Summer grasses / All that remains / Of soldiers' dreams. - Basho.
Axis and Allies: D-Day is a beer and pretzels, “wargame lite” version of the invasion of Normandy released in time to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, launched in the early hours of June 6th, 1944. Unless you’ve been hiding in a hole for the past few months or otherwise slept through all of your history classes, you’ll know the background, so I’ll skip the history lesson. Released by Avalon Hill (owned by Wizards of the Coast, in turn owned by Hasbro) as a sort of half-brother/nephew to the famous Gamemaster series of Milton Bradley games, Axis and Allies: D-Day follows in the same footsteps of simple gameplay, hundreds of little plastic miniature playing pieces and decently designed boards and components. The game can be played by two to three players, with one player controlling the forces of the German defenders and the other two controlling the United States and United Kingdom forces. In a fairly minor quibble with the game, the United Kingdom forces are almost always referred to as UK or British forces, when in fact Canadians comprised a full sixth of the invasion group along with a small number of French commandos. A simple fix might have been to refer to the UK forces as Commonwealth and Free French forces or even Commonwealth forces, but for the purposes of evaluating such a lightweight game, such criticisms aren’t major. The D-Day theme is somewhat of a misnomer; the scope of this game actually effectively covers most of the Normandy campaign, from the drive on Caen to the breakout at St. Lo and the cut-off of the Cherbourg garrison.
The game uses the same dice-fest combat system that all of the Axis and Allies series games have used up to this point – essentially placing combat units on a battle board and trying to roll under their combat number in order to score a hit. Hits are then removed as choices by the defender. Simple – no CRTs or DRMs here. This is the basic core of the game and those who like the Axis and Allies franchise will be relieved to find it intact.
Departing from the usual Axis and Allies turn structure is the mechanic of “order cards” which dictate which actions occur at which point during the turn. Since the actual order of phases never changes, one might question why cards are necessary, aside from being able to discard certain order cards when the situations they cover are no longer possible (i.e. the initial airborne assaults and when all of the blockhouses have been eliminated). At over 17 distinct order phases, a turn can be fairly lengthy, but any player familiar with the Axis and Allies system will be able to perform a turn fairly quickly. In a very nice acknowledgement of down-time in the original game, the order card mechanic does permit both players to go in a single game turn, which helps to keep interest.
Optionally, players may add “fortune” and “tactics” cards, which help to add a little spice and surprise to the turns – fortune cards affect the mechanics of a given phase, possibly aiding or hindering the acting player, while tactics cards may be used as a one time boost to a particular assault or to help shore up a weakened line. Most of the cards reflect actual conditions or situations from the Normandy campaign, though “Fireball from Above” is a little overblown. Fortune cards in particular add a significant element of randomness to the game – while flavourful, their effect can be devastating on a player’s strategy – a single die-roll can literally lose the battle if a player hasn’t planned carefully.
Gone are the IPCs (Industrial Production Certificates) from the previous games – players receive reinforcements randomly (sense a theme here?) from a reinforcement card which is surprisingly detailed for an Axis and Allies franchise game. Which certainly not complete or error-free, the units listed on the OOB for each side give a good overview of the corps, divisions and brigades involved in the fighting for Normandy. Reinforcements arrive on the beach (in the case of the Allies) or through designated reinforcement areas (for the Germans) and a clever but simple interdiction system permits the Allied player to simulate Allied interdiction of road and railway reinforcement.
Artwork and Components
Avalon Hill has recycled components from its previous revamped version of Axis and Allies for this issue – the pieces are individual to each nation and are coloured olive, tan and a dark grey for the Americans, British (Commonwealth!) and German forces respectively. The figures are generally well done, though it might have been nice to select a fighter for the Americans which was more typical for ground attack in the European theatre (P-47 or P-51); a minor gripe, since AH is saving costs by not needing to have a new fighter mold. The box advertises the introduction of a brand new piece for the blockhouse, but they’re not really all that impressive.
The map is pretty standard Hasbro big-box reinforced cardboard, and looks pretty decent. Towns and villages familiar to students of the Campaign are readily located, and while a few liberties have been taken with geography, given the context of the game, it’s certainly not unforgivable. The order, tactics and fortune cards are artfully done, but the text is rather unnecessarily small; images related to the actions being carried out in each order might have been a nice touch. The reinforcement boards are nicely designed but unfortunately printed on flimsy, unreinforced cardboard and detract somewhat from a otherwise decent package.
The rulebook is thorough and easy to read with examples and clarifications where necessary. A few rules need a bit more explanation and a trip to the Avalon Hill website to read the FAQs is recommended to clarify a few areas which are hazy, especially air interdiction and when attacks are “targeted” or not.
Gameplay is improved over previous versions, though an undue amount of time can be spent peering at the various tactics, orders and fortune cards, which would have been much improved by a few minor visual tweaks. As mentioned above, the fortune cards have a tremendous randomizing effect on strategy, which will be a definite turn-off for many players. Play is fast and there is much less downtime for all sides, though the German player will often have very few strategic options at times and will consequently sometimes feel as if he is “along for the ride”. Combat is fast and furious due to the unit stacking limit of eight units per side, the battleboard isn’t really necessary as it often was to keep track of the poker-chip stacks of units in the original game. Players unfamiliar with the Axis and Allies system will probably not be fond of the random dice-fest nature of combat – this aspect of the gameplay falls into the “like it or hate it” category.
Despite what sounds like a very negative review at first glance, this is an enjoyable game. Not a classic or a revolutionary step forwards by any means, but certainly a decent attempt to simulate on a “lite” scale the massive undertaking that was Overlord. It can be played just inside of two hours and with the addition of the tactics and fortune cards, makes one appreciate quite directly the frustrations and elations of the fortunes of the battle. Stopped short of a drive on St. Lo due to clogged roads, cheering as your long-range howitzers break up a massive armoured push or grinding your teeth as wave after wave of men are cut to ribbons on the beaches at Omaha, the game ‘feels’ like what it’s meant to be – a simple and enjoyable game about a dramatic and momentous campaign. It’s not Kursk, and it’s no World in Flames either, but a game like this goes a long way to capture the sheer tension and visceral drama of that pivotal day sixty years ago.