Why, it’s the first Friday of the month. Which means it’s time talk about a board game that we sallow PC gaming waifs would probably enjoy. In this episode, we’re going to look at a game about World War II. If you can imagine such a thing.
Memoir ’44 is a strategy game. A simple, quick to learn, quick to play strategy game. Memoir ’44 does not see fit to trouble you with troop morale, supply lines or which side of his jodhpurs Field Marshall Von Kluge should dress before a tank battle. But neither does it feel all that superficial, because Memoir ’44 has a great atmosphere to it. It drips history, like a leaking grandparent.
It’s the kind of game that has numerous historical scenarios:
It’s the kind of game that has little model GIs and Panzers. And little model tank traps and sand bags:
It’s the kind of game that’s the ‘official board game of the 60th commemoration of the D-Day landings and the liberation of France’. Really:
It’s the kind of game whose annual Open takes place at Saint-Mere Eglise this year in May, a place where a model paratrooper hangs from a church spire, in memorial to the D-Day invasions and the unlucky landing of one US soldier:
Now let me show you how you play it.
First, you pick a scenario from the manual and set up the board accordingly. The manual will tell you where to position constructions like bridges or towns or bunkers, and landscape features like woods or hills or rivers, using these tokens:
The manual will also tell you what units you can use, how many Command Cards you’re dealt and any special rules. And how many victory points you need to win the game. You get a victory point for eliminating an enemy unit or capturing mission critical locations.
So, the game begins. One of you picks axis, the other allies. Let’s have a look at a battle. In this case, the opening gambits of Pegasus Bridge in which the brave men of Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, under the command of Major John Howard, board six Horsa gliders and launch the first airborne assault of D-Day. Their mission: to capture two bridges, one over the Caen Canal, the other on the River Orne. (Historical background courtesy of the Memoir manual, before you think I went off and did research, or am in any way educated).
The allies go first and play a Command Card. The Command Card tells you what units you can order or actions you can perform that turn. This one lets the allies move ALL their units stationed on the LEFT flank of the board.
In Memoir infantry can move one hex and open fire, or more two hexes. Major Howard’s men advance the one hex and train their sites on the entrenched German infantry. Two units roll one attack dice each, the third can’t get a line of site through their comrades…
In a hail of sten gun fire, the allies kill one quarter of the German unit (blue infantry casualty symbol on the dice) and would force a retreat (purple flag) but the safety of the sandbags mean the Germans can stay put for now.
What’s that noise? Could it be the screech of a Junkers dive bomber? Probably! It’s the axis player’s turn and he produces a “tactic” command card:
The clustered allied units suffer two casualties and a retreat as a result of the strafing run.
The game continues, with each player expending and drawing a new Command Card every turn. It’s like a big war flavoured game of poker; guessing at the cards your opponent is likely to have with the ones that may be about to fall into your hand, and plotting your actions accordingly.
Games play through quickly; the manual advises that you swap over and play the opposite side after each round, so there’s no time to get invested in an intricate strategy. I like this. It means failure can be fun, you can live in the moment and enjoy the flow of the game whatever happens. A desperate, last-ditch attempt to capture a town is just as compelling if you dramatically succeed or are crushed under a torrent of artillery.
With the rule tweaks offered by the twelve different scenarios and various terrain, the tanks, artillery and elite units, Memoir’s a game with huge variety and dramatic stories to tell. And the thing is, the core rules are so simple that battles of greater tactical depth, the ones at the back of the manual, are open to you within a half hour of getting your head around the basic stuff. It’s an excellent, characterful introductory board game.
If you don’t feel like committing to the shiny box you can go and play the software version with solo and net multiplayer. It’s in Beta at the moment and identical to the board game but on your computer screen where your pretend internet friends and porn live. It’s free to start but after about 50 games you’ll need to pay €8.00 for another 50 and further payments for more add-ons and stuff, which is expensive. Just buy the box and get some real friends you sociopath. Your mum’s worried.
Memoir ’44′s got a lot of what I love about board gaming going for it. It’s simply a lovely box full of lovely things with a little manual that tells you how to turn them all into a fun and compelling game. It’s cheapish too at £40 – and if you like it, you’ll be tempted by the C-46 load of expansions that add on things like air combat, new theatres and units, campaigns and the Overlord option to string multiple copies together for massive team games. It’s been out seven years, it’s won awards, it’s already a classic – there’s a reason. Here’s a picture of a gun.