Monday, 15 July 2013

Bolt Action: How big is big enough?

Pic courtesy of Richard Trevor

Saturday 13 July saw the biggest (at least in terms of the forces deployed, if not in terms of the number of players) Bolt Action game yet attempted by the Peninsula Wargames Group. We didnt tally up an exact points value on the day (we unpacked forces until it "looked about fair") but the Soviet general estimated about 4500-5000pts, and a rough calculation of the German list after the game reached 4000pts before I stopped counting.

Three Soviet players commanded a horde of Siberan regulars, supported by divisional artillery (Zis-3s), 120mm mortars, two T-34s and KV-1. They shared over 40 order dice between them. Two German players mustered a force comprising 8 squads of SS Veteran fanatic panzergrenadiers with all their toys: assault rifles, flamethrowers, panzerfausts and panzershrecks, MMGs, 81mm mortars; and supported by a Pz IV, two snubnosed StuG IIIs (proxied by Hetzers) and a Pak 40, totalling 30 order dice.

"That looks about fair" ... the quick and easy list-building approach. Pic courtesy of Richard Trevor

30 order dice worth of Waffen SS veterans. Pic courtesy of Richard Trevor

The scenario was an adaption of Mission 5: Top Secret. In addition to the movable objective (The unfortunate Captain Biggleson Esq, shot down while ferrying some rather important papers to Moscow) four other fixed objectives were placed on the 8 x 6 table: one in a farmhouse on the north edge of the table, one at each of the road intersections in the table centre, and one in an intact building in the town on the south edge. Deployment zones were set 12 inches into the table on the long edges (so instead of reserves arriving right on the table edge, they arrived 12 inches into the table) - an attempt to ensure the forces got to grips immediately from Turn 1. The movable objective was worth 2 victory points - the others 1pt each.

Looking south. Objective 1 in ruined farmhouse in foreground, Objectives 2 and 3 at road intersections, Objective 4 (Captain Biggleson) in white and red ruin at top right, and Objective 5 in left-hand apartment block. Pic courtesy of Richard Trevor

Each player was assigned a separate order dice colour, and in an attempt to speed up the game, there were always two dice kept in play. It worked well: on such a large table the near simultaneous activations seldom conflicted, and when they did we reverted to dice draw sequence and resolved activations one by one.

The Soviet High Command plotting their next move, while a German spy assesses the state of the order dice bag. Pic courtesy of Richard Trevor

The game took from about 10.30am to 4.30pm to play, with about a 30-45 minutes break for lunch. We managed to get 6 turns in, but the option to go to a seventh turn as allowed for in the scenario was never entertained - we were running out of time, so the players agreed at the start of the 6th turn that it was the last.

But six turns provided plenty of swings of fortune and swings of momentum. The Germans refused the north flank and conceded the farmhouse objective, preferring to castle up in the town. However, they managed to conceal their deployment plan (read, the dice favoured them) until after the Soviets had committed a healthy percentage of their force to the north flank, which meant the fierce Red Army attack through the town was blunted while the Soviet centre and northern force took a few turns to swing their axis of advance towards the German defensive line.

The centre of the Soviet advance, with the southern force just visible making good progress through the town. Pic courtesy of Richard Trevor

When the Soviets did get to assault the Germans, the attrition on the precious German squads looked unsustainable. The Tough Fighters rule of the Siberians meant that even if they lost an entire squad in each assault (and there were plenty of assaults as buildings were cleared room by room and floor by floor), they whittled down the SS troops very rapidly. The Red Army pegged the Germans back in a tiny quadrant of the table, but which happened to contain 2 out of 5 objectives, including the unfortunate British pilot. The deciding objective - the southernmost one in the intact apartment building - was contested by squad after squad, and changed hands several times.

A brutal street by street fight. The two intact apartment blocks each had 2 floors of 4 rooms: a lot of real estate to defend or attack. Pic courtesy of Richard Trevor

Wargames Tactics 101: "Always secure your flank with a table edge"... Pic courtesy of Richard Trevor

Panzer Grenadiers prepare for their next building assault. Pic courtesy of Richard Trevor

But by the end of Turn 6 the full force of the Russian northern force had yet to hit the main German positions (marching through forests is never fast). And Germans also held the contested objective, and thus sneaked the win. If the game had gone on one more turn, the result was likely to have been very different.

I have previously expressed some concerns about playing large games of Bolt Action, because played in the way the designers intended, there is an assumption that a single unit activation needs to be completed before the next order dice is drawn, resulting in a lot of "passive" time for all except the active player. However, this game seemed to flow fairly well, and undertaking more than one activation at a time seemed to make a significant difference to the speed of the game without compromising the order dice dynamic too badly. Can a Bolt Action game get any bigger and still stay managable? I dont know. But given the Peninsula Wargames Group preference for large multiplayer games, I would think it might just be tested to a new limit soon. 6000pts a side, anyone?


  1. I enjoyed reading this post, it seems you all had a great day of gaming.

  2. You Capesters always seem to be having a lot more fun gaming that the Vaalies.
    Looked like a great game.
    Jules in Mooiriver

  3. Awesome guys, I've only just got hooked into playing Bolt action, but I'm already searching up historical battles to reenact (and imagining my own scenarios). I think my favourite element so far is the tabletop views that you get, as soldiers break out of the Foliage. I'm commanding the VI Fallschirmjäger, an army that was used in the Ardennes. A lot of the games I've played therefore have been across bridges e.t.c. as they were key objectives for the assaulting Germans in the Bulge. I think a truly epic game could be the assault on Bastogne, a bit like your game, the American 101st could be hiding in foxholes as the Germans rain down artillery on them. This could develop into the full on advance as American's all along the line start charging towards the town. Anyway, cool pics, and nice game... You've given me some inspiration for sure!