Getting Started In Bolt Action

A brief guide for those thinking of taking the plunge.  This is not a review of the rules but a discussion of what would be needed to start gaming with them.

The only absolutely essential buy is the rules.  Make sure that these are 2nd Edition.  2nd is not a major change to 1st but there have been improvements that are generally for the better.  The move from multiple dice hits on area effect weapons to templates at a time when 40K went the other way, dropping templates, being the significant backward step.  The early printings of 2nd edition had some errors which have been corrected in later runs.  There are still several errors and changes making getting hold of the FAQ from Warlord essential.  Chancing on a new copy of the 1st printing of 2nd edition is unlikely as it quickly sold out.  The edition within the most recent starter sets(Band of Brothers and Tank Wars) has the same content as the stand alone rules but is soft backed, slightly smaller and as such harder to read.

Konflikt 47 shares many of the same rules as Bolt Action 2nd but not all of them.  It can be best described at Bolt Action 1.5.  The army lists included can be used against regular Bolt Action armies.  The forces add some bigger, stronger options but are not wildly out of the way from standard WW2 fare.  There is no magic for example and ‘monsters’ are relatively minor mutations.  Beyond the Gates of Antares is the full science fiction variant that is based on Bolt Action.  There is quite a diversion from the base rules and D10s are used for the chance element instead of D6s.  This does offer more finesse in the roll of a single die but lacks the bell curve of 2D6.  A Bolt Action army could just about be jammed into Antares as Freeborn but apart from that only the order dice are of any use in WW2 games, even the templates are different.  Amongst the unofficial, probably v1 specific but could still work are Cthulhu, Mars Attacks, Spanish Civil War and Modern variants.

Order dice are needed to play Bolt Action and the official dice come in packs of 12, enough for the average 1,000 point army.  The current dice have rounded corners but the original production runs had hard corners making it easy to tell the 2 formats apart by feel.  As picking dice blind is a key part of game play any new player needs to stick with the more common rounded corner dice.  It is not necessary to buy the official dice. Any 2 sets of dice of the same size and shape but different colour will do.  The dice faces represent the orders given to units but only the ‘Ambush’ and ‘Down’ conditions matter once an order has been enacted.  This can be shown by D6s left on their 1 or 6 side.  Just make sure that D6s used as orders are quite distinct from those used for chance rolls.

The basic Bolt Action rules include lists for Germany, USA, Britain, Russia and Japan but only with statistics for a limited number of models.  There is quite a collection of force books, none of which are required.  Almost everything in the books is available electronically at Easy Army.   What is missing are the special rules for each nation which will need to be hunted down on the Internet.  There is nothing wrong with getting the force books but there are so many of them, they overlap and much of the content is Osprey filler.  Consider a Soviet army, 1st choice would be the Armies of the Soviet Union.  Some units are missing but are in Ostfront.  There are a few more Russians in Empires in Flames and although no new units Road to Berlin has some Soviet based scenarios.  All the major armies are thus spread over several books making them an all or nothing choice.  Even buying a campaign book will not give all options for the specific campaign but references back other volumes.  For Japanese in New Guinea the campaign book and Armies of Japan are needed.  It is all on Easy Army which builds lists from all the books.

A good start is to work out 2 historically opposing 1,000 point lists, regardless of any intention of actually buying any models.  Depending on the units chosen and how the game goes that would be 2-3 hours playing.  Cut down each list to 750 points for a shorter (1 1/2 – 2 hour) game but using the same troops.  A vanilla Bolt Action army would be 40 infantry (4 squads of 10 or 5 of 8), a mortar, field gun, armoured car and a small tank.  Another 5 ‘fancy’ infantry to use as officers, spotters, snipers or whatever would be useful.  The Warlord build an army deals all fall into this pattern to some degree.  It is not a good starting plan to buy big tanks.  They are a points sink and will be lucky to destroy enough enemy units in an average game to earn their points back.  In tank terms a Panzer III is OK, IV pushing it and a Panther over the top. Small. light and historically useless tanks such as the Panzer II, punch above their weight in Bolt Action as heavy armour is rare.  There is even some benefit to outclassed designs such as the T28 and A9 as these mount a stack of machine guns and pose a significant threat to infantry, against a real tank they are as mutton.  A force can get by without any tanks but still needs some way to deal with them.  Even if none are destroyed the threat of losing perhaps 1/4 of an army in a single model to 1 attack will make armoured units cautious.  Without that threat they will drive up to close range and make a real mess of any targets that they come across. Most infantry can be bought anti-tank grenades at 2 points a model.  Cheap enough to do a whole army for less than the price of a tank.  The grenades are only of minimal use as the squad with them has to pass a moral test to start, avoid any lead from the tank on the way in and if the tank is going slow enough to catch it, hope to inflict enough hits to damage it.

