Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Bolt Action

Years ago I used to play Battleground: WW2 which was an infantry skirmish game. 40K was sort of getting boring for me and I wanted to dip my toe into historical wargames. I liked the rules and scale of the game so I jumped into BG pretty eagerly. I had accumulated a healthy collection of German and US 28mm troops. It was a pretty fun system with lots of charts and individual resolution of actions. They had tons of hit charts for tanks and all sorts of armor and support vehicles. Unfortunately the support for the game dwindled (rumor was one of the developers had health issues in the family) and eventually evaporated. I lost interest in small scale action and got pretty heavily involved in Flames of War. For a long time I never really liked painting the 15mm scale, but the idea of mixed forces at a company level (armor and infantry) was enticing.

Years later I've been hankering for getting back into squad tactical wargaming again. 40K is definitely not on my list and I've been slowly collecting various 15mm rulesets and models for the sci-fi genre. I think I've got a few solid entries for what will hit the tabletop soon. However between Firestorm Armada and my sci-fi skirmish gaming, I've got this hole for infantry-based wargames. There's still this pull towards doing some historical gaming.

Enter Osprey Publishing and Warlord Game's Bolt Action. It's a fast paced man-to-model infantry game, with plenty of rules for tanks, artillery, transports and air support. I think I've found a set of rules that has drawn me back into wanting to paint, model, and play infantry WWII wargaming again.

The scale is set aside for 28mm. While Warlord Games are a likely supplier, there are plenty of other manufacturer's for that scale. Also it seems that 1/48 scale model kits have become more commonplace than a decade ago. Still, I'm working on 1/72 scale troops (more options for tanks) and the default scale of ranges and table length seems to transition well. Table dimensions are based around 4' x 6' with most effective firing ranges for rifles at 24".

The game is based on rolling a D6 or a pair of dice for resolution of most mechanics. What I enjoy immensely is the relatively streamlined approach to handling combat and morale. All the pertinent game rules can easily fit on a few sheets and some brief tables. I've become a fuddy-duddy with my wargaming. Simple works wonders for me and surprisingly there is a lot of tactical depth that can be drawn out of the game. As shooting and combat goes, players roll for individual models to hit against a set number with modifiers (most of them negative) applied to the roll. If hits are scored, players then roll for damage against a sliding scale based on the quality of the troops (poorer troops take more casualties than trained troops). Regardless if troops are killed, a pin marker is allocated to that unit.

Turn resolution is also done well. Rather than the IGOUGO system, or even alternate unit activation, players have a number of order dice equal to the units in thier force. A colored die is randomly drawn, and if it's your color you get to activate a unit of your choice, otherwise your opponent goes. This random draw system is similar to Battleground WW2 and something I've always enjoyed. You might get a string of lucky (or unlucky) draws being able to activate several units, or sit aside while your opponent maneuvers around. Orders fall into typical ones like advance, move, fire, go to ground, rally, or set themselves on overwatch to react to any enemy. By default, units can always react to assaults too. All of this creates very fluid action with a decent dose of randomness. While you can activate a unit of your choice, you aren't certain if you can activate a unit until that color die is drawn. If you have more individual units, you have more dice, increasing the likelihood you'll get an order die when needed.

To add another layer onto the randomness of unit activation is leadership and the pin mechanic. As I mentioned, a unit taking fire gains a pin marker. If any unit has a pin marker, they have to pass a leadership test to successfully execute their turn order. Otherwise they stay in place and take cover. Additionally pin markers give a penalty to leadership checks which is cumulative. This adds a very important mechanic to the game. While you may not be able to eliminate a unit through casualties, you can effectively suppress a unit through volume of fire. As pins accumulate on the target, they can't react as well and if casualties are inflicted, will likely result in the unit breaking.

It's a simple, effective means to model the concept of suppression, and also reinforces the importance of unit training and leadership. Well trained, high morale troops can take more punishment. Poorly trained troops will likely panic, but under the wing of a good leader, press on despite being fired upon. Pin markers also are applied to armor units depending on the weapons fired. All in all I really enjoy this aspect of the game, where it's not just the model kill count that matters (squints eyes over at 40k...).

There are rules for tanks, transports, gun teams, mortars, snipers, off board artillery and air support. Just about everything for a dynamic game. Bolt Action is point based, where players assemble a force based on an agreed total (usually 1000 points). Each force must have a compulsory headquarters (officer) and 2 infantry squads. Then they can fill their force out with other units. One particular part I enjoyed with the rules is that every special unit is limited to one slot. I can only support my platoon with either one tank or none. No taking minimal size infantry squads and then piling on 4 tanks to round out the force. You have to make a lot of hard choices, but have a lot of options available.

The rules detail 6 scenarios, one of which is a simple attrition-based game. Most of the others require maneuvering to specific areas on the table or holding objectives. A very nice rule to the scenario setup is that it can be decided randomly, further, players roll randomly to see if they are the attacker or defender. What I enjoy about this is the flexibility needed for your force composition. If you build your troops around being a static force, requiring ambush and defensive positioning, you may very well be attacking in a scenario where your objective is to exit as many units as possible across the opponent's table edge. This encourages you to try an be adaptable to a variety of scenarios and roles.

By default there are several army lists for the major players (Germany, US, British, and Russia) right out of the book. There are more nation specific army books available and more in the pipeline (including the Pacific theater!). However all that is needed to play is the rulebook alone if desired.

The Good - It's a solid WWII infantry ruleset. Task resolution is simple with enough variation on unit activation to make things challenging. There are enough rules to cover different infantry units, and also have rules for other non-infantry units. I'll take a moment here to talk about the book quality. It is amazing. A nice thick bound book with plenty of color photos and diagrams. It's well indexed with great rule reference sheets at the end. The book also has a decent amount of timeline summaries on major events within the entire historical period. It's a professional job and shows the lovingly applied detail from Osprey Publishing.

The Bad - Some mechanics have wild variability and freaky luck can occasionally creep into the game. I see it more as it's charm, and after giving a thorough reading of personal accounts of WWII combat, actually models events rather well. We like to approach these games as chess, where in reality things were much more chaotic. Still, there are some particular unit rules that can be a little 'gamey.' Folks might also be put off by the use of specialized order dice also (however a deck of black/red suit cards could be easily be used instead, and the rulebook allows for regular dice to serve as a proxy).

Another detraction can be the point lists. For competitive tournament play, I expect this is needed. However it does leave some room for min/max army lists where historical accuracy is dumped for that elite mixture of units. It's a nature of point systems. I am particularly worried if power creep will come into the game with the future release of nation specific books. I can swallow these detractions for accepting the idea that each player has an opportunity to field a potentially equivalent force, but some players might be more happy with a gentlemen's agreement on force composition.

The Verdict - Bolt Action is a fantastic WWII skirmish game. It's not a simulationist game. Movement, terrain effects, and combat can be abstract but the resolution of these elements are simple and quick. Despite this simplicity, there is a surprisingly amount of tactical depth to the game. The random unit activation gives it just the right amount of unpredictability needed to make events which unfold during a turn more engaging than an IGOUGO system.

Most of all, the game is about maneuvering while other aspects of the game encourage holding position and firing. It's a constant nail biting choice to either move your troops into a more advantageous position, or stick it out and hope you can inflict casualties with a fire order, or while on overwatch. The backdrop to this is the pinning mechanic. Throw enough fire on serious threats, and you can allow a unit to advance with some small measure of safety. It works and the streamlined mechanics for conducting all of this makes the game run well and be loads fun at the same time.