Usually we do these designer interviews in more of an anticipatory preview like approach before a game has been released and is still in the design and development phase to give you an inside look at the mechanics, game play and thinking behind the design choices. Well, that was not the chosen path on this very interesting card driven wargame on the War of 1812 called Dawn’s Early Light: The War of 1812 from Compass Games. We played this game in mid-2020 and really enjoyed it so much that I wanted to get more information from the designer as I just found the systems used to be so very interesting. I reached out to David McDonough after we had played the game but before we had a chance to post our review of the game and he was very helpful and interested in sharing his thoughts on the design and the time period.

If you are interested, you can view our video review of the game at the following link:

Grant: First off David please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?

David: My name’s David, and I live in Baltimore, MD where I work as a lead designer for Firaxis Games, makers of the Civilization Series. I’ve been with them for over twelve years now. To relax I enjoy reading hiking, DIY projects, and histories, but I also have two little ones and spend most of my time with them playing games or just clowning around. My son and I are about to beat Link’s Awakening together, for example 😊

Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?

David: I have experience in designing digital strategy games at Firaxis, but I was curious to see if I could apply that to a board game. I was inspired by playing Twilight Struggle and the unfinished prototype of Imperial Struggle with Ananda Gupta some years ago when he was also a designer at Firaxis. Learning about those games motivated me to take a shot at a CDG grand strategy game of my own, and I slowly tackled it over the course of about five years. It was very rewarding to bring the game to the public! I enjoyed the prototyping and playtesting process a lot, getting to see the game in motion and sharpening it based on player feedback. It’s also been very rewarding to interact with the community on Board Game Geek now that the game is live.

Grant: What designers have influenced your style?

David: Ananda first and foremost – his Twilight Struggle was a mechanical model I followed in many cases. I also based a number of design decisions on dynamics I liked in Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror. Those are my board game influences, and I brought a lot of digital game influences with me from my work and my colleagues at Firaxis.

Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?

David: Finding the right level of abstraction for all the nuanced material that a historic game presents. You want to be authentic but not overdo it. I don’t enjoy games that are too rigid about the history and don’t let the players make their own choices. During the War of 1812 there was a lot going on: battles and forces moving all over the continent and at sea. Finding ways to reflect that in the game that was honest but not overwhelming was the most significant challenge. But, that process of abstraction is something I do all the time in my work on the Civilization games, so it’s not only familiar but fun. I think Dawn’s Early Light arrived at a fun and authentic place in its abstraction choices.

Grant: What is your game Dawn’s Early Light about?

David: The War of 1812, from the Canadian theater to the Indian frontier to the naval war. This game recreates the entire conflict and lets players fight it out on land, sea, and in the arena of politics and public sentiment. You win by amassing victory points across 8 turns covering the years 1812 to 1814, or you can win instantly by getting 20 VP’s or with a conquest knockout by conquering a set of your opponent’s key cities.

Grant: What inspired you to design a game on the War of 1812?

David: I’ve been a fan of the conflict as a historical topic since I read C.S. Forester’s The Age of Fighting Sail when I was in college. I’m a long-time fan of the naval history during the Age of Sail, particularly around the Napoleonic Wars, and that book introduced me not just to the naval war of 1812 but the whole wide and wild conflict. When I started to learn about the rest of the war it just got better, and I knew it would make a terrific game.

Grant: What sources did you consult on the design? What was the must read source that you’d recommend to anyone interested?

David: The aforementioned Forester book as well as Teddy Roosevelt’s Naval History of 1812 were primary sources. I also read H.W. Brand’s biography of Andrew Jackson and the classic J. Mackay Hitsman’s The Incredible War of 1812. Otherwise I did a lot of online research by combing the references and bibliography on Wikipedia entries to find articles and scholarly papers on the war. This was especially helpful for learning about the involvement of the Indians in the war – a topic not often part of our common knowledge about the war.

Grant: What from the period did you need to make sure and model in the design?

