-Scissors” formula of military games, as you can place a normally defensive unit in just the right place, and conditions, to score a successful hit on something a lot larger, and scarier. That is if the dice rolls in your favour.
The roll of the dice seems to be a major bone of contention with those I’ve spoken to about Heroes of Normandie, some say the game rolls unfairly or is rigged in the AI’s favour. I can confidently say, from my time playing this – and my experience with D&D, and other games using die – that this is not the case. However, what I will say is that when there are only six sides on the die, it’s only a ⅙ chance to hit a 1, and when you’ve only got 8 units on the field, and three turns (this varies depending on your squad set up), then you really, REALLY, feel it when you miss on all three rolls, or when the enemy hits on theirs.
Gameplay proceeds through several phases of a turn, firstly you indicate which of your troops will be taking orders (you also get a bluff token), secondly one team takes their first order, then the other, then play proceeds – some units can attack and move in the same turn, with nerfs, some simply one or the other. Then, as a final phase, any unmoved characters are allowed to move their full movement, but not attack.
This simple process, combined with the terrain effects, and different unit statistics, actually makes for an extremely easy to pick up and play title. The third phase is also a pleasant inclusion, as it means you can push forward using your orders and attacks, but then leapfrog your wave of troops past them into new defensive positions.
The inclusion of a bluff is interesting as well, and while it serves little purpose (from what I have seen) against AI. The fact that the order of play of the pieces in play with orders/bluff is concealed means that there’s always an element of surprise in how an enemy plays out their manoeuvres. In fact, they may well park an armoured vehicle where you were going to move, or place a bluff on a gun encampment that you were sure was going to shred one of your troops if you tried to cross the bridge.
Missions in the game are varied, with a few examples being: to get a specific troop to a tile, to move an item to a location, or to kill specific enemy troops. In fact, each of the core missions carries a secondary mission which, if completed, rewards the player with “Ammo” – a buff which makes a dice roll 1 point easier – for the next mission. Before the campaign mission, however, there are a few tutorials available.
The tutorials are very hands-off, with no real showing of advanced tactics, or even any encouragement to develop beneficial habits. Basically, there are three skirmishes where your moves are spelt out to you, with the reasoning behind the movements not explained – similar to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s tutorial. I wish I’d not clicked on the tutorial, and instead deep-ended myself as I normally do with strategy/tactical titles – at least with that you feel as though you are learning through the mistakes, rather than feeling like the losses are your fault because you’ve been ‘trained in the ways’.
This, unfortunately, adds to the few minor flaws with Heroes of Normandie, in some selections you can navigate the screen with WSAD, in others you can’t. At the end of some parts of the turn, you can press ENTER to continue, in others you have to manually click the button. The game clearly shows you how to interact most of the time, but never indicates that you have to clear to clear the combat results.
These are, of course, all minor flaws – and ones which wouldn’t even be relevant with the touchscreen version of the game. Was I less confused after the tutorial I probably wouldn’t even have gotten so hung up on these things – because other than them there are no weak areas of the game.
After the tutorial I spent a while replaying the earliest missions in the campaign until I had gotten my head around the elements of the game not initially visible, for instance, recon squads alone I barely understood, learning later that they can deploy further afield, and that they can remain invisible until practically on top of the enemy.
These gripes aside, Heroes of Normandie has a ton of content packed with it in its vanilla form. Three factions are included, American, German, and Commonwealth, as well as featuring characters from the French Resistance – each faction has its own heroes, as well as different troop and vehicle types. Each map, from the lowly single screen battlefield to those five times the size, is assembled from enough tiles, and additional shrubbery, that the maps feel varied, and unique.
There are currently over 40 missions in the game, split across several faction campaigns and two ironman campaigns. Heroes of Normandie also features a skirmish mode and a stable multiplayer mode. These latter two being where the game really shines, as the aforementioned currently included selection of components, can drum up a mass of combinations for interesting play – something built on massively by the editor recently updated into the game.
Ultimately Heroes of Normandie, much like the board game it is derived from, is a system and ruleset, something which works best when there’s a mass of content to keep it fresh. One of the few complaints of the community at the moment (Jan ‘16) is the lack of content compared to the board game, and how a lot of this content which was set for inclusion at launch (which is being worked on) is not present, and thus restricts the game. It’s certainly a great shame the content isn’t there – however, there is enough content to get started, and spend a lot of time on the game, especially with the level editor in place.
Part 2) Heroes of Normandie: Editor Update (PC Edition) In Review
On the 15th of December, 2015, 10 weeks after launch, Heroes of Normandie received a very tasty update in the form of a level editor.
As I said earlier, a game like this is empowered by its content, and the editor does a great job of showing what’s available to play with. The core terrain in the game is assembled through picking large tiles from a slide down menu in the sidebar – with a maximum of 5 by 5 tiles available for the map size. These tiles encompass grassland, farmland and a few town tiles – across them are roads, paths and rivers.
In addition to that, you can place the game’s items, and individual terrain components – from bushes for cover, up to blown out buildings for a full-scale hold-out. What is a real shame is that there are so few items in this category, as if there were things like a river terminating into a tunnel then you wouldn’t be so restricted by the path and waterways of the core terrain.
For each of your missions there’s quite a nice variety of winning objectives which can be set, encompassing Heroes of Normandie’s main three – hold, kill, or carry – but with the fact that you can define a quantity of these as required. What that means is that you could MAKE one faction have to charge over an open field, while another is holed up in well-defended territory.
Another option would be to have both teams require an infantry unit to grab a single item to win, and that item to start dead central to a large map, littered with blown-out buildings. A ticking time limit, but a serious amount of leering cover could turn the actual retaining of the item until the end of turn into a completely tense deathtrap.
The editor allows players to play as Americans or German factions, with the others, unfortunately, pushed to the wayside at the moment (or at least, from what I’ve seen, if they are an option then they are hidden away – something the rest of the game doesn’t do), and the creator can actually set the units the teams use or leave the teams to spend their own budget.
All in all, it’s a pretty big deal – and gives a freedom that the board-game players have had since day one.
The core game has some odd control and selection quirks, and the editor brings its own share. Clicking a main terrain tile will place it onto the map, but it will do it where the cursor last was, it does this rather than having a drag-drop-snap function as might be expected. As a matter, of fact, even item deployment is managed in a similar way, appearing hovering in the middle of the map, waiting to be dragged. With a little bit of use though, I was quickly making nice inverted-symmetric maps, and testing them out…
Just testing them against AI, mind. As there is no way to play them in multiplayer at the moment – although hopefully there will be a method for this brought into play in the future. At the moment you can instead upload them for others to play – like challenge maps – in several places over the web, with the best place seeming to be the Slitherine forums at the minute. Until then it’s versus AI, or playing hotseat with a passing amigo.
In conclusion, Heroes of Normandie’s editor update is an outstanding addition to an already solid game. Its depth and structure is perfect for what is required, and it will only benefit from more content being added to the game. While the editor has a few odd quirks, outside of content all it really needs is Steam Workshop support, and some netcode drummed up therein as to get the multiplayer functionality working on these custom maps.