Saturday, October 29, 2011

Test of Fire -- a review and recommendation

Test of Fire is one of the more delightful little games to come around in the last few years.

Designed by the notable Martin Wallace, probably best known to Geekdom for Liberte, Brass and Steam, Test of Fire is an elegant, entertaining and economical wargame depicting the first major battle of the American Civil War -- The Battle of First Bull Run (Or First Manassas) in 1861. This is billed as being the first in a series of 150th Anniversary Civil War games to come out over the next few years.

This is not Wallace's first foray into wargames, he's published a few others over the past few years -- each showing a fresh approach that eschews many wargame conventions while still delivering historically satisfying and challenging games. Compared to Waterloo, Gettysburg or a Few Acres of Snow, Test of Fire is much simpler, with a near-Zen like paucity of rules. Only the barest essential needed to make the game work are included, and it's quite likely this review will be longer than the game rules!

When teaching the game I normally start by explaining the victory conditions. Like many euro games, there are multiple ways to win in Test of Fire. The most direct is to capture the enemy base. If the federals take Manassas Junction they win, if the Rebels grab Centerville they win. This is an instantaneous and decisive victory, but prudent play should preclude this path. (Not everyone plays prudently, though, and I have won that way!)

The second way to win is possibly the most controversial, as it is a little bit on the dicey side. Each side has a deck of action cards that include some called "Rout" which give the player an opportunity for an instant win by taking two D6 rolling them -- if the total is equal to or less than the number of enemy units eliminated at that point the enemy army routs and you win! Naturally there's no chance of winning this way until at least 2 enemy units are destroyed but the chances of winning escalate rapidly with each additional casualty. There will be many that don't like this sort of victory condition -- but in it's favor is the inconvenient fact that this is exactly what happened! Test of Fire is not the first game on this battle to resort to this sort of mechanic. In the Decision Games Blue & Gray quad version, for example, there is a victory roll each turn that is also based on lost and disrupted units.

The final, and standard way of winning is based on the Union progress in capturing significant territory on the Rebel side of the river. While there's no turn track, there is a time limit. When one player's deck of action cards runs out, the next time they are forced to draw a card the game ends at the completion of the Rebel turn. At that point the status of three starred locations on the rebel side of the board are checked, if the Federals control at least 2 of three three, they win, otherwise the CSA wins.

The components are top-notch, euro style and seem to be a good value for the $29 MSRP. There's sturdy box, a full-color mounted map board depicting the Bull Run area divided into areas, thick counters in blue and gray for the respective armies, a ford marker, a couple of card board command cards for each army, 12 dice in blue and gray, two decks of cards and a full-color 16-page rule book with examples of play and historical notes. The Union army is the larger, with 29 infantry units, two artillery units and a leader while the opposing Confederates have 24 infantry units, two artillery units and one (or optionally two) leaders.

A player's turn starts by rolling dice -- four for the Union, three for the Confederates -- and sorting them according to the command card. For every 1 rolled, the player can draw a card from their deck. For every 2 or 3 rolled they can conduct one artillery fire. For every 4 or 5 they can make one move and for every 6 they have a choice between drawing a card, firing an artillery unit in the same are as a leader or conducting a move in the same area as a leader. Players can execute the dice moves and play any suitable cards in any order and a big part of the game is the proper sequencing of actions.

Artillery fire consists of rolling one die looking for a 5 or a 6 to hit. If a hit is scored, a subsequent roll determines the effect. A 6 damages a unit, flipping a full-strength infantry unit to its reduced side or eliminating a reduced unit. Otherwise the targeted player has to retreat a unit from the area.

Regular infantry combat is a function of movement. Each move order can move 1-3 units into an adjacent area, depending on the boundary crossed. The default is 2 units, with woods and portions of the river reducing it to 1 and roads increasing it to 3 units. At a few spots the crossing value is 0 and so the river is impassible. At other spots the boundary is marked 2/1, meaning two units can cross if the opposite bank is unoccupied by the enemy, otherwise just 1 unit can cross per move.

