Lock ‘n Load Tactical: Heroes of Normandy was one of my favorite purchases last year. I loved it so much that I made sure it was something I played on my birthday (my son enjoyed it too).
I’ve held off reviewing the game, though, because shortly after it arrived on my doorstep last year it went out of print. With a reprint due at the end of the first quarter of 2017, likely in March, and because those who place pre-orders receive a substantial discount, I thought it high time to alert Black Gate readers to the game, and the entire Lock ‘n Load Tactical series. (If this little intro is enough to convince you the game’s worth a look, feel free to skip all my prose and drop right down to the end where there’s a link to order a demo copy of the game.)
Lock ‘n Load Tactical is a revision and representation of Mark Walker’s excellent Lock ‘n Load system. The new publisher has clarified, re-organized, and revised the rules, printed them in full color with additional examples, and eliminated the need for purchases of unrelated games to play certain settings. For example, you might once have needed to own several modules before you could play some of the Lock ‘n Load World War II games. That’s no longer necessary — Lock n’ Load Tactical: Heroes of Normandy is complete unto itself.
If you’re new to hex and counter wargaming, as I was not so long ago, you might not know that there are different levels of “zoom in” as regards to the units on the playing board. In some games, a single counter might represent an entire regiment, division, or army. Lock ‘n Load Tactical is designed for squad level, which means that each counter represents a small group of soldiers, or a single tank, or similar unit. Each scenario is played on 1 or more geomorphic maps that display roads, trees, buildings, and other obstacles, and each side begins with a set number of units (and sometimes vehicles), victory conditions/objectives, and starting positions. The mechanics? You use the numbers printed on counters and add in modifiers for movement, cover, weapons and occasionally other effects, roll dice, and compare results. It’s much more well thought out (and complicated) than that sounds, but those are the bird’s eye level basics. (Click on most of the images in this article to enlarge.)
As you probably guessed, Lock ‘n Load Tactical: Heroes of Normandy simulates the British and American operations in Europe against German forces during World War II. The game comes with 31 different scenarios and an immense number of counters representing a slew of airborne and other units, tanks, vehicles, weapons, and game markers, upwards of 670. Before you panic, no, you don’t use 670 counters in every scenario, or even close to that. In the games I’ve played I’ve seldom had more than a dozen counters on each side. That amount enables the game to simulate a variety of different conflicts.
6 different maps are included and can be interconnected and combined to simulate a variety of conditions.
The playtime is estimated from 2-4 hours and I found that pretty accurate once I got the rules under my belt. I started with shorter, one-map scenarios that actually play a little faster.
It’s a gorgeous game. The maps are clear and detailed and full color. The counters are colorful, thick, durable, pre-rounded, and well marked. They were also remarkably easy to punch out from their counter sheets, a notable difference when compared with some other games I’ve purchased over the years. The rulebook and scenario book both are clear and well written. I liked that the scenario book often included historical notes about the conflict being simulated.
I’ve already said that I love the game, but it must be said that there are a lot of rules. I had to play through the example scenario in the rule book three or four times before it clicked enough for me to try setting up one of the scenarios for a go myself. It may be that experienced wargamers will be less challenged but let’s be honest — if the original Risk is about as complicated as you want your battle games to run, then Lock ‘n Load Tactical isn’t the system for you. When you play the first time you’re not going to be able to set it up straight out of the box and get to playing in thirty minutes. And unless they’re secretly fascinated with tactics, casual gamers are likely to give you a glazed look when you explain how things work.
If you wish to play a system where there’s enough granularity that different units have different capabilities (i.e. a Panzer III has different armament and movement from both a Panzer IV and a Sherman) then you should expect that there are going to be additional pages of rules. Sniper units and medic units and special assault units and others all have specific rules or rules variations that simulate their different specializations and add variety to each scenario. Personally I find that wonderful, but that means that there’s a learning curve, and barring an experienced player to guide you along, the first few times you play you’ll be consulting the rule book and player aids.
And even more importantly, once you get the system down, it makes so much sense that you’ll find the game plays quickly, and that any rules questions can be answered by the handy player aids.
My advice – punch out just the pieces you need for the example scenario and push them around as you read through the description.
Setting it Apart
There are a slew of World War II games available right now. I chose Lock ‘n Load Tactical over them for several reasons, and the Normandy series entry in particular because I’d enjoyed the Band of Brothers miniseries so much (the airborne units are the primary stars of Lock ‘n Load Tactical: Heroes of Normandy). Let’s look at those reasons:
- First, even though reviews of earlier versions of the game complained about its organization (those issues have been addressed) many of those reviews also talked up its excellent design and playability. After playing, I agree with them.
- Second, it’s squad level, which I prefer. When I’m sending a tank counter forward I really enjoy the game more if that counter represents a single machine, not a mass of them.
- Third, maybe this is superficial of me, but I really found the artwork appealing. It’s clear, attractive, and professionally executed… and that really helps the immersion factor.
- Fourth, there’s a great mechanic where heroes can be generated during the course of the battle, enabling you to simulate moments from history where one soldier really did make a difference and accomplish impossible feats. And THAT helps to create some wonderful narrative moments.
