Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Game 252: Battle for Normandy

June 6th, 1944, marked the day of the Normandy landings and the beginning of Operation Overlord, the largest seaborne invasion in history, giving the Allies a long-awaited foothold in Western Europe.

D-Day itself occupies an enormous footprint in American culture relative to other battles. Sargent's Into the Jaws of Death remains among the most iconic photographs of the war, was the subject of The Longest Day, and has since been viscerally depicted in Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and in computer games like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Company of Heroes, and way too many Call of Duties.

The landings, though, were just the beginning of a two-month operation in which over 2 million Allied troops landed in northern France. SSI's Battle for Normandy is somewhat abbreviated, covering the campaign up to June 30th, at which point the Allies had captured their major objectives of Caen, Saint-Lô, and the crucial port Cherbourg. The quicker you can accomplish this - and the farther back south you can drive the German forces - the stronger your victory will be.

D-Day: The Invasion of France, c1980

Battle for Normandy, the third game developed by Tactical Design Group, actually appears to be a remake of co-founder David Landrey's first known game, D-Day: The Invasion of France, for the TRS-80. This earlier depiction of the campaign predates Tactical Design Group, and anticipates many of the mechanics and conventions we've seen in those games, such as the turn phases, orders of battle, and attack/defense tactics and battle commitments. Without close scrutiny, it isn't easily distinguished from the TRS-80 ports of those later games.

Battle for Normandy (TRS-80)

Battle for Normandy (Apple II)

Released one year after Battle of Shiloh and Tigers in the Snow, Battle for Normandy shows a clear evolution of the formula, with a much larger, screen-scrolling map, clearer graphics, and more complex gameplay, advancing from the "Introductory" rating given to its battle-focused predecessors to an operation-level game rated "Intermediate" in SSI's own catalogs. There are more factors determining battle outcomes, more logistical concerns, more concrete supply lines rules, and more ways that different unit types are distinguished. Many of the problems that plagued Tigers in the Snow are alleviated, if not completely solved - for instance, there is now a "terrain" key to view terrain beneath unit sprites, and a cursor allows selecting individual units instead of having to move them in sequence, though there's still no way to view enemy unit stats during the movement phase.

I had to play a few partial games, manual in hand, before I had even a tenuous grip on how things work. Some aspects are poorly explained in the manual and only make sense to me with the benefit of play experience.

What follows is details of my first serious playthrough, in which I simulate the days of July 6th through 30th with no changes to the gameplay parameters. I did save at the beginning of each turn, which the game allows, and frequently loaded to undo egregious mistakes. Turns can easily take over an hour - sometimes several, depending on how many tries I need.

Your first decision is dropping three paratrooper companies - one British, two American - behind enemy lines. Caen, one of the objectives, is visible here, but a single airborne division couldn't expect to hold it for long. I chose to drop it as far east as possible, to hold off the eastmost infantry. These drops have a chance of drifting and missing their target by a hex.

I dropped the American troops in defensible hexes - swamps in the south, forest in the north - where they'd be poised to join multi-pronged attacks on vulnerable troops later on. The 82nd airborne division which I landed in the swamps are in a particularly tight hex which can't be entered by foot without first removing one of the units flanking it. They will need relief after a few days.

The next step is allocating resources, which is done before each turn. These allocations, however, don't go into effect until the following turn, so you'll need to carefully anticipate your needs a turn in advance.

There are four types of resources - fuel, general, combat, and landing, and the game keeps track of them on an operation-wide basis.

  • Fuel is consumed when moving units.
  • "General" is the most crucial resource of all - as I learned the hard way, deployed units consume it just by existing, and will suffer casualties and extreme fatigue if you run out.
  • "Combat" is depleted by fighting, and the more aggressive your tactics, the more are consumed. Run out, and your units will be unable to fight as effectively.
  • "Landing" is consumed when landing new units on the beach. Used interchangeably with "amphib" ingame.

Numbers entered here represent percentages, and the sum must add up to 100. E.g. - if, on 6/6, you receive 1500 resource units, then if the numbers entered on the previous turn match the screenshot, you would receive 525 fuel, 345 general, 405 combat, and 225 landing units. The total amounts will gradually increase every turn, although bad weather will reduce them, especially storms, which have a significant chance on the 18th through the 22nd. The manual gives suggested values for days 6/6 through 6/12, but after that you're on your own.

The next part, actually landing troops, is poorly explained in the manual and altogether pretty confusing. You can see boat icons on the map representing the landing sites of Utah, Omaha, Sword, Gold, and Juno, but no divisions are actually there yet. Rather, there are two highlighted hexes in the middle of the ocean, which represent U.S. and British/Canadian points of entry, where every available unit is stacked.