A basic Bolt Action army has a single platoon and this restricts it to 1 armoured car and 1 tank.  The rules allow more than 1 platoon in any army.  An additional tax of a new HQ unit has to be bought for each platoon and no new bonus unit (such as the free Soviet conscript squad) is received.  This allows another armoured car and tank per platoon.  At higher points, 1250 plus, some very competitive armies can be built from multiple platoons.  At lower points a single platoon is a safer option to begin with as fewer mistakes can be made when buying stuff.  Another building route is the tank platoon.  This relies on the Tank Wars book.  A slim volume that in essence says buy all the tanks you like.  A force such as that can make a real mess of a standard 1 platoon infantry force.  For all armies there is a generic ‘reinforced platoon’ list and various theatre lists covering most major engagements of the war.  The generic list allows everything to be thrown in regardless of date and can result in an overpowered list.  On the other hand the theatre lists are an approximation and sometimes cover a wide geographical area and time span.  It is possible to create a more realistic list with the generic force than with the theatre specific choices.   A classic case of abuse of the list system would be the 6 Katyushka list that ran at Britcon 2017, a strategy based on hoping to roll lots of 6s before the opponent gets close up.

Some thoughts on which force to go for.  The Germans are the original baddies and will match up with most nations.  They boast some cool toys but at a price making German armies small or relying on rubbish to bulk them out.  Unfortunately they moved from a basic grey vehicle colour to yellow and then cammo in 42/43 meaning that a vehicle might be in service for most of the war but be in the wrong colour for part of it.  The infantry also moved from long to short boots although the long boots can be used late war as 2nd line troops.  The late Panzer IV with side skirts is the cheapest tank that grants the Panzer fear rule making it a worthwhile buy.  With Panzer fear any enemy unit that sees if and does not shoot at it must pass a morale test at -1 to do anything else.  If it fails it goes down and ends its activation.

Soviets are popular not only because they are quite good in the game but the uniforms and armour colours are much the same throughout the war.  Helmet styles should subtly change and rank badges move from collar to shoulder but at 28mm no one will care.  The Soviets get a free infantry squad of 12 so buy plenty of infantry and make sure that one squad is obviously distinct models from the others.

The British and their empire are not helpful on the uniform front.  For BEF and Home Guard the helmet is relatively flat and the gas mask bag prominent.   These early forces can be accompanied by various civilian types including the famous Warmington on Sea platoon.  They will also stretch to Very British Civil War games.  In other climes the 8th Army can stand in for early Burma and Malaya.  Later Far East forces will be in Jungle Green, in 44/45 Europe the helmet is more bowl shaped and Denison smocks come in.

Japanese are another army that can be used for most of the war with very few changes.  Getting the right one out of a confusing array of tanks all with similar names can be a problem.  Many of these tanks and tankettes are not readily available in 1/56 scale but thankfully the Japanese can get by without any tanks.  They are experts in close combat and their most useful unit is the maximum strength spear armed inexperienced squad.  Spamming these in a generic list can give a powerful army but is in reality poor form, the opposition needs to be given an even chance to win.

Americans come in various flavours but the main choice is Pacific or Europe.  Early war Pacific is not easy to source infantry for but Marines will do for Army or Marine troops throughout the mid to late Pacific period except in the Aleutians or as KMT in Manchuria where it is a trifle cold to go round in a flimsy shirt.  One of the American special rules is allowing an air observer to call in 2 air strikes per game compared to the 1 of every other nation.  They do however have to pay for the air observer (75 points) but the British get an artillery observer for free.

