Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Ultracombat Normandy review

Ultracombat Normandy is a set of Second World War wargame rules from Dishdash games, the creators of Skirmish Sangin. The rules describe themselves as 'an easy, fast-paced set of squad-level skirmish wargames rules for depicting the frenetic close-ranged combat that occurred during the Normandy Campaign'.

The creators of Ultracombat Normandy were at Cancon in January this year and my regular opponent Dave joined in a small demonstration game to get a feel for the rules. His initial impression was a good one, so much so that he bought the rule book. We recently finished the Chain of Command campaign 29, Let's Go! and before we embarked on another campaign we thought we'd play a few other rules and periods.

Ultracombat Normandy is pitched at a similar skirmish level to Chain of Command, however where it seems to differ most from those rules is that players don't just operate the various teams that make up a squad, they also handle the actions of the individual men within those teams. 

Each squad is broken down into what the rules refer to as 'elements'. These elements can be made up of a single character in the case of NCO's and officers, or a number of soldiers in the case of fire teams. For example, an American squad is made up of five elements - NCO, Junior NCO, Rifle team, BAR team and Scout team. Each element has a card that includes its various characteristics such as morale, spotting ability and firepower. However these are not simply quick reference cards, they are also the mechanism for how the sequence of play in each turn unfolds.

Every turn each player selects one element to activate by taking their card and placing it face down on the table. When both players have done this the cards are revealed and these two elements will be the ones that will activate first during the turn. The element with the higher experience rating will go first, in the case of the experience being the same the players dice off. Once those two elements have carried out their activations the players repeat the process by selecting the card for the next element they wish to activate.

We set up a small 4x4 table and ran a simple scenario where two American squads were trying to take some damaged houses from a solitary German squad backed up by an additional MG42 team. So, what were our impressions?

The mechanic of using the cards to determine the sequence of play sounded as though it offered another variation on breaking up the predictability of IGO-UGO play sequence. It also added an element of tension and decision making as to which element you should activate first. However in practice I found it unsatisfactory. There were a couple of reasons why. 

Elements can be rated Novice, Average or Veteran and we found that as most of the elements on both sides were Average virtually every card play was resolved with a dice roll. It was, we were to find, the first of a lot of dice rolling that was to come. 

Secondly, I found the activation of one element at a time tended to detract from thinking tactically about using the coordinated action of several different elements. The tendency was to focus on the single element that activates. This is not dissimilar to the way play can unfold in Bolt Action. However, unlike the random sequence that occurs in BA, in these rules the player can control the sequence of their activations by selecting which cards to use. Nonetheless it creates a certain stop-start nature to the way those activations take place and I think that detracts from the flow of the game. 

I recently reviewed the board game Undaunted Normandy (similar title, I know) which also uses unit cards to drive activations, however it does it in a way that means in each player turn it's possible, under certain circumstances, to activate up to three units. This makes a difference because it allows the player to create a tactical sequence to propel the game. For example, a player could play the MG team card to suppress an enemy unit before playing a scout team card to explore more terrain and have a rifle team advance in their wake. 

Undaunted Normandy also uses cards to propel the sequence of play

It's not that you can't create that sequence in Ultracombat Normandy it's just that I felt it unfolds in a more disjointed manner. As a result I found I wasn't always thinking in broader tactical terms. Having chosen the element you wish to activate the player then carries out actions with the men in that element. Each man has three action points and spending those action points is how the characters that make up each element carry out activities like spotting, moving and firing. We played the game using 20mm miniatures and used the suggestion in the rules that we convert measurements from inches to centimetres. I'm not sure that's a great idea. 

With each action point (AP) a character can move 6" (or in our case centimetres), which means a character or element using all three APs to move would cover only 18cm, where as in 28mm a character would cover 18" in the same time frame. I suspect with the latter the game moves at a much greater pace. While that's a lot of ground to cover in a single phase the opposing player can interrupt by playing the card from an element that has not yet activated and fire (essentially bringing that element's action forward in the turn). It works in effect as an overwatch ability.

As appropriate for a game at this scale the junior leaders play an important role. This they do primarily by enhancing the actions available to an element by increasing the Action Points available to them in a given turn, thus enabling them to move faster or fire more often.

One major difference to Chain of Command is the emphasis put on spotting. Every time a unit tries to fire it must first spot the target. While I understand why a set of rules set at this scale might want to factor in the importance of spotting targets before firing we found these particular mechanics laborious and convoluted. If an element of riflemen (five characters) wishes to fire at a target players must roll for each individual character to see if they spot the target (spotting costs 1AP). A character that successfully spots a target may spend an additional AP to assist another character with their spotting by adding a positive modifier to the spotting roll. Characters can spend multiple APs trying to spot. This can involve a lot of dice rolling. Far too much in my opinion and not in any way that adds to the game experience. 

