Lock ‘n Load have been busy supporting their tactical series with an interesting product that builds on the narrative giving nature of the system.
There are two elements to this support material. Firstly there is a book of short stories about tactical actions in Normandy 1944, in which individuals and squads come to life in a way that matches the world of the tactical game.
Secondly, the book of short stories has driven the development of a scenario package that mirrors the book storyline and in effect produces a triangular relationship between the book narrative, the natural cinematic nature of the game and the game components.
This post takes a closer look at the scenario package, which includes the necessary maps that have been done in a slightly different, but complementary style. So some new ideas to to look at.
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Disclosure - This is not a review site, my comments are not critically objective, I just write about things I have bought and liked playing and the fact is I already own most of the Lock ‘n Load tactical system (self bought) and frequently write about it. However, in this instance, Lock ‘n Load kindly sent me a copy of their ‘Untold Stories’ scenario expansion pack, so the following discussion is about a product that has been supplied, but of which I would have bought anyway.
Lock ‘n Load Tactical has long been described as a game that brings a touch of the cinematic to the game table and this trait has been seized upon and taken forward with this package. I cannot comment on the short stories, which supports the Normandy base game, as I have not seen the book (my local store has both products on order), but there was good coverage at Consimworld and BoardGameGeek recently, giving an idea of its nature and I have provided a link to an audio based video (see resource section below) that narrates a small part of the book that relates to our scenario being played today.
A scenario module was subsequently created that took each chapter from the book and allowed it to be played out in game format. This is a clever way of producing scenarios because the designer is being fed a graphic account of action for inspiration as opposed to just working with ‘the facts’ from academic style historical sources. So we get cinematic game meets cinematic account.
Perhaps the real gem of this marriage was that they got Jeff Lewis to design the scenarios. He is a veteran scenario designer, but more importantly, he has absolute intimate knowledge of the game engine, having been with the system from its early days and recently involved in the rewrite of the Version 5 rules. He has a second nature feel for the pulse of the game.
From first looking at this module, the methodology of its intent is immediately apparent. There are three maps, two are new, so there is a better match-up with the accounts in terms of topography. There are typically 7 or 8 special rules per scenario (which is more than usual) and their construction shows a clear pathway back to the short stories and there are also a goodly number of controlled Events, which give entire paragraphs of storyline that are only revealed during play, bringing surprise and delight to the gamer as a new twist is suddenly thrust into scenario. These events have always been a part of Ln’L Tactical system, but here they are specifically bringing the short story narrative into the game. Taken together, there is a real flavoursome dimension to the scenarios.
The scenario package has two elements. Firstly a perfect bound 34 page scenario booklet, secondly three mapboards done in the size of the X-Map boards and with the same lovely sized large hexes.
The booklet is in typical expansion module format and starts with an explanation of new terrain types. There is a visually interesting new terrain type - wood lined hex sides. Practically, these are best thought of in the same way as other linear terrain such as walls and hedges and there is a really helpful associated half page Line-of-Sight diagram and notes.
Then we go straight into the scenarios. The seven short stories each get their own scenario, with one of the chapters being represented by three scenarios, so the package gives 9 scenarios altogether. There is very much a sense that each scenario has been given room to breathe, as we have more special rules than usual plus the Events paragraphs in several scenarios and everything is written clearly and explained properly without resorting to short cut style writing or page cramming (though see conclusions for a problem that I encountered). There are references to the short stories, so the gamer is reminded of the tie in.
Seven of the scenarios are night actions, with another being a dawn action, in which the usual night visual distance of 2 hexes for night is increased to 5 hexes for dawn. I don’t know why, but in all of the tactical game systems I have owned, I have always tended to avoid night action scenarios, but really, in In L’nL, the night rules are effective, short and very easy to assimilate, so it was about time I looked more seriously at night action scenarios, so this package opens a further avenue of newness for me.
This is an interesting one. These are the new 4K maps as opposed to the ordinary X-maps. My understanding is that these are replicating the artwork done for computer versions of the game and are available for sale separately from the modules. So the series now offers us the standard game boards that come with the base games, then X-Maps, which are blown up versions of those same boards, allowing for larger hexes, though taking up more space and now we have 4K maps, which essentially are just like X-maps, but have slightly softer artwork, particularly on the buildings and the hexes are only marked at their vertices.
In truth, when first advertised I had wondered about the value of these 4K maps. I pretty much have all of the X-Maps for this system and wondered why I should want to buy into them again (I don’t). Further, having seen a couple of ‘out of the box’ videos, I thought the hexes looked too lightly lightly done, with the new fangled way of showing hexes just by their vertex not helping. After over 40 years of looking at full and proper hexes, they subconsciously disappear to me and my experience with the modern trend of just representing hex corners has always felt somewhat jarring to my eyes, especially on largely clear terrain maps, as though a load of caltrops have been thrown over the map ...... BUT, here with the maps actually out in front of me (as opposed to video presentation) the effect is actually very good and the maps are lovely, especially with their heavy satin coating, so this old dog is learning to appreciate something new.
