Bolt Action 2nd Edition -Polishing a gem

It’s been a little while since it came out but I’ve finally picked up the 2nd edition rulebook for Bolt Action, in preparation for taking another army to the student nationals. The update hasn’t actually changed that much, but the subtle changes affect the game in a big way. In particular I think it has toned down some overpowered elements, and encouraged taking units that might have been overlooked. But this is still recognisably Bolt Action.

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Maybe the game can see a bit more of this and a bit less, flame-tank airstrike nonsense. 

Most of what has been changed is weapon balancing, but these small changes will affect what people decide to put in their lists and hence have a knock on effect on players’ decisions on the table.
The biggest of these is the change to High Explosives (HE), moving from a random number of hits to using a template changes a lot. Firstly it reduces the overall amount of damage HE shots will do, HE (2D6) from a medium howitzer gives an average of 7 hits but with the new 3″ template you’ll never get that many hits, let alone 10 or 12 like you could before. On balance I’d say that’s a good thing, a hit from HE(2D6) or even HE(D6) could be a death sentence for infantry units, and with Howitzers and mortars being so cheap, regular infantry units felt a bit devalued by this in my opinion. Also since they share a force organisation slot with anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, howitzers tend to crowd out these units with their efficiency. One thing that I don’t like about this change is it adding another level of busywork to make sure your units are spread out. I’ve played way too many games of 40k where an opponent asks “Do you have any blast weapons” to know if they need to care or not, I don’t find this to cause interesting decisions just slow down games.
Some other weapons have been changed to make them more sensible, LMGs and MMGs get an extra shot to try and make them worth their cost, and shaped charge weapons like bazookas might actually get played now since they lost their additional -1 accuracy penalty.
Also flamethrowers have been toned down which was very necessary. Previously vehicle mounted flamethrowers were ungodly killing machines, but now they have to roll to hit, and do less damage when they do. This is definitely a good change, vehicle flamethrowers were so deadly to all types of units that they necessitated an immediate alpha strike to eliminate them. For my Italian army for example I leaned heavily on the forward air observer and my own flamethrower tank, and these kinds of list choices eat up points and leave you fewer points to spend on experimentation.

flametank

Don’t look at me like that, you know what you did.

Outside of weapon balancing there have been a few more interesting updates. In particular changing the role of officers and other headquarters elements. Now when you successfully order your officer you can assign additional order dice to nearby units based on that officer’s rank without an order test. This makes officers massively more relevant. Because of the way the platoons are structured the only officer you will likely have is a 1st or 2nd lieutenant and the morale boost they provide is +2 and +1 respectively, and the difference between these is negligible. So I would usually take an inexperienced 2nd lieutenant, not expecting him to do anything and he was just there because he had to be. Now with the ability to accelerate your orders and potentially have 3 units acting (including the officer) if you get the first order die of the turn, you care about your officers and want them to be an important part of your platoons. Despite this being very powerful it is still fair, since taking 3 dice out at the start will massively increase your opponent’s order dice density so balance in activation will re-assert itself.
Another slight change to the headquarters units comes in with the change to HE, the forward observers (artillery and air) use blast templates as well. This reduces their damage output in the same way as artillery and mortars, and,  particularly for artillery observers, makes them seriously over costed in my opinion. The air observers take the biggest hit from this, no longer able to smash tanks in a flurry of rocket fire as reliably.

The last major change that I think will affect the game in a big way is the gutting of assault options. Previously either veteran troops with SMGs or cavalry, if carefully handled to avoid artillery or tanks, could rush through rifle fire and deliver a shock charge to break through even other veterans. Now, there are no real ways to build up buckets of close combat attacks. The tough fighters rule still exists but now only grants additional attacks after successful hits. Assaults will still favour larger units of higher quality troops but it’s much harder to have situations where the attackers wipe out the defenders before they can strike, assaults will take a more casualties out of attackers. There will be edge cases where charges are useful, but these will typically be large units attacking against rifle squads or other units that don’t have strong reaction fire, and will be targets of opportunity rather than a strategy you can actively work towards.
This is one change I’m very torn on. On the one hand in a world war 2 game close combat shouldn’t be that viable and with these changes spotting good chances for assault is more skillful. However this change does take some of the flair and elan out of dedicated assault units like Polish cavalry or the French Foreign Legion.

banzai

I hate to break it to you guys, but that won’t end well.

