06 August 2013

Bolt Action revisited, thoughts and review

Johan was more than happy to play another game of Bolt Action so that I could get a hands on experience. The previous article on the subject with my first impression of the rules ended up being very popular, so I hope that this slightly more informative and informed article will provide equal interest.

I realized after the BA demo last week that I actually had a 28mm WW2 force left in my collection.  Having sold off everything else WW2 28mm related I kept my Polish Armia Krajowa Warsaw Uprising 1944 force since I didn't believe that anyone would be interested in buying it. Another reason I didn't sell it was that some of the minis were damaged by bad matt varnish. So the force was kept in storage for a few years until it hit the table this weekend against Johan’s German SS force.

Unfortunately all the good 28mm terrain down at the club was already taken when we started our game so we had to try to compensate this fact with lots of trees instead of adding walls and buildings to the table.


Since there are no Polish 1944 lists for Warsaw Uprising available we ended up basing the unit organization and points on the German lists. The stuff I ran amounted to 646 points, Johan matched that number. It seemed to work quite well, so for those of you that are looking into making a Warsaw Uprising list for the Poles - use the German army lists and ratings.


1 Regular rated Partisan HQ
2 squads of Warsaw partisan rated as "Regular"  (10 soldiers in each)
1 squad of "KEDYW" rated as Veteran  with 10 men
1 squad of "KEDYW" rated as Veteran with 5 men
1 partisan Flamethrower team rated Regular
1 partisan MMG team rated Regular
1 captured Sdkfz 251 halftrack


1 squad of SS infantry
3 squads of SS infantry with (5,6,6 soldiers)
1 sniper team
1 mortar team
1 panzerschreck team

About the rules:
First off, sorry about the unstructured "train of thoughts" nature of this post. Hopefully there is enough information here to provide you with a good enough insight about the game and the game mechanics. I may have not touched upon every aspect of Bolt Action - such as the close combat rules since these didn't come into play in our demo game.
Bolt Action uses a random activation system where you pick a D6 order die from a bag, each player has differently colored order dice so you instantly know who it belongs to. Picking a dice of your color allows you to apply the order dice to any one unit on the table. The D6 order die comes with 6 different orders and depending on which order you issue you put the die with that facing face up so that both players can keep track of what orders are in play.

As soon as you placed an order you can activate a unit to perform an action. Both players keep drawing a random D6 order die until all units have been activated before a turn ends. It's a system that makes gameplay a bit more unpredictable compared to regular alternate activation where both players take turns activating one unit. A similar system is used by games that have card activation and it comes with its own strength and weakness. The strength being - if you like unpredictability in unit activation than this creates a more dynamic experience. The weakness being that it didn't seem like there was a way to properly counter being outnumbered / having fewer order dice in the bag to pick. Johan said that if you have reserves than you can issue the order "Down" to units that are not yet on the table, effectively making a nonsense order that forces the enemy to activate another on the table unit.

On the other hand it would have been nice if you could delay the activation of your units until both sides had an equal amount of units left to activate. Some rule sets have such a feature where you delay giving an order and force the enemy to activate multiple units in a row if you want to delay your own actions/decisions.

Gameplay in Bolt Action is resolved with D6's all infantry is hit on 3+ to begin with, then you apply modifiers for short/long range, cover, hiding, you suffering from pinned down markers etc. It's not a system that is difficult to learn and a lot should be familiar to wargamers who have played various games previously before picking up Bolt Action. Small arms fire kill soldiers that are hit depending on their training. This is a bit weird to me that the application of training comes into play first after having been hit. The better training an opponent has the higher you must roll on a D6 to kill them. Veteran infantry require a 5+ to be killed, trained infantry 4+.

Sometimes (or in our game quite often) modifiers stack in such a way that you have to roll a D6 of 6, then reroll that D6 again and come up with another 6 in order to hit someone.  This made our game feature very little actual killing regardless of whether units fired rifles, assault rifles or MMG's at each other. The best team was the German mortar which destroyed a 5-man Polish team with one hit. Though it should also be noted that both me and Johan rolled very badly on the "to wound" rolls throughout  the game - and neither of us ran out of cover, so I guess it wasn't fully representative of how lethal shooting can be in this game.

