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Mr. Madison’s War – An Incredible Bore

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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From gallery of FinalWord

There may be some incredible aspect to the War of 1812, but you won’t find them in Mr. Madison's War.

The appeal of this conflict as wargame topic has long eluded me: little of consequence happened.

The war of 1812 was a multi-theater, mostly small-scale, affair. It's primarily remembered for the U.S. Navy’s victories over several outmatched British ships. British control of the seas was never challenged. Since the Royal Navy possessed more than 300 frigates and ships-of-the line at the outset of the War of 1812 and the American Navy had only 16 ships, nine of them frigates, no real challenge was even possible.

The only theater covered in the MMW is the area around the great lakes. The largest battles of the war were fought elsewhere.

MMW features the not uncommon pitting of superior troops versus greater number. Britain has the better soldiers but is at the end of a long supply line. U.S. units are hastily recruited militia but there are more of them.

Historically the Americans did the invading in 1812, but since the player can see these militia won’t win many fights, it’s not something you really want to do. The British were on the strategic defensive historically (being more concerned with Napoleon’s shenanigans in Europe) but can be an offensive powerhouse here.

Problem is, the linear point-to-point nature of the map limits maneuver. There is only one way in and one way out of most locations. Bash-and-pray is the order of the day.

An aggressive Brit will set the tempo, though not sure tempo should be used with this game. MMW often craaaawls. On many turns there’s nothing interesting to do. And taking the initiative is fraught with peril. It’s usually best to be passive.

Land combat does offer some flashes of excitement, but again, there’s high risk often for little reward. The attacker rolls two dice, add/subtracts modifiers and usually someone takes a step loss and retreats. Depending on the roll it’s possible that combat continues and additional results are rolled. It has all the period feel of a canoe ride.

And then we find …

The dreaded non-linear CRT. In MMW land combat more is better — more soldiers, more leadership bonus, higher troop quality — as these all result in a higher modified die roll. Then why is getting a 9 a worse result than an 8 when attacking a fort? Roll an 8 and both sides take a hit and combat continues. But if you have better quality troops that 8 becomes a 9 and nothing happens, combat ends. So better quality troops are apparently timid and will break off combat before low quality troops. It makes no sense. And it’s annoying.

Now you may think the naval battles, of which some incredible ones did occur, would sail in to save the game. Right? Please ... Sadly, no.

Naval combat thunders with all the excitement of one-hand clapping. There are only four water zones, two of which see almost no action, so there’s not much sailing at all and combat is a single die roll affair. Since an entire side can be wiped out permanently with this roll, only the side with the advantage will ever offer a large scale battle. Obviously, these don’t happen unless one side is desperate. That leaves only minor sea skirmishes, which result in one sided getting bounced from the lake to shore, with any damage easily repaired.

The ships counters are there, it could potentially be exciting, but it would need different rules and maybe greater scope. MMW desperately needs an interesting naval combat system. Heck, even using War at Sea’s Yahtzee mechanic (roll a 6, sink a ship) could have made for some tense sea battles. Inexplicably, key naval battles are represented by event cards that grant the player victory points. This alone sinks the game for me.

If I wanted to play a game where you essentially go back and forth playing victory point cards I could just save a lot of time and money and deal a hand of Spades. Playing card events to gain victory points is like getting a trophy in a sport you’ve never played. And 30 of the cards in this game just give the player VP. That means the game you play on the map is a sideshow to playing a game of trumps. That actually is incredible, but not in a good way.

Sadly, it gets grimmer (cue Taps, this one’s dead, Jim) …

The only cards worse than ones that grant only VP in a CDG are ones that makes you lose a turn. Multiple lose a turn cards are the very definition of lame. I hate playing them and hate having them played on me. I’m not spending my afternoon playing this game to not play the game. If historically justified, I can swallow a couple such cards, but there are 4 cards in MMW that cancel your attempted naval/amphib move and 4 that cancel your ground move after 1 space. And several more that prevent you from moving. Ugh.

I’m not seeing how much of anything you do for most of the game matters much to the end result. VP are only counted at the end so there’s little driving you to take any risks in the early going. Our games all played out along similar lines once we learned not to do anything foolish like attack.

MMW is not a complete bust. It’s a gorgeous game and hits the sweet spot in terms of complexity and playing time. Playing it the first time was fun, largely because we didn’t realize that nothing in the first half of the game mattered much, or that we were really mostly playing 1812 Spades.

Ultimately MMW is not so much a simulation as a re-creation, with many of the key events of the war just told to you by a VP-granting event card. This is a problem since by the end of the actual war no real estate changed hands.

"My British countrymen just burned down the White House way off board! It says so right here on this card. 3VP! I win!"

I found myself apologizing to my defeated opponents for drawing more of the VP cards.

From gallery of FinalWord

Mr. Madison's War: The Incredible War of 1812
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