Saturday, February 19, 2011

Memoir '44 - The Only Collateral Damage Is Found In Your Wallet

So, I was jonesing to kill something several months ago, and I decided that the best way to do that without the nastiness of prison rape would be to buy another wargame. I've played plenty of wargames but, with the exception of Axis and Allies, I hadn't played any World War II games. I mean, who doesn't like to wage war against Nazi fascist scum, right? So, I went out looking for a WWII wargame that didn't take four weeks and a 50 square foot table to play, and I came upon Memoir '44 from Days of Wonder. $35.00 USD and a week later and I was ready to take on Hitler's bitch ass and stomp his Wehrmacht into tiny little pieces of plastic gore and smoking resin tanks. Oh yes, there would be blood that day.

Unfortunately, the first thing I found was that I couldn't play the game's first scenario because I was missing some river tiles! There's very few things that actually piss me off, and buying something that's missing parts is the tip-top reason to incite my wrath. Luckily, it only took one e-mail to make it right, and I'm pleased to inform you that Days of Wonder may have failed at quality control in this instance, but they have an exceptionally good customer service department that did not. I received my replacement tiles in 3 days, and that's something to be proud of.

Let me tell you a little about what the game's about, though. It's a magical little sandbox loaded with damned near 150 little plastic soldiers, tanks, howitzers, hedgehogs, fortifications, and concertina wire that allows 2 players to wage war upon each other. On top of that, there's a nicely produced board to lay tiles upon to populate the landscape of a battlefield with all manner of feature, such as villages, rivers, bridges, forests and hills, so you can literally recreate historical battles if you so desire. The game is uses the Richard Borg "Commands and Colors" game system, which means that you play a card to do something, then you can potentially attack enemy units by rolling special dice with symbols.

It sounds a bit simple, and it is, but that's what makes it a short-playing, fun, easy to approach game. There's a bunch of built-in scenarios within the rulebook to get you started, but the real draw for me is that you can toss some tiles down, toss some units down, and get right to the wholesale slaughter of the enemy. It's the Patton philosophy when it comes to scenario generation, "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week." Suffice it to say that this is not a game of winning hearts and minds; it's about bursting hearts with 7.62 FMJs and emptying minds into a grayish pool of plastic arterial blood and brain.

So, now that you get the idea, let's talk about the quality of the game. First, the art is stylized and really pretty nice throughout, with the rulebook being very nice to look at and full of great play examples, and the cards being clear, nice looking, and easy to read. It's hard to not feel the theme right down to your red, white, and blue stars and stripes, so they've done a good job of capturing the feel of the period. As noted before, the game comes with nearly 150 plastic bits, and relatively few are non-combat parts. I mean, that's a hell of a dollar-to-plastic ratio, and it allows you to create large-scale battles without running out of troops.

Then, there's maybe 50 or 60 terrain tiles, and then, on top of that, there's probably 100 action cards to actually play the game. There's also several cardstock markers which are used to keep track of victory points, specific unit types for Special Forces, and whatnot. Finally, there's a bunch of little, wooden specialty dice to carry out your brutal attacks upon the enemy, and these have nicely drawn icons on them. All in all, I was thoroughly impressed with the sheer volume of stuff in the box and I was quite surprised with the actual value for the dollar I felt I got.

Now, let's get into the plastic bits themselves, since they merit their own paragraph. These bits come in two colors; the green ones represent the honorable and brave soldiers of the Allies, and the grey ones represent the evil imperial forces of the German Nazi scourge. A neat thing is that the units are of unique types, such as the tanks looking like Shermans and Panzers, respectively, so they're not only recognizable by color, but also by form factor. The ancillary plastics are hedgehogs (tank obstacles that look like jacks for the uninitiated), sandbag fortifications, and little bales of concertina wire. Every piece has a specific purpose, and they all meld flawlessly to capture the essence of land warfare during WW2. In short, this box is soaked to the core with theme, and I'm still, three months later, lovin' it big as shit.

You get that there's a bunch of stuff in the box, so let's get on to what the deal really is with the game. To set up a scenario, simply crack the rulebook and pick any of the many scenarios within. Each has objectives listed, board layout, troop numbers, and hand limits that all play into the balance of the game. Some scenarios have the Wehrmacht with more units and less battle choices, some have the Allies with weaker footing. All are reasonably decent historical re-enactments of actual battles waged in Europe, so while the history buffs may think it's a bit weak, tossers such as myself who just want to maim and kill in a reasonably accurate re-enactment of historical battles will be nicely satiated.

Setup isn't terribly long, but there is some effort involved, especially for more complex battlefields. The terrain tiles are all double-sided, so you may end up having to take a minute to locate the proper tiles called for in the scenario in order to place them. Beyond that, you simply place troops as shown and within a couple of minutes you're ready to start playing with war toys. The last bit required is to shuffle the action card deck and take the card allotment specified in the scenario.

Gameplay consists of playing an action card, moving the allotted figures allowed by the card played, and then attacking targets. Now, I should mention that the board itself is divided into three distinct sectors: the center and the left and right flanks. The cards generally only allow you to activate a set amount of units or types of units, and further, the activations can generally only take place in certain sectors. Each unit type has its own rules, but they're very simple to understand, so it's not like trying to memorize a ton of stuff. Also, the terrain tiles themselves have special rules that apply to units entering or within them, and this adds to the overall complexity and strategic options in the game, which is nice. The good news is that there's exceptionally clear reference cards that explain what everything does, and they're really pretty simple, so it's not like attempting to teach Astrophysics to baby seals or something. It's all very, very straightforward and relatively monkeyproof.

