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Ted Kostek
United States
Camano Island
Washington
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War of 1812

Summary

Sort of a cross between checkers and Risk with historical flavor thrown in, this game is a short, playable wargame with a small but devoted following. Read on to see why the following is loyal, and why it's unlikely to get too much larger. For the short and sweet, jump to the bottom and see the "Should you buy it?" section.

Introduction

The War of 1812 does not at first seem like a topic for a sucessful game. In 1812, the US was less than 50 years old and still quite weak. Britain was a major world power, but viewed the war primarily as a minor skirmish in a backwater. Much of the terrain was frontier, meaning transportation and communication were difficult. Despite impressive theoretical numbers, in practice neither side was well deployed for a war, and American forces repeatedly refused to enter Canada, saying their role was to defend the US, not attack a foreign power. After 3 years of back-and-forth floundering and thrashing, the war ended essentially in a draw: no territory changed hands.

Despite the unlikely raw materials of the war, the game designer Tom Dalgliesh created a minor classic. The game was designed in 1972, and it is still in print. Moreover, the game has something of a cult following, drawing consistent groups at WBCs and numerous other game weekends. I have read that Tom is Canadian, and, if true, national pride helps explain his unlikely choice of material.

After three plays, I'm beginning to understand the game strategies and I can see the interactions among the game mechanics. I feel qualified to discuss why the game has attracted a following, as well as why that following isn't likely to grow too large. It's neat little game, and it's short for a wargame, but it has some flaws. I discuss the physical components, the game mechanics, the feeling of game play, tackle the 'w'argame controversy, and offer some advice to those considering a purchase.

Components

The components of the game strongly support the classic feel. Rather than having the eye-candy appeal of highly detailed minatures, the pieces and map are elegant, simple and sturdy.

The game uses the block system, whereby each army unit is represented by a small block of wood that stands on one side. The face of the block has a simple logo indicating the kind of unit: crossed muskets for armies, crossed sabres for cavalry, sailing ship for a naval unit.

The current strength of land units is reflected by the number on the top edge, and as a unit takes damage the block is rotated to smaller numbers. The blocks for land units are arranged so that you can see the faces of your blocks, but not your opponent's block faces. Thus, you know the location of enemy land units units, but not their strength.

Navies are handled slightly differently, but using similar blocks.

The map is printed on heavy cardstock, somewhat similar to a cereal box, and slightly thinner than the Puerto Rico player mats. The map is a cute print of what looks like a water color painting of the area around Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Champlaign, up to Quebec. Movement is point-to-point, meaning armies cannot exist in between cities. The connections are clearly marked, and the naval bases are clear, once you know what you're looking for. The eastern cities are clustered a bit close together, and this fact, coupled with the large British reinforcements, can make things a bit crowded.

The rule book is reasonable. It is B/W, probably laser printed on 17x11 inch paper then collated, folded and stapled. The rules are about 3.5 pages and are not complex. A few examples are included. About 3 pages of historical notes are included.

You get four six-sided dice, but I strongly suggest you buy another 6-8 (see below).

Overall, the bits are of comparable quality to something like Puerto Rico, which is to say nice.

Game Mechanics

You can download the complete rules from Columbia's web page, but I can summarize the main points quickly. On each turn, each side issues orders to the navies of one lake and the armies in one town. Armies can move from one town to and adjacent town, or they can try to do a forced march. Each year consists of 10 turns and a wintering phase, and the war lasts for three years (1812, 1813, 1814). In 1813 and 1814 each side gets reinforcements. During winter of each year you count victory points. If one side has a decisive lead (10 or more point spread), they win. If no one wins in 1814, its a draw. In my three games I've had two draws.

Battles are resolved by rolling dice, and, just like real battles, they are highly uncertain affairs. The strength of all units is summed, and then a six-sided die per strength point is rolled. The opponent takes a point of damage for each '6' rolled. Battles continue until no units remain or some one retreats.

You are well advised to study the statistics of battle, because it is surprisingly, frustratingly random. For example, each die has a 1/6 chance to hit, so if you roll 4 dice, your odds are:

0 hits: ~50%
1 hits: ~40%
2 hits: ~10%
3 hits: unlikely
4 hits: really unlikely

That's right, you'll miss about 50% of the time you roll 4 dice! If you attack with roughly equal forces, the battle outcome is a coin toss, except it takes a long time. I've lost battles with a 7-4 advantage. Very frustrating, but history books are full of examples like the Union finding the Confederate battle plans wrapped around a cigar in the American Civil War.

