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Posted on Feb 28, 2013 in Boardgames

Mr. Madison’s War: The Incredible War of 1812 – Boardgame Review

By Sean Stevenson

Mr. Madison’s War: The Incredible War of 1812. Boardgame review. Published by GMT Games. Designed by Gilbert Collins. $57.00

Passed Muster: Quick-playing, faithful simulation of the period, rules don’t get in the way of the game

Failed Basic: Few tactical decisions to be made, naval combat is somewhat abstracted

Two hundred years ago, the United States was in the midst of a second war with Great Britain. The British, then and now, correctly viewed it as an extension of their war against Napoleon—American public opinion and trade supported the French. The Americans, then and now, correctly viewed it as the closing act of the Revolutionary War—the British still had not fully abided by the promised terms of the 1783 Treaty Of Paris. History has judged both nations justified, both governments at fault, and both sides the victor.


Mr. Madison’s War: The Incredible War Of 1812 is GMT’s two-player release to mark the bicentennial of the war. The title refers to US President James Madison; it was the opinion of his political opponents that he was at fault for the conflict and so they referred to it as his war. Whether or not he deserves blame for the war, if Mr. Madison’s decisions led to the release of this game, then he has been proved somewhat right in his judgment.

Mr. Madison’s War components
Open the nicely illustrated box and you find a full-color 22 x 34 inch map, 264 full-color counters with great art by Charles Kibler and Knut Grunitz, four player-aid cards, two d6, 110 Strategy Cards, rulesbook, playbook (scenarios), and a bundle of a dozen or so counter storage bags. The game covers only the northern theater of the war, from western Vermont to eastern Michigan and from Quebec in the northeast to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Mansfield, Ohio, in the southwest. Game action centers around the Great Lakes of Huron, Ontario, and Erie, with an American march towards Quebec or a British surge to off-map Washington, D.C., possible. Units are infantry (with Native Americans on both sides) divided into three classes: Class A are the British regulars and a few elite American units; Class B units are well-trained and supplied but inexperienced line infantry; and Class C are the militias. Both sides have a single cavalry (dragoon) unit, as well as a large number of naval vessels with which to contend for control of the lakes. Leaders are used to move stacks of units and provide small bonuses to combat rolls (add his combat modifier when attacking, subtract it when defending).

Begin play by separating the Strategy Cards into three decks, using the years marked on the cards (1812 through 1814). Use the handy set-up cards for each side to place units in their starting positions. In addition to having their class and combat strength indicated on their counters (naval units only have class), units and leaders also have small dots on their counters. Green dots indicate a unit available or entering play in 1812, yellow dots are for 1813, and red dots are for 1814; a single dot is a unit that arrives in the first half of the year, two dots indicates a unit that can be placed in the second half of the year. This is a great mechanism to keep track of available reinforcements and ship builds as the game progresses.

Once the game is set-up, the 1812 deck is prepared. Remove the card Declaration Of War and remove thirteen cards at random; then place the Declaration Of War card with these thirteen cards and shuffle them. This forms a mini-deck used for Pre-War movement and attacks. The US player draws the top card from the Pre-War deck and either plays it or holds it; then the British player draws one card, and players continues to alternate until the Declaration Of war card is drawn, at which point the remaining Pre-War deck is emptied by players alternating draws until no cards are left. Put the Game Turn marker in the Spring And Summer 1812 space and begin playing, with the Americans going first.

Game play
Game turns begin with a Reinforcement phase, in which both players simultaneously place their new units on the map. The British reinforcements all enter in Quebec, while the American player has a choice of placement for his reinforcements: Pittsburgh, Mansfield, Albany, and Fort McArthur. After that comes the card draw phase for each player, followed by players alternating playing Strategy Cards. The Americans play the first card in both turns of 1812, while the first player of 1813 and 1814 turns is determined by die roll modified by Victory Points. Strategy Cards can be played or held for later use (usually only Reaction, Battle, and Winter Event cards are held for later).

