Friday, 10 October 2014

How to run a Bolt Action Boot Camp Public Participation Game

We enjoy playing Bolt Action wargames and want to share that fun with others.
So how does one do this?
Running a Public Participation game is different to running a game with your friends.  You will be playing with someone who has never played this game or maybe even any wargame before, has no figures or equipment and may not have even seen wargaming before.  Also, today's potential gamer has probably played computer wargames and may not realise the benefits of a figure based wargame verses the instant gratification of a computer based game.
I will be structuring this article into a number of sections to explain the why and how and various situations you need to consider.

Why even bother running a public participation game?

Looking at all the work involved in preparing a game for strangers you may be asking yourself, "Why bother?"  Here are some good reasons:
This board is just asking for players to join in
  • A fixed date gives you a target for which to aim.  Rather than a more flexible timetable where procrastination can take hold, planning a public participation event means you need to be ready by the advertised date. 
  • New players mean new gaming friends.  Often we fall into complacency and have a nice little group of gaming friends.  Then over time some move away or their situations change and suddenly you find it is just the two of you. This happens to all groups, so you need to actively look outwards to keep your group active.  Also, new players bring new ideas and fresh challenges. Everyone plays with different styles so more players mean more interesting games.
  • When playing in your own group, sometimes you can fall into doing the same thing and not try to expand what you are doing.  With a public mindset, you now enjoy the challenge of doing different types of games.  We have created a huge 8 x 4 city board for example. This is way more than a small group would normally do, but when you want to garner interest from passers-by you need something special.  So by reaching out to others you have done yourself a favour too.
  • Often sharing the game with new players and sharing their enjoyment can increase your enjoyment of the game as well.  We get a great kick out of seeing the brightness in the eyes of new players as their imaginations are engaged.
  • You learn new aspects of the game with a wider variety of opponents.
These reasons all apply even if the new players you create do not join your group but play elsewhere.

How do you go about organising a public participation game?

Once you have decided to run a game for the public, you first need to find a venue.  This may be at your local games store, or a local games convention.  When I was running a gaming club we even ran demonstration games at school fetes, libraries and shopping centres.  The aim is to have a place where people can see what wargaming is and be drawn in by the action on and around the table. At a games convention, the area near the traders and canteen is the premium placement.  This helps both the traders and the canteen with extra customers and provides a lot of excitement and action for visitors.  It is also the place all visitors go and gives them something to do besides just looking and moving on.

You need to have enough of your own people involved to fulfil the following roles:
General/Organiser: This person liaises with the venue, gathers new players from the crowd, answers queries from potential players, parents and spectators. It is important you have one person doing this role as they look outwards, towards the people milling around.
Sergeants/Minions: At least one of your people should act as a guide for at most two new players.  This ensures adequate attention is given to the new players demonstrating how the game works.  They need to be able to concentrate on their part of the game without worrying about the outer area.
Uniform: Try to have consistency in what everyone is wearing. We have each person wearing the same colour T-shirt each day.  A different one each day as that smells much better! Also, name badges are great.  In this way it is obvious who is running the game so spectators and players are encouraged to ask the correct person questions about what is happening.

