Game Name: 1812: The Invasion of Canada
Publisher: Academy Games
Designers: Beau Beckett and Jeph Stahl
Artists: Jarek Nocoń and Steve Paschal
Genre: Semi-abstract area control wargame of the War of 1812
Players: Two to five players
Playing Time: 60-90 minutes
In life we find you can’t always judge a book by its cover and 1812: The Invasion of Canada certainly fits that mantra. This was the first time I’d had a chance to sit down with a title from Academy Games (no, I’ve not yet to have the opportunity to play any of the Conflict of Heroes line) but I had seen many of their titles up close at last year’s Origins and they looked mighty impressive. Well defined and rendered counters along with beautiful maps looked to be the order of the day at Academy. That’s why I scratched my head a bit when I say the promotional materials for 1812 and saw… little wooden cubes? When I received the game and opened the box I scratched my head a little bit. This is from the same people who do Conflict of Heroes and Strike of the Eagle? Hmmm…
Then I got to play the game and have to say wow! This is a pretty exciting first entry into Academy Games’ Birth of America series!
I’ll just jump back a bit an make sure that everyone understands that I’m not implying the components aren’t top notch, because they are, but I was just surprised by what seems as a complete 180 from what people may expect from Academy Games. All the components included are of excellent quality all in all.
Obviously, it is the War of 1812 – a conflict sorely underrepresented in the gaming world – and the Americans declared war for several reasons, including trade restrictions due to Britain’s ongoing war with France, the impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, British support of American Indian tribes against American expansion, and outrage over insults to national honor after humiliations on the high seas. I’ll be honest here and say mainly America was looking for excuses to take advantage of Britain being tied up in their war with Napoleon in order to gobble up more territory.
The map represents areas on both sides of the Canadian border, red for British and Blue for American, which are controlled by five factions. Here we see the American Regular Army and American Militia tee it up against British Redcoats, Canadian Militia, and Native Americans. It’s important to note that areas can contain units (those wooden blocks) of various factions on a side so you’ll see Redcoats and Native Americans fighting together in one location. The game is designed for two to five players and, while it’s a lot of fun as a two player game, the system really shines with a full contingent of five as the team play is a blast!
Each faction possesses a specific set of color coded dice and twelve unique action cards. If you play the full campaign, each faction will have the full dozen cards at their disposal. Shorter campaigns will state what cards each faction receives. Each turn players will have a hand of three cards and once a card is played it is gone – as in forever as it can never be played again that game. On each player’s turn they must play a movement card and if they only have special cards in their hand they may show their hand and place those cards back into their deck, reshuffle, and draw three new cards. This is the only time a deck will be reshuffled once the game starts.
A very interesting card is the Truce card as every faction has one and is considered a movement card. Beginning with the third turn of the full campaign game, at the end of each turn conditions are checked to see if one side has played all of their Truce cards; the Americans have two and the British three. If one or both sides have played all their Truce cards the game comes to an end with a signing of peace. I found this to be very clever because if that Truce card is the only movement card in your hand you have to play it regardless of the circumstances your side faces. You might want to play it none the less if your side holds the advantage to hopefully speed the peace process.
Each turn has a random play order as each faction has a turn order cube that goes into a bag and is randomly drawn.
The turn breaks down as follows:
Draw Turn Order Marker -This determines the first player although in the campaign game the American Regulars are automatically the first player in the first turn.
Play Enlistments and Fled Units – The player whose turn it is will place their new enlistment cubes in their muster areas; each faction has one or two muster areas and the Native Americans actually can place an enlistment cube in their own muster area one in any other area containing one of their units. Next are the Fled Units. These are cubes that fled a battle and they can be added back into a muster area. If there are no longer any units available of the faction color no cubes are placed and if the muster areas are controlled by the enemy you may not place either Enlistments or Fled units either. If this happens those Enlistments are lost for the turn and the Fled Units are left in the Fled Units space.
Play a Movement Card and up to two Special cards – Each faction has eight Movement and four Special cards in their deck. You must play a movement card on your turn as mentioned previously. All cubes in an area are considered to be an army regardless of what factions make up that force. In order to move an army, the active player must control at least one of the cubes in that area. The movement card played will show how many armies may be used and the number of areas that may be moved by each army. Some cards will allow for water movement as well.
Resolve Battles – The active player now resolves any battles in areas moved into with enemy units are located. The active player determines the order battles are fought if more than one will take place and if any Special cards that affect a battle are in play they have to be assigned to particular battle before any are resolved. Initiative is determined by where the battle takes place as the British have the initiative in red areas and the Americans in the blue. The players on the side who have the Initiative will roll their dice first and resolve the results of the die rolls. This is where one of most interesting aspects of design comes into play as the faces of each die will show a hit, a flee, or a blank result. Regardless of how many units are engaged in the battle the most dice rolled are two for the Redcoats or American Regulars and three dice for all other factions. Obviously, a hit means one of the enemy cubes is removed while a flee means one of that players very own cubes has to flee the battle and be placed in the Fled Unit Box, and the blank face represents a command decision where the owning player can move one of his cubes from the battle to an adjacent friendly controlled area. If an area has units of both sides it is still considered to be friendly but if an army moved into battle by water they may not move by command decision.
Next, the side without initiative will roll their dice and apply the results. The sides continue rolling dice until only one side remains and they take the field.
The main object of the game is to control the opposing side’s objectives so the battles around these areas will be hot and heavy!
Draw Cards – Finally, the active player will draw up to the hand limit of three cards.
Now the next Turn order cube is drawn from the bag and that player repeats the above process.
The combat system is absolutely revolutionary in a game of this sort. By simply rolling a die you’re faced with a few decisions to make. Do you use a command decision to move troops into areas they would be better served? Or do you stick it out and hope your units stand and score some hits? Maybe a unit should stay put to act as cannon fodder? Each faction’s dice are different so the Redcoats tend to score more hits while the Canadian Militia tends to skedaddle but can normally return to play the next turn. It’s also nice everyone stays involved in the big battles because they roll their own dice for their troops.
The game comes to an end when the Treaty of Ghent is signed, which is really controlled by the players. There is no set number of turns because of those Treaty cards I mentioned earlier. When one side has played all of their Truce cards the war comes to an end and the side that controls the most of their opponent’s objectives is the winner. The game can end in a tie but such are the fortunes of war. Even the full campaign with all five players should be completed in around an hour and a half.
1812: The Invasion of Canada is an extremely tight design and the rules can be taught in no more than five minutes or so. There’s almost no downtime and the players are constantly engaged; if they aren’t rolling dice in battles they’re involved in then they’re discussing, with their allies, strategies and options since the active player has control over armies that are usually made up of various factions. I’ve found there’s plenty of smack talking and busting on even your allies when they botch a die roll or blunder into an untenable situation.
The only negative I can think of, and it’s not really a negative, is the diehard grognard crowd may find the game to be a bit too abstract and streamlined for their tastes. Although, I will say, they may be surprised by how much meat is actually under the hood of 1812.
1812: The Invasion of Canada is going to generate a lot of buzz and I’ll say right here and now that it will certainly be an entry on many historical game of the year award ballots!