Warlord Games’ Test of Honour is best described as a pseudo-historical or pop-history wargame, a kind of midpoint between “serious” historical wargaming (focused strongly on accuracy over balance, and often breaking rules of what is considered “fun” in traditional miniatures gaming senses) and pure fantasy or speculation. Its mission statement, according to a Wargames Illustrated article was to “evoke samurai movies rather than a slavishly historical view of feudal Japan” (Graham Davey, quoted in WI354) and in this respect it achieves its aim. The rulebook is wholly free of historical context, the painting guides are genericised and do not even provide a list of historical coats of arms to imitate for historically-minded players.
This is not in itself necessarily a bad thing; pop-history wargaming is a fairly established field with games like Bolt Action, Flames of War and Saga offering simplified, gamist games using recognisable historical eras. Furthermore, trying to make a “samurai” wargame would be a difficult thing from a historical perspective simply because the timeline leading up to, say, Sekigahara is not widely popularly known to Western wargaming audiences in the way the Second World War or the Norman Conquest are. Thus a “samurai game” that has sword-wielding men of honour, muskets, bows and spears (with the promise of geisha assassins, ninja, warrior monks and suchlike) fills the pop-culture perception of a complex era of history much as a wargame offering Shermans duelling Tigers in bocage evokes the Second World War. The debate on whether this “Hollywood History” ethos is really appropriate or useful is a complex one I do not have the time or expertise to discuss in the compass of this review, but it is worth setting any discussion of Test of Honour in context of its stated aims. What is more, the rules are generic enough that they could be played “historically” if a player spent time modelling and painting forces that look more accurate.
The game itself is best described as a beginner’s wargame; it is uncomplicated, can be taught quickly and has only 16 A5 pages of rules. In terms of complexity I would rate it similarly to Mantic Games’ The Walking Dead: All Out War, but with less of a narrative focus (in that it dispenses with the narrative event step and the NPC faction). I personally feel beginner’s games and “lighter” wargames are good for the hobby; X Wing (Fantasy Flight Games) has capitalised on the popularity of Star Wars to repopularise dogfighting games with a mass audience. Although it is not to my taste, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar (Games Workshop) does, anecdotally based on my experience in local gaming stores, seem to be a game that people want to learn as their first wargame. Test of Honour is well positioned to enter this space; it offers a simple, easy-to-learn (and crucially cheap) game to learn various fundamentals of miniatures wargaming (unit movement, army list building, activation systems more complex than simple alternating turns) with an accessible theme.
Accessible theming is something that comes up a lot, I find, in trying to expand the appeal of board games and wargames. Things with strong cultural cachet among traditional gamer demographics like Lovecraft’s horror stories, high fantasy and superheroes might be alienating to an audience who historically may have felt those things immature and uninteresting. Some periods of history might be similarly alienating to some audiences; a World War 2 game requires someone to play the Axis forces, after all. Samurai media, and its romanticised feudal Japan, I feel, is something quite neutral in appeal; from Shogun to The Last Samurai the aesthetic has a certain pop-cultural resonance that does not feel like it needs extensive knowledge in fantasy continuity, and is historically remote enough to not have specific associations.
The rules are not perfect. There was an FAQ put out not long after launch including several omitted rules of varying importance (one of which was crucial to the turn sequence), for one. What is more, from experience I have found the combat resolution to be very “swingy”, with generally either massive success or total failure or, should the middle ground occur, a kind of death spiral effect. The intention, according to the game’s developers, was to have a system where heroes were capable of feats of movie-esque unstoppability but could similarly have lengthy duels with back-and-forth against foes of equal quality. In practice the effect is rather like low-level Mordheim in that sometimes a game will be over quickly and sometimes two warriors will flail about for endless combats.
The core dice mechanic is based on a pool of proprietary six-sided dice; a character rolls dice equal to their statistic, and counts hits (dice marked in X, 0, 1 and 2). Three hits is an overall success and five a critical hit, while if more Xs are rolled than hits it is a critical failure. The effects of criticals are based on the roll in question and the equipment of the unit, but are generally very strong both positively and negatively (the “knocked prone” result which can happen on a critically failed saving throw effectively wastes the model’s next activation and makes them easier to hit for the remainder of the turn, while critical wound rolls can allow additional attacks to be made). It is a win or lose big system which naturally creates, more often than not, “wow” moments which are key to making a light game memorable. In my initial game a turn of good rolls saw a hero earn many bonus attacks and kill several lesser foes before squaring off against his rival hero. This was fun and invited a bit of banter between the players, which made a good atmosphere at the table. On the other hand, in the first round of the climactic duel the defending player critically failed a save, was knocked prone and that essentially lost them the game. And as taking a saving throw requires forfeiting an activation, this is a double penalty; you pass up your chance to use a unit and end up worsening your board state.
Here it is worth mentioning the activation system, which is I think a strength of the game. It is a typical Warlord tokens-in-a-cup one with a couple of thematic twists that I feel are reminiscent of Too Fat Lardies games. The activation pool is loaded with “commoner” actions for line troops and “samurai” actions for heroes. They are divided by figure rank, not faction; if a player draws a token for a troop type they cannot activate, it passes to their opponent. Also in the pool are three Fate markers; a player drawing one forfeits their activation but instead gains a Skill for their army, improving its abilities, and once they are all drawn the turn ends (thus the turn can end before every figure has activated). In practice the system works well and feels a little better-executed thematically than, say, Bolt Action.
