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Monday, January 28, 2013

Bolt Action - Current Infantry Balance

Bolt Action has only been around for six months or so, but the pace at which it has evolved in that short time has been a completely new experience for me. Everything moves, I suppose, at the speed technology allows it to, so comparing the Bolt Action evolution with those of past game systems may not be fair. However, it bears noting that in the six months since the game's release we've seen an official FAQ/Errata document, and two full rules supplements from Osprey Publishing in the form of Armies of Germany, and most recently, Armies of the United States. On top of that, we've seen preview lists for upcoming books in the Armies of France PDF and the Armies of Imperial Japan PDF. My head still reeling from all these new lists and rules, we've now received word that the latest full supplement, Armies of Great Britain, is available for pre-order and due out in a couple months.

I'm impressed at the pace of it all! (My greedy little gamer hands are loving it!)


As a game I'm involved in evolves, usually through new rules or supplements, I think it's valuable to reasses the game as a whole. Bolt Action was different, if only slightly, before Armies of Germany came out. Since, it's changed multiple times, at the release of every new rule, leaving us with what might end up being a different game than the one we started with.

This is almost always perceived both positively and negatively by players. Player A liked a certain unit before its rules were changed, and now likes the rules less. Player B disliked that same unit before the rules were changed, and now likes the rules more. I think that each "Armies of" book has improved the game, and look forward to seeing what subsequent "Armies of" books will do to Bolt Action.

Taking the game as a whole, and identifying every individual part that's been changed, even at this early stage, would involve something much grander than the scope these articles undertake. That being true, I've decided to focus on only infantry in this small article. Many of these points won't be changes to pre-existing rules at all, but significant facts about Bolt Action that players must be cognizant of moving forward. That is, of course, until the next big change comes out that changes everything!

Bearing all this in mind, remember that this is an infantry article. Wacky, outlier vehicles, like my old favorite the Churchill Crocodile, have a big effect on game balance as well; and that factors into overall balance in Bolt Action. This is an infantry article, though, so remember that going forward.

Dreaded American small arms!

Comprehending the power of a rifle-equipped American soldier in Bolt Action took a few games for me, and the scary part is, I'm pretty sure the realization hasn't fully set in yet. In every spatial-manipulation combat game I've played, a standard by which all other units are measured has been more or less perceived by the games' players. Be it a pawn in chess, a Space Marine in 40K, or even a piece in checkers, there's some sort of bar set for your expectations. Yes, even boring old checkers had different "units", and while the difference between an American rifleman and any other nation's might not be as profound as the difference between a piece and a king in checkers, it's still a big deal!

At first glance, it might not seem a big deal to a new player. American riflemen don't suffer the same penalty other riflemen suffer when firing on the move - a fairly innocuous sentence, right? Or at least, that was my opinion: "I've played a lot of WWII games in many genres and those Garands are just their thing. It all evens out in the long run, because of..." Except, in Bolt Action, I'm not sure that there's yet a word that fits at the end of that sentence. What really does even out the American rifleman advantage?

Before you can critically think about it at all, you've got to start out with one declaration of fact:

An American rifleman costs the same as any other nation's rifleman, but is better than any other nation's rifleman.

Once that's out of the way, state another truth:

Riflemen, most likely, make up the majority of one's force in Bolt Action.

If you're at all like me, even this might fail to sway you in your perception of American infantry. I've got to see things in action, on the tabletop, before I can really wrap my brain around them. That's when things get worse, or better if you're playing Americans!

Die roll after die roll, situation after situation, you sit back and watch the Americans shoot, move, and communicate better than the other nations' forces. A German player advances his squad of five rifles against an enemy, and rolls five dice needed anything from a 4 to a 6+6. An American player advances his squad of five rifles against an enemy, and in every situation, is roughly 17% more likely to score a hit. In a situation where the target unit is hit at a -3 penalty (behind hard cover and down, or behind hard cover while the shooter has one pin marker) something fairly common in Bolt Action, Americans need only roll a 6 to hit, while every other rifleman in the game needs to roll a 6, followed by another 6, to hit, because they suffer a penalty for firing on the move.

I'm not claiming that there's a balance issue with Americans. I don't have the game experience with and against them to make that kind of claim. I'm only saying that the American Rifleman is better than anyone else's rifleman, for the same cost.

I will admit, however, that it's hard to say "I'm not claiming there's a balance issue with Americans," and "...the American Rifleman is better than anyone else's rifleman, for the same cost," with a straight face.

Let's not be hasty, though. Who knows how the other units available to each nation in their "Armies of" books balances this rifleman factor out?
Hey! I can finally use images from the Pacific! Thanks, Bolt Action!
Powerful American riflemen were overshadowed for a long time by another American force of nature - the Forward Air Observer! To be fair, high-powered HE was not a trait reserved for the Americans. No, any nation in the game could take a heavy artillery piece that could probably provide similar results. Americans, though, could do it twice for 75 points; and Bolt Action is not a game that offers a lot of line-of-site blockers, unless a table is very heavily terrained.

Early battle reports from Dano and I will show to the uninitiated that American airpower was mighty mighty before the release of the FAQ/Errata! Our early games were characterized by a brutal, painful, waiting period before the airpower arrived. These periods could generally be characterized by statements like, "Things are going pretty poorly for you, but you haven't called your air in yet." Or the ever popular, "I would have already won if not for your air!" Once it did finally come in, air strikes went a little something like this:

(At the end of a turn.)

Dano: I issue a fire order to my Forward Air Observer. It calls-in air on your StuG.

(I sigh, and my shoulders slump.)

Me: OK...

(I weep a single tear at the start of the next turn. Dano callously throws a tissue at me.)

Dano: Let's see if the air comes in...