The kinds of changes I expect to see in lists after the update are focused around more infantry rather than going heavy on firepower, with the overall reduced damage output in the game. This would add incentive to splash out on veteran infantry as they aren’t going to be splatted out of existence by a howitzer. And the increased power of officers makes the game about having your units work together, focusing down threats with many pin markers. An all infantry list also looks a lot more viable with howitzers no longer being an auto include, freeing up slots for either an anti tank or anti aircraft gun and the improved usability of bazookas and panzershrecks. Something like an American airborne list I can see doing very well. That’s not to say tanks can be entirely counted out, especially with them gaining more shots from their many machine guns.
Ultimately I don’t play enough to make any accurate predictions, but expect to see some more road to the nationals and a report on what I see there.

 

 

Bolt Action Road to the Nationals 2- This time it’s personal

The time once again comes, it’s 3 months out from the Student wargaming nationals and I have to get my shit together. Pick a nation, build a list to start testing, and actually remember how to play Bolt Action.

I’ve decided to go for a minor nation again, one who’s WWII reputation has been very maligned much like Italy. The minor allied nations like France and Poland sadly don’t have beefy enough tanks or anti tank guns for me to risk taking them to a tournament so the top two comes down to Bulgaria and Romania. The Bulgarian army special rule to prevent outflankers and sniper setup has real potential for annoyance, especially in the Demolition game mode, but having free units seems just too useful to pass up.

Its the contest literally no one has been waiting for.

Ultimately both of these armies have very similar attributes and play styles so the lists will be similar too, just differing in whether they get a free howitzer or not. For example, locally produced armoured vehicles are utterly useless so you’ll be taking German tanks or other vehicles. This is the best use for the Axis Support special rule, as you can’t take veterans so you wont have an SS squad toting assault rifles, and I wouldn’t say any of the German regular infantry or artillery pieces (except perhaps a Flak88 and kradschutzen squads) make up for the opportunity cost of a Wirbelwind or a PzIV. Another advantage to using Axis Support for tanks is that they are outside the platoon selector, allowing you to go up to 2 tanks in a single platoon if you can afford it. An important point to note here is the theatre specific platoon selectors which allow both the Romanians and Bulgarians to take a small selection of German tanks in the tank slot of that selector rather than their own mediocre offerings.

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How is this not an impressive machine of war

Outside of borrowed German units, the Romanian and Bulgarian armies are very vanilla, rifle squads of the inexperienced, regular and veteran flavours, with all the usual weapon teams and artillery pieces (although they can also have panzershrecks). Although Romania does have a stand out infantry unit in its motorised infantry who are allowed to take 2 LMGs in a squad even when only regular quality, and both nations’ infantry squads can have a small number of panzerfausts which is nice. Both nations do have cavalry forces but they are not able to charge while mounted, this isn’t such a big deal given the way the assault order has been gutted and I’d consider one squad as fast moving objective grabbers.

My initial impression on what a Bulgarian or Romanian army will look like is several rifle squads, supported by howitzers and mortars and 2 cost efficient German tanks, rounded out with maybe a sniper team and cavalry for flavour. I’ll be back after some testing to see if my opinion stays the same.

 

 

Not As Grumpy As He Looks 2017

So that’s 2016 over, and roughly one year of content for me too. Going into the new year there are plenty of things I want to improve about the site and my content.

The podcast has been going ok, but definitely needs more structure, and some more people on it to give Dave a break from my rambling. Also I would like to get some art and music for the show to make it feel a bit more professional.

February should hopefully see the debut of some LCG video content, primarily Game of Thrones and Netrunner. This seems like a better way to deliver blow by bow commentary on long intricate games than writtng.

There are also a lot of games I’m looking forward to playing in 2017 which have been on my radar for a while.

Statecraft: Coming to my attention through its kickstarter last year, this game of political manoeuvring has caught my eye. Maybe it will help me learn why politics is so depressing lately.

Tash Kalar: An abstract conflict game from Czech board game supremo Vlaada Chvatil, Tash Kalar has been out for a while but seems the right combination of complex and simple. Hearing that Dave is interested in it too has pushed me to pick it up for 2017.

The Cave:    This game about exploring caves has also been around for a while, but I want to try it out with some of my less serious boardgaming friends. This seems like a good fit for them, with a bit of risk/reward coupled to exploration.

