The reasons why the War of 1812 is America’s most forgotten war are simple: it was a shameless land grab and a military disaster. The rhetoric of “Freedom of the Seas” rings hollow as the British were already suspending the offending Acts of Council. With the British Army tied up in Spain, the US could finally complete what it failed to do in 1776: annex Canada. Hexwar’s 1812: The Invasion of Canada, released for PC, iOS and Android, attempts to show how the outnumbered British regulars, Canadian militia and their Native American allies stymied the Yankee thrust. Conversely, better generalship on the American side may have reversed history, making the Quebecois Washington’s problem instead of Ottawa’s.
Across the Great Lakes
Ported from a board game, this product has all the colour such games are known for and then some. The map covers northern New York and Pennsylvania with the eastern tip of Michigan on the American side with Lower Canada (southern Ontario) to the north. Between these two areas are Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Huron. The land is divided into over fifty areas coloured blue for the US and a reddish-orange for Canadian territory. Contested areas have a striped texture. Cities and important villages are plainly labelled. Fordable rivers are marked clearly in black. Buttons giving graphic options are in a vertical row on the right while two circles at the top show how many enemy settlements both sides control. Surrounding the map are images of card decks and dice for flavor.
Colour plays an extremely important part in the game. Each unit type has its own: red for British regulars, blue for American regulars, yellow for Canadian militia (an unfair choice), white for American militia and green for Native Americans. The battle dice are thrown using the colour of the units firing. The dice are easy to read as a side with a bull’s eye indicates a hit, a running figure a fleeing unit, and a blank for player decisions to withdraw units. Cards for movement and combat are easy to understand as well as delightfully illustrated.
Units are formations of undetermined strength. Each type has historically correct uniforms with regulars wearing shakos, militia with top hats or fur caps and Native American in full war paint. Animation when zoomed in depicts Native American units crouching and gesturing while the other types stand to attention. Moving units march across the landscape as canoes, boats and warships sail the lakes trailing white wakes.
Sound is limited to the usual booms of combat but – for once – the background music is pleasing, combining European martial tunes with Native American chants. The in-game manual is primarily either meant for multiplayer or was cut and pasted from the boardgame rules. Either way, a solitaire player will be confused when playing after reading it, as many of the instructions are wrong, misleading or irrelevant to computer play. Fortunately, the manual gets the flow of play right, and in-game prompts corrects the anomalies in the manual.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee
The mechanics of this game breaks away from the usual operational two-sided approach. Each of the five unit types takes its own turn and the sequence of the turns is randomized so thinking in terms of “My turn then your turn” flies out the window, making long-term strategy chancier although the concept fits a multi-play model. Once a type’s turn begins, matters settle down with the implementation of phases. The enlistment phase has players place units of the active type on pulsing green areas. These units can either be new units, fled units or previously destroyed units coming back from a pool. The cards in that type’s hand are shown. The movement phase consists of two parts: army creation and actual movement. Areas with the active type’s units brighten and a window with the number of friendly units present appears with a slider for each type. Using the slider puts the number of units needed into the army allowing for some to be left behind for defense. A movement card is then chosen with the number of armies to be moved that phase and the number of areas they could travel. The only hindrance to movement is the Great Lakes, and that can be overcome by playing a canoe, boat or warship movement card. Canoes can carry three units, boats two armies and warships one army. Possible destination areas are then highlighted.
Battle starts when the active type moves an army into an area occupied by an enemy. A square arched window appears with the name of the engagement at the top, a column for American troops on the left and for the forces for Canada on the right. Each column has up to three rows of colored squares for each unit type. Below the squares are columns representing reserve units that are not yet in the rows. Combat mechanics appear simple as the home team fires first using a colored dice for each unit of each type. When more than one type receives a hit or fled result, the human player much choose the type to be affected, otherwise results are automatically resolved. The “command decision” result always requires players to choose which areas units fall back to. Remaining reserves then fill the vacant squares and dice are thrown again until one side runs out of troops.
The only evident combat modifiers come from event cards. These cards represent ambushes, good generals, special troops and anything else to enhance the players’ odds. However, repeated play suggests hidden modifiers. Regular troops seem to shoot better, troops in forts don’t flee as often and Native American units fall back more often. Again, these modifiers are speculative and may just be the result of bad rolls. The game ends when both sides play the truce card, and the victory goes to the side that captured the most settlements.
1812: The Invasion of Canada has three scenarios: a short introductory to 1812, the full 1812 game and the American second attempt in 1813. The randomness of turns and event cards prevents an exact historical approach, but the flavor of the period is there: the Canadian player should put at least a token defense in all border areas while building a mobile reserve to take advantage of American defeated thrusts. The American should not attack willy-nilly, but choose a three-area broad point to attack. Gamers who want a more serious study should play John Tiller’s game on the topic but Hexwar’s work is a good, light introduction that should be a hoot to play in multiplayer mode.