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What we’re playing: Memoir ’44

I’ve been playing a bit of Memoir ’44 lately. It’s a really well done WWII boardgame, with a light ruleset and short sessions. I’ve seen it compared to Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics, which sounds pretty spot on, actually.

Like many war games, it takes place on a hex board that gets set up differently for each scenario, so you end up with a variety of terrain modifiers (forests, hills, towns) and units spread all over the map, depending on which battle of WWII is being reenacted. The game booklet comes with a number of good scenarios that have different setup and victory conditions, and even though they’re not symmetrical (because neither were the historical battles), you can just play each short game twice, once as axis and once as allied powers, and then use total points from both to determine the winner.

But from a game design point of view, probably the coolest part about this game is actually their treatment of randomness and uncertainty. Costikyan’s book first clued me in to this, and it’s very interesting.

Quick overview: as a commander you control a bunch of units of different types (infantry, tanks, artillery) with different abilities. But you can’t just activate any unit you want – you have cards in your hand that list various possibilities, for example, “activate up to 2 infantry on the left side of the board”, or “no more than 3 tanks at any position”, or “up to 3 units of any type that are damaged”. On each turn, you play one of those cards (and pick up a new one), activate those units, and move and/or attack. Then attacks are done by rolling from one to four dice to determine the result.

So the first source of randomness is the tactical attack die roll, and that’s very easy to understand – the probabilities of a successful attack are easy to calculate, and terrain modifiers just reduce the number of dice you get to roll. It’s a pretty straightforward stationary source of randomness.

But the more interesting source of randomness are the command cards in your hand. The game is cleverly constrained – you can’t activate units unless you have a card for them, so if your base on the left side of the board is being attacked and you only have infantry units there, you better have a card that matches this situation (eg. “activate up to 2 infantry on the left side”), otherwise you’re toast. And of course the cards then become a strategic resource – do I play my left flank card now, or hold it until later for some purpose?

And since card decks are a non-stationary random process, that can also be gamed – you could in theory learn to count cards, to give yourself an edge. I say “in theory”, though, because each session is short enough, and the card deck large enough, that this is unlikely to matter much.

So this combination of two sources of randomness, one of which limits what you can do, and the other determines the outcome of what you did, gives the game a very nice flavor – I’m no longer an omnipotent commander that can move all units at will, instead I have to pick and choose between only a few options at a time, sometimes good but sometimes all unpalatable, and worry about not closing off my future trajectory by doing something unnecessary right now. Kind of like the real world, come to think of it.