Captain Sonar: A competitive, team based, real time submarine commanding game. Looks incredible if i can wrangle enough people together.

I may get through all, or none of these in 2017 but they have my attention. Also I’ll be going back to Bolt Action, taking a Romanian army through the fires of the student nationals. And I’ll be devoting plenty of time to all my usual LCGs. 2017 looks set to be packed full of table gaming.

 

 

Top 10 games to play with your family

The festive season is a time to come together, when we reconnect with our loved ones and inexplicably decide to eat turkey and drink mulled wine. It is also unfortunately a time of terrible Dr Who specials and Cluedo, so how about something a bit more engaging after Christmas lunch.

A good family game has to meet some exacting standards. Most of the players will be novices so it can’t be too complicated, also you will likely be blitzed on sherry (or whatever it is young people drink nowadays) . Also to keep people engaged short turns help or turns where everyone does their actions together, and games that have people talking and laughing are going to rank highly.

In the tradition of so many Buzzfeed articles I’ve put together a top ten of the games best suited to the hazy period post Christmas lunch. As a rule only games I’ve played can make the list but there are plenty of games I’m keen to check out that might make a future list.

10.Eketorp

eketorp

Eketorp is about at the limit in terms of complexity for a game I would still recommend for newcomers to board games. It does have a lot of bits and is fairly pricey, but this is made up for by being just so funny. In Eketorp you each play groups of Vikings trying to gather material to build a castle, but since there won’t be enough to go round first you have a massive punch up. The combat system is a little unintuitive but still simple enough, and the feeling of building your castle up only to see it torn down is very compelling. If you’re feeling ambitious Eketorp might be worth a shot.

9.Splendor

splendor

For a more sedate experience I would recommend Splendor, a very pretty economic game for 2-4 players set in renaissance Italy. Splendor is fortunately very simple, players can take only one of four actions per turn and it is very satisfying to watch your economic engine grow allowing you to accelerate your progress. While its simplicity is helpful it is a very quiet game with players focused on their own plans since playing well requires a fair bit of brainpower.

8.Dixit

dixit

If I were to describe Dixit in one word, that word would be French. Dixit is a very odd game, stuffed full of beautiful and sometimes confusing art. Each round one player describes one of their cards, then the other players choose a card they think fits the descriptions, earning points if people thing theirs was the original card. This game can be a double edged sword, for the right group it can bring out some good banter but the pressure to be creative might be too much for some. I would say play this game with at least 4 people so if your family is particularly creative then pick it up.

7. Exploding Kittens

exploding-kittens

Exploding Kittens is very funny, but not so much because of the card art where I’d say the game tries too hard. It is a fairly simple game about building up a hand of action cards so you can use them to avoid the deadly exploding kitten cards hidden somewhere in the draw deck. The slow build up followed by a flurry of action as one player realises they might be doomed allows the game to reach a climax before anyone gets too bored. Seeing the other players’ or your own desperation is where the game creates its funniest moments.

6. Survive: Escape from Atlantis

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I’ve played Survive a lot and use it as my gateway game to get people into games that have a big board and lots of pieces, rather than just a few cards. Survive is really brutal with most of your people dying, ravaged by sharks and sea monsters. But the way control of the sea creatures alternates allows you to be merciful or vindictive, depending on which family members you don’t mind hating you. Another point in Survive’s favour is its excellent playing pieces, from its adorable sharks and whales, to the island itself with different terrain types giving a real sense of height. Survive is a classic for 2-4 players but can go up to 6 with the expansion, I’d recommend survive to absolutely anyone but having played it a lot the shine has worn off for me which prevents it from climbing higher.

5. Formula D

formula-d

Formula D should be terrible, its a racing game where you move by rolling dice. But rolling dice is still a very enjoyable thing in the right context, and these are some of the best dice out there, becoming bigger and bigger as you gear up. The game also has interesting decision points as you have to be careful to slow down for corners. It does have a few drawbacks, it is physically quite large and longer than some of the other games on this list. If your family has a formula one fan in it then that always helps (Is Rubens Barrichello still doing stuff?), but it’s still a good time if not.

4. Cash & Guns

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For a very silly game definitely check out Cash & Guns, waving foam pistols in each other’s faces is a factually better Christmas evening than monopoly. Not knowing if the bullets in the other players’ guns are real or fake makes the stakes more interesting, and pointing a gun at your mum or dad is at least going to lead to conversation afterwards Everyone takes their turns together so there’s no deer in the headlights moment when the new players have to get through their turn not knowing what to do. It does require at least 4 players though, and ideally around 6, so if you can’t get that many people then maybe give this one a miss, otherwise you’ll have a blast.