- Fifth, there are individual counters for specific positions, as mentioned above, along with leader counters. I like that level of detail. Some competitors are fairly similar in approach but don’t have specialized counters for heroes, snipers, medics, leaders and the like.
- Sixth, I’ve emphasized the level of detail, but there are actually games that have MORE rules, such that there are exceptions to every rule and every action has to be triple checked before it’s taken. Those sounded as though a single battle would be an all day (or all week) affair. Lock ‘n Load Tactical isn’t like that. In short, it seems just the right level on the Goldilocks scale for me. Your own mileage may vary.
- Seventh, it plays well solitaire, a point that merits deeper discussion.
There are a number of solitaire World War II games available right now with sterling reviews, among them Warfighter WWII, Enemy Action: Ardennes, and the solitaire expansion for Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear. At the time of writing there are more on the way, like Sherman Leader, and probably others I haven’t even heard about.
Lock ‘n Load Tactical’s solitaire system hasn’t appeared in print yet, but it’s due to be released in March, and it’s based on the well-received solitaire card system for Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (an Eastern Front game, meaning the game’s between the Germans and the Soviets). The upcoming card based system will control the opponent no matter what scenario you’re playing. I thought that sounded grand, which made me all that more curious about the Lock ‘n Load Tactical system. I figured if I liked it as is I’d like it even more solo…
…but this is a review of the existing game, which is designed for two players. Yet it plays well solitaire already. What do I mean by that?
I discovered that a lot of people play two-player strategy and tactical games solo. You can see how common this is if you browse to just about any wargame forum at Board Game Geek. Somewhere in the “General” folder of that game the question will turn up at least once – “how does this game play solo?” Typically a lot of people answer, because they’ve tried it.
Some games play far better solo than others. For instance, if the game engine is built around deceiving the other player about cards you hold in your hand, it’s unlikely to be much fun to play against yourself. The same applies for a game that includes decoys, where the opposing player doesn’t know if you’re moving real units or just bluffing. It’s hard for most people to bluff themselves.
Lock ‘n Load Tactical plays solitaire pretty well as it is, SO LONG AS you take turns playing each side to the best of its abilities. Since I’m all about taking in a story, that’s fine with me, even if I’m rooting for one side.
I have a hard time thinking of anything significant that I dislike.
I mentioned the rules, which are only a downside if you don’t want that level of detail. There’s a lot of info there, and while I had some confusion I generally found things well organized. Each counter has a variety of numbers on it and you have to learn that those in THAT corner are about movement and those over THERE are about morale, or firepower, or what have you. But it’s all explained in the rules and player aids. As I said previously, if you don’t want detail in your wargames, don’t come here.
My Heroes of Normandy box was a little small to contain the counters once punched. I’ve read that newer boxes are going to be larger, which might mean that there may be more space for counter trays (I vastly prefer counter trays over plastic baggies for organization). But in my experience, few large tactical games have enough space for all of their punched components, so it’s not something I feel I can single this publisher out on.
There’s an awful lot of replayability in this box. Owing to the number of scenarios it’s really like getting a whole slew of different games in one, because if you enjoy the game you’ll be wanting to play each scenario multiple times as you try different tactics. When you add that up with all the other positives I mentioned, you can see why I think it’s grand.
There are a few additional noteworthy points. My rule book was accidentally printed without the last page of the final scenario. I wrote LnL about getting a PDF of that page to print, but they insisted on expediting an entire replacement manual. They didn’t know I was a reviewer – I was just some guy, and they wanted to make sure that I had a complete product. I was impressed. I’ve read similar stories about their excellent customer care.
It seems as though the system is set up to cover all the theaters of World War II with different base games – Heroes of the Pacific, Heroes of North Africa, Heroes in Defiance (the invasion of France and the low countries), Heroes of the Motherland (the war on the Eastern Front). Expansions suited for different base games are being printed at the same time, so that you can run monster tank battles on the eastern front with Heroes of the Motherland and Dark July, push back against the German breakout with Heroes of Normandy and its add-on Noville: Bastogne’s Outpost, or simply fight additional scenarios printed in their upcoming compendiums.
The Lock n’ Load Tactical series also covers more modern conflicts, such as the war in Vietnam, the Falklands War, and a hypothetical war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Games about other conflicts are in the works.
Right now EVERYTHING in their system is available for pre-order and EVERYTHING is discounted. Those ordering base games that are new (meaning not reprints) like Heroes in Defiance and Heroes of North Africa will receive free X-maps, which are substantially larger than standard maps, resulting in a lot more space to place counters. I highly recommend them. X-maps are available for the reprint games and expansions as well, but have to be purchased separately for them.
If this still seems like a lot of shekels — and it is (though worth it if you like this sort of thing) — you can try the series out for free, courtesy of a demo version of the game, available here.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the historical fantasy novels The Desert of Souls, and the The Bones of the Old Ones, as well as the related short story collection The Waters of Eternity, and four Paizo Pathfinder novels: Beyond the Pool of Stars, Plague of Shadows, Stalking the Beast and Through the Gate in the Sea. You can keep up with him at his website, www.howardandrewjones.com, and follow him on Twitter or follow his occasional meanderings on Facebook.