Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: Memoir '44

In preparation for reviewing the new Memoir 44 add-on, Winter Wars, I decided to do a full review of the original game. As I’ve said, age is irrelevant in determining what I’ll write about. Any game you haven’t played is new to you, and my goal is to get more people thinking of good games. Only time can reveal just what games have lasting qualities.

When Memoir ’44 came on the scene about 6 years ago, I gave it a pass. I’m an old grognard, which means a hardcore wargamer with a bookcase stuffed with high-complexity wargames from Avalon Hill, TSR, SSG, GMT, and The Gamers. A low-complexity historical wargame wasn’t to my taste.

Well, that was then. As I tried to nudge my son into historical wargaming, I used some standard introductory games, such as Gettysburg and Across Five Aprils, to introduce the concepts, but they failed to grip. He’d had a taste of Axis & Allies and various miniatures systems, and, being ten years old, he liked his bits and pieces.

So, I finally took a plunge into the wonderful world of Richard Borg, who has been refining an approachable system for wargaming for the past decade. What began with Battle Cry (Avalon Hill, 2000) has since grown into Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder, 2004), Commands & Colors (GMT, 2006), and BattleLore (Fantasy Flight, 2006), offering combat gaming in, respectively, the Civil War, World War II, the ancient world, and a fantasy setting.

Memoir ’44 would prove to be the perfect gateway for historical gaming. It’s not a design that purists would recognize as a true “wargame,” because it doesn’t simulate combat with depth and accuracy, and it doesn’t always reward real-world tactics. That wasn't Borg's goal. It is, instead, a strategy game that uses the elements of wargames and history to provide a unique, completely entertaining, and very appealing experience.

The Elements

Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder, about $40) stands out for its high level of production design, which is what you’d expect of a product from Days of Wonder. This is just a game you want to open, fiddle with, play, and collect.

The components break down into a few elements that provide a foundation for an incredible range of gameplay. The board depicts a grassy expanse on one side, and a beachhead on the other. Both side are marked with a hexagonal grid. The gameplay surface is created by placing tiles on this board to create a unique battlefield. Tiles may depict towns, roads, forests, water, bridges, and obstacles, thus allowing you to build any kind of battlefield you like. (Other surfaces and tiles, featuring desert and snow terrains, are available separately.)

The most striking element of the Memoir series is its miniatures, which make the experience akin to playing a wargame with little plastic army guys. There’s infantry, artillery, and armor, as well as hedgehogs, barbed wire, and sandbags to use as obstacles and defenses.

Players activate and move these figures by using command cards, which allow them to maneuver within certain limitations, and provide different bonuses.

The Play
The rules provide 16 scenarios, complete with unit setups, victory conditions, and historical background for 2 players. The focus is on D-Day and the battles that followed, with Axis and Allies forces clashing across a variety of terrain configurations. If you have two sets of the game, or 1 set of the game plus the Operation Overlord add-on, you can play gigantic battles with two teams of multiple gamers controlling various portions of the battlefield.

The gameplay is simplicity itself. Each player gets a certain number of cards (usually 5) based on the scenario. Most of these effect unit activation, allowing a player to move and fight with the units in a certain area of the board (left, center, or right). Units are placed on the board in groups: 4 pieces to represent an infantry unit, 3 for armor, and 2 for artillery.

Combat results are determined with a simple roll of the dice based on the kind of unit that’s attacking and its range from the target. For instance, artillery can attack up to 6 spaces away. For the 2 closest spaces, it rolls 3 dice; 2 dice for the next two spaces, and 1 die for the spaces furthest away. If any of the dice are a hit, the unit being attacking removes 1 figure per hit. When all the figures are removed, that unit is considered destroyed. Modifiers, such as terrain, obstacles, and cards, can effect the outcome in various ways.

The Verdict
Using these simple rules, Richard Borg has created an immensely satisfying gameplay experience. Much of this has to do with the tactile element: it’s just a fun game to set up and play.

But the gameplay itself is also appealing. It’s fast, flexible, and provides plenty of opportunity for smart tactics and decision making.

No, it is not a “real” wargame. There's too much luck involved, the combat results are too generic and the mechanics too abstract for any Memoir scenario to function as a historical simulation.

And so what? I was a wargaming snob to bypass this one when it first came out. It took playing it with my son and viewing it through fresh eyes to see its merits. My rules for what make a good game have grown simpler as I get more experienced. (“Experienced” is a euphemism for “old” in case you’re wondering). My basic rule for determining a good game is this: a good game is one you play. Faced with a choice between setting up Terrible Swift Sword and banging out a couple of Memoir scenarios, I’ll choose Memoir every time. When you continually return to a game, that’s a pretty good indication of its quality.

Memoir is fun, and as I’ve refined my reviewing criteria over the years, that’s become one of my baseline quantifiers. I know that "Fun" should seem obvious obvious element in a game, but “Good” and “Fun” aren’t always found in the same package. There are plenty of games with rock-solid design that I find about as much fun as gargling ground glass. On the other hand, some games have obvious flaws that I’m willing to overlook because the net experience is entertaining. Maybe my brain is getting softer or my time is just getting shorter, but I find myself liking simpler things.

I don't have to make such allowances with Memoir '44: the design is rock solid. This is a keeper, and it’s great from both adults and kids as young as 10. If you have a son and you want to introduce him to tabletop World War II gaming, this is the place to start. Forget Axis & Allies. It’s a good game, but it focuses on sprawling, high-level strategies. (It’s really just a jumped-up version of Risk.) Memoir is closer to the action, and has a more immediate feel to it. It also plays faster, has more flexibility and better components, and is easier to set up.

Thanks to the continued success of the Memoir system, Days of Wonder has been able to keep up a steady stream of products, with new maps, scenarios, units, and add-ons. They even make a campaign bag to store everything. (I gotta get me one of them.)
I plan take a look at the new Winter Wars add-on as soon as I get some table-time with it.


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