I have been fascinated by the (American) Civil War since I was a child. I realized a little while back that I also hadn't ever played any good Civil War board games (or, to be fair, any Civil War board games - good or otherwise). Therefore, when I first heard that Mayfair Games was coming out with Test Of Fire: Bull Run 1861, I jumped (metaphorically - not physically) at the chance to play it!
In Test of Fire, each player takes the role of one of the opposing sides - the Union or the Confederacy (at the first battle of Bull Run). The goal of the game is to either control two of the three objectives by the time one of the decks of cards runs out, capture your opponent's headquarters, or to kill enough troops that you are able to Rout your opponent (one of the cards is a "Rout" and is successful based on how many opponents were killed). Each turn, you roll dice to determine which orders are available to you (Union gets four orders, Confederacy gets three). These orders can include drawing cards, moving troops (potentially into a skirmish), firing artillery, or using your Leader to do any of the three actions. True to form, Test of Fire depicts the inaccuracy of Civil War weaponry by the odds of actually hitting anyone while fighting being fairly atrocious. When rolling with artillery, you score a "hit" on a roll of a 5 or 6 - from there, you roll again to see if the enemy retreats (on a 1-5) or if you inflict damage (only on a 6). In troop combat, the odds are significantly improved of hitting (troops get two dice instead of one, but still only hit on a 5 or 6), and you are able to damage your opponent on a roll of 4-6. Play continues like this until one side meets one of the instant win conditions (capture Headquarters, or a successful Rout), or until one of the sides has drawn their deck of cards and has an order to draw a card - at which point whoever controls two objectives at the end of the Confederate turn is the winner.
The first pro for Test of Fire is the historical accuracy of the game. Between the board setup, the informative lesson about the battle contained in the rules, and how the artillery fire, orders, and troop combat play out, I am quite impressed with the game. I think that this game could easily be used as a fun teaching tool for anyone trying to learn (or teach) American History. Unfortunately, along with it being historically accurate, this leads into my first neutral point of note.
The Civil War was a war of attrition. The Union won because they had more troops and better supplies. For the most part, the battles consisted of shooting back and forth at each other with inaccurate weaponry until one side or the other was exhausted and retreated. Many troops were killed, but thousands more were violently injured (but survived). This is depicted well in Test of Fire. Most of the game will be spent in a tug-of-war fashion where the Union charges into the battle and is beaten back while causing a few Confederate troops to retreat. Both sides will wind up with most of their troops damaged, yet only a few will actually be killed. I believe that this is actually very accurate of the war that is being represented in the game, but it is something to be aware of when considering whether Test of Fire is a game for you. If you are not interested in a war of attrition, then you may want to look at games based off of other wars.
The next thing that you should know about Test of Fire is that there are a lot of dice that are rolled. I am classifying this as a "neutral point of note" instead of a pro or a con, but I'm leaning towards how the orders work being a pro - I'm just not 100% decided on that yet. I believe that how the orders work simulates the breakdown in communications of the Civil War. It was not always easy to get a message to your troops to ensure that they are doing the correct thing (indeed this happened a lot at Bull Run specifically). In the game, this plays out by you often not being able to do what the strategically best option is. It can be very frustrating as the Union player to see the Confederate line finally about to break, only to roll all artillery orders - thus not giving you the option to capitalize. However, since both players get orders the same way, I have seen the Confederate player see this same situation and desperately hope to reinforce - only to have all their orders used to draw cards. The same dice rolling applies for fighting - the odds of actually hitting anything are not in your favor, and it can be very frustrating to see your troops completely miss the incoming enemy. However, it can be quite rewarding later in the game when you finally roll a majority of "hits", finally dealing massive damage to your opponent.
The main con that I have for Test of Fire is that I think the replayability of the game is fairly limited. There are some variants that are included in the instructions that can add a little bit of freshness to the game (and attempt to balance out the game if one side is winning far more than they should be - which is the Confederacy when I play). However, even with these variants, the battle is going to be essentially the same each time through, as will the strategies for both sides (draw as quickly as possible with the Confederacy, and charge like a madman with the Union).
Overall, I give Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861 an 8.0/10. I debated this number a bit, but I think that since the game only lists at $30, I can forgive some of the replayability issues that I listed. If you enjoy war games or are interested in the Civil War, you should definitely check this game out - I think that you will get your money's worth.
For historical based games, you may also want to read about 1960: The Making of the President, and Axis and Allies: Pacific, or if you like war games you might consider checking out Risk: Legacy.
I would like to thank Mayfair Games for providing me with a review copy of Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861.