Full of Eastern Promise Hot

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I'd never really felt I could share in the general outpouring of enthusiasm over the various commands & colours games. Battle Cry had some well-known problems and showed it's age. Memoir, though marginally my favourite, lacked much in the way of depth or historical value. Ancients had some depth but I've always felt that the extra weight of rules overburdened it somewhat. Battlelore was similarly overburdened but substituted depth for chrome. So although I'd often heard that the Eastern Front expansion for Memoir was an improvement on the base game, I approached it with mixed feelings.

Rules

I'm going to assume basic familiarity with M44 here. After all if you're reading a review of the expansion then I figure you've probably played the base game already.

This expansion introduces a bunch of new stuff. Firstly there's new terrain which is pretty uninspiring in terms of rules - there's nothing here that will drastically change the way Memoir plays, although I like the frozen river hexes which can cause casualties if moved over. Secondly there's some new units and these do look a lot more promising, in particular we have snipers, single figure units with long range killing power, and the Finnish ski troops which add some much needed speed and tactical flexibility to basic infantry. The expansion also adds mines which may - or may not - damage units moving over them and can be cleared by engineers and this again adds tactical consideration to scenarios where they're used. But the biggest changes come with the armies themselves.

Most of the scenarios in the book utilise the "Blitz" rules for the Axis and the "Russian Command" rules for the Soviets. The former are interesting, allowing the Axis player to use Recon-1 cards as Air Strike cards in the appropriate section, but it's the Soviet rules that steal the show. These require the Soviet player to play his chosen command card one turn in advance of when it'll actually come into effect: the card is placed face down in front of him and marked with a special chip. He's then tied into playing that card in his following turn and can't react to a sudden change in fortune on the part of the Axis. The idea is to simulate the paralysis of command that the presence of political commissars making decisions alongside officers caused within the Red Army.

And that's about it. All in all if you're familiar with M44 then there's no great weight of extra rules here to digest. The scenarios introduce one or two new concepts at a time so even if you can't be bothered to swallow the lot in one go, there's no need to do so.

Skills

One of the common criticisms of the original game was that the game lacked depth. In particular it was felt that the game didn't encourage or reward forward planning enough. It should be plainly obvious that the Russian Command rules not only encourage and reward forward planning but positively require it: any Soviet player who simply throws down cards without thinking through their effects is doing to end up under an Axis tank track with astonishing speed. This simple rule really does change the way a player approaches Memoir '44, turning it from a game where you only care about reacting to the last move in to one where stockpiling and chaining events can really pay off. What I found particularly interesting about this is that once you've played a couple of scenarios labouring under the Russian Command effect, that play style starts to rub off and becomes applicable to all the sides of all Memoir scenarios across the board. In other words the rule teaches you to play Memoir as a deeper and more satisfying game. I don't really see what better answer there could be to the original critique than that.

Some of the new units also add some tactical depth to the game. Snipers usually score a hit, but they can only cause one casualty and can be vulnerable if left in an area where their extra range won't keep them out of danger. Ski troops are fast and maneuverable but they need to be close up to the enemy to do much good. Mines can also muddy the decision making waters, adding an extra depth of risk management to your maneuvering. All in all the fairly clear cut functional roles of the units in the original (move infantry into terrain, keep armour three hex distant and all's well) have been blurred by these new additions. There's a lot more risk versus payoff type decisions to be made, and the answers are less obvious. Sometimes it might be worth moving through a minefield to get into close combat, sometimes not. Whether it is can be quite a fine-grain choice depending on board situation, the cards in your hand and the scenario objectives.

Experience

Which brings us nicely on to the scenarios themselves. Games such as Memoir stand and fall on their scenarios - a good number of well designed scenarios will do wonders for the potential replay value of games such as this. Now I've played many of the best-regarded scenarios from the original game plus a couple of popular fan made ones as well. I've also dipped my toe briefly in to the Pacific expansion for this game. And I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the bulk of the scenarios in this book are head and shoulders above anything else available in the Memoir product line.

I am not a scenario designer, so precisely what it is about these scenarios that makes them so brilliant eludes me to some extent, but brilliant they are nevertheless. The combinations of terrain set up and troops at your disposal makes many of these and absolute joy to play: they really seem to reward careful strategic thinking whilst offering plenty of tension and excitement. What's more, many of them are considerably better balanced than those in the original game, which offsets the increased play time in addition to simply providing a more fulfilling play experience. There are exceptions of course, such as the ludicrous Klin scenario which is virtually impossible for the Russians to win, but of the eight scenarios on offer here, at least half of them offer about the best possible gaming experience you could hope for within the confines of the M44 system mechanics.

There is one aspect to the scenario design in this expansion which I was able to pick out highlight as being a major contributor to the quality of these scenarios: the victory conditions. Mostly the change is absurdly simple: the scenarios play to higher victory medal counts. But the different this tiny change makes to the game is immense. Suddenly there are fewer sudden death wins where one of two commanders tied on victory medals wins simply because they were lucky enough to be the one taking the next turn. Suddenly there is room for one side to pull ahead and the other to plan and fight doggedly to pull it back, maybe even overtake. Suddenly the victory medals for holding terrain actually matter because there's time and incentive to battle across the board and reach them. The extra play time, far from being a hindrance, is actually a revelation which reduces luck and ups strategic thinking in the game. In addition you have the victory conditions for the Ponyri scenario which can reward either side - not just one - for capturing and occupying terrain features and this again changes the dynamic of the game considerably. These changes are so simple and yet so satisfying that it almost beggars belief that no-one spotted their potential during playtesting of the original game. But they're here now, and the system is all the much the better for it.

