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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bolt Action - Hosting Large Multi-Player or Convention Games

There is nothing worse than paying hard earned hobby money on a convention, then sitting through four hours of hell because of a poorly planned multi-player game. The same can go for large garage games with multiple friends. The most common problem I see in large group games is players sitting around not engaged with nothing to do. Nothing to do is a quick way to ensure no one has a good time. This can go for any game system, but is particularly true for Bolt Action which relies on a random activation mechanism. When I first read the Bolt Action rules I was hesitant to get into the game because of bad convention experiences I have had with random activation games. There is nothing worse than waiting an hour to move your unit. However during one on one play, random activation does not result in you sitting around doing nothing while other players go; but once you introduce more than two players the risk for boredom can become high. So, what is a GM to do?

Most gaming I do is with a large group of fellow gamers. We gather on Friday nights in the winter to roll dice, drink beer, and push war dollies around a table. If our games were boring, we would have stopped gaming years ago. Group games are very social, and having to coordinate strategy and tactics with other players adds a new level of complexity to gaming. There is nothing more rewarding than pulling off a coordinated plan with your team, and nothing worse than watching a teammate make a blunder that is outside of your control. I have hosted many of these games over the years and found a couple of tricks that help keep my players engaged and the games close. My hope is that you find these tips helpful in running convention or group games.

Get Some Perspective

When I am setting up a scenario I like to put myself in the shoes of the commander of both sides. I will stand on both sides of the board and think about how I would play the game if I was commanding that side. I do this to look for weaknesses in the scenario, to determine troop choices, and terrain placement. You want to look for blaring gaps that unfairly favor a side. If one exists you will want to make tweaks to your game. Ever since I started doing this, more and more of my games come down to the wire as opposed to being lopsided. There is nothing worse than a lopsided group game.

Keep Everyone Engaged

For games that rely on random activations there is nothing worse than sitting on your butt while someone else fights on the other side of the table. Let’s be honest with one another for a moment, most large group games end up with players primarily fighting the player directly across from them, with the occasional skirmish involving the players next to them. If you think of large group game as three games being played at once, instead of one big game, it makes more sense to allow multiple players to activate at the same time to one, keep the game moving, and two, keep people engaged in the fight. Otherwise games have a tendency to drag out for more hours than you want, players get bored, and your friends stay over so long they drink all your beer (love you guys but beer for six ain't cheap).

Warlord recently released a set of rules for large group games, but I found these rules to be overly complicate, cumbersome, and had the potential to draw a game out longer than you really want. We frequently play games of Bolt Action with around six players with thirty-plus units on each side. We can play a game of Bolt Action in about four hours. What we do at the end of each round is first, count up the remaining units and assemble our dice pool. We then put half the dice, rounding up, into the bag and put rest of the dice off to the side in a pool. When we pull a die from the bag, we also pull one from the side pull which allows one side to activate two units. This keeps the game moving and ensures that two of the three players on a side are doing something when it’s their turn to activate. This works well for 4 to 6 player games and can be adjusted as the size of your game grows. To pull this off, you want to make sure that each player on a side has roughly the same number of units to control.  If someone loses their units early one encourage other players to share their units or invite them to help you GM.

Be Flexible 
General Cota leads the way
It’s important to have a backup plan in case things start going terribly wrong early on. Sometimes the dice gods are not with a side, or you missed something, or the ineptness of a commander early on puts a side in an unwinnable situation. If by turn two the game is over and players know it, they stop having fun. So it is important to be flexible and prepared to adapt your game on the fly. If by turn two the attacker’s offensive power is neutered, maybe it’s time to allow them to bring on reserves not originally in the force. In our recent D-Day game, by turn two the Americans were so pinned on the beach there was no hope of winning. So we brought on Gen. Dutch Cota (a +5 officer) to rally the troops. Not only was this fun, but it introduced an element of history to the game. It is important to note that you should avoid doing this at the end of a game unless it was its part of scenario from the beginning.

Be Fair and Balanced 

Scenarios with units that can’t be stopped suck in group games. When planning a scenario make sure there is something on the board that can kill or effect any other unit on the board. A god-unit is not fun to play against. There is nothing worse than playing a game where from the beginning I have nothing to deal with an enemy unit that is preparing to steam roll me. This does not mean you should have identical forces - in fact I find that boring - but you should give players the tools to address a threat. If I allow that unit to die early on, well that’s my fault, but at least at the beginning I had a chance.

