Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Mr Madison's War, The Incredible War of 1812 - Vassal

In my last post looking at the range of board game modules Steve and I have been playing on Vassal, I mentioned the latest game to be selected and one I had been looking forward to trying out face to face, but with the current situation made it a prime candidate for our regular Tuesday night Vassal meet up and so we played it once which proved to be a learning type of game and were interested enough in it to immediately schedule another go, with me taking the Americans.

I was first attracted to this game after watching some of the introductory video replays hosted by the designer, Gilbert Collins and was immediately drawn to the fact that it was card driven, which to my way of thinking usually ensures great replay value with no two card hands ever being the same and the rather unusual idea of a pre-war card play phase, where neither player is sure when exactly hostilities will commence, together with the inclusion for the possibility of the Battle of New Orleans to take place after the peace treaty at Ghent had been concluded and thus giving the US player an additional two victory points to be added to the US total.

The artwork in this game really adds to the simulation

In addition the production standards of this GMT produced game were to my mind simply stunning with a glorious map of the cockpit of the war, namely the Great Lakes frontier on the US-Canadian border, and counters and cards capturing the historical drama of the conflict with cards recreating for example, the stunning series of frigate and single ship combat victories achieved in the first year of war, to the individual unit counters with lovely illustrations of ships and land units that would have fought along the frontier.

Campaign situation at the end of Spring 1813

So with our learning curve initiated and principle rule concepts grasped, revealing key options for both players in their conduct of the war we set up the board for another game with Steve taking the British and their Canadian allies and seeing both of us cagily play our first seven cards of the pre-war phase, using a few to move some troops around or up to the border whilst holding back several for the post declaration of war card that duly arrived as each of us took turns to draw those first seven cards.

Once war is declared, both players then draw the balance of any remaining cards up to their seven including cards held back and normal play starts.

The first year of the war is tricky for both players in that the war starts before the Americans are fully mobilised and thus they are forced to manage the forces on hand in readiness for the really big formations that show up in early 1813 when the American offensive can really get going. However the platform for that offensive needs to be secured against a British player very able to upset those arrangement by careful surgical attacks along the front that can force the Americans to have to react rather than drive events to their own plans.

The string of US naval victories at the start of the war are a vital source of
victory points, but also are high value action point cards as well, this one worth 2AP
to the US player

Of course the cards the players hold is the key to what opportunities present and as the American player I was fortunate to get most of the US naval victory cards that give either two or three action points or when played for the event two victory points in recognition of the shock to the British at seeing their vaunted Royal Navy shown a thing a two at sea.

In the main I mainly played for the VP as the Americans only get those opportunities for easy VP in the first year of the war and with Steve launching a very successful spoiling offensive out of Quebec capturing multiple US towns along the St Lawrence border before Montreal and taking control of Lakes Ontario and Champlain, I was fortunate to keep the British victory point lead to just ten points as we headed into 1813 and the arrival of General Harrison in the west, soon to be followed by General Scott with a march to the Niagara front on his play list.

Major General William Harrison and his Kentucky militia
would lead my offensive in 1813

My game plan was to try and stick to my campaign for 1813 as much as possible and not let the British deflect my offensive plans which were very much determined towards taking control of Lake Erie and unhinging the Niagara frontier, this helped by Commander Perry getting control of both Erie and Lake Huron early in the war and staying ahead of British ship building to maintain that grip which was planned to facilitate General Harrison capturing the key British position at Fort Malden or Amhurstburg as I traditionally think of it and thus neutralising the British army in Upper Canada under General Proctor and the Indian Chief Tecumseh.

Fort Malden was captured by Harrison in the spring of 1813 along with its garrison that was driven within its stockade and opened up the whole of the Thames Valley on the north shore of Erie allowing the American offensive to drive forward towards the key town of Burlington and the threat to York and the Niagara front.

The American offensive around Lake Erie closes in on the Niagara frontier at the end of spring 1814 with Perry controlling Erie, and Harrison and Scott commanding large numbers of US regulars on either side of the frontier 

The offensive forced Steve to halt any further drives along Lake Champlain or to exploit Brock’s success in taking Buffalo as action points were needed to bring forward urgent reinforcements under Major General De Rottenburg to prevent Harrison advancing still further.

The Americans kept the pressure on Brock with the arrival of US regulars under Scott who retook Buffalo as Brock captured Fort Niagara, but with his forces surrounded by large numbers of US troops found himself bottled up and unable to exploit, but able to rely on supply from Yeo and his British fleet controlling Ontario.

Campaign situation at the end of Spring 1814

Thus it was that our game was gloriously balanced on a knife edge of possibilities as 1814 hove into view and large numbers of British Peninsular War veterans appearing in Quebec, not to mention those set to arrive in Washington determined to have a barbecue with all the inherent risks that starting open fires in built up areas can cause!

However if the card gods were American I was determined to try and forestall British plans for resuming the offensive down Lake Champlain and on to Albany with a scheme to defend forward with Dearborn and Wilkinson, seeking to get my naval forces built to allow Commodore Macdonough to get control of the lake, thus forcing the British to spend action points fighting their way south but with the threat of US landings in their rear should the opportunity present.

