Saturday, 15 March 2014

Bolt Action - A Game To Play

I have been wargaming for almost 40 years – with a large gap waiting for my boys to get old enough to play – and most of this has been WWII historical gaming. Over that time I have tried many different rulesets. I even published my own rules back in the early 1990’s which worked well for our wargaming group.
The biggest challenge of any set of wargaming rules is determining the balance between historical accuracy and gameplay.
And there must be sacrifices for gameplay.
For example, consider ground scale.  When using 28mm figures, a consistent ground scale should be around 1km = 14 metres.  While accurate, this would prove to be very difficult to recreate on a table top!
Add in time scales, movement speeds and before we even come to weapons, armour and battle damage and effects, we have made a ton of compromises.
Now, that is a good thing. Some rules focus more on infantry, or armour, or larger or smaller scale battles.  This variety is what makes the hobby so interesting.
So with that background in mind, why has Bolt Action set the WWII historical wargaming scene on fire? It isn’t just because Warlord Games published their own rule set and del their own collection of models and figures.  Other game companies do this all the time.  It is a time honoured tradition and helps companies sell their figures.  We still enjoy the occasional Pirate game using really simple rules published by an Australian miniatures company.
So what makes Bolt Action different?
It's all in the bag!

1. The Order Dice Game Mechanic

This is radical.
By default, most wargame rules have used the “I go You go” method of playing. This means your plans can more or less be followed faithfully by the troops.
In Bolt Action a “turn” is actually a series of mini turns for when each order die is pulled from the bag. The game can - and often does - change fundamentally in several directions in the course of one turn depending not only who gets the die, but which unit he activates and how well that unit does.  In Bolt Action, the tension is high because you need the die before he does or your unit may not survive! Or you want the last die because then your opponent will have to take his lumps.
A Russian Officer instructing his troops

2. The generalizing of units.

The armour ratings, morale and guns are all grouped into classes. So even though there are historical differences in armour of a centimetre here or there, from a game play point of view it isn’t that important.
This suddenly takes away a lot of the complex maths which didn’t add significantly to the game anyway.  In the rules I wrote so long ago we had a very exhaustive list of weapons and tanks with armour ratings for each side and different speeds and damage and hit ratings depending on distances.  Those 20 pages or so of really good statistics are summarized in half a page in Bolt Action.  And the game is not impacted negatively. Which leads to point 3.
And he played the whole day!

3. The streamlining of the game mechanics.

Having a simplified and standardised set of hit chances and modifiers means it takes very little time to memorise the main rules.
Normally, it takes some time to teach a new player how the game works.  With Bolt Action, we have found brand new players understand the game and make valid game choices half way through turn one!
This is how you can quickly gain wargaming converts.  If an interested bystander can join in a game and get actively involved quickly, they tend to keep playing.  We have seen many demonstration games where new players are reduced to lackeys that move figures and roll dice as the rules are a dazzling array of charts and numbers and options. Their interest wanes as the other side takes their gigantic move and their attention wanders.
A sure fire plan doesn't survive contact with the enemy.

4. There is the chance for things to go wrong – really wrong.

FUBAR (Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition) is not just an effect of a 12 when rolling morale.  It can be said to apply when you roll a 1 for artillery or air strikes (and hit your own troops), or run out of fuel for your mega powerful flamethrower, or fail to come on the board for that planned devastating flanking move.
On the other hand, things can also go really right. Even when the odds of hitting are pretty remote, a 6 and a 6 can still be tried. All this combines to make the game a great challenge, but also fun.
There are times when the dice gods conspire and nothing goes your way.  That can happen with all rules.  But somehow, with so many things happening in a 6 (or 7) turn game, odds are you will offset the terrible rolls with some great rolls and it all balances out.
A Commando Comic Moment

5. Finally, it’s cinematic

A wargame is not a historical re-enactment.  Much as we would like to kid ourselves that it is, the majority of historical battles were won and lost based on overwhelming odds and logistics of getting to the right place with more or better stuff than the other guy.
Bolt Action is still historic and bound by the historical facts and figures.  That is great because you will not be suddenly confronted with a brand new figure by the games company which wrecks the game play.  A WWII British rifleman will still be able to be used as such for years to come.
But a wargame has to be balanced or it isn’t much of a game.
Bolt Action balances the historical aspect with easy to learn gameplay leading to lots of valid choices.  The main effect is that playing a game of Bolt Action is like being in a movie or war comic. And the after game discussions are filled with what happened as well as lots of alternative happenings too – if only the dice went this way instead.

So why play Bolt Action?  Because it’s fun.

(This article was also published on This is a great source of Bolt Action articles and discussions about Bolt Action and WWII wargaming in general.)

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