3. Love Letter

love letter

Love Letter has the same kind of appeal as Exploding Kittens, a small simple card game with a little bit of deduction but comes up slightly stronger for me. Love Letter is really quick, a full game taking maybe half a hour at most, and incredibly simple. All you do is draw a card then play a card, but there’s still plenty of thinking to do based on what has been played before and how your opponents are acting. Also the art is really nice and it’s dirt cheap so just go buy it.

2. Codenames

codenames

Codenames is the natural successor to games like charades or Pictionary, but beefed up to 12. Players are divided into two teams facing a grid of words,  only the team captain can see a sheet saying if those words count for their own or the other team. The captains then give one word clues hinting to one or more of the words on the grid. That’s it, and yet managed to be one of my favourite games this year. The rage of the captains staring at their idiot team who can’t see what was obvious to them, and the confusion the teams feel towards the person talking like a mad person are both incredible. One drawback that prevents Codenames from taking first place is it does require a large player count, at the very least 6 but more likely 10 or so.

1. Netrunner   Skull

skull

While I love Netrunner more than my hypothetical firstborn, it’s not exactly a game for everyone. Skull, on the other hand is one of the best introductions to board games. It has no trouble getting a fantasy or sci-fi theme past apprehensive relatives, the tiles are chunky and are enjoyable to just hold, and it’s one of the simplest games out there. You are betting how many flowers you can find among the tiles on the board without hitting any skulls. Within this framework there’s actually a lot you can do and you end up playing with your family psychologically not just mechanically. Skull also scales incredibly well going from two players to as many as you have sets for (and making your own is fairly easy). Skull isn’t necessarily my favourite game or the best game ever, but it earns the top of this list because of just how universal it is.

 

Skull coming out on top doesn’t make the other games on this list any lesser, if you think one of the others suits your family better then by all means go for it. And, if it’s a total disaster? Well that’s what Christmas is about.

 

Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space – Now that’s a mouthful.

Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space, henceforth referred to as Escape for brevity, is one of a small number of games that employ an element of hidden movement, along with Letters From Whitechapel and the classic Fury of Dracula. But Escape also mixes in some hidden roles to create a fantastic sense of total confusion.

escape-map

Players in a game of Escape are trapped on an alien space station divided into hexes, with humans sneaking towards the airlocks and Aliens hunting them down.
The main mechanic governing Escape is writing down your moves on your own hidden map in the style of Battleships, and in each hex you might have to draw one of the game’s encounter cards. The encounter cards are what make this a game of deduction rather than just guesswork. You might have to reveal your location, you may be given an opportunity to lie , or there might be no information at all. The combination of whether players draw cards and what they say when they do forms the information you use to deduce who is where and what they’re doing.

escape-encounter-card

As you get information drip fed to you it goes onto your secret player map, laying out a spider web of routes the other players have taken. When you spot inconsistencies with what other players have said, you have to consider whether they are lying now or were lying all along. This combines with the fact that you don’t know which players are humans or aliens. So someone could pretend to be an alien to avoid the other players’ attention.

escape-role-cards

Slavering monstrous abominations, and alongside them the aliens.

The great speed of the aliens means that the only chance for the humans to stay alive is deception, although this relies on a certain amount of luck as drawing badly could force you to reveal your position several turns in a row. As the aliens catch up with you it becomes much more frantic and about how well you can bluff, since the aliens know where you could go but not where you did go. The final hurdle is actually escaping and there is one more chance for things to go hilariously wrong as the airlocks can be broken, meaning you just announced where you are and have a very long way to go to another airlock (sorry Dave).

The very generous box also contains some optional rules which will help extend the life of the game and change the puzzle if you’ve played it quite a bit. These are special roles and items. Special roles allow you play the game slightly differently rather than just being an ordinary human or alien. Items are shuffled into the encounter cards and can only be used by the humans, this is probably for the best as the base game is murderously difficult so giving the humans some resources to fight back with does help.

On balance i think Escape will definitely work for you if you fancy something light and will keep throwing up moments of hilarious confusion. However in my personal experience the task for the humans is much too difficult and I think the deception elements fall away very quickly, in particular the distinction between human and alien. So while this is ok for a casual time at the pub, there are plenty of games I’d rather be playing.

