Sunday, February 19, 2012

Simple, pimple

Next on the table was my choice, and, after playing complex treatments of various battles and campaigns, I wanted to try the new Martin Wallace war game, Test of Fire. This is a simple treatment of the first battle of the American Civil War, Bull Run (for you Yankee northerners) or Manasses (for you Rebel southerners). 

And ToF is certainly a simple game. With just 5 pages of rules it’s easy to pick up. The player rolls dice at the start of the turn (4 for the Confederate player, 5 for the Union), and that dictates the actions that can be performed that turn.

1 – Draw a card
2,3 - Activate an area with artillery for fire
4,5 - Activate an area for movement
6 - Activate an area containing a leader for either artillery fire or movement, as above

Artillery fire is pretty simple. Choose the area with an artillery unit; choose the target area; roll 2 dice, with a 5 or 6 scoring a hit; roll each hit to determine effect, a 6 being a loss, anything else means 1 unit in the target area has to retreat.

Movement is equally simple. Any units in the activated area may move to any adjacent areas. However, there are some border limits, with the normal limit being 2 units. Rivers and some rough terrain borders allow only 1 unit to move across per movement action; Roads allow 3 units to cross. These are all marked on the map.

Combat happens when there are units from both sides in an area, and may be performed at the end of any action. Note the 'may' in that sentence, it's where one of the game choices come in. If you have 2 movement actions available, you could perform one move then perform combat, and if the area is clear, activate that area for movement again. Or you could choose to use each action to move units into the enemy held area, and then perform the combat. After all actions are done,any area containing units from both sides must have combat.

Combat resolution, as you might expect, features yet more dice. First the defender, then the attacker rolls 2 dice for each unit, up to a maximum of 6 dice. As with artillery fire, each 5 or 6 scores a hit, except now a loss is scored on a 4-6, and a retreat on 1-3. The attacker applies his losses and retreats before rolling his combat. If there are units left from both sides after combat, then the attacker has to retreat back to his originating area(s).

So, as you might expect, getting lots of move actions are vital to force the river crossings and take the hills, where the border limits are reduced. Otherwise you're going to have only a single attacking unit against all those likely defenders.

Finally, the cards. As usual in these sorts of games, they just perform wacky stuff or otherwise add benefits. They may allow extra dice to be rolled in artillery fire or combat; cancel a retreat; perform extra moves; cancel an opponent's action die; or allow a roll for victory and end the game (rolling less than the number of units your opponent has lost).

With a projected game time of 45 minutes, our plan was to play this twice, playing each side. However, I missed one critical rule (that the 'standard' area border limit was 2 units, not 3 units), so we restarted after being 30 minutes into the evening. Second time around, my union forces found the 'Ford' card quickly, which allows the border limit on one river crossing to be increased by 1, and was able to force the Rebels off Sudley Hill to take the first victory area. From there it was a grind along the river to take the second victory area before the game ended, which is when one player runs out his card deck, with a simple majority of the three victory areas required for a win. This full game took around an hour, as we futzed a little with the rules, and we chose not to turn it around, having played enough.

OK, this isn't a game that any even semi-serious gamer is going to base a play date on. It's simple to the point of being simplistic. It makes no real effort to model command and control, and the combat system is laughable to any grognard. However, if you have 45 minutes to kill, or are playing with kids or non-wargamers, I can see this hitting the table. It's easy to pick up, and the action dice dictate your options in any single turn, so you're never overwhelmed by potential options and decisions.

Yet, even at 45 minutes I think it outstays its welcome by around 10-15 minutes. Other than a few choices on the card plays, everything is dictated by the dice, with very few real decisions to make. And that's a lot of dice you're going to roll. So many, in fact, that I'm not sure that any decisions you make have any real bearing on the outcome of the game.

If I were going to a gaming retreat, I think I'd throw it in the bag. For those occasions when you don't have time, space, or the mental capacity, to play anything deeper. It just might come out then.

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