Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861
is a beginner's wargame designed by Martin Wallace and released by Mayfair Games.
Playing Time: 45-90 minutes
Summary of the Components
Test of Fire comes in a small bookshelf box containing: a board; rules; 2 decks of cards; 2 sets of counters; and 2 sets of dice.
Quality: The quality of all of the bits in Test of Fire is good. The board is sturdy and linen-textured, as are the counters. The cards are medium-weight and glossy. Even the dice are notably good quality. 5 out of 5.
Beauty: The map, which is the focus of the game, looks like a colored period piece: simple, but attractive. There's also art on all of the cards that similarly look like period work: simple line drawings, with some of those lines drawn in different colors. Overall, the game does a good job of using period-appropriate artwork for attractive results. 4 out of 5.
Usability: The game does a lot of good things for usability. For example, the board depicts starting positions for counters and each player gets an "orders" display which shows what various dice rolls result in. The cards do a good job of offering simple and clear explanations. However, there is one notable misstep as well: the results for combat aren't summarized for the players on any sort of player aid, which can be a notable nuisance for new players, especially those unfamiliar with wargames. 4 out of 5.
Theming: Parts of Test of Fire feel a bit abstract--as you're moving plain counters around a map. However, there's a lot of theming hidden in the details. The board, for example, constrains movements on a space-by-space basis, presumably to keep things moving like they did in the real First Battle of Bull Run. The two decks of cards have also been specifically designed for the two sides--Union and Confederate--again presumably to mold things toward how they "actually" happened. Generally, Martin Wallace does a good job of using game details to theme his game, and Test of Fire is no exception. 4 out of 5.
Overall, Test of Fire features good-quality components that are well-designed, and thus earns a "4" out of "5" for Style.
Summary of Gameplay
The object of Test of Fire is to win the First Battle of Bull Run by routing your opponents, by taking over their "base", or by holding key positions when the battle comes to an end.
Setup: The players choose who will play the Union and who the Confederacy. Each player takes a bunch of infantry and a few artillery and places them in set places on the board. Then each player selects where their leader goes. Each player is also dealt a starting card.
Order of Play: On his turn a player will roll 3 or 4 dice. Each die result will designate an action that he can take that round. The possible actions are: Draw a card; fire artillery; move a group; and leader action.
Draw A Card: The player draws an additional card and adds it to his hand.
These cards, which can be played at any appropriate time, are essentially meant to give a player more control over his destiny. Individual cards allow you to do a variety of things: take an extra move action; attack with artillery for double damage; take a free attack with "cavalry"; add a die to an attack; etc.
Cards can be held for as long as you want, but there is a limit of 5 cards in your hand at the end of the turn.
Fire Artillery: When you roll this action, you get to take one attack against an adjacent stack of counters with your artillery. Generally, artillery is quite bad. You have to roll 5+ to hit (in a d6). Even if you hit, the result is more frequently retreat than damage.
Move a Group: This lets you move 1-3 units from a space to an adjacent space. The exact number of units that you can move depends on the terrain. Every edge in between spaces has a specific limit, from 1-3. This causes much of the game's tactics to center upon the Bull Run river, as it mostly has "0" and "1" edge limits--but a few that are marked "2/1", which means 1 unit if the enemy controls the space you're moving into, else 2.
Combat. When your units end up in a space with enemy units, combat occurs. First the defenders throw 2D6 for each unit, hitting on a 5+ and either causing damage or retreating. Then surviving attackers attack. Then the attackers retreat if they haven't cleared the space.
The combat is kept pretty simple for a war game, but there's one terrain rule: the three hills on the board increase a defender's to-hit roll to 4+.
Leader Action: With a leader action, you have more choice: you can draw a card, or attack with any artillery in the space with your leader, or move any counters from the space with your leader.
Winning the Game: Test of Fire has three different win conditions.
I think the "rout" condition probably comes up the most. You play a rout card, then try to roll lower than or equal to the number of enemy units that have been killed.
There's an instant-win condition too: if you take the enemy's home base and hold it through their turn, you win.
Finally, there's an exhaustion condition: if one player empties his deck, then the player who holds two or more of three victory spaces on the Confederate side of the Bull Run wins.
Relations to Other Games
Test of Fire is a simplified and pared down wargame. I think it runs longer than the 45 minutes listed on the box, but it's still a pretty quick affair. It does a good job of removing the complexity involved in moving units in many war games by explicitly encoding movement info on the map. It also does a good job of simplifying combat rules to a pretty small core.
Martin Wallace has done other war games. In fact, many of his earlier "euro" games are borderline war games, while Waterloo was explicitly a wargame. This release, however, in in a whole different category due to its simplicity.
The Game Design
On the whole, Test of Fire is a game that does a good job at what I presume is its intended purpose: introducing new gamers to wargaming. The cards and the leader rolls do a good job of giving players opportunities for strategic play, but at the same time the dice constrain choices, thus simplifying tactics--as many of the most accessible war games do.
The three different victory conditions (a classic Wallace design) also help to keep players on their toes, as you can shift from one strategy to another based on what your opponent is doing.
Beyond that, much of what I said in "Relations to Other Games" describes how Test of Fire does a good job of pushing forward a polished, simplified war game design.
Do be warned that the game has a high random factor. I think the attack dice may actually get rolled enough to average out, but the "Rout" card is a big all or nothing result while the card draw itself can really influence your play too.
I also would hesitate to suggest this game to more experienced wargamers, as it's somewhat limited in both scope and complexity, which may not appeal if you've played more complex stuff already.
However, as a beginning wargame, Test of Fire is well designed with lots of interesting choices. I've thus given it a "4" out of "5" for Substance.
Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861 is a simplified and polished game that will appeal most to players interesting in trying out the warfare side of gaming. It's simple enough to be accessible, but has enough tactical possibility to allow for enjoyable play.