Action revolves around the Strategy Cards, which can have several effects on the game. Each year is divided into three turns: Spring And Summer, Summer And Autumn, and Winter. At the start of non-Winter turns, both players draw cards from the corresponding year deck; each player gets seven cards per turn in 1812, eight in 1813’s turns, and nine per turn in 1814. Cards are most often played for their Operations Value, a number in the card’s upper left corner that allows a player to activate units or a leader, build or repair naval vessels, restore units that have been reduced (flipped to their lower strength side), and create supply depots. If the flag symbol behind the OPV number matches the player’s side, he can use the card for its Event instead. Some cards are marked as Battle cards and can give a bonus in battle, while Reaction cards can be played on an opponent’s turn to trigger an untoward event such as storms. Winter Event cards can only be played during Winter turns.

Moving about
Movement is area to area, with boxes on the map indicating key cities and towns to battle over. Infantry units have a movement rate of six points (leaders and dragoons have ten), while naval vessels have their own special lake movement rules. Land movement occurs from box to box along roads, trails, or invasion routes (across rivers). Terrain such as forested or clear does not affect movement, though it does affect combat.

A player can move from one space (only) a number of units equal to the Operations Value of a card he played, or he can use the OPV of the card to activate a leader if the leader’s command value is equal to or less than the card. Land leaders have a number of stars, from one to three, indicating how many units they can command; one-star commanders can lead five units, but three-star officers can lead up to fifteen. A commander can “pick up” a junior (fewer stars) commander as one unit and carry units under the junior officer for free. Thus, you can have Hull (three stars) leading fourteen units pick up Hampton (a two-star) with eight units under his own command, and move twenty-two units in one stack that way. Notice that is twenty-two units, not strength points; unit counters all represent batallions, and the strength of each is dependant on training and morale. Remember, leaders have ten movement points while infantry only have six, so leaders can pick up and drop off units during their move.

The game has no stacking limits, but before you plan on creating a Leaning Tower Of Pisa with infantry to smash your opponent consider that each space on the map has a small number in it. This is the Winter Quartering value. During Winter turns, this is the maximum number of units you can safely have in that single space, with excess units suffering a step loss. (Strategy Cards can be played to restore to full strength a number of reduced units equal to the card’s OPV.) Leaders themselves do not count towards this supply limit. A single supply depot can be built in any space by the play of a card (only one depot is built regardless of the card’s value) to add four to the Winter Quartering value of the space it is placed in; this also creates a line of supply for friendly units. Depots are removed at the end of the Winter phase.

Anchors aweigh
Naval vessels do not enter the game automatically when they become available but must be built using Strategy Cards. The OPV of a card determines what can be built. There’s a complicated-looking chart, which really breaks down this way: sloops and schooners cost half a point each, brigs and corvettes cost one point each, and frigates cost two. So playing a card with a value of three would allow you to build two schooners, a brig, and a corvette, or a corvette and a frigate, or six sloops, etc.

Naval movement is slightly different than land unit movement. Naval vessels and leaders all have movement rates of six, and naval leaders have no stars indicating rank or seniority. When a naval leader is activated via the play of a Strategy Card (the card’s value must be equal to or higher than the leader’s value, same as with a land leader), he can move any number of naval units. A leader can pick up and drop off naval units, so long as he spends no more than six movement points. It costs one movement point (MP) to move from a town to another town on the same lake, one MP to pick up or drop off land units, one MP to participate in an amphibious assault, and one to move to the Lake Control box to try and take control of the lake. The size of the ship determines how many land units it can carry.

