Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Test of Fire -- testing, testing
It's ideal when you can open a box with a game that came in the mail and less than 24 hours later see it hit the table, but that happy circumstance came about with Mayfair's new Test of Fire.
Originally this was supposed to some out in time for the 150th anniversary of the battle, but, as such things tend to do in the wargame hobby, the release date slipped a bit and ity just arrived in September. Well, at least it's still the 150th anniversary year.
Test of Fire is an introductory historical wargame by noted euro game designer Martin Wallace. While not his first historical wargame, Wallace is definitely much better known as a euro designer and he's been careful to state that his wargames are not simulations in any way. I think he's being a little too humble, though, because no introductory warggame is going to manage to be much of a simulation and Wallace's games so far have shown a reasonable level of historical fidelity considering their scope. I think they compare very favorably to more traditional wargames. About the only thing Wallace designs definitely avoid it's being tied down to any particular unit or time scale. While units are differentiated by type, as appropriate, they're not labeled in any way. So, while we know that the Red Elite Federal unit in Gdettysburg is the "Iron Brigade," the figure doesn't say that.
Likewise in Test of Fire we don't see any unit identifications. The vast bulk of both armies is formed of infantry units, which seem to represent about 1,000 troops. Each army has two artillery units, which seem to represent nothing more than an aggregatuon of firepower in a sectoir. Both armies historically divided their artillery units up into a number of separate batteries. Each army has a commanding general (or, optionally, two commanding generals for the CSA). The presence of Stuart's cavalry is represented by a card ad the federal horsemen present are ignored altogether.
The mounted mapbaord is divided into areas representing the battlefield at Bull Run. Some area boundaries are marked with a number that shows how many units can be moved acroiss the boundary at once, with the default for unmarked ares being 2. Roads allow 3 units, woods just one. Along the river the values range from 0 to 2.
In addition to their on-board troops, each side has access to its own deck of cards which provide various bonuses and special events.
Game play is straightforward. Each player in his turn rolls a number of D6 (4 for the Union, 3 for the CSA) with the die results controlling which actions the player can take. For every 1 rolled the player can draw a card. For every 2 or 3 rolled an artillery unit can fire at an adjacent area with a 5 or 6 being a "hit." A subsequent roll determines the effect, with a 6 causing damage to a unit while a 1-5 forces a unit to retreat. For every 4 or 5 rolled a player can move one group of units from one area to an adjacent area, subject to the boundary limits. Finally, a 6 allows a player a choice between firing an artillery unit with a general, condcuting a move with units in the same are as a general or drawing a card.
Combat is also very simple and straightforward. Units use move actions to enter an enemy occupied area. As the timing of actions is under player control, more than one move action can be taken before a battle is fought. Infantry units roll 2 dice per unit involved, up to a maximum of 6 dice worth, with the defender firing first. Eacgh 5 or 6 is a hit (4-6 if defending a hill) with a subsequent roll resolving the hit effect: 1-3 is a retreat, 4-6 is damage. Damage flips an infanrty unit or destorys an alaready flipped unit. Artillery and leaders don't take direct part in the combat and have to retreat if left alone in the space with an enemy infantry unit. The attackers has one round of combat to clear the defenders from the space, otherwise the attacking units retreat.
Victory is assessed several possible ways. Most basically, if a side captures the enemy home base (Centerville or Manassas) then it wins, but barring very reckless play this shouldn't happen. When the cards run out, the next time a card would ahve to be drawn then the game ends on the completion of the Confederate turn. If the federals have two of the three starred areas on the Rebel side of Bull Run, then they win, otherwise the Confederates prevail. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, each side has a number of "Rout" cards they can play. each entitles the player to roll 2D6 and if the total is equal two or less than the number of enemy infantry units lost then that side wins. This obviously makes the game potentially very dicey, with a sudden death victory possible as soon as 2 enemy units are lost.
About the most that can be said for this is that's basically what happened historically, and a similar idea is seen in the Decision Games Blue & Gray First Bull Run quad. The game moves very fast, so there will generally be time to pick up and start again if a quick end happens.
The basic situation is familiar, the federal army is heavily weighted to its right flank as it prepares to march around the flank of the rebel army, which is, in turn, strongest on its own right.
Our first game took a bit over an hour, which seems good for a virgin out-of-the-box play. I can see experienced payers cooking through the game in the advertised 45 minutes easy.
Like all of Wallace's wargames, Test of Fire manages to skin the cat in a very different way from the traditional hex-and-counter game while being at least as historical and fun. The situation's historical constraints make this less wide-open than most euros, of course, but players do seem to have several viable approaches besides the strict historical plans.
The MSRP is under $30 so overall I'd rate this as a good value.