On the blog today David Thompson, one of the designers behind Undaunted: Normandy, takes us through the design process of his upcoming deck-building game of World War II combat, from the initial concept and Grandfather's influence through to the final finished game.
The Initial Concept
In 2014, I moved from the U.S. to the UK. Just before the move, I started brainstorming the idea of combining elements of deck-building card games with the spatial elements of a board game. I knew I wanted the game to be a skirmish-level game, with the cards tied directly to counters on the board, but I wasn't sure what the exact theme would be. While I was working through some of the initial mechanical concepts, I went on my first vacation after the move — a visit to Normandy. My first stop was Omaha Beach, where my grandfather landed on D-Day +4 with the 30th Infantry Division.
Instantly I had my theme. The game would focus on the exploits of individual rifle platoons within the 30th Infantry Division as they made their way through France.
As SPIEL 2014, one of the largest gaming shows in the world, neared, I shared some of the initial design concepts for Undaunted on BoardGameGeek. A user there — Eddy Sterckx — noticed the game and suggested Osprey would be a good fit for the design. Eddy reached out to Duncan Molloy at Osprey and set up a virtual introduction. I met Duncan in Essen and pitched the game to him. At the time, Duncan was just getting things going with Osprey's fledging board game division. He liked the design, but it was a while before he had the bandwidth to take the game on. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until SPIEL 2017 that we made the formal agreement.
Regardless, when I headed home from SPIEL 2014, I had a good feeling about the design. I had already conceived the campaign arc for the game — the 30th ID's actions in France following D-Day — and I had also sketched out some ideas for the first few scenarios, but to properly develop the scenarios and ensure the game was solid, I needed two things: a dedicated blind playtest community, and someone to help me develop the scenarios.
Calling in Reinforcements
The blind playtest community emerged primarily from two places: BoardGameGeek and a dedicated playtest page that I created on my website. Blind playtest reports began pouring in. Although some contained feedback on the core of the game, most of the reports provided invaluable insight about the scenarios that were being developed.
At the same time, I reached out to Trevor Benjamin. He and I had collaborated on other projects and developed a great relationship. It also helped that we were both part of a game designer and playtest group in Cambridge. While I thought the majority of our effort would be solely dedicated to scenario development, Trevor brought with him a fresh perspective and fantastic ideas for improvements to the core of the game.
Gameplay vs. Simulation
One challenge we had throughout the design process was the balance we wanted to strike between gameplay elegance and simulationism. We knew we wanted the game to be quick playing, and we wanted to rely on the overall deck-building mechanism and the multi-use cards to drive the action, while representing concepts like command and control and fog of war.
We debated more than once whether there should be terrain effects to include impact on line of sight. Ultimately we decided that the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. For example, if we said that river tiles prevented or hindered movement, what about woods or hills? Depending on the river's depth or width, it could actually be easier to cross than a hill would be to climb. If we introduced line of sight, we'd have to determine how it was drawn, add edge cases, etc. It was a slippery slope, with every one of these elements taking us further from what we wanted: an elegant design that centered on players' control of their platoons through the management of their decks, abstracting their command and control over the platoon.
From Design to Development
Trevor and I turned over the design to Osprey in 2017. At that point, Duncan Molloy and Filip Hartelius (who has served as the lead designer for the game) began putting the game through its paces. Although there were few changes to the core rules, Filip and Duncan pushed us to improve some elements and polish the edges.
More than anything, though, they challenged us on some of the scenarios. They wanted to make sure that each and every scenario was as good as it could possibly be. Ultimately we had to strip out a few of the weaker scenarios, we improved many that we had already designed, and we added a few new ones.
The Game Comes to Life
By early 2019, the design and development was complete. We began seeing Roland MacDonald's beautiful artwork, which really made the game come to life. When our preview copies arrived in June, we could hardly believe that the game had become a reality.
So that's the story of how Undaunted: Normandy came to be. You can take a look at the rules in this video from Watch it Played, and over the next couple of weeks we'll post more articles about how we modeled the rifle platoon in the game and how we based the game's scenarios on real world battles.