Undaunted: Normandy came out of nowhere in 2019 and became a hit enough to spawn a sequel and an expansion. As you can guess from the title, it’s another game in a very long list of games about the battles in northern France during WWII. What made Undaunted different was the way it depicted soldiers and officers using a deck of cards that players could add during gameplay to tweak their strategy. It was so good that we put it on our lists of best deck building games and best war board games.
With Undaunted: Stalingrad, the designers took the action to the Eastern Front, but this isn’t just a reskin. It is a completely new game with a new, special campaign system.
What’s in the box
Fearless: Stalingrad comes in a big, heavy box with a big, heavy price tag. There are two colossal stacks of cardboard tiles that are used to build the cityscapes that players will fight over as the campaign progresses. In fact, if you lay out all the tiles in rows and number order, you get a rough map of the historical city. A set of tiles is for the initial situation of the map. The other is a set of replacements for those tiles if the originals are destroyed or fortified as part of the promotion.
Similarly, the decks of cards make up the rest of the weight. There is one lot for the German player and another for the Soviets. The starting decks are functionally identical. But as the game progresses, your deck will suffer permanent losses and expand with new options. These additions are not the same for either side, instead representing operational and material differences between them and addressing a shared critique of the original game.
Some 10-sided dice and sheets with die-cut tokens representing various squads, vehicles, and terrain, as well as battlefield markers complete the content. The slightly cartoonish style used in the maps and tiles of the Undaunted games is a bit of an acquired taste given the serious subject matter. But for this fourth edition, artist Roland MacDonald has struck the needed balance between realism and caricature. It’s also good to see some realistic diversity among the Soviet armed forces, including women and different ethnic backgrounds.
rules and how to play it
Deck building, in which players start with a card core and use that core to buy additional cards throughout the game, is a well-known design concept. However, in most deck building games, deck building is the whole point. What sets Undaunted apart is the way the designers render the deck for aspects of morale and unit cohesion without any additional rules. There is, of course, a decent element of luck in card drawing, which may or may not aid what you need to do on the board. But there is also a lot of strategy.
Players begin each round with four cards: they play one in a nerve-wracking bid to see who comes first, and the other three when it is their turn. Most cards represent battlefield units and allow the player to perform an action with the appropriate counter on the board, such as B. Move or shoot, which is accomplished via a D10 roll. A hit removes a corresponding card from the deck. So the more units that come under fire, the less likely they are to act and the less reliable they become simply because their cards are less likely to be drawn.
Decks also contain NCO cards. These don’t activate units, but add cards to your deck or draw more cards from it. This equates to pep talk, bold leadership, and the use of reinforcements to mend ailing forces. But try coordinating too many different units and you’ll find your keycards don’t show up in the mess. The last card type is Fog of War, which does nothing but clog your hand. These represent the uncertainty on the battlefield and are gained as you scout new tiles, a requirement for movement.
Expanding your deck and taking actions on the board are your levers to try and achieve the scenario goals. These are far more diverse than previous Undaunted games, which were primarily a race for control of certain victory tiles. That’s still a thing here, but it’s complemented by frantic timed defenses and desperate demolitions, aided by a wider range of tiles with simple landscape rules. There are even secret intelligence scenarios that you won’t reveal to your opponent until they are triggered. This variety means there are multiple ways to approach each fight, with subtleties of strategy that may not challenge you until it’s too late. Also, you need to spontaneously change your plans in response to the dynamic situation on the ground.
It’s a system that forces you to make endless uncomfortable compromises. Sagittarians, for example, are the only cards that can control tiles. But if you don’t have multiple matching cards, you can’t move and take control at the same time. Instead, you must risk them crawling forward, reducing range and making them an easier target while giving the enemy a chance to move up and contest the field themselves. Most units have special moves, like engineers firing smoke or machine gunners suppressing fire, that you must balance with the need to move, shoot, and complete objectives. It’s an ongoing, fraught series of tough compromises.
Scenarios are built according to a branching structure based on who won the previous battle. Each page has a scenario book with the structure and a short narrative introduction to the next fight. Many scenarios introduce new cards to your deck, from off-map objects like bombers to on-map tanks. A win always earns you something, maybe it’s control of part of the city or an extra promotion. Depending on how things develop, the campaign may come to an abrupt end – or it may culminate in a colossal struggle for ultimate domination of the city. However, the loser of one scenario often gets a slight starting advantage in the setup for the next, which helps keep things balanced.
As a result, Undaunted: Stalingrad encourages you to think long-term. At the end of each battle, you suffer casualties based on how many cards you lost. If these turn out to be line soldiers, they are replaced by inferior reserve cards, while specialists such as snipers or engineers are permanently lost. They also promote two cards being exchanged for superior alternatives. So it’s no longer about sending troops to secure targets. Every decision is a trade-off, where taking a risk can pay off in profit, but your deck will limp for the rest of the campaign. This lends a brilliant shiver of danger to even simple choices, making the admission a strategic choice rather than a way out.
The scheme of swapping cards or tiles for replacements means you’re paying for a lot of stuff in the box that you won’t be using. But it also forms the basis for an excellent campaign system. Running campaigns are tricky things because when one side gains an advantage, it tends to snowball. This is unlikely here, given the balance changes in the scenario setup and the regular, vicious attrition suffered by both sides. At the same time, the constant changing of components and the risk of sudden victory make you feel that every battle counts. And the way the city and your forces crumble around you becomes increasingly emotional as the campaign progresses. When you’re done, you can simply reset the game to do it again. With high probability you will see different scenarios.