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Memoir 44: Operation Overlord

[In our issues, we generally focus on the newest and best games on the market today (when we’re not highlighting some great classic game no longer in print). This piece, however, is an exception. James Davis is a big fan of Memoir 44, a well received game of World War II action originally featured in the Summer 2004 issue of GA Report. With over a decade of success under its belt, the game is STILL going strong. James is one of the game’s many fans and he writes about why in his loving look at it and, most particularly, at an expansion for it that originally appeared back in 2008: Memoir 44: Operation Overlord]

Reviewed by: James Davis

MEMOIR 44: OPERATION OVERLORD (Days of Wonder, 2 to 8 players, ages 8 and up, 60-180 minutes; $19.99)

mem44opover1When I was a kid, everyone on the block had at least a few plastic army men. We would spend hours going “pshew, pshew” at each other as the wars between the green and brown forces waged all day. Fortunately I never grew up. Only now, I like a little more structure to the games I play, and a lot less “pshew”. So I was a big sucker for Memoir ’44 when Days of Wonder published it back in 2004. For me, it hits the exact right mix of strategic wargame simulation and light board game. And the plastic army men are just the frosting on the top that brings out the little kid in me.

For those not familiar with the game, let me summarize. It is a two-player game designed by Richard Borg that abstractly simulates a specific World War II battle. The base game comes with 17 scenarios based on historical conflicts. But hundreds more high quality scenarios created by fans of the game can be found online. And each expansion also adds many more that are tuned to those new rules and forces. So it is almost impossible to run out of battles to play with this game. It can easily be replayed hundreds of times without repeating a scenario.

The game board is covered in hexagons with simple terrain. One side represents a typical countryside and the other displays a beach landing. The base game comes with 44 double-sided cardboard terrain pieces, representing hills, rivers, buildings, forests and more, that you can place on the board to create any map you need. The map is divided into three vertical sections with a red dotted line. These sections represent the player’s flanks: left, center and right. These flanks are tied to card play, as described below.

mem44opover3And then there are the cool plastic army men. The base game contains 144 total army pieces divided between the Axis and the Allies. I’ve been calling them plastic army men, but they are actually highly detailed plastic miniatures. It is easily to tell the Allied M4A3 Sherman from the Axis Panzer IV. The GI and the German soldiers look great as well. In fact many players have taken the time to paint them. In addition there are anti-tank guns, barbed wire obstacles, hedgehogs and more. And, of course, the expansions add much more than this. But you more than get your money’s worth with just the base game alone.

Lastly there’s a deck of 60 Command cards and 8 battle dice with special symbols. It is your hand of Command cards that drive the game. There are two types of cards: Section and Tactic. The section cards allow you to order a number of units in a specific flank of the map: left, center or right as described above. For example, the “Pincer Move” card allows you to order 2 units each on the left and right flank. This simulates the chaos of battle, as you can never move your entire army at once. The tactic cards on the other hand typically give you a special action or add an extra die or unit. They represent good timing or a lucky break in the battle.

The dice determine the outcome of battles between units. I’ll not go into exact details of combat here, but how many dice are rolled and the outcome depends on many factors such as range, the units being fired upon, cover and so on. But don’t be turned off if it sounds difficult. Unlike other wargames, combat is very quick and easy. As an example, a unique and clever aspect of the game is that the plastic miniatures count as both the location of the unit on the map and the hit points the unit currently has. The soldiers are placed on the map in a set of four; the tanks in a set of three and the artillery have two per hex. Each time a unit takes a hit you simply remove one of the pieces. Very clever, and it works perfectly.

The object of the game is to be the first to collect a set number of Victory Medals. For most scenarios it averages around five. You gain a victory medal for each enemy unit eliminated. And many scenarios allow you to gain one by capturing a location on the board or by some other method specific to that scenario. Typical games last around 45 minutes to an hour, depending upon the scenario chosen. Despite that it is a wargame at heart, it is quick to play. But it is always full of very hard, critical choices. It is not at all light on strategy.

mem44opover2As you can tell, the base game will give you an amazing amount of enjoyment, even without going online for additional scenarios. But if you like the game like I do, you’ll definitely want to pick up the expansions. There are more than a dozen of them as of this article. The first was a Terrain Pack that added mountain passes, sand dunes, marshes as well as supply depots, airfields, minefields and so on. Next was the Eastern Front expansion that added Soviet forces and T-34 tanks. You also can buy the Pacific Theatre expansion that adds the Japanese army pieces and jungle terrain tiles, the Air Pack that introduces airplanes into the game, a Winter Wars pack that adds winter rules, an Equipment Pack that contains almost 200 additional miniatures, and the Mediterranean Theatre with the British army. Each of these comes with many scenarios that include the expansion’s new rules and forces. And there are battle maps that are specific scenarios that come with a paper map already printed with terrain. And if that wasn’t enough there are two Campaign books that have almost 100 scenarios and campaigns between them. And in 2014 they published a Tactics & Strategy Guide book that goes into amazing detail on how to play and how to develop your strategy. You are able to go as deep into the game as you would like. Of course you aren’t required to go that far if you aren’t interested. A casual game with the base set is just as fun. But it is great that Days of Wonder is providing us die-hard fans such mind-blowing tools to use.

