Thursday, 4 February 2016

Let's look at: Bolt Action - my first time playing and initial thoughts.

Bolt Action (produced by Warlord Games) is a historical game I've been wanting to get properly into for a long time. For those unfamiliar, it's a Platoon level (usually between twenty to fourty men though it depends on nationality, accompanied by a couple of toys such as an AT gun or a tank) game set in World War Two, with an emphasis on tactical use of suppression and manoeuvring over straight up killing the opponent. 

It sounded right up my alley. After all, it contains everything that interests me; warfare, history, a gentlemanly style of gameplay rather than a tournament build and, perhaps best of all, it's a tabletop game featuring my beloved Royal Marine Commandos (the Second World War of course being the conflict which saw the foundation of the Commando arm, of which the Royal Marine commandos subsequently became the most ubiquitous surviving element in the modern day). 

I was held back however by a rather significant problem; none of my close friends were particularly interested in starting up yet another game system on a whim, even though WWII is undoubtedly a cool setting. 

As such, the twelve (yes, you read that correctly) boxes of British Commandos I had purchased lay languishing in my cupboard, apparently doomed forever to be consigned to the 'to do'pile for all time. 

Fortunately however I was later able to score a small German Wehrmacht force  from a friend having a clear-out, and the opportunity to show my local friends the game presented itself. 
So without too much hassle I managed to persuade my friend Dan to pick up the Germans and we set to over a table armed with unpainted models, borrowed order dice and a single copy of the rules. 

It's worth bearing in mind at this point that Dan and I are relatively experienced gamers and the Bolt Action rules are very simple to pick up and play with, so we were able to get cracking with little difficulty, though it turned out later that we did make a few mistakes. 


Buildings by 4Ground, trees and craters by Games Workshop, MDF board by the B&Q 'round the back of Matt's house
The lists we were using were taken from the Bolt Action core rulebook for the Germans and the online rules for No. 47 RM Commando for the Commandos. 

Whilst perhaps not the most balanced way to learn the game, the differences were minor compared to how I'd have run the Commandos using the generic platoon selector anyway so we agreed it was fine to use the special rules. 

The lists were relatively simple:

German Wehrmacht
Oberleutnant - Veteran, +1 Veteran Soldier

X2 Regular Infantry Section of 10 men, Sarge has an SMG. The section contains an LMG. 

MMG team

Light Mortar team

Sniper team

Tiger tank (because why not?)

Royal Marines
In accordance with Royal Marine rules, all officers, observers, teams etc. have been upgraded with Commando Training for +3 pts each. 

First Lieutenant with 5 Marines, all with SMGs. 

FREE Forward Artillery Observer.

One Marine sub-section of 11 men with SMGs.

One Marine sub-section of 11 men with Rifles. Unit contained two LMGs both upgraded to Vickers-K.

MMG team. 

Medium Mortar Team. 

Sniper Team. 

PIAT team. 

The battlefield
We set up a simple board in the kitchen with a decent spattering of light and heavy cover as well as a line-of-sight blocking house in the centre of the map (something we've always done in games, it tends to encourage movement and discourage static gun lines). 

Game 1 - Test Game
The first game of the day was a quick test game to see how the Orders system worked, to work out how to move and fire and the different types of weapons and cover. 

Each of us took an infantry section with an LMG and a Lieutenant with +1 man armed as modelled. The units were all treated as Regular for the sake of simplicity just to learn the mechanics with. 

Unfortunately, before we could kick off, the cat decided to join us... 

"Herr Oberleutnant, ze British will never expect our new Panther tank!"
Once the offending Panther (good joke!) had been seen off the table, we began.

Within a few turns it became obvious I was currently making very poor use of available cover. Probably due to being far too used to the way Wahammer 40,000 works I was positioning models somewhat carelessly in regards to the cover I thought they were hidden behind. A firefight opened up between the infantry sections on my left, and quickly the Germans gained the upper hand due to my poor placement, causing pins and casualties aplenty. The plucky British gave as good as they got, though, and didn't make a run for it - instead, they passed their own order tests time and again to return fire. 