The remainder of the core rules are straightforward move-and-attack stuff with simple line-of-sight and line-of-charge rules (possibly over-simplified in terrain terms, with all terrain assumed to completely block line of sight and effect with little latitude in the fashion of The Walking Dead for customisation outside of player consent), although there is an effective morale system (nearby casualties cause leadership checks in friendly figures, can cause fall-back moves and encourage encirclement to create something similar to old editions of Warhammer 40,000‘s entrapment rules). Damage resolution is simple and a basic derivation of Warlord‘s pin rules; hits will either do nothing, inflict a “blood” token which increases the damage of all subsequent attacks against that target or remove the model completely. Again, it works well for what the game sets out to do.
There are, however, some more advanced and thematic rules in the supplementary “Battle Guide”; the skill system and campaign system are elegant and straightforward. Players earn skills when Fate tokens are drawn, and keep one at the end of the game. There are a number of linked scenarios in the book which are pleasant enough wargaming fare. There are also rules for persistent injuries within a game (discarded at the battle’s end); a hero can take an additional save if slain to fight on but at a stat penalty. I have not tested this rule myself but I can see it being either a decisive narrative element or an unneeded dragging out of a foregone battle depending on context. Finally there is the Dishonour system; a hero may gain a dice on their To Hit roll by acting in some dishonourable way, but subsequently granting a penalty to the next leadership roll made by their force. It is a simple risk-reward system but I think it is interesting enough.
The final matter of consideration in the Test of Honour boxed game is the miniatures themselves; for an RRP of £35 you get 35 multipart plastic miniatures – 30 line troops and 5 heroes. If purchased at RRP this is £1 a figure, but it is readily available at lower prices via independent game stores and so from a simple money-to-figure perspective it is a good value boxed game for entering the wargaming hobby. The figures themselves are repacks of the Wargames Factory feudal Japan range, which were always renowned for their low cost. I have issues with them, but nevertheless they are easy to paint, relatively easy to assemble and look fine enough for the cost at tabletop height. The big issue is some very static and unnatural posing, particularly on the hero sprue, and some very awkward construction issues caused by poor instruction manuals and a lack of part numbering. That said there is a good amount of equipment provided for making command figures – drumstick arms, batons, banners and flasks for example, as well as a variety of scabbards, armour adornments and helmet crests for heroes. The infantry sprues contain bare and helmeted heads, which is nice, and the faces are of generally good quality. All told the figures are entirely serviceable, and while they may not stack up in quality to what other manufacturers put out in multipart plastic they are significantly on the cheaper end of the spectrum.
There is one other complaint I have with the game, and it is one of business model; the game uses stat cards for units and skills, and the only way to get them is by buying the Test of Honour figure packs. If I want to field cavalry, I have to buy a Test of Honour cavalry box rather than looking elsewhere for mounted samurai models and buying a card deck. This is an entirely personal complaint, mind, and I will admit perhaps a petty one; the game is a vehicle for putting the Wargames Factory miniatures to a boxed-game ruleset, rather than creating a historical figure-agnostic ruleset in the vein of Osprey’s rules. The debate about the sustainability and ethics of these proprietary card- and component-based systems is a fierce one and here is not the place for it, but I appreciate that the need to buy additional figures to put existing historical collections to use may put off some players.
A cynical, world-weary wargamer would look at this seemingly lukewarm review of Test of Honour and ask what purpose it serves and indeed why I would still recommend it after identifying so many reservations with it. My answer would be that while it is, when compared to more complex and developed wargames, simple and possessed of some potential balance issues owing to its dice pool resolution, it is easy to teach. It is not for seasoned historical gamers with large armies created with an eye to recreating the specific armies at Sekigahara. It is for people with no background in historical gaming who nevertheless want a wargame without steampunk, or fantasy, or lightsabers. It touches on the imagery and setting of historical games without expecting the commitment to researching uniforms that can be offputting. Indeed, I would say it is absolutely a companion to something like The Walking Dead in offering a boxed game experience that is a complete game with room for expansion for non-wargamers to enter the hobby by, while still having enough depth and substance to not feel completely unsuitable for experienced players. A lot of the issues I identify come about because I have played a lot of wargames and have an eye for finding fault. From this hypercritical perspective it is, of course, a weak product compared to something like Infinity or Malifaux in skirmish game terms. But if I consider it from the perspective of trying to teach wargaming to new players, it does enough, and offers enough depth and complexity to feel like it can be mastered and strategies developed while still only having 16 pages of rules.
If The Walking Dead teaches narrative elements of wargaming with its strongly named-character driven mechanics that emulate a specific TV series, Test of Honour offers a microcosm of army-based wargaming; it has enough list-building to give meaningful but not overwhelming choice, it combines small multibased units with single-based figures to teach maneuver and formation and it has risk-reward mechanics and variable game length. It provides, in brief, many of the fundamentals of wargaming in a fashion that can be easily explained, and does so in an affordable boxed game that stands alone well but can be expanded. In this aspect, it is a very good product that fills a niche that many longstanding wargamers will likely not fit within.