The Chinese do not come with a national army book but are in the Empires in Flames book, in brief they do what the Japanese do but not quite so well.  They are in 3 flavours, the Warlords require an expensive Warlord unit so are a poor choice.  The KMT are a fairly standard early war army with access to light tanks and armoured cars.  The communists are critically short of any anti- armour but their infantry have a turn 1 bonus move of 8″ that will give them some early game flexibility.

The game can be tried out without buying any models using the VASSAL engine.  The choice of model manufacturer is not too important, Warlord and the gaming community are only bothered that the models are a reasonable depiction of what they should be. Basing is also flexible, 2p coins weigh the model down and are magnetic.  Multiple bases do work but get a little squiffy when deciding who can get hit when under a template.  This is all in contrast to official Workshop, Warmachine, Batman and so foth games where only official miniatures may be used.  For the infantry the common scale is 28mm, the big choice is plastic or metal.  The plastic gives more variety in pose and is cheaper but it takes time to assemble a decent pose.  There are often ‘last turkey on the shelf’ figures made up of all the bits after the best ones have gone.  The earlier Warlord plastic sets including Soviets and US infantry had all the weapons separate to the arms.  Later sets such as US Marines have some loose weapons and others glued to pairs of arms considerably reducing the time required to put them together. Compare gluing a single part of 2 arms attached to a gun onto 2 shoulders to gluing 2 separate arms and a separate weapon all to the 2 shoulders and making a natural pose of it.

Perry plastics are a little smaller than Warlord so parts cannot be mixed between the 2.  They do however mix with the Perry metals and spare heads.  Possibly the cheapest plastics are from Plastic Soldier Company.  They only do Soviets and some of the poses are less than ideal.  They are also larger than the Warlord and have very few parts to assemble so are harder to convert.  Still the price is good as are the matching scale 45mm guns and infantry support weapons boxes.  Metal figures are usually a case of cleaning off the flash, undercoating then painting with minimal prior assembly.  Having different sized figures in different units looks OK at a distance but mixing within the same unit can look odd.  People do come in different sizes but infantry small arms do not.  Even head swaps between manufacturers can result in models with massively swollen or undersized pin heads.

For vehicles the true scale should be 1/56.  The major plastic suppliers are Warlord and Rubicon (from the Pastic Soldier Company amongst others).  The early Warlord plastics were Italieri sculpts and a nightmare to build.  The Warlord Puma has separate suspension for all of its 8 road wheels, none of which will be seen in a game.  The early Rubicon models like the Stug were simple kits that were easy to put on the table.  More recent Warlord models have become easier to build but Rubicon have moved to multiple variants and additional detail making them harder to put together.  Also note that more recent Rubicon kits are not in the usual modelling plastic meaning that regular polystyrene cement has a hard time gluing them.  Resin kits offer less detail but are easy to assemble and a wider choice of models is available.  Other possible scales for WW2 models inlcude 1/60, 1/50 and 1/48.  There is a noticable size difference between these and 1/43 are way too big.  If going for a different scale, keep to it or the difference will be immediately obvious.  Moving from 1/56 is most obvious for the smaller vehicles.  If tanks are big that is because they are tanks, a 1/48 jeep is worryingly large compared to infantry and 1/56 tanks.

Terrain is a no-brainer if moving from something like 40K.  Even the intensely Gothic stuff is better than using sheets of paper or felt.  The cheapest starter for terrain is trees.  There are plenty of eBay sellers that market cheap trees that often start to fall apart even before they are unpacked.  Buildings did drop off in use when 2nd edition came out as a HE hit on a building meant curtains for most models inside.  So no one went into them and there was little point putting buildings on the table.  The latest FAQ allows penalties for small team and down to be applied to buildings making it worth going in them again.  There is a limited choice in plastic buildings all of which are pretty robust.  If trashed they can be glued back together.  The Berlin city apartments from Warlord are actually Italieri 1/72s, these and some other smaller scale buildings are good enough for 28mm.  MDF is the big growth area.  They are relatively cheap and can be built to come apart to put models inside.  On the downside they soak up paint like a sponge.  A cheap spray enamel can give fair results but it can take a lot of water based acrylic to get a good surface cover.  Bolt Action is usually fought on a 6′ x 4′ mat but other sizes will work.  If there is money in the budget and space to roll it out the mouse mat rubber backed ones are best.  Most of the photo reports on this site are on Tablewar mats.