Saturday, March 29, 2008

Test of Arms a review

Twenty Years ago GDW published Test of Arms, the second game (after Team Yankee) to use its First Battle modern tactical game system.
Although the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may obscure the fact for Americans, the reality is that the world as a whole is a much more peaceful place in the first decade of the 21st Century than it was in any decade of the 20th Century. The culminating years of the Cold War ended up being especially filled with small and large wars around the world. Of the 29 scenarios in Test of Arms depicting tactical battles from around the world, more than half took place in the dozen years before the publication of the game in 1988. This isn't a statistical analysis, of course, but it certainly illustrates that the designers had no shortage of material to choose from.
I wonder how many of those wars people even remember now. Sure, Vietnam, Korea, Iran-Iraq and the sundry Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pakistani wars probably ring a bell for most. But I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people couldn't place Ogaden, Grenada or the Longa River.
There's all here, and more. There's no attempt at presenting a comprehensive treatment of the various conflicts from 1947-1987, but rather an illustrative sampling.
The First Battle system is basic, 1980s-style wargaming. Half-inch cardboard counter maneuver across a field of hexagons using their attack factors to fire using a range factor that is compared to a defense factor for a combat ratio. A six-sided die roll on a combat result table produces a result: Destroyed of damaged for vehicles, Destroyed or Pinned for troops. The main difference in game terms is that pinned troops can recover while damage is permanent.
There are special rules for the various supporting aspects of modern combat such as aircraft, artillery, poison gas, command and cohesion, smoke and fortifications.
Like many GDW games the rules are the weakest part of the design, with many concepts inadequately explained or in conflict. Players will need to be flexible.
They also shouldn't be too hung up on winning, because many, if not most, of the scenarios are not well balanced.
Still, the game is of interest for the window it provides to an age of conflict that may otherwise be forgotten. Despite the occasional inadequacy of the rules, the game is very playable and the vast majority of scenarios have the virtue of being short and small. Most scenarios take place on a single small map, the ones that don't only use two maps. The largest force on one side is generally only a battalion, which in game terms comprises about 30-60 counters, and often a side will only have a company of 10-20 pieces in play.
There is one irritating aspect of the game's presentation that deserves mention. In an apparent attempt to keep the game cheaper different units are printed on the opposite sides of the counters. While this succeeds in keeping the counter mix about half the size it would otherwise be, it makes organizing the game's unit counters nearly impossible. A couple of S&T magazine games took this shortcut as well. While understandable, if regrettable in a magazine game, I don't see much excuse for it in a boxed game.

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