The card gods were kind and although I lost Washington to those limey arsonists under Major General Robert Ross, I was able to take a modicum of revenge by finding a use for the 'Incendiary Action' card which is rather two edged in that it can reward the player using it with 2VP but at the cost of the towns VP burned down, to reflect what bad form this kind of activity was thought of.

However looking around I settled on Beverdams, on the Canadian side of the Niagara frontier, to vent my fury upon and with a value of 0 netted myself another 2VP to compensate for the 3VP lost with the burning down of the White House.

The campaign of 1814 focussed on the US forces looking to frustrate a large British invasion along Lake Champlain to snap up victory points before the end of peace talks in Ghent. Commodore Macdonough managed to secure the lake which allowed Generals Dearborn and Wilkinson to hold back the British before peace was declared.

I also ended up holding the Ghent Peace Treaty card so the end of the war was in US hands, all be it Steve held the Battle of New Orleans, so no bonus victory points in this game, but with a successful winning of the naval arms race to build ships on Lake Champlain, Macdonough was able to get control of the lake and I was able to play all my cards before declaring peace.

This is a clever mechanic in that whoever holds the peace treaty card can play it at any time during the hand and end the war, but hands a number of victory points to his opponent according to the number of unplayed cards he holds when he ended the war, thus when we totted up the final score, Steve held a four point advantage, well within the historical result that saw me as the US player now looking at a bankrupt economy thanks to the Royal Navy, but at least keeping the borders I had at the start and the British repeal of their Orders in Council, so no more grabbing of US sailors to serve in the Royal Navy.

Wars end 1814 and Steve's 'Washington Burned' card sits alongside the US response of 'Incendiary Action' against Beverdams, lower right.

Mr Madison's War is a very clever game and a challenge for both sides to beat the historical outcome, but with the vagaries of card play ensuring that no two games will ever be the same and if the cards come right offering either side the opportunity to win bigger than the actual outcome, that and a bit of skill choosing where and where not to fight.

This game is set to join my select group of all time favourites that I will be happy to sit down and play at most any time and both Steve and I experienced the tension of trying to work out the best way of playing the hands held to maximise our points score throughout the play.

Mr Collins and GMT are to be congratulated on producing a very fine game that captures the history of the war in so much of its presentation and the Vassal platform manages it very well, so much so that we are at the time of writing well into our third game with Steve taking the US this time and well in command as we approach the critical end game of 1814.

Next up, the final British third rate of renown, HMS Tonnant, gets showcased, and another book review.


  1. A good read, JJ. Thanks! I was especially interested in your game as I'm currently half way through Mark Zuehlke's book on the War of 1812, For Honour's Sake. As an Ontario resident I decided it was time I educated myself!
    The book is a good read, with lots on the personalities of the commanders on both sides - for instance, Dearborn was apparently so out of shape that when his carriage wasn't available he had to be trundled about in a two-wheeled cart! Shades of Cuesta...

    1. Hi Bill, thank you.

      Your message brought back fond memories of my honeymoon to the east coast of the US and up to Canada in 1988 where we toured from Quebec, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and down to Washington, via Buffalo so I managed to get an idea of the terrain but would like to do it again without any post nuptial duties!

      I should have been in Vancouver at the end of the month visiting family but have had to shelve those plans to next year, hopefully when things are a bit more stable.

      I have a copy of Mark Zuehlke's book on Ortona that I picked up the last time I was in Canada and it's a brilliant read so I will have a look for his War of 1812 title.

      The comments about Dearborn are revealing about the decrepit US Leadership at the start of the war with him and Hull, pluming new depths in how not to organise a military expedition, reflected in the respective command ratings in the game.

      When I visited the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa I picked up The War of 1812, Land Operations by George Stanley which was my reading for the honeymoon and I found a really good read with nice maps and illustrations.

      Well if ever you fancy having a go playing Mr Madison's War on Vassal drop me an email and we can work out a transatlantic time to do it.

      All the best

  2. Yes, the American leadership early on was a gong show, and the American government too shy of taxation to fund anything properly.
    A transatlantic game of Mr. Madison's war is intriguing - thank you. Perhaps I will take a look at it first before committing, so at least I have a feel for it. My usual Peninsular War gaming friend is stuck in Italy thanks to Covid and I'm feeling a bit deprived! We have table-top gamed via Facetime, which was fun but laborious - OTH rules, of course.

    1. Hi Bill,
      Yes fine, the offer stands if you want to have a go. Vassal is very straight forward to use and with something like Zoom you get the fun of a face to face encounter.

      If you want to have a go at this or other modules I have a list of, drop me an email via the contact form, top right and we can make arrangements.

      I have seen your reports of some recent OTH games, but hadn't realised you were using Facetime. Some of the chaps in the Devon Wargames Group and the Too Fat Lardies have been doing something similar using Sharp Practice.

      Perhaps remote wargaming is a facet of the hobby that will be here to stay post-pandemic.