(A fateful die roll. 50/50 chance!)

Dano: Yup! Here it comes. Let's see what it rolls... OK I hit nine times at +4 pen. Time for the results!

Six or so pins, plus usually an immobilized result, and maybe a fire as well, generally occurred, if the tank didn't explode immediately. It was awful. It wasn't a matter of *if* air would kill my vehicles outright, but *when*. To make matters worse, the Americans could do this twice during a game for the price of one observer!

Thankfully, for game balance's sake, HE no longer works this way. For a detailed breakdown on how HE now works, please refer to the FAQ/Errata Warlord Games recently published. Now, armoured vehicles only suffer the results of one hit from these terrifying HE weapons, however every other unit is still a victim to the HE threat.

Regardless, this was a welcome change. The game is better for it.

Unfortunately, I bought a Soviet list with two 152mm guns before they made this change. I want my money back!
+5 points. Yes, please.
Much has been said complaining about LMGs in Bolt Action since release date. I only need to point you a far as our forum where one in ten threads in the general forum turns into a discussion on the merits of including LMGs in your lists. As many people are against them as are for them. Most of those against site the German assault rifle as proof of why you shouldn't include LMGs in your list - more on that in a moment.

For +5 points, your German (and only German) rifleman can be turned into an assault rifleman. For those 5 points, he gains an extra shot when firing, an extra swing in close combat, and ignores the movement penalty for firing. Being the only infantry in the game that can enjoy the benefits of an assault rifle, some could say that the German player has an advantage. In fact, it could be argued, that the assault rifle advantage is greater than the American rifle advantage. (Of course, only American players would argue this.) Regardless, it's a powerful ability.

In fact, I view playing as Germans as merely the admission ticket to purchasing assault rifles; at least from an infantry point of view. With American rifleman, my points buy a superior soldier. With German rifleman, my points buy me access to assault rifles. I do not think that assault rifles are the end-all be-all of Bolt Action. There is a significant point investment involved in upgrading riflemen to assault riflemen, unlike the American rifleman that receives his bonus at no additional cost. However, once upgraded, the assault rifleman becomes the best soldier in the game.

Back to the LMGs - the idea of assault rifle superiority becomes most apparent when comparing the cost of an LMG upgrade to an assault rifle upgrade. One LMG upgrade costs a player 20 points, and with those points, the player gains one extra die in shooting. In addition, three of his shooting dice are now capable of hitting targets at 30" instead of merely 24". On the other hand, a player could buy four assault rifles for those same 20 points. With them, he gains four shots, four swings in close combat, and a loss of movement penalty for the assault rifles when they are firing. Certainly, an extra six inches of range from an LMG is handy, occasionally, but the benefits of the assault rifle far outweigh those of the LMG, in my opinion.
The benefit of playing Soviets? More Soviets!
So I've suggested that there are certain advantages to American and German players without getting past their infantry. American GIs are better than every other rifleman at no additional cost, and Germans have access to the most powerful infantry weapon in the game. Where does that leave the British and the Soviets?

The Soviets have the most character-defining special ability in the game, without it effecting game balance much. Every Soviet player you play against, regardless of his list, will cause you to feel outnumbered. As everyone knows, the Soviet player gets a free inexperienced squad in his army list. This is a fine advantage, to be sure, as extra bodies on the battlefield are always beneficial; and in Bolt Action, order dice are the queens of the tabletop. However, inexperienced infantry evaporates before enemy fire. It cannot be used in the same way as other classes of infantry in the game, and it even lacks in the shooting department compared to other infantry. Regardless of its effect on the game - which I feel is minimal compared to other nation's abilities - the free squad makes a list feel more "Russian". Everyone wants to see more Soviet units, and the free squad provides that "more" that everyone expects.

Of all the nations, the Soviet player receives the most symbiotic benefit from his two national abilities. A Soviet player is encouraged to play with the "quality of quantity" mantra in mind. Those inexperienced units are less likely to flee the table, given the other Soviet national ability that allows for rerolls to morale tests to flee. So yes, while more inexperienced Soviets will fall before opponents' fire, they will stay on the field longer than anyone else's troops, when it comes to morale tests.

All that said, I've yet to see Soviets on the table. I have an idea as to how I would play them, given their abilities; and I don't think they would play at a heavy disadvantage against Germans, given those same abilites, but I must confess that I've yet to see them on the table. Maybe I'll bring them to Cold Wars and find out!

To all my opponents: Bring extra dice if I play Soviets. Your dice are going to run out of ammo before all those inexperienced Communists fall.

"The good rules for us have to be in here somewhere. Pull up your socks and have another look with me."
Now we're left with the British!

(Queue crickets.)

I'm a British player, and I'm not quite sure what to say when it comes to British infantry. They have no special weapons, unlike the Americans and Germans; and they have no unique rules that make them feel special, like the pro-horde rules of the Soviets.

So far, my British lists have felt "unique" because they have a free Forward Artillery Observer and are able to purchase a Crocodile - which leads me to a point I promised myself I wasn't going to make. The British don't even have interesting vehicle choices!

The Americans maintain their runnin' n' gunnin' abilities with gyro-stabilizers, all the German MBTs have bigger anti-tank guns than comparable tanks from other nations, and the Soviets get the Josef Stalin tanks that have huge anti-tank and HE capabilities. Meanwhile, the British get the Crocodile - hardly a nation-defining vehicle.

So, all you readers, tell me what I'm missing in the Commonwealth troops. I'm going to bring them to Cold Wars, yet I don't feel like I have a single thing to hang my hat on outside an artillery observer. Maybe that's all I should get? Maybe I need to wait until the British book comes out in March, when all the secrets will be revealed to me? Let me know! On the forum! Sound off! Help me out!

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