Coming off my “Shelf of Shame” this week was The Dark Summer: Normandy, 1944 by designer Ted Raicer and published by GMT Games (2021). The Dark Summer is the latest in Ted’s Dark Series from GMT Games following The Dark Valley: The East Front Campaign, 1941-45 (2013) and The Dark Sands: War in North Africa: 1940-42 (2018). The signature feature of the Dark Series is the use of the chit-pull mechanism for activation which not only introduces a manageable “fog of war” element into play but also makes this series of games very solo-friendly. In The Dark Summer, Mr. Raicer and GMT Games gives us a refined version of the Dark Series that delivers a very playable version of the Normandy Campaign focusing not on the “Battle of the Beaches” but instead on the breakout.
The Longest Day Reduced to a Round
When I see a game about World War II in Normandy, my mind first goes to the movie The Longest Day (1962). Indeed, I think for many wargamers the invasion of Normandy is almost always the first thing that comes to mind when talking about a wargame set around D-Day.
The Dark Summer covers D-Day…and a whole lot more. In hindsight, given a game scale of 2.25 miles per hex and weekly (uh, sorry, “one quarter of a month”) turns it should be no surprise the critical invasion days are reduced to just a part of a turn. At first I felt a bit cheated; in The Dark Summer the landings on the beach are often reduced to a single die roll and then an advance inland. It felt so much different from the popular depiction of D-Day that at first I wondered if the landings were being trivialized. However, after playing the entire game (not only the first turn) I discovered that The Dark Summer doesn’t minimize the sacrifices of those who came ashore on D-Day; on the contrary, after play I see how game puts those invasion day efforts into context with the entire campaign. It took me a bit to see the obvious; The Dark Summer is not a game about the invasion of the Normandy beaches, but about the breakout.
Whatever drama The Dark Summer lacks in regards to the invasion of the Normandy beaches, it makes up for in the race that follows. Players have 10 turns to either take back invaded beaches (Germans) or if the Allies to push out and “take the edges” of Cherbourg or Brittany or points to the east on the map. Cherbourg, which is not even on the map, is really the “make or break” victory condition. The Allies can virtually guarantee a win by seizing Cherbourg early but if they wait too long and don’t take the city by the end of turn 7 then it turns into a German Sudden-Death Victory. A close examination of the Victory Point Tables reveals a fundamental conflict—the Allies gain VP for capture of cities or exiting units whereas the Germans earn VP by eliminating certain Allied units and exiting others. The danger each side faces is that an all-out attempt to maximize VP could hand an automatic victory to the opponent. This make The Dark Summer a “race to the edges” of the map, but it must be a managed run that keeps (leaves?) some units behind to prevent automatically awarding victory to your opponent.
I have sung praises to the chit-pull mechanism before and The Dark Summer only reinforces my beliefs. I really enjoy the chit-pull mechanism for how it introduces a pleasant form of randomness into unit movement and combat as well as how it enables solo play. Even the special rules that basically “pre-scripts” the initial invasion round looks far more restrictive on the page than it actually plays out. Of the three Dark Series games I own, I feel The Dark Summer is the most thematically appropriate implementation of the chit-pull mechanism amongst the group.
Brightest of the Dark?
While the three games of the Dark Series share that common chit-pull mechanism, each is a very different game. I have described The Dark Valley as a “playable monster” game and the scope (the entire war in the Soviet Union) takes up far more table space and time than The Dark Summer. Likewise, The Dark Sands, which is more similar to The Dark Summer in that it covers a campaign (North Africa), also has some rules that mechanically make the game more challenging to play (I’m looking at the two-scales of maps here). In The Dark Summer I feel designer Ted Raicer has found a “sweet spot” for the application of his system.
What I enjoy most about The Dark Summer is the extreme playability of the game. Physically the game is relatively small with play on a single 22″x34″ map using less than 400 counters. The 24-page, double-column Rule Book really is only ~17 pages of rules, none of which are overly complex or illogical. Play time is listed as four hours and I found this estimate about right; indeed, my solo games actually played a bit faster. The Dark Summer naturally paces itself as “a bit rushed” in that both players feel the need to work quickly to try to get to their victory objectives before time expires. The combination of a smaller game, easy to digest rules, and a natural thematic “hurry up” makes The Dark Summer a complete—and highly enjoyable—game experience playable in an afternoon.