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Recreating the D-Day Invasion Through Vintage Table-Top Board Games

by Michael Barnes (06/12/12).

The scene at Omaha beach according to The Longest Day board game.

The world marked the 68th anniversary of D-Day last week, the day when the Allies began the bold invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The landing at Normandy and the hard slog defeat Germany are truly the stuff of legends, the bravery and courage that the Allied soldiers displayed evidence of profound heroism. Across practically all forms of media—from books to films to video games and songs—D-Day has been memorialized and mythologized. It’s been re-enacted, re-evaluated and re-played every which way. And of course, there are many options available for board gaming enthusiasts to bring the events of June 6, 1944 to the tabletop through board games.

The Second World War is quite possibly the most prevalent theme in all of hobby board gaming for a number of reasons. The fact that it’s a modern, extremely well-documented and witnessed war certainly helps, but I believe that the black-and-white, good-versus-evil dichotomy between Axis and Allies also makes for good gaming. During the 1970s and early 1980s, conflict simulations (or “consims”) were some of the more popular tabletop gaming options and there were literally dozens and dozens of World War II games—most with very specific subject matter covering particular battles, campaigns or theaters of war. Most of these games are old fashioned hex-and-counter war games in the classical sense, some of which are extremely detailed and complex.

This striking graphic design frames the first game ever about D-Day.

One such example is 1979s The Longest Day, designed by Randall Reed and published by Avalon Hill. This “monster” war game was extremely expensive for its time at $65, but its scarcity today has pushed its value north of $200. This is a huge game in every sense of the word, featuring some 1,500 counters, seven boards, and a full campaign scenario that can take several months to complete. Virtually every Allied and German unit is in the game, and detailed rules cover almost every materiel facet of the campaign. There are smaller scenarios in the rulebook that are more bite-sized, but they’re intended as tutorials that lead into the full game.

It’s a kind of game that really isn’t made anymore—and it’s not widely played, apart from some games using tools that facilitate multiplayer games over the Internet. But it is highly regarded and fondly remembered, and there is definitely a demand for it as shown by its collector’s market price.

An older—but much simpler and more reasonably priced—take on D-Day is another Avalon Hill title, D-Day, designed by Charles S. Roberts. Roberts is regarded by many to be the father of modern war gaming, and there is an annual Charles S. Roberts award given to the top games in the genre. D-Day hails from 1961 and it was part of Avalon Hill’s “Smithsonian” collection of games about American history. It was reprinted a few times, most recently in 1991. It’s a pretty easy game to find for around $20 in all of its editions. It originally sold for $5.98, and it appeared on shelves not even 20 years after the landing at Normandy.

It’s not a particularly good game by most accounts, with issues of historical and strategic accuracy in the mix and a focus on a more simplistic representation of the invasion. It’s only a four-page rulebook, but four pages of 1961 war game rules are like 16 pages of modern board game rules. It’s also intended to be a long game, covering 50 turns, but it’s apparently the kind of thing that’s won or lost in the first hour. Still, it is a somewhat important game—mainly because I believe it’s the first time D-Day was ever fought on the tabletop. Interestingly, later editions—like the 1991 reprint—are more sought-after and thus more valuable (around $50), mostly due to some redesign and modernization that makes the game more balanced, playable and graphically current. The stark, minimal look of the original edition strikes me as the more interesting one on the shelf.

The scene at Omaha beach according to The Longest Day board game.

Staying within the Avalon Hill stable but moving into the 2000s, Axis and Allies: D-Day is worth noting because of the familiar brand. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Avalon Hill (now owned by Hasbro) decided to capitalize on the lasting popularity of Axis and Allies, the classic Risk-style World War II game that was a staple of many gamers’ tables in the 1980s. They released a couple of new products with the Axis and Allies brand, including this D-Day-themed game to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the invasion.

It’s a handsomely produced game filled with tons of plastic tanks, soldiers, field pieces and planes. It has a great-looking area-based map, and the gameplay is much more modern than the earlier examples with action cards, turn limits and other streamlining. It’s a game more focused on creating a sense of atmosphere and situation than historical details or specific orders of battle.

It mostly works, and it’s by far the most accessible of these three games. It’s also affordable, with aftermarket copies valued around $20-$30 and even sealed copies still available in some shops at $50. The re-deployment of some key Axis and Allies mechanics also makes it somewhat familiar to those who may have enjoyed that game in the past.

These three games really are just the tip of the spear. There are likely hundreds of D-Day scenarios available for other World War II war games, ranging from the ultra-hardcore Advanced Squad Leader series to the more plebian Memoir ’44 games. There are also dice games, card games and any number of miniatures games where D-Day is the setting. While we can never experience what it was like to ride up in an amphibious assault vehicle hitting Sword Beach, gaming is one way that we can at least get some small sense of the kinds of command decisions and considerations that were made surrounding one of the 20th century’s most significant—and truly epic—battles.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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One Response to “Recreating the D-Day Invasion Through Vintage Table-Top Board Games”

  1. Sagrilarus says:

    Though only three years old, [i]D-Day at Omaha Beach[/i] by Decision Games is a great play, out of print and pulling well over $120 for new copies.

    Most wargames are printed in very short runs where many copies are claimed prior to printing (and held for decades), so age is not necessarily a useful way to judge value in the genre. Though not antiques, some games gain “classic” status very quickly and demand higher prices than their brethren even before all copies are out of the retail channels.

    D-Day at Omaha Beach is unique because it’s a two player game where both players are on the same team — each plays half of the American forces that stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day. The game itself plays the German defenders via a deck of cards and a few rules that determine the order of their fire. This makes the game a magnificent choice for learning — a seasoned wargame player can teach a new guy, or two new guys can become familiar with how wargames work together without concern about giving away their strategies. Father-son, two buddies, etc. This unique feature may be part of the reason that the price on the game has climbed as it has.

    Original Retail Price on this one was $60, now selling for roughly double that in the aftermarket.

    S.

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