Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Bolt Action Rules Review - a few games in.

When Jerry appears, give him a taste of 57mm steel!

Hi everyone,

As you have undoubtedly noticed, I've been very much taken with Warlord Games' World War 2 themed skirmish gamed, Bolt Action.

Bolt Action (BA) is a fun game first and foremost. It's simple, quick to play and has a lot of things going for it. For the purpose of this review I'll primarily make comparisons to 40k, both because I know that game relatively well and because it's perhaps the most common or well known wargame (in my area at least). To start with, if you've not seen it around, BA is a skirmish game for battles set in WW2. It was designed with 28mm models in mind but can be adapted to other scales as well. Fundamentally it's close to 40k in that you can move, shoot and fight in close quarters (assault) over a number of turns.

BA add a great dynamic to the game in the activation of units. Instead of having one player do everything on their side, then swapping, the game mixes things up. Each unit brings an order die to the game. Each turn, all of these dice are put into a bag or cup, shaken and drawn out randomly. Whichever side gets the die can issue an order to one of its units. Then another die is drawn, an order issued and the process repeats until all of the dice have been used. That turn is then over and the dice are (usually) put back in the bag for the next turn. It's nice in that you never quite know what order the game is going to happen in when you start a new turn. You might get that crucial first order die and throw a wrench in the opponent's plans but then again you might have a string of bad luck and they get all the first activations. On the other hand you then get to activate your units in a row at the end of the turn and can adjust your plans because your opponent has already chosen their moves. It adds a challenge when you get the first die and have to think carefully about which unit should go first.

The six orders you can give are: Fire, advance, run, ambush, rally and down.

These let you fire without penalty, move and fire, double your move or assault, wait to ambush an opposing unit, try to get your troops back in the fight, and hit the dirt. When you start the game your units automatically follow your orders but once you start taking fire and being pinned you have to pass 'morale' checks, which is harder the more pin markers you have. This seems quite punishing when you fail but makes sense when you think about a machine gun hosing your guys' positions, and also gives a reason to field veteran troops (higher morale) as well as keep your HQ in the middle (bonus to morale checks with 6").

Pinning  is a real change compared to 40k (where it is less frequent and effective). Suppressing fire is extremely effective as a tactic and makes games a real challenge. No long will your troops cheerfully leap out from cover when they are under a hail of fire from multiple angles. Instead, a more realistically, your men may decide to avoid the bold/foolhardy choice in favour of keeping their heads down in cover. Each time your units are hit, they receive a pin marker, regardless of whether any casualties are caused. Having bullets whip by your ear is almost as scary as your buddy being hit. Each pin marker gives you -1 to order and morale checks, plus a -1 to shooting. Don't expect guys with three pin markers to make effective shots when they're at -3 to hit just from the pin markers. Might be time to try a rally order to get rid of some markers while hiding in cover.

Watch out for the snipers in the next building!!!

Speaking of cover, I feel like it adjust the right aspects of the dice in BA compared to 40k - the shooting phases, specifically, how easily you hit. One thing that has always felt jarring to me in Warhammer 40k is the way that a Space Marine (to take a common example) hits on a 3+ no matter whether he is standing 2" from a target out in the open or sniping at someone at maximum range who is hunkered down behind a concrete barricade. It's frustrating when you are right on top of someone and suddenly can't hit worth a damn when just last turn you were picking them out of hard cover like Vasily Zajtsev.

BA handles shooting slightly differently than 40k. All troops hit on a 3+ and then that roll is modified by a small table of factors. Point blank (6" or less) gives you a +1 to hit, but lots more things give you negative modifiers. You'll get -1 for firing over half range, moving and firing, being inexperienced troops, firing at a unit of 1 or 2 men (small target), -1 PER pin marker on your unit, -1 for soft cover that obscures sight and -2 for hard cover that obscures and protects. As you can see, shooting is rarely going to be an easy task in Bolt Action. While this means that casualties tend to be relatively light, barring lucky dice, at range, you can still suppress and pin your opponent until you get closer and the brutal firefights begin. Don't expect your 2 pin marker rookie troops to effectively shoot a German sniper team out of hard cover at long range (-2 pins, -1 inexperienced, -1 long range, -2 hard cover for a total of 9+ to hit). Then again don't stop in front of the enemy machine gun position at close range in the open because they'll be hitting you on 2+ and you can't go down in reaction if you've already taken an action.

