Is Memoir 44 Too Simple?

The first time I played Memoir 44, the light wargame based on Richard Borg’s Commands and Colors system, I completely dismissed it as oversimplistic, unrealistic, and just plain boring to play. That was ten years ago, when I was still in college and just beginning my tabletop gaming journey. Now — as the cliche goes — I have a full-time job, a wife, and three beautiful children. My perspective has changed quite a bit. Does that change the fact that Memoir 44 is an overly simple, not very realistic wargame? Not really, but I realize now why that might actually work in its favor. In fact, it might even elevate the game above other Commands and Colors games.

The card-driven command system in Memoir 44 is certainly not unique — many other wargames use similar systems. However, while many other games use cards to expand players’ gameplay options, Memoir 44’s system is used to constrain them. Limiting players to giving orders in one or two sections of the board makes an acceptable amount of thematic sense in pre-modern battles, where orders were primarily given orally through messengers. For a WWII game, however, it makes almost no sense whatsoever. However, from a gameplay perspective, having limited options reduces the decision space of the player, allowing them to focus on their limited choices rather than the multitude of options offered in most wargames.

Storming the hexagonal beach!

More recent Commands and Colors games have introduced mechanics that add complexity to this system (for example, a seperate card deck with special powers). However, I feel like these new rules hurt the best aspect of Memoir 44 — its broad accessibility. Of all of the wargames I have played, Memoir 44 is the only one that I could teach and play with almost anyone. The game’s other mechanics, such as the simple dice combat resolution and generalized basic unit types, are perfect for teaching basic wargaming concepts to non-wargamers without overwhelming them. I’ve seen people describe Memoir 44 as a great “stepping stone” game for introducing new gamers to medium-complexity wargames like Conflict of Heroes or Combat Commander. While I partially agree with this, I think that those games require a certain understanding of the underlying history to be enjoyed, whereas Memoir 44 can be enjoy by anyone.

Command cards limit players options

Well, almost anyone. For those gamers who truly love history and want to recreate it on the tabletop, Memoir 44 will inevitably be a disappointment. Though some wargamers are really stingy about details (rivet counting, anyone?), most at least expect a wargame to simulate basic battle tactics, soldier behavior, and weapon technology. The best wargames make gamers feel like a wartime commander through their gameplay decisions, even though they are often far from realistic. Memoir 44 fails to provide this kind of feeling. It is a little too abstract and streamlined, and its mechanics often are designed to promote an easier playing experience than re-enact actual conflict. Luckily, there are plenty of medium-weight WWII wargames that strike a good balance between ease-of-play and historical accuracy (like the aforementioned Conflict of Heroes series).

Does this mean that Memoir 44 is only for non-wargamers and children? If you had asked me that question ten years ago, my answer would undoubtedly be “YES”. However, now that I am older, I can appreciate it for what it is — a lightweight wargame that I can use to teach my children (and young relatives) about WWII, and hopefully spark future interest in wargaming. Though its gameplay is not realistic, its theme is still based in history. Its also a wargame that my wife will actually play with me, which is rare indeed! I’m confident that we will still be playing Memoir 44 for years to come.

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