This looks like the kind of game your mum warned you about. Historic war theme! A board made of hexagons! Tiny plastic army men! Fear not, casual gamer, for this is no rules-heavy, nine-hour nightmare of pushing around cardboard chits and squinting at spreadsheets. This, my friends, is Memoir ’44, and it’s as quick and dynamic as a blitzkrieg.
That’s not to say complex wargames are bad – far from it. Some are almost works of art in a box, modelling such madness as supply lines, weather conditions and, according to the excellent Matt Thrower on Shut Up and Sit Down, sometimes even water rations for Italian troops to boil pasta. But if you’re looking for something accessible you can chuck straight on the table and have fun with, Memoir is your guy.
You can probably guess the drill – one player gets to be the Allies and one player the Germans across a string of different World War II scenarios, ranging from terrifying beach assaults on D-Day through to legions of tanks racing forward in the liberation of Paris. In any given battle you’ll be controlling combinations of infantry, armor and artillery, as well as special units such as British commandos and the French Resistance.
Man, that already sounds complex! Well worry not, because Memoir stops the game becoming an overwhelming sprawl by squeezing down your options each turn into just a couple of tough decisions. Look:
See those cards? Those are the orders you’re currently holding. The board is split into three sections – left, right and centre – and each player can only move and fire with units in a section if they play a corresponding order card on their turn. Some let you move just a single unit, some two or three, and the most powerful allow you to advance troops across all the sections or call in special orders such as artillery barrages and airstrikes.
Just stop and think about that. You can only move and attack with a unit if you’re holding the right card. You’ve only got a few cards at a time, and you’ve no idea what’ll you’ll draw next once you’ve used one. What if you push hard down the left for a couple of turns, only to have your troops trapped in no-man’s land with no chance of escape? This amazing, elegant system cuts through any potential complexity like a bayonet, forcing you to break down your plans into what can be managed right now, in one area, with just a couple of units.
This isn’t about co-ordinating dozens or hundreds of troops in concert, and readying them for some grand push ten turns down the line. This is wargaming distilled down into a boxing match. It’s about probing where you can, retreating when you must and pushing hard when you’ve finally, finally exposed an opening and can surge forward to take the game.
Memoir often comes under fire from harder wargamers due to its randomness – rather than extensive tables of numbers telling you whether a unit has hit the enemy or not, we’ve got dice. Like these!
The nearer your troops are to the enemy, the more you roll. Tanks don’t lose dice over distance, but burrowing down into hedges and scenic French towns offers some protection, forcing the attacker to chuck some away. Roll the same picture as the unit you’re attacking, and they lose a figure. Wipe them out completely and you get a victory point. Bag yourself between four and six victory points, depending on the scenario, and you’ve won. Simple!
The problem here is that the best laid plans can be undone by bad rolling. That last big push, with your tanks racing to wipe out a couple of heavily weakened units, can be torn apart if you can’t roll a picture of a blue man with a gun. And that’s fine. Really! Sure, you can’t guarantee you’ll roll the right things when needed, but use your order cards wisely, concentrate your troops together at the right time and maximise how many you’re rolling and you can mitigate the worst of it.
Do you know what? Even if you can’t, the dice are often where the greatest Memoir moments are forged. I played a game recently where a single infantryman, on the brink of destruction, managed to single-handedly take down two squads of tanks which came after him and hold an objective. I can’t even remember who won – my opponent probably can’t either – because it’s moments like these, stories like this, which live with you after the game, not whether you ballsed up a couple of dice rolls.
Playing a hell of a lot of games helps average out the luck factor too, and publisher Days of Wonder have got your number there. More than a dozen expansion packs have been released since the game debuted in 2004, letting you play campaigns in Russia, the Pacific and North Africa, introducing a host of new units and rules, and even providing new boards to reflect desert and winter terrain. This is all great of course, but hideously expensive, and it’s hard to justify more than a couple of expansions before suggesting your money might be better spent picking up different games. The Eastern Front, Pacific Theatre and Terrain Pack seem to be strong contenders if you’re tempted to drop more cash, but there’s genuinely plenty to enjoy in the base game before you need to start worrying about that.
It’s not for no reason the rulebook suggests players switch sides after each game and replay the mission – Memoir scenarios, like real wars, can be spectacularly unbalanced in favour of one side or the other. Playing again as the other faction straight away skewers this problem nicely, and with games generally coming in around the 45-minute mark it’s no bother swapping chairs for another bash. Battle stacked against you? Faced down by a steel wall of tanks, or having to wade your troops out of the sea towards a nest of machine guns? Memoir demands it all. Weathering the storm, springing a surprise counterattack, breaking through against all odds and riding your luck – that’s the spirit of D-Day right there.
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