The Dice-Spangled Banner
The War of 1812 suffers from an asymmetry of memory. In America it became part of a triumphal national myth. In Britain it became a footnote. In fairness to the former, resolving a war in stalemate despite having your capitol sacked is an achievement. In fairness to the latter, everything becomes a footnote when you’re trying to depose Napoleon. Neither side properly won. No borders were redrawn. No major concessions were granted, and the minor ones went largely ignored. The real losers were the American Indians and the Spanish, both of whom found themselves ceding more territory to the expanding Republic.
In Dawn’s Early Light, David McDonough evinces the pointless fury of this conflict largely by wrenching any gains back toward the status quo. It’s hard to conclude whether this is because he’s an exemplary teller of history or a cruel maker of games.
Before we get into the particulars, I want to illustrate something by zooming out. Not as far as the war in Europe, although it’s useful to remember that Britain was occupied elsewhere. Rather, just far enough to see all three of the theaters overtaken by war.
The theater that saw the lion’s share of engagements centered on the Great Lakes, a stretch of frontier between Canada and New England. Appropriately, this range occupies roughly half of the map, including a highway of contested waterways, all three British cities, and most of America’s recruitment potential. To the south and west rage the Creek Civil War and Tecumseh’s attacks against white settlers, a theater dominated by raids and small actions between militia. Lastly, out at sea, the British navy is preoccupied with forming blockades and occasionally deploying troops to tempting coastal locations like New Orleans, Washington, and Spanish Florida.
These theaters are interconnected. Nothing geographical prevents an enterprising British player from marching as many Indians as possible from Creek through Shenandoah and into Baltimore-Washington. Similarly, if the American player wants to circle around the entrenchments at Kingston and Montreal and enter Canada by way of Detroit and Potawatomi, that’s also possible.
But in both cases, the limitations of geography aren’t as pressing as those of time and action, resources that are plentiful yet somehow not nearly plentiful enough. Every turn heralds new pressures from your opposition. In the Great Lakes, that pressure usually takes the form of fresh recruits transforming into additional counters of militia and regulars. On the frontier, massed Indians. At sea, blockades and privateers. In every case, these conflicts are decidedly attritional. At times it’s even desirable to kill off a few of your own counters so you can bring more onto the table. When it comes to Indian raids, this attrition is baked right into the rules: Indians move into a town, battle with any defenders, roll for victory points, and then disappear, ready to be recruited anew. In terms of the naval war, the conflict plays out as an abstract relationship between Britain’s blockades and America’s privateers. Along the Great Lakes, it’s possible to construct tokens that represent controlled waterways — or deconstruct opposing tokens. The result can veer into routine as one player after the other spends a card to destroy an opposing vessel and build their own, then spends a card to destroy an opposing vessel and build their own, then… you get the idea.
There’s a natural tempo to many of these exchanged volleys. A lucky battle roll can see one side extending into enemy territory. Except now they’re beyond the range of quick reinforcements and defensive bonuses, so the other side has an easier time sweeping them back into their former position. Back and forth it goes, occasionally upended by a naval landing or a groundswell of support in an unexpected theater.
Dawn’s Early Light’s approach to events makes this tendency toward the status quo even more ironclad. Speaking mechanically, it’s a familiar formula for card-driven wargames. The British and Americans alternate playing cards, and can either use a card’s event or its ops points to undertake generic actions such as campaigning or recruiting. If ever you play an opposing card, they get a stab at the event, encouraging you to unleash them when their effect will be negligible. It’s a tried and tested approach, lending itself to well-timed attacks and sparring feints, and it works as well here as anywhere.
Apart from when it’s undoing a half-dozen rounds of careful play. On more than one occasion, I’ve watched as someone undertook a bold campaign, outmaneuvered their opposition, won a chancy roll, occupied rival territory — and then lost their force courtesy of a single card. This isn’t to say that events are solely enforcers of the status quo. Sometimes they spur great changes, such as sparking the Creek Civil War or permitting the imminent capture of the White House. But in those moments, the problem is accentuated rather than ameliorated. Rather than playing Dawn’s Early Light and powering through the buffeting winds of historical accident, it’s hard to escape the feeling that I’m the plaything and the event cards are the player.
To some degree this is the tightrope walked by every card-driven wargame. If I know that a surprise naval landing is possible in Washington — and will score a heap of points if successful — I’ll keep the city stacked with regulars. If I know that Andrew Jackson can wipe out half of the Indian counters in two regions sometime after 1814, I’ll make sure to spread them out more carefully. If I know Charles de Salaberry can nuke three US forces on British soil, I’ll scatter them across the countryside rather than occupying a single location. This isn’t a new conundrum. Wargames have always had to contend with the twin advantages of historical hindsight and the foresight gained from repeat plays.
At the same time, Dawn’s Early Light seems determined to enforce the borders between the United States and Canada. Armies become harder to reinforce as they march farther from home, which the game easily models by only permitting recruitment in home territories. But it takes that additional step by spring-loading its events to routinely wipe units off the map entirely, often those that occupy enemy territory.
Under normal circumstances this would prove frustrating. Galling, even. But there are a few reasons it feels appropriate to Dawn’s Early Light. First, despite a number of engagements, the War of 1812 proved largely static in the end. Second, the game’s insistence on enforcing the historical situation soon encourages a second layer of timing concerns. It isn’t enough to commission privateers or occupy a particular town or amass an army of Indians. These things must be done at precisely the moment when they can pay off. Preparations made early, campaigns launched when the enemy cannot counter, raids undertaken before a vulnerable town can raise a militia. Further, the game’s lightness paves the way for these decisions rather than burying them beneath persnickety rules or special conditions. The result is still too straitjacketed for my tastes, but I didn’t begrudge having learned or played Dawn’s Early Light precisely because it was so easy to do so.
In the end, Dawn’s Early Light is a mixed bag. As an entry-level wargame, it manages to replicate a familiar system in a user-friendly environment, provided you don’t stray too far from friendly posts. As anything more, it’s a little too steadfast about its guardrails. The result captures the breadth of the War of 1812, its frustrations, its fizzle of a conclusion. Me, I prefer a bang.
A complimentary copy was provided.