"That's it, men. Stand right in the gap between the two walls!"
A note on orders and pins; 
For those unaware, one of Bolt Action's central mechanics is the use of 'pin markers' or 'pins' for short. These are used to represent the effects of coming under fire and the impact they have on units doing what you tell them to. The more pin markers a unit sustains from being under constant fire, the less likely they are to obey orders. 

The second unique mechanic is the Orders system. Each player has a single 'order dice' per unit in their army, colour-coded for convenience. Players draw 'order dice' from a cup one at a time without looking and the player of the corresponding colour takes a turn to activate one of their units. They then assign the die to one of their units and issue an order ("Run", "Fire", "Advance" etc.), thus activating the unit - this unit cannot then act again this turn; at the end of the turn (determined by all dice being removed from the cup), the dice are gathered back into the cup and the next turn begins. This adds a random chance mechanic to proceedings, ensuring players are never sure who will act next. If units are 'pinned', they must take a test to enact orders. The more heavily pinned the unit, the harder it is to pass the order. 

As you can see, this adds a tactical element to gameplay where the turns alternate randomly and pinning is considered a priority, as pins prevent enemy soldiers from obeying orders. 

Meanwhile, my officer and pal moved ever closer to the German left, hopping over obstacles along the way. 

When they reached about 12" or so away, they opened up on the German Leutnant and his accomplice with their SMGs. Unfortunately for the Germans, they were caught with their trousers down on the wrong side of a wall and were turned into paste. 

These two brave Brits with SMGs went on to circle the house and take out the German infantry section from behind with a disturbingly high ratio of hits and wounds caused. 

"Enemy approaching, sir!" "Steady on, Hodgkins, those chaps aren't being used in this game."
So the test game ended with a very satisfying win for the Brits, but lessons learned on both sides. Namely cover positioning and the fearsome power of SMG units getting stuck in. We also realised why the German Assault Rifle must have such a fearsome reputation, given it was effectively an SMG but with twice the range. Nasty!

Second Game - Demolition
For our first game proper we rolled a D6 on the missions chart and were confronted with 'Demolition' (effectively Home and Away with a twist for us old 40k hands). For the uninitiated, this is a mission where each player controls a 'base', represented by a counter, chit or converted model. The objective is to reach the opponent's 'base' and, if you are touching the base at the end of a turn the base is destroyed - the first to destroy the enemy base is the winner.
As a side caveat, all units are deployed "in reserves"; this means they are not deployed on the board at the beginning of the game. Instead, when players draw their Order dice from the cup they can move troops onto the board by issuing a "Run" or "Advance" order. This order incurs no penalty.

Using some borrowed Russian MMG teams as our 'bases', we proceeded to set up the battlefield and plan our attacks. 

Dice cup by Viking Memarobilia ltd.
Surprisingly enough, I set both the SMG section and the command section into Outflank, as Dan had placed his objective in the back corner near a table edge. This is a special form of moving on from reserves; 40k players will be familiar - in essence, instead of marching on from the controlling player's own board edge, troops chosen to Outflank move on from either side of the board. This is usually quite a powerful ability, as it allows players to put units in their opponent's flanks with little impunity. To balance the potential this ability has, units normally require an order test (as if they were pinned) to move onto the table. British Commandos, however, ignore this test - representing their role and skills as behind-the-lines raiding troops.

Whilst the game itself lasted a while the main contest was over very quickly; the Commandos successfully outflanked and ended up within touching distance of the objective, wiping German infantry off the map with no trouble (11 SMGs hurt, it would seem). However, the arrival of the Tiger Tank on the same flank brought them down in short order and the game ended in a stalemate with neither side seizing the objectives. 

"This is my Panzerkampfwagen, it panzers kampf wagens."

