Test of Fire has been unexpected hit among my more hard-core wargaming crew. Unexpected, because it's a fairly simple game, really, and counter-pushers are used to more intricate fare. But not a surprise, because if there's one thing I've come to appreciate, it's Martin Wallace's talent as a game designer. So for every wargame of his I have tried, starting with Waterloo, continuing with Gettysburg and culminating now with Test of Fire, has been a startlingly great game (and a reasonable wargame as well).
It's the test of table generalship which, in the end, brings us back to the table for yet another try. A wargame that fails to truly engage the player-general's brain may see a play or two out of historical curiosity or study, but then it sits on a dusty shelf to be admired until meeting its fate on eBay.
But the ones that get the player-general's mental juices flowing hit the tbale again and again and prompt great debates over strategy and what-I-should-have -done and demands for rematches. Test of Fire is showing potential for growing into a classic.
One friend has already figured that he has the CSA locked and dares challenges ... .
Well, I am impressed enough with Wallace's design already to doubt very thoroughly whether either side has any sort of lock on victory, so I would never claim that there's a fool-proof Federal battle plan. But neither would I sit behind Bull Run expecting victory in due course -- not against an experienced opponent.
Now, clearly, the burden of attack falls on the federal player and Union players who dawdle or fail to carefully set the stage for a successful crossing are likely to find themselves either desperately racing the clock after marshaling their imposing host OR getting battered so heavily as they try to push their way across the river quickly that they lose due to Rout.
For now I'm going to assume the fixed historical set-up, although the semi-free set-up will definitely complicate things for a over-confident CSA player. One rule that can't really be optional for a serious competitive game is the Ford Card Placement rule. Having the Ford show up too close to the end (or maybe not even at all) is too big of a handicap for the Union. Using the optional rule means that the Ford Card will be available somewhere in the top half of the Federal deck and able to play a useful role.
I think the first thing that the Union player has to keep in kind is that his biggest advantage over the Rebels is not numbers (the numerical edge is actually quite slight 29 tp 25) but in flexibility. The edge is action dice is more significant at 4 to 3. The Rebels have four specific points they have to defend -- and they can't afford to give up more than one of those. So the Union player's job is to put the pressure on, stress the Rebel line along it's length and wait for it to fracture someplace -- while not losing so much time that the cards runs out or troops that Rout happens.
It's mandatory that the Federals make the most out their initial setup. They've got the Rebels outflanked and there's no sense in not striking while the iron is hot. McDowell needs to be on that flank to start so that the USA can use any 6's as extra movement rolls. A strong flanking push can often take Henry House Hill before the Rebels can react, but otherwise they need to be in position to threaten it early because it's important to get the Rebels to commit (and maybe over-commit) significant forces that way.
As soon as the initial Henry House Hill foray is settled, McDowell needs to move to the cneter of the battlefield for the next phase, which is to start pressuring all along Bull Run's crossing and potential crossing looking for a weak spot. The Ford card should be in hand, now, waiting for an opportunity. If the rebel is not careful and has not watched after the security of his base, it can bea nasty trick to wait until you've saved a move card or two and get a good turn of move rolls and rush a couple or three infantry units across the 0-rated crossing on the eastern end of Bull Run and scoot down the Orange & Alexandria RR to Manassas Junction for the win. Even a garrison of two units is vulnerable to being bum-rushed. (Centreville likewise bears watching, but simple precautions should suffice to make that a real long-shot for the Rebels and I'd even encourage an aggressive Rebel opponent to try it.)
Typically the Ford card will be more useful boosting a 1-rated crossing to a 2-rated one. Whichever one is best will depend on the tactical situation, but the odds of a successful crossing can be boosted considerably by laying the proper groundwork. While the Ford is still unplayed every likely crossing needs to be beefed up to be a credible threat. Consider moving the guns to Lewis Ford if Ball's Ford is too heavily defended. Try to build up a full hand of "good" cards for winning a tough crossing (Artillery, Move, Hold are best, Firepower, Friendly Fire and Retreat also useful). The Union should never hold onto Rout cards, in my opinion.
Once you're ready, drop the Ford and go for the win. If the South committed so many troops to defend Henry House Hill that you never ended up taking it, then thye should be so weak along the river that there's a good chance you can take the other two stars and/or Manassas Junction. Otherwise, you should have Henry House Hill already and the rebels can afford to lose NONE of the remaining points.
Is there a "perfect plan" for the Union? Absolutely not. You could easily do all this and still fall short, especially if the Rebel player plays prudently. But so far the games I have seen have been far from a cakewalk for the Rebels.