Review of Academy Games’ Recent Game of the 1812 Invasion of Canada
By Harvey Mossman
The comedian Kathleen Madigan quipped that Canada is like America’s attic- you forget that it is up there until you go and see all the cool things it has. In the first hundred years of our nation that was most certainly not the case. The American colonies and subsequently the United States tried to conquer Canada on two occasions, once during the War for Independence and a second time during the War of 1812. Academy Games’ flagship simulation in their Birth of America series depicts this latter invasion in a rather simple yet elegant fashion.
1812: The Invasion of Canada is a five player game where each player represents one of the warring factions. There are two players on the American side: American Regulars (represented by blue cubes), and American Militia (white cubes). The British side has three players: British Regulars (red cubes), Canadian Militia (yellow cubes) and Native Americans (green cubes). When playing with fewer than five people, one or more players will have to control multiple factions since all the factions must be played.
Setup is extremely easy since the starting positions for the 1812 scenarios are illustrated right on the map by appropriate colored cubes for each area. Any undeployed units are available for Enlistments (reinforcements) during the game. The hard mounted map, stretching from Montréal in the East to Detroit in the West, covers the areas around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie where most of the fighting took place. American Homeland Areas are shaded blue and the British are shaded red. Most areas contain starred cities or forts which are victory point objectives that are tallied at games end to determine victory. The map is aesthetically appealing with nice artistic touches suggesting old parchment. Three scenarios are offered including an introductory scenario, the 1812 full campaign scenario and a campaign scenario for 1813 for those who choose to start later in the war.
This game is card driven. Each faction has a unique deck of 12 cards from which 3 cards are drawn to form their hand for each round. The turn order is determined by randomly choosing from a set of colored cubes in a provided black bag. On the first round of play the Americans Regulars are preselected to go first and then the rest of the turn order is random. When your colored cube is drawn you execute the turn order sequence below.
1. Place Enlistments and Fled units in Muster areas – Each side has several muster areas on the map where these enlistments can be placed. The number of units mustered is constant and depicted in the muster areas. These units come from your undeployed pieces. Next, any units that have Fled (more on this later) from previous combats can reappear in one of or both muster areas.
2. Play a Movement card and up to two Special cards – The active player must now play one Movement card from his hand and has the option to play up to two Special cards. Movement cards tell you the number of armies that can move and the distance each Army can be moved. An Army comes from one area and moves to a single objective area. It cannot drop off or pick up units along the way. If units are going to different objectives areas they are considered separate armies. In order for a faction to move an army from an area at least one of its faction cubes must be present in the Army. Therefore, one white cube can bring along any number of white American militia cubes and blue American regular cubes. This suggests that players should keep armies of mixed factions so that they can achieve the most efficient movement.
Some movement cards are Water movement cards. Regular forces have Warships cards that allow any number of troops in one Army to move from a coastal area to any other coastal area on the same body of water. Fishing boats are used by militia factions to move a limited number of troops from two different coastal areas to one single objective area on the same body of water. Canoes allow only Native Americans to move from multiple areas to a single area on the same body of water. These three different types of water movement represent the only depiction of naval combat in the game and give slightly different capabilities to each faction. However, there are not many of them so they must be used wisely.
Each faction also has one movement card called Truce. When all of one sides Truce cards are played, the game will end at the end of that round. Therefore, players have a limited ability to influence when the game ends.
Each Faction has four unique Special cards in its deck which modify movement or combat. When the active player plays a movement card he has the option to also play up to two special cards from his hand. These special cards give each faction a somewhat unique character. For example, a forced march card allows armies to move extra spaces and the Captain Asquith’s Sharpshooters card allows American militia to designate his opponent’s combat losses during a battle. These cards add additional flavor to the game but there are only four for each faction so they must be well-timed to maximize their effect.
3. Resolve Battles – now battles are resolved. Battles have a unique flavor according to the faction fighting. Each faction has specific battle dice that they roll in combat which yield three possible combat results. The target symbol indicates a hit causing one of your opponents units to be removed from the map and placed back in his units force pool. Your opponents will decide among themselves which units to remove if there’s more than one faction involved in combat. A Flee result is depicted by a picture of a man running and causes the friendly player to remove a unit to his Fleeing Units Holding Area on the map. Units that have Fled are returned during the enlistments phase of your next turn. If the die face is blank, the controlling player must make a Command Decision which gives him the option of retreating one cube to an adjacent friendly area.
