Undaunted: North Africa board game review - standalone sequel to WWII deckbuilder makes an outstanding experience even better
Tanks for the memories.
Undaunted: Normandy was one of the most surprising and impressive tabletop releases of 2019. A blend of tactical squad-based skirmish wargame and deckbuilder, the two-player board game saw opposed US and German sides acquire and play cards from their respective reinforcements to control troops on a battlefield of map tiles, competing to control objective points or whittle their opponent’s fighting strength to zero.
The combination of slick cardplay, strategic skirmishing and the occasional hope-and-pray dice roll to calculate attacks came together with a commitment to historical accuracy in just enough detail to have the experience feel faithful and immersive without being mere dressing or mired in complex simulation. Across a dozen scenarios - which could be played either as standalone skirmishes or linked together into a campaign - the game loosely followed the real-life action of the US 30th Infantry Division as it held off the German counter-attack in the post-D-Day summer of 1944. As a complete package, it was one of the best deckbuilders since Dominion invented the genre just over a decade ago and one of the greatest wargaming experiences since the days of tin soldiers.
Undaunted: North Africa, the second game in the Undaunted series, is a sequel to Normandy’s gameplay and a prequel to its snapshot of late World War II, following the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group as it encounters Italian Axis forces across the top of the continent during the early years of the conflict. The campaign spans 11 scenarios scattered from the first action of the LRDG’s predecessor, the Long Range Patrol, in September 1940 to the LRDG’s attack on the airfield at Barce as part of Operation Caravan in late 1942.
Undaunted: Normandy was one of the best deckbuilders since Dominion and one of the greatest wargaming experiences since the days of tin soldiers.
Once again, the roughly hour-long scenarios can be tackled piecemeal or strung into a fairly incidental campaign format that tracks each side’s casualties, with the only real benefit to doing so a bit of flavour text based on the total score at the end. (Even if you decide to skip recording scores, I’d still recommend approaching them in order the first time through as new gameplay concepts are layered in.) As in Normandy, there are no rules for creating custom map layouts or army loadouts, so you’re stuck playing what’s in the scenario book or hacking together your own. Luckily, that’s even less of a minor sticking point here given North Africa’s variety of missions out of the box - I’ll get to that in a minute.
The same core gameplay as Normandy powers North Africa along, and continues to be a major accomplishment in blending the complex strategy of wargaming with the ease, speed and momentum of deckbuilding by designers David Thompson and Trevor Benjamin. Each player starts with a relatively small deck of troops, and can use each card to perform universal actions such as moving or attacking or unit-specific abilities, from scouting tiles to taking control of objective points. Meanwhile, cards representing the commanders off the battlefield allow more troops cards to be added to the deck from each player’s personal supply of reinforcements, allowing for control over the likelihood of particular units being drawn on future turns and the chance to approach each scenario with a different strategy in mind.
Undaunted's core gameplay continues to be a major accomplishment in blending the complex strategy of wargaming with the ease, speed and momentum of deckbuilding.
Expanding Normandy’s tight yet effective pool of tactical options are new actions surrounding one of North Africa’s most significant additions: vehicles. Soldiers can now hop in trucks and tanks on the battlefield for added protection and greater speed, able to use the ability of the current seat they occupy on the vehicle’s dedicated card alongside their own actions. Balancing out the formidable firepower of the Italians’ medium tank - piloted by a crew of new soldier cards - and nimbleness of the LRDG’s trucks (though both sides can jump into empty enemy vehicles) are new rules for impassable terrain tiles, plus the addition of antitank riflemen and demolitions experts able to penetrate the new armoured defence stat and make the lumbering machines vulnerable.
The vehicles are a shrewd addition to the gameplay, giving the encounters and environments of North Africa a distinct feel versus Normandy’s solely squad-based tactics without adding any extra heft or headaches to the rules. The increased troop variety on both sides means that unit types now consist of a single unified squad, plus a separate squad type for the Italians’ tank crew, rather than up to three squads for the same unit type as in Normandy. As a result, units feel far more distinct and there’s greater tactical consideration in how each unit’s unique abilities are utilised, whether it’s the sniper’s ability to move outside of scouted tiles, the engineer’s use in repairing damaged vehicles or the saboteur’s power to blow up the newly-added building tiles.
One of the most exciting things about Undaunted: North Africa is how different it feels depending on which side of the table you’re sitting.
