Bolt Action (BA) is a 28mm 1:56 scale tabletop wargame that allows you to recreate battles from World War 2 from the start of the war in 1939 Poland to the final battles in the Pacific, and everything in between. The rules allow you to take a variety of troops, weapons, and vehicles from the many allied and axis powers from every theater of the war to recreate any scenario you can imagine. BA is a tabletop miniature game by Warlord Games and Osprey Publishing, who also produce several military history guides. Bolt Action is played on a 6 foot by 4 foot table (though larger or smaller sizes are fine) using plastic and metal models to represent the soldiers, equipment, and vehicles of each army from World War 2, using tape measures to measure distances to move troops and determine weapon ranges, and rolling dice (6 sided dice or D6’s) to resolve combat and morale. Recently the 2nd edition of BA has been produced, giving players an opportunity time to get into the hobby with a revised, more streamlined ruleset. Note that this review does not cover every rule or situation in the game but rather is to give a review of the game mechanics, how to build up a force to play BA, and why this is a fun and tactically challenging game to play.
BA is unique as a tabletop wargame in several reasons. The first is the use of the order dice mechanic. Unlike many RPGS’s where players will roll off for initiative or have an initiative track, or in some tabletop wargames where one player will move and fight with all of his models or each player alternates activating one model/unit at a time BA relies on a random dice pull from a bag. As an example say I’m playing my American army against my friend’s German army. I have a lieutenant, three squads of infantry (soldiers), mortar, and a tank. This would give me six order dice, which are green to represent my army. My friend’s army has a lieutenant, two squads of infantry, a machine gun, and an artillery piece. This would give him five order dice, which are gray to represent his. We would put all 11 dice (6 green and five grays) in a bag or cup and then will take turns pulling them out (without looking of course). Whichever color is pulled that player will get to activate a unit or model. After the player has resolved an action with a unit another dice is pulled, this is continued until all the dice have been pulled from the bag and a new turn will begin (will all the dice pulled out being put back into the bag or cup). If a unit is destroyed a dice is removed from the bag, so destroying your opponents units can limit their chances of pulling their dice to activate their units. Due to this mechanic, you don’t know who is going to activate next. In some cases, you could pull evenly, which each player pulling their dice, or one player may get several or their (or their opponents) dice in a row. So while it’s always good to bring a plan to your battle, you’re battle plan needs to be flexible as you can’t rely on always being able to get the right activation at the right time.
Orders, Pinning, and Morale –
Once an order dice has been pulled any unit in the player’s army can be assigned it and can be given an order. There are six orders in BA that units/models can perform: Fire, where they are stationary and shoot, advance where they can move and fire, run where they move twice their advance distance but cannot shoot, this order is also used to get a unit into close combat (covered below). Other orders include: ambush, where a unit holds its fire until an enemy unit moves into range, rally where they can remove additional pin markers (I will talk about pinning in a bit), and down, which the unit cannot move or shoot but makes the unit harder to hit from enemy shooting, this is also the default order in case a unit fails its order test. This leads into the next unique mechanic in BA which is order tests and pinning.
When an order dice is pulled a unit can normally perform an order. However, if the unit receiving the order has any pins on it must first pass an order test, which reflects the unit’s nerves under pressure from enemy fire. Order tests are done by rolling two d6’s. A test is passed if the combined dice rolls are equal or less than the unit’s morale, subtracting any pins the unit currently has. A unit that passes the test will then lose one of the pins on it and can perform the order, though it keeps additional pins that it may have. The test is failed if the roll is above the unit’s morale minus the pin markers. In this can, the unit will normally go down. However, if 1 6’s are ever rolled the unit will roll on the FUBAR table and either shoot at a friendly unit (mistaking them for the enemy) or running the maximum distance from any visible enemy models. For example, a regular infantry squad (which as a morale value of 9) has two pin markers on it. It is given an order to fire, but first it the player would need to roll pass the order test with a roll of 7 or less (9-2 for the 2 pin markers), the player rolls a 4 and a 2 from the dice equally a 6, the 6 means that the order test is passed, so the unit will remove 1 pin and will be allowed to fire, although in the case they will be affected by the pin they didn’t remove.
