Wednesday, February 15, 2012

It doesn't quite float off the table

For our latest session, Mike had wanted to give Martin Wallace's latest game, Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861, a go. This is an American Civil War game covering the first battle of the war: First Battle of Bull Run. (Or, First Manassas, depending on your perspective. The Union tended to name battles after rivers/creeks, the Confederates named them after the nearest town.)

This is not a big game. It fits the typical Wallace mold being somewhat abstract and rules-light. The board is only 14x20 or so, and it's area movement. In fact, movement is reminiscent of a block game: area-to-area, with a limit on the number of units that can cross any particular border during a move. These border limits change depending on terrain.

Each force is represented by a number of identical 2-step infantry units, a couple artillery units, and a leader. (The confederates have a 2nd leader as an optional rule that we didn't try.)

The Southern force is parked south of the Bull Run, and the North is trying to take two of three VP hexes on the other side. There are also auto-victory conditions if either side occupies the other's camp.

The turn sequence is pretty simple:

  1. Roll a number of six-sided dice (3 for the Rebels, 4 for the Union), to determine what actions are available to you that turn.

  2. Perform those actions

The actions are Draw a Card, Fire Artillery, Move, and General (Activate your leader, or draw a card – sort of a wild card draw) The first and last of those happen one time in six, the middle actions happen two times in six.

Units move one area per order, and can be ordered as many times as you have Move orders that turn. The cards do things like give you extra dice, provide additional move orders, allow you to ignore retreats, etc. Nothing game breaking, but little performance tweaks.

If you move into an area containing enemy units, there's combat after all orders are completed. Defenders fire first, two dice per unit, generally hitting on 5s or 6s. After you generate hits, you re-roll those dice, with a 50/50 shot of each hit being a retreat or step loss. The surviving attackers then do the exact same thing. There are minor terrain modifiers, but nothing that really breaks that mold. The only extra rule is there is a cap of 6 dice rolled for any one combat. You can't raise this max for any reason, including card play.

The game does a pretty good job of simulating how ACW warfare generally went: repeated assaults of a defensive position until either the attackers wear out or the defenders break. It's very rules light – I knew very little about the game, and Mike was able to teach it in 10 minutes. It plays in around 45-60 minutes.

Sounds pretty good, right? Here's the problem. You roll a LOT of dice. Buckets and buckets of them. Our original plan, as the game is so short, was to play the game once, switch sides, and play again. I just couldn't face another ¾ hour of rolling dice. So we bailed after one playing.

That said, this game fills a rather particular niche – it's a good 45-minute filler game for two people. I wouldn't seek it out as a featured game for an evening, by any means, but if I was at an all-day event and had just shy of an hour to kill before something meatier, I'd certainly play it. And it's, what, a $30 list price? That's not too shabby.

Another niche it fills is to lure in young players. Once my kids have a slightly better grasp of tactics (a handful more plays of Memoir '44 should help) then I could certainly see playing this game with them. The order system limits the “oh my god I have so many choices” problem that can give wargames a high barrier to entry, the rules are simple, and kids love rolling dice.

So, not a big winner of a game, but good amusement nonetheless.

Next up is C&C Napoleonics again. We're taking the Spanish expansion for a test run. Plus, I think this entry in the C&C system needs a closer look.


Dug said...

I am not looking forward to the day when your children want to play wargames for money. They will be five and eight year old sharks. Probably are by now. They'll bat those big eyes and then drive the Allies into the sea at Normandy.

Eric said...

Megan's already becoming a Settlers shark. RCG won't know what hit them when she starts coming to game nights.

Jack will just wipe you off the table, raise his arms and say "OH yeah..."