Sunday, April 7, 2013

Memoir 44 Review

Memoir 44 was one of the earliest games in the Commands & Colors series by Richard Borg.  The base game is set on the western front of World War II.  It was released in 2004 by Days of Wonder, and was chiefly aimed at new gamers unfamiliar with wargames.

I came to it significantly later, in 2012, when I told a friend of mine Commands & Colors: Ancients had a World War II version.  She purchased it quickly and we went on to play it regularly.  At first I didn't care for it much.  It appeared to lack the probing, almost dancing gameplay I had come to love in later entries to the Commands & Colors series.  However as we made our way through the scenarios included in the game, I grew to appreciate it more and more for it's own unique flavor.

Rule Summary


To play a game of Memoir 44, you first select which mission you are playing.  You then lay the board out, and set up the terrain and units as depicted in the scenario.  The board is composed of a hex grid, and units are composed of between 2 to 4 plastic figures.  Players will then draw up to their initial hand of cards, and one side will start.

On a player's turn, they will play one command card, and then order the units that card entitles them to order.  They may then move all ordered units, and then may attack with ordered units.  Units roll dice to score hits.  As units score hits, figures are removed from the target.  When the last figure is removed, the attacking player keeps it as a victory point.  Additionally, many units may advance into a hex they have driven an enemy from, and some even get a bonus attack when they do this.

Play continues in this fashion until one player has earned enough victory points as described in the scenario and wins.

Timelapse

How accessible is the game to new players?


Memoir 44 is probably the most accessible wargame I know of.  Sure people complain about how the board is divided up into left, center and right, and that the command cards usually only order troops in one of those sections.  They say it makes no sense.  But it's much easier to manage than the more simulation oriented concepts.

These are fantastic

The reference material in this game is top notch.  There are only three units in the game, although occasionally embellished with elite abilities, and they are all on one reference card.  Plus each terrain type has it's own reference card.  This is great because you are never overwhelmed with more reference material than is absolutely necessary.  There are also very few rules that need to be memorized.  Most of the game is spelled out on the reference cards.  Probably all you really need to know is the basic structure of the game.  How to use command cards, and what ordering a unit means.

Perhaps Memoir 44 underestimates players some though.  The very first scenario is almost brutally simple and straightforward.  It contains infantry only, although it is a good enough introduction to concepts like terrain and fortifications.  The downside to it being infantry only however, is that a good number of the cards that command your artillery and armor are useless.  It's shocking how quickly you accumulate them in your hand when you have no artillery or armor to use them on.

What could have been done better?


The first scenario of Memoir 44 seems completely superfluous to me.  In fact, most people I know have been quite turned off by it.  It makes Memoir 44 seem like a couple rules slapped together to make a game out of green army men.  Which is a shame because there is so much more there, if people can just stick with it.

I'd suggest relabelling the first scenario to Scenario 0.  Then emphasize that it is a purposely stripped down scenario, intended for people completely new to boardgames.  I think by encouraging people to skip it entirely, more people would be willing to delve deeper into the game.

We won't be needing these.

But since it is clearly intended for people almost completely new to board games, let's help them out a bit more shall we?  I'd also suggest removing all the artillery and armor focused cards from the command deck for the first scenario.  Or even removing all the tactics.  No need to gum up the works of what is clearly intended to be a very basic teaching scenario.

How does the new player versus old player match up go?


I would confidently say that new players will be consistently destroyed by experienced players.  Which is unfortunate because this game is aimed at very new gamers, and that is exactly the sort of thing which would turn them off to a game.  New players have often never encountered the concepts in this game.  They will recklessly throw units off to get killed.  They'll fling just a single guy up against a wall of armor.  Just in general they use a command card purely to attack with any unit that is remotely in range.  What they should be doing is pulling more units up to create an assault that can be sustained.  And likely rotating out injured units for fresh ones to deny the opponent points.

I played probably 10 games with one player who never picked up on these things.  It was her very first game of this sort.  It reminded me when I went to play StarCraft for the first time online, after countless hours of playing it single player.  My team mate yelled at me for never building a second base.  The concept blew my mind.  Somehow it was never anything I encountered organically through playing single player.  The same frequently occurs in this game, especially since it is such a gateway game.

What could have been done better?


The strategy tips in the manuals to
Washington's War and Chaos in the Old World

Since this is aimed at new players, just mentioning a list of strategy tips in the manual or on a reference card could be enormously helpful.  Just simple things like "Don't attack with a single unit" and "Retreat units when they are heavily wounded to deny the enemy a point."  Perhaps a reminder to always stay in cover if able.  Nothing ground breaking.  Because it's amazing how long it can take players completely new to this sort of game to get that.  But just pointing them in the right direction can open up a whole new world of strategy and tactics.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?


