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Bolt Action Warlord Games Overview

bolt action

Outside of sci-fi and fantasy wargames, WWII is perhaps one of the most oft-played periods when it comes to moving tiny soldiers over a table and rolling dice. And one of the most recognisable wargames set in that period is Bolt Action from Warlord Games.

Evidence of its eminence in the wargames scene, Bolt Action tournaments sprout up in all corners of the UK. And anywhere Warlord Games products are sold, it is is highly likely you will find a box of British infantry or a German panzer (plus many, many more unit types) from the Bolt Action range. It is a safe bet that anywhere that sells wargames miniatures outside of Games Workshops' products will have some Bolt Action.

And you would expect it to be a giant in WWII wargaming, considering the impressive pedigree of its creators. It is written by the legendary rules-smith, Alessio Cavatore, whose long list of credentials in the world of wargames writing is a veritable 'who's who' of the great and good of rules systems. Not only that, but Alessio also received help and input from the mighty Rick Priestley. This is the man that created that behemoth of the wargames world, Warhammer. Need we say any more...

Gateway Game

Bolt Action is a great gateway game into historical wargaming. At least, it certainly was for me and has been for many gamers I have come across. Fans of Warhammer 40,000 who might want to take their first steps out of the grim darkness of the 41st millennium and tiptoe into historicals for the first time could do worse than giving Bolt Action a try.

Why? Well, for a start it's not a million miles apart in terms of the scale of Warhammer. To begin with, it is 28mm scale (where one figure from head to foot is 28mm). Many WWII games opt for the 20mm or 15mm troop sizes in an effort to get across the grander scale of armed confrontations of this period. For a gamer to go from building and painting at the 'heroic scale' of Warhammer with its masses of intricate details to the smaller miniatures might be somewhat off-putting.

Also, there is just something about 28mm scale that seems a little more cinematic. Unlike the smaller models, this size of miniature means you can better see expressions on faces and it means poses can be made a lot clearer and therefore more striking. They better invoke those scenes from films and television, like Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, that inspire us to bring them to life on the tabletop. This is important; a big part of what makes a wargame so impressive, not only to play but also to watch, is the spectacle of it. It has to look good as well as play well.

Aside from the miniatures themselves, the size of the game in general is similar to what a Warhammer 40,000 player would be used to. Usually, battles consist of about 30 models per side, plus two or three vehicles. Each force per side represents a platoon or two.

But let's not get carried away with it being an historical surrogate for Warhammer. For those already well versed in non-Games Workshop wargaming and who might not have tried Bolt Action, the rules system is definitely one to take notice of.

Getting Gaming

To get going with Bolt Action, obviously you will need an army (or two if you want to lure a friend into venturing into this game with you). The box sets from Warlord Games containing about 30 hard plastic individual models to assemble are a great way to start a force, giving enough to make some standard infantry, commanders and maybe a few special weapons carriers. This can be supplemented by vehicles and other miniatures from the range. There are, as you might expect, a few starter sets containing all you need to get going, which are ideal for beginners.

All of the standard items expected for a wargame are required, including a tape measure, model terrain and dice (six-sided).

On the subject of dice, this is where one of the standout mechanics of the game lies. Special six-siders are required with 'commands' on them, including 'run', 'ambush', 'advance', 'down', 'shoot' and 'rally' printed on a side each. Each player will have their faction specific coloured dice so players know whose is whose (this is important, as you will find out).

At the start of a turn, players generate a number of these dice equal to the number of units they have in play. All of these, plus those of your opponents', go into a bag (or some other opaque container). One of the players then delves into the bag and, without looking, draws one of the dice. Whichever players' dice it is gets to activate one their units. So if a player draws a US Airborne die, the player of those Yanks will then get to use one of their units.

When a unit is activated, it gets to do one of the activities listed on the dice, with specific rules for each. Every unit can make one order per turn; once it is activated it cannot be activated again until next turn, when all of the dice are swept back in the bag.

This dice pulling aspect of Bolt Action is one of the greatest strengths of the game. It adds a real uncertainty of who is going to do what, when. It makes players prioritise and constantly judge on the fly. Do they make that advance now? Or do they wait to see what that unit does over there before committing? It makes for nail-biting, back-and-forth gameplay that brings to mind those tense scenes in movies. You can never quite tell how a turn will play out; many a game has been spent fretting over whether your dice will be drawn next.

'Dynamic' is the word to use for this golden nugget of a rule, as is 'exciting'. It is certainly a million miles away from that style of 'you move and shoot everything on your side' while I twiddle my thumbs waiting for my turn to do the same.

To say this rules mechanic has been a huge inspiration in the wargames scene is no exaggeration. It is for good reason that Warlord has made use of it in other games and echoes of it can be heard in rules-sets from other publishers.

But that is not all to get rules-lovers excited; another diamond is 'pin markers'. Like in many wargames, units roll a number of dice when they shoot, depending on the amount of troops in each squad and the type of weapons used. At least one 'hit' scored on an enemy unit generates a 'pin marker'. A physical token is placed on the unit being attacked to represent this. These markers accumulate as more attacks are received, representing the pressure the troops come under once they come under increasing amounts of fire. Any unit with these markers must make a morale save to be able to activate, with fails resulting in the unit unable to fulfil its order and going to ground (being 'pinned' and doing nothing that turn). The more markers, the less likely it is to pass the morale test score on the roll of two dice. Troops have various experience levels, with those marked as veterans having a higher morale score and therefore more likely to pass their test, while regular and green troops have less chance of succeeding.

Again, this leads to a gaming experience of nerve-shredding uncertainty, representing that fog of war in a fun and challenging way. Battle plans have to be changed fast, often multiple times per turn, creating breathless action.

All the major nations are covered by Warlord Games' models and faction-specific books. Various sourcebooks and expansions are available, giving options and battle scenarios for certain campaigns during the war or specific armies to pick from. As is the case with Osprey Publishing books, the full-colour artwork and pictures of miniatures really make the rulebooks pop from the page.

Like the expansive series of books in the Bolt Action range, the models from Warlord Games are vast in size. There are some great plastic kits to chose from, as well as some fine metal miniatures. The range of vehicles should please any tank nut!

The rules themselves are not too complex to get your head around. In fact, some of the more ardent wargame fans might consider it to not have the depth they are after. While it might be a good introduction to the uninitiated in historical themed wargames, those looking for more detailed rules will not find that here. Some of the more inclined towards total historic accuracy in their games might find it a little too unrealistic, especially when it comes to ranges on weapons.

While Bolt Action leads to a fun platoon-level skirmish game, scaling it up to larger games can tend to slow things down. There are games out there that can do WWII on a grander scale than Bolt Action (Flames of War from Battlefront Miniatures comes to mind).

This might be a pet peeve of mine, but I know it irks others too, and that is there is no index in the rulebook. Can't remember how that special rule works? There's no flicking to the back of the book to find out what page it's detailed on. Instead, you will be straining your memory to figure out which section of the book it might be in. That's just frustrating and slows down what is already a tedious aspect of any wargame: the obligatory rules checking.

So, the verdict? A great game for those starting out in WWII gaming and immensely fun, with edge-of-the-seat action that keeps players second guessing their opponent. Want complete, total historical accuracy? This perhaps ain't for you.