I was recently given the opportunity to join Crawley Wargames Club for a big game of Memoir-44, representing th entire Allied landing operation in Normandy. All five beaches would be fought, plus the paratrooper landings. This would be made possible by using the extended “breakthrough” rules for Memoir ’44, giving very deep maps and allowing a lot more strategic play than the usual Memoir game.

This was my first time using the big-battle rules for Memoir, and I’ve got to say it really changes the game from the feel of a board game to much more one of a wargame. The game is longer, and you’re able to move reserves around and defend in a lot more depth. It just has a grander scale, and was a real pleasure to take part in.

Play on the Day

I was given the US Airborne sector out west on the Cotentin Peninsular, supporting the adjacent landings at Utah. Due to the sheer length of the table I wasn’t able to keep a close eye on how things were developing down on the British and Canadian beaches to the east, so someone who was down that way will have to chip in.

Allied forces begin hitting the beach along the Normandy coast. Figures were a mix of 10mm and 15mm, but with the sheer sizes of the table the mix of scales worked. Looking along it you couldn’t really tell, although I think the 10mm armour worked better in the size of hexes. Unit strengths were tracked with tokens placed on the units.

US forces landing at Utah initially took a beating from the German defences. Here they’re clinging to their beachhead, but help is coming in the form of Airborne units (tan bases) who have launched a major attack on the German big guns firing on the beaches, which also distracted German reserves from moving down to the beach. On Omaha the Americans were having a tough time, but the paratroopers had managed to grab several important bridges and quickly captured St-Mere-Eglise and several other key towns, putting the scattered German defenders on the back foot.

The troops on Utah got more organised and pushed ashore more confidently, but the Germans threw repeated counter-attacks into their left flank. US casualties were high, but the piecemeal German attacks were all broken up, including the loss of a small but key Tiger unit (before it could even attack, did it just break down perhaps?). With the beachhead stable the Airborne (spread out through the Cotentin) needed to concentrate and take the fight to the Germans. Luckily a few precious reinforcements dropped in and there was also help from the French Resistance, who were given some bridges to guard. The Germans still held the town of St-Come-du-Mont, and after a major battle the Airborne wrested control of the town and began to reinforce. The German fallschirmjager stayed put in Carentan and didn’t pay much part in the battle, but some mechanised kampfgruppes did try to push the paratroopers off the bridges, with only temporary success.

By now the other beaches had done enough to reach the 78 medal victory point for the Allied side, but it was a close-run thing.

Memoir ’44 Operation Overlord

The scenario played was the Operation Overlord expansion for Memoir ’44 and the set of Overlord maps. This divides the landing area into five beach maps and one map of the Cotentin for the US airborne landings. The British airborne landings are included on the Sword beach map.

These maps are much deeper than a regular game of Memoir ’44, so there are additional rules required. A “breakthrough deck” replaces the normal deck of activation cards. These are largely the same, except that as well as activating units to move and battle normally, you can additionally also activate a number of other units that are out of contact to take an “on the move” activation. This allows you to bring up reserves and execute a wider strategy throughout the much larger play area.

The paper maps are pre-marked with the entry points for reinforcements, as well as the initial deployment areas for your starting troops which speeds setup immensely. Just dish out miniatures to players and they can put them all in place themselves. Likewise objectives are marked right on the map.

There are also a host of other tweaks included in these scenarios, such as rules for combined arms units, heavy guns and special armoured units such as AVREs, Tigers and tank destroyers, as well as the Allied warships and more scope for air attacks.

This requires a lot of extra expansions and new rules over the basic Memoir ’44 game, so the game will need a substantial amount of prep and investment, and at least one person who’s intimately familiar with all the new rules lest it get completely bogged down.

The scenarios also do a good job of giving the players fairly realistic on-table objectives. One of the more common criticisms of the Memoir ’44 system is that it’s often possible to win while ignoring the real world objective, and instead scoring victory points (“medals”) by eliminating enemy units. In the Overlord game the Allied players are given quite strong incentives to capture key pieces of terrain. For example, the players landing on the beaches might be given beach causeways to capture, while in my case the US airborne were strongly incentivised to capture bridges and towns, and to eliminate the German artillery firing on the beaches. I scored well in the early stages of the game by paying close attention to achieving these objectives instead of running around trying to battle scattered German units. However, at a certain point I faced the dilemma as a commander that I had my forces dispersed to guard bridges and towns, and that if I wanted to take the fight to the Germans I would need to concentrate. This was quite an interesting operational problem and I was pleasantly surprised to find it arise from the Memoir ’44 system.

There’s also a reinforcement mechanism, every turn you roll some dice and if the result is good you might be able to pick a new unit. Where it deploys depends on the type of unit, for example French Resistance units could appear from the forests, paratroopers could drop into areas of clear ground adjacent to friendlies, and armour or infantry units in landing craft could turn up at the forming up points off the beaches. This can have a big influence on the later game when the rest of your troops are exhausted or fully committed, but does rely on a bit of luck.

General Impressions

I thought the system scaled well, and the additional rules added a great deal of depth to the game. I think Memoir ’44 is fun, but I don’t really think of it as a wargame as it lacks depth and often departs from reality in some quite important ways. However, this game did feel like a wargame.

It’s fair to say that the game works largely as a set of six adjacent games played out simultaneously, but there is scope for events on one map to spill over into the next ones. For example, one of my objectives in the airborne sector was to knock out the German heavy guns behind Utah beach, which were right on the eastern edge of my map. I was given a good incentive to do so (2 medals IIRC?) but taking them out also prevented them firing onto the troops landing at Utah played by the adjacent Allied player, and my attack on the guns also forced all the German units in the area to move against my paratroopers, instead of reinforcing the beach defences.

The deeper maps and the breakthrough deck were a massive change to the feel of the game. I’m sure the beach commanders very much felt they were fighting a linear battle, but out the western end of the landings we were thinking about manoeuvre in depth. The size of the maps and the ability to move units around more allows you to plan a major operation at the time and place in the near future based on what cards you’ve got in your hand to execute it. There’s much less scope for this in the standard game, and it made for a much more interesting game.

There are a lot of new units and extra rules included though. There are unique units, special terrain, and frankly I’m not sure all of it is really necessary. It’s nice that you can have Tigers and mixed armour/infantry units but the game would work fine without them. If you’re going to include absolutely everything then you’ll need to have at least one player at the table who has an encyclopedic knowledge of how it all works. Luckily we did, so were able to avoid getting bogged down in all the chrome, but I’m not sure it all adds much to the game except complexity. A judicious pruning of special units could certainly streamline things a bit and still give an enjoyable experience, but I guess it depends on your attitude to the detail/complexity tradeoff.

Overall I’d say the system works well and delivers a surprisingly wargamey wargame from what was originally more of a board game.

Crawley Wargames Club

Our venue for the day was the clubhouse of the Crawley Wargames Club in West Sussex. Unlike most clubs in the UK, these lucky folk have their own dedicated clubhouse which is available to them 24/7, and with plenty of storage allowing them to keep their terrain stored permanently. I also particularly enjoyed the various campaign maps and trackers spread all over the walls, recording the stories of triumphs and disasters from past campaigns. They meet on Friday evenings, and the guys explained having the place to themselves gives them the option that if they don’t finish a game in the evening there’s always the option of leaving it set up and coming back in on the weekend to finish it. Luxury! They’re a friendly bunch of guys and if you’re in the area I’d recommend getting on down there. They’re a little far afield for me, but I’ll certainly be accepting any future invitations to come down for a day’s play.