Shooting people and blowing things up is also very straightforward. Units roll set amount of dice against other units, and that number of dice decreases the further from a target the attacking unit is. The icons on the dice themselves indicate what units were damaged in the attack, and so it effectively mimics the difference between a tank's Ma Deuce cutting down infantry like wheat with a scythe and an infantry squad attempting to take out a tank with small arms fire and grenades.
Further, some rolls cause enemies to have to retreat, so you can not only destroy enemies, you can also force them to do things that they would otherwise not like to do. Now each unit is made up of several individual elements, and to take damage, you simply remove one of the individual elements. You cannot, unfortunately, combine your troops from several wounded units to create a full-strength one, and once the last element in a unit is killed, that unit is no more.

As I had mentioned, there are victory point (VP) chits that help you keep score, and while I've always felt that the only real victory is total annihilation of the enemy, in this game victory comes when a player completes their objectives, kills the enemy dead, or a combination of both. These objectives can range from controlling bridges, villages, or key strategic points all the way through to killing a certain number of enemy units or destroying a tank battalion. It's scenario-dependent, so it's varied with every game you play, which is nice. Each objective is generally worth a specific VP value, and killing an entire enemy unit down to the last man is also worth a VP. The game ends when a player has the required number of VPs.

As you can tell, because of the dice factor and the randomness of the cards, this game has plenty of randomness, which makes this much like the warfare of the time. The best laid plans can certainly be stifled or delayed by getting shitty rolls or cards, so don't expect that this is some cube-pushing Eurogame. These cubes push back. That being said, the balance is very tight, and if you play a scenario with equal troops and a symmetrical map design, it really is anyone's game.

In closing, you'll note that the article indicates that there will be casualties found in your wallet, but I also said that the game is only $35.00 USD, so I'd bet you're wondering how those two statements equate. Well, allow me to explain in one word: expansions. Memoir '44 has around 20 expansions that range from Campaign Books that are loaded full of scenarios, tile and board expansions that allow you to play in different theaters, a 4-player expansion, and the most important expansions, the troop expansions.

There are Japanese and Russian forces available, complete with weapons systems unique to their armies, but my favorite is the Air Pack. This comes with eight planes of differing design, and they're fully painted so they look sharp as hell. Nothing like calling in a Thunderbolt for close air support to fly in and turn legions of enemy plastic units into wee puddles and pink mists. All things totaled, you can easily spend 400 bones on your newfound plasticrack addiction if you're so inclined or have an OCD completist strain of DNA swimming inside you, and that's the danger to your wallet. Luckily, I'm a broke ass, so I don't have to worry about that problem!

What Makes Memoir '44 A Happy Memory:
- Fast, slick gameplay with short downtime makes this an excellent light wargame
- Oh, the plastics...the Saudis must be so thrilled!
- The theme is super with this game, and you really get into the fun of little plastic tank battles
- The variety and replayability make this one of the nicest modular systems around
- Anyone can learn this game system; it's quite intuitive and simple

What Makes Memoir '44 A Nightmare:
- If you don't like luck, RUN, now
- The soldiers always get bent and tweaked in their holding case
- It may be too much on the light side for some, with little tactical options available to players

While this is a fun, fast, light wargame, it's not the best game ever. It's fun, no doubt, but gameplay can be a little drier than some would like because of the relative few options allotted to a player on their turn, and I always found myself wanting something 'more' at the end of a scenario. That being said, I really can't think of many games that have a higher dollar-to-value ratio, and if you like the idea of culling the Nazi menace in under an hour, this is most certainly an excellent choice. I really like the game quite a bit, and I can't see this going in the trade pile very soon, even after a great many, many plays.

4.25/5 Stars

You can learn about everything Memoir at the Days of Wonder site, but be advised that once you see all the stuff that's available, you may hear your wallet start to weep:


cbs42 said...

This was a great review, and really made me want to crack out my old copy of the game again! I burned out on it after months of play, but like you suggested, the game has a lasting appeal so I knew I'd want to crack it out again down the road. I think now might be that time. Besides, I need something to keep me occupied while I wait for Mansions of Madness and the Summoner Wars Master Set.

Regarding balance, you said, "the balance is very tight, and if you play a scenario with equal troops and a symmetrical map design, it really is anyone's game." That may be true, but I don't recall any scenarios that were perfectly (or even slightly) symmetrical. The scenario balance was always somewhat of a sticking point with several of the folks I played, so we just always agreed to play each scenario twice, switching sides for the second game. The player with the highest total VP was the winner. The game plays quickly enough that we could get both games done in about the same time we could play a more complex wargame once.

It really is a gem of a light wargame.

=+=SuperflyTNT=+= said...

I was referring to scenarios that you come up with. My bud Mickey and I tend to play Heroscape Memoir, where we set up a symmetrical map, some objectives, and then set toward devastating one another's forces.

It's not historical but it's fun!

Eric said...

Excellent review, if not rather tame. You must be in a good mood today?

I love Memoir '44 and recently found out that they have online play in the Beta testing phase. Anyone can enroll and play 30 or so games for free online. The number of scenarios is limited but they are adding new theaters with each update.

=+=SuperflyTNT=+= said...

I started out talking about wanting to kill people, but opted not to because I didn't want to be buttraped in prison...

...then I went onto discuss exploding hearts and emptiying minds into pools of grey matter...

How much harsher do you want me to be? Should I post a photoshopped picture of me cockpunching the Pope or something???


Vorpal said...


Now what this game really needs is a Captain America unit!!