Thursday, November 10, 2005

Memoir '44, The Seafarers of Catan, and Other Scenarios

One of the most successful games that I've acquired in the last few years has been Memoir '44. It's not necessarily the most strategic game that I've played in that time period. (Despite my occasional grognardery, I'd probably admit that was Puerto Rico.) Nor is it the most clever game I've played in that time period. (For that I'd currently say Dungeon Twister, though ask me again when the new-game smell has worn off.)

However, Memoir '44 is one of the games that has kept me coming back for more the most, and which I expect to keep doing so for years to come. It's long been obvious that Days of Wonder's business plan is to create true evergreen games that can continue to sell long past the initial drop ship, but for their games to be really evergreen not just for their distributors and retailers, but for their players too, that's a truly cool thing.

Scenarios & The Web

The secret behind Memoir '44's success, for me at least, is their use of scenarios. As of this writing I've played scenarios #1-#10 in the original book, once on each side. I've also played #38-40 in the Eastern Front and #34 in the Terrain Pack. That's a total of 28 different games, and it's never once felt repetitive.

As much as anything this is because Memoir '44 isn't really a game. Instead it's a game construction kit. It just so happens that Days of Wonder included the first 16 games made with that kit in the original release as scenarios #1-16. And they've since released a plethora of additional, official "games" on the web and in their new expansions.

However, Days of Wonder also did a few additional clever but simple things.

First, they numbered all the scenarios, giving players a clear method to step through them. Other than playing a D-Day scenario on D-Day, and jumping around between the various expansions for review purposes, I've played through all the scenarios in order, and thus never had to sit around wondering what should be next.

Second, Days of Wonder provided an online spreadsheet that I could use to keep track of which scenarios I've played and how I did. For me this has been amazingly important, because when I had a long break in M44 playing, I could afterward just glance at my online info and see what was next. If I played M44 a lot more, to the point of repeating scenarios, I could go back and look at my battle reports and get clues as to how to replay the scenario in the future.

On the whole the whole idea of scenarios in M44 appeals to me in many ways:
  • The originality of the scenarios constantly appeals to my desire for newness, but without requiring me to go play a new game.
  • The numbering of the scenarios appeals to my collector bug, so that having played one I want to play the next in line.
  • The historical basis of the scenarios appeals to my sense of story, and encourages me to know more about the real battles which are being described.
My experience with M44 has been good enough that I dearly wish that more games used similar structures, to allow me to keep playing the great games that I love rather than being forced to constantly go on to the next new thing by my unabashed need for novelty.

Scenarios in Other Games

Of course Memoir '44 isn't the first board game to use scenarios. Its immediate predecessor, Battle Cry, contained 15 Civil War scenarios, but with no expansions, no support (and no scenario numbering), Battle Cry just doesn't have the same staying power as M44. In miniature and war games, scenarios are much more common, and that's no doubt how they crossed over into These Games of Ours with Richard Borg's releases.

You could sort of say that Runebound has instituted their own scenarios by releasing small decks of cards that replace the endgame of the core Runebound game, but having to go out and buy even small supplements isn't quite the same thing, nor is there the same variety. And Ticket to Ride offers a good example of why scenarios can't quite work for many games. There are some cool additional maps out for the initial game, but if you've ever spent the hours necessary to construct such a board (and its associated cards), you'd know that it isn't quite the same plug-and-play experience that Memoir '44 offers.

I think that Klaus Teuber really missed the boat by including scenarios only in his Seafarers of Catan release. The main Settlers just begs for that sort of treatment because of its modular board, but instead almost every game of Settlers ever is played on a plain hexagonal island. (Yes, I'm aware of The Book but its general unavailability to the American public keeps it sufficiently below my RADAR, and really, I don't think it has influenced the way that Settlers is played that much.)

I can imagine an alternate reality where the original Settlers had itself included a book of scenarios, and not just scenarios based on different random setups, but instead a history of the settling of the Catan islands. It would be evocative and fun to play, and you could have a clear through-line across the games. Heck, it could even be cleverly marketed so that the first several scenarios only depend on the main game, but to play the next several you need to pick up Seafarers, then Cities & Knights.

Likewise, I can imagine that many other popular games could be made that much more enjoyable with the inclusion of scenarios. Modular boards like those of Settlers and Memoir '44 make it easiest, but there are even possibilities in games like Mexica (where different initial island setups and possibly different victory conditions could make a lot of difference) and Puerto Rico (where scenarios could vary building availability, resource availability, island size, and who knows what else). I'm sure these differences wouldn't be as major as that found in Memoir '44, but a little bit could go a long way.


I think that Days of Wonder has made some really smart moves with Memoir '44, both with their initial release and their web support. The recently released Eastern Front (which brings the war to a new locale) and Terrain Pack (which is largely a make-your-own-game kit, even moreso than the original game) just show how much expansion possibility there is for the system.

Here's hoping that more publishers will consider the possibilities of dynamic scenarios as a different type of game publication than their more staid & set cousins.


Ryan Walberg said...

I agree 100%. I thought the scenario system of Seafarers was its only saving grace.

Doug Orleans said...

The original Mayfair edition (or was it the 2nd edition? the one with the photographic art) came with rules for several variants. One that I remember playing a few times involved shuffling all the water tiles in with the land, plus rules for building bridges. I'd consider that a scenario, pre-Seafarers.

qzhdad said...

There's Das Buch that has a lot of scenarios/new features. Unfortunately, it was never translated to English. Elasund and Candamir both tell some of the story of how Catan started. I'd also like to see a translation of the novel Candamir in English.

Ryan Walberg said...

Most scenarios for the Seafarers version I got -- by no means the original -- involves setting up pre-determined island(s), leaving a huge space on the board, and shuffling water in with land, and you discover as you go.