Redaunted 2: The Redaunting
In my review of Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson’s Undaunted: Normandy, I noted that it could be the beginning of something truly special. To some degree, that original box already contained plenty of special in its own right. Where I had expected deck-building and squad tactics to make an uncomfortable pairing, Undaunted nudged them together like old friends. The rules were streamlined, the decisions meaningful, the odds of landing a shot were long but not too long, and if it occasionally became a little too tit for tat in its exchange of fire, well, I’m sure there were plenty of infantrymen outside Caen who felt the same way.
Undaunted: North Africa is Benjamin and Thompson’s second take on the Undaunted franchise, and I couldn’t be more pleased that they’ve opened a second front. From the very first mission, it’s apparent that this is an improvement in nearly every regard.
If you’ve played the first Undaunted, it will sound familiar when I say that most of its missions stuck to a tried-and-true formula. Both sides entered the fray from the edges of the map, gradually conducted reconnaissance and crept a few squads into the interior, and began to trade potshots and suppression fire. After a while, squads of riflemen would secure their first objectives, exchange additional fire, and eventually one side or the other would break through and secure the necessary ground to drive the other side into a retreat.
In other words, the game was packed with plenty of drama — rushing across open terrain, the whistle of mortar fire falling on clustered troops, crossing your fingers that a sniper round will find its target — but they tended to strike the same percussive beats mission after mission. Some of the maps even had an abstracted symmetry to them, closer to a video game deathmatch than cross-sections of uneven or unfavorable terrain.
Not so in Undaunted: North Africa.
The very first mission opens with a bang. The Long-Range Desert Group, that multinational unit of the British Army that conducted covert missions behind Italian lines, is opening their day with some very good fortune. Not only have they discovered an Italian airfield, but the Italians have also been caught with their pantaloni down, too far out on a patrol of their own to easily protect their hangars and planes. The LRDG’s goal is simple: get in close, blow everything sky-high, and melt back into the desert. The Italians, of course, have the opposite goal.
The next twenty minutes play out in a panic. Rather than slowly reconnoitering the area, the LRDG acts in a mad dash, making inroads with scouts and engineers while their gunner lays down suppressive fire from afar. The Italians reply with suppression of their own, hoping to pin the scout to slow the British advance, and later the engineer to interrupt his progress as he sets the airfield alight. The first plane goes up almost immediately. No need to secure the objective; it’s already billowing smoke. By the time the engineer swings northward to blow the munitions depot, the Italians are close enough for their fire to take effect. The next few moves are crucial. Italian fire is blistering. They’ve already secured their truck to the south. The LRDG scout is pinned. It’s only by sheer chance that our stalwart engineer sets the hangar burning, permitting the entire team to withdraw beneath cover of smoke.
Whew. The entire engagement lasted less than half an hour. And it was furious enough that it proved transportive. While my opponent and I wrestled over initiative numbers and discarded fog of war cards and assembled decks to suit our respective needs, the game felt less mechanical and more immediate.
Which is saying something, given how little has actually changed from Undaunted: Normandy.
For the uninitiated, both of the games in the series are about assembling a deck of troops and commanders and then using them, drawn gradually and at random, to permit your soldiers to move and shoot. In this mission, my focus was on purchasing as many scout and engineer cards as possible, thus letting me draw them and set their corresponding soldiers into motion as often as possible. Meanwhile, my opponent was more interested in keeping his deck lean and his forces balanced. After all, I wasn’t even shooting back for the most part. Casualties weren’t a concern for the Italians. Only speed.
Speaking of which, casualties are one of the big changes from the original title, although it manifests principally in the game’s artwork. When one of your men takes a hit, you lose a corresponding card from your hand, discard pile, or deck, representing an injury or lost manpower. Over time, your troops dwindle and might disappear from the map entirely. This can be offset as you bolster that unit, adding more of its cards to your deck.
In Normandy this was portrayed as reinforcement; in North Africa, more as a morale boost. This is because of the one change I’m not entirely fond of. Where in Normandy your tokens represented entire squads, and the removal of a card was a casualty you absorbed like a bayonet in the gut, North Africa’s counters represent a single person. Losing a card doesn’t mean you’ve lost a brother in arms. You’ve lost something far less tangible. Stamina? A splash of blood? Some measure of determination? Whatever has been spent along with that card, this reduction in scale has the unintended side effect of making your characters feel more like action heroes than soldiers.
Then again, it also succeeds in making the game’s engagements more personal. Whether you’re retreating from an advancing tank, sweeping across the desert in a pair of trucks to hijack an enemy scout car, or taking potshots with an antitank rifle, the stakes feel more grounded than before. Part of that is thanks to the superior mission design. Another measure is due to the Italians and LRDG being presented as their own unique forces rather than two clone armies set loose against one another. One is scrappy and quick and tends to blow things up before running away, the other has lumbering armor.
Which brings us to North Africa’s biggest transformation: the vehicles.
If any element was a prime candidate for mishandling, the vehicles are it. Instead, they land in an unexpected sweet spot between powerful and vulnerable.
They work like this. Every vehicle has a token that can appear on the map alongside your usual soldiery, but is represented in more detail on an off-map card. This card has “seats,” which your units can occupy, swap, or exit before they take an action. Crucially, while sitting in a vehicle hauls your units around faster and might afford some additional protection — yes, might — many seats also provide additional possibilities. When you play a soldier’s card while he’s sitting in that seat, you’re allowed to take that offered action instead of the usual stuff printed on his card.
I’ll give some examples. In a patrol truck, the driver can still shoot his weapon, but can also drive the vehicle. Someone sitting in the rear can fire the truck’s gun for suppression. A third soldier in the middle seat can navigate — basically, an up-scaled form of recon that lets you place scout markers ahead of your troops. When banded together, multiple troops in a single vehicle transform it into a mobile hard point bristling with weaponry and special actions. Not bad.
Except there are tradeoffs. Some terrain can’t be navigated by vehicles, forcing your troops to get out and hoof it. Worse, there’s always the possibility of antitank weaponry. Under the proper circumstances, an antitank rifle can land a hit on a vehicle’s expanded profile far more easily than a bullet can find a stray human target. This both deals damage to the vehicle and rattles one of the troops inside, wounding him even though he wasn’t hit directly. After too many hits, the vehicle will be disabled, sitting around until somebody repairs it or another few hits blows it up entirely.
Two things come of this. First, Benjamin and Thompson rightly portray combat trucks and medium tanks as devastating force multipliers when employed properly, but also as disastrous liabilities when they bog down, stumble into dangerous lines of sight, or fail to provide adequate protection to the men crewing them. Second, and more relevant to Undaunted as a whole, they’re incorporated seamlessly. Certain vehicles can be stolen, turning an inopportune casualty into a clamor for a sudden organic objective. Others are heavy and slow, prompting troops to avoid them rather than engage at all. And terrain becomes more crucial than ever as units traverse the ground in different ways for maximum benefit.
But perhaps the best thing about the vehicles is the same as the best thing with everything else North Africa adds or tweaks. Rather than adding rules and exceptions, the Undaunted system is as streamlined as ever. More so, if anything, with a simpler approach to reinforcements and when tokens are removed after casualties. The result is faster, punchier, more percussive, and far more interesting. Unlike its predecessor, I have yet to want to skip a mission in order to reach the good stuff in the scenario book’s later pages. Here, it’s good stuff all the way down.
Long live the scrappy bastards of the LRDG. Undaunted: North Africa isn’t only an improvement. It’s what Undaunted: Normandy wanted to be all along.
A complimentary copy was provided.