David: Several factors, easily. The huge range of territory the war took place within, such that armies had to march into wilderness for weeks in order to even find each other let alone fight. The pivotal role of Tecumseh and the Indian alliances he founded, and how close they came to changing American history forever. The hilarious shipbuilding race on the Great Lakes. And of course, the hugely lopsided but thrilling war at sea, featuring America’s first spectacular single-ship victories over Great Britain.

Grant: The game is a card driven game. Why did you feel this was the best medium for the game?

David: From the other CDG’s I played, I was impressed at how well the genre could present real historical material without forcing players to recreate history. The cards can carry pretty complex ideas and very singular events in a way that lets the game include those truths but doesn’t require it to have systems and rules that tie players’ hands. Because their random nature, cards can mix up their source material in an exciting way, and I found this really enlivened other historic games in the genre without losing too much authenticity. I saw how well it worked in other CDG’s and felt it was ideal for this game, too.

Grant: The best-known game on the subject is generally accepted to be Mr. Madison’s War from GMT Games. What are the similarities / differences between the two games?

David: They are both about land conquest between the Americans and British/Canadians during the period, and both take a stance on representing those battles accurately. They differ in their level of focus, detail, and in how they position themselves between strategy and simulation. MMW is tightly focused on the Canadian theater and takes a more simulated approach to the period. It includes named commanders as playing pieces with stats, for example, and it goes much deeper into combat mechanics that, in my view, require players to more closely match what actually happened in order to succeed.

Dawn’s Early Light takes a higher, broader, and more abstract view. DEL battles are quick and simple throws of the dice, and it intentionally abstracts out figures and locations to let players remix those factors into their own version of the war. Some situations may occur exactly as they did, or they may occur in new combinations or never appear at all. It draws on the same historic material but presents it in a way that is more player-directed in the service of a more surprising and emotionally authentic experience. Dawn’s Early Light also includes all the other elements of the greater conflict that I mentioned above  — Indians, ships at sea, fighting in the south, politics and public opinion – in a way that keeps them all relevant and equal in importance with the land battles.

Grant: What led you to choose an area movement map versus point to point? What advantages does area movement lend the design?

David: I wanted each region to have lots of access to its neighbors. Controlling territory in 1812 wasn’t so clean-cut that you would need the kinds of sharp delineations that a point-to-point map typically delivers. It was my intent that every region could be under threat from a variety of angles and battles would be fought and re-fought over the same ground with lots of variance. Regions in DEL have, on average, four other regions they are linked with, and that really required an area approach in order to keep the map readable and attractive. We actually tried a node graph layout during prototyping, and the sheer number of crisscrossing lines demonstrated pretty quickly that it wasn’t the right idea.

Grant: The map is gorgeous but has some interesting names of areas. What areas make up the map and how were those decisions made?

David: It’s divided into town and rural regions. Towns are large areas around a major center of population, typically a place where the home country could muster troops. These are high-value locations that players want to attack and defend. Around the towns are the rural regions, and these are named after large geographic areas – Shenandoah, Penobscot, Cumberland, and so on. Rural regions were kept broad in order to keep the game moving quickly and smoothly. The way the movement works, trudging through a series of intermediate regions to get into action would have really bogged down the game, so the smaller specific regions were merged into larger geographic ones across several iterations of the prototype. The Indian regions are the same way, but these take their names from the tribe that was predominant in that part of the continent. That’s an even fuzzier standard in some cases, but once again matches the design goal of keeping things simple, easy to understand, and easy to play with.

Grant: What does the Public Policy notation on the turn track mean?

David: Every odd-numbered turn, players can advance one level on a Public Policy track of their choice (the Public Opinion, Economy, and Diplomacy tracks). The markers on the turn track are there to help players remember to take that action at the start of the turn.

Grant: How does the Political Contest affect the game? What are the different abilities listed in this section of the map?

