The Civil War and Arthurian legend provide the backdrop for three board games on the market today, but are they fun and engaging? Lets take a look at Test of Fire, Bull Run 1861 and Clash of Wills, Shiloh, 1862, both from Mayfair Games, and Shadows over Camelot from Days of Wonder.
Test of Fire is a light war game that re-creates the Civil War's first major battle at Bull Run. Two players take on either the Union or Confederate forces at the beginning of the battle. Cardboard chits represent infantry, artillery and leader units. The board itself is a small but functional re-creation of the battlefield.
A player's turn consists of rolling dice — four for the Union, three for the Confederates. The dice are then placed upon a cardboard Order Display, which indicates which die rolls allow which actions. A roll of six allows players to use their leaders, a roll of four or five allows players to move units, a roll of two or three allows players to fire their artillery, while a roll of one allows players to draw a card.
Using this system, players maneuver their units into battle and engage in combat. Cards in your hand can be played to give you many different advantages such as allowing your side to take an extra movement action, roll additional dice when firing artillery, or allowing more dice to be rolled in combat. In combat, the defender rolls first, often frustrating well-planned attacks. The player defending a hill gets a bonus, allowing for better odds when rolling the dice.
The Union player wins if he can occupy certain areas by the time all his cards are drawn, or if either side can occupy the other's starting position.
A sequel of sorts to Test of Fire, Clash of Wills plays very similarly, but with several notable differences. Re-creating the Confederate surprise attack at the Battle of Shiloh, the Union player is largely on the defensive for the game's “first day,” notably by rolling considerably fewer order dice. Once certain conditions are met, the game shifts to the “second day,” and now the Confederates must defend against growing Union advantages.
The game also introduces gunboats, cavalry and veteran units to the game system, making Clash of Wills a unique game that offers new challenges and player options.
Test of Fire and Clash of Wills are both a lot of fun. Though players are constrained every turn by their order dice, the game never feels like it significantly limits your options. Rather the reverse, in fact. Each turn you will be able to do something meaningful, though not necessarily the action you want to take.
Dice rolling in combat is engaging and tense as well, though occasionally frustrating for the attacker. Several attacks are needed to dislodge an entrenched enemy.
These are not heavy war games that will bog you down in rules and minutia. Rather, each game offers just the right amount of detail and playability for casual and younger gamers.
Though the overall game play is great, perhaps the most compelling aspect of these games is the history they teach. Both rule books include relatively detailed accounts of the battles that not only help to set the atmosphere, but also educate players on the very real and horrifying events that the games depict. Games that educate as they entertain are always a plus, and Test of Fire and Clash of Wills do both wonderfully.
Both games take about an hour and are recommended for ages 10 and up.
A very different game is Shadows over Camelot, a cooperative game set during the time of King Arthur. Three to seven knights form the noble round table, and together they must face a host of quests and challenges in order to overcome the forces of evil.
Because this is a cooperative game, players control the game they're playing against by first taking an evil action — setting a siege engine before Camelot (once 12 are placed, the knights immediately lose the game), taking a hit point to their character, or drawing an evil card that makes completing quests more difficult. Players may then take a heroic action like traveling to a quest, playing or drawing heroic cards or battling siege engines.
There are several different quests on the board, like the Holy Grail or Excalibur quests, and players must lay down certain heroic cards, often sequentially, before the drawn evil cards can overwhelm them and claim the quest for evil.
The best part of this game, however, is the hidden traitor mechanic. One of the noble knights is secretly working for the forces of evil and must work throughout the game to sabotage the efforts of his brother knights, all while maintaining the appearance of innocence.
After completing quests, the heroes get to place a number of white swords on the round table. If they fail quests, black swords are placed on the table. If black outnumber white swords at the end of the game, evil wins and the knights lose. If the traitor has managed to stay hidden until the end, two white swords become black.
To say that Shadows over Camelot is a fantastic, insanely fun board game is an understatement. The kinds of experiences that this game creates are the reason why board games were invented. This is a game that forces players to work together and tell a story. Every turn players are faced with options, both good and bad. Do I take the hit point to avoid drawing an evil card? Do I place a siege engine while there are so many out there already? Do I join another knight in a fight against the Saxons, when it already looks like a lost cause, on the chance we might succeed together?
Conversely, you will be asking yourself why your friend didn't take that hit point, or why he placed that siege engine. Accusations will fly and you will alternately be laughing and freaking out over each agonizing decision. Most importantly, you will be having an amazingly fun experience.
Shadows over Camelot plays in about an hour and a half and is recommended for ages 10 and up.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org