REVIEW - Memoir ‘44

Memoir 44 is a hugely successful game and has a large long term and avid following, so it is with a heavy heart and from behind a bullet proof shield I must say: “I did not enjoy playing Memoir 44”.

Hey, come on - hear me out! Don’t go leaving quite yet because I must also say: “Memoir 44 is a good game”.

In Memoir 44, you control either the Allies or the Germans in one of the many battles that took place during the Second World War. In these battles you control soldiers, tanks or artillery in a fight to get to the point limit first. MOSTLY, points are achieved through killing your opponent, although you can also score points on certain scenarios by holding strategically important locations.

With those being the basics, you can see already why a lot of people would like the game. A lot of people are going to enjoy the fact that the setting is incredibly accurate, faithfully representing (as much as possible on a hexagonal board) pivotal battles in the war. A lot of people are going to enjoy the combat, which is elegant and intuitive. A lot of people are going to enjoy pushing lots of little plastic soldiers around whilst making pew pew noises. And all of this is fine. It IS a good game, and I’m glad that you enjoy it, but I don’t. Here’s why:

First, I think I’ll start with the things I do like. I like the turn system.

Each turn you have a choice of various different strategies, which you must pick from one of these cards. Depending on which side you’re on and in which scenario, you may have more or fewer than your opponent, but basically you’ll always have a choice.  What makes the cards interesting is that they are largely limited by the zones (or flanks) of the board.

The board is split into three; the middle, right and left flanks. Most of your basic order cards only affect one of these flanks although some do get very fruity and complicated allowing for some very intense turns. What this means is that you are at the mercy of the cards, when it comes to advancing. You may have pushed all your troops as far as possible up the right flank, but unless you’ve got a card that allows you to advance any further, you ain’t goin’ nowhere, pal. What’s delicious is that by making such gains in the right flank, you’ve used up a bunch of the right flank cards, meaning that the chances of even DRAWING anything helpful are slightly slimmer than had you previously drawn a more balanced selection.

By having these order decks, the game is essentially balancing the lines, forcing you to advance in areas that you normally wouldn’t because those are the cards you’ve drawn. It does this all whilst still keeping an element of chance involved, as no one knows which cards you’re going to draw. You’re not allowed to discard any cards, so to get rid of that underpowered card that you really don’t like you HAVE to play it to remove it from your hand.

This, fortunately, ties brilliantly with the theme. WW2 communications were not top notch, and it is fully plausible that orders may have been prevented from reaching their destination. Having the deck self-balance the lines supports the feeling of the line moving forward as a whole rather than small groups bursting through one position whilst the bulk of the front sits on their laurels.

I really like the cards, but the aspect that makes me respect it so can also lead to immense frustration as a player. You might have your enemy by the throat, ready to quench the life from their body, but there’s nothing you can do until you get the cards you want. And so you wait, throat in hand. You look at some petty squabble going on in the bottom left corner, a distraction at most, all the while simply waiting. Some games you get exactly the cards you want at exactly the correct time. And other times, no matter how well the individual combat roles are going, you get the wrong cards at the crucial moment and everything goes to hell.

Obviously part of the game is risk management, by which I mean covering your back and not doing anything too risky unless there’s a strong chance you’ll be ok if it fails. Regardless, the deck can screw you even when prepared as much as possible.

Then there’s the combat dice. Look at these beauties!

Oh, how I love custom dice. On the six sides are:
Two soldier symbols (if you’re attacking a soldier, this counts as a hit)
One tank symbol (if you’re attacking a tank, this counts as a hit)
One grenade symbol (This always counts as a hit)
One star symbol (which counts in various special situations)
One flag symbol (This forces a retreat without damaging the target)

If you’re paying attention that means that if you’re attacking artillery you have a one in six chance of a hit, tanks give you a one in three chance, and if you’re attacking troops you’ve got a one in two chance of a hit. And this is all done with one type of dice, it’s brilliant and elegant.

The way you can improve your chances further is by increasing the amount of dice rolled, which is determined by a mixture of distance and terrain. The further you are, the less accurate, and if you’re shooting uphill, it’s worse that if you’re shooting downhill. These all contribute in bizarre and interesting ways, giving you +1s and -1s all over the shop. Unfortunately, whilst it is very easy to intuitively glance at a situation and notice that you will be better off shooting from one position as opposed to another, unless you’re familiar with the game it can be confusing trying to quickly determine exactly how many dice you’re supposed to be rolling.

Once that’s all worked out you get to roll those beautifully simple dice and all is well. You work out how many hits you got and (if it’s one or more) you get to take an opponent’s piece off the board which is very satisfying - die little man, die! Which is obviously German for “the little man, the”.

You get to flick them out of each hex, or pick them up gently if that’s your thing, but this satisfaction comes at a price. Since every unit of soldiers has four health, that means that there are four soldier figures in each hex. Whilst this makes gameplay exceedingly fun, it means set up takes a VERY long time. Looking at the scenario placement and knowing that you need to put four soldiers on each hex that shows up really hinders my desire to play another game after one finishes.

Another drawback to this mechanic is if you didn’t reduce that squad’s health to zero, then your hits make no difference to the potency of their firepower. No difference at all when your enemy’s squads are on full health or one health. They still attack you with the full brunt of their guns, the only relief being that it’s exactly the same for your soldiers.

I find that this aspect of all or nothing, full strength or dead to be not only unintuitive but incredibly frustrating. Picking away at one man in a bunker turn after turn whilst he’s shooting back with many, many dice per turn just doesn’t do it for me. It’s fine to have chance based combat (especially with custom dice, mmmm) but make sure that nothing feels futile.

But I guess war can sometimes feel futile, and the accuracy of theme here is spectacular. It’s possible to run long and thorough campaigns, where the result of one game affects the start of the next (although the rules for these are in a separately purchased book). This aspect of reliving the war is so faithful to the real events but unfortunately for me, so very dry. I am in no doubt that this accuracy is EXACTLY what some board gamers, and wargamers especially, are after, but for me pouring over endless battles most of which play out in incredibly similar ways is not engaging.

Most people who take a lot from this game will do so because of the intricately recreated scenarios. Starting each and every game with an interesting asymmetrical start-up and playing in the fulfilling (but sometimes incredibly frustrating) combat IS fun, but interest in the theme feels so absolutely crucial here. I have always found the events of The Second World War to be an interesting subject, but I’ve never been one to pay particular attention to the finer details of individual battles. As such I didn’t ever feel engaged and I didn’t much enjoy it.

Buy Memoir 44 if:
You enjoy the historical authenticity of the WW2 battles and, possibly more importantly, you know someone else who does, this is almost a must buy. The combat and mechanics are great, but not flawless, and if you truly enjoy the theme you will have a good campaign over a long time. Value for money I guess! If, however, you have little desire to learn about the tactical intricacies of historical battles and find fiddly little soldiers irritating and clumsy then steer well clear, no matter how good the dice are.

- Mike Wood

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