David: The Political Contest includes three tracks with three levels each. Each level on each of the tracks grants an ongoing advantage to players as long as their marker is at or higher than that level. For example, if the US player gets to level 1 on Public Opinion, they get to place 2 Recruit tokens in every town during turn upkeep instead of the normal 1 (assuming the town isn’t already maxed out). If the US player then goes up to level 2 on Public Opinion, they still get this recruit advantage, plus they get the level 2 effect which adds 1 OPS point to the value of cards they play for Campaign operations. Level 3 Public Opinion grants your forces a bonus die in any battle that occurs in your own home region, whether attacking or defending. In Diplomacy, the advantage is very straightforward: 1 extra VP at the end of every turn for levels 1 and 2, and finally the ability to draw and play an extra card each turn.

Sometimes the tracks are asymmetrical where the two players get different benefits from the same level. This is the case for Public Opinion level 1 and Economy level 1. The US advantage for Public Opinion 1 is described above, while the GB player has the advantage of additional VP’s per level of blockade they are able to maintain (scored during the Naval Theater scoring at the end of every turn). In Economy, the US players gets the benefit of rolling 2 dice for every OPS point they spend on Privateering operations, effectively doubling the value of cards devoted to that action, while the GB player has the potent countermeasure of receiving 2 additional Squadrons for use in keeping up their blockades and making landing attacks.

Grant: How did you go about assigning the different abilities or benefits listed there for each side?

David: This was a process of abstracting the larger political movements shaping the decisions made by the two sides. Britain had certain unique constraints on their conduct of the war – the battle with Napoleon, homeward-bound convoys from the Indies, or relationships with the Indians to name a few. The Americans, by contrast, remained more or less devoted to fighting and winning a war of conquest on land against Canadian territory. They had little agenda at sea beyond just trying to distract or hold off the overwhelming British sea power. Where the tracks differ, they are speaking to what each side was focused on or what was a source of special power for them during the war. The Americans advantages support raising large armies and harassing the British with privateers. Britain needed to keep control of the sea, so their advantages support setting up and profiting from blockades.

Grant: What is the Naval Theater for? How do players manipulate the tracks here and what is the benefit?

David: It represents the influence of the war at sea on the larger conflict. The naval war was very one-sided – Britain’s navy outnumbered America’s by an enormous margin – but it was still highly influential on how both sides fought and the strategies they used. Britain tried to squeeze the US into submission with its blockades and tried to make daring landing attacks against vulnerable US population centers. The US couldn’t compete with their own tiny navy, so they tried to harass British commerce and put pressure on their supply lines to the fight against Napoleon, both with their navy and with fleets of privateers.

Mechanically, the British player benefits when they get blockades up and keep them up. As they do, their track rises, reflecting the persistent advantage these large blockades provided. The American player has to take riskier shots with sending out ships to cruise and privateer. They cannot rely on their naval wins to stick around long, but if they get lucky, they can run up the Privateering track or knock out Squadrons from blockades to even the odds.

Britain enjoys a permanent advantage at sea both in rules and in OPS points efficiency, so their strategy should be to hold the line and let the inertia work in their favor. America can never outdo Britain at sea, but with a little attention and luck they can usually draw even.

Grant: How did you come up with this interesting concept of the naval battle in this form?

David: After a lot of iteration and playtesting! I had originally wanted the naval war to be more elaborate simply because I just enjoy the history, but I had to acknowledge that its impact on the war was slow, sporadic, and too lopsided to justify making it a full system like battles on land. I decided it was best represented as a pressure on each side’s willingness to stick to the fight. In a game like this, Victory Points are the best currency to use for a mechanic seeking to introduce this kind of slow momentum, so the naval war became more of a source of VP changes at the end of a turn. It had the desired effect: players pay attention to it when there’s trouble or to set up long-term moves, but they spend the bulk of their cards and points on the war on land.

Grant: What different units are present in the game? 

