I have been playing wargames for almost forty years – with a large gap waiting for my boys to get old enough to play – and most of this has been WWII historical gaming. Over that time I have tried many different rules, and even published my own rules back in the early 1990’s which seemed to work alright.
The biggest challenge of any wargaming rules is the balancing act between historical accuracy and gameplay; and there must be sacrifices for gameplay. For example, consider ground scale. When using 28mm figures, the ground scale should be around 1km = 14 metres. This would prove to be very difficult to recreate on a table top. Add in time scales, movement speeds, and before we even come to weapons, armour and battle damage and effects, we have made a ton of compromises.
That is a good thing. Some rules lean towards a more infantry-style, or more armour, or larger or smaller scales. This variety is what makes the hobby so interesting.
With that background in mind, why has Bolt Action set the WWII historical wargaming scene alight? It isn’t just because Warlord Games published their own rule set. Other game companies do this all the time. It is a time honoured tradition, and helps sell your figures. We still enjoy the occasional Pirate game using really simple rules published by an Australian miniatures company.
So what makes Bolt Action different?
The order dice game mechanic.
This is radical. Now a “turn” is actually a series of mini turns for when each order die is pulled from the bag. The game can change fundamentally in several directions in the course of one turn, depending not only on who gets the die, but which unit he activates, and how well they do. By default, most wargames have used the “I Go - You Go” method of playing. This means your plans can more or less be followed faithfully by the troops; but in Bolt Action, the tension is high because you need the die before he does, or your unit may not survive!
The generalizing of units.
The armour ratings, morale and guns are all grouped into classes. So even though there are historical differences in armour of a centimeter here or there, from a game play point of view it isn’t that important. This suddenly takes away a lot of the complex maths which don’t add to the game anyway. In the rules I wrote so long ago, we had a very exhaustive list of weapons and tanks with armour ratings for each side, and different speeds and damage and hit ratings depending on distances. Those twenty pages or so of really good statistics are summarized on half a page in Bolt Action, and the game is not impacted negatively.
The streamlining of the game mechanics.
Having a simplified and standardised set of hit chances and modifiers means it takes very little time, since you have memorized the main rules. Normally, it takes some time to teach a new player how the game works. With Bolt Action, we have found brand new players understand the game and make valid game choices half way through turn one!
There is the chance for things to go wrong – really wrong.
FUBAR is not just an effect of a twelve when rolling morale. It can be said to apply when you roll a one for artillery or air strikes, or run out of fuel for your mega powerful flamethrower, or fail to come on the board for a devastating flanking move. Yet, things can also go really right. Even when the odds of hitting are pretty remote, a 6 and a 6 can still be tried. All this combines to make the game a great challenge, but also fun.
There are times when the dice gods conspire and nothing goes your way. That can happen with all rules, but somehow, with so many things happening in a 6 (or 7) turn game, odds are you will offset the terrible rolls with some great rolls, and it all balances out.
Finally, it’s cinematic
A wargame is not a historical re-enactment. Much as we would like to kid ourselves that it is, the majority of historical battles were won and lost based on overwhelming odds and the logistics of getting to the right place with more, or better, stuff than the other guy. A wargame has to be balanced or it isn’t much of a game, meaning simulating the above would take the enjoyment out. Bolt Action balances the historical aspect with easy to learn gameplay leading to lots of valid choices. The main effect is that playing a game of Bolt Action is like being in a movie, or war comic.
And the after-game discussions are filled with what happened as well as lots of alternative happenings too – if only the dice went this way instead!
So why Bolt Action? Because it’s fun.