It’s got to be said, I’ve always been a little wary of war gaming. The genre strikes me as pretty complicated and – despite the patience of friends who’ve attempted to teach me a couple of them – they have a tendency to fry my brain. Of course, regular readers of the site will know that occasionally the planets align, pigs fly and I somehow manage to understand how a game works. Admittedly, the game needs to be reasonably straightforward for this to happen, so thank heavens for Days of Wonder and their excellent Memoir ’44.
Based on Richard Borg’s Commands and Colours gaming system, Memoir ’44 was actually simple enough to pick up despite the initial daunting feeling I got when I first opened the box. I’ve actually played another one of the games in this series before – Battlelore – but despite the fantasy theme (which I normally enjoy) I really didn’t get on with it. Admittedly I didn’t get the chance to get it to the table as much as I would have liked, but Memoir seems to have hit the spot – right place, right time, I suppose. Over the past few years I’ve become more interested in (relatively) recent world history and this game, of course, is steeped in the stories of World War II.
This is a two player effort (unless you’re taking part in an Overlord game, more of which later on) that sees one side taking the role of the Allied forces, the other Axis. The game’s rulebook contains a selection of scenarios based on actual events for you to play through, seeing if you can either keep history as it occurred or change the past. As well as the rulebook (as with most DoW products) the production values are ridiculously high and you get an awful lot packed in the box. The double-sided board is where your battles will take place, one side a beachfront , the other a countryside setting. You also get a stack of large hex tiles, printed up with all manner of rivers, towns, forests and hillsides – these will be placed on your board before the game starts as mapped out in the scenarios from the book.
Of course, the thing that makes a Days of Wonder game are the quality of the pieces included and Memoir doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. There are nearly 150 actual army units, split between infantry forces, tanks and artillery, along with a stack of wire bales, sandbags and hedgehogs (those spiky things made out of three planks of wood). Everything is remarkably detailed considering their size, and it’s all shared equally between the two colours. It really appeals to your inner 5-year-old, evoking memories of playing with your toy soldiers. Speaking of playing, Memoir is actually rather easy to pick up – the trick is to win through strategy.
Each scenario is explained in the rulebook, complete with a map of where both players’ forces begin. There are objectives to complete in order to claim victory, normally meaning that you have to collect a set amount of medals. These can be attained by occupying a certain area of the board or (more usually) by wiping out an opponent’s unit. The whole game is card driven, with each player manoeuvring around the board using one card per turn. The board itself is divided into three parts – general movement cards show a highlighted section and how many units can be selected, while special actions could mean anything from all armoured units attacking to a sole infantryman running riot.
Combat is resolved using dice and is dependent on a few factors – what you’re attacking, the unit you’re using, the distance between you… thankfully, after a couple of turns it all becomes quite straightforward. If you’re attacking infantry, you’re looking for as many soldiers to appear as possible. Rolling tanks will destroy armoured units, grenades take down anything, while green stars mean no effect. You may also be forced to retreat if a purple flag appears. Explanations in the rulebook are clear and I soon found myself working out rolls myself with no problem. However, if you’re not someone who enjoys a little randomness in their gaming, Memoir ’44 is probably a game you should pass on. You’re reliant on luck, and even the most strategic mind can be scuppered by poor dice. On the flip side of that, games are quick, with simpler scenarios often coming in under an hour – ideal for that quick gaming fix that’s a little meatier – and you can plot your revenge swiftly!
I mentioned the Overlord game earlier, which is a variant of the standard game that allows for more players. Of course, with more players comes more equipment, meaning you’ll need more than one set to use. Multiple people on each side are led by a General who secretly issues orders which are then performed on the now-oversided board. These battles are much longer but take an already excellent game and turn it into something truly special. If you get the opportunity to try out an Overlord game I really recommend you do so – the investment of time is more than outweighed by the experience.
However, two-player Memoir ’44 is how it will normally visit your gaming table, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better introduction to war games. Sure, it’s a far cry from the deeper simulations like Advanced Squad Leader, but Richard Borg’s vision of WWII battles is in no way a throwaway affair. Going up against an experienced opponent will challenge even the most hardcore – after all, you never know what the enemy is thinking. If you still need convincing, Days of Wonder currently have an online version of Memoir available from their website. Download it from this page, register for the open beta test and away you go. See you on the battlefield!
Memoir ’44 is produced by Days of Wonder and was first released in 2004. Designed by Richard Borg, the base game is available for around £30 both online and at your local game shop. If you enjoy it, you may also like the huge range of expansions, from Air Support units to new boards depicting other battlefields from World War II, as well as a book detailing full campaigns. These expansions are in no way necessary though, and that base game will keep you entertained for a long time.