David: Both belligerents have Militia and Regulars, and there are also Indians which acts as auxiliaries to the British player. Players can directly recruit their army forces in their towns while Indians tend to arrive unpredictably from card events. All forces fight the same in the battle system, but the different classes have higher or lower thresholds to be destroyed, representing the relative reliability and effectiveness of that type of force in the historical record.

Grant: What role do Indian units play?

David: They can have a variety of roles. At a minimum they can join the British army forces when fighting American forces in battle, helping Britain outnumber and overpower the US. But they can also act independently, either to fight battles on their own or to take a special Raiding action that can turn town attacks into immediate victory points. So they can be part of a large army, or they can be used as small-group harassers that distract the US player from spending their valuable points in more key areas.

Grant: Why are there no leaders present in the game on the board in the form of counters? How does this fit into your vision of the time?

David: There are leaders in the game, in fact, but they are represented as card events rather than pawns or figures on the map. This was a decision I made carefully for two key reasons: to keep the battle system quick and accessible, and to treat the impact of these historic characters as equivalent to the impact of all the other events, locations, and pressures represented on the cards.

Regarding the battle system rationale, I felt that including character figures would require adding complexity to that system – they would need stats at the very least, and probably rules about when and how they could be captured or killed. I regarded all that as a distraction from the elegance of the battle system DEL includes. I like that battles are very easy to adjudicate and very simple mainly because I want the game to be fast-playing and I want players to be focused on their grand strategy – their aims for the overall war and their bigger, more subtle moves against their opponents. That high-level focus is one of the reasons I chose the card-driven genre and why I love it. I didn’t want the focus to be on details of individual battles that slow the game down and require excessive rules.

Representing the leaders as cards was another decision made in service of bringing out what the card-driven genre does best. These characters undeniably had big impacts on the war, so they had to be in the game somewhere! But by making them cards, they exist on the same level as other events and encourage players to save or deploy them for their own strategic ends in the same way. Andrew Jackson is a powerful anti-Indian card event that I can use when it suits me, or try to bury or mitigate if it doesn’t help me, which is part of the excitement and rewarding strategy that a CDG game can deliver. And all this is gained by leaning into the genre conventions instead of trying to build a complex system around them.

Grant: How was the decision made regarding the various combat factors?

David: As described above, my main goal was to keep battles simple and fast. I wanted the game to encourage many of these, and for few of them to be decisive on their own but rather smaller steps in a long and bloody campaign. In the actual history there was a lot of inconclusive fighting and re-fighting over the same ground. For those reasons I wanted to keep the elements at play – forces, locations, and dice – as straightforward as possible. That led to the division of army forces into the two classes (Militia and Regulars) and the to-hit roll rules for eliminating forces in battle. Those were the core rules, and to these I added the concept of bonus dice coming from environmental effects like forts and ships. Again, by folding these complex ideas into the same core rules, battles could take on a lot of variance without relying on lots of conditions and checks that would slow them down. The simple dice rules let players do all the deep strategy they need to: they can plan for battles far in advance by mustering and concentrating forces, they can judge how a battle is going round to round and when to retreat, they can assess a position for how weak or strong it is, everything that is necessary to make a good campaign game without sacrificing the game’s speed and accessibility.

Grant: How does combat work in the design?

David: In simple terms, it’s a straight roll of the dice between the two sides. Any time forces of the two sides arrive in the same location, they fight a battle until only one side remains (or none, as sometimes occurs!). Players get one die for every force, and they get bonus dice from other factors in the region where the battle is occurring including forts and offshore ships or blockades. Forces are removed if the opponent rolls above their to-hit threshold (6/5/4 for Regulars, Militia, and Indians respectively). Dice are rolled simultaneously, which means battles can end in mutual annihilation. One throw of the dice per side is one battle round, and after each round both the attacker and the defender have the option to retreat. When one side retreats or is destroyed, the battle is over.

Battles are usually triggered by moving forces with the Campaign operation. Critically, even though Campaign operations can move several groups of forces in the same action, every single move that brings forces into conflict is resolved before the Campaign action continues. So you can make probing attacks: move a group of forces into battle, see how it goes, then decide where to make your next campaign move.

