As part of our ongoing efforts to review and write about more games I drew up a list of games and models I wanted to look at. Fairly close to the top of that list was Bolt Action. Being the extremely lucky buggers that we are, Lee and I managed to get our hands on the starter set, Assault on Normandy, by those fine folks at Warlord Games.
Having already done a bit of research I knew Bolt Action was going to be a lighter option than Flames of War. This isn’t a criticism, but – and I got this from Warlord themselves – a necessary simplification to keep the game quick and fun. A rifle, during the Second World War was more or less just like any other rifle. There are no shortage of hairs to be split surrounding that statement but that’s the point. It’s hours of debate for, ultimately, sod all difference to the outcome of the game. It’d just mean a lot of tedious rule checking.
But I digress.
The game also differs in scale and level of engagement. Whereas in Flames of War you can field battalions with lots of tiny tanks and blokes, Bolt Action is 28mm company level engagements. Which, to be honest, is much more my cup of tea. I was obsessed with Second World War history after watching Band of Brothers because I was far more interested in the actions of specific units and soldiers than I was the war as a whole.
So what’s in the Bolt Action box? Well lots of lovely multipart soldiers with tiny guns. Now I’ve built some fiddly models over the years but the models you get in the starter box take it to a whole new level. To be clear: they are way cool. The breadth of choice as well as the number of accessories you can stick on to your guys is incredibly impressive. And particularly with the German models, considerable thought has been given to what weapons are available to allow players to tailor their forces to an early or late war unit.
However, because everything in Bolt Action is to scale and because the weapons sit in the soldier’s palms it does make for a very time-consuming build. To do 20 US Infantry took me hours. This was partly down to the arms being designed to match certain guns. Once I’d figured the sprues out (the little diagram you get in the box is invaluable) and worked out a system I did speed up. But don’t expect to smash the models out an hour before you’re due to play. Because you just won’t. Plus you’ll need to read the rules before you build them so you know what’s worth giving your blokes and what isn’t. And of course unit upgrades and limitations. And…well, you get the idea.
But, as I say, they do look the business when they’re built. And the arms and leg poses are varied enough that you can have some pretty interesting poses going on with your GI’s or Germans. Just remember, whatever you stick on must be painted. I kept my Americans down to backpacks and ammo pouches, but there are options for bayonets, water bottles and additional pouches. As someone who doesn’t have time to paint much this is a mildly horrifying prospect for me. But for the hardcore, they’re absolutely perfect. The detail and the scale is bang on. And, on a personal note, building a dude firing an M1A1 is very satisfying.
On top of the uber infantry you get the full Bolt Action rules, order dice and two excellent ruined buildings. Once again however, I hit a snag. Aside from part of the roof on the hamlet being slightly miscast, my box didn’t include any instructions on how to build them. I’m assuming this is an error as I have no other frame of reference and it doesn’t seem Warlord’s style to include itemised diagrams of the sprues and not include instructions for the house. The scenery, whilst only two buildings, are brilliant and very cleverly designed with piles of rubble used to reinforce corners or stabilise the frame of the terrain itself. It also looks brilliant on the board. The nice thing is that a fair amount of fantasy cottages etc will tie in, albeit only just, whilst you build your 28mm French cottage collection.
The rule book, as one would expect considering the writers behind Bolt Action is beautifully presented and logically laid out. It sounds silly but I can’t stress enough how important the layout of a rule book is. It all just flows naturally and whilst there’s the odd ‘but more on this later’ at least it gives you the page number so you can skip ahead should you so choose. The artwork is taken from various Osprey publications so whilst it lacks some of the punch the more conceptual artwork you see in Games Workshop publications, it does fit in with the aesthetic of the book and the feel of the 40’s. It is also kinda fun flicking through the book and looking at the art and the units depicted in them.
The rules themselves seemed quite simple at first reading. Units are given a single order which can be move, shoot, move and shoot, run or try to crawl inside your helmet. Shooting, as one would expect, is a prettyvital partof the game. Hitting a target is not an easy thing to do, and the ability of your troops allows you to mitigate that (or not). If you are lucky enough to hit, killing folk is a straight forward dice roll. There’s no strength verses toughness it’s just a bullet hitting a body and that usually ends body parts falling off or being suitably mangled that they don’t work properly. In short, a bullet makes a mess of you regardless of what colour uniform you wear. So if you’re not careful, your blokes will die in droves. Which is why all the other orders are so important.
As is the most seemingly insignificant rule in the game. Pinning. Every time you take hits (not damage) you receive a pin marker. This makes it less likely for your units to follow orders. The more pin markers they have the greater the chance the unit will keep its collective heads down rather than follow your damn fool orders to return fire or some such. This does two things. 1. Bolt Action will brutally, relentlessly and bloodily punish the foolhardy. 2. Force you to consider everything you do. Lee and played our first game like Second World Warhammer: with us trying to knock seven bells out of each other at range and it quickly degenerated into two of our units hammering our others units into submission until they were so pinned they were combat ineffective. Whilst very clever we completely missed the point of the game.
Which is tactics. Bolt Action is brilliant tactical. Fire and manoeuvre are paramount. Pinning. Flanking. All the things shouted at one point or another in Band of Brothers are all viable and vital actions to carry out because as soon as you get pinned it’s a fast and slippery slope towards being overwhelmed and wiped out. Or worse: attacked in close combat. Because my goodness me is that a short, violent, bloody and immensely fun affair.
Bolt Action is am immensely enjoyable game. The system is streamlined enough that you avoid all the tedious hair-splitting and get down to the business of kicking people in the face. The mechanic means that the introduction of tanks and other vehicles doesn’t break anything – they’re formidable but not unbeatable. The army lists allow for suitable yet significant differences in load out which gives the armies their point of difference. And makes it impossible to beat the Germans at a shooting game.
There will be some who like the hair-splitting. The precise definitions, movement classes and the like and that’s fine. There are games out there to scratch that itch. But for straight forward, yet inspired rules and some pretty sweet models there is no other Second World War game I’d look at than Bolt Action.
The Bolt Action: Assault on Normandy box set is available from Firestorm Games priced £63.00