Friday, October 07, 2005

A rash of enthusiasm...

... For Memoir'44

Part 4: The authenticity of sheer playability
This has been the hardest part of this series to write. I mean: it's easy enough really to analyse the different elements of the rules to expound their simulationist merits. But the authenticity of sheer playability? This is a new one on me. I hinted at my take on this issue in the 1st part of this short series: with my reference to the 'learning curve'. I will expand on this, but it is not where I propose to start.

The sheer playability of Memoir'44
M44 is an astonishingly playable game. If you've been following my series on the game, then you should by now have some idea of how neat and clean its rules are. Add in components whose sheer vividness give a board that is easy to read and to keep track of, and playaids that distill all the key rules into near ideal forms for quick reference, and you have a game that plays about as smoothly as it is possible to get with a boardgame.

Among my own many games are those I played with my 14-year old cousin and a friend of mine who has played some Eurogames, but never a wargame: 2 people who represent a small sample of the wider family audience Days of Wonder (DoW) were aiming this game at. Both players took to the game very quickly. Both enjoyed the cardplay and the tactical puzzles it offered. And both- naturally enough- enjoyed the experience of winning their first game by taking Pegasus Bridge.

In terms of replay value and accessibility to new players both then, M44 is a cut above the rest. But this is still hardly an aspect of its simulationist credentials, so I'd better get a move on, eh?

'Here's the situation, Sir'
One thing that has struck me about how the cardplay makes this game easy to pick up is that it focuses the players' attentions on making immediate choices from a limited set of options. I mean to say: when you play your first game- as the British in Pegasus Bridge, say- you have a 6-card hand. This means that you don't have to sit there figuring out layer upon layer of 'what-ifs' based on premises you can barely grasp. Instead, you have a much simpler problem to deal with: unfolding your preferred sequence of events based on a clear array of choices.

In simulationist terms, this is again a matter of the enforcement of POV through cardplay. What we have here is not only the way in which players' hands represent the sitreps and available command decisions fed to a field commander by his staff. More than that, we also have a neat simulacrum of the way in which an exising staff would work gently to ease into place a newly promoted commander.

The learning curve
This last point feeds into the idea of the learning curve where I began. As I have already said: players in M44 typically represent brigade/regimental or maybe divisional commanders (unit and ground scale in M44 is notional, and ultimately dependent on the scenario in play). Although I would imagine that few officers of this rank in WW2 came through from the ranks, they would at least have been time-served soldiers, many with experience from WW1.

The upshot of this is that, through a combination of training and field experience, the prototypes the players represent would have studied, played out and taken part in dozens if not hundreds of actions of the type M44 presents. M44 is so playable and appealing that anyone who takes to it can easily play several games in a single sitting, even on their first session, with back-to-back play of the same scenario being particularly suitable for beginnners.

As a result of this, M44 provides not only a neat simulacrum of the viewpoint of the players' notional counterparts in any given action, but also a similarly neat representation of how that same viewpoint develops with experience. And this is more than just a matter of sheer replay value. Simply by swapping sides you can also get a taste for the way that good military training would include studies of the major armies of the day, especially likely enemies. More even than that: with its card-driven command system M44 is a game in which there is no such thing as a perfect plan. Add to that the sheer playability, and you have a game that really encourages tactical experimentation.

I mean to say: there are many great board wargames out there that can take a whole day- or even much, much longer- to play to a conclusion. By their very nature these are games which only the most dedicated of hardcore grognards are going to play more than a few times. So you're going to pick what you think is the ideal strategy and stick to it, if you've got any sense. Playing M44 though, you can really try out things that might immediately appear dumb. And they might even work, cardplay being what it is. This goes beyond the learning curve too:- it also recreates something intrinsic to its subject: the power of the unexpected.

I'm not really sure what else I can add here. I have restated my fondness for cardplay command and control, surveyed the basic rules of M44 in all their deceptive simplicity, and explained how the game's sheer playability deepens the authenticity offered by Borg's fusion of cardplay and the classic board and counters. All I can say now is: buy this game! Play it! Enjoy it! Celebrate it! ;)

- Part 1: another hymn of praise to cardplay
- Part 2: The Elements of Fire and Movement
- Part 3: A few little details

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