The roots of many video and tabletop games I’ve covered in this column can be traced to the wargame. As the name implies, wargames originated as a way of simulating battles and training potential commanders in tactics.
Wargames as they’re most commonly known date back to Prussia in the 1800s. The first published rules designed purely for entertainment was “Little Wars,” written by H.G. Wells, best known for his 1898 science fiction novel “War of the Worlds.”
There was a small boom of wargames in the 1970s, with Avalon Hill publishing its exhaustive military simulation games aimed at hobbyists. And while those Avalon Hill games have a lot of appeal to me even today, they’re hardly simple — or even still in print.
But there is Memoir ’44, and the tabletop game is a good stand-in for those much more elaborate games of old.
The game is set during World War II, and many of the scenarios in the main box are set during the D-Day invasion. The scenarios are numerous and varied, featuring everything from the French resistance facing off against Germans in cities to Allied troops storming the beaches of Normandy under hails of machine gun fire.
One player is the Axis, one player is the Allies. The objective of each scenario is to be the first to a certain number of victory points. Exact details of how to win points vary among scenarios, but it usually means capturing strategic points and eliminating enemy units.
The board is a series of hex grids with cardboard tiles representing different sorts of terrain placed upon it. The board is further divided into three zones: Left, Right, and Middle.
What units you have in each zone is extremely important. See, you’re not some all-powerful deity directing your troops from on high. Your communications lines are tangled up, and there’s only so much control you can have.
So to represent this, you have a hand of cards. Each turn, you select one card and do what it says. Cards will usually tell you to activate a unit in one of the zones, but you’ll never quite know exactly what your future moves will be and you’ll never know what your opponent is capable of.
Once you pick a card, you’ll select an appropriate unit and take appropriate actions with it. They break down into infantry, which isn’t great at long range but is super maneuverable; armor, which can hit stuff from afar, is resilient to attacks, but can be more stymied by terrain than infantry; and artillery, which can decimate from a distance but is easy to destroy up close.
There are also a few other pieces that affect the board as well. Sandbags make a space harder to hit. Wires make a space hard to move through. And ‘hedgehogs’ block tanks but provide infantry cover.
Memoir ’44 is a tense game of advancing and retreating, trying to get the other player to push too far, to make one mistake, waste one turn. Rules are light, but the game does have some really satisfying tactical play in it. And it is a very good approximation of a lot of those old wargames I mentioned but is easier to learn.
There a few caveats, however. While the game is focused on tactics and strategy, there’s a pretty big luck element that some will love but will bother others.
The scenarios are historically based, so the Allies have a lot of advantages in fights they won in actual battles. The missions have a ton of variety and a lot of replayability, and the game is fun. If you’re looking for a light, two-player, strategy board game, this is an excellent choice.
Memoir ’44 was made by Days of Wonder and has a suggested retail price of $60.
Noah Hinz is an art and game design enthusiast living in Walla Walla. Contact him with questions, game suggestions, playing, or anything else related to games at firstname.lastname@example.org