Speaking of tools, as I’ve said, Days of Wonder loves to have players submit their own scenarios for the game. And so they created a free program you can download for Windows and Mac OS X that allows you to make your own scenarios by dragging and dropping pieces and terrain onto the game board. It is called the Memoir ’44 Editor and can be found on the Days of Wonder web site. And on top of that, there is the Memoir ’44 Online computer game that you can find on Steam or a direct download. The base game is free, but there are in-app charges if you want to expand play. The web site also contains tools to help you search and rate scenarios, full rules in PDF files, and a very active community and forum. There is a mind-blowing amount of support for this game.

But as I mentioned earlier, this is a two-player game. That can be a big limitation depending upon your game group. Some people would much rather play with a group than one-on-one for example. Well that brings me to the point of this article – what I’ve been building towards: Memoir ’44 Operation Overlord. This is a supplement for the game that allows you to play Memoir ’44 with up to four players on a side – a total of eight people. Combined with specific battle maps or scenarios you can play a huge wargame with your entire gaming group.

memoir44aFor example, the battle maps made for Operation Overlord are paper maps with the terrain already printed. They also have icons on the hexes for where the forces start. So you just place the map on the table, put your plastic miniatures on the right hexes and you are set in less than five or ten minutes. If you don’t have a battle map for Operation Overlord, then you can place two basic game boards next to each other and fill in the terrain and forces based on what scenario you’ve chosen. The Operation Overlord pack comes with cardboard counters for any plastic pieces you don’t have, and so you can play with just the base set. You aren’t required to spend more money. Although many people still end up buying a second base set so they have enough forces.

An Operation Overlord game board is twice as long as the normal two-player game. This is needed because each side of the battle will have three people sitting at the table, facing each other. These people are called the Field Generals. And for each side there is an additional person acting as the Commander-in-Chief. He or she has a special deck of cards that comes with the expansion. The six Field Generals at the table do not have their own deck of cards. Instead their Commander chooses cards for them to use each turn. As a result you have a very good simulation of a chain of command. The Commander-in-Chief players are overseeing the entire battle while each of the six Field Generals sitting in front of the game board are taking on just their part of it.

If you happen not to have 8 people in your gaming group who are interested in playing, it can be done with 6 by having one of the Field Generals also be the Commander-in-Chief. And it is also possible to play these Overlord scenarios with two players if you have a mind to. Don’t expect it to last only 45 minutes though. Speaking of time, despite the number of players, it is rare an Overlord scenario lasts more than a couple of hours.

I can easily say that playing an Operation Overlord scenario is a blast. In fact while I do very much enjoy the two-player game, if there are enough people to play an Overlord scenario, I’d much prefer to play that instead. For me, it is significantly better than the base game. Playing as a team, sharing strategy and advice, cheering on your side’s good fortune and groaning when the other team does well is exactly the reason why I love to play games. Board games are a very social hobby. And the Memoir ’44 Overlord scenarios takes an already excellent game and adds a wonderful social dynamic that, no matter if I win or lose, leaves me grinning like a little kid.

Of course Days of Wonder couldn’t just leave it at that, could they? Along with all of the other excellent, high quality expansions they’ve created for this game, they recently published D-Day Landings. If you love this game, this is the ultimate expansion. It is a collection of six pre-printed battle maps of American Airborne, Utah, beach, Omaha beach, Gold beach, Juno beach and Sword beach. Yes, the maps overlay each other to create the entire Normandy coast! Of course you don’t need to play with all six maps. You can choose one beach and play a two-player game. Or you can combine two or three and play an Overlord scenario – which is exactly what I did recently.

I was a Field General on the Axis side defending Omaha beach, with two people sitting to my left defending Utah. The Allied forces well outnumbered our side. But we were dug in and well defended by pillboxes, anti-tank guns, sandbags, wire and hedgehogs along the beach. They also had a good majority of their forces still upon landing craft and thus useless until they landed. As the Allies slowly crawled out of the sea we began to take casualties and had to retreat away from the beach. Our Commander-in-Chief could see that the left flank on the Utah map was going to fold soon and so placed his focus (and thus his best cards) over there. This left little support on my side for quite a few turns. The opposing commander could see that I was struggling and reacted by giving his best cards to the Field General on my side of the map. Soon my forces on Omaha beach were retreating as badly as the forces on the Utah map. Long story short: we hung on by tooth and nail for the entire game, but we lost. But it was very close for the entire game. It could have gone either way up until the last turn. And I loved every minute.

Needless to say I would really like some day to play a game with all six maps in the D-Day Landings expansion. Days of Wonder calls it “Operation Neptune”. I’ll need to have a big table and a long weekend. Of course as I said above, you don’t need to get this deep. You don’t need to get D-Day Landings to enjoy playing. This expansion is the epic pinnacle of the game and is meant for the die-hard fans like myself.

But if you have only played the two-player game of Memoir ‘44, or if my description of the Operation Overlord expansion has intrigued you, I would strongly suggest you get seven other people together and give it a try with one of the battle maps. It is an experience that is somewhat hard to find in our hobby: a multi-player, semi-cooperative, fast, simple wargame.

And of course it has little plastic army men.


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.


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