I strongly suggest you buy more dice. Theoretically, the 4 dice supplied are enough to roll each unit, but most battles have more than 4 points per side, meaning you have roll 2 and sometimes 3 times. Most battles will involve less than 12 points per side, so 10-12 dice is a good number. With this number, in many battles each side will have their own dice.

Game Play

My first game I felt like there was both too little to do and too much to do. Too little because each move accomplished very little, and too much because I wanted to make a lot of little moves all at the same time. By the end of the first game, I was starting to find the rhythm of the game. I realized you couldn't attack every turn, and it didn't bother me to spend several turns just quietly moving troops around. Being a big fan of both chess and go, I like these kinds of slow building games.

The rules are on par with typical medium-weight Eurogames.
The basic rules are simple and easy to internalize, but some of the special rules are tougher to remember, sending you back to rules: "Does a Force March fail on 1-3 or 4-6?" There aren't many "chrome" rules, and they are fairly simple, but they can be tough to remember all the time. For example, one "chrome" rule reflects the historical fact that the American militia repeated disobeyed orders and wouldn't cross into Canada. After the American player issues a order, a die is rolled for each army unit. On a "6" that unit doesn't move, but you can't change your order at that point. It's easy to forget this rule the first few games, but then it becomes almost second nature. This rule really gives a unique feeling, and the American is never quite sure if their guys will follow orders.

The scope of the game is less than chess and closer to checkers. There are about 30 towns plus the three lakes, and there are two kinds of units (armies and navies). Most towns have 3 neighbors with as few as 2 and as many as 4, and there are 7 defined invasion routes, although amphibious assaults open things up a bit. Armies can move one town per turn, with an optional and risky forced march to get an extra movement. By way of comparison, chess has 64 highly connected squares with mobile pieces, while checkers has 32 squares, about 4 "invasion routes" and low mobility.

You need to approach the game much as you would a chess game: slowly develop your forces, exploit imbalances, look for mistakes but avoid making any. If you want to mobilize large groups of pieces and dash around the board, this game is not for you.

The game is somewhat drawish, especially given the requirement for a 10 pt spread for victory. The defender gets a small advantage, and retreats are *very* costly. Adding these together with the random nature of battle, and it's easy to see that you won't be having willy-nilly attacks. At least not if you want to win. Whether the drawish nature makes for a good game is left as an exercise for the reader, but it's historically accurate.

All these things add up to a game that has a distinctive character. I'm not an historian, but based on the included notes, the overall feeling is historically accurate. Movement and communication were difficult, so marshalling troops took time and planning. Battle was, and remains today, very unpredictable. The two armies had different characters, the Americans having a lot of untrained militia, and the British being a world power. Finally, control of the lakes helped both transporation and clearly would have helped morale (victory).

Is it a wargame?

In my time on BGG, I've seen many discussions about 'W'argames vs 'w'argames, and the War of 1812 is a category buster for sure.

Like 'real' wargames it's got:
-- war as a theme
-- solid historical basis
-- "chrome" rules
-- solid geography w/ consistent scale

Unlike 'real' wargames:
-- it has very low unit density
-- does not use hexes
-- has very short, simple rules
-- has short playing time

My own view on the W vs w controversory is that the question is somewhat immaterial. Any debate that provides insight and understanding is helpful and useful. But you've got to remember it's the *games* that are important, not the classification scheme. When you are spending more effort on the scheme than on games, you've lost sight of the ball.

Should you buy it?

You might like this game if:
-- you like historical wargames
-- you like slow building games like chess or go
-- you are attached to the geographical area
(Detroit-Pgh-Toronto-Montreal-Albany-Quebec)
-- you view randomness as a realistic problem to be mitigated

For myself, I like history, I like chess, I spent most of my life in Ohio and Pa, and I think you've got to roll w/ the punches of life. I look foward to many years of playing this game, but it's not likely to become one of my top favorites.

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Steve M.
Canada
Calgary
Alberta
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Excellent review... nothing really to add on that.
 
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