I HAVE BEEN PLAYING WARGAMES since 1979. In my early years, I really was more a tactical wargamer than playing operational or strategic-levels. I also was firmly rooted in the World War II or Modern-eras with a healthy dose of science fiction games. So I am not sure when, or even how, I ended added Rockets Red Glare: An Operational & Strategic Study of the War of 1812 in North America to my collection. This Stephen Newberg design published by Simulations Canada in 1981 has sat on my gaming shelves for years unpunched and unplayed. This past week, while looking for a weekday evening game, I pulled this one off the shelf for no other particular reason and opened the rulebook.
My gawd…I have missed an incredible game.
By today’s standards, the presentation of Rockets Red Glare is very underwhelming. It has a desktop publishing feel to it. The dark pink(?) rulebook is 12 pages (including cover) without page numbers. The rules are presented using the classic SPI rules structure (A / A1.0 / A1.1/ etc.). Although the page count is small, each page is a wall-o-text with few graphics. The baby-blueish map over a white background with tan or blue text is functional but won’t win any graphical awards. The map actually has three sections; the Strategic Map, the Operational Map, and various boxes and tables.
Rockets Red Glare is in many ways a classic hex & counter wargame. Two players, a very intricate Sequence of Play, cardboard chits, and dice rolling against a CRT (Combat Results Table). Rockets Red Glare is also two (nearly three) wargames in one.
Each turn represents one quarter of a year and starts with the first game using a Strategic Turn. Using a map of North America stretching from Boston to New Orleans, as well as the waters of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and off New England, the British and American players vie for dominance. Most importantly, the Strategic Turn features a Naval Phase for both players where the war at sea takes place. Although part of the Strategic Turn, these Naval Phases virtually count as a separate game unto themselves!
Following the Strategic Turn, play shifts to the second game in the Operational Turn which is played out on a map of the Great Lakes border area between the US and Canada. Here, in addition to the expected land combat, there can be naval operations on the Great Lakes.
Amazingly, playing the two levels of war in Rockets Red Glare is accomplished using a common set of counters and fairly unsophisticated rules. Three mechanics of the game jump out at me; the Naval Phase in the Strategic Turn, Land Unit movement, and Combat.
As a long-time naval wargamer, the war at sea has always interested me. Rockets Red Glare pits a small US Navy against the might of the Royal Navy. It portrays this war as a cat-n-mouse battle between individual US warships and Squadrons of the Royal Navy. The a US ship encounters a Royal Navy Squadron, a die roll is made against the squadron composition to determine what individual ships are actually met. This simple mechanic keeps the counter density low and adds a nice fog-of-war element to each battle. For instance, Squadron ‘E’ is rated as 3L, 3F, 1B. When encountered, the American player rolls a die against each category (Line, Frigate, Brig, or Troopship). If the die roll is equal to or less than the number, one of that class is encountered. Individual ships are picked from a set of face down counters meaning the actual ship may be the best, or the worst, or even a detached vessel (no encounter). Naval Combat uses the Strength Difference but each ship is rated A/B/C where A causes a column shift to the left (unfavorable) and C causes a shift to the right (favorable). A simple way to show a quality rating!
There is no movement factor on the Land Unit counters. In the Land Phase of the Strategic Turn, units instead have a number of movement points based the season. In the Operational Turn, each side has a maximum movement allowance based on the season. As easy as this is, it did bring up one of two gripes I have with the game.
As I already stated, in the Operational Turn, each side has a maximum movement allowance. As a unit (or sick of units) moves they draw down against this movement cap. The rules recommend using a piece of paper to keep track of MP expenditures for the turn. I created a simple player board track of 10 boxes using a 1x and 10x counter to cost down. Although the map is already full, I think a low-use map edge could of been set aside to support this important mechanic.
Land Combat uses a classic Combat Odds CRT. Like Naval Combat, Land Units are rated with A/B/C Class. As with Naval Combat, the Class provided a favorable or unfavorable column shift to the CRT. A very easy way to show troop quality. Additionally, on the Strategic Map, each hex has an Intrinsic Defense Strength. This mechanic again keeps the counter density low yet portrays the need to “battle” through certain areas.
The last mechanic I will discuss, and my second gripe with the game, is Victory Points and VP tracking. Rule D3.2X Victory Point Events is actually found on the map. There are nine events that generate victory points. Rule D3.1 Victory Points – General warns that, “Since the sums can be very high a calculator is useful….” THEY WEREN’T KIDDING. To determine the winner, the VP is reduced to ratio:
At the end of the scenario the player with the higher total compares his total with the lower total and produces a ratio. In all scenarios if the higher player has a victory point ratio of 1.5 to 1.0 or greater he is the winner of the game. If the ratio is less than 1.5 to 1.0 the game is considered a draw.
This has to be a mistake because, using the Rules as Written, the higher total will always win and there can be no draw. I think the intended rule may be a VP ratio equal to or greater than 1.5 is the winner and a ratio of 1.5 to 1.0 is a draw.
I am not heavy into 19th Century gaming outside of the American Civil War. The only other War of 1812 games I have is the lite wargame 1812: The Invasion of Canada from Academy Games and the unfortunately closely named Rocket’s Red Glare from Canadian Wargamer’s Group in 1994 which is more a set of miniatures rules. Rockets Red Glare does something that I have rarely experienced in a wargame; mix two levels of war (Strategic & Operational) as well as Land-Sea into a single functional gaming system. It certainly feels true to the themes of the war. The large Royal Navy against the small US frigates. The generally more experienced British operating at the end of supply against the numerous but less-experienced Americans. Indian allies for the British. It’s all here and can be experienced in a wargame of around 2 hours playing time.
As an older game, there is not a lot of support available for this title. Compass Games published a new edition in 2013 as the issue game in Paper Wars 78 (Spring 2013) but it is out of stock. Even BGG has only errata for the second edition and nothing for the first.
For wargamers this game is a relatively quick, easy to play, very insightful game of the War of 1812. The need to play the two levels of war and control both the land and sea campaigns makes this a very different game from many others. If for no other reason than to experience a game of this type, I recommend it to you.
For wargame designers, there is a lot to unpack here. I the last few months, I have heard the phrases “wargames are models” and “paper models” thrown around a lot. Rockets Red Glare is a paper model of the War of 1812 that successfully integrates Strategic and Operational levels of war as well as Land and Sea campaigns together. There is a lot that can be learned by today’s wargame designers from this Stephen Newberg classic.