Lord of the Rings LCG – The Battle of Pelennor Fields

Fantasy Flight’s Lord of the Rings LCG is a fantastic and unique game, taking their excellent LCG release model and applying it to co-operative adventures in Middle earth. FFG have done a great job recently of threading their quests together and telling an overarching story, and the player cards have always had great examples of theme meshing with interesting gameplay decisions.

Last week I had the chance to play what might be my favourite quest so far, The Battle of Pelennor Fields, borrowing a deck from Paul Shawley since my card pool is looking distinctly mediocre and this quest looked to be hard.

Warning: The rest of this blog will contain spoilers for the quest, if you want to play it yourself unspoiled then come back later.

The Battle of Pelennor Fields is the last quest in the new Saga expansion, these quests do have a storytelling advantage in that they are adapting an already well known story for gameplay rather than trying to build something from the ground up. The quest’s five stages break down the epic battle and give a sense of the emotional highs and lows that the characters in the books experienced.

Stage 1: The Garrison of Gondor
pelennor-1

This stage is the calm before the storm, and gives you a round with no questing or combat to build up, which you will definitely need as you see all the Nazgul being set aside for later. It’s only short, but that’s for the best, giving you a little injection of resources but not enough to feel comfortable.

Stage 2:Retreat from Osgiliath
pelennor-2

The preparation from stage 1 will come in handy as a horde of enemies descend on the staging area, along with some allies fleeing Osgiliath being harried on their way back to Minas Tirith. This stage is a race against time, trying to quickly get through the stage to earn some much needed reinforcements.

Stage 3: The White City Besieged
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This stage is the real meat of the quest, when the task of defending Minas Tirith really begins, the first half has been about gathering your strength and now you will see if that was enough. Everything about the way this quest is structured is very thematic, in the questing phase the best you can do is hold on and you need to save your strength for the many many enemies the encounter deck spews at you. Foul orcs and deadly southrons with their beasts of war, with the Nazgul circling overhead a formidable threat but if you can take them out a great pressure relieved.

Actually progressing through the quest is achieved by fighting and killing the enemies, which is befitting of a siege. Unlike most quests you aren’t moving forward and exploring, you’re defensively fighting off an enormous horde.

The white city itself is also a great part of the quest, a great deal of the treachery cards and shadow effects can either damage your board state heavily or damage Minas Tirith. So you end up sheltering behind its walls early on, then as they become more battered you have to put your own allies and heroes on the line. Tied up in all this is the great battering ram Ghrond which will smash the city apart given enough time, meaning you need to get a move on slaying the orcs.

Stage 4: Rohan has come!
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After the grueling defence of the walls this stage is a welcome relief and really captures the arrival of the Rohirrim in the actual story, providing each player with reinforcements. The respite is short, but you get one round of questing where quest progress is assigned as damage among the enemies. This makes the event feel like a force of nature smashing everything before it, much like the films depicted. Certainly when we played and successfully rode over 2 Nazgul it was very satisfying.

Stage 5: Fighting in the fields
pelennor-5

This is the 5th stage of questing so it feels like you are on the last leg of an epic battle asked to give just a bit more. The Witch King swoops in in a powered up form, the encounter deck gets reset and the enemy receives reinforcements, but you can’t call it a day until you’ve made some hefty quest progress and defeated the Witch King. The Witch King himself makes for a suitably tough final boss and throughout all this you still have to be keeping an eye on Minas Tirith to make sure the bad guys don’t break through so there’s plenty to think about.

The quest as a whole really shines because of the ebb and flow, the first few stages where the good guys scramble to build up, the grinding battle in the middle followed by a sprint to the finish.
My enjoyment was definitely helped out by the fact that we won, if we had been slapped down in the third stage then it would have been a more bittersweet experience. I credit the win entirely to the great decks provided by Paul Shawley and the others around the table, Rob and Paul. I got to borrow Paul S’s Murder, Death , Kill deck and had fun doing all three of those things, but Rob was doing some great questing too allowing us to quest for 57 at one point, and both Pauls had a good mix of questing, combat and support.

The Dream Team

This quest and the event as a whole really reminded me of Lord of the Rings is at its best and shows why it earned a place on my shelf along side the competitive LCGs Netrunner and A Game of Thrones.