American and British regulars roll a number of dice equal to the number of units participating in combat with a maximum of two dice per combat. All other factions roll similarly but their maximum limit is three dice for combat. Each set of faction dice is different, cleverly representing very different fighting capabilities. Militia units have 2 Hit symbols, 2 Command Decision symbols and 2 Flee symbols. British regular units have 3 Hit symbols and 3 Command Decisions and never Flee. American regulars have 3 Hit symbols, 2 Command Decision symbols and 1 Flee symbol making them slightly inferior to British regulars. Native Americans have 2 Hit symbols, 1 Flee symbol and 3 Command Decision symbols. Additionally, Native Americans have a unique ability when executing a Command Decision in that they can retreat into an unfriendly area as long as it is not enemy occupied. This special ability can be quite devastating if not considered in the American player’s strategic plan.
The side in whose homeland area the battle takes place has the initiative and rolls first independent of who is the attacker or defender. This makes it extremely challenging to invade your opponent’s territory.
4. Draw New Cards – this action player now draws cards to fill his hand up to the maximum of three cards. If at any time he has all Special cards he must show them to all players, shuffle them back into his deck and draw three new cards. A player must have at least one moving card in his hand.
Typical Game Turn
Let’s now look at a typical turn. At the beginning of the round all the colored cubes for each faction are placed in the black bag. The red cube representing the British regular faction is randomly selected thereby initiating his turn. The British player musters three red cubes from his force pool in Montréal. He has no units that have fled from previous combats otherwise they would also have been placed in Montréal. His hand consists of a movement card that allows 2 armies to move two areas, his Truce card which allows him to move 3 armies two areas and one Special Card, Fife and Drum which allows his armies to move one additional area this turn. Since it is still early in the game the British player is reluctant to play his Truce card as this could inadvertently end the game in the current round if the Canadian militia and Native American Truce cards are played. He therefore decides to play his Movement card. Additionally, he decides to play Fife and Drum which will extend his Army’s movement to three areas this turn. If he had another Special card in his hand he could also have played it since you are allowed to play up to two Special cards each turn.
The British player decides that he wants to recapture the British homeland objective area of Prescott which has been occupied by an American force of 4 American regulars and 5 American militia. The British attack by moving 2 of the 3 newly mustered British regulars in Montréal along with 2 Canadian militia. He is allowed to move the 2 Canadian militia because they are accompanying his British regulars. The special effect of the Fife and Drum card gives him the additional movement capability to reach Prescott from Montréal. He now moves another Army from Smith’s Creek three areas to Prescott, once again taking advantage of Fife and Drum, to reach Prescott bringing another British regular, 2 Canadian militia and 2 Native Americans.
It is now time to resolve the battle. Despite the fact that the Americans are defending, this is a British homeland area therefore the British Army rolls first. The three British regulars are limited to their maximum two dice roll and score one Hit and one Command Decision. The Canadian militia faction has enough units to ensure they may also roll their maximum of three dice and score two Hits and one Command Decision. The Native Americans can roll a maximum of three dice but only have two units in the area so their die roll maximum is reduced to two. They roll a Hit and a Flee. Collectively, the British factions have scored four hits so the Americans must decide how to distribute their losses. The American Regular faction player and the American Militia faction player discuss their options and decide to remove 2 American militia and 2 regulars to give them their maximum die rolls for each faction. All of the British factions decide to ignore their command decisions and stay in the fight. They could have opted to retreat units to an adjacent friendly area but with this excellent first round of combat they see victory in sight and wish to stay. One of the Native Americans must Flee and the unit is placed on the Fled units holding area.
It is now the American’s turn to fire. The American regulars have two units left allowing them to roll their maximum of two dice and score a Hit and a Command Decision. The American militia rolls three dice and scores one Hit and two Flee results. The British Army decides to remove 2 Canadian militia since Native Americans are less likely to flee and British regulars fire better than the Canadian militia. Two American militia are placed in the Flee holding area on the map and one American regular realizes the futility of remaining in combat and executes his Command Decision to retreat out of the battle into friendly Ogdensburg.