I think what stood out the most, and which perhaps is the central aspect of the Bolt Action rules, is the pinned down markers. Units with pinned down markers get a -1 to hit penalty per pinned down marker, as these stack your unit can becomes useless and require a "Rally" order. It should also be noted that whenever you apply an order die to a pinned unit you need to roll a command check to see if they can activate and perform the desired order. The command check is you rolling 2D6 and requires you to roll equal to or lower than your morale (trained infantry 9, veteran infantry 10). You add negative modifiers to your morale for having any number of pinned down markers. The more you have the harder it is to make the unit comply. If you pass the command check you are allowed to remove 1 single pinned down marker. The only way of removing all pinned down markers all at once is to use the order "Rally".

So I can see the "pinned down" status being a central tactical feature of Bolt Action. Vehicles can't be pinned down as easily, but softskin and open topped vehicles can be pinned down from small arms fire and mortars, while real armored vehicles can only be pinned from heavy AT weapons. Each time an infantry unit is hit by a shooting action from the enemy it receives a number of pinned down markers, usually 1 from small arms/infantry weapons, and a D6 variation of pinned down markers from mortars and similar weapons.

One interesting feature was when you roll a command check on your units and end up rolling 12, which is called "FUBAR". This has you roll another 1D6 on a small chart and see the additional effect. This range from the unit running away from the battle and being removed, to shooting friendly fire at a unit of the opponent's choice. This seemed like a fun addition to the morale rules, but the friendly fire rule got me thinking (as it was rolled twice during the battle) as I was able to use a German unit that had no LoS to any enemy unit and fire at another German unit that was completely in the open. Things like that make friendly fire a bit too odd and powerful imo - and strange. There should have been a limit to firing friendly fire only at units that are in cover which could have been mistaken for the enemy - if not possible then another result should have been applied instead. Just my thoughts about this rule, which I am sure will cause an argument of when and how friendly fire can occur in real combat.

Now we didn't get to any close combat in our game, the Polish advance was slow and halted by a couple of German units. But we did manage to cover the "Ambush" order which is a badly chosen name for reaction fire in this ruleset. It is badly chosen because your unit is actually not hiding from the enemy  but waiting for them to move into a location where they can be hit much easier. So whenever a unit gets the order "Ambush" you get to delay their fire until an enemy unit in their LoS activates. While working this appeared a bit awkward to me as you can put a unit in Ambush even if you have an enemy unit in your LoS.

I kinda grew up with the Overwatch rule from Secrets of the Third Reich which could only be placed on units that didn't have any enemy model within their LoS - and which could activate and open fire at the players discretion when a desired unit crossed their field of fire. I think that type of implementation would have been better and without adding any additional complexity to the very streamlined gameplay of Bolt Action.

Another thing that wasn't to my liking was the unit coherency of "less than 1 inch", units simply have to move as a closely bunched up group. You can fire through your own soldiers without problem so it doesn't pose any LoS restriction. The reason why this works in BA is the complete lack of template weapons in the game. HE rounds from vehicles and mortars simply cause a D6 (or multiple D6's) hits on a unit that you managed to hit with your weapon. I think fine tuning was thrown away for the sake of simplicity in this regard, many games can adjust the magnitude of high explosive rounds depending on the source. What Bolt Action does is something that reminds me of how other rules handle hitting a building or enclosed room with a HE round (where everyone inside is hit, or where a random number of soldiers are hit without any use of templates involved). But to apply the same principle to units moving in the open feels  too streamlined for my taste.

Then there are the gun ranges, which are 24" for rifles and assault rifles and 12" for SMG's. This makes firefights happen at very short distance, all weapons also had a short/long range modifiers which made small arms efficiency even more restricted. In a game such as Bolt Action I think the weapons should have had a longer range. Games should have enough terrain to minimize the "trench war" possibilities, but you should be able to provide covering fire from one end of the table to the other from a tall position if possible. As it is now it's not possible with rifles/assault rifles. Among the modifiers there is also a lack of "aiming" your weapons, instead the order "Fire" is what you would call "Aim" since you don't get any penalty for move and fire as you get with the order "Advance".

Unit creation when writing your army list also seems to suffer from the gamey features that often plague games on a platoon scale. You can upgrade a squad with all kinds of specialist weapons (SMG's/Assault rifles etc) if they are a veteran unit. This allows you to field units that are armed to the teeth and talking about this with Johan we were both in agreement that it perhaps isn't the best game to use for competitive gameplay. I mentioned another game, Secrets of the Third Reich - granted that one was Weird WW2 but it suffered from the same thing with the generous unit upgrades so I know how this can be exploited.