I'm just not sure it's worth all the effort, especially as the player knows where the enemy unit is located. If I know a field is covered by an enemy LMG team I'm not going to move into that field regardless of the success of my spotting roll. I may not be able to have my miniatures spot it and suppress it, but as the player I won't pretend it's not there. In a worse case scenario a player could make two spotting rolls for each character and if none are successful then their third and last AP might be used for something else (no point making that third spotting roll as by then you've run out of AP to fire). So it's quite possible to make ten separate spotting rolls for a five man rifle team, all unsuccessful, to then discover you can't do what you wanted in the turn. If you consider that all this is for one rifle team of five men, then imagine how many spotting rolls you might make in a turn for a major firefight between several squads?

I have no issue with the concept of a target being difficult to locate, but as the player/commander where should my focus of attention be? If my element/unit is unlikely to cause damage or suppress a target then I need to react tactically to resolve it. If I'm trying to think like a platoon leader then a simple and speedy resolution of this spotting/targeting issue would keep my attention focussed on the tactical issue rather than engaging in multiple spotting rolls.

Once a target is spotted a character may fire at it. All actions are resolved using a D20 and require the player to roll less than a specified number to be successful. As you might expect, various positive and negative modifiers apply depending on cover and types of weapon. 

This then brought us to another issue which we found unnecessarily complex and that was the number of possible outcomes from firing. There seemed a slightly bewildering number of these. At best an opponent's character will become combat ineffective (removed from the game). A weapon capable of suppressive fire (like an MG42 or semi automatic rifle) will make the unit suppressed (for which a morale check is required to remove). Some fire results will add Morale chits to the target (again requiring a morale check to remove, but not having the same effect as being suppressed). Units can also become Hesitant or Pinned. Often they can have a combination of some or all of these.

When taken individually each of these results make perfect sense and represent various degrees of discomfit a unit may suffer from incoming fire. However it makes for a lot of game mechanics and it's hard not to think that the rules writers could have found a way to abstract these to some degree and stream line them to achieve the outcome they want. 'Design for effect' to use a well worn gaming term. 

How did this impact our game? Well the simple scenario unfolded as one might expect. The Americans approached the objective using a combination of fire and movement while the Germans tried to use their LMGs to hold up their advance. Despite taking casualties and losing two NCOs the Americans successfully cleared the buildings and won the day. That said, for a game that represented a relatively simple action it took several hours to play and it never felt like it depicted the 'frenetic close-ranged combat' that it claims to do.

I understand what the rules writers are trying to simulate here but it can make for a dull experience. Admittedly this was our first game, nonetheless I think it was the flattest atmosphere I've experienced when playing Dave. It wasn't so much that we were bogged down in trying to understand the rules, it was more that we were mired in the myriad mechanics. Playability suffered and the added detail didn't make for a more enjoyable game. I can only imagine playing the same scenario using a set of rules like Chain of Command would deliver a shorter, more intense experience and result in an equally plausible historical outcome.

While it seems harsh to judge a set of rules on a single playing the experience was so underwhelming both Dave and I concluded that these were not a set of rules we would be in any hurry to return to in the near future.



  1. Ughhh... this really doesn’t sound like I‘d like to give the rules a try. Thanks for writing down your thoughts on it. Saved me a few bugs.

    1. If you are happy with Chain of Command I don’t think you’ll find anything additional in these, but as I said, this is only based on an initial test game.

  2. A fair and measured review there. There are some interesting ideas but the writers appear to have over egged some of the mechanisms.

    1. I think that’s exactly it Phil. Nothing wrong with the ideas and concepts, my issue is how that translates into a tactical gaming experience and that’s where things started to fall apart for us.

  3. Nice review and summary. I think one gaming session is enough to get an idea if a rule set is for you. You either like it enough to keep playing or you don’t really. 😀

  4. Thanks Stew, I think you’re right. We know the sorts of things we like to get from a set of rules and those things should become apparent from a first playing.

  5. A really thorough review and I can see why you are not convinced.

    1. Thanks Jim, always happy to try something new but these certainly failed to hit the spot.

  6. Great review. I have bought these rules out of curiosity but not played them yet...your experience sort of matches with what I was worried about when reading them. They may stay ont he shelf a while longer!

    1. Thanks. I think the description of the games as ‘fast paced’ are not borne out by the nature of the mechanics and the amount of dice rolling. Like I said, taken individually there is sound logic to all the rules, it’s how they play in practice that’s the problem.