While moving into an enemy-occupied area will trigger combat, it does not trigger it immediately, so the moving player has an opportunity to reinforce an attack or even launch multiple waves of attackers. -- Civil War style. For an example, if a player had three moves available, they could use them to move two units into an adjacent space with one move, then move two more units in with a second move and then fight a battle at that point. If repulsed they could use the third move to send in two more units (or the same units from the first wave if they survived) and fight a second battle.

Infantry combat is more deadly than artillery fire. each defending infantry unit gets to roll two dice (whether at full strength or reduced, to a maximum of 6 dice) with every 5 or 6 resulting in a hit (or a 4-6 if defending a hill area). For every hit rolled a subsequent roll is made for effect, with a 4-6 causing damage while a 1-3 forces a retreat. As with artillery fire, the owning player apportions the damage and retreats. Combat is just one round, and if the attacker fails to clear the area of defenders, then the attacker retreats. Leaders and artillery units retreat if left alone in an area with enemy infantry.

A key element of the design are the action decks, which are asymmetrical. Both decks contain some of the same cards, although often in different proportions -- and the Federal Deck is larger than the CSA deck, 29 to 26. All cars can be played at any time appropriate for their effects and take effect immediately.

Both armies have the previously mentioned Rout cards (3 for the USA, 4 for the CSA) which allow for a roll to win if 2 or more enemy units have been eliminated. Both also have Move cards, which allow for a free bonus Move under the same rules as die-ordered move. The USA deck has more of these (6) than the CSA (I2) as befits their role as the aggressor. Each side can enhance the fire of its artillery by playing an Artillery card (6 Union, 3 Confederate) which allows an extra die when making an artillery shot. The effects of hits can be enhanced by playing Retreat cards (4 Union, 3 Rebel) to force a retreating unit to retreat an extra area. Conversely a Hold card (2 USA, 5 CSA) can be played to cancel a retreat. Both sides can play a Lost Orders card (3 each) to cancel one order die result, which can be very powerful at the right moment. Both sides also have access to some cards that affect an infantry battle. A Friendly Fire card (1 each) causes an player to roll one to-hit die against his own unit during a battle, while Firepower cards (3 each) give an extra die in battle (to the usual maximum of 6, total).

Each army also has a few unique cards. For the Confederate side, these come in the form of two Cavalry cards that give a free 3-die or 5-die attack agansit a Union-occupied area south of Bull Run. For the Union side the unique card is a Ford, whoich allows the Union player to place the ford marker on any one river boundary, increasing its crossing allowance by 1. So this powerful card can make an impassible 0 area into a 1, boost a 1 to a 2 or a 2/1 to a 3/1.

Players can have no more than 5 cards in their hand at the end of their turn, discouraging card hoarding.

Both sides have a wide range of strategies to follow, despite the fixed historical set up, which encouarges a Union flanking attack, but does not require it. Indeed, if the Union commits too much to the flanking attack, they may find it stalling well short of victory as the Confederates mass against it. The Union player is better off posing credible threats all along Bull Run in order to keep the defenders spread out.

The nature of the game turns, with short impulses of movement and combat passing back and forth between the players provides something close to the illusion of simultaneous movement without the usual headaches of a simove system. Players act in turn, but it's very hard to stael a march on the enemy that they can't react to.

The game is rated at 45 minutes, which seems very accurate for experienced player, but even newbies can be taught the game from scratch and see it finished in less than 90 minutes, tops.

And it's a very fun system, highly interactive and full of strategic choices. The Rout mechanic may bother some, but it seems reasonable given the history and it provides some entertaining tension while rewarding aggressive play. The short playing time means that even if a Rout card "robs" you of a victory, there's time for an immediate rematch.

Overall, this is one of the best introductory level wargames to come along in a long time and it looks to be an instant classic. Recommended.

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