A few highlights; 
- the SMG sections arriving and proving how brutal the weapon can be
- Commandos demonstrating their prowess in melee when assaulting
- the German sniper picking off the Mortar on Turn 1, reducing the entire model to two pissed-off crew members 
- the British Sniper failing miserably to hit the German mortar in exchange
- the remnants of the British mortar teaming up with the FAO and chum taking out an infantry squad, an MMG and the German Oberleutnant on the left flank, proving that even when down and out the Royal Marines are still nasty! (Being able to upgrade teams and observers to Tough Fighters with SMGs shown to be more useful than I'd expected). 

Third Game - Maximum Attrition
For the final game of the day, we rolled up a simple 'kill the bad guys' mission. Each player scored a single point for every enemy unit they wiped off the table. Nice and easy. Note that single kills mean nothing; the difference between a full ten-man unit and a unit reduced to a single man is nothing at the end of the day, only completely destroyed or routed units gain points.

We flipped the board around for this game, so the British started on the side with heavy cover and the Germans began in the forest. 

The game went relatively smoothly, with good fire exchanged on both sides. A well-rolled shot from the FAO did handicap the Germans somewhat in the early stages of the game, causing a large number of pins on every unit in the army including the Tiger. This unfortunately meant that the Oberleutnant spent most of his game running around trying to restore order, and several German units failed to react at crucial moments. 

On the whole however the battle went on with a decent casualty ratio, as despite all the pins inflicted the Germans took relatively few unit-wide casualties. 

I was also guilty of forgetting the objective at hand was to wipe out units rather than inflict single kills, and though the Germans ended the game with most units reduced to one or two figures, I only scored three points due to the removal of a paltry three weapons teams despite my huge initial advantage. 

In retaliation, Dan's Germans scored kills much more efficiently; taking out the FAO who was crouching behind a wall (poor bugger got hit with an AT shell from the tank) as well as the mortar and sniper teams (my mortar again failing to score any hits). He also successfully sniped the Lieutenant from his firing spot in the farmhouse which, whilst not a kill, was a great use of his sniper team.

While the result was a draw, Dan certainly played the better game. I failed to capitalise on my advantages and didn't play anywhere near as aggressively as I should have done; an early bum rush to occupy the farmhouse was as far as I got, and a middle-territory grab-and-hold just wasn't enough to press home the initial momentum of the FAO's barrage. On the other hand, Dan managed to pull a draw despite being handed two pair, a jack and a queen versus my initial royal flush; he picked his targets well and clawed his way to a draw with only half his force actually listening to his orders.

Commandos, the UK's elite assault force, sit behind a wall and plink away with rifles
My rifle section advanced to a quarter of the way up the board and then remained there, trading shots with a German section in the woods and just sat there for the whole game. My weapon teams parked on the back line and didn't move at all, and my SMG section remained in reserve as long as possible to avoid being killed and giving away points. I was also terrified of the Tiger, the psychological aspect of the tank perhaps forcing me to hold back more than I should.

"Shouldn't you should stand away from the window, sir?" "Nonsense, Hastings! It's not as if they have a snip-aaargh!"
It's clear therefore that I needed to seize upon my own advantages and good fortune, as aggressive play could well have resulted in overall victory. Especially when considering the devastating effect of the initial bombardment and the fact most of the Germans were pinned into uselessness for the majority of the game, it's clear I dropped the ball on this one. 

Final thoughts
Bolt Action; a hell of a game. 
Lots to love, it's easy to learn and relatively easy to work your way through. 

The focus on tactical combat, careful positioning and use of pinning markers all add extra tactical elements to the tabletop wargame formula. It's not a rarity for a wargame to add a risk of troops not following orders into the mix, however it is sadly a frequent prerogative of green troops and green troops alone; it's refreshing to find a game that can punish battle-hardened veterans when taking heavy fire, forcing them to keep their heads down at the expense of upsetting the battle-plan. 
I also enjoy the random turns; it keeps things fresh and means players have to consider certain moves as being a lot more risky than usual. Whilst in most other games the player moves and attacks with their whole force in one turn, in Bolt Action a unit might move up only to find itself suddenly without support as the enemy then seizes the initiative, preventing reinforcements moving up and leaving the first unit isolated and cut off. 