One of the most exciting things about Undaunted: North Africa isn’t how different it feels to Normandy, but how different it feels depending on which side of the table you’re sitting. Whereas Normandy saw relatively closely-matched US and German troops face off, North Africa’s opposed forces feel notably asymmetrical off the bat. It’s not just a case of the same cards in different configurations this time around. Each side has unique units and powers that reflect their differing positions in the theater of war. In later scenarios, the Italians can call on strafing runs and surveillance from recon aircraft alongside the ground dominance of their tank. Meanwhile, the LRDG can fight back with long-range sniper shots and the explosive up-close demolition of saboteurs and engineers. Even seemingly like-for-like troops can differ in their defence and attack values, with the LRDG’s scouts hardier than their Italian counterparts and their boots-on-the-ground sergeants making up for their opponents’ behind-the-lines tank commander.
The scaling back from multiple squads and introduction of more specialised units allows North Africa to highlight the strengths of the card-driven gameplay, both thematic and mechanical. In many of the scenarios, playing as the LRDG becomes an exercise in carefully managing your typically smaller but more individually capable pool of commando troops as you pick your way towards Axis-held bases, while the Italians try to drive off the attacks with heavier yet less adaptable forces, slowed by an often thicker stack of cards throwing up individual troops on a slower basis. That’s not to say playing as Italy ever seems overly rigid or limited, or that the LRDG faces insurmountable odds - both sides are equally effective and enjoyable to control, albeit in differing ways.
Perhaps even more so than Normandy, North Africa’s ultra-polished gameplay makes it a great game; the immersive, careful details on top make it an exceptional experience.
None of the changes or additions mean North Africa is a notably different game from Normandy on paper, but - as with the personalised decks of troops players create during each encounter - in practice they’re an exercise in rearranging existing elements to create something that feels fresh. If you already own Normandy, North Africa absolutely stands apart as a familiar but distinct experience. This is true when it comes to both your expanded gameplay decisions and the way its minimalist yet effective splashes of flavour throw light on a new time and place during World War II - one often passed over in many other Euro/Ameri-centric depictions on and off the tabletop to boot. Crossing or circumventing impassable terrain, making use of vehicles and air surveillance, the natural ability of LRDG scouts to easier withstand gunfire out in the desert versus their cover-bound Italian equivalents: the sum of these parts is a game that hasn’t just swapped palette-swapped brown mud for yellow sand. Down to the individual names on each of its soldier cards (fictionalised, but based on common names from the era), Undaunted cares about the details. Perhaps even more so than Normandy, North Africa’s ultra-polished gameplay makes it a great game; the immersive, careful details on top make it an exceptional experience.
North Africa is an interactive anthology of war stories that’s as stirring for its moment-to-moment action as it is for the knowledge that it’s grounded in reality.
Nowhere do North Africa’s various strengths shine through brighter than in its increased variety of missions. Whereas Undaunted’s dozen scenarios largely saw slight variations on a tug-of-war to control objective points around each map, North Africa introduces scenarios that brilliantly experiment with the format to showcase its gameplay additions and greater asymmetry. Scenarios can see either side tasked with neutralising specific units, escorting troops across the map, fending off attempts to capture locations by eliminating enough combatants and attempting to flee to specific tiles marked with new ‘escape’ tokens. Even the basic struggle for area control thoroughly explored in Normandy is given a new lease of life, with the Italian forces needing to maintain constant control of locations to claim victory while the LRDG can permanently blow up structures in pursuit of the same aim - allowing the smaller group of specialised units to move on to the next target as the Italians attempt to slow them down. Combined into a thrilling campaign of cat-and-mouse chases, defence missions, hit-and-run strikes and tense fights for survival (all based on real-life events detailed in the scenario booklet), North Africa is an interactive anthology of war stories that’s as stirring for its moment-to-moment action as it is for the knowledge that it’s grounded in reality.
The first in a brand new series and offering an experimental combination of deckbuilding and wargaming, Undaunted: Normandy had few expectations it could be measured against upon its release. Undaunted: North Africa arrives less than a year later with the bar set high. Whether you’re coming to this game as a fresh-faced recruit or a veteran of its predecessor, North Africa is another remarkable achievement. Despite the success of Normandy and the easy potential to dress the same experience in a new set of camouflage, North Africa is unafraid to keep experimenting, building on what made Normandy memorable while adding an essential new chapter to what’s quickly becoming one of the finest tabletop series in years.
Undaunted: North Africa is due for release on July 9th 2020.