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Friday, November 30, 2012

Bolt Action - Soviet Infantry and The God of War

Once again, my iron will and legendary restraint have been completely shattered by peer pressure. Thanks in no small part to members of our forum, I've fallen into my third Bolt Action army.

Russians. I'm still not really sure where to start with them, but I started with them anyways!
The seven-man veteran squad I ordered. I hope they got the ears right on my models.

In my (limited) experience in war gaming, Soviet lists really drop a wrench into the finely tuned machine that is the German plan for fighting against the Allies. If you're a German player, and you stick to Axis versus Allies games (and really, who doesn't prefer red v. blue?) you have to prepare yourself for a wide variety of threats. Just as you think you've finally got an answer for those more or less similar American and Commonwealth opponents, along comes some Soviet player with a very different force, to show you that you weren't prepared for a fight on the Eastern front.

I believe that Bolt Action is a slightly different animal than the previous WWII games I've played. In tabletop war gaming, video gaming, board gaming - you name it - the designers generally love to (at the very least) gently nudge Soviet players into some form of horde-rush strategy. In Bolt Action, you do get a free infantry platoon as a Soviet player, but that horde mentality "nudge" other games I've played have provided is noticably absent. An example of one such nudge might be the Quality of Quantity special rule in Flames of War. Sure, nothing forces you to take platoons large enough to qualify for its benefits, but man, it sure is nice when your platoon does get to take advantage of QoQ! If you don't, you wind up asking yourself, "am I doing this wrong?"

Bolt Action's approach to WWII doesn't force you to play Soviets in a particular manner, any more than you are forced to play Germans a certain way. If I want to play a German list with nothing but inexperienced Volksgrenadier, instead of the familiar, expensive, hardened veterans of other games, I am very capable of doing so. The same goes for the Russians in Bolt Action. I can buy a small, elite force if I choose to, rivaling any other nation's veterans.

But what's the fun in that?

Give me Soviet infantry, or nothing at all!

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let's talk about what makes the Soviets stand apart from the other nations. The easiest things to identify that separate any two nations are its abilities. The Soviets have two of, in my opinion, the best abilities in the game; especially compared with the powers of other nations.

For starters, "The Great Patriotic War" allows Soviet infantry and artillery to re-roll failed morale checks if they would be destroyed as a consequence. That not only covers mandatory checks after a rough round of shooting, but any test that, if failed, would cause them to be destroyed, may be re-rolled.

Now, the astute Bolt Actioner, or any frequent patron of The BAR, might note that generally, a squad forced to take a morale check is probably so jacked-up with pins that it doesn't have a great chance of passing the morale check. That might be often true, but not always. Furthermore, the chances of passing a test at -4 on 2D6 is significantly higher if you've got two chances to roll those bones. Will it work every time? Not a chance! Will it be totally freaking sweet when it does? Yup!

The Soviets also get "Quantity Has A Quality All Of Its Own". This ability gives the Soviet lister a free, eleven-man squad of inexperienced soldiers, completely kitted-out. Let me say that again: You get eleven men, albeit inexperienced; plus an LMG, an SMG, and eleven men worth of anti-tank grenades at no cost. A 122-point unit! For free! Say what you want to about inexperienced dudes, but this freebie unit straps a thousand gallon tank of rocket fuel to my crazy ideas about exchange rates in Bolt Action (points-to-pins) and lights it - then giggles as it blasts off!

You get eleven armed men with the capability to throw a pin marker every turn, plus the order die that comes with them, for nothing. Eleven tosses of a D6 to hit a unit for a pin marker! Quantity Has A Quality All Of Its Own is a great national rule, and that free squad also gets to benefit from the other Soviet national rule.

This came up with a Google search for "Quantity Has A Quality All Its Own". I then sent an email to the people I ordered my Soviets from, clarifying that I didn't want these models. Although these sophisticated gentlemen inarguably have a "quality" all their own.

Both of these national abilities seemed to really lean towards lots and lots of infantry. I mean, one went so far as to give me an extra infantry squad for free! Before I could make my first list, though, I had to be sure. I had to check the rest of the arsenal.

I first flipped to the tanks. Not much stuck out here. The Germans get their +1pen to tank guns, the Americans get their .50cals and HE - which the British share in part (but also get the Croc! Woo!) while also having freebie artillery spotters. These Soviet tanks appeared to be the vanilla baseline. A T-34/76 cost the same as a Sherman 75mm, and while it didn't share that "easily catches fire" rule with the Sherm, it also didn't have access to the legendary Ma Deuce. The T-34/76, as iconic as it was, resulted in a resounding "meh" from me.

The IS-2, on the other hand, was pretty interesting. I really like the idea of having a tank gun that normally only causes D3 HE hits versus infantry instead causing 2D6 hits. The ISU-122 was even more attractive as it offered the same tank gun as the IS-2 with the added benefit of an HMG. For some reason, though, these vehicles weren't immediately resonating with my like my dear, sweet, Crocodile did - and they cost about the same. (Ultimately, when I expand my Soviets, it will be with an ISU-122 or an IS-2. Some day...)

Where I finally went with my Russians, I think my subconscious had something to do with it. I had wanted to get some heavy artillery for the longest time, and the Soviets were the only list for which I could find appropriate models. Also, it's my loose understanding of history that the Soviets actually rolled the guns along with their infantry. They weren't always safely tucked, miles and miles from the battle, bombarding from afar. If I was ever going to have history buffs approve of having heavy artillery on the table, it would be with the Soviets. Two 152mm howitzers! Sold!