On the whole, we both enjoyed the game tremendously and are looking forward to expanding our forces in the near future. We made some mistakes here and there and were lost a couple of times but the inherently simple and smooth nature of the game meant a quick flick to the rulebook was all that was required to get the ball rolling again. 

I loved trying the game out at last and have already ordered my next batch of toy soldiers; some British Infantry, a Churchill tank, some transports and a QF-17, beloved of me from my experiences as a Company of Heroes 2 player. 

Tremendously looking forward to the next bout!

I leave you with this final cat-based invasion: 

"Watch out, Wilkes! Giant Panther on the right flank, it's broken through the gates!"


  1. Glad you enjoyed your games. I too went for Commando's and as a first force found them very forgiving, easy to use and deadly in combat. I too had lots of smg's to begin with but over the course of a few games realised that I didn't need that many as the points are wasted when the boys get stuck in combat. The points saved allowed me to get even more troops.
    On a side note there are still army commando's though we are not as numerous as the RM's we play a supporting role. 29 Commando is Artillery Support, 59 Commando is Engineer's. I hope to play you soon at the club, Commando's vs Commando's, shoulder a blood bath :)

  2. Glad you enjoyed your games. I too went for Commando's and as a first force found them very forgiving, easy to use and deadly in combat. I too had lots of smg's to begin with but over the course of a few games realised that I didn't need that many as the points are wasted when the boys get stuck in combat. The points saved allowed me to get even more troops.
    On a side note there are still army commando's though we are not as numerous as the RM's we play a supporting role. 29 Commando is Artillery Support, 59 Commando is Engineer's. I hope to play you soon at the club, Commando's vs Commando's, shoulder a blood bath :)

    1. Hey dude - have edited the text slightly to correct my mistake! :)


    2. Hey mate, glad you enjoyed the read!

      Reason I still went for the SMGs is the fact they're 2 shots and don't suffer a penalty for moving and firing; even though they're only 12" they're the ideal companion for Commandos who want to be constantly on the move and getting close. Rifles only fire once and suffer -1 To Hit on the move, so I felt the SMGs were more suitable for a big mobile blob.

      As for the Army Commandos; apologies if I phrased it incorrectly, I meant nothing bad by it - I was more trying to imply the RM were he only surviving organised unit, as I (mistakenly) believed that the RM were the only actual dedicated commando unit still around. I was under the impression that mob who had taken the Commando course weren't formed into their own units, but we're just returned to their original units albeit with a green lid. Obviously that was wrong, ooops!

      My apologies for the innacuracy, thanks for correcting me! :)

      Look forward to getting to grips with your forces down at the club too bud!

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  4. No worries I didn't take offence m8. Sorry for the double post I'm guessing it's a bug when using my mobile. I Understand were your coming from with Smg's, your right if you get real close they are nasty, but I found running just 2-3 smg's in my squads works better for me personally as if I take casualties on the way in I just remove my riflemen. If it came down to shooting or assaulting I take assaulting option every time as generally the Commando's tough fighter rule means they almost always come out on top. And with the D6 consolidation move means I get to hopefully move them into cover or at least into a better position away from (Los)the enemy

    1. Each to their own, mate - personally I prefer the guarantee of getting 22 shots with no hit penalty as I move in.

      It's more expensive, sure, but I feel it makes the unit more versatile as you don't want to have to stop and shoot to get max effectiveness. Means you can just trundle up to an objective and hose down anyone guarding it, hop into a building and plink away with 22 shots with impunity or come in from Outflank and tear a squad a new one.

      I like versatility, even if you pay out the nose for it.

      Personal preference is all! :)

      And as for assaulting, totally agree - even a five man commando team utterly annihilated ten Jerries with no problems.