In the flesh, the hex vertex, being calmed down so as not to be intrusive, is fine. In fact the actual terrain features on the map and the central black dot in the hex do as much to help define the hexes now, so overall, on terrain heavy maps, they have a rather easy look. I love the tree / wooded lined stream on the two new boards - superb. In truth, the difference between a 4K map and an ordinary X Map is pretty superficial, so from my own perspective, I don’t see a need to re-buy into the 4K maps for those X-Maps that I already own and which are already really nice in their own right, but the choice is there for those who want to choose from the outset which style they prefer.
The scenarios are actually quite short / small and this combined with re-playability will appeal as it gives the gamer quick access to well designed scenarios for those occasions when time is short. Playing time is stated as being 30 - 90 minutes on the game sleeve, but the designer says that most come in at under 30 minutes making a midweek game very do-able and of course the more you play these tactical systems, the easier they become.
The module is not stand-alone, it does not include counters, being fully reliant on the ownership of Heroes of Normandy and as such, owners of that game now have a really useful set of additional scenarios that offer something genuinely different from those is the base game. The only area of conversion that is needed is minor and a mental one. The characters in the short stories mostly have different names to the leader counters supplied with the Normandy base game. So each scenario will tell you which leader and / or skill card is representing a character from the book. This is purely an aesthetic and doesn’t really matter and in fact doesn’t matter at all if you are not reading the short stories in association with the scenarios.
The scenarios follow the order of the short stories as presented in the book, but do not have to be played in any particular order. After a quick flick through the module, I still decided that scenario 1 (The Stovepipe Bluff) should hit the table first, simply because I thought it fascinating.
Basically it is June 1944 and dropped Airborne troops are scattered all over the show. Individual men tried to find their comrades and these small groups would then try to find other groups to form cohesive units. All the while, German patrols were trying to hunt them down.
The Americans (101st Airborne) start the game with just a half squad and a Bazooka armed hero called Ash. The Germans likewise have just a half squad, with a machine gun and foxhole.
We know that on Turn 3, the Germans will get a half track with a squad and on turn 5 they get another squad with their sole leader. So order-of-battle wise, this looks the smallest scenario I have played with the system ..... but, there looks to be a ton of story with this, as to win, the American hero must move to occupy three hexes each containing an event marker (a, b and c), each time activating the event (causing the player to read a not previously read paragraph of instruction), which are meant to be surprises, so I did not read them pre-game, but guessed that they brought parts of the story book into the game, presumably at least one of them would have the gamer meeting up with other paratroopers, but these events can also be cruel, so maybe they would meet up with something less friendly, who knows!
Anyway, other bits of the scenario that fascinate are that there are no limit to the number of turns played, players just keep going. Equally entertaining for such a small OOB is that the game uses two mapboards set together length ways. That is a lot of map for our small band of warriors. These two maps both happen to have that tree lined stream that I took a fancy to, but here it is given Type 5 status (uncrossable to everything), so the ford is going to be highly significant. Oh yes, and then there are the small bits of details such as “Ash only has two rounds for his bazooka and it can only be fired once until Event Marker C is activated”
Because the scenario develops a storyline that grows out of the activation of Events, I cannot disclose a full AAR of the game, lest I spoil the event paragraphs to those who have yet to play the scenario, but within that limitation, here are a few highlights of play.
Oh and one other thing, I also decided to use the SOLO game module to handle the German force. The American player is in effect the attacker, as that force has to move and occupy objectives (the event markers), however, I decided that the German patrols should also be aggressive as they were actively looking for paratroopers, so I gave the SOLO card deck an attacker weighted deck.
After Action Report
Above - here are the starting positions on the game map. Ash, his bazooka and a few men start adjacent to an enemy machine gun nest in a foxhole amongst light woodland. The paratroopers have the initiative so their opening decision is whether to fire or to move directly into the machine guns nest position to melee, the special rules encourage an assault. Either way, that hex needs to be taken as it contains the Event A marker. The dice on the board shows the position of the ford. Event B and C (objectives) are to either side of that ford.
Ash leads the men into the MG position, knocking it out. Occupying the hex allows him to activate Event A, which will not be described here. His team immediately set out, southwards, across the fields towards the large barn and the wall that separates the fields.
Pausing at the wall, Ash activates the Event B Paragraph, which will not be described here. In the darkness, the paratroopers can hear the engine of a vehicle, over behind the barn, but they are not sure what it is.
It happens to be a German halftrack (turn 3 reinforcements) carrying an infantry squad, who want to get to the ford. In the dark, they have stumbled upon the other wall that bounds the field by the ford. The half track cannot go any further, so the infantry dismount, cross the wall and follow the stream towards the ford.
Ash’s men make haste towards the ford, wanting to avoid the enemy patrols at all cost, but just as they find the crossing point, they see the dark silhouettes of enemy patrols, both to their flank (the half track section) and to their rear.
The Germans to the rear are already running towards the paratroopers, eager to take prisoners. Ash’s men have little choice but to lay down fire, which forces the Germans to go to ground. At the same moment, Ash, leaves the other paratroopers and taking the bazooka, runs across the ford, making it to the final objective, Event C, which will not be described here - suffice to say, the fighting is not over yet!
