Bolt Action: Assault on Normandy – A Review

boltactionlogoAs 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.

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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.

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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

Flames of War: Open Fire – A Review

FOW-logo-landscapeA couple of years ago I said I’d never play a World War II game. I said I didn’t feel comfortable with it seeing as it actually happened. Since then I’ve come to understand two things. 1. The logic of refusing to play a World War II game whilst being happy to watch a World War II movie or TV series is bogus. 2. Replaying a historical war doesn’t mean you condone it in the same way that playing a science fiction game doesn’t mean you want the future of humanity to be plagued by galactic war. With this in mind and our renewed commitment to writing about any and all games that cross our path, I decided it was about time I took a look at a couple of World War II titles. The first being Flames of War. Specifically the Open Fire starter set. FWBX03 Flames of War is a 15mm battalion level game which means lots of the toys you love. Infantry, tanks, artillery. And tanks. And artillery. And tanks. Which you get a fair bit of in the starter box. In truth  get a lot for your money. 6 Shermans, 2 Firefly tank hunters, 32 Paratroopers, 73 Grenadiers, 2 PAK40 artillery guns & 3 STUG Assault Guns and a V1 flying bomb. As well as the full rules and a quick start rules both of which are really quite pretty. You also get the associated bases, green and grey dice (no really) some counters and some truly horrid card scenery templates. You don’t get any templates. At all. That you need to play the game.

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This is a bit cheeky considering Battlefront went to the trouble of including the A5 complete Flames of War rulebook in the box. And on the subject of the rulebook: whilst it is very pretty and full of photos, nice artwork and certain parts are picked out like a 1940’s comic, it’s too heavy a book for the binding and within an hour of me reading the rules, the spine had cracked and pages started to fall out. This is a bit shit even if it is only worth a tenner on its own. It also doesn’t include any army lists at all. The big book does that’s three times the price. But if you want to do anything beyond muck about with the core box you’ve got to start spending money. Whilst I’m by no means opposed to army books, a basic list at the back would have been nice so at least players can buy a couple of boxes of blokes. That aside though, the production quality of the rule book was disappointing and will inevitably lead you to buying the hardback copy.

The models are ace however. The contrast between the German and Allied tanks is spot on. For those that didn’t know, I’m a bit of a World War II history nerd and so I appreciate the differences. The Sherman hull almost looks like a miscast. Everything’s a bit shonky. Which is exactly as it should be. They weren’t precision built machines so shouldn’t look like it. The STUG Assault Guns, on the other hand, were and so those models are crisp and clean. It’s that kind of attention to detail that only a handful of people are going to appreciate, and I’m one of them.

The infantry too are pretty good sculpts. They’ve got an impressive amount of detail for the size. Although this is a two-edged sword as it means a quick paint job will look poor. That said, the models don’t look immediately different from one another, and with the US Paratroopers and German Grenadiers all jumbled up on the same sprue it takes some time to find the models you’re looking for. Which is a bit of a pain and a bit unnecessary. Basically you’re only hope will be to refer to the assembly guide to make sure you’ve got the right blokes before you glue them to bases. The casting quality is a bit inconsistent. The Sherman tanks all had pretty bad mould lines which will mean lots of very careful filing around .50 cal machine guns and track sections. The infantry had a few bits around straps and the like but a careful and considered approach should avoid any breakages and such.

The game itself, considering Battlefront’s commitment to authenticity, is all about combined arms, manoeuvring, cover, more manoeuvring and a bit of shooting and more cover. Oh and some planes. It also means stands of infantry, precise facing and a bit of a fiddly mechanic. That’s not to say it’s not good it’s just borders on the hurry up and wait element of wargaming. A quick evening romp through the flood plains of Normandy this ain’t.

Like the models, the attention to detail is impressive to the point of obsessive. The types of movement are broken down into 12 groups for the 12 different unit types. There’s rules for towing guns, moving in buildings, driving through buildings, moving through alleyways between buildings, being bogged down. The list is long. And kinda boring. That’s not to say the game is boring just as I was reading the rules I spent a lot of time wishing they’d just cut to the chase. I’m not convinced there needs to be 12 types of movement or so many distinctions in how to move and least not without slowing the game down.

The most important part of the game is the movement so it’s almost counter productive to make it the most complicated part of the game. It kinda feels like someone got complex and complicated confused somewhere along the way because whilst I appreciate the orchestration of a battalion level engagement is a complex affair it isn’t, necessarily, complicated.

The shooting is, thankfully, a much more straight forward process. That’s not to say it isn’t detailed but it requires a lot less fussing and more rolling dice. Which is nice. And all the fussing and fiddling you did in the movement phase, providing you’ve done it right, will mean that your shooting will not only be potent but effective. I do like how you can opt for Conscripted, Trained or Veteran soldiers which will dictate their performance on the battlefield, to a certain degree. It does mean that two armies from the same side can look and play wildly different depending on the ability of the troops, not just the variety. Weapon systems also have a rate of fire so you can easily figure out how many dice you’re rolling and what you need to do to cause damage. It does get slightly more complicated with tanks and such because locations have to be determined which feels a little too 28mm than 15mm but I appreciate why it’s in there. That said the problem is more the specificity than the mechanic. Once you’ve played a few games all the various caveats for moving and shooting will become second nature much like it was for us old dogs and second edition 40k.

It all works on modifiers so it should feel familiar to most, the challenge will be remembering all the various qualifying modifications and at which points they apply.

Then there are rules for assaults, aircraft and artillery – which includes cool stuff like rockets and smoke bombardments. It really is, as mentioned, a very thorough rule set. And, of course, it means if there are rules for them then there are toys for them. At least there should be. There’s a lot to remember in Flames of War. In many ways it reminds me of Warhammer 40,000 in so much as there are lots of rules that you’ll struggle to remember. But whereas 40k is a simple mechanic made more complicated by rules designed to jazz it up, Flames of War has lots of rules because it needs them to create an authentic gaming experience.

The up shot of this is that some gamers – myself among them – wouldn’t stray very far from the Quick Start rules for quite some time. This isn’t a bad thing as such as there won’t be that sudden rush to buy loads of stuff only to find you don’t want this or that, or you want to sell the Americans and collect Russians instead. It is also a tad too restrictive for the same reason. It’s worth noting, however, that the quick play rules are well worth reading. They’re far more digestible and take you through a

Flames of War is a good, complex, historically loyal and detailed game. It’s let down by a rulebook that’s overly woolly that takes too long to get to the point and too many hairs are split when it does. It is coming from the right place though as Battlefront were determined to write the most historical game they could and at times it really shows. The quick play rules are slick and nicely presented and a far safer bet to work from than the core rules if you’re new to a game as…well, fiddly, as this one. The models look great and you get plenty of them in the box. When the step up is made to bigger games at least you’ll have a decent foundation.

Flames of War will not appeal to everyone. Its OCD attention to detail will mean that the first few games will not be quick. It will also mean lots of different units, with different rules, to get to grips with. However, with some time and effort (and lots of green or grey paint) you will end up with an awesome looking army, playing a game that is every bit as tactical as the period in history that inspired it.

Flames of War: Open Fire is available from Firestorm Games priced £45.00.