I also hear a lot of people talk about how real war isn't fair so neither should our games be.  There is some truth to this, but let's be honest: Getting your ass beat by the end of turn three isn't fun.  You can come up with interesting alternate objectives to make what may seen to be an unbalanced game, in fact, balanced.   Maybe you give a force a Tiger which can’t be harmed, but the Tiger has to do something to earn victory points for its side. Or a side gets points for each turn they hold the bridge.  This will reign in a larger, more powerful force, and give a smaller, weaker force a way to win.

Size Matters
A 15mm Bolt Action Tank Game played on a 5 by 8 table (almost 80 units)
Always make sure you have enough room to play the game. Don’t, don’t, don’t cram too many units on a table that is too small. As your game scales up, so should your table size, an your miniature may need to scale down. If you fail to do this it becomes incredibly difficult for troops of maneuver and games degenerate into two lines slamming into each other. Giving players room to maneuver their troops will encourage interesting tactical and combat situations. This makes for a much more interesting game than two lines crashing against each other.

Details Count
Chickens, cars, and manure
One way to add to any game is by adding detail.  Whether you use explosion markers, craters for artillery strikes, farm animals, or other extra terrain bits, this will make your game feel real.  The first convention I ever went to as a young gamer was Enfilade, in Washington State.  At that convention I played in a game of Sword and the Flame where the GM had taken the time to add all the details.  Crocodiles in the river, rolled up rugs in the market, pots of goods, civilians, livestock, you name it he had it.  I always am looking for these kinds of extra bits to throw on the table and make the game come alive for the players.  Adding details brings a new dimension to gaming which most people will appreciate.

Story and Tradition 
I swear it was six inches
Whenever I host a game I like to bring in some sort of narrative for players to latch on to. This adds another element of fun and can be a way to introduce history to game night. It can also be a way to have a semi-campaign feel. Whether that’s playing a series of Stalingrad or D-Day games (introducing deferent scenarios based on aspects of the historic campaigns) or having interesting mission objectives, like having your Soviets trying to capture a Finnish field kitchen full of sausage. This is far better than saying the forces just showed up to fight to the death - BORING!  Another thing you can do is have random events.   This can bring an element of fun to a game, but be careful as random events run the risk of bogging down a game and making them no fun.

Next is gaming traditions. Our group has developed many strong traditions which we encourage and work into our games. Here are a few:

Cheese Hat – When someone bends a rule or tries to “cheat” we make them wear a Wisconsin Cheese Hat. We then take their picture and put it on our Wall of Cheese.

Col. Shiply – We have a piece of terrain that is a Southern Belle opening the door to an outhouse on a Union Colonel. The colonel is named after one of the members of our group. In all our Civil War games, this piece of terrain makes its way onto the board. No matter what, we always get a laugh out of it. This can easily be adapted for a Bolt Action group.

“I had higher support expectations.” This is a saying our group uses whenever a player on your side fails to complete his mission, or when your troops fail your particular mission. It is in reference to not having enough support or troops to get your job done, and it also generates a laugh. Maybe I charge the MMG nest and against all odds the MMG wins the assault. When my teammates start ragging on me for failing to take out the nest I would say, “Well, I had higher support expectations.” This comically shifts the blame off of me (who failed) and places it on my teammates in a comical way. (Also works when recording podcasts. - J)

Be Prepared

The last tip I will give you seems like an obvious one, but all too often I see people fail at being prepared.  Make sure you have charts for people to follow, the units and their abilities are clearly defined for the players, and everything needed to play the game is ready when players show up.  Also make sure you know the rules, read them, read them again, and for good measure read them one more time.  I like to include things like unit cards or organization charts to help players track their force.  I also make sure all game aids and tools are out and ready to go.  Nothing worse than showing up for a game and not knowing your unit can shoot smoke until after the game is over.

Adding these types of elements to your game ensure players are engaged and have fun throughout the game even when things are going rough.  This is by no means the only way to keep people engaged in larger group or convention games. These are just the tricks I have learned to use over the last few years to keep games interesting and engaging. If you have any ticks you use to keep people engaged feel free to share with the rest of us on the forum.

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