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Bear Flag Republic: California During Mexican American War




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Product Description

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At long last, the first new game design from designer Jack Greene in over 20 years!

Bear Flag Republic is a card-enhanced game for 2 players based on California in 1846-47 at the time of the Mexican-American War. The game map shows most of California (known as Alta (upper) California). The owners are Mexico and the Californios or Californians). The object of the game is for the Californians to retain Alta California while the goal of the Bear Flaggers and United States troops and sailors is to seize the soon to be Golden State. The fighting itself was not particularly bloody and involved relatively small numbers of troops. There are two major events that influence the course of the game. One is the outbreak of the Bear Flag Revolt just before the formal Declaration of War between the United States and Mexico is known of in California. The other is the rebellion of Southern California over the initial occupation by the Americans.

The game is a TWO-ACT play. Several key and often-random events may play a powerful role in the final outcome of the fighting. The game will take 1-3 hours to play to completion.

Designer's Notes:

Having spent most of my life living in California I have often run across the historical article on the war between the Californians and the Americans in 1846-47. I became quite serious about the campaign in 2014 and read extensively on it. I especially sought out translated Spanish language accounts and biographies.

Names may seem odd at first glance. Yerba Buena was the first name for San Francisco. Usually I have chosen to use the name and spelling for that period. The most fundamental aspect of the campaign was the fluidness of it. With so few players, on such a vast landscape, things moved quickly and often decisively on a hair-trigger.

Numbers are important and not entirely clear. Probably about 8,000 Californios were of Mexican decent, often with Black and Native American blood in their family trees. Some figures are as low as 6,000+. There were probably about 1200 "others" of whom 800 were from the United States. The Native American population had been hammered in repeated epidemics including smallpox and the measles. Chief Solano had been one of two early-inoculated Native Americans of his tribe for smallpox and both survived an earlier epidemic. The Chief was a long time friend of General Vallejo and was physically a giant of man, over 6 feet tall. Estimates at the time of the fighting vary widely, but there were probably 100,000+ in California at the time. It could be much higher, especially in the northern part of the state. But finally, and this is almost always missed, the number of sailors on the American squadron off of Alta California was over 2,000 fighting men. The USN, obviously, is an immensefactor.

Many Californios thought becoming part of the United States, as long as their way of life was preserved, would be best for Alta California in the long run. Abel Stearns, an American who became a Californian said there was an element of "ojalá que lo tomen Los Americanos" – "I hope the Americans take it." General Vallejo is possibly the best known of the Californians who thought American rule would be better than Mexican rule. One comment, from northern Mexico is telling. "So disgusted was an intelligent Mexican whom I knew, with the arrogance and extortion of his own troops, . . . ., that he preferred the presence of the American army to his own; since from the former he was sure of obtaining a fair compensation for his property."

California was also split between south and north even back then. The Northern Californian was known as an Arribeños (literally highlander). During the fighting the losses in battle were minimal. The result in a lost "battle" would see the defeated force simply, in part, leave for home. So a step loss does not mean 50 or so men were killed or wounded, more likely it was 2 or 3 and the other 40 odd deserted.

Arms are in sharp contrast. The California lancers were superbly mounted and trained. But their pistols were single-shot and their muskets were old, inaccurate and short ranged. It could be argued that the Californian's artillery were old Spanish guns, the infantry were armed with American Revolutionary arms, the cavalry with medieval arms. But it must be recalled that the lance was still in use in World War One. 

Many, but not all the USMC, Fremont and Kearny were armed with the faster shooting 1819 breech-loading Hall rifle (The famous Mississippi Rifles carried the newer 1841 muzzle-loading rifle–-a longer range and very accurate weapon), and many carried the Colt-Paterson five-shooter pistol (not the new six-shooter). When sailors were landed they were often armed, if available, with the Jenks Carbine Navy .52. And of course the Mountain Men largely carried accurate rifles (by no means always a Hawken) that are reflected in the combat factors. Fremont's party of 62 men, minus the 12 Delaware Indians, was each armed with "three to six guns, rifles, and pistols."