In the end Bolt Action to me, is a very mixed bag. I think it is a great bridge and entry point for wargamers that are starting out with historical wargaming - or people that want a fast paced and more casual gameplay experience veiled in a WW2 theme. If you look for a deeper and strictly more tactical and realistic experience then Bolt Action isn't for you. As a game concept it's neither good or bad because of this - but it does seem to follow a trend of making historical games increasingly accessible to the point of watering the theme down a bit too much.

The strong argument for playing Bolt Action according to Johan, which I can agree with, is that it's a very accessible and easy game that can be played by guys who have very little hobby time. You can play a game in an hour or two and it doesn't require you to paint many miniatures as it is a game on a platoon level.

Personally I'm always on the lookout for something new and innovative in a wargame, design concepts which make me think "ah that's a cool way to resolve such a situation". The only thing that really jumped out to me in Bolt Action was the pinning system. However even this is similar to the pinning systems in other games, such as Victory Decision, so while being the most inspired part of the rules this feature isn't unique. On its own it is unfortunately not enough to pull me into the game either. Bolt Action does not stray far from the tried and true "Games Workshop" formula of wargaming; easy rules, "pick-up game" feeling, streamlined realism (weapons and vehicles being classed into categories rather than having their own unique profiles,  building army lists with equal amount of points etc. And that in itself is perhaps not a surprise as the authors behind the rules are Rick Priestley and Alessio Cavatore.

If you like this sort of thing, then Bolt Action is for you. If you don't, then it isn't and you should look towards other games.


  1. I think you should have a look at Chain of Command, but then I would say that as I helped play test it! ;-)
    Seriously, though, most of the things that annoy you about BA are not there in CoC and several that you miss are.

    1. And as I am already going on about CoC, here is a link to a presentation about formations and tactics in CoC.

  2. The speed with which a game can be played is attractive, but I still think the simplicity of the rules and concepts would irritate me a bit to much. Still looks like a good rule system for introducing people to historical (sort of) wargaming.

    Great review as ever.

  3. Great rundown of the rules. One thing I can also comment about is about pinning. Once a unit gets the same amount of pin markers as their leadership they are removed. So an inexperienced unit of LD 8, takes 8 markers gets removed even if most of the unit is there as they take such a beating they run in fear, cower, surrender, etc...

  4. Fair report imo...

    The 'to hit' roll is poorly named, it's meant to represent shots that get close enough to cause a reaction from the target, i.e. 'pinning' (or suppression as we would call it),or a potential casualty.

    The target's training comes into play with regard to both their response to the shots and how they are making use of any cover, so is valid imo. The 'to wound' roll is what we would normally call the 'to hit' roll and this is where bullets don't discriminate.

    The weapon ranges are odd and inconsistent without a doubt and including pistols as a ranged weapon and not as a close assault one, like grenades, was a bit odd imo.

    The game appears to use a scale approaching that which would be fine for 12mm figures, so it all does look a bit wrong with 28mm figures.

    The oddities are all fixable though and while I wouldn't ever say it's realistic, games are fun and simple. I agree though, if you are looking for accuracy, go elsewhere.

  5. This seems like a great game, I like it alot! :-)

    From reading this I think we managed to cover most things in BA, but I would like to add one thing: you cant fire through friendly units! You can fire through models in the same unit not other friendly units.

    1. Johan, still waiting for you to unfriend me on facebook after this :-D LOL!

      Seriously though, thanks for taking the time to show me the game.

  6. in regards to lethality I feel that B.A. is way undepowered. We played a 5 turn game this weeks with 13 Italian units and 12 Brit units including arty on both sides. At the end of 5 turns each side had managed to eliminate 1 MMG apiece. My squad of Sikhs spent 2 turns trapped in the open taking fire from a tank(with 3 MMG), 1 MMG and a full squad of Italians and managed to remain alive with 3 out of 10 models still standing.

    Combat is not very lethal in B.A. IMO

  7. You need to get stuck in a bit more. Assaulting is very bloody. One of you will be wiped out. Squads in the open are usually blown away in fairly short order.


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