Review – Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861 by Martin Wallace, from Mayfair Games
Design – Martin Wallace
Art Jared Blano and Don Troiani
2 players ages – 10+
note – Thanks to Mayfair Games for providing a review copy of this game
Now I will state up front that I’m not a huge fan of many Martin Wallace games as for the most part they are too “EuroGamey” for me. It’s a game style preference issue, nothing to do with the quality of his games. But I certainly bow to his obvious creativity and talent in board game design without question and interestingly, when I interviewed him at this year’s UK Expo, I found out that he is a long time war gamer.
So as a war gamer, and a Civil War buff, I was really interested in seeing what he would do in a proposed series of games from Mayfair Games covering a number of Civil War battles. My understanding is that these games are aimed at the entry level audience and marketed to commemorate the 150th anniversay of the Civil War.
Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861 is the first in the series, and comes in a smaller box than many board games but indeed a nice looking package with an excellent Don Troiani painting on the cover. The game board portrays the Bull Run battlefield very nicely, with clear areas outlined for movement and key terrain features clearly and nicely done. The board clearly shows the starting positions for each army and movement costs as well.
Along with 6 blue and 6 gray dice, you also get 62 counters representing infantry, leaders and artillery units as well as 1 Ford marker. The infantry units show a generic soldier image and there are no unit designations so some war gamers will be disappointed but for the target audience, it doesn’t really matter. At least (thank goodness) Mr. Wallace made the design decision to not use Euro-style wooden cubes and leader meeples to represent the military units as in his earlier Gettysburg and Waterloo games. The counters are fine and look good on the board.
The game also comes with 29 Union and 26 Confederate cards and 2 order displays.
The set up takes all of 5-10 minutes which is great news for non-gamers are war gaming newbies. The game turn starts with the player rolling his dice allotment (4 for the Union, 3 for the Confederates) and then you place your dice rolled on the corresponding space on your order display labeled Leader, Move Fire or Card. Effectively, each of these are the orders you can take. Yes it random and subject to the dice roll but it works very well and quickly.
Leader – gives you a choice of drawing one of your cards or firing artillery or moving infantry in the same space as your leader.
Fire – you can fire your artillery
Move – you can move a group of 1-3 counters (infantry, artillery, leaders)
The cards are a key feature that can impact your decisions. They provide a variety of options for you to choose from and with a maximum of 5 in your hand, you will be using them for various actions. The information on the cards is clear and easy to understand. You will find yourself playing through your cards as they can be valuable. The question will be when to use them to best effect and to also move them through so you can get other useful cards into your hand.
The game end is normally triggered when either player draws all their cards and then rolls a “1” as one of their order dice. Then the game ends when the next time a Confederate player turn ends.
The game has some earlier ending conditions such as either side capturing key geographic locations and perhaps more controversially, successfully playing a Rout card and rolling the required result which is determined by how many losses the enemy has sustained. Controversial, I say, only in that it may seem a bit harsh to some. But actually, at least for the Bull Run battle, both armies were relatively green and inexperienced and could easily be subject to rout. So I would say this is very acceptable.
The rules are clear and the gameplay is fast and furious with lots of choices. Yes they are random, driven by dice and the cards but it all comes together very well indeed. You do have control over your army and the choices you make within the limits available each turn are interesting, if simple and make for good replayability.
Did it work for me?
I am very pleased with Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861 as I think it is about time there was a fresh approach to entry level Civil War games and Martin Wallace has done a very good job delivering on this. This is an excellent game for the new war gamer and is very playable and fun. A great tool for introducing new gamers to the hobby. As a diversion and change of pace, it will be enjoyed by experienced war gamers as well.
The experienced war gamers will spot the historical limitations as well. Such as the main strategy for the Union is to attack via Sudley Springs Ford as that is where you will get enough troops over Bull Run. There will be fighting for Henry House Hill as happened historically. The problem here is that I think that the Union strategy is limited because getting across Bull Run in strength is severely limited anywhere else. So re-playabilty for a fun, easy game, yes, but to try other strategies, less so.
If you want a serious simulation, look elsewhere. If you want a fun, fast paced game which does give you a sense of the historical flow at a basic level, it all works well. The randomness of the orders and cards ensure no 2 games will play alike and the short end game conditions mean you never know how things will quite turn out. I really like simple war games and this is very enjoyable, and a worthy purchase in my book.
Boardgames in Blighty rating – 7 out of 10
Family friendly – whilst not the target audience, it is a good game to introduce your kids to the American Civil War
For more information – http://mayfairgames.com/