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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Memoir'44: completing the set #2

Pacific Theatre

Just as with the EF expansion the Pacific Theatre (PF) expansion provides a whole new army for the game- the Japanese naturally enough, complete with the rules to add it to the game. The models for the new army are very pretty. The armour models in particular are really rather cute. A strange thing to say about tank models, but the Japanese tank models are quite diminutive compared to those of the other armies. The artillery models too look very nice, but their design suffers again from a flimsiness I'd've preferred not to see. There were other guns in the Japanese armoury which could've been represented without this problem. So why did DoW choose to go with a design that would inevitably recreate the single complaint aimed at the production of the basic game? I really can't say.

As with the EF expansion the PF set provides rules for the armies fighting in the theatre- the Japanese and the US marines in this case. There are also rules for night fighting as well as the expected new terrain, medals, obstacles, and unit badges.

New rules
I've already referred to the Japanese and US marines' new special rules in the write-up of my recent games with Badger. I have to say that I really like these new rules. The extra card for the US marines is a simple addition colourfully reflecting the marines as they'd like to see themselves for sure. As to how authentic it is I really can't say. The marines certainly didn't enjoy any similar advantages in Up Front, the only other game in which I've seen the USMC in action with any regularity. All the same, I believe that the true measure of the USMC 'Gung-ho!' rules in the M44 PT expansion is that without them the USMC would probably have little chance against the Japanese.

The Japanese special rules are great fun. Japanese infantry must always ignore the first flag rolled against them, can move 2 and battle if they are entering close assault, and roll an extra dice in close assault with any unit that is at full strength. These rules neatly and simply recreate the implacable human waves for which the Japanese were infamous. In general the Japanese can close faster and hit harder in close assault than any other force in the game. This is a splendid capability to have at your disposal!

In addition the Japanese special rules have a serious impact on overall tactics. Confronted by a line of Japanese units a USMC player faces a difficult choice: should he concentrate fire to kill off each unit as is normally the smart tactic; or should he instead spread fire to pick off that first model from as many units as possible, thus depriving the Japanese of those bonus close assault dice? This choice makes facing the Japanese doubly ennervating for the marine player.

Great stuff!

The night-fighting rules are admirably simple. Visibility under night-fighting conditions starts off at 1 hex. Thereafter, at the start of each of their turns, the US player rolls 4 dice, with each star increasing the visibility range by 1. It is the uncertainty that is the nice touch here: you might decide to risk a mad dash across the open field under cover of the darkness, only for 3 or 4 stars to be rolled so that your troops end up dangerously exposed. These rules are also suitable for tweaking, by varying the number of dice thrown, or by allowing the Axis player to roll the dice so that they enjoy the first chance to take advantage of the rising sun.

New terrain tiles
Repeating terrain types already seen in the TP and EF expansions, the PT expansion also adds: caves- on mountains and hills, paddy fields and fish ponds, field hosptials and HQ/supply tents, jungles, a pier, and beaches and a river mouth. Some of these are familiar terrain types but expand the options available to the scenario designer, eg. you can have broader beaches now. Others are types whose rules are familiar but which are themed for the Pacific theatre. Still others are quite new.

The most striking new terrain type are the caves. Providing the best cover in the game, caves are usable only by the Japanese, who will be incredibly difficult to shift from these prime defensive positions: attacks will be on 1 dice barring Tactics cards; infantry will have to be at 1 hex range to get their attacks in at all; and the Japanese will only be retreating if hit by the 'Air Power' or 'Bombard' cards. And to top it all, the Japanese can move freely from any cave hex to any other unoccupied cave hex, no matter where it is on the board. Fortunately the Allies can seal caves, but this is a pretty hit or miss affair that could easily leave a unit exposed to Japanese counter attacks.

All-in-all then I would expect that scenarios involving caves are going to prove a real grind for the USMC player.

Jungles are the other major new terrain type the PT expansion introduces. These are essentially the same as woods, with the minor but significant change that units entering a jungle from an adjacent hex may still battle that turn. This is another rule that I find a bit perplexing. The only rationale I can imagine for this rule is that jungles lack the same dense undergrowth that is assumed to be part of woods. This is counter-intuitive at first sight (and is certainly not how jungles work in Up Front), but I can think of 2 ways that this makes sense. First: palm trees and other similar jungle plant life have tall trunk without many side-branches lower down the trunk. Second: if jungles are defined by a dense canopy, then there would be less undergrowth because of insufficient light. With that in mind I guess the jungle rules might well make sense on reflection.

Field hosptials and HQ/supply tents are probably the most significant remaining new terrain types. One reason for this isn't great: the otherwise usually very thorough Mr. Borg has forgotten to define their cover effects. It doesn't take too much thought to decide that they'll count as Town/Village hexes, but it's an irritating point against someone whose rules-writing on M44 is normally so tight.

