Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Review: Memoir '44

Memoir '44 is the recently released World War II game for two players (or two teams of players) from Richard Borg and Days of Wonder.

Days of Wonder has a reputation for releasing very high quality games with very high quality components and this game certainly lives up to that reputation. From the minute you pick up the box you can tell that this game has some weight to it. Literally. It's a rather heavy box. And the reason it's a rather heavy box is because they've stuffed it chock full of bits. Inside the box you'll find two bags stuffed full of beautiful miniatures, over forty large hexagonal tiles marked with terrain features (towns, hedgerows, hills, forests, and river segments), bridges and bunkers, card holders, a deck of 60 cards, a full-color rulebook, and a lavish and large double sided game board.

The first half of the rulebook is devoted to explaining the rules of the game. The rules are clear, simple and well written. This is not your average war game where just reading the rules can be a challenge. The basic game play is quite simple. On your turn you play a card. That card tells you which of your units you can issue orders. Units can be ordered either to move, or to attack, or to move and attack. How far a unit can move depends upon what type of unit it is (infantry, armor or artillery) and what type of terrain it is traversing. When a unit attacks it rolls a certain number of battle dice; typically 1-3 depending on its type, range to target, and what kind of cover the target has. There are handy summary cards that make it quite easy to determine how many dice to use when attacking and what the effects of the different terrain types are. Attack dice are simple six sided dice with five different symbols printed on them: a star, a grenade, a tank, a flag, and two infantrymen. When attacking, if a die shows the grenade or the type of unit you are attacking then you score a hit and deplete the strength of that unit. If a flag appears, the unit may be required to retreat or give ground. Victory points (medals) are typically awarded by defeating an enemy unit or by capturing key strategic points on the map. It's that simple.

The second half of the rulebook contains 17 historic scenarios. Each scenario is based on a real battle that occurred during the allied campaign to liberate Europe, starting with the initial air drops and beach landings of June 6, 1944 (D-Day) and continuing through the winter of that year. Each scenario contains a short description of why it was historically significant along with setup instructions and any special rules and victory conditions. The historic descriptions are just long enough to be informative and interesting and just short enough that you'll actually want to read them.

The way the map is used is quite clever. Instead of printing individual maps for each scenario, the game board contains only two generic maps. One side is a generic beachfront, the other is a generic field. By placing hex tiles on the board according to the diagram at the beginning of each scenario, the generic map is transformed into a map representing an historic battle field. This system allows for one board to represent a virtually unlimited number of different locations. And if you've got a friend with another copy of Memoir '44, you can even combine game boards to create more elaborate scenarios (one of which is described in the rulebook). Days of Wonder plans to release other scenarios for free through their web site over time.

Each scenario plays very quickly. Once you've learned the game (which won't take long) you can easily play a single scenario in under 30 minutes. No attempt was made to balance the scenarios. If the allies had the upper hand in the real battle, then they'll have the upper hand in the scenario. Instead, players are encouraged to play each scenario twice, switching sides and comparing victory points (medals). In that way, the game is self-balancing. Because the scenarios play so quickly, this works beautifully.

But is it fun? Oh yes! When my son and I sat down to play our first game, we didn't get up until several scenarios later. And we were having so much fun that we only quit because we had to.

This is a war game that will be fun even for people who don't generally like war games. It's fast, simple and accessible. For such a simple game system, it offers up an incredible dose of both strategy and tactics. And it's just plain fun to play. I know my family will be playing this one for a long time to come.