Wednesday, September 30, 2015

On Warlord Games' "Bolt Action"

As I've said before, I collect toy soldiers. I don't know why I like them. It's weird.

In any event, I have, or had, three main toy soldier games that I play:
Kings of War, the fantasy battle game by Mantic Games (I also play their sci-fi stuff intermittently, like Deadzone)
Dystopian Legions, the steampunk, or to use their own words, "Victorian Super Science-Fiction" battle game by Spartan Games
Bolt Action, the World War Two battle game by Warlord Games.

I say "had" because I think I've more or less given up on Bolt Action.

Don't get me wrong, I haven't given up on Warlord Games' Bolt Action models. I still buy them. They're nice models, if a little chunky, and they make a huge variety of different Second World War style soldiers. No major complaints there.

But Bolt Action the game may have seen its day for me, after a good many games over the last year or so.

In some respects, there are a lot of advantages to Bolt Action. It's quite simple, with very standardised soldier, weapon and vehicle rules making most aspects of it pretty quick to learn. Some aspects of it are quite effective. Shooting, for instance, isn't enormously powerful if you use cover effectively. There are, however, quite a few issues with the game:

  1. The activation system.
    You draw dice from a cup or bag and whichever player's die it is, they activate a unit. I think this is meant to represent the "ebb and flow of battle" but if can very easily result in one army suddenly hurling out an enormous number of actions, if their dice keep getting drawn, while the enemy sits around doing nothing. It's also possible to "game" the system by adding more dice to the pool with oddball units like medics and special weapons, making it more likely that a certain player's die will be drawn earlier.
  2. It in no way represents historical Fire and Manoeuvre tactics.
    Maybe this is a pedantic thing to care about, but Bolt Action seems to base itself on a "Warhammer 40k" style system in which squads of soldiers are kitted out with an "assault" weapon and a "heavy weapon", as Space Marines typically are in Games Workshop's game. In reality, in the Second World War, a squad of ten men didn't advance together with a light machine gun, rifles and any short-ranged weapons all firing simultaneously. Rather, the squad would be in two sections, with the light machine gun section laying down covering fire for the rifle section to advance on the enemy. As the smallest squad size in Bolt Action is usually five men, it's essentially impossible to replicate this, as historically most light machine gun teams would have featured at most three soldiers.
    It doesn't matter in any event, however, because in Bolt Action light machine guns are so ineffectual that they are generally not worth taking. Their limited firing (they only get two more dice than an ordinary rifle) and complete lack of any enhancement to "pinning" an enemy unit means that they cannot provide covering fire in any way beyond three riflemen, which costs the same as a single light machine gun in terms of points, albeit with a slightly improved range. It annoyed me a bit recently when I saw some posts on the Warlord Games forums arguing against squads taking a light machine gun and sub-machine guns because they serve two different purposes in the game, when that's exactly what historical squads were equipped with: the two squad leaders (sergeants, corporals and the like) were often, and in some forces always, equipped with a sub-machine gun for short-range firepower. Their main job was to direct the riflemen and/or light machine gunner anyway.
  3. There is insufficient differentiation between vehicles.
    In Bolt Action, there are only four different gradations of armoured vehicle: light, medium, heavy and super-heavy. As such, Warlord has very little room to move when classifying tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles. This makes for a rather unrealistic scenario in which, for instance, a late war Panzer IV German tank is identical to the Soviet T-34/85. In actual fact, even the latest models of Panzer IV were markedly inferior in terms of armour and firepower to the T-34/85 (which is the whole reason the Germans developed the Panther).
  4. It is too difficult for infantry to deal with vehicles.
    Technically you can buy "anti-tank grenades" to allow your infantry to more easily charge and destroy a vehicle, but this is a fiddly process which far from accurately represents the situation, in which infantry on a tank could shoot into gun slights, toss ordinary grenades into turrets and down hatches, smash treads and gun barrels, and a whole host of other creative things the tank itself would be powerless to prevent. In Bolt Action, unless you've gone to the trouble of buying "anti-tank grenades", the likelihood of your infantry charging or damaging a tank, even a fresh unit which has suffered no casualties, is very slim, which is a far from realistic scenario probably again deriving from Warhammer 40,000 in which "power fists" and the like are needed to damage vehicles in close combat. In Bolt Action it's quite simple for a tank to simply steamroll an enemy line without the slightest concern if enemy armour or AT weapons are destroyed or preoccupied. As an average platoon can only purchase one tank, this essentially means that whichever army uses its tank to kill the enemy's tank first now has a weapon which can ride roughshod through the enemy army, when in actual fact a tank which drove unsupported against infantry would have very quickly found itself with any number of problems.
Those more or less sum up my main issue with Bolt Action: it neither encourages nor rewards any kind of historical authenticity. Sure, I personally am not interested in exactly recreating actual historical battles, and enjoy a bit of a Hollywood or Company of Heroes kind of vibe, but at the same time it would be nice to think that the game was in some way a Second World War game and not just an incredibly generic platoon-style military game with a veneer of Second World War imagery slapped over the top. But it is, and it's done well because of its admittedly good models and flashy presentation. Here's how I'd change the game:
  1. Split squads up into historically composed sections for fire-and-manoeuvre.
  2. Give light machine guns a bonus to "pinning". They don't necessarily need more shots (but they maybe should have them too).
  3. Add an extra two armour and heavy weapon classes. This would involve reworking the vehicle system a bit, but it would be more realistic.
  4. Turn the "anti tank grenade" rules into the normal rules for infantry assaulting vehicles. Then units with specialised explosives can have another bonus.
  5. Revise the activation system in some way, possibly involving spending command points if you want an extra go straight away without handing over to your opponent. This would also give more of a role to officers, when at present they're just walking morale bubbles. There are also some odd consequences of that, too - why would my Inexperienced Officer be remotely Inspiring to a group of Veteran Commandos, for instance? This is a problem with Commander units in tabletop games in general.
Of course, it wouldn't really be Bolt Action anymore, would it? My advice, really, as I know more than a few people are disgruntled with Bolt Action's limitations, is to look at alternative games. You can still use all the miniatures perfectly well, of course. My current direction is Disposable Heroes and Coffin for Seven Brothers by Iron Ivan Games, which is a game which basically renders Bolt Action completely redundant, although I'm looking into Chain of Command by Too Fat Lardies as well. I hear Rules of Engagement is good too, and I mean to look into it. In any event, don't be seduced too easily by smartly-dressed rulebooks. You're not necessarily getting the experience you could be.