Pins are caused when a unit takes fire from an enemy unit which manages to land at least one hit (hits don’t need to destroy models to cause pins, only the hit does). Small arms, such as rifles, only inflict one pin per unit firing, so a squad of 10 riflemen will only cause a single pin on an enemy unit, even if they all hit. Some weapons, such as mortars, flamethrowers, and artillery strikes can cause more than one pin. Pins are usually marked on a unit by tokens with a way to indicate the total number of pins the unit has. Limiting the number of pins and reducing their negative effects is one of the key factors in winning a game of BA, the more pins you can inflict on your opponent, the more likely their units will fail their order tests and will be less effective in the game. If a unit takes too many pins (equal to its starting morale value), it will be routed and leaves the battlefield. Morale is based on the quality of troops; veteran troops have a morale of 10, regular 9, inexperienced 8. However, while veteran troops are more, likely to pass their order test, they cost more to bring to the battle so that you would have fewer models and/or units in your army and likely fewer dice in the dice bag.
Moving and Combat (ranged and melee)-
Moving is done using a tape measure in inches. The player will give a unit an advance or run order and pass any needed order tests. They would then move the models in the unit up to their maximum move distance. For infantry, this is 6inches (a run is twice that or 12 inches). Vehicles, such as tanks can move faster (9-inch advance) but are less maneuverable, only being allowed to make 1-2 90 degree turns depending on if they are tracked (tanks) or wheeled (armored cars and trucks). Terrain also limits movement as models cannot run through rough ground (such as woods or rubble), or across linear obstacles (such as fences or walls).
Combat is resolved using d6’s.For shooting a player would give an advance or fire order (or change an ambush order currently on a unit to fire) and then resolve it (moving first). This is done by rolling a number of dice equivalent to the number of shots from a single weapon which each of the models in the unit is carrying. For instance, a squad of 10 men with rifles would roll 10 dice as the number of shots that a rifle has is 1. If a unit has multiple weapons (for instance if the squad has 8 men with rifles and a light machine gun (LMG) with a loader) the player would need to either use different colored dice to represent the different weapons firing, or roll each weapon separately. The to hit score for all models is a 3+ (so any dice that come up as 3,4,5, or 6 would count as hits). However, there are several modifiers that can change the roll needed. These include advancing, shooting at a target in soft or hard cover, shooting at long range, and the firer having pin markers. For instance a unit of 10 rifles that advanced (-1), and shot at an enemy unit 18 inches away (long range is beyond half the weapons maximum range, a rifle has a maximum range of 24 inches, so any shots beyond 12 inches count as long range, so that is another -1), and that is in a woods (soft cover -1). So rather than needing a 3+ to hit the squad would need to roll 6s. If the to hit number is ever higher than a 6, than the firer needs 6’s followed by 6’s, so they could still hit a target, though likely with far fewer successes.
Once a unit has been hit it will take a pin and any dice that did hit will be rolled again to see it the hit(s) actually caused damage and destroy models. For infantry and artillery, this is based on their morale rating. Veterans are destroyed in a 5+, regular a 4+, and inexperienced a 3+. If the dice roll matches or exceed this number then casualties are caused and a model is removed by the owing player from the unit for every successful die roll. If a 6 is rolled roll the dice again, if the dice comes up as a 6 it counts as a precision shot in which the shooting player removes the casualties. This can remove unit leaders, which can affect morale, as well as support weapons, such as Panzerfausts or LMG’s. Heavy weapons, such as mortars and anti-tank guns have a penetration rating, which reduces the die roll number. For instance, a unit rated as regular being successfully hit by a heavy machine gun (HMG), which has a penetration value of +1 would destroy a model it hit not on a 4+ but rather a 3+. Vehicles have damage values of 6+ or greater making it difficult or impossible for small arms to knock them out, which don’t have penetration values to damage them, thus heavy weapons with penetration values would be required to destroy them (for example a heavy anti-tank gun as a penetration values of 6+ so to damage a heavy tank, which has a damage value of 10+, the model with the heavy anti-tank gun would need to roll at least a 4 on a d6 and add 6 to the roll).
For close combat, a unit must be given a run order and pass a successful order test. The unit then makes a full run towards the enemy unit it wants to charge. Depending on the distance and if they have not activated yet can fire at the attackers, reducing the number of attackers coming in. If the assaulting unit is able to make contact as many units as possible need to be placed base to base with each other (the bases holding the models up off the ground need to touch). In assaults, the attacker (the unit who initiated the assault) goes first unless the squad that is being assaulted (the defenders) are behind a liner obstacle, such as a wall, in which attacks are simultaneous. The attacker will automatically hit the models in contact and so will go straight to rolling for damage. Any defending models destroyed are removed; the remaining defenders then roll to damage on the attackers. Once both sides have fought, each side tallies the number of casualties (destroyed models). The side who caused the most casualties (or the side which is still alive) won and the other side is destroyed. If there was a draw, then another round of combat is fought. Thus assaults can be very brutal and are a very high risk/high reward event. Once combat is over the winner can move d6 inches in any direction.
