Mary Russell

As you probably know by now, every year I design a "freebie" game that is given away during our annual end-of-year Hollandays Sale. This year's game is The Toledo War, a card game about the 1835-36 border dispute between the State of Ohio and the Territory of Michigan. This conflict is quite obscure, and even Michiganders and Ohioans are unlikely to regard it as more than a piece of trivia.

The broad outlines of the conflict are as follows: both Michigan and Ohio professed a claim to 468 square miles called the Toledo Strip. I'm going to say that Michigan's claim was the stronger of the two, but I'm a Michigan man, and I'm sure Ohioans would feel differently. The two governments became increasingly belligerent, with Michigan sheriffs making serious attempts to arrest and detain Ohio's governor. This local crisis had national ramifications, and ultimately President Andrew Jackson sided with Ohio so as to secure its votes for his party in the 1836 election (irony: the votes went to the Whig party instead). Statehood for Michigan was made contingent on ceding the strip to Ohio, and as a consolation prize, Congress offered Michigan the Upper Peninsula, which seemed at the time to be sixteen thousand square miles of worthless misery. Michigan initially refused to yield, but the distribution of federal surplus monies to states (not territories) compelled the impoverished territory's delegates to hastily hold an illegal convention agreeing to Congress's demands. Congress agreed to overlook this, and Michigan became a state.

(On the one hand, Ohio won the war. On the other, the Upper Peninsula soon proved to be rich with natural resources, while Ohio got stuck with Toledo. So I'm going to say that Michigan got the better end of the deal here, and actually, I feel a little sorry for Ohio.) 

In approaching this subject, the challenge I set for myself was to create a game that played with the traditional "ops or events" card-driven political control wargame paradigm, but in miniature and without the maps, counters, or wood bits that usually feature. In lieu of a map, I designated three cards to each represent a different aspect of the conflict. Authority represents the political support of Congress and the President, Belligerence the galvanizing of one's political base, and Claim the legal evidence used to justify a side's jurisdiction over the territory. Rather conveniently, this allowed me to call those three cards "A-B-C" cards, and it also suggested some natural asymmetries in the player positions - Ohio generally being favored in Authority and Michigan in Claim. Control of two of the three will score a point at the end of the round (most points wins), while control of all three will confer immediate victory regardless of score.

Play of a card for its ops value contributes that much Influence in a given A-B-C, demarcated by placing the card itself on that player's side of the A-B-C card. When you play one of your cards, you may either play it for the ops in the indicated A-B-C or for its event. If it's one of your opponent's cards, it is played for any A-B-C, but with a lesser ops value (indicated at the bottom of the card). Having a higher Influence total at the end of the turn will seize control of that A-B-C (the card is flipped to indicate this), which may provide a game benefit or even inherent Influence. Because the event cards themselves are used to indicate Influence (instead of markers), and because there are only fifteen cards, the deck would get rather thin and predictable when it came time to reshuffle. And so midway through the game these played cards are cleared from the "board" and shuffled back in.

Each round consists of three-card plays per player, in alternating fashion. One of the two players will begin the round with a fourth card in their hand, and at the end of that round, if the extra card is an opponent's event (or a Mandatory) it is resolved. Tactically, there are times when you absolutely don't want that last card to be an opposing event, and so you might play it during your turn for its weak ops and forgo playing one of your own more powerful cards.

There is a general structure to the game but there is some variability within that structure. The game will last at most three or four rounds if an instant victory is not achieved. During either the first or second round, a Mandatory Event - Phillips Corners - will be played, scoring one of the players a point for having the higher total in Belligerence. At the end of the second round, the deck being exhausted, influence will be cleared as I mentioned above, and a new Mandatory Event - Frostbitten Convention - will be shuffled in. In either the third or the fourth round, that card will be played, ending the game.

The game thus takes roughly ten minutes to play, which affords me certain liberties: I can make the events much swingier and more powerful than might be tolerated in a longer game, which feels appropriate for a game about politics. The small deck mitigates somewhat the "player who has memorized the deck has a clear advantage" phenomenon endemic to most card-driven games in that after half an hour, you'll have memorized the deck yourself. (Heck, after the second round you'll have seen all the cards.) Bad play will lose you the game without hope for recovery, but by the time you've made a mess of it, the game will be over in a few minutes anyway.

The small size and duration also meant that it got quite a bit of playtesting over the course of the last year, with literally hundreds of plays. While a given session can result in a blow-out, especially among inexperienced players, many scores are much closer, and the win-loss record for the two sides is about 50/50. While I've been proud of all the weird little freebie games I've done, this is I think the best of them so far, and one that I'm quite excited to be putting out into the world. So excited, in fact, that I'm doing two of these blog-things about the game. What madness is this? Next week, I'll be giving some historical and design notes on each of the fifteen cards in the deck.


  • I’d love to buy a printed version of this game. I’m just not up for figuring out how to print the cards. Please forgive my laziness.


  • If you have any notion of creating a series of games like this, I recommend you get a copy of Mark Steiner’s book, “How the States Got Their Shapes.” With a bit of tongue-in-cheek, Steiner explains how the various state boundaries came to be, and he has many other tales like the Toledo War. My favorite is the one about how the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire came to be. When the two colonies submitted their dispute to Charles II for arbitration, he not only ruled in favor of New Hampshire, he gave them more territory than they asked for! He apparently carried a grudge against the Puritans of Massachusetts, whose English cousins had cut off his father’s head.

    Greg Wilmoth

  • Looks really interesting Tom! I remember, a long time ago and far away, the first Michigander I ever met trying to explain the Toledo War to me. This time it sank in.
    It’s funny how minds can think alike: last month I came up with “Kashmir Crisis”, a quick-playing card game on the current, uh, crisis in Kashmir.
    It’s played out on three fronts (Diplo – Info – Military), with bits torn off The Little War and Ukrainian Crisis and coincidentally a reshuffle like what you’ve done.


    Brian Train

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