Table and Game Accessories:
The table you use has to serve a number of functions.  You need to consider the following factors:
  • Aesthetics:  It has to look good so anyone walking past is tempted to stop and have a closer look.  Then you need a number of "eye candy" pieces which make the onlooker examine the board even more closely.  On our boards you can find the TARDIS, various civilians, Winnie the Pooh, a soldier down a well, toilet paper and magazines in the outhouse and so on. All add extra interest to the table.
  • Balance: The board has to provide a balanced battle.  The objective must be central and various terrain elements must be balanced.  It shouldn't be a mirror image, but it should be carefully planned so it isn't one sided.
  • Size: A larger board that allows 4 to 6 players is best.  Smaller boards lose some of the attractiveness and too large a board makes any game too hard to guide.
  • Toughness: The buildings and terrain have to be tough enough to be used by players and transported.  If it is too fragile to be touched don't use it.  One of the great benefits of miniature wargaming is its tactile nature.  You can move men and tanks, poke into buildings and around trees, use a periscope to get your men's eye view and feel the roll of the dice.  Don't forget to bring glue for on the spot repairs.
  • No table clutter: No drinks or food should be left on the table. It detracts from the table and it must always be easy for people to take photos of your game. A half empty can of drink or a food wrapper really brings the photos down.
  • Extra Bits: Don't forget plenty of tape measures and dice. Also, periscopes and laser pointers make for very cool gaming aids to help with both line of sight queries and also to give players and spectators a great figure's eye view of the battlefield.
  • Ready References: You do not want to be flipping through a massive rule book.  This just discourages new players. We have the great Bolt Action Ready Reference sheet which contains most of the rules and then a special army sheet (as shown here --->). This has the army details on the front and the statistics for each of the weapons on the back.  So a player just needs his army sheet and ready reference and he has everything he needs to play.  We added a photo of the HQ squad on each sheet so the player knew which army was his.
  • Pins and markers: The last bit you need are appropriate pin markers (we use red plastic tokens) and appropriate explosion and artillery markers so everyone knows where damage has happened or will happen.  We also have a flag on each objective which changes to the appropriate army when the objective is controlled.  It is fun to see the flag going from "Contested" to "Army A", then "Army B" and back to "Contested".
  • Players Essential Tin: We created a tin containing all the order dice, other dice, dice bag and 2 army trays.  This kept all the bits together.  Each tray holds 600 points pretty well.  The Army Cards were placed at the back of the tray and each army was put on show for players and spectators to examine.
The actual models used in the game are extremely important.
  • Painting: They need to be well painted to a good "tabletop" standard.  You don't need to paint the eyes and go into minute detail.  That is for your own special guys.  But you want the troops to look good. Remember the motto: "Painted men fight better".  
  • The Right Stuff: You want balanced forces. There is no point bringing an overpowered unit to the game as this may win the game for one player but you want both players to enjoy the game.  Just to play is to win. We organise for a force of 600 points.  This is about 6 to 8 order dice per player which means a game should be over in 2 to 2.5 hours with 4 to 6 players.
  • Bases: On the base of each figure we note down if the figure is special.  For example, we note LMG, NCO, SMG, Sniper, HQ, etc.  This is to help everyone know which guy is the special one.  It takes time to know which man has the sub machine gun, assault rifle or light machine gun.
Now everything is ready, the game has to be fun to play.  That is why we use Bolt Action.  The dice mechanic of play ensures that each player is involved every step of the way.  It is not an "I Go You Go" system.  Every pull of the dice will impact on both players as either activator or receiver.
  • Scenario: We have a very simple scenario - Capture the Objective.  The objective is always outside of buildings and in the centre between the two players.  To control an objective the player must have at least 3 men of the same unit within 3 inches of the objective.  If a unit is reduced to less than 3 men it cannot control it and another unit of 3 man can take over control of the flag.  If no-one gets close enough to change the ownership, the objective remains in the hands of the person who last had control.  If both players have at least 3 men within 3 inches it is contested. Easy.
  • Teams: Each side of the table belongs to the same team.  We ensure that it is always Axis vs Allied. Also, each objective is fought over by two players who share the same dice bag.  So each pair of players has a dice bag and each pair go through their order dice until the bag is empty.  When all player pairs are complete, the turn then ends and the new one begins.  Players can fire and move across the table which adds some uncertainty and excitement as shots come from less expected quarters! 
  • Action: The Sergeant controlling the player pair keeps the game moving.  He may be pulling the dice or he may encourage the players to do so.  Either way he gets the players to keep moving.
  • Options: The Sergeant's job is to provide the players with the options, but defer decisions to the player. This is difficult when the game moves on as experienced players can see so many more options than beginners. But the aim is have the player take ownership of his forces.  Also, if the player rolls well or badly he can take all the blame!
The end:
The nature of all the above factors will lead to a scramble at the end for one or more of the objectives in 90% of the games.  Voices are raised in excitement and pulses are elevated as many last minute plans are made and scuttled with the grace of the dice gods. Then there is the chance for a turn 7 which may change the final result again.
Then there is the all important Coulda-Woulda-Shoulda review.  "If only..." and "It was lucky that... " and so on are important end of game traditions.

How do you know if it was a success?

We have a number of measures of success including:
  • Number of participants
  • Great memories
  • New scenery and figures we now have made which probably would still be in the "to do" pile
  • Enjoyable games
In fact, the last point is really the most important. Whether we are playing or guiding, Bolt Action games are very enjoyable in which to participate. The quality of terrain and figures combined with the fluidity of the rules combines to make a very cinematic experience.
We highly recommend you try some public participation games.
Everyone wins.


  1. This is a useful guide, thank you! I've linked your work in our article: Running game demos - Guidelines

  2. Thanks Kadmon. Your article is a good overview too.



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