For a brief moment, the paratrooper fire at the ford had lit up their position, enough for the distant half track to get a bead on their rough location, but it all comes to nought and the excitement of the crew returns to simple tension and the straining of eyes, as they peer into the darkness for the slightest exposure of the enemy. The paratroopers manage to slip away, unnoticed, across the ford and into the night.
Now, I really can’t talk about Event C as it would be a spoiler, but essentially, after a further couple of nuanced and short turns, the Paratroopers took the game.
Note 1 - when Ash reached the ford and saw enemy troops, it was purely down to an initiative die roll as to whether Ash could move first across the ford and into the darkness, or whether the Germans would first get to act - a tight and tense moment as the dice fell, with a result that of course went the German way.
Note 2 - The half track counter information gives it ‘tracked’ status, which would allow a wall to be crossed. But elsewhere in the rules, it states that vehicles such as half tracks are given O (off-road) status, which would not be allowed to cross the wall. I can’t believe I have not come across this question before, but I imagine I have always simply been a sensible half track driver and re-routed half tracks around walls, where-as on this map, there is no way around them. Anyway, I took the view that the wall stopped them (especially at night) and have asked for the point to be clarified on the relative forums. It seems a little strange that the half track is in a scenario in which it can’t get across the map to where it needs to be, unless it really can cross that wall or the designer wanted enemy fire in the darkness to be the main cause of getting the half track into action.
Note 3 - The German turn 5 reinforcements come on at hex 64A4, which in my game seemed to have them too far away from where the turn 5 action is, to have any effect. They could do with either arriving further up the board, or arriving earlier, but then again in another game, the American progress may be slower. It needs more playing for me to be convinced that this is a good entry point.
Conclusions - The Normandy module has been around for a while. It has been printed a couple of times as the original Band of Brothers title and most recently as Heroes of Normandy, when it included the old ‘Swift and Bold’ British expansion module and although the Noville expansion module adds an extra dimension (with G.I.’s) to the theatre, an injection of new scenarios for 2018 is welcome. Untold Stories does that in a unique and thoughtful way and is a good add on for HoN owners.
The new maps are very nice with tweaked artwork and this just adds to the sense that this module is giving something new and has had a lot of thought behind it. Hopefully we will see this sort of package again, as it seems an interesting way to bring new material to the various base games.
The only downside I have encountered so far is that as I started scenario 1, there were two set-up conflicts that mattered. One of the two maps looked to be orientated the wrong way in the scenario map graphic (but correct in the text) and the starting position for Event A was wrongly placed, cocking up the significance of the first Event Paragraph. I got a quick response from the company to correct these. Apparently the scenario book that I received was a copy of the final play test version and a few of these managed to get into production game packages. The company said this has been corrected and they have put up a replacement V1.1 errata update for scenario 1 for anyone who has this early version of the module. I have put a link in the resource section for that PDF update. It did reduce the pleasure of my first contact with playing the game, as it just gave me the impression of rushed mistakes, but all is fixed now.
Note that you do not have to have the book of short stories to play the scenario package. These are separate items, but share an obvious lineage.
Having fully implemented the three Events, which are unknown before the game starts, I would be happy to play the scenario again, even with advanced knowledge of those events. They are interesting when they happen, but are not critically surprising enough to spoil replays, they just help a higher level of detailed story telling to enter the game.
Bottom line, in a crowded tactical genre, this is an interesting and innovative way of doing module expansion. Storyline gaming definitely brings a lot of flavour to play. I started play using the SOLO system, but part way through, I somehow forgot to carry on drawing cards and I just reverted to playing solitaire the good old fashioned way - such was the degree of me being drawn into the scenario. I am looking forward to working my way through the rest of the expansion.
Size - The map boards are the larger X-Map size at 11” x 17” each and the largest scenarios have two of these placed together, so in most respects, the package takes up the ‘typical’ space on the table that we are used to for this series and as for the material itself, it is easily stored in the Heroes of Normandy base game box.
Solitaire - The blurb says 7 out of 10. This is as solitaire friendly as any other module in the series, which I have always found pretty good. The ‘events’ enhance solitaire play, certainly of a first playing, plus there is a separate and dedicated solitaire system for the series anyway for those wanting such a device. The SOLO system itself can introduce some random events.
Time - The blurb suggests that most of the scenarios sit around 30 - 90 minutes or so. The designer says most are at the lower end of that. My playing of Scenario 1 took around an hour, though I was using the SOLO system, which does extend playing time and taking notes, so call it 40 minutes. The scenario I played was not a meaty affair, but I think the few units on the table focus the players attention on them, so that what happens to them matters more.
Complexity - The blurb describes it as being 5 out of 10. It is no different than any other part of the L’nL Tactical series, though here, the scenarios are mostly infantry only, so that can help gamers who are looking for their first scenarios beyond the infantry based starter kits or anyone who has been away from the system for a while and wants to get back into their stride.
My COMMANDERS web space, is less article based than here and gives an idea what projects are being worked on. LINK
Story example - Untold Stories video audio example via BGG LINK
New v1.1 PDF of scenario 1 that includes the errata mentioned in my post