Combat between land units occurs when a player moves into a space containing enemy units or forts. Compare the strength totals of the two forces and turn it into an odds ratio (rounding in favor of the defender, as usual). This determines a modifier to the dice roll (a 2 to 1 odds attack is +1, while 1 to 3 odds attack is at -2). Other modifiers are determined based on the terrain and units involved, then the attacker rolls two dice, modifies it, and reads the result on the combat table. Results range from the attacker retreating and losing two steps to the defender retreating and losing two steps; results of six through eight mean both sides take a step loss and the combat continues. Battles do not end until one side has retreated or is destroyed.

Naval combat occurs between vessels sharing the Lake Control box. There are fewer modifiers in naval combat and only one die is rolled, with results ranging from a single step loss to one side or the other to striking the flag and losing all vessels. Naval combat ends after one round, with the winner gaining or maintaining control of the lake. Control of a lake does not prevent the enemy from traveling along it, but they cannot transport land units or use the lake to trace supply.

Winning the War of 1812
The game ends immediately if the US gains control of Quebec or the British gain control of three of the four US reinforcement cities (Pittsburgh, Mansfield, Albany, Fort McArthur). Otherwise, it continues until the 1814 card Treaty Of Ghent is played. Victory Points are then determined, although the US player can play the Battle Of New Orleans card to gain two VPs—the battle was fought after the treaty was signed, after all.

Victory Points are collected by capturing and holding enemy spaces (spaces in Canada have red Winter Quartering values, spaces in the US have blue numbers), for controlling lakes, and through the play of Strategy Cards for events. Subtract the lower Victory Point total from the higher to determine the level of victory: Stalemate if the difference is less than ten points, Marginal Victory if the difference is ten or more points, Major Victory for a twenty-point difference.

Mr. Madison’s War plays fast and smooth, its rules flowing well with the game. The various Strategy Cards are all historically accurate and make the game feel right for the period. Since the counters are marked to show when reinforcements are available you won’t be referring to reinforcement cards or tracks while playing. Combat is quick, and the supply rules are as clean and effortless as the rest of the game.

On the down end, there is little difference between combat units, so the game is not very tactical; you will be maneuvering troops to gain numerical advantage over enemy forces. The rules on naval vessels battling only on the lakes makes little sense. Wouldn’t a schooner in port have to retreat when an enemy ship of the line sails into view? And while we’re on the subject of naval rules, shouldn’t Lake Control at least impose a movement point penalty to enemy vessels?

Overall, Mr. Madison’s War is a nice little simulation of early 19th century warfare. It serves as a good introduction to the wargaming hobby as well as a fast and fun game for veteran players—a good value for the money and a great way to pass the evening with gaming buddies.

As I said at the beginning of this review, The War Of 1812 was an odd little war. Neither the US nor British governments have made its bicentennial a national event, though several US states are hosting their own activities and all branches of the military are involved in special commemorations. The Canadians, however, have marked the bicentennial as a national event; it was instrumental in creating Canada’s military and is seen as a defining chapter in that country’s history.

(See our partner site HistoryNet for a review of the 2011 PBS special, The War of 1812, now available on DVD.—Editor)

Armchair General Rating: 85%

Solitaire Suitability (1 is low, 5 is high): 2

About the Author
Sean Michael Stevenson is a writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A gamer since the SPI days, his collection numbers over 1400 games at present. He has also reviewed the wargame
Amateurs To Arms, another 1812 wargame from Clash Of Arms.


  1. Thank you Sean for a very fair review of “Mr. Madison’s War”. As for the naval movement and combat, I certainly could have made it more complicated and detailed. In initial play testing I had contemplated capture of enemy vessels, more detailed tactical combat etc…but it was making the game unnecessarily complicated for little return.

    Lake Control itself is rather an abstraction of more complicated events but don’t forget that controlling a lake does
    1) Cut supply
    2) deny the enemy lake transport
    3) garners 2 victory points

    But overall, I think you stated the case very well

    • Sorry for the much-delayed response, family medical issues have been keeping me busy the past year (everything’s doing better). Excellent game, and thanks for the design points in your post. Keep up the great work!