To land a division, first you must move the cursor to one of these hexes, and then press the "select unit" button. Then you will select the first unit in the stack, which is a depot battalion. You'll almost certainly want to unselect it - the depot battalions' perform the crucial function of supply line extension, and are wasted on the front line, making it baffling that they are always the first units on the stack. Eventually, though, you'll hit combat-worthy units. You move these to one of the landings, and although you can move a U.S. division to a British landing and vice-versa, you really shouldn't, because units can only be supplied through their own supply lines, which start at the landings.

After moving a unit to a boat, which is a free action, you can then move it onto a beach, where it must fight an invisible beach battalion in order to land.

As dramatic as cinematic depictions of Normandy landings are, these beach battalions are among the weakest in the game, with combat points averaging around 20. Your own infantry divisions range from 65 to 80, your heavy armor 90, and enemy divisions inland range from 65 to 95. Beating them is inevitable, but so are casualties on your side.

Air and naval support can tilt the odds in your favor, and you'll have to allocate your limited supply of each to every such engagement. The only difference between them is that naval power is only available within a bombardment line, marked in violet on the map, so it's better to use up your naval power first.

As with previous games, you can choose from multiple attack and defense tactics, and the more aggressively you attack, the more combat resources will be consumed, the more fatigue levels will rise, and the more casualties will occur on both sides.

Results from a heavy beach attack.

This Sherman marches from the sea.

Subsequent landings will engage more beach battalions, but eventually, the beach will run out, and you'll be able to land divisions there without any resistance. You won't, however, be able to land all of your forces on D-Day. Your landing resources are finite, and more powerful units will consume more of them.

Final D-Day landings at Utah and Omaha. The circular icon is a depot battalion and is needed to keep my southern paratroopers within supply lines.

Sword, Gold, and Juno.

You will certainly want to land at least one division at every landing, because the boat units themselves are extremely vulnerable to counterattack. The Germans don't attack very much unless the odds are heavily in their favor, but they will sink your taxis if you let them, depriving you of that landing. Which would be disastrous to you on many levels - your only advantage here is in numbers, and you need your assault lines to be as wide as possible.

Before German movement begins, you may allocate "air interdiction" points to impede their mobility. The manual recommends giving as much as possible, and I haven't developed any good rationing strategies, so I simply did as suggested, under the assumption that it would be most beneficial early on.

After German movement, the standard phase-based gameplay loop takes place. You can move your units as well as continue to deploy new ones, and when done moving, may attack.

Normandy does exhibit a problem affecting Tigers in the Snow - there's no way to query enemy unit strength during the movement phase, and no way to query your own unit strength during the attack phase. It's not quite as bad, though - thanks to the revamped cursor-based interface replacing fixed sequential unit orders, you can query your own units during movement phase without committing to movement, and during attack phase you can query enemy units in range of your own without committing to an attack. The strategy I used before, of saving before each turn and using it to query each unit before reloading and playing out my moves properly, was more viable. And with a larger but less "busy" map, I could even put together an operational map by splicing screenshots together.

Click to enlarge.

I'd use these maps to plan my movements. I'd pick out the weak units, and surround them with as much power as I could muster. Heavy armor is very useful here as it can move through zones of control, leaving a hex open for an infantry unit to move into, and ranger units can cross beaches that are up to one hex adjacent from a proper landing zone.

Northwest: Armor and two infantry divisions are about to ensnare unlucky Wehrmacht regulars.
East: Rangers swim across the beach to join infantry in another lopsided attack.

Results of a three-pronged heavy attack.
June 8

Encircling multiple units near Sword and Gold. By now the beach battalions have all dispersed.

U.S. forces rout a German division with a second attack.

One common and frustrating occurrence is that often after defeating a division, a small cadre forms from the remnants. At 15 combat points, it poses little threat as a combat force, and yet it will stall your advancement all the same. Given that divisions usually already have to be reduced to the 10-20 combat point range before they can be beaten, these cadre units are not significantly weaker than the group you originally broke up, and can sometimes paradoxically be stronger. Often you kill the cadre and then it regroups into another, just as strong as the previous one. It can be like trying to kill a unit that just won't die, endlessly dispersing and reforming over and over again as you chase it across the coast until you finally finish it off several turns later, costing valuable time, resources, and stamina.

It happens for the fourth time this turn, and my infantry is weary, but gets a lot of free hex movements out of it.

German reinforcements arrive from the south.

Before you extend your lines too far from the landings, you'll need to follow them with a depot battalion or two. These units are weak in combat but extend the supply lines, and bad things happen to units that run out of supplies. A unit must be within three hexes of a supply source in order to resupply. Supply depots themselves have to form a chain all the way back to the landings in order to be effective as supply sources.