Grant: How are troops levied and recruited? What was the basis for the limit placed on cities?

David: Troops come from spending OPS on a Recruit action that converts special “Recruit” tokens in your towns into forces. In almost all cases you have to have tokens available to raise new forces, so your supply of Recruits is critical to where and when you can make new forces. Most (not all) towns have what’s called a Recruit Strength, which is the maximum number of Recruit tokens that it can hold at a time. During turn upkeep you add just one Recruit token to each such town as long as it is not maxed. In this way, Recruits arrive slowly but can build up to formidable quantities over time. Watching your supply of Recruits in key towns – and doing to same for your opponent’s towns – is an essential element to timing the raising of armies and determining where to send them.

The basis for each town’s Recruit Strength comes from the historic record. Capitals and big coastal cities had more people willing to join the fight, so they tend to have higher recruit strength than the smaller, more remote cities. But additionally, some towns were historically hotbeds of volunteerism while some were borderline seditious, refusing to support the war more than absolutely necessary. This why, for example, a smaller town like Nashville has a high recruit strength – it reflects the very high rates of militia service among Tennesseans at the time.

Grant: How do players use the cards? What happens when you play a card associated with your opponent?

David: Dawn’s Early Light is a pretty standard card-driven game and follows conventions that would be familiar to anyone who’s played a well-known CDG like Twilight Struggle. Each card has an event, an alignment (either US, British, or both) and an OPS point value. Card events are all unique and do pretty interesting things, but they tend to be situational: a powerful event at the wrong time could end up totally wasted. OPS points are used to take one of a range of standardized actions including raising troops, campaigning them, deploying squadrons or building forts. Each time you play a card for points, you pick just one operation to perform and must devote all the OPS on the card to that action. Cards have OPS points values from 1 to 4, so operations can be small or they can be pretty big depending on how many points you have to work with.

When you play a card aligned to you (including a card aligned to both sides), you must choose whether to play it for its event or for its OPS points – it will perform one but not both. However, when you play a card aligned to your opponent, both the event and the OPS points will be used. You get to use the OPS for an operation of your choice, but your opponent gets to execute the event however they wish. The further decision you have to make is which occurs first: your operation, or your opponent’s event. These rules all work together to deliver the magic of a card-driven strategy game: the intense, satisfying series of dilemmas trying to figure out how to execute your hand of cards to maximize your operations and your events while trying your best to dodge or mitigate the opposing events on cards you’ll be forced to play.

Grant: What actions can the players take with the Ops points from cards?

David: Both players have three core actions: Recruiting turns those Recruit tokens into new forces, Campaigning moves forces around the map and starts battles, and Constructing makes new Forts and places control markers on the map’s waterways (the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence river).

Beyond these common operations, each player has two unique operations only they can take. The US player has two naval operations: Privateering lets you roll dice for a chance to advance on the Privateering track and earn VPs at the end of the turn, and Cruising lets you roll dice in a similar way for a chance to force the British player to recall Squadrons from their active blockades. Both of these are designed to help the American player shrug off the pressure of British blockades, earning some quick points or avoiding the threat of a landing attack.

The British have one naval and one land unique operation. Deploy Squadrons lets them place their special Squadron markers in Blockade Zones or use them to carry army forces for a landing attack against one of a half-dozen coastal towns. Raid is a special operation that only Indian forces can use (Indians are only usable by the British player). To Raid, a group of Indian forces makes an attack against a US town. If they defeat or meet no opposition, you roll dice for each Indian force for a chance to score instant VPs. The cost, however, is that all Indians that joined the raid are removed after the operation – whether or not they earned any VPs.

Grant: How are victory points earned? How does the game end?

