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Michael Myers
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Review of Rockets Red Glare (Compass Games 2013, Simulations Canada 1981)
Michael Myers



Ahh, vacation time and the opportunity to do what one wants. I can think of nothing better that a little study and gaming of the War of 1812 in North America. I became interested in the War of 1812 after visiting a fine exhibit on the waterfront at Vancouver, BC, a couple of years ago. The exhibit displayed four perspectives on the war: that of the Canadians, First Nations, British, and Americans. And of course, some very cool red coats.

I recently picked up a copy of Sim Can’s Rockets Red Glare and played it while reading Pierre Berton’s The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813. This review of the game is based on the Sim Can edition, but my hope is to acquire the updated Compass Games version published in Paper Wars, and also to read Berton’s companion volume, Flames Across the Border. The new version of the game was announced as not identical to the original but very close.

Growing up in the US, I learned in grade school that the cause of the War of 1812 was the British impressing American seamen into their navy. I remember wondering at the time how that could be a big enough issue to begin a war. That was indeed one of the causes, but Berton places it in the context of others. Impressment amounted to perhaps 4000 American sailors, a substantial number, but along with the American sailors the British rightly regained some of their own deserters, which was their expressed object.

After playing the game and reading the book, I would revise my elementary understanding of the causes of the war to include one that was highly significant but not emphasized much, at least in my American education. That is the fact that the US thought that it could take Canada into itself somewhat on the cheap, through a quick three-pronged military attack. The Americans had some rationale for wanting to do this, the British having occupied the Great Lakes southern ports in US territory long after the treaty that ended the American Revolution, and a growing number of Americans settling in Upper Canada (present day Ontario—called upper because the rivers and lakes flow downward into and through Québec).



The great irony of the War of 1812 is that the combined forces of Canada, Britain and the First Nations defeated American attempts to seize Canada, and by doing so, provided that rather than Canada becoming part of the US, it would forever be separate. It would behoove the American educational system to teach to this point.



On to the game review. Some games hold one’s attention because of a single clever mechanic or a few attractive features. Rockets Red Glare, designed by Canadian designer Stephen Newberg, is chock full of clever mechanics and attractive features. I personally like games that combine naval operations with ground, and Rockets Red Glare has that in spades. The game has ocean-going vessels on its strategic map. The 22 US ocean-going naval units are individual ships, like the 44-gun frigate USS Constitution. Having too many individual ships and too wide a deployment across the world’s seas to show by individual ships, the mighty Royal Navy is represented by squadrons. When US ships spot British squadrons, the Royal Navy engages in combat with representative ships of the line, frigates, brigs, and transports drawn randomly. Naval combat is a resolved by comparing total guns in a simple ratio, but realism is added through a few die roll modifiers and column shifts. Ship units are also rated by quality. High quality US ships must raise the US victory point total early in the game before attrition gives freedom of the seas back to the Royal Navy. Royal Navy transports can carry British regiments to the shores of the US. These units can combine with First Nations (or Native American) units to raid coastal areas, such as the historical successful raid on Washington, DC, and the unsuccessful raids on Baltimore and New Orleans.

In my game, the last turn resulted in an unsuccessful British raid on New Orleans.



The American player must decide the balance of forces he wishes to maintain between defense of the US coastline on the strategic map and forces on the Great Lakes front on the operational map.

The game’s design of operations on the operational map does a couple if things especially well. First, supply considerations provide a realistic and frustrating drag on the ability of players to conduct operations. Supply judgment occurs both at the beginning and end of the operational phase of each turn, so one must take care not to reinforce or move into an area that cannot handle the force level. This simulates the wilderness aspect of much of the operational board in 1812.

The second item is leadership. The War of 1812 saw a number of instances of inept leadership as well as its share of competent and brave leaders. The game forces the player to use leaders in the historic way, which was that the largest and most mobile forces were led by leaders that showed little initiative, or worse. William Hull comes to mind, the American leader that crossed the Detroit River, sat there, returned to Detroit, and was then hoodwinked into surrendering without firing a shot. His presence in a stack of US units halves their strength, while the hero of the British, Isaac Brock, doubles the strength of Canadian and British units. Berton, by the way, does a great job sizing up the leaders in his book and has some good things to say even about Hull.

In my game, Brock took Cleveland, on the south shore of Lake Erie, just before the last turn.



While naval combat on the lakes is similar to ocean combat, naval units on the lakes are represented by named, individual ships for both sides. The game shows the intriguing fact that sometimes ships struck their colors, and were captured and used by the other side.

In my game, Lakes Erie and Ontario were under firm British control by 1814, while Lake Champlain was controlled by the Americans. The British took the key port of Sackett’s Harbor on Lake Ontario on the last turn. The front at Lake Champlain was stalemated. Although the victory point total was about even and thus the game was a draw, I considered it a British moral victory given the geographical condition of the forces at the end of the game.



The game does a very good job showing the asymmetrical force structure of the participants, and also the asymmetry of goals and objectives. For example, while British forces can raid and attack on the strategic map, US forces are limited to providing strict defense.

A word should be said about the role of First Nations in the game, and in the war. This was a war where Indians took a significant part in operations and an even greater role in politics. The First Nations leader Tecumseh assumes crucial importance as he moves Indian units under his leadership and provides a 1.5 strength boost in combat strength. Tecumseh’s goal, along with his brother “the Prophet,” was to forge the Indian nations into a confederation that would withstand American expansion into the Old Northwest. I am from the Pacific Northwest and familiar with Indian life and resistance in this area, but it was educational for me that the game and the book show Indian resistance at an earlier stage of US and Canadian history. In fact, the Indians resist almost everywhere in Rockets Red Glare, on both the strategic and operational maps. This resistance was active in 1812 and continues to take nonviolent forms today as people continue to try to share the wonders of this continent.

Rockets Red Glare is highly recommended for its fun, historicity, balance, and educational value.

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Mayor Jim
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Fort Wright
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Nice review of a great game. Thanks. I'm glad that this one got republished with some cleaning up of the rules, etc.
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Tom M
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Thank you for a thoroughly enjoyable review. In thumbing through my recently received Compass Games catalog I see it is no longer a stocked item.

Pierre Berton was a fabulous writer. Of his work, Klondike, The Last Spike and the National Dream are among my all-time favourites. The National Dream was made into a television docu-drama in the 1970's called " The National Dream: Building the Impossible Railway," which I would dearly love to get my hands on, but sadly after years of searching it is nowhere to be found.

http://www.pierreberton.com/author.htm
 
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Michael Myers
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Thanks. Yikes, I better pick up a second hand copy before they dry up...
 
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Christopher Leary
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Elizabethtown
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Great review of a game that seems to have fallen a bit by the wayside with the recent publication of Mr Madison's War and Amateurs to Arms.

I've long wanted to crack into an opposed match of Rockets Red Glare myself, as solo'ing the reprint has not been all that enjoyable an experience... I shelved it around a year ago, and focused most of my energies on exploring AtA.

A vassal or cyberboard mod might give RRG a new lease on life... from my small amount of experience with it, there are several interesting ideas in RRG, particularly the manipulation of the US high seas fleet.
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stephen newberg
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ladysmith
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Thanks for the review, Michael. The new version from Paper Wars is graphically very nice and cleans up some of the accounting for VPs, making that simpler, plus taking some confusion out of a few more of the rules here and there. Overall I am pretty pleased with it and happy they sold so well for Compass Games, but you are right, you need to go find a copy fairly soon, as it appears they are sticking to people's shelves and going to end up uncommon on the used market.
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Michael Myers
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You are welcome, Stephen. Thank you.
 
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