My first foray into games in the tabletop sense was the behemoth that is Warhammer 40,000, and while it has served me well for 9 years now the shine has definitely worn off. I no longer have the sick dollar to keep updating my armies or branching out into new ones so have been stuck with broadly the same armies for a while now. I’m not a collector or a serious painter who buys models because I just want to, I’m always building towards a specific army list, so I don’t have large collections to make many different lists out of. This can end up being a problem since my first ideas are often bad (as are my second, third and so on, I’m not good at games OK), so I was definitely in the market for something a bit cheaper. Also as a bit of a history buff I fancied a historical wargame, so when some of my friends mentioned Bolt action a 28mm scale WWII game designed by some of the 40k creators I jumped right on it.
I’ve only played about 10 games against a handful of people but I’m committing to playing Bolt Action at the student wargaming nationals in April. I won’t be posting my list just yet as it is very much subject to change but if somehow people are scouting me, I’ll be playing 1940 Italians so I wouldn’t worry too much. Instead I’ll go over some of the key aspects of the game and why I like it.
The mechanic that drives the action part of Bolt Action is the order system.( I haven’t found the bolt yet but I guess it could be in a drawer somewhere) Each player has 1 order die for each of their units and put them all into a bag, these dice are then drawn randomly and the player they belong to may order 1 unit for each one drawn. The orders that can be issued are relatively straightforward, all being some combination of moving, shooting and taking cover. You could end up with one player getting a string of orders in a row and start to snowball, this is exacerbated as units die and their dice are removed from the pool. And while this might be a problem I have rarely found a wargame that doesn’t get harder once you start losing. I’ve often excused this potential unfairness based on an an anecdote about the design of Magic The Gathering. The mechanic of land allows players to be lucky or unlucky with the amount of resources they have and so unskilled players have a chance to beat more skilled opponents, this also gives them an excuse for defeat too and helps them persevere with the game.
Another key mechanic that affects everything about the game is pinning, whenever a unit is hit by fire it receives a pin marker, pin markers represent disruption and the desires of soldiers to keep their heads down. Each pin marker makes units less likely to obey your orders, less accurate in their shooting and more likely to break and run after heavy casualties. This is easily the best thing about Bolt Action, it makes every unit matter, one pin marker is allocated per attack regardless of the number of hits, so outside of damage one lonely officer with a rifle can affect the game as much as a horde of soviet conscripts. It has strong synergy with the order dice mechanic, if you can get the drop on an attack your opponent had set up, the unit might be too pinned by the time it’s turn rolls around. It makes Bolt Action a game not about wiping away an opponent with a huge alpha strike, but a game about wearing down your opponent, suppressing threats so you’ll be in a good position to attack them later. The terrain affects this a lot, and I haven’t yet played with significantly line-of-sight blocking terrain, the inability to focus down units with most of the army would change things significantly.
The game is also very well balanced, most men with guns are the same across all armies, with 3 levels of training to differentiate them, recruit, regular and veteran. All armies have special rules but these often add flavour more than affect performance in an significant way. There are more differences in vehicles, and Bolt Action has a large vehicle selection, although the skirmish nature of the game means you will typically see only 1 or 2 armoured vehicles per side. Although there is a Tank War variant which I haven’t tried yet, I’ll get around to it once i rustle up some Afrika Korp.
I think vehicles are one of the weaker aspects of Bolt Action, a big heavy tank like a Tiger might be iconic but they don’t add a lot of value to your army. Big anti-tank guns can only really be used against other tanks and so the heavy investment struggles to pay for itself against an infantry heavy force, which most are. These weapons can also be very anti climactic missing with their one shot and leaving you underwhelmed with your white elephant.
While automatic weapons are plentiful the game still has satisfying rules for the adrenaline fueled rush of close combat, even dashing cavalry charges. These require nerves of steel but can be a winner takes all gambit if you pull it off, assaults are quick and bloody with the losing side being annihilated even if only a narrow defeat. These assaults along with rules for off table support from artillery and airstrikes, and even the opportunity for outflanking maneuvers are icing on the cake giving you more options than just grinding your way to victory in slow firefights.
The missions in the rulebook are often creative but i feel these are also another area the game falls down. Some are fine in terms of balance but are lacklustre, others seem too favourable to either the attacker or defender, and then there’s ‘top secret’ a mission that 99 times out of 100 will end in a draw. While there are historical or themed scenarios I’ve always disliked those in wargames, I want to show up for a pick up game with an all comers list and see equal lists with equal generals have a roughly equal chance to win.
So that’s Bolt Action, if you’re a recovering 40k addict like me then i think this is right up your alley. It feels both similar and very different. It’s not super cheap, i think I’ve spent around £200 going through a few different list variants for my Italians. But most wargames of this type will run at this price range or higher. Overall i think this game rewards thinking tactically and being gutsy in equal measure and it definitely deserves your interest.
*I have just realised the title image is of the Italian surrender, maybe not so auspicious.