Many times playing Memoir 44 can feel like a slog.  The maps are frequently packed with terrain which stops movement and disallows attacks the turn you enter it.  Most cover will reduce many attacks to a single die.  If you ever manage to catch a unit on open ground, it's usually cause for celebrating since it's one of the few times you'll actually get to roll your full amount of battle dice.  I'd pick on Memoir 44 for this, but it is consistent with other World War II games I've played, and is just part and parcel with the theme.  That's just how World War II was frequently fought.

These kill the momentum of the game.

Then to flip things around to the receiving end of attacks, your interaction with the game is limited to hoping your opponent has bad luck.  Once you've got your guys into cover, the rest is up to Lady Luck.  And that can be an incredibly hopeless feeling when you know your opponent is on a roll, performing way above any statistical norm.  You just have to wait out their turn, and hope you can catch back up somehow.

This can frequently be compounded by a rather awkwardly balanced command deck.  Now I know the command deck is supposed to simulate the limitations of control and command in a combat scenario.  But I really feel that the other games in the Commands & Colors system do it better.

These are such a let down.

The command deck consist of 60 cards, 40 of which are standard section commands.  The remaining 20 are special tactics.  However many of these tactics cards don't offer you any flexibility above and beyond what you would expect.  Many of them will command units you don't have, since you rarely have the full complement of artillery and armor.  Many of them are highly situational, like Dig In where you just place sandbags.  A solid handful, like Move Out, which lets you command any 4 units, actually enhance your options on a consistent basis.

What I'm getting at, is that the command deck is frequently your chief opponent in many matches, and no amount of hand management can compensate for a bum draw.

The other thing I dislike is that this particular Commands & Colors entry has a rather weak narrative.  The scenarios seem like a hodgepodge of random events from World War II, with nothing stringing them together.  You aren't really sure what a victory or defeat even means in the greater context of the war, leaving you feeling a little empty once you are done.

I also want to talk about one scenario in particular.  The air drop scenario.  This is the scenario I hear people gripe about the most.  It is simply awful for one side.  The Germans begin the game with a single unit in the center, in a town.  The Allies get to drop figures on the board, and then wherever they land, they get to place additional infantry units.  Then the Allies get to go first.  What this usually results in is the German's single unit in the center being instantly annihilated on the first turn.  On it's own, that's fine.  However, the command deck is lopsided towards center cards, and now the Germans have no center units.  I've heard numerous accounts of Axis players on this mission starting the game with a hand of nothing but center cards, and absolutely nobody in center to command with them.  Meanwhile the Allies just pound them into dust.  It's an especially unpleasantly balanced scenario.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?


The game sorely needs some sort of reaction ability.  I realize that would have been an extra rule for new players to remember.  The ones I play with frequently forget their infantry can advance, or that armor can get another attack during an armor overrun.  But I still feel that some sort of reaction ability would have greatly alleviated a defending player's sense of hopelessness.  Later games in the Commands & Colors series introduced concepts like orderly retreats, battle back on close combat, and many other World War 2 games have opportunity fire.  I feel like even the slightest concession in this regard would make the game much more enjoyable for a player who is simply getting pounded.

The deck could also use better balancing.  I just never encounter the amount of dead cards in this game in other Commands & Colors games.  When you have a tactics card in other Commands & Colors games, you are excited!  You bide your time for the perfect time to play it.  In Memoir 44 it feels like half of them are more or less useless, and you just want to dump them as soon as you are able.

I also would have liked to see more in the scenario guides to help piece them together into a better narrative. Especially since this is targeted towards entry level gamers, that narrative can be a huge help.  It was the incredibly focused and compelling narrative of Commands & Colors: Ancients which first got me into wargames and history!

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?


The game presents the same good picture of tactics and strategy that most Commands & Colors games offer.  The strategy is present in how you position your forces, and how you go about attempting to crack heavily defended positions.  The tactics are present in how exactly you go about doing that on your turn.

However, the list of considerations in this game is very pared down, which makes sense because it is a game for new comers.  Instead of having to consider which units are in support, under leadership, adjacent to others, if they can evade, etc, you mostly just worry about exposure.  You want to be in cover as much of the time as possible right up until you try to push the enemy out of their cover.  Most maps tend to become a puzzle of how to best navigate the terrain.  It's rather one dimensional in that way.  And while I would have preferred a bit more meat on the bones than that, I also realize I am not this game's target audience.  I think for who this game targets, that sort of one dimensional considerations is appropriate.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?


