Should we prioritize supplies on one front, Lieutenant Narwhal ?
Yeah, everywhere the British are not fighting. I’d rather have them fail in front of Caen rather than let our boys go without corned beef !
Battle for Normandy is the third SSI game by the Tactical Design Group, the duo consisting of David Landrey (design & coding) and Chuck Kroegel (“developer”, which back then was what we would call a producer). It uses a system much improved compared to Tigers in the Snow and the Battle of Shiloh, and features a battle that needs no introduction. As the Allies, I will have to take Cherbourg, Saint Lo and Caen before the 30th of June. But I also have a secondary objective : this game was also covered by the Data Driven Gamer, so I will try to beat his score of 433 (“Marginal German Victory”).
Battle for Normandy takes place on a map that spans from the Cotentin to a bit East of Caen. The landing beaches are pre-determined, and while I can choose where to deploy my paratroopers, options are limited. In the Cotentin peninsula, I deploy the 101st Airborne Division near Sainte-Mère l’Eglise, the 82nd Airborne Division near Carentan more to the South. In the East, the British 6th Airborne jumps just North of Caen.
After that, it is time to land on the beaches. There are quite a few constraints there. First, US troops can only be supplied from Utah or Omaha, and British & Canadian troops from Gold, Juno and Sword (there is no rule distinction between the British and the Canadians, and the game tags Juno as British). In addition to this, there is a limit to how many strength points of troops can be transported. Finally, all the beachheads must be protected in a way that prevents the Germans from reaching the “barge” tiles, else the Germans can just destroy them forever, which given the impact on supply for the rest of the game creates a walking dead scenario.
This leaves barely enough room to really push on one axis. I decide to put my effort on Utah, bringing among others an armoured division. My objective is to isolate quickly the Cotentin peninsula by pushing through the extremely easy to defend bocage before the Germans can bring something to actually defend said bocage. The rest of the beaches receives as little as possible, except for a small extra on Sword. With naval and air support, I easily defeat the (invisible) garrisons guarding the beaches and try to expand my foothold.
The 8th of June, two turns after D-Day, I have not expanded much, except on Utah beach where I even deployed a supply unit – without it, units distant by more than 3 hexagons from the barges would be out of supply. Supply units can “chain supply” by 3 more tiles each.
The reason I am not progressing much is that the defence is extremely resilient in Battle for Normandy. German units are more or less as strong as my units, and due to zones of control it is hard to surround enemy units to gain a combat power advantage (the manual recommends a ratio 2.5 : 1 for heavy assault) – one of the reasons I deployed paratroopers where I did. Moreover, the infamous bocage (in green) gives 250% defensive bonus. Finally, while I can easily take losses (my units recover it very quickly, while the German units don’t), heavy attacks can consume an ungodly amount of combat supplies, and I have a limited amount of that, so I am only giving the maximum in Omaha and Sword.
Indeed, a large part of the game is about supplies : at the beginning of every turn the player must split their transport capacity for the following turn. The allocation is between “landing capacities” (for troops), combat supplies, general supplies and fuel.
- Early on I need to allocate some landing capacities, though there are only so many units that I can usefully deploy due to enemy zones of conrol
- Fuel expense while not insignificant is acceptable as I am mostly stuck on the beach, if I ever ran out Each unit would only move one hexagon at a time and would not be able to advance after a victory,
- General supply is the one that needs the most paranoia, if you run out of it some of your units will take a massive “fatigue” hit and be effectively unable to fight,
- Combat supply is obviously necessary to be effective in combat, whether attack or defence,
Allocation is done in percentage, what really gets shipped depends on the day and the weather :
From the 8th to the 12th, I focus on the three locations where I believe I can pierce through :
- as per the initial plan, slashing through the Cotentin Peninsula so I can isolate Cherbourg as soon as possible,
- somewhere between Omaha and Gold, where the line is held by a single German unit,
- near Caen, trying to surround the enemy with British commandos, who don’t need to land on the normal beaches and as such can flank the enemy (though they still need supplies sourced from beaches),
In all the other locations, I only attempt very light attacks to save supplies, though I quickly realize that the enemy is falling back North of Utah beach, so I accelerate a bit there.
