What, we invaded Canada? Yep, the United States did that, and you can have some fun re-enacting this battle in an evening with two to five players in one of Academy Game’s latest offerings, 1812, The Invasion of Canada, the first game in The Birth of America series.
Five major factions gather around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, as far north as the lower tip of Lake Huron and as far south as Pittsburgh and Albany. The board is divided into territories, very much in the style of Risk or Axis & Allies. The northern, Canadian territories are red (for Britain) and the lower two thirds of the board is blue for the United States. Here and there territories have starred objectives. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking over Detroit or Pittsburgh, this could be your game. Occupying more of your opponents home, starred objectives than he has occupied of yours is how you win. In the end, it’s all about counting up the control markers.
As for the factions, they are represented by little wooden cubes, a different color for each. On America’s side are the American Regulars and the American Militia, ready to lash out against the behemoth, Great Britain, who developed a bit of an image problem among Americans — especially among Republicans at the time — with Britain’s policy of impressment, which forced men into service against their will in the fight against Napoleon. Remember the notorious Chesapeake Affair? Yeah, I don’t either. But you can read all about the War of 1812 in the extensive history provided in the rule book. This is a very cool addition. All you need to know for now is that American forces invade Canada in order to drive the British from their last remaining colony on North American soil.
So, we have the American Regulars and American Militia on one side and the British Regulars, Canadian Militia and the Native Americans on the other. With a full five players, each person plays a faction. With fewer than that, well, you can figure that out.
The game consists of a finite number of rounds, eight of them in all, with each faction getting one turn per round to move some units and possibly attack one or more territories. A cool element to this game is that these turns are determined randomly by reaching into a bag and pulling out a colored die. You never know who is up next, unless of course it’s the final player in the round or the first turn of the game (the American aggressors always go first). And this also leaves the possibility of the British factions getting a turn six times in a row! At the end of each round, you put the die for each faction back in the bag, and it’s random time all over again.
Each major faction takes a turn by playing a movement card, and possibly a second or third Special card. Your hand size is only three cards (replenished at the end of your turn), and you draw cards from your faction-specific deck of cards. There are only 12 cards in each of these decks – 8 of them are movement cards (remember there are only 8 rounds in the game, so you will play them all if the game lasts that long) — and 4 special cards. I won’t get into the special cards, other than to say they – for the most part – positively affect that faction’s movement or combat for the turn and thematically depict key historical figures and events. One other major aspect of your cards is each deck has a movement card with “Truce written” on them. If ever all of your side’s Truce cards have been played, the game will end when the current round is over (as long as it is at least turn 3). This is an awesome little strategy element, and also creates some tension for your opponent(s). From a British perspective, imagine the American Militia’s Truce card coming out. If the American Regulars play their Truce card, the game will end!
Most of the movement cards tell you how many armies you can move and how far you can move them. As long as your faction color appears in a territory, an army consists of at least one of your wooden cubes and any number of other cubes. In this way, grand armies comprised of all of your side’s factions can move together around the board, often several times per round. As soon as you run into an enemy, you stop and a battle will take place. There are also a few movement cards that allow you to move armies across the lakes.
Faction-specific, six-sided battle dice are used in resolving each battle. Depending on the faction, the dice contain a varied number of hit icons, flee icons and blanks. With a limited dice pool per faction, the defending or attacking home territory always rolls first and each hit removes an enemy cube, each flee icon you roll results in one of your own cubes being sent to a Fled Units box on the board to be brought back later, and each blank you’ve rolled allows for a command decision. What’s a command decision? For each blank, one of your cubes may leave the battle and move to an adjacent, friendly territory. This can be a great way to spread out a massive army that will have no trouble winning with fewer units. If you’re like me, your troop build-up in some areas may amount to overkill, and you may welcome a command decision or two to bolster adjacent territories.
I think this is an ingenious, simple combat system, made even better by giving factions certain combat advantages. For instance, the British Regulars never flee; that icon doesn’t appear on their dice. When Native Americans roll a command decision, they are the only faction that can move to unoccupied enemy homeland territories, including objective areas! The dice for the militias in the game flee 1/3 of the time, hit other units 1/3 of the time, and make command decisions 1/3 of the time, so they are not very reliable. I love how something as simple as icons on the face of a die can help portray these historical realities.
This is one of those games you will be up and playing very quickly. The rulebook is only six pages long (plus the pages of history), and these six pages include a lot of examples. The map is mounted and large, though the board I received did have some minor warping issues which I’ve somewhat corrected by stacking piles of books on it. I was also shorted a wooden cube for one faction, and had an extra for another. I decided to give Academy Games customer service a whirl and asked for the missing piece. I was sent a new one quickly, along with an extra cube for all the other factions as a bonus. I get a kick out of the fact that the Uwe Eickert provides his cell phone number and personal email address in every copy of the game. That’s something you don’t see every day.
There’s some controversy surrounding whether or not this game is balanced. Many believe it is tilted toward the British side, with some people on these forums discussing strategies or ways to tweak the game in order to compensate for this. The three games we’ve played have so far all gone to the British as well. Despite these discussions and our experience to date, I have to agree – albeit tentatively — with what one of the game’s designers recently posted. Designer Jeph Stahl writes:
“Beau and I have been following a number of threads on the difficulty playing the American side in 1812. We believe that not all the nuances have been explored yet, so we’ll let players hammer away to discover the game.”
I tend to lean toward this approach in all the games I play. Call me idealistic, but figuring a game out, exploring the nuances is what makes a game a like 1812 worth playing. Stahl goes on to say, “If you want to ease the American side a bit, we’d suggest this following variant: American players have a hand size of 4 rather than 3 cards.”
That sounds like a good idea, and I may just try that in the future. But for now, I am happy to continue playing the game as is and under the assumption that we just haven’t yet found the winning strategy for the Americans.
Meanwhile, I’m excited to play the next installment in the Birth of America series, titled 1775 — Rebellion. Academy Games has said the base rules are 95% the same as 1812 and 1775 is expected to ship later this year.
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