That was that! I'd be going with infantry, the beneficiary of both the Soviet national abilities, and heavy artillery.

Yeah. Heavy howitzers. 115 each. There's two of 'em. Did I forget to mention two flamethrowers?

To really work this list, I'd need two platoons, so that I could focus on infantry and artillery. I had some points left over, and tossed around the idea of grabbing some Maxim HMGs with gun shields. I really think those units have the potential to be very powerful, but ultimately was unsatisfied with the model options available. I considered throwing in some heavy mortars, as I've yet to field them, and they fit nicely within the theme of the list. However, they ran a bit higher in cost than I had points for, and I really wasn't willing to sacrifice infantry for more artillery.

No, flamethrowers would prove to be (for now!) my answer. Flamethrowers, as we've mentioned in articles, on the forum, and in the podcast, will only fool an opponent once. After being on the receiving end of a flamethrower blast, chances are your opponent will always be mindful of the location of opposing flamethrowers in relation to his own troops. These units can be very effective for the points, and are therefore bullet magnets - the perfect complement (I hope!) to a list filled with units susceptible to bullets!

Dano and I talked about this in our last podcast: A good attack involves providing the defender with too many good targets. It's in the nature of wargaming that the attacker is forced to expose himself to defending fire as he approaches his objective. I've failed in Bolt Action, and other wargames, when my entire attack depended upon one unit reaching the objective. A 50-point flamethrower unit is a very attractive unit to fire at, as it has the potential to inflict a lot of damage, while only consisting of two models. This list banks on the fact that no opponent will allow flamethrowers to approach his positions, and will therefore attempt to eliminate flamethrower teams instead of the advancing sixty Soviet infantrymen.

To round it out, I'm buying into Dano's theory that command elements of three men prove to be useful battlefield tools, instead of the mere morale boosters I was previously treating HQ units as. Both my regular 1st Lieutenants will have two regular attendants with them, with the idea that six infantry squads and two flamethrowers will provide the opponent with so many targets, they'll never have time to fire at three-man command squads. Most likely, you'll soon hear me argue with Dano about how wrong he was. "The three-man command is stupid!" Then, a week or two later, we'll somehow still be arguing about it, but from different sides of the argument than where we started.

Don't let the flamethrower team get close enough to fire - or maybe you should, and concentrate on the horde of Soviet riflemen charging you instead.

This list is really too big to fit into one tidy image. For those of you keeping score at home, I ended up going with the following:

2: HQs consisting of a regular 1st LT and 2 regular attendants
4: Infantry squads consisting of 9 regular riflemen
1: Infantry squad consisting of 4 veteran riflemen and 3 veteran SMG'ers
1: Infantry squad consisting of 9 inexperienced riflemen, 1 inexperienced LMG, 1 inexperienced SMG, and all carrying anti-tank grenades.
2: Regular Flamethrower Teams
2: Regular Heavy Howitzers, each with a spotter

My list is relatively immobile, so let's start by looking at the defensive side of things before we talk attacks. The two heavy artillery pieces can lay pins. Sure, these big guns have a +4pen, and hit 3D6 times, but I feel the D6 pins each throws will really stop advances when those same advances are forced to approach in front of the guns. What the guns don't stop, sixty Soviet infantrymen will deal with (I hope). Six squads of infantry, all around ten men each, can really fill up a six foot table edge. The idea on defense will center on a "historical" Soviet defensive plan. The attacker may kill many, but there will be many more to replace the fallen.

Of course, the tougher question is, how do you attack with this list? I started off talking about the heavy arty on defense, so I'll continue along that same thread on offense. I generally don't like spotters in Bolt Action, however in this list, I feel their use is warranted. Those heavy artillery pieces aren't motoring around the board - and if they're on the wrong side of a piece of line of sight blocking terrain, they'll be worthless. So spotters are a must, especially on the attack.

What about the rest? What the heck is someone going to do with sixty pairs of Soviet legs in an attack?

I'll be playing this list aggressively.

No, wait, that's an understatement, because I generally play aggresively. That's really not a strong enough word. I'm going to play them crazy. If I'm attacking, I plan on running with most of the units for the first two turns. I don't think a balanced force can handle all the infantry threats while surviving the combined power of two HE3D6 heavy artillery pieces. It's simply too much to focus on; and outside of the two artillery pieces, the other ten units are "go get it done"-type units. This isn't a list with a lot of specialist snipers, machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank guns. This is an infantry list, so I need to get up in the face of a defender fast, before he has a chance to pin me down and whittle away at my numerical advantage.

Dano and I have been toying with the "no vehicles" idea for a while now - since the very beginning of Bolt Action, really - as a powerful option. Imagine, some poor German player, wanting to make sure he can address Allied armor, spends 230 points on a StuGIII. With it, he can fire one MMG and one heavy anti-tank gun (at a relatively reduced HE) at the oncoming infantry. Meanwhile, two heavy artillery pieces are splashing 3D6 +4pen hits that provide D6 pin markers around the board. The StuGIII suddenly becomes a terrible investment. Many people have mentioned that the average Bolt Action list has around thirty infantrymen. This list will have sixty; and the difference between the two types of lists will be that the other side has purchased a vehicle or two.

I feel like the infantry-heavy Soviet infantry list, supported by two heavy artillery pieces, is a real threat on the table, in either offense or defense. It certainly isn't invincible, but it inarguably provides a unique threat for opponents to deal with.

Now, come on the forum and tell me how wrong I am. That's the beauty of list discussions - there's always a "yeah, but" involved.

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