Attacks are complicated matters : I must choose a target, then which units participate in the attack, then allocate naval and air support (they are the same, but naval support is limited in range so no reason not to spend it first) and then I must decide on my “attack level”. For instance, here are two attacks by the Americans on the 10th :
On the 12th of June, the situation has barely moved except in the West. Everywhere else, my attacks were unsuccessful. Around Caen, despite heavy attack and air support, I only managed to grab a grand total of one hexagon.
As I am largely behind schedule (and let’s be honest, behind the progress made by the Data Driven Gamer at the same point in time, except in the Cotentin), I decide to take some risks :
- I transport a lot more combat supplies, sacrificing landing capacities (not all British forces have been deployed) but also general supplies. Hopefully, I have enough, and there will not be any storm,
- The first days, I had sacrificed 100 “air power” every turn to reduce the German movement points. Most of the German units are deployed and on the frontline now, so I prefer to use it to support my attacks,
- Zones of control are absolute for Allied infantry (a unit cannot move from a hexagon in an enemy ZOC to another hexagon in an enemy ZOC), but armoured units can try to “ignore” them (a movement called infiltration that has 90% chance to succeed), though of course such infiltration can leave them very exposed – but hey, no risk no reward.
Meanwhile the Germans are doing limited counter-attacks, including one very close to Omaha Beach. Unlike the Allies, the German infantry can try infiltration movement with 70% chance of success, so I need to increase my defence there.
After 4 very aggressive days, the situation looks a bit better on the 16th :
I finished cutting Cherbourg from the rest of the France, and I managed to infiltrate into Caen, though the city is still shared 50/50 with the Germans. I am pretty sure I will get Cherbourg, and I am confident I can take all of Caen. Saint Lo seems out of reach at this point.
But my confidence does not last. The weather on the 18th is stormy, almost no general supply makes it to the beach, and I had eaten through my reserve to transport combat supplies – so, there is no way to sugarcoat this, I am all out. Supplies are allocated to units one after the other, and most of the units at the end of the unit list are British, so while my Cotentin troops are all fine, my units around Caen are not, and my units there receive a large number of fatigue points. My attacks there are effectively stalled, and in four days I only manage to grab exactly 3 hexagons on the British side of the frontline. The 12th “HitlerJugend” SS Panzerdivision defiantly holds its half of Caen.
Meanwhile, the situation on the 20th of June is excellent in the Cotentin peninsula where I managed to surround no less than 3 enemy units.
Usually, destroyed enemy units can immediately reform into weak “cadres” (in practice kampfgruppe consisting of surviving elements and whatever the Germans can attach to it) ; those cadres are not a combat threat but they exert a zone of control and slow you down tremendously. But units forced to retreat in opposing zones of control receive damage, and destroyed units that cannot retreat cannot form cadres, so that’s 3 units I am confident I am going to destroy forever, but one actually manages to escape. The rest is annihilated, and I can focus on Cherbourg.
Meanwhile, all those movements and combats also drained both my fuel and my combat supplies, so I am out of everything, which means I don’t bring an adequate level of general supplies. The British once again suffer the most, and Montgomery can only rage in front of Caen as his soldiers are not receiving their daily earl grey rations. The British frontline remains perfectly static.
It looks like Caen is going to remain disputed until the end (I only get points for controlling a city if I have the city tiles AND if there are no hostiles adjacent to it) so my final resources flow to the Americans for a last ditch effort : taking Cherbourg. It is a success. With the American forces South of Utah fresh and supplied, I also push further South with these, taking some pressure off Omaha and almost linking up with Utah.
And that’s the end of the game. My final score is 52 points, which means that not only have I earned an “operational” defeat, but I scored less than the data-driven gamer, despite holding Cherbourg.
Looking back, I lost a massive amount of points due to being out of supplies (every strength point lost costs victory points), but also by allowing many German units to remain on the Northern side of the middle of the map for the complete battle. The Data Driven Gamer did not take Cherbourg and as such had fewer “allied victory points” but he gave the Germans a lot fewer victory points as well. If I had to retry, I would not attack anywhere except in the Cotentin and in Caen (I lost a lot of supplies attacking in the middle), and I would prioritize general supplies a lot more.