David: The principal way is by occupying enemy regions. You must go on the attack and capture enemy territory to earn points this way, you cannot win through defense alone. The Naval Theater also contributes a steady supply of points: the British player earns points relative to the number of complete blockades they can maintain, and the American player earns points from successful privateering. Players can also earn points each turn from the first two levels of the Diplomacy track if they have invested in it. And finally, a wide variety of card events will award instant VPs for specific situations.

The Victory Point scoreboard is a tug-of-war reaching to 20 points on either side. At the end of the game’s eight turns, whichever player is leading in VPs is the winner. However, there are two ways to earn an instant victory. If either player can go up by 20 points over their opponent at any time, they win immediately. Or, if you can conquer a key set of towns from your opponent you also win immediately. For the Americans, this is Montreal and Halifax, while for the British it is any three of the set of Boston, New York, Baltimore/Washington, and New Orleans.

Grant: What are some of the general strategies you recommend for each side?

David: The main strategy for the US is to win a war of conquest. They have an advantage in the number of recruits they can draw on and the number of forces they can field, and they have access to more areas of the map at the start of the game. Their goal should be to start squeezing Canada by pressuring the towns, taking or threatening the rural interior, and trying to roll up control of the waterways to prevent easy British reinforcements or counterattacks. They need to watch out for blockades and the threat of landings in the South, and keep the Indian forces diminished or scattered so they cannot raid or link up with British armies.

For the British, the early game should be on defense against the large army the Americans start with. Solidify control of the Canadian frontier and try to employ Indians to keep the Americans from organizing a concerted push. Meanwhile, start pressuring them from the sea: fill blockades to earn points and (hopefully) threaten landing attacks against vulnerable cities. Force the US player to commit troops to coastal town defense, then be ready to seize opportunities to break the Canadian line and try for an invasion of the easier US towns like Boston or Detroit. Keeping up the cycle of harassing with the Indians, holding the blockades, and striking at the northern theater should earn you a slow but steady points advantage.

But for both players, the best strategy is to cut losses and stay flexible! Card events will roll through that dramatically change the situation round by round and turn by turn. Being poised to seize opportunities is critical to the success of either side.

Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?

David: I sought to make a game that reflected the whole war and permitted a lot of player control but was still accessible and relatively quick to play (as wargames go), and I think those aims were achieved. I’ve heard such wonderful stories from testers and players about wild situations, tense battles, and last-second desperate victories, it makes me so proud of the game. When I play it myself, I enjoy how surprising it can still be and how tough those dilemmas still are, even for someone that knows it as well as I do.

Grant: What changes occurred to the game through the playtest process?

David: Many, many. The map shrank in number of regions, and the adjacencies were simplified. The Naval Theater went though a number of iterations from a more unit-based model with forces and battles to the asymmetrical points-based system it has now. The Construct operation used to be two distinct operations for building forts and shipbuilding for waterway control, but that led to players just never using them because they were too expensive. The battle system actually had a different metric for scoring and removing forces that changed very late in testing – it was one of the last moves I made, actually, bringing it to where it is now.

Players had lots of feedback on specific cards, of course. I have pages and pages of revision notes from tests nudging card effects and OPS points up and down. Remarkably the actual cards themselves were almost unchanged across the whole project. I was able to keep the theme and intent of every card and apply balance changes alone. But I was still tweaking cards and OPS values even as the game was going through final editing with Compass Games.

Grant: What other projects are you working on?

David: I have another grand strategy game in the works! I won’t reveal the theme just yet, but I will say that it’s about a great endeavor that isn’t a war, but does have a lot of the same sorts of challenges and strategic dilemmas. It’s also intended as a cooperative (or solo) game, which I know is unusual and which I hope finds an audience among wargamers and the sorts of players that would enjoy Dawn’s Early Light. I am busily working towards a first prototype of that game and hope to have it ready for testing by the summer.

Thank you for your time in answering our questions David. We really enjoyed the game and found it to be engaging, interesting and a great learning experience.

If you are interested in Dawn’s Early Light: The War of 1812, you can order a copy for $69.00 from the Compass Games website at the following link: