Today is a day for ranting about randomisation. “But Yann”, I hear you cry. “You love miniature wargaming! You love rolling dice to have your little men shoot/stab/punch people in the face! Why would you complain about randomisation in games?”
I’ll tell you why. I have no problem with randomisation, per se. Some of my
best friends favourite board games have random elements: as already mentioned, I’m a big miniature wargaming geek, and can’t help but feel that (the wonderful sci-fi skirmish game) Infinity would lose a lot were you to remove its D20s from the equation. And it’s not just dice that can add to a game – games like Fortune & Glory rely heavily on the random generation of quests and dangers through the drawing of cards in order to give them that sense of exploration and adventure so crucial to a treasure hunt.
What I do have a problem with is thematically dissonant randomisation. There are two broad approaches to game design: games which sell on adherence to a theme, and games which sell on refined mechanics. Ideally a game will offer both, of course, but usually it’s easy to see where a designer’s focus lies. I’m making this observation so that I can make clear that I do not think that thematic dissonance is much of a problem in games which are not trying too hard to sell you on that theme in the first place: Carcassonne doesn’t suffer for its inexplicably random approach to city building as, well, it was never presented as anything more than a highly abstracted puzzle game in the first place.
Where it does cause problems, at least for me, is in those games which try to get their players invested in a theme; games which go all out with artwork and backstory in an attempt to draw you in. In these sorts of game randomisation needs to have logical consistency with the world it’s representing. So it is that dice rolls make sense for combat – as we accept and understand that combat is, by and large, a frantic and highly random event. So too the drawing of cards for objects and events outside of our in-game persona’s sphere of knowledge – as they have no idea of knowing what is going to happen next, nor should we, and randomisation is the best way to facilitate this. The problems come when randomised systems are used to determine a player’s own agency, or to define things that they have no logical reason not to know of in advance.
So it is in Memoir ’44. For those unfamiliar with the title, it sees you commanding battles in World War II, with your forces represented by a bevy of plastic figures. Played across a dynamic board of hexes, the game has a unique mechanic whereby the players draw cards to represent their pool of orders. Which is to say that your orders – as in, the orders you are able to give your men in a turn – are randomly generated. You have a pool of them, and your choice of which to use, and which to save for later, form the basis of your tactical decisions throughout the game. It makes for a breezy and unpredictable game, and is much loved for it.
But it also makes absolutely no sense. Which isn’t to say that I don’t understand what the game is trying to get at through this system: commanding an army is not straightforward, particularly the further back in time you go. Orders have to be relayed to soldiers, who may or may not respond to them in a timely fashion (or at all), and the greatest tacticians have had to take those possibilities into account when issuing them. Which is fine, but that in no way matches the execution here. That sort of randomisation could be dealt with through either dice rolls or card drawing after your orders are issued, determining if all orders reach their targets, and/or whether they are misinterpreted. It does not make sense for your general to instead only have a small set of orders to issue in the first place, unless you’re meant to be controlling a general who suffers from passing obsessions – “today I will ONLY ORDER MY TANKS TO ATTACK”.
This is the part where the question of investment raises its head – some might argue that Memoir ’44 is not selling on theme. I would strongly disagree. For one thing, it is its choice of theme, and its inclusion of dinky plastic models, which sets it apart from the other Command and Colors titles – you are very much paying for the setting, for the opportunity to fight World War II battles with your toy soldiers. The use of miniatures and hexes does its best to evoke ‘real’ wargames – i.e. games whose stated aim is to simulate war, to simulate being a general. As such, any elements which pull you back, which drag you away from the fantasy of being a general, are problematic.
Of course, many would say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. And they’d be right. The fact is that Memoir ’44 remains a fun little game, and its simple ruleset helps with this. It’s just that schizophrenia of approach which annoys – the adherence to theme through artwork, props and thematic division throughout the series; crossed with heavily abstracted, unthematic rules: somehow, as a combination, it seems dishonest – as on the one hand the game is promising an experience akin to directing a battlefield, yet on the other it offers a core mechanic which makes no sense for that situation. And I hate dishonesty in games.
This is the reason I don’t have an issue with, say, RoboRally, or the many other games which similarly rely on the drawing of cards for orders – at least they make no pretence at being anything other than silly, light games. Memoir ’44 – and the Command & Colors games in general – do make this pretence. And they make it well. Most veteran board gamers know what to expect, of course, but for people less invested in the hobby? The front of the box shows a glowering GI, the back a field of hexes and soldiers – plus the epithet “The Official Game Of The 60th Anniversary Of The D-Day Landings”. This is not a game selling itself on its light and breezy gameplay, which risks both disappointing unsuspecting would-be wargamers, and having those who would be in the market for a light competitive battle game pass it by. And that is why Memoir ’44 is bad, and you are a bad person for liking it.