Now with so many modifiers you may well be asking what it means when you need a 7/8/9+ to hit your target. Without making it complex, BA adds a chance for such long shot success. Roll to hit, if you score any 6s, roll these again. A second 6 means you hit. They call these nigh-impossible shots but it can still be worth if you have the opportunity. You never know when that lucky bullet will take out the enemy machine gunner and save your butt.

A Jagdpanther in cover with a machine to cover it? Ouch!

Let's say get some luck and hit the enemy. First up, we put a pin marker on them, regardless of whether we kill anyone. That's a good thing, especially if we can put some more on the same unit later in the turn. Then it's the chance to kill someone. Regular troops die to small arms fire on a 4+, inexperienced on a 3+ and veterans on a 5+. I like how this tries to reflect the variety of training and experience for different troops. Veterans would know more when to get down and how to survive better. That said, bigger guns add modifiers to the damage roll so a 20mm cannon (+2 to damage) will bring down veterans on a 3+. Buildings bring your wound roll up to a 6+ so even rookies in buildings can take a lot of fire, even from heavy guns.

Vehicles with with a lot of similarities to troops except that they have a damage value of 7 - 11 (armoured cars to super heavy tanks respectively), which means small arms fire can't touch them. They don't get pinned by light weapons, but if you start putting heavy weapons on them, then they can be pinned down and damaged. In general, vehicles let you add a lot of mobility to your force as well as giving you anchors around which to fix your attack or defence. Plus, who doesn't want to put a King Tiger on the table and make stuff go boom :-)

The last point I'll add that I love is the way that your nation of choice gives you a unique bonus.
  • Germany - Bonus shot for infantry machine guns (Hitler's buzzsaw) and NCO survivability.
  • US - Move and fire without penalty for rifle/BAR troops and double air strikes.
  • British - Free artillery observer and bonus to pre-battle bombardments 
  • Soviet - Free 11 man inexperienced squad and re-rolls to some morale checks (for the Motherland)

So, is Bolt Action a perfect game?

No, of course not. I find it quite a close ranged game. Most troops have rifles, rifles fire at 24" so you end up in a close up battle much of the time. I think this is a general weakness of shooting based wargames played on relatively (6x4) small tables so it's a not a huge problem. On the other hand, most rifles and WW2 weaponry had similar characteristics so it's reasonable.

Tanks are not very cost effective in many cases, especially the big ones. A King Tiger will set you back 555 points and if there are no armoured targets on the field it turns into a really expensive machine gun carrier that isn't going to be able to take on the 40 or so infantry you'd get for the same points. Also the armoured vehicles are not as distinct as was historically the case, but that's very hard to do on the tabletop. At the heart, the game is infantry focused and that's fine for me.

In conclusion...

This game is fun, a lot of fun and plays easily. People who've tried it are big fans very quickly and want to play again. Already one of my buddies (a Warhammer Fantasy player) finished the first game, went home and ordered the rulebook and his Soviet army immediately. The low model cost and variety of places to buy models really steps the game up as well.

If you have any questions please drop them in the comment box and I'll answer them as best I can :-)

All the best



  1. Man, I'm excited you're getting into Bolt Action! I've picked up the rules, and several of the army books, as well as a bunch of minis, but haven't had time to throw them together and get them on the table yet. Looks like a great game though :)

  2. Hey Asmo, good to hear from you. How is life?

    You should definitely get playing Bolt Action. It's a lot of fun and it's pretty easy to add variety since historical minis tend to be pretty easy on the wallet. My buddy and I are expanding fast and having a blast playing. Last night we got in a game of American rangers vs British commandos and had a lot of fun fighting over the village objective.

    If you're ever inclined to visit central Europe, feel free to drop by Bratislava and have some games and beers :-)


  3. Life's great! Starting my master's in spring, and finally getting my non-work life under control for the first time in years :) How are things going for you?

    I may take you up on that, I'll let you know though ;). I actually have wanted to visit Slovakia for some time :).

    And I'll try to get Bolt Action on the table early next year. Just need to assemble the Assault on Normandy box, and round up a friend to make him try it. Soon :)

  4. Glad to hear all is well. Things are great with me. My wife and I recently bought an apartment so there has been a lot to manage. However it's now a great place to live and a relaxing home for both of us. Work as an English teacher is pleasantly busy but still fun, so no complaints.

    If you get over here then it would be fantastic to meet in person. Slovakia is a great country and Bratislava a nice, small capital to visit.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on Bolt Action if you get it to the tabletop.

    Pete :-)