For a long time I’ve been itching to play “war” board games. Sure, Risk and Stratego were staples in my house growing up but there’s a whole other degree of game that I didn’t even know existed until I started falling deeper into the board game community. It seems that many “true” war gamers scoff at Risk and even Axis and Allies, preferring to move detailed chits across an intricate map and refer to complex tables to resolve movement and combat. I want to be one of those hipster war gamers.
The problem is time and finding opponents. True war games are heavy affairs with tons of rules and require hours to play. You also need an opponent who’s as dedicated to learning the rules as you are since there’s no playing these sort of games half-assed.
I daydreamed of diving into Advanced Squad Leader and various Napoleonic-themed games right away but knew that I wouldn’t easily find someone to play, at least not immediately, in my gaming circle. I had to set my sights a little lower and hope that I could trick friends into learning war game systems along with me.
Memoir 44 had been on my radar for quite some time. It looked like a fun and basic war game that I could start off with. I know that those aforementioned war game purists also sneer at Memoir 44 for not being hardcore enough but for me it seemed like a good gateway into that board game genre. I bought it and waited for my opportunity to get someone to play.
It turns out that the trouble in getting someone to play Memoir 44 wasn’t because people were scared of it but more that it’s hard to find time for two-player games. Most of the time when I play board games it’s with groups of people and generally we all want something we can play together. It’s funny, the number of players a game accommodates was never really something I thought about when I first started getting deep into the board game hobby but is now something I very much consider before a purchase; I have several great games from those early days that are rarely played as they require a specific number of people to be properly enjoyed.
Thankfully my friend Jason also wanted to try Memoir 44 and on a day when his partner was working and my fiancée had plans, we scheduled a day of two-player board game madness. A few minutes into that very first game with Jason I immediately fell in love with Memoir 44.
What immediately struck me about Memoir 44 was how simple its rules were, at least from the first scenario. Memoir 44 is played in scenarios, various battles from different parts of World War II, and each set up of those scenarios has different elements. The game starts off very simply with only infantry units and few terrain hexes so you only need to learn the rules for those things. Later, after you have become comfortable with those basic units, you can try other scenarios which add tanks, artillery, hills, beaches, and much more. This was also the first time I had seen in a board game an escalating approach to acclimating players to its system of play. Video games, especially games in the real-time-strategy genre, have been starting players off in that fashion for years by only giving them basic units at first and then upping the difficulty on each level.
The main mechanic in Memoir 44 that has kept me playing over and over again is how you decide which units are ordered to move and attack. The game board is divided into three sections. Each turn you play a card from your hand that only allows you to order units within a certain section. This creates quite an atmosphere of tension when you need to manage an attack on a particular side of the battlefield but don’t have the cards to order units in that area. In one recent session against my brother, his attack was coming in heavy on my right flank but there was nothing I could do to deflect it as all my cards were for left flank orders. In a dramatic turn I later started getting the cards I needed and managed to defeat his assault. Between the dice you roll to determine the results of attacks and this system of command cards, Memoir 44 has a great mix of different types of luck mechanics that add some nice randomness to the game without making bad luck feel too out of control. While the dice may not be going your way you know what cards are still in the deck that could still very well turn the tide of battle.
The next best thing about Memoir 44 is how quickly each game goes. Most often scenarios can be played out in 30 minutes or less, creating opportunities for several rounds of play. Since the scenarios are historically based it’s not uncommon for one side of the battle to have a definite advantage. Memoir 44’s fast play time means that a player can be the Allies for one session and then swap sides to play the same scenario as the Germans. It’s a lot of fun to be that disadvantaged side trying to pull off an improbable victory.
With a rule book full of scenarios and a ton of expansions to add even more depth and war-fronts, I don’t think I’ll be getting bored with Memoir 44 any time soon. Also, now that I’ve gotten my brother hooked on the game he’s pushing to try something even more complicated. Sounds like I’ll be breaking out that game of Victoria Cross I bought even sooner than I had hoped and my dreams of wading into that insane pool of hardcore war games is coming ever closer to being real.