June 10

June 12. Limited combat supplies halt my Caen offensive as reinforcements cross the naval line. Armor inches toward Cherbourg and Saint-Lô.

June 14. Multiple German units routed. Light resistance between Americans and Cherbourg, but reinforcements approach. A path to Saint-Lô is open. Heavy reinforcements at Caen. My units tire, but thanks to limited supplies I hesitate to deploy relief.

June 18. Americans push on to Cherbourg, but a stretched supply line moves me to allocate amphibious resources so I can deploy another depot. Armor occupies Saint-Lô but is contested by paratroopers, and the paths from Utah and Omaha are all but clear. Fighting is fierce at Caen and will get fiercer.

June 20. Americans besiege Cherbourg and credible German relief is impossible. It will be captured in days. Omaha troops approach Saint-Lô but the fight will be difficult. British mobilize to try to encircle Germans at Caen while trading shots, but fuel runs short.

June 22. Several more units deployed. Cherbourg siege continues, Omaha troops continue south. Low fuel and combat supplies slow Caen assault even as new units join the ranks. The Germans have foolishly left a hex at Caen exposed, which my heavy armor is in position to penetrate.
June 24. One 55-CP German division left at Cherbourg. Omaha troops continue south. British armor penetrates a gap southwest of Caen and begin to encircle the Panzers garrisoned there. German armor and paratrooper reinforcements arrive from the east.

June 26. One more infantry approaches the siege of Cherbourg, which holds at 50-CP. Heavy armor reinforcements approach Saint-Lô, and my prospects of liberating it by the end of the month are in doubt. As the British encircle Caen, the armor there inexplicably withdraws at full strength, making intrusion easy. Forcing the adjacent units away, though, won't be easy, unless they continue to make odd decisions.

June 28. More units deployed. A supplies shortage from a logistics failure harms a few units, but I'm too close to the end to care. Germans still hold all objectives, though some barely. A lone infantry holds Cherbourg at 40-CP, besieged by three units. A 70-CP Panzer holds half of Caen and is almost completely encircled. Saint-Lô is held by 40-CP paratroopers, but there's just not enough time to push them out and deal with the infantry nearby.

Unloading everything I've got at Cherbourg. It's not quite enough.

Final assault on Saint-Lô. It holds.

Attacking Caen from all directions. It was not a success.

Game over, with a German marginal victory.

It's not exactly clear what I had to have done differently to capture the objectives. I played pretty aggressively, and my units rarely suffered much more combat points loss than what can be recovered in a turn or two. I suppose smarter/luckier logistics play might have saved me some time, but then again if I hadn't been forced to slow down my troops would have been fatigued and ineffective in combat. Or maybe I shouldn't have let them get fatigued to begin with so that they always fight effectively, but would that have really given me a net gain if my troops sat there resting half the time? Maybe I could have deployed more units sooner and used them so that the fighting effort was distributed to a larger number of units, but that would also mean even less logistical wiggle room, and that was a problem for me even with the units I did deploy. But I'm not interested in spending more time with this game to put any of these theories to the test.

GAB rating: Above Average. It's pretty incredible what SSI's been able to pull off here in BASIC of all things, and this is the best wargame I've played yet, expanding on what came before it while also improving on several flaws, if not quite fixing them. But there came a point where reaching the end was more tedious than fun. Battle for Normandy is unforgiving, and it's so easy to make costly mistakes. The longer I played it, the more I hated the fact that you can't easily view things like unit stats or supply lines, and Normandy still hasn't fixed issues such as that combat results fly by way too fast, or that some illegal moves will arbitrarily cancel all of the selected unit's movement points.

Well, that's it for this nearly month-long journey through the trenches of early SSI. They would continue to make wargames throughout the 80's and 90's, but the next one of interest is a long, long way's off, and could hardly be considered a wargame simulation at that. Of course, it's RPGs that SSI is most known for these days, and I will be playing plenty of those in the interim years. For now, though, we're done with SSI for a little while, and in the near future we've got a handful of 1983 titles linking Strategic Simulations, Strategic Studies, Automated Simulations, and Electronic Arts.

1 comment:

  1. "One common and frustrating occurrence is that often after defeating a division, a small cadre forms from the remnants."

    "Eliminated" in wargame terms doesn't mean completely destroyed. It just means "combat ineffective". The Germans were always reorganizing remnants of units into Kampfgruppe and sending them back into combat.

    I like the way you have to mind your supply lines. That's good simulation there.

    Yeah, wargames were so suited to program in BASIC, what with units, maps, odds calculations, supply, and dice rolls. Kinda miss that kind of lack of adornment


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