D-Day in Wargames

June 6, 2014–It’s the seventieth anniversary of what my parents knew as one of the decisive moments of World War II, what my generation saw as “The Longest Day,” and what now seems to have become endowed with a certain historical magic. News clips of Prince Charles, with an entourage, walking across Pegasus Bridge at the village of Benouville in Normandy were striking. They headed toward the flatland where British paratroops landed from gliders to grab that same bridge from the hands of German occupiers. Interviews with British paras who had participated in the lightning strike on the nearby Merville coastal battery were equally impressive. As I pen this no doubt the commemorative festivities in Normandy are coming to their climax, with delegations from five countries plus thousands of spectators.

The big shows happen only at intervals–70th anniversary seems to be one–but in between there is much less attention devoted to these historical events, climactic as they may be. Boardgamers, I am proud to say, have figured among the most observant of the public. Whether because the Normandy invasion is so dramatic, because the history is so important, or simply because gamers enjoy a good fight, D-Day boardgames have long been a staple of the wargame genre. Having designed a couple of them myself–including one that featured Pegasus Bridge and the Merville Battery, I can attest to that.

So far as wargames are concerned it started a little more than a decade after the real events, when The Avalon Hill Game Company put out its title D-Day. That was a picture of the “invasion” writ large–the whole Western European coast with the Allies to choose where to stage their invasion and the Germans to fight for France and the Low Countries. Since then boardgames on the subject have taken one of three paths. Games like D-Day– Fortress Europa and others–give you a bird’s eye picture of the entire military theater of operations. Titles like Axis & Allies: D-Day or Atlantic Wall, or The Longest Day offer a view more ample than that of D-Day itself–they go on for weeks of equivalent real time and give you the full Normandy campaign, invasion through breakout. There are not so many games which present the hours of D-Day itself as the main event. In the 1980s I published Monty’s D-Day, a simulation of invasion day on the British-Canadian beaches, long out of print today though I hope to bring it back. In 2012 Against the Odds brought out the companion game to that one, Bradley’s D-Day, which includes the American side of the invasion and the beaches known as Omaha and Utah.

It’s difficult to generalize on the basis of these few titles and their approaches. Over the long arc of boardgaming history there have been many more titles on the subject, these are just some of the games with which I am familiar. On the basis of game experience, though, I’d say the Normandy invasion was a done deal. In the theater-wide games there is some capacity to defeat the invasion, though usually on the basis of unrealistic historical elements (such as freeing the player from Hitler’s constraints on using the German mobile forces). In the Normandy campaign games and the D-Day beach games, outcomes tend to be Allied victories barring a run of extraordinarily bad luck. The Allied advantage at the tip of the spear was just that big. When modeled in a simulation the real capability disparities give Allied players the advantage in the game.

No matter. None of the advantage issues are likely to dissuade gamers from returning to Normandy’s beaches for another “go” at Operation Overlord. D-Day is just that big, the questions that hang in the balance just that important. I daresay that this weekend there will be D-Day games going up for another spin on tables all across the land.