I've played Richard Borg's Battle Cry a number of times but never purchased the game. This decision was based not on the gameplay but the theme—I'm not a fan of the American Civil War. I can occasionally overlook a theme I do not enjoy if the mechanics are outstanding but this was not the case with Battle Cry—it was good but not great. However, the game was quite popular and there was talk that it might be adapted to other theatres. Days of Wonder has done just this and the quick description of Memoir '44 is that it is a World War II version of Battle Cry.
The board features a grid of hexagons (plain on one side, a beach landing on the other) and there are large cardboard tiles that are placed to indicate terrain. Each of the 16 scenarios show where these tiles are placed as well as the initial deployment of units. These come in three varieties: infantry, armor and artillery (there's also a provision for "elite" versions of these units). Each scenario lists a target number of four to six "Victory Medals". Sometimes these are specific locations on the map but more often these medals will be acquired by completely destroying an opposing unit. Turns are relatively simple as you play a card and perform its action. Most of these allow you to move and/or attack with a certain number of units on a particular portion of the board (which is divided into three sections). There are also "tactic" cards that allow special actions such as repairing units or preparing defensive perimeters.
Combat involves throwing a certain number of dice dictated by the firing unit, the range to the target and any defensive modifiers. For each symbol you roll that matches the target unit, one figure is removed; units continue to operate at full capacity until they lose all figures. (Infantry start with four, armor with three and artillery only two.) In addition to inflicting damage, rolling flags on the dice will also cause the target unit to retreat which can have interesting effects on a battle.
Although the scenarios depict real situations it would be wrong to view Memoir '44 as a simulation. There's no time scale to speak of and even the scale of the units changes from scenario to scenario—sometimes a unit may represent a battalion, other times it's a platoon. This is not to say that it does not attempt to behave realistically but Memoir '44 should be approached as a game first, simulation second. With this in mind I think it works quite well and I rather enjoyed the game. It definitely skews to the fun rather than serious side of things but there's nothing wrong with that. (Well, assuming that you don't find the idea of a "fun" World War 2 game offensive.) I was a little bothered that some of the scenarios (particularly the beach landings) featured very little in the way of maneuvering—one side would simply advance and then you'd duke it out. Fortunately some of the other scenarios offer greater opportunities to move around the board. In any case play tends to be quite quick; play a card, move units and hope for a good roll of the dice.
People who mostly play German style games may be distressed at the level of randomness in Memoir '44. Yes, there are many die rolls and card draws. It's a common misperception that a game which features a lot of die-rolling is more prone to luck than one that involves less but this is not the case—as you increase the number of rolls the luck tends to "even out". I'm not sure where Memoir '44 fits here, my suspicion is that there are too few rolls over the course of a scenario and that you really can get messed up by a string of bad luck. (Of course, this depends on the scenario as some are much longer than others.) An even bigger issue (luck-wise) is in the draw of the cards. Some cards are clearly better than others but the main problem is with the tactic cards. In certain scenarios some of these cards can be devastating and so drawing one can have a huge effect on the outcome. For example, the Sword Beach scenario features an artillery unit in a bunker which is quite difficult for the Allies to attack. However, the Barrage card can make mincemeat of this unit, draw it and your troubles are far lighter. All in all, I'd say that this randomness is more of an "issue" than a "problem", it's just something that you'll need to accept if you want to enjoy the game. If you can't, you'd be advised to play something else. I will say that the scenarios tend to be short enough that you can easily play several in a single session and this tends to ease the pain of a string of bad luck.
I was willing to overlook this healthy dose of luck and so have very little to complain about. In fact, there's really only two things that bother me about Memoir '44, the first being the victory conditions. As I stated earlier, you win a scenario by acquiring victory medals and for the most part these are gained by destroying enemy units. While many of the scenarios include specific "points of interest" to be captured, the problem was that by the time you've worked your way to these goals you'll likely have destroyed enough units to win anyway. As often as not you could simply ignore these "goals" and concentrate on killing units instead. As such the scenarios felt more like a war of attrition than tactical situations. I think Memoir '44 would be greatly improved if future scenarios included more involved victory conditions than just medals. For example, you might require the Allies to actually take Pegasus Bridge in addition to three other medals to achieve victory.
The second problem I have is that there's no time factor (The lone exception being scenario #7 which ends if the deck of cards runs out.) That is, there's no incentive for one side or the other to accomplish their goal in a certain amount of time. This can mean that it's a good tactic to sit back and cycle through cards until you have a good hand before pressing your attack. Since much of the enjoyment of Memoir '44 is its fast pace, this can really ruin the fun. In practice this did not prove to be a huge problem but it's something to keep in mind.
Oh my, what to say? For anybody familiar with previous Days of Wonder productions it's sufficient to say that Memoir '44 is up to their high standards, which is to say that it's gorgeous. The artwork on the board and cards is wonderful, the tiles are thick and cleanly punched and the plastic pieces are finely detailed. The rulebook is well written and clear. (Although as with most games of this type, clarifications are required for certain interactions of units, cards and terrain. Check out the official FAQ at www.daysofwonder.com.)
Whither Battle Cry?
Since the previous game in the series was so popular it's a valid question to ask whether you need Memoir '44 if you already own Battle Cry. Unfortunately, I'm not terribly qualified to answer this as I haven't played Battle Cry enough to compare the two. From everything I've read, it seems as though the changes, although relatively minor, are regarded as improvements and that Memoir '44 is the superior game. There's no denying that they're very similar so if you already own Battle Cry you'll need to keep this in mind.
My overall impression is that Memoir '44 is a good, but not great, game. I feel the need to emphasize this so that people don't raise their expectations too high. The game has received much praise and it would be easy to think that Memoir '44 is "the greatest game ever". It isn't, but it is quite good. Being scenario based, there's much variety in how the game plays but it should be noted though that not all scenarios are particularly balanced. For example, the Germans have a tough time at Pegasus Bridge and one should not be at all surprised if they lose. Since the game plays so quick, it's easy to swap sides and play twice. In any case, I think it's worth trying several different scenarios before making up your mind about Memoir '44, they're quite varied and each presents a different challenge. All in all, a very solid release.
- Greg Aleknevicus