The one thing I didn't like in this game, is many of the turns seem to devolve into "Well, I might as well do this."  Sometimes it's throwing a card away on taking some weak shots at a distant enemy.  Sometimes it's meaninglessly shuffling some guys from one forest to a different forest.  For the player on defense especially, all their units often start in fortified positions and there is little for them to do until the offensive player finally closes in.  They are outnumbered, so leaving cover would be suicide.  Cover is all they have going for them.

Nothing to do here.

For the most part a defensive players entire game experience will consist of shooting with a few stationary units until they are killed.  Sometimes they are presented with a path of retreat if they want to take a secondary defensive position, perhaps regroup.  But this is rare.  The game just has a lot of scenarios where the defender has a handful of units heavily entrenched up against an enormous invasion force.  The terrain evens out the odds a great deal.  But they still tend to be boring missions to play for the defense.

What could have improved the dilemmas?


I never played Battle Cry, the game in the Commands & Colors series before Memoir 44, but I checked it's rules, and sure enough it did have leaders.  So I wonder why they were left out of Memoir 44.  I suppose it could have been considered unthematic, since leaders made less of an impact on the battlefield in the modern era.  Or maybe they just wanted to keep things simple.  Either way I feel that their absence is a huge loss for the game, and especially felt by the defender.  Having a leader rush back and forth across a defensive line to wherever he is needed is one of the hallmark tricks in Commands & Colors, and gives the defender something important to do when his positions are otherwise set.

Support is another mechanic which is vital to defenders.  In other Commands & Colors systems, a unit with two adjacent units is in support, and can ignore a retreat.  This creates a beautiful incentive for the defender to constantly tweak his positioning, trying to keep as many units in support as possible, ready to receive an attack.  As it is, all you care about is cover, with sandbags and bunkers allowing you to ignore flags.  Nine times out of ten your units will start in them, with all the cover they will ever need.  Giving you nothing to do!

Physical component design and limitations?


The components in the game are good.  The figures are sturdy, not brittle, but not too flexible either.  I've never noticed any of the pieces physically warping or breaking.  The box has an effective enough storage system, with a decent insert and plastic containers that pop out for the figures.  The board and the tiles are of a nice thick substantial stock.

Fantastic figures.

However, there is one thing that has consistently bothered me about Commands & Colors, and it's setting up the terrain.  I hate it.  You place the 20 hills the scenario requires, and you go to start on the river.  Then you discover that most of the river pieces were on the backs of the hill pieces you already used.  So you have to go back, figure out which hill pieces you need to re-purpose as rivers.  Then you go to place the forest, and you realize that some of the forest you need are on the backs of rivers and hills!  So you replace all those, rinse repeat for nearly every terrain type.  Eventually the board settles onto the right tiles in the right places with the correct unused backs.

What could have been better?


There is a simple solution to the terrain problem I've finally come up with.  Just number the tiles.  Label each side A and B if you have to.  But print tiny little numbers on the tiles, and list exactly which tiles go where on the scenario sheet.  It would save so much time and frustration.  It would also allow you to organize the terrain tiles to find the correct ones easier.  As it stands any attempt to organize the terrain tiles doesn't go so well since the different sides defy an attempt to categorize them.

Update:  It's been brought to my attention by the community at Reddit that this isn't the problem I thought it was.  If you just set up the terrain tiles in the order listed in the scenario, often towns first, followed by the next terrain type and the next, you should have no conflicts.  I'm not sure how I played this game so much and never picked up on that, but there it is.  Maybe it's because I started on Ancients and it definitely does not have that.  So I just rushed into Memoir 44 thinking "I know how to do this" when I really didn't.  So thanks Reddit.

Long term prospects?


At first I couldn't stand Memoir 44.  I found it simplistic and boring.  I was right too, at least for those first few scenarios.  But by the end I was greatly enjoying throwing incredible armies at one another, with full complements of artillery and armor, across difficult terrain.  I think every scenario past the 5th one really stumped me, and caused me to really think about how I was going to approach the problem.

I now look forward to playing it each week.  It's a game I haven't outgrown yet, even with Ancients and Napoleonics sitting on my shelf.  The expansions especially add some of that much needed complexity I've been looking for, if you chose to go that route.  For many people this will be their go to war game.  It's accessible, and the World War II theme enormously appeals to many people who had grandfathers in the war and heard stories from it.  I would certainly recommend it.

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