Warning: I’m English, and as such have very little knowledge of the US Civil War. With that in mind, I was browsing the bargain shelf at the Mayfair Games booth at GenCon 2017, whereupon I found Test of Fire. It was a US Civil War game for $8, which I had never seen nor heard of, so what could possibly go wrong? Knowing it was on consignment, and how many they obviously had in stock, it was clear that this wasn’t some blockbuster game, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. And seriously, for $8 I almost bought it’s sister game as well Clash of Wills: Shiloh 1862, but, alas I held off.
Test of Fire
It’s a small thin box that contains the game, and the components are only okay, as all of the infantry units are the same, with no individual designations and really no flavor at all. The leaders do have unique names printed on them but the artillery fall into the same category as the infantry – generic. The game’s core mechanic involves dice chucking in order to determine which orders your units will execute on any given turn. The two sides forces and objectives are counterbalanced by the number of dice you chuck. The Confederate side, in defense, roll only three. But the attacking Union forces roll 4, as they have the overall initiative in the battle and must win several battles to capture objectives.
The tiny play aid card is used to store the unused dice that you have rolled, and let you know what each one means. As you can see, the game is really simple from this standpoint: Move – move units, Fire – fire cannons, Card – draw a card, Leader – your choice of the previous (in the space with the leader). That’s it. So clearly the game is pretty random, it’s not quite roll and move, but it feels very similar. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with roll and move, you just have to understand that it’s a very chaotic, and sometimes strategically shallow system. I actually kind of liked the dice chucking movement and cannon fire because in this era there wasn’t instantaneous command and control, and so there was a lot more disorganization between fighting elements.
The map is simple artwork divided in areas with numbered borders which dictate how many units can cross that area per move action. That’s actually a really neat mechanic that creates sharp funnels and kill zones at river crossings or in forests. You’ll need to spend a significant amount of commands in order to get a large force through a forest for example. That can make mounting certain assaults really difficult, which I thought was also very thematic – trying to get hundreds of men through a forest and also effectively attack an enemy in such adverse terrain would be very costly.
The problem I had with the game is it’s length. This game should be 40 minutes. Yet, it dragged on and on. Perhaps the Union side was not aggressive enough, perhaps the dice were not in our favour. But that’s just it: The dice are the decider of what happens when, not you. There were so many times I’d roll only move commands when I didn’t need to move my troops from atop their defensive positions on Henry House Hill. And then conversely, when I was in prime position to retreat tactically, all I would roll is cannon fire. I don’t have an issue with the dice controlling which commands are available, from a random, gamey, chaotic standpoint. The issue for me is that it drew the game out way longer than it need to. So many turns and dice chucks were wasted, or needlessly plodding.
Grant and I laughed our way through this game, just because it was such a change of pace from the heavy games we typically struggle through. The game was fun, mechanically it’s simple, and obviously can be very swingy with all the dice rolling. Combats can be brutal, which I really liked. I felt like the combat (more dice chucking) actually did a good job of simulating the kind of heavy casualties even smaller skirmishes would inflict.
There are leader cards which add in a little bit of spice to shake things up, but aren’t too imbalanced. Sometimes they can take the wind out of your attack pretty quickly when the defender trumps some of your rolled orders.
But all in all am I mad I spent $8 on this game? No. Will I buy the second title in the series? Also, No. It’s fun, and I would use this as a way to teach a 10 year old some basics of war gaming, and it’ll most likely sit on a shelf next to Stratego gathering dust.