Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Board game review: Memoir '44

What is it?

Memoir 44 is a combat-based board game designed by Richard Borg and first published by Days of Wonder in 2004.  Its aim is to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France 1944 and it does that by allowing two players (or teams) to take charge of a unit-level army of Allied or Axis soldiers and lead them into battle based on a variety of historically-based scenarios.

Table-top wargaming can be a deliberately obtuse hobby with reams of information, lookup charts and any number of rules, regulations and complicated procedures to provide the ultimate realism of a battlefield.  Unforunately, those types of product tend to have a very niche following so Memoir '44 aims to bridge the gap between complicated war game and family fun by providing simple mechanisms for movement and battles without getting bogged down in a swamp of instruction.

What's in the box?

Memoir '44 consists of a huge number of components and includes two opposing armies of small soldiers, tanks, artillery, obstacles, double-sided terrain hexagons, a pack of command cards, rule summary cards, victory point tokens, special unit tokens, a large double-sided board and a well-illustrated, easy-to-follow rule book.  There's a lot in the box and you really feel you are getting value for money.

The combat units are well-sculptured but the two sides are quite similar in colour especially under poor-lighting.  This is easily remedied by painting, should you wish, but a little more colour disparity wouldn't have gone amiss.  Apart from that, the quality of the components are excellent.  The game board is a very heavy cardboard stock but is easily folded.  The terrain tiles and command cards are all well-made and stand up to repeated plays.

The Objective

The objective of the game is to win by gaining a certain number of victory points.  Victory points are accumulated either by destroying an enemy unit or by capturing certain objectives, dependent on the scenario.

How does it work? (the short version)

Choose a card.  Move.  Fire.  Roll some dice.  Retreat.  Draw a card.

How does it work? (the long version)

Ok, there is a bit more to it than that but that is essentially the different phases of each players turn. 

The Board

The board is split into three sections, or flanks, separated by red lines.  Each 'space' on the board is in the shape of a hexagonal (hex) and movement and shooting range is determined by counting the hexes.  No fiddly rulers or tape measures here.  The board is double-sided with a countryside motif on one side and a beach motif on the other.

Command Cards

In a players turn, they first select a command card from their hand and act upon it.  There are two types of command cards; Section cards and Tactic cards.  Section cards relate to a flank on the board such as 'Order 3 units on the right'.  Tactic cards may affect any area of the battlefield such as calling in a bombing raid or move X number of units (in any section).  Each side only holds a set number of cards, depending on the scenario and knowing which card to play in the right situation is part of the skill of playing.  Some of the Tactic cards have quite long descriptions describing the special action and these, in my experience, are the ones that newcomers to the game struggle with the most.  There are alternate rules that allow the Tactic cards to be removed prior to the game commencing.


There are three types of fighting unit in Memoir '44.  Infantry, armoured tanks and artillery.  Each have their own movement and battle charateristics.

  • Infantry: Move 1 hex and fire or, move 2 hexes and don't fire.  Range is up to 3 hexes and fire power is reduced the further away the target is.
  • Armour: Move 3 hexes.  Firing range is 3 hexes.
  • Artillery: Move 1 space and don't fire or, don't move and fire up to 6 hexes away.


Units move according to their individual characteristic *and* according to the terrain.  For example, moving into forest terrain means the unit cannot fire in the same turn.  Moving into a hedgerow stops the unit from moving any further (until their next turn) but they can still fire, that kind of thing.  Obviously, units cannot move through or over other units and must go round. 

Movement and placement of units according to terrain is a big part of the strategy and tactics involved in playing the game.  Thankfully, Days of Wonder have printed a set of rules cards that summarise all the different terrains and which rules apply.  This is very handy and means the dreaded 'rule-book flippitus' is kept to a minimum.


The further away a target is and depending on the terrain, determines how many dice are thrown when attacking an enemy unit and this is true for all of the units involved.  Each mini-battle is decided by throwing dice and a unit is reduced depending on the symbols on the dice. 

Each 6-sided has the following symbols;    2 x Infantry, 1 x Tank, 1 x Grenade, 1 x Flag, 1 x Star.  Infantry only reduces infantry, tanks only reduce tanks etc.  If a grenade is thrown that's an automatic hit, regardless of the unit type.  A star can usually be ignored but is used in special circumstances such as in bombing raids. 


A unit is forced to retreat when a flag is thrown on the attacking dice.  Retreating involves moving the unit back towards your own lines.  They can't move sideways and if they hit an inpassable obstacle such as a river or even the edge of the board, one figure is removed from the unit per flag.  Certain terrain features grant protection from retreating.  For example, sandbags allow the defender to ignore the first retreat flag shown.  If two flags are thrown, then the unit must retreat.  In practice, this gives terrain with an 'ignore-flag' rule a big advantage.