The weak Presidio "companies" were seldom paid, indifferently equipped and were of poor fighting quality. Just before the war the soldiers at one post were dressed in "trousers made from blankets." Some have been incorporated into other units in the game. But, it should be noted that they did allow for superb understanding of the local terrain. They were at Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Barbara and San Diego. The Presidio at Yerba Buena had been abandoned for some years. Los Angeles had a Government house and not a formal military base though nearby Mesa had a parade ground. Captain Gillespie easily converted the Government house into a small fort at the time of the Californian uprising. Commodore Stockton strutted across this stage with some force. Arrogant, wealthy, politically connected and longtime duelist, he had been instrumental in internally "exiling" John Ericsson (later inventor of the Monitor) after the USS Princeton disaster. Earlier, he did, by exceeding his orders, in largely establishing Liberia as a nation for freed slaves. But for our game, he had received army training back in 1814 when sailors were given infantry training during the British raid on Washington D.C. and the attack on Baltimore. Later, while in command of the Princeton, his crew had been helpful in putting down anti-Catholic rioting in Philadelphia--hence the Stockton Brigade of 1846 that also received training before seeing action.

The California Battalion was formally organized in late July but I have modified its entry into its later form. This leaves the Fremont counter in play throughout the game while the California Battalion represents troops that were later muster for the campaign under that same designation.

The Mormon Battalion plays a minor role, but it does have an interesting history. Largely armed with the older Army model 1816 flintlock musket, some of the men were armed with the Hall breech-loader and Jenks Carbine. It was the only officially designated religion military unit in the history of the United States. Other units were unofficial such as the American Civil War Irish Brigade made up largely of Irish Catholics. 

Some may wonder why Arizona and Nevada are supply points. Not so much due to wagon traffic but the Colorado river in Arizona and the Sierra Nevada mountains were areas where you could often count on plentiful game and water, so you could prepare and expedition before crossing into sometimes trying areas of California. Nevada benefitted but the long but watered Spanish Trail. Arizona overland to Mexico was the shortest and quickest route.

John Sutter is an interesting man. He was essentially a slave-holder and slave-trader with the buying and selling of Native Americans, though also with some of his friends. Some of the wars fought by Sutter were to protect his herds from, primarily, horse-stealing but they were also ways of capturing Native Americans to trade for his substantial debts. He wanted a Mexican army unit to be based at his fort and players may wish to experiment with placing the optional Mexican 4th Battalion there instead of San Diego.

The Californian rebellion in Los Angeles is of note. Captain José Maria Florés was chosen as Commandante General, Jose Antonio Carrillo was 2nd in command resuming an older title of his, Mayor General and Andrés Pico was Comandante de Escuadron.

One interesting aspect is the California Banknote. Cow hides. Trade in them was key to the early California economy. In 1826 there were 200,000+ head of cattle in the state. But with war approaching, one historian would write, California was a "land rich but poor in every other way, lacking cash, gunpowder, and support from Mexico."

Another feature were the Sandwich Islanders--Hawaiians to you and me. The Hawaiian Islands were key for supplies and trade with California, and in the case of the future San Francisco, of the 450 inhabitants at the time of the war 40 were Kanakas or Hawaiians. A dozen+ of the first occupants of Sutter’s Fort were also Hawaiian. If you wanted to educate your Californian children in English, the religious schools in the Sandwich Islands were good and the closest available. 

Captain John Montgomery, whose name is on a street in San Francisco that is the financial capital of the Bay Area, lost two sons in the war. But tragically they did not die in combat. They were murdered by a crew from his ship escorting by the ship's launch money up the Sacramento River to Sutter's Fort for payment. 

Oh, and reading the contemporary American books, it is “Uncle Samuel” and not Uncle Sam! The term used in this game for Indigenous People is People. Hence the Modoc People, etc. When looking back at this period in our history I was struck by what Werner H. Marti wrote at the end of his book about the California Rising that started in September. "The revolt which was born of misunderstanding, fear, harshness, and lack of tact was fortunately formally ended in a spirit of understanding, conciliation, and amity."

Components (projected):

One 22x34" full-color, mounted map board
One sheet of die-cut, full-color, mounted playing pieces (or counters)
One deck of playing cards
Several sheets of play aids
Two six-sided dice
Storage baggies
Game Box

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