Rating and Review
Battle for Normandy by Tactical Design Group, published by SSI
First release : December 1982 on Atari 8-bits, Apple II and TRS-80
Tested on : Apple II emulator
Total time tested : 6 hours
Average duration of a campaign: 2 hours
Complexity: Average (2/5)
Would recommend to a modern player : No
Would recommend to a designer : No
Final Rating: Flawed and obsolete
In 1982, SSI had a pretty good relationship with David Landrey’s and Chuck Kroegel’s Tactical Design Group. Tigers in the Snow and the Battle of Shiloh had required minimum effort from Joel Billings, as the games were basically finished when they were first showed to SSI. By 1982 Tigers was on its way to sell almost 20 000 copies – a major success – while the Battle of Shiloh would not sell badly either (7 000 copies). The duo was good at multi-platforming, and Billings found Kroegel very easy to work with. Publishing the next game from the duo was the logical thing to do.
Just like Tigers in the Snow had been a modernization of David Landrey’s early Battle of the Bulge TRS-80 wargames (Bastogne and St Vith), Battle for Normandy was a modernization of Landrey inappropriately named D-Day : Invasion of France. Unfortunately, just like the Bulge games, the manual for D-Day is lost and the game cannot be played without it (the computer does not enforce some rules like supply access, movement points, …). Nonetheless, the game is available to be checked, and as the Data Driven Gamer observes, D-Day and Battle for Normandy are very similar : focus on supply (with ship & beach supply in D-Day), list of units, split between air and naval support. The “historical analysis” included in both games is almost word for word the same, with only a few extra sentences or details here and there.
Initially released for three platforms (Atari-8 bits, TRS-80 and Apple II), Battle for Normandy was ported to IBM PC in August 1983 and Commodore 64 in November 1983. As with the Tactical Design Group‘s earlier games, versions were fairly different.
- The Atari version gets kudos for displaying the supply situation at all time, and immediately loses them by having all units all looking the same. The map is fairly different, in particular it is possible to land South-East from Omaha and join up with Utah almost immediately as I am doing in the screenshoot below, something not possible in any other version.
- The IBM PC version looks different as well, but there the units can easily be distinguished. The map is a bit more favourable to the Allies, as the beaches usually have only one or two tiles to defend,
- The Commodore 64 version is very similar to the Apple II version, except for the units using NATO icons. Instead of taking a screenshot myself, I could not resist showing a screen from a Youtuber showcasing “one of his favourite wargames” but showing his lack of familiarity with the game by landing his supply units first and engaging the Germans with them.
- Finally, the TRS-80 version is, well, you know. TRSy.
All versions were sold for $39.95 with a manual and one reference card per supported platform. My review will be based on the Apple II version I played.
There are significant improvements there compared to Tactical Design Group‘s earlier games. The first part of the manual is written like a briefing, and mixes historical context, rules and advice. It feels a bit strange to be briefed as the commander-in-chief of the operation at the last possible moment – several reviewers actually joke about this – but eh, at least it makes the manual easy to read.
As for the game itself, it looks a lot better than its predecessors. On Apple II, it really looks like Tactical Design Group borrowed a lot from Roger Keating’s games : the hexagons have the same size and some assets (the tank and the half-track) come straight from Southern Command. Add to this more types of units and you have a game more immersive than either Shiloh or Tigers.
Still, something kept me from being really immersed. In Battle for Normandy, you need to be constantly counting how much supplies, fuel or landing capacity you will need for your next action, and your next turn, and given how difficult it is to calculate sometimes (more on this below), you need not only to calculate but to double-check whether the situation is where you expected it to be. This kills the flow of the game, and with it the immersion.
Rating : Poor
B. UI, rules and outcomes
Overall, the game is way better on this front than the terrible Shiloh and Tigers. The most damning features of those two games are gone : the player can freely navigate from unit to unit, checking and moving them in the order they prefer (they can even move some unit a bit, move another, then come back to the first unit). Sadly, it is not possible to check enemy units freely before moving your units.
This improvement is not sufficient though. First, as nicely written as the manual is, it lacks critical information. The game uses metrics like “fatigue” or “leadership”, but doesn’t explain how large their impact on unit efficiency is. At least, the game is nice enough to provide you with a combined “efficiency rating” for your units, which multiplied by your units combat power can be used to calculate odds. Based on that, you are supposed to use the Combat Result Table below to know what to expect from a battle.
But the table is weird. The examples don’t let you guess what would happen if attack 9 met defence 9. Not that it would matter much ; you will quickly stop using this matrix because the real results are always way off this chart – I sometimes caused almost 20 damage with a moderate attack but overwhelming (5:1) forces.
Finally, given how important supply management is to the game, it’s disappointing that supply management doesn’t get better UI. You have to do some pretty complicated calculations to anticipate how much supplies you will use, and the game will not help you in any way. For instance, your units consume “1/2 of their combat strength in general supply if in an enemy zone of control, 1/4 otherwise“. Given how devastating running out of supplies can be, it would have been great if the game could have shown you how much general supplies you are going to need given the position of your troops, but it won’t. General supply is the worst case, but following the fuel or the combat supply situation is not trivial either, and if you run out of fuel your units can move by one hexagon by turn and cannot advance after combat…
Rating : Poor
The player’s turn is divided in four phases :
- Supply check, the game checks which units are out of supply, whether because they are too far from a supply source, or because there are no more supplies in the theatre,
- Supply allocation, the player decides on the split between the different supplies for turn T+1 ; of course what is really received will depend on the weather and a random factor,
- Movement phase for all units,
- Combat phase for all units,
Overall it is well-designed, but I disliked it. It took me some time to understand why, and I believe it is due to the addition of randomness everywhere, which makes it very hard (in addition to the UI issues) to predict anything. To take a few examples :
- You allocate your transport capacity between 4 different “supply types” for the following turn, but the available capacity is double random, it is a random number from a bracket that itself depends on randomized weather,
- Units use movement points, each terrain has a movement point cost… but there is a 30% chance that moving costs 1 more movement point than expected. Of course, fuel consumption is based on spent movement points, so it will go up as well,
- Combat supplies consumption uses this chart :
You have no control on the attack/defence strategy used by your enemy, and yet it can multiply by 8 how much supply you consume, there is no way to say something like “don’t consume more than 100 combat supplies in this attack”
- Infiltration success ? Randomized !
- Combat losses ? In a significant part randomized !
- Impact of air or naval support in combat ? Randomized !
- Strategic usage of air to slow down the enemy ? Random impact !
Of course, randomization of pretty much everything is realistic in a war, but it does not make for a good gaming experience. I understand that the current conventions on what you randomize in a wargame (weather, combat result) and what you don’t (movement, zone of control effectiveness, supply consumption) did not exist back then, but still, as a 2022 player I did not like that.
I am also not satisfied at all by the way in which general supplies are allocated in case of shortage. Most games let you either choose you is going to have to starve or randomize it, but Battle for Normandy always picks the same poor souls at the end of the unit list : in my case at a minimum the 15th British Infantry Division in front of Caen and (but I cared less) the 2nd US Cavalry Regiment, and sometimes other British units higher on the list. The best way to avoid this crippling problem is of course to avoid running out of supplies, but you can easily be unlucky on the amount of supply you receive.
Rating : Poor
D. Scenario design and balancing
Battle for Normandy only includes one main scenario, with a shorter “two-week” scenario ending the 20th of June. I am going to complain once again : it is a pity that the game does not include the more mobile July month, only leaving us with the “grindy” part of the campaign. With the exception of the Cotentin, the game is about being the most efficient possible supply-wise in pushing back the Germans hexagon after hexagon. And, frustratingly, any mistake is punished harshly. The most obvious example is that if you let the enemy reach one of your landing zones (and keep in mind all German units can infiltrate), it is game over because you will not have enough supply anymore for the rest of the campaign.
On the other hand, the scenario has some customization options, and the manual even proposes some “what-ifs”, though I don’t believe they change the nature of the game.
The AI does not make obvious mistakes, though in solitaire it is always playing the Germans, in a defensive position.
Rating : Poor
E. Did I make interesting decisions ?
Yes, every single turn, both strategically and tactically.