The game board is only part of the picture when it comes to setting up a battlefield.  Terrain features are placed on the board according to the scenario and these features include hills, rivers, forest, towns, hedgerows etc.  Each piece of terrain has its own set of characteristics and rules.  Terrain affects line of sight, the number of battle dice thrown and movement.

Some examples:

An infantry unit is is two hexes away from attacking another unit hiding in a forest.  Normally, the number of dice thrown would be 2 (counting down from 3) but the forest provides cover of -1 to the hiding unit so only 1 die is thrown (2 - 1). 

An armoured tank unit is firing at an infantry unit, tucked well into a town.  A tank fires with 3 dice up to a distance of 3 hexes but towns provide -2 of cover against attacks by tanks.  Thus, only 1 attacking dice can be thrown by the tank.

The Rulebook

It all sounds complicated, but really, it only takes a couple of turns to get the hang and the scenarios included in the box are designed to ease players into the game.  The rule book is very clear with examples and lots of pretty pictures which is always a help.  It explains all the basics of the game along with terrain descriptions and has 16 scenarios to play.

The Scenarios

Set in 1944 at the time of the D-Day landings, there are plenty of opportunities for battle re-enactments.  There are 16 scenarios in the base game covering the start of D-Day including the beach-landings and leading right up to the re-taking of Paris.  Online at the Days of Wonder website, there are hundreds more user-created scenarios using their own scenario editor for the PC available as an extra charge.

For example, the first scenario in the rule-book, based around Pegasus Bridge on the eve of D-Day, sees Allied paratroopers attempting to capture several important bridges that would slow-down a German counter-offensive the following day.  Further scenarios see the Allies trying to storm the beaches against a well dug-in enemy and the subsequent advancement into the French countryside.

The first scenario will take new players around an hour to play, including setting up time.  This is a quick turn around and makes for a fast-paced game.  As Days of Wonder have tried to maintain a fair degree of historical accuracy, scenarios are quite often purposely unbalanced and the instruction guide suggests players swap sides after playing a scenario to enable both players to experience both sides of the conflict.  A neat idea.

Isn't it just down to luck?

Due to the die-rolling nature of combat and the drawing of combat and tactical cards, there is an element of luck involved.  This type of luck does tend to even itself out over the course of a game and success is usually down to the strategy and tactics employed by the commander of the battle.  The game is geared towards two players but more can be incorporated by allocating battle field flanks.  There is an expansion called Operation Overlord that allows up to eight players to play in one sitting, using two game boards joined together.  I can see how even three boards could be joined together, a flank for each board.

Can I expand it?

There are a multitude of expansions for Memoir '44 with Russian, Japanese and British army sets taking the game into the Eastern Front, Pacific and Mediterranean theatres respectively.  There's en exciting Air Pack that introduces air power to the battlefield and a campaign book with over fifty new scenarios to play as part of a larger military campaign.  Days of Wonder even produce a specially-made bag to hold and carry the game and all available expansions in one place.  New expansions are being released by Days of Wonder on a regular basis and along with a healthy online community, longevity is assured.

Come on now, surely it must be difficult and takes ages to play?

Memoir 44 *is* easy and don't let the complicated descriptions above put you off.  It is also quick to play and each session comes in at under an hour, including setting up the board initially.  As more expansion sets are introduced, the rules do become more complex but it's a graded complexity allowing players to gradually build up their expertise and confidence.  It's aimed at players aged 10+ and in our experience, that's a good guide.  My daughter aged 10 picked up the rules in one game and while she didn't fully appreciate the tactics, she still beat me!

There are one or two downsides to the game.  As mentioned, the colours of the components are too similar and luck plays a hefty part in the individual battles.  There's an argument whether games like this glamorize war and it's a valid one but then, there are lots of war games in the market and it would be unfair to single out Memoir 44 for criticism.   You'll either be excited by the topic or you'll hate it.  The scenarios included in the rule-book have been researched well, covering many famous battles of that era and this gives the game much more gravitas.


A great, easy-to-play board game and a good introduction to what can be a fascinating hobby, especially if you decide to paint the soldiers and make your own 3D scenery.  It is also a decent 'bridging' game, that is, it's easy enough for complete novices but is involving enough for more experienced players looking for a quick fix.