Logistics

The expansion comes in a small box, but costs a lot of money. When you open the box, you'll see why: it's full of plastic figures for the Russian troops. There's also some new terrain hexes and cardboard chits and a rather nifty looking poker chip for the Soviet player to mark his turn-early command card with. The figures included are actually notably better sculpts than came with the original: especially the artillery pieces which are modelled on authentic Red Army guns instead of the generic weapons shared by the American and German figures. But I have to admit I was mildly annoyed that I'd paid out for all these new figures when there was no actual need: the US figures from the original would have served just as well. There are still only two sides on the board at once and no new unit types are represented by different figures so there'd be zero danger of confusion. In terms of visual effect I think you'd get much more bang for your buck had DoW included the Winter Board instead of the figures (and charged less). For starters I find the idea of playing the Stalingrad scenario on lush verdure far more of an impediment to my imagination that moving around miniature Shermans instead of miniature T-34s would be. As if that weren't enough many of the terrain hexes you've paid for are simply snowy copies of terrain from the original such as forests and villages. Not only are these actually superfluous to play need but look damn silly on the green board that came with the original. So all in all I have to mark this down as being very poor value for money, since the choice of components to include seems to be more about marketing than it does about enhancing enjoyment of the game.

The game is still 2-player only, although there's another Overlord scenario included in the expansion. It's worth noting that some of the scenarios take considerably longer than the ones in the original to both play and to set up because they involve more troops and higher victory medal counts. It's still a pretty quick game though: you're not looking at more than an hour to set up any scenario from the book and play it to completion.

Comparisons

It's hard finding a comparison to an expansion, especially one such as this which extends rather than alters the basic gameplay of the original. But this section is here because there is one comparison which I think valid, although I suspect I'll get quite a bit of flak for saying it, and that's Commands & Colours: Ancients. See I know full well that everyone thinks C&C:A is the deepest and most satisfying iteration of the system yet and whilst I agree with that comment, the extra depth comes at the cost of a very considerable weight of rules. And I've never been entirely sure that the trade-off is worthwhile, not least because the C&C system with it's random card draws and extensive dice rolling just seems better suited to faster, shallower play. From a purely personal point of view I also always found the WWII theme of Memoir more engaging than ancient warfare and whatever you think about the relative merits of wood components versus plastic components or mounted boards versus unmounted boards, hand-stickering all those blocks in C&C:A is akin to an exercise in self-flagellation.

You may well be wondering at this point where this little rant is head. It's heading here: I think Eastern Front adds so much extra depth to the M44 system that it becomes comparable to C&C:A. It may not be quite to the same level, but if it isn't then it has reached what is, in my view, a near perfect balance between rules and depth for the inherent chaos of the commands and colours system. So if, like me, you were interested in buying a C&C game but were warned off C&C:A by the components or the rules and warned off M44 by the lack of depth then the answer is right here. Memoir with the Eastern Front not only solves that conundrum but is, in my opinion, the finest outing of the C&C system to date.

Conclusions

Eastern Front is pretty much everything you could want from a Memoir expansion. More troop types, more terrain, more scenarios and some genuinely flavourful special rules. What elevates it above the "satisfying" range into the "brilliant" rage is the scenario design, which is truly exceptional. As a whole package it manages to address virtually everything about the original game that was seen as problematic by some people and as a result I would heartily recommend it not only to M44 fans but to gamers who thought the original was lacking in some way. You may find yourselves to be very pleasantly surprised by what this has to offer. Serious Grognards who disliked Memoir because of its lack of simulation elements and ever-changing unit scales are the only people whose opinions are unlikely to be altered by exposure to this expansion: the scenarios here merrily alter their scales from one skirmish to the next just as much as ever they did in the original game. If that's the reason you avoided the original then you should avoid this too. Anyone else ought to check it out.

I devoted a lot of space to a negative opinion concerning the components very deliberately because although I have, on the whole, been very positive about the expansion those component issues continue to rankle. I particularly dislike being taken for a fool and funnelled toward buying something which has quite clearly been planned partly as an exercise to make me pay more for stuff I don't need (the Russian soliders and the duplicate hexes) and to encourage me to buy more stuff that will make a difference (the winter board). The package as a whole would have been much cleaner, smarter and less patronizing had they put the winter board in this and offered the Russian soldiers as the standalone item for those that wanted them.

We end, as ever, with the rating. The marketing angle sucks, and that's bad. There are other two-player games I'd pull out in preference to this but it's important to note that they're in different time and weight categories and that there aren't very many of them. Nevertheless these two issues stop this from making my highest rating: this gets a well deserved 4/5 as a game I am happy to own and would actively lobby to play.

Full of Eastern Promise There Will Be Games
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