F. Final Rating
Flawed and obsolete. It was one of the most difficult reviews I’ve had to write so far, as I feel Battle for Normandy has everything I usually like, but even after two full campaigns the game did not click – there were just too many issues that individually were not critical but added up and combined into a frustrating experience. The game system could have worked a lot better if it had been more predictable, or better explained, or if the campaign had been more mobile, but I found the drudgery of pushing the Germans turn after turn while being punished by either the UI or a random number generator unrewarding.
Battle for Normandy received many reviews, possibly because the topic is so popular but also because it was ported on so many platforms.
In Computer Gaming World (March 1983), Marc Lacine calls the game a “great improvement over Tigers in the Snow“, though he complains that it is still impossible to stack units (“a contradiction of well-established unit frontages for the period”). I find this comment interesting, Panzer General established the “non-stacking” rule as standard for hexagon based wargames, but indeed many earlier “simplified” wargames like Operation Apocalypse or Across the Rubicon allowed it. In any case, Battle for Normandy is “generally good representation of the Normandy landings and buildup” and “an enjoyable game that will allow multiple playings and repeated playings with equal satisfaction.”
The game receives a more thorough coverage by CGW in an article about Strategy and Tactics in the July 1983 issue. Unlike Lacine, Jay Selover complains about the historicity of the objectives. To start with, he notes that while linking the beaches was a key Allied objective, this objective can be ignored in Battle for Normandy : “Utah beach can stand as an island through most of the game.” His second complaint is more surprising for me : “It is time-consuming, wasteful of units, and ultimately foolish to attempt the historical maneuver of driving east from Utah beach to cut off the city before assaulting it“. I would claim that it did not sound foolish to me, but then I did not win and he claims he did, so maybe he is right. The “Tactics” part of the article actually represents half a column, but it is all excellent advice (on unit & supply allocation) I wish I had read first.
Among other interesting reviews, I found Softalk’s review in January 1983 (“the best intermediate entry yet for SSI“), Computer & Electronics in February 1983 (“you’ll be on the edge of your seat as you really get into the strategic and tactical concepts of this fine simulation”) and Personal Software (May 1984), which asks the real question “Battle for Normandy is a valuable history lesson. But is it entertaining ?“. The answer apparently is “Yes”.
In general, all reviews insist that the game is hard but accessible ; even Family Computing (October 1984) has a short article which advises their reader to customize the game by lowering the German strength, but still states that the game is for everyone “ages 12 and up, younger with adult supervision”.
A game about the battle of Normandy had to reach UK and France. In the UK, Battle for Normandy makes it into the very first issue of Zzap!64 (May 1985) where it is called “a large, absorbing wargame packed with details“, and earns a 74% “value-for-money” rating (for comparison, Combat Leader in the same issue receives 63%). In France, the game is first covered by Casus Belli (July 1983) which uncharacteristically showers it with praise, only complaining about TRS-80 graphics. Amusingly, when every other review warned that the game was difficult, the French tabletop wargame specialist calls the game “cushy” [pépère] and “for beginners”. Later, Tilt in March 1984 gives the game 4 stars out of 6, without further comment. Finally, the game generalist Jeux & Stratégie puts it in its list of the 33 best video games (October 1984) : “every strategic and tactical historic data can be found in this simulation“. But in 1986 in a special issue on video games, the same magazine only gives 3 stars out of 5 to Battle for Normandy, while Tigers in the Snow receives 4 out of 5 !
Just like Tigers in the Snow, Battle for Normandy sold extremely well for a wargame : a bit less than 19 000 copies, compared to 12 100 copies for Germany ’85, though it did not remain in the catalogue for as long as the latter, disappearing in mid-1987. Out of these 19 000 copies, around half were from the initial Apple + Atari (6400 diskettes) or Atari + TRS-80 (2000 cassettes), but the port for Commodore 64 yielded 6400 copies, and the IBM port 4100 copies – the reference computers were changing.
I did not like the game, but I understand the positive contemporary reviews, and I am looking forward to the next game by Tactical Design Group : Knights of the Desert. Certainly, even if the ruleset is the same, the Desert War should be a lot less static.
Edit 31/08/2022 : Downgrading and minor rewriting as playing Knights of the Desert made me understand what I really did not like about Battle for Normandy.