It is now the second round of combat and the British side rolls again with the remaining three British regulars, 2 Canadian militia and 1 Native American. The die rolls are as follows. British regulars score a Hit and a Command Decision. They choose to ignore the command decision and stay in the fight. The Canadian militias roll a Hit and a Flee which removes one of their units to the Flee holding area. The Native American rolls a Command Decision which they also choose to ignore. The Americans remove the last American militia and their remaining American Regular. The battle is over.
As you can see there is a lot of decision-making trying to optimize the use of movement cards, special cards and deciding the best timing to play your Truce cards. A lot of thought must be given to the distribution of various factions among your many armies so that you can move each Army during each faction’s turn. How best to take losses in combat and whether to execute Command Decisions also is thought-provoking. The uniqueness of the separate factions’ cards and combat dice subtly characterizes the differences between each faction’s forces. All of these features certainly make the game fun to play. As the game can be played in about an hour and can be taught in 10 minutes, this may serve as an excellent game to introduce the uninitiated to our hobby.
Wargaming grognards will find this game to be overly simplistic. This is more of a Eurostyle game than a hard-core wargame. Much of the historical aspects of the campaigns have been abstracted. The naval battles for control of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are boiled down to use of the Water Movement cards. There is no naval arms race on the Great Lakes. Also, there are no supply limitations other than the limitation of retreating via a command decision into only friendly areas (however the Native Americans are not restricted in this manner).
I’ve played this game many times and while there is much to recommend it, I do so with some caveats. Invading enemy territories is exceptionally challenging because of the homeland territory first fire advantage. This makes it extremely difficult to occupy a defended enemy area as you will be subject to significant losses going in. Because of the random turn order, you may not be able to reinforce and the enemy counterattack is devastating since they once again fire first. We often found that invading armies were usually repulsed handily because of this rule. The British side also has several advantages that are difficult to overcome. The British regulars and Native Americans have better combat dice than the American regular and American militia respectively. Furthermore, if the British player has all three factions present in his Army he has the potential to fire eight combat dice against a maximum of five combat dice for the Americans. This can be quite devastating. It is not particularly difficult to maintain armies of mixed factions. Finally, the British have the capability of moving three times during the turn if they keep a mix of factions in each Army. On the other hand, the Americans can only move twice. This gives the British a tremendous mobility advantage and greatly handicaps the American player. Although there is a slight advantage in movement afforded by the American Movement cards, we have found this does not adequately compensate the Americans.
The reappearance of Fled units is also problematic since they reappear in your muster areas. They come back automatically and en masse therefore they tend to show up in theaters where they’re most needed. It is as if they have magically teleported from a combat on one side of the map all across the northern frontier to the other side. The muster areas for the Americans are farther from the Canadian border which makes it a more difficult for these units to be moved forward into combat. The Canadian muster areas are much closer to where they will be needed so when Fled units return, they are almost immediately available for the next friendly faction’s combat.
The homeland first fire rule, greater British mobility and placement of British muster areas near the front lines often results in the game devolving into a stalemate along the Canadian border. The Americans are unable to hold any British territories and must wait for an opportune sequence of turns to launch any invasions. When one side has played all of their Truce cards, there is the “End of Time” philosophy where players make a last-ditch grab of an enemy objective to win the game knowing that there can be no response from the other players. Here again, the British have the advantage since they will more frequently move last in a given round because they have three factions compared to the American. Gameplay tends to be characterized by both players temporarily holding enemy territories only to be repulsed in the next move. This results in a victory point stalemate until four of the five Truce cards have been played. At that moment, the faction moving last simply pays his Truce card and seizes one enemy territory knowing that there can be no further response. As one of our players commented, “It is like watching basketball where only the last minute of the game truly counts”.
In summary, this is a well-conceived and beautifully executed introductory game that is more Euro game than hard-core wargame. Nevertheless it does provide an hour or more of entertainment and makes a wonderful tool to introduce non-wargamers to our hobby. It is certainly not a strict historical simulation of the Northern campaigns during the war of 1812. The cards and variability of the combat die rolls make replayability excellent if one can find a way to overcome the inherent end of the game victory point grab to which many games succumb. In short, you will either love this game as a simple quick entertainment or hate this game because it lacks much historical insight. However, I think it has achieved the designer’s objectives to devise a quick playing game on the 1812 invasion of Canada and therefore deserves some accolades. I can only cautiously recommend this game because of the weaknesses I have noted above. If your inclination is more towards Eurostyle games then I think this game is for you.
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Categories: 1812: The Invasion of Canada