Building a force-
The force you bring onto the tabletop in BA represents a reinforced platoon. A platoon in World War 2 was made up of 20-50 soldiers, led by a lieutenant, with a few support weapons, such as machine guns or mortars (roughly one per 3 squads). A reinforced platoon allows for a few more support weapons, as well as artillery and vehicles in your force. To build a force in BA, or any wargame you use a system of points, which is a measure of how effective a model is in the game. For instance, a regular rated rifleman is 6 points each a veteran rifleman 9 points, while a lieutenant is 100 points, a medium machine gun 40 points, and a medium tank is 200 points. Players build their armies up to a point limit, usually 1000 points, though games with fewer or greater points can be played. There is a restriction in how you build your army. Each army, no matter the size must contain at least one lieutenant and two infantry squads. Once you have assigned points to them you can add additional units (as well as add more models to squads), such as machine guns, snipers, medic, tanks, but only one of each. This limits min-maxing (taking the small minimal units and then spending the rest of their points on powerful units such as tanks and heavy artillery). However one can take multiple reinforced platoons, as long as they buy the minimum units. Of course friendly games can deviate from this but it’s a good format to follow in pickup games and in tournaments.
Benefits of game compared to others and challenges-
BA has several advantages which make it a very good historical wargame as well as a good starter wargame. Because of the focus on mostly generic infantry squads, you don’t need a large number of model soldiers to get started or need highly specific models. In fact between a starter army and an additional infantry boxes, you would have enough regular soldiers for most games. Most infantry boxes run around $30-$50 with additional heavy weapons between $10 and $30, and additional vehicles cost around $25-$45. For $200 dollars or less, you can have a full 1000 point army and more.
Some challenges to the game include, which is common in other wargames, is that models need to be assembled, clipped off of their sprue, glued together, and then primed and painted. Thus besides the books, miniatures, and associated game accessories (tape measures, dice, tokens), you would also need to buy glue, Sprue cutters (similar to wire cutters), a hobby knife, and paints and brushes, as well as other items. However, the low cost of BA models and the fewer models that are needed to play means that BA is cheaper to start than other miniatures games, partly due that there are not copyrights on military models, unlike many science fictions and fantasy games.
History of Bolt Action and changes in 2nd edition
Bolt Action was written by Alessio Cavatore and Rick Priestley, veteran wargame writers who have developed other games, most notably Warhammer 40,000 (another fantastic wargame in the writer’s opinion, though a little more difficult to get into). The first edition of BA came out in early 2013 and has been a major success for both warlord games and historical wargamers. Currently, it’s the most widely played (and accessible) historical wargame on the market. In addition to the rules, Warlord Games produce expansions to the core rules, and plastic and metal figures to play the game. This year warlord produced the 2nd edition of the game, which added rules which had accumulated over the years since the first edition, and streamlined some of the mechanics to make them work better (such as using circular templates to work out hits from high explosive weapons, and allowing lieutenants and other command models to pull multiple order dice to pull at the same time)
What to purchase and what to add.
So now that I have introduced the game, where does the reader go from here? For novices to tabletop wargaming, I recommend warlord’s “Band of Brothers” 2 player starter set. Besides containing 2 small American and German forces it also has a soft back rulebook, dice, tokens, templates, and order dice, all for $112, which is a low initial investment to see if you would like the hobby. For tabletop gamers who have played wargames before and know what faction they want to play, I recommend picking up a 1000 point starter army, which retails around $135. These are nice because they are a complete force, with a lieutenant, several infantry squads, support weapons such as machine guns and mortars, and a medium tank. Besides the models, gaming accessories, and paints, you will need the rulebook which retails at $40. The rulebook contains all the rules to play the game, give you 12 missions to play, and has limited army lists for the Germans, Americans, British, Soviet Union, and Japanese for their forces during 1944-1945, which will cover what is in most of the starter army boxes. The full army lists for each force can be found in the armies of books, which are specific to each nation (as well as compilations for minor allied and Axis powers, such as France and Italy) which gives the troops, weapons, and vehicles for that nation for the entirety of World War 2. There are also campaign books which give scenarios which are unique to the different theaters (such a city battle mission in Stalingrad, or beach landing missions in the Pacific). There is also a book called Tank War which shows players how to build and field armored platoons, made up of tanks and mechanized infantry and support.
I hope you the reader found this guide helpful. For additional information contact your local hobby store to see if they carry and support BA. There are also several social media sites you can join on Facebook where you can meet players and ask about both hobby and gaming advice. Of course one of the best resources in warlord games’ website, which not only shows all the products for the game but also provides hobby and gaming guides and have free downloadable material, such as reference sheets, which cover most of the rules. Good Luck and I hope you see you on the tabletop soon.