The real question is; Is it good value for money?  At £45.00 a pop, it's not cheap but then, there are a lot of components and what's the everage price of an XBox game nowadays?  The purpose of the review is not to compare it to videogames as they are two totally separate beasts.  As far as board games go however, Memoir '44 is right up there and is worthy of anyones hard-earned cash.

Essential Info

The game has elements of simple arithmetic, reading, history, forward planning and strategic thinking.  It is accompanied by a healthy community website, has plenty of options for expansion and there are even resources available to introduce Memoir '44 into the classroom.

Price: Around £45.00 for the base set
Ages: 10+
Time to play: 1 hour
Board Game Geek entry: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/10630/memoir-44.

As of January 2011, it is sitting at number 49 in the list of all-time best board games on that website. 
There is also a French version of the game.

Days of Wonder

Memoir '44 is published by Days of Wonder, a company specializing in family board games.  As well as the Memoir '44 battle system, they are also responsible for many successful games series such as Ticket to Ride and Small World.


Richard Borg, the designer of Memoir '44 has also developed other games using a very similar gaming mechanic.  Called Command and Colours, it has been adapted into other themes such as Roman battles, Napoloenic wars and fantasy arenas.  Richard won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) in 1993.

Added Extra: Battle Report

It was a tall order: Myself having taken delivery of the game only the day previously and the grizzled, hardened veteran of exactly one mission, and three of my work colleagues who were playing it for the first time to fit it in during our lunch hour.  Could we learn the rules, set up the board and have a decent game to a conclusion within our allotted 60 minutes?  Read on to find out ...

Brigadier Poulter and myself took the side of the Allies and with our opening gambit, we decided to annihiliate the sandbagged unit hiding behind the barbed wire with a ferocious artillery bombardment, a move we were sure, would open the way for an easy stroll onto our target.  It failed miserably with only one enemy casualty.  It did serve to awaken the Axis to our positions and they were able to make a decent fist of it against the Allies' leading unit, reducing it by half.

With true Dunkirk spirit, the Allies made a screaming charge into the barbed wire but were held back by some dogged German defences.  The Axis struck back quickly and were soon in posession of their first victory point.  A smoking crater where the lead Allied unit only moments earlier had been standing.

The Allied High Command were now starting to look worried and issued a direct order, allowing units to swarm towards the enemy positions, at both sides of the battlefield.  Another unit advanced quickly around the pond, a pincer move in mind onto the stubborn dug-in enemy position.  But the Axis unit behind the sandbags held firm and thanks to a nifty probe down the right flank, were able to provide covering fire over the river onto the advancing commandos, eliminating another unit.

Sheer weight of Allied troops were to prove too much for the Axis defences as the dug-in unit were forced to retreat onto Pegasus bridge itself.  Orne Bridge on the right flank was a much easier proposition and after just token resistance, the Allied soldiers were able to force the Axis units into a retreat, decimating them in the process.

The Allied pincer move was starting to pay off, and thanks to a particular gruesome firestorm of flying bullets, the Axis units were being picked off voraciously.  With only seconds left to spare on the lunch-hour clock, a final, spinning die slowly succumbed to gravity, eliminating the last man in the German unit and with it, a hard-fought victory for the Allies.  Score 4 - 2 to Allies.  Time: 60 minutes bang on.

We did it.  Four complete newcomers to the game, setting up the board and having an entertaining game to a conclusion in an hour. 

Overall, we all enjoyed the game and felt the rules were easy enough to follow.  As the Allies, and holder of the rule book, we perhaps cheated a little by invoking the 'remove a unit if no retreat possible' rule without the other side knowing it existed.  We claimed a VP for that as the one-soldier unit was eliminated and it definitely swung the game in our favour.  If our opposition had known the rule, they would not have placed their unit in such a vulnerable position. 

Kapitan Lowson and Oberfurststurmfuhrer (sic) Palmer made the most of their dug-in position, despite some pretty poor starting cards and were able to gain their 2 VP's from that position alone.  When they were forced to retreat, abandoning the sandbags in the process, things definitely went downhill from there.

For a first game, there was a little debate over the rules but the helper cards did their job and were able to provide a nifty reference guide.  By the end, we were all pretty confident in how the battles and movement worked and the turns were progressing quite fluidly.

Although we won the game, the Allies only held one of the two bridges and felt we hadn't quite achieved the objective.  Would it be fairer to make the 2 VP's for the bridges the only condition of victory for the Allies?  Hard to say but saying that, with only another five or ten minutes more of game-time and with far superior fire power, the Allies would have over-run Pegasus bridge, claiming the objective out-right.

That last dice roll was very lucky and seemed to take forever to stop spinning!

We're going to swap sides for the next game.  Can't wait.

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