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This review was originally posted to MTV Geek
There's been a lot of attention paid to the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War this summer, and Mayfair Games chose to commemorate the event with the release of Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861, designed by Martin Wallace. Wait, that Martin Wallace? Yes, Test of Fire's designer is a man well known for his European-style economic strategy games such as London and Automobile. Wallace represents one end of the "hardcore" gamer spectrum, with the other end consisting of American-style conflict simulations. So is Wallace turning over a new leaf, or has he played minister to an unexpected wedding of theme and mechanics? We put Test of Fire through its paces, so read on for the full review if you'd like to find out:
Just the Facts:
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Age: 10 to adult
Publisher: Mayfair Games
Release: July 21st, 2011
Each player begins Test of Fire with a standard set of units arranged across pre-set locations on the map. The Union player gets 29 infantry, while the Confederate player gets only 24 infantry but holds the high ground. Both players each receive 2 artillery and 1 leader. The troops on the table are all that will ever enter the game, so the two sides must play to the finish with whatever strength is available to them.
Gameplay is rather simple. To begin each turn, a player rolls "order dice" (4 for the Union, 3 for the Confederacy) that inform a player what actions they may take this turn. The die results correspond to actions as follows:
1 - Draw a card
2,3 - Fire an artillery
4,5 - Move a group of up to three units
6 - Draw a card OR fire an artillery that shares a space with a leader OR move a group of up to three units that share a space with a leader
Cards drawn in this game provide easily-applied effects such as "perform an extra move" or "roll an extra die in combat" Players start the game with one card but must abide by a 5-card hand limit. There is no limit to the number of cards that can be played during a turn, and they can be played at any time.
Artillery fire allows players to affect an adjacent space without moving troops into direct conflict. For every order die that is a 2 or 3, the current player can roll one artillery die. Rolls of 5 and 6 are deemed hits, and re-rolled to determine their effects. On the hit re-roll, a 6 will cause a wound and a 1-5 will cause one enemy troop to retreat.
Each infantry has two wounds, so it is up to the defender to decide which unit he would like to assign the hit to. Test of Fire is a game of momentum, as enemy troops are more often forced to retreat than take wounds. When fleeing, units must always retreat towards their side's home base, but if they are ever found unable to execute a retreat move (they are surrounded or on the edge of the board), they'll be forced to take damage instead.
Union artillery prepare to thin the herd with a large volley
Now back to the types of actions. When a player rolls a 4 or 5 with their order dice, this allows them to move up to three units. This number moved is dictated more by where you want to move rather than what, as the common border between any two adjacent spaces has a maximum movement number printed on it. For example, in order to move between two spaces that are separated by the Bull Run stream, a player must spend their entire action to move just 1 unit. If two spaces are linked by the Warrenton Turnpike though, one action allows for three troops to move. For as many 4s and 5s the current player roller on their order dice, they may perform that many moves, even repeatedly moving groups across the same border.
If infantry units ever move into enemy-controlled territory, they launch an assault and each player rolls two dice per infantry (up to a six dice maximum). Similar to artillery fire, 5s and 6s are hits, but here the odds of wounding are much higher. They are assigned on rolls of 4, 5, or 6, while a 1, 2, or 3 will still cause a retreat. Defending units fire first and their wounds apply immediately, so any attacking units removed will never even get to roll. Combat only lasts one round, after which the defense must either wiped out/fleeing, or the attackers are forced to retreat back to the spaces they came from.
Throughout this process of drawing cards, firing artillery, moving troops, and the occasional assault, there are several possible ways the game may end. Each deck holds route cards, which can be played to force a die roll game-end check. If the active player can roll less than or equal to the number of eliminated enemy units, they will win. The game can also be won by controlling your enemy's home base at the end of their turn, or holding the most important spaces on the board (marked by stars) when either player completely run outs out of cards in their deck.
• 1 Map board (4-fold, 14.2" x 20.5")
• 2 Decks of command action cards
• 2 Quick-reference cards
• 12 6-Sided dice (6 blue and 6 grey)
• 2 Sheets of army unit counters
• 1 Rules booklet
Rather than throw a layer of gloss on the Civil War, the art in Test of Fire is tasteful. The card art is done in lightly-colored sketch work that looks similar to art of the era, and the map on the board feels like that same sort of map you would expect a general to unroll when plotting out his maneuvers. The map even has special marks for setup that make the process a cinch.
As for the quality of the components, the cards are a bit flimsy but the cardboard chits are thick and the board is flush-mounted, so Test of Fire has more positive than negative. The rulebook is an incredibly quick read at 16 small pages with large print, over half of which are optional rules and background reading on the actual Civil War battle.
To answer the question I led this post off with, Test of Fire is not really a war game, yet it's not a complex euro either. Neither of these statements mean this is a bad game though, they simply establish that it is a hybrid title treading unfamiliar ground.
Test of Fire succeeds in two areas. The game is extremely easy to play. I was able to both read the rules and teach the game in under ten minutes! The "anything goes" card play, forced decisions via order dice, and limited movement options all serve to streamline a game that could have otherwise grown out of control. Only the most stodgy of gamers would criticize Test of Fire for not being a 4+ hour ordeal.
Some of these forced designs also keep the game in line with its theme. The six-die limit and movement restrictions keep the game feeling like a skirmish rather than an encounter more fitting of epic-scale WWII war games. As long as you are expecting this light strategy experience, you'll have a good time countering your opponents moves within the limited confines of the game.
While I did enjoy Test of Fire for the above reasons, I feel that there are other titles do a better job operating in this space. Avalon Hill's Battle Cry is still a light strategy game with a Civil War theme, but offers you re-configurable board to add extra replay value. Test of Fire includes optional rules for setting your own troop deployment, but ultimately there is still only one proven scenario included in the rules. The 45 minute play time and small box of Test of Fire are also appealing on paper, but I feel that space is already owned by Pocket Battles: Celts vs Romans which is both faster and more portable.
If you really do want to get a taste of Martin Wallace on war games, then you absolutely must check out A Few Acres of Snow, a two-player game about the French and British conflict in North America with a dash of deck-building thrown in to drive the conflict. I haven't gotten my hands on this one yet, but it has been receiving high praise and hopefully you'll see it reviewed here soon as well.
Disclaimer: MTV Geek received a complimentary review sample of this game
Lieven De Puysseleir
trust me, I'm a dentist
we don't lie, we use statistics
Thanks for the clear review. I was attracted to the theme and even more when I saw "Martin Wallace" as the author.
Alas, there are no figurines included as I saw on the BGG images for this game. That would have been a real plus for a light wargame in my opinion.
sure, I want to play it but not so sure about buying anymore now that I know more of the rules.
A very good summary. I got to disagree with you that its not a wargame though. It may be light but its definitely a wargame. I happen to enjoy the game. I believe the mechanics mimic the history quite adequately. Its not a simulation by any means, but it is not trying to be or is it advertised as such. If you read the information about it available here on BGG you will not be surprised by this game. It delivers what it says it will. A light fast game on First Bull Run. My chief complaint with it would be the limited replay value. And by the way A Few Acres of Snow is awesome!
How is it not a wargame?
- Last edited Tue Dec 6, 2011 2:46 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Dec 6, 2011 2:46 am
It is a wargame, so shall it be written, so shall it be!
Oh.. so it's like Twilight Struggle then !
Less space ships.
Halfway between Castro and Mickey Mouse
Can I just say that "If it's not on MTV, it's not music" may be the single most bizarre microbadge in the history of this website?