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Storm the Beaches from your Living Room

Storm the Beaches from your Living Room

D-Day isn’t just one of history’s epic battles. It is also a magnet for wargamers. The Normandy invasion has that magic ingredient that is irresistible to armchair generals: the "what if" factor.

Of course, D-Day was an Allied victory. But there were many what-ifs that could have turned victory into defeat. What if the Germans had deduced that the invasion would come at Normandy, and reinforced their garrison? What if their Panzer tank divisions, the armored sword that could carve up a fragile amphibious beachhead and throw it back into the sea, had been positioned near Normandy, ready to conduct a massed tank counterattack against the invaders?

On the other hand, what if the Allies had moved more aggressively just after the landing, and attempted to expand their beachhead further? Might they have broken the German defenses sooner, and ended the war more quickly? 

This is the sort of hands-on historical experimentation that endlessly fascinates wargamers. And if you’re looking to spend a few hours this weekend recalling the greatest amphibious invasion in history, turn off the History Channel. Here are a few games that will allow you to get a bit more intimate with storming of Omaha Beach:

Call of Duty. Though the popular first-person-shooter series has lately switched to modern warfare, the first three games of Call of Duty thrust the player into the shoes of Allied soldiers, including American paratroopers and Rangers at Normandy. In the Medal of Honor series, you can also play U.S. paratroopers or OSS agents. Like most first-person-shooters, the historical value is somewhat limited. But the visuals are good enough for a first-person view of D-Day.

Company of Heroes: This popular real-time-strategy game puts players in command of U.S. or German infantry and armor. More of a resource-building game than a historical simulation (a tactical game where factories can build new units? Really?), Company of Heroes does have the virtue of lots of action, as well as scenarios ranging from the initial American landings to the final encirclement of German troops at Falaise.

Close Combat: The Longest Day: This is a tactical, real-time strategy (RTS), D-Day game for hard-core wargamers. No factories churning out tanks, but a sophisticated combat model that takes into account factors such as leadership, morale, and suppressive fire (a sister title, Close Combat: Marine, is actually used by the U.S. Marine Corps for training). More complicated than mass-market shooter and RTS games, Close Combat: The Longest Day also provides insight beyond D-Day, into the nature of World War II’s small-unit combat.

Battles in Normandy: A higher-level look at the Normandy campaign, where each unit comprises an entire regiment and the full game spans the entire two-month campaign. The PC game Battles in Normandy is more abstract then mass-market games like Call of Duty, but it does a better job of simulating many of the factors that influenced the overall battle, such as naval gunfire, carpet bombing, and logistics. The Allies feel like they are battering themselves against a brick wall of German infantry entrenched in the hedgerows, and the powerful Panzers defending the open terrain around Caen. But things aren’t so rosy from the German side. With few replacement troops and without air cover, the Germans must struggle to hold the line and keep the Allies penned in their beachhead, even as the elite tank units and fallschirmjager paratroopers are worn down by relentless Allied pressure.

D-Day at Omaha Beach: This unusual board game is for solo play, useful for those who can’t find a human opponent to spend hours playing an historical wargame. (And it’s on sale for Father’s Day.) The player commands the U.S. troops storming ashore at Omaha Beach, while the game system uses dice and a deck of cards to control the actions of the German defenders. As was the case 70 years ago, the first waves of American troops were very nearly annihilated, and in the game, it’s tough for the Americans to breach the German defenses. Yet because it’s a solitaire game, D-Day at Omaha Beach has an immersive story-like quality.

The Battle for Normandy: Do you have a basement or garage where you can leave a board game set up for weeks or months? Then The Battle for Normandy is for you. Nearly a thousand small cardboard pieces, and five large paper maps, offer you the chance to command the huge armies in Normandy at the battalion level. Those who don’t like long games with lots of fiddly rules may not enjoy it. But those who enjoy simulations with lots of historical flavor will enjoy a massive game that includes everything from American hedgerow-busting "Rhino" tanks to reluctant German battalions composed of Soviet prisoners fighting for the Fuhrer.