Thursday, November 20, 2008

memoir '44

I just returned from the annual Society for Neuroscience conference, held this year in DC. And while I should tell you about some of the science I saw there, I'd rather write about games today. Let's just say my brain is a little fried still from food/sleep deprivation and too much information.

My friend Paul and I have been getting together regularly to play an excellent World War II based boardgame called Memoir '44. It has received numerous glowing reviews within the gaming community, and for good reason. It's simple to teach and play, it successfully models some fundamental tactics of warfare, and it's a helluva lot of fun. My older brother was (and still is, to a certain extent) a hard-core wargamer (see Grognard). He lived off the depth and complexity of old Avalon Hill stand-bys, like Squad Leader and Afrika Korps. But these are not games you can introduce to your non-gaming buddy. I mean, we're talking 60-page rulebooks with lots of details about supply lines, troop morale, weather effects, etc. Memoir '44 is something you can teach to your 9-year old son on a rainy afternoon, and it's quick and short enough to hold attention in our ADHD generation.
The basic set comes with a playing board featuring the French countryside on one side, and a beach landing on the other. The two armies represent the Germans and Americans, although a few of the included scenarios have you play Brits instead of Joes. Each army is composed of three different unit types: infantry, tanks, and artillery. Each unit type possesses different movement, attack and defense parameters, which affect how you will use them during the game.

Each game represents an actual battle that took place during WWII. The rulebook includes over 15 of these battles, and you can find dozens of other scenarios online. A scenario print-up tells you how many troops are involved, where to place them at the beginning of the battle, what terrain is involved, and what the scenario objectives are. You goal is to obtain victory points (VP's), which you accrue every time you destroy an enemy troop. In some scenarios, you can also gain VP's by capturing and occupying certain hexes on the gameboard (e.g. a bridge).

To attack on an enemy unit, you first check line of sight to make sure there's no obstacle in your way (see image to right). You then make sure the enemy unit is in range (3 hexes for infantry and tanks, longer for artillery). Range also determines how many dice you get to roll, and the more dice you roll the higher your odds of killing your opponent. For example, an infantry unit in close assault (adjacent) to an enemy unit gets to roll 3 dice. Terrain defense bonuses can reduce this. You then roll the special Memoir '44 dice, and for every result that matches the unit type of the enemy you're attacking, you remove one individual troop. Infantry start with 4 troops per unit, so you'd have to eventually take out 4 infantry to gain a VP.

So in general Memoir '44 plays like this: you maneuver your units around the battlefield, rolling dice to attack your opponent, trying to kill and capture VP's at a faster rate than your opponent. This is fundamentally the essence of every wargame. There are, however, two additional factors that make Memoir '44 a standout experience.

The first is terrain. The game comes with a number of terrain hexes that you place on the gameboard, as per each scenario. Each type of terrain changes the rules a little, making tactical decisions more difficult and interesting. For example, when tanks fire into woods containing infantry, they reduce the number of dice they roll by 2. This means that if your opponent has any armor on the battefield, it would behoove you to keep your infantry out of the open fields. Units battling up hills reduce their attack dice by 1. Hills and woods block line of sight, but rivers do not. And so forth. There are a number of terrain rules to memorize, but the game also comes with some handy quick reference cards that you can keep on hand to remind yourself.

The second fatcor that individuates Memoir '44 is the Command Card. Each player starts the game with a number of these in hand (differing depending on the scenario). And each turn, you get to play one. This card determine which units you order, move and attack with that turn. The majority of Command cards limit to orders to one section of the battlefield: center, left or right flank. These boundaries are clearly delineated on the gameboard. So, for example, the "Probe" card in the following image allows you to move any two units on your right flank. "Attack" cards let you move 3 units, and "Assault" cards let you move all units in a particular section.

Since it usually takes several turns in a row to accomplish a particular tactical mission (destroy an enemy unit, clear out a defensive bunker, capture a town, etc.), you'll need several cards in hand that allow for orders on the same flank. But if all 4 of the cards in your hand allow for movement on the left flank, and you've got some units on your right flank that are getting pounded by the enemy, well.. you're shit out of luck. The Command cards are supposed to reflect the imperfect nature of battlefield communication. Even though you're the general and can see the operation as a whole, your troops cannot and sometimes you just can't get your orders to them when you need to. It's the Command card system that makes Memoir '44 a fun and challenging game. You need to work with what you've got, and as a game progresses, the tide of battle will turn from Axis to Allies and back again, because of a few lucky dice rolls and some terrible cards. Serious grognards may be turned off by the random nature of these factors, but it cannot be emphasized enough how much fun they add to the game.

Once you get hooked to the Memoir '44 system, be assured that there are a number of expansions you can waste your money on. Featured above is the Winter/Desert board and a scenario from the Eastern Front expansion, which adds in the Russian army to the fray. There's also an Air Pack that expands the air support options, a Pacific Theater expansion with a Japanese army, and most recently, a Mediterranean Theater expansion that formally brings in the British.

Overall, I really like Memoir '44 but you have to watch out for one thing. One's enjoyment of a particular game session rests largely on how well designed the scenario is. Some are better than others. And nearly all of them are unbalanced, on purpose. In other words, either the Allies or Axis will be favored (with more troops, more Command cards, better initial placement, etc.). If you're playing the underdog, you need to be prepared for a slightly more challenging, and possibly frustrating, experience. The way to resolve this imbalance, as stated by the game's designer Richard Borg, is for both players to play each side of a particular battle and add your scores together to determine a final victor. So if the Axis are favored in the battle for Paris and you're playing the Axis, you might beat your opponent 5 to 3. Then you switch sides, play again, and your opponent beats you 5 to 2. Your opponent wins overall, 8 to 7. Re-playing a scenario from the other side after you've presumably learned from your mistakes is an interesting exercise in taking battle lessons to heart.

Summary: rolling dice is always fun, but rolling dice to kill Nazis is fun X 10.

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