Sunday, September 04, 2005

A rash of enthusiasm...

... for Memoir'44

Part 1: Another hymn of praise to cardplay

Every so often a geek comes across something big in the history of that which floats their boat, something which in some meaningful sense changes their lives: D&D; the works of Philip K. Dick; Howard Chaykin's American Flagg; Up Front; 40K and Lawrence Block's Scudder novels being significant examples of my own down the years. I guess it's not hyperbole to say that Days of Wonder's Memoir'44 has had that kind of impact on me, it being the most exciting WW2 boardgame I've played since I first encountered UF over 20 years ago.

Designed by Richard Borg from his earlier ACW game Battlecry!, the pre-release buzz for and early reviews of Memoir'44 (M44) were among the most enthusiastic I've ever seen, for any product. It got rave reviews all round (check them out on the DoW site), all of which were fully deserved, but none of which could, for all that, capture just how damn exciting this game is. I mean, I'd played it a few times before I finally got my own copy (I only had to wait a few weeks, but it seemed longer), but that first night me and an oldtime gaming buddy played it over a dozen times in a single sitting lasting well beyond sunrise.

I won't bother rehashing everyone else's positive reviews. What I'm going to try to do with this piece is to get under the skin of the system, to explain why, for all its apparent beer'n'pretzel simplicity, M44 is a simulation of some serious authenticity.

The essential authenticity of Memoir'44
To begin to pin this down, I would have to identify the following elements:
  1. The card-driven command system
  2. The subtle interaction of the elements of fire and movement
  3. The sheer playability
Taken alone any of these might've resulted in a inferior simulation, a game of little depth and less replay value. But taken together these 3 elements make M44 a game that neatly simulates the experience of battlefield command in WW2.

The card-driven command system
It'll come as no surprise to my regular readers that this is a part of M44 that I really like.

The definitive merit of this approach to command and control is its creation of a plausible model of the fog of war in a format that is easy to handle because it doesn't rely on cumbersome double-blind or similar rules. Cardplay command and control systems are also very good at putting the players in the head of the leader they're supposed to be, instead of creating some generic viewpoint that simply cannot relate to any single individual that could really exist.

Sure, the credibility of this kind of cardplay requires players to get their heads round a certain level of abstraction. That is to say: it entails a certain 'willing suspension of disbelief' if you are to understand it as a simulation.

This might seem an odd thing to say. 'Willing suspension of disbelief' is - after all - a term most associated with dramatic narrative, with movies in particular AFAIK. That said, even the very notion that a traditional wargame's Combat Results Table (CRT) is a plausible simulation; well, anyone who has played games using that venerable old mechanic has already enacted that same willing suspension.

This matters because of what cardplay command and control systems bring to wargames, which is the utter frustration of watching your forces just sit there and get humped because you didn't draw the right cards.

In the old counter-pushing games, this same thing could happen, if you rolled crap dice. But at least your forces could always do something, even if their efforts proved laughable. It's the sitting there like numpties... Well, frankly, it is the willing suspension entailed by the sheer frustration of this that remains at the very heart of why cardplay command and control systems might not immediately appeal to some grognards in search of a game that simulates the experience of generalship at least as well as it does the minutae of the actions of that general's armies.

To say any more on this matter at this point would be idle wittering unless it simply repeated what I've already said in this respect in my piece on Up Front.

What immediately marks M44 out from UF is that it is a company or higher level game (to UF's squad level), and that it resorts to the familiar old hexmap and counters. What Borg has achieved with this format though is really quite something. To get to the heart of the matter, I would have to say that not only does M44 recreate the immediate perspective of the commanders grappling with the uncertain disposition of their forces across the battlefield; but that he also recreates the learning curve whereby the same commanders come to grips with the capabilities of those same forces.

UF does this too to be sure. It's all a matter of just playing the game as often as possible, as ever. Borg's genius lies in the utter simplicity- not only of his game's cardplay, but also in his rendition of fire and movement and all the aspects pertaining thereto. It is to this, and to the consequent unparelleled playability- for a game with such high simulationist credentials- that I will return just as soon as I can. ;)

- A rash of enthusiasm for Up Front
A rash of enthusiasm for Memoir'44:
- Part 2: The Elements of Fire and Movement
- Part 3: A few little details
- Part 4: The authenticity of sheer playability

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