As for the rules themselves? Not unlike the oasis hex from the TP, field hospitals allow infantry units to regain lost figures. HQ/supply tents are a terrain feature which, if captured by your opponent, allows your opponent to draw a card at random from your hand, leaving you to play with a reduced hand until you recapture the HQ/supply tents. This is a nice wee rule, a neat interpretation- in game terms- of an obvious piece of cardplay. I would hope to see both of these rules being put to use in other ways by scenario designers.

New medals
A nice Japanese victory medal aside, there is nothing in the PT expansion that we haven't already seen elsewhere.

New obstacles
The new counter in this category that makes its appearance in the PT expansion is the warship. Warships in M44 can be either destroyers or aircraft carriers. Either way there are counters that lurk along the edge of the sea on the beach mapboard. Warships can move, but are effectively restricted to 1 hexrow on the basic beach mapboard. Offensively destroyers count as big guns, complete with extra range and the additional battle dice for zeroing-in. Aircraft carriers give access to air support, pieces and rules for which are to follow in an expansion M44 hope to release before the year is out.

Warships can be fired on too. They only suffer grenade hits, ignore the first flag, and require 3 hits to be removed for a victory medal. So while it would be possible to run your infantry down the beach to take pot shots at a warship, you'd have to be insane to try that particular tactic, and insanely lucky to succeed. It's more likely that artillery, air strikes and barrages would be used against warships. And, having experienced the power of big guns before, I would imagine them being used as often as possible against destroyers, which could prove a real pain!

New unit badges
Two new unit types make their appearance alongside the plethora of special forces badges: mobile artillery and flamethrowing tanks. Mobile artillery has all the firepower of artillery with the move and fire capability of infantry. This I must see! Flamethrowing tanks meanwhile never lose more than 1 dice due to terrain effects in close assault- another nice addition which I look forward to using in cityfight scenarios!

Conclusions

Overall the Eastern Front and the Pacific Theatre expansions are satisfying additions to the M44 game. It is often commented that M44- just like C&C:A- is more a game system than a mere game. This is very true, and, by the time you have the 3 expansion packs you will have almost everything you'd ever need to play battles from pretty much any theatre of land operations during WW2.

The range of available terrain types is very comprehensive, though perhaps not utterly exhaustive (it all depends on how you choose to define your terrain types I guess), something which can also be said for battlefield fortifications. Although complaints persist about the lack of differentiation of, say armour variants, M44's treatment of unit types is expanding nicely.

The additional rules for national variations in the EF and PT expansions are very nice too. As a long-time fan of Up Front I have to say that I feel that this is the area in which M44 remains at its weakest, resorting as it does simply to varying the size of the hand in any given scenario. The rules for the Japanese and the Russians have shown just how far it is possible to go in creating a distinctive feel for each nationality. I for one would love to see similar rules developed for the other nationalites too.

If I think that the EF and the PT are expansions to M44 that are worthwhile investments for fans of the game, I do still have some complaints. First and most seriously, the rules aren't as tightly written as are those of the basic game. Some crucial information is simply left out, while elsewhere explanations are perhaps more ambiguous than they need be. I know how difficult it is to write rules that are clear and comprehensive, and the M44 rulebook rates higher than most for me. It's just a bit of shame that the game's expansions aren't to quite the same high standard.

In a similar vein, I'm not 100% happy with the winter theming of the EF set. I mean, I can see that a winter board would be an obvious flipside to a desert board. And I can see the attraction of such boards to a game for which visual appeal is so important (I did buy the thing after all!). But the point is that there are several terrain tiles that appear only as winter-themed, or only as otherwise. It's a bit irritating to invest in the extra board for the sake of the look only for their to be potential scenario layouts in which the themes will clash.

But it has to be said that these are pretty minor complaints. They are certainly not complaints about anything that makes the expansions less than fully useful. No doubt FAQ and errata will be available from DoW soon enough. And could they be planning to respond to any serious demand to fill out the range of available terrain tiles with another expansion pack? Surely not!

A final note
Also worth noting for buyers of the basic M44 is that the PT expansion is the first expansion to come with a webcode. Registering this webcode on the DoW website will give you access to the save function of the online M44 scenario designer (because you'll already have registered the webcode that came with M44 naturally enough). You also get full functionality on the DoW forums (eg. you get a sig, PM's and so on). This 'player' status is still time-limited, although it might offer lifetime access to the fully-featured M44 scenario creator as you get, IIRC, when you enter webcodes from 2 copies of the basic game. I'll know soon enough I guess. ;)
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