Monday, October 7, 2013

Test of Fire Review

I rather like Test of Fire better than most, it seems. I rated it a “9” on BoardGame Geek while the game’s average rating doesn’t break a “seven.”

This is a fairly wide difference of opinion, which prompted some consideration of how it came about that a game that I think is a clever, elegant and enjoyable little wargame doesn’t garner more than mediocre ratings overall.

I think it’s one of those cases where one man’s feature is another man’s bug. The same elements that I think make the game of a success as a reasonably authentic introductory level wargame detract from its appeal to the more hardcore wargamer who is likely to be motivated to acquire a game about the American Civil War Battle of First Bull Run .
“Elegant” is one of those hard-to-define terms that’s become popular among gamers and prompted a lot of threads to debate what, exactly, it means. I’m not going to define an exact meaning here, but I what the term generally seems to encompass in my view are games that have a large payoff in fun, simulation or some other aspect from a small investment in rules or work. It’s a common feature of the best-regarded euro-style games and may even be their most salient characteristic.

In contrast, wargames are often criticized for being “fiddly,” another term widely sued despite some contention over what, exactly, it means. Again, I’m not going to try to define it here, but generally I think it refers to game functions or mechanics that involve a lot of rules or work for relatively small payoffs. These are often justified in the wargame community on historical or realism grounds. Wargamers often value the details, non-wargamers often scratch their heads over it.

Test of Fire definitely eschews detail. It has just eight to ten pages of actual rules – and they’re not large pages and it’s not small type. There are just three kinds of playing pieces and, a handful of terrain effects. And yet it manages to capture the essential elements of the historical action rather well while providing interesting strategies and considerable replay value .

What it doesn’t have are detailed orders of battle or explicit depictions of period tactics. The players are placed firmly in the role of army commanders McDowell and Beauregard/Johnston . You dpon’t sweat the small stuff. You’re making big strategic decisions and the dice and cards do the rest.

The essential game mechanic is that on a player’s turn three (CSA) or four (USA) dice are rolled and the player’s allowable actions are controlled by the dice. For every “1” rolled a player can draw a card, which have various game effects and are discussed below. For every “2” or “3” rolled a player can “fire” one of his two artillery units against an adjacent enemy occupied area. This isn’t a high probability event. Typically a roll of a “5” or “6” is needed to a “hit.” If there’s a hit then a subsequent die roll is made, with a “6” damaging an infantry target and a 1-5 forcing it to retreat. For every “4” or “5”rolled the player is entitled to move a group of 1-3 pieces (infantry, artillery or leaders) from one area to an adjacent area. The number of pieces allowed to cross an area boundary is usually “2,” with difficult terrain such as woods or stream reducing it to 1 or 0 while areas traversed by roads can have three units. For every “6” rolled the player can exercise a choice among the other three options.

Combat is function of movement and this brings up one of the elegant aspects of the design. While a player’s choices are constrained by the dice, the order of execution is up to him and this can create all sorts of interesting game choices.

Combat is relatively bloodless, at least at first. When infantry units enter an enemy-occupied area a combat is fought, either immediately or at the end of the turn, at the moving player’s option. Each defending infantry unit rolls two dice, with every 5-6 being a “hit” and 1-4 being misses. For every hit a subsequent die roll is made, with 1-3 meaning an enemy unit retreats, a 4-6 causing damage. After the defender fires, any surviving attacking units get to roll, also at 2 dice per unit, with the same results. In both cases the maximum number of dice allowed is six.

Damage is depicted by flipping an infantry unit counter to the other side. This doesn’t reduce it’s combat ability, but a second damage result eliminates it. As there is no way to flip a unit back in the game the general trend is for both sides to weaken and become more fragile as the battle progresses.

Each side has its own deck of cards which are slightly different in composition. Cards can be played at any appropriate time as needed. Cards common to both sides are Move cards, which basically act as additional die rolls; Hold and Retreat cards which modify combat results; Artillery, Firepower and Friendly Fire Cards which modify the number of dice rolled in the various kinds of fighting; Lost Order which cancels an enemy die roll and Rout, which is one of the ways to end the game. When a Rout card is played the player gets to roll two dice and if the result is equal to or less than the number of enemy infantry units eliminated then the player wins immediately. Most games will probably end through the play of a Rout card, which is appropriate as that was the historical outcome.

Each side also has some unique cards. The Confederates have a couple of Cavalry Cards which essentially allow a free combat against a federal –occupied area on the Rebel side of Bull Run. This is evocative of the event depicted on the game box cover, when Stuart’s cavalry charged a unit of Zoauves.

The Federals, meanwhile get a Ford card, which represents the discovery of a new ford across the river, another key event of the actual battle. For play-balance purposes an optional rule allows the Federal Player to ensure the Ford is in the top half of the deck, but one could certainly make an argument for playing it straight/. By definition this was an unknowable event and maybe player McDowell shouldn’t be able to make a battle plan relying on information the historical McDowell could never have known.

There are, of course, some minor exceptions and variations for all of this – it is a wargame after all – but this brief outline captures the major points. Both sides are given an incentive to attack – they win if they occupy the enemy base. This incentive is needed to replicate the historical situation which saw both armies making plans to attack. The Federal side is given an additional way to win by occupying any two of three areas marked with stars on the south side of Bull Run. This signals that the burden of attack in on McDowell.

Leaders and artillery have some special characteristics as well, but the infantry is the star of the show and makes up the bulk of both armies. Infantry counters do not represent specific units and seem to represent about 1,000 soldiers, more or less.

It’s probable that I’ve just used more words to describe the game than appear in the rules of play. It’s really that simple. Yet it still plays out as a Bull Run game. The theme is not some paste-on. It’s the driving force behind every element of the game design. In this way, despite the very euro-style presentation, Test of Fire is clearly a wargame. While many wargame designers follow the James Dunnigan paradigm of designing a game system to depict a certain level or warfare and then modifying that system as needed to depict a specific battle, Martin Wallace’s designs always seem to be unique treatments. Even when they bear some superficial resemblances such as his Gettysburg and Waterloo games, they’re really more different than alike. Test of Fire is a stand-alone design that doesn’t seem like it could spawn a system of games at all. It’s very specific to the peculiar conditions of First Bull Run where two very green armies fought over a specific battlefield.

And you can play it in an hour or less.

It’s not the last word in simulations, but it does succeed in capturing important elements of the battle in an easy-to-play format and some elements, such as the Ford and Rout cards, arguably make it more authentic than some more detailed traditional hex-and-counter treatments of the battle.