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Monday, July 28, 2014

Bolt Action - Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em

Today we have a tasty contribution by our old buddy Uncle Mal. If you were are at Cancon last year you would know Mal as one of the guys helping run the show. A prolific BA player, Mal is going to walk us through the joy of… smoke!  

I love smoking. I really do.

And while I am now amongst the ranks of the painfully sanctimonious ex-smoker brigade when it comes to cigarettes, it is a very different story when playing Bolt Action. When playing with my little army men I really find smoke to be one of the best tools to have at your disposal.

What? Why? But you can’t kill anyone with smoke! No you can’t… well not directly.
Many of you have come over from other gaming systems where there is a fantasy or magic component. And when we started with those games we always took the fire mage, or whatever, just because we wanted to inflict direct damage on our opponents with balls of fire or calling down lightning. Boom! Pow! Your guys are dead! But as time went on and you finessed your game, you found value in the other magic types…. Increasing your speed, slowing your enemy, reducing their effectiveness etc. and you began to play the game a bit smarter. Your force became less of a blunt instrument and tactics came to the fore.
With this in mind, let me share with you the joys of “smoke magic”.

Think about your last few games of BA. What were the objectives? Taking and holding something? Defending something? Did you have to leave a squad exposed in the open, only to get mowed down? Smoke can help protect your men and get them home in time for tea and kippers.

So, what can deliver smoke? All howitzers and mortars and even the French VB launcher (pop!). These are all HE weapons and the prevailing school of thought is that HE weapons are very nice to have and we all get carried away with the dream of rolling that hit via direct fire or scoring a six on your first mortar ranging in roll and delivering massive damage to your enemy. And yes, it does happen and it is lots of fun. But the thing is, we tend to get tied up with the idea of the big boom sticks and forget smoke is there.

You can fire smoke and you can make it count.

Just to refresh on the smoke rules… any indirect HE weapon may fire a smoke canister and create an obstacle to line of sight on the field. For light mortars, it is a circular template that is 3” in diameter. For light howitzers and medium mortars it is a 4” diameter template. Medium howitzers and heavy mortars it is 5”.

When firing smoke, you pic the spot you are aiming to place it and roll your indirect fire dice. If you roll your six on the first shot, it goes exactly where you want it. If not, the opposing player can relocate the landing point anywhere he wishes within 6" of the original target position. The next round, you can fire again with a 5 to hit the spot you were going for just like you were ranging in with HE.

OK, here is where our brains have turned onto auto pilot. Indirect fire…. Anything but a six = Fail. And while we are trying to factor in all the complexities, we forget that even if we don’t get that blessed six, the smoke still goes down somewhere. Sure, not exactly where we want it, but it still goes down and it may be just as useful.

So you have put down your template, but what does it do. Well, if a unit looks through more than 2 inches of smoke to see a target, it cannot fire at ti. There is too much smoke in the way. But even if it only looks through a little, less than 2 inches, it still gives the target “soft cover”.  Take a look at these two templates – a 3” and a 4” smoke template.

With the three inch template there is an opaque center that is 2.2 inches wide. However, by the magic of geometry, when the template size increased by one inch to 4 inches, the opaque center becomes 3.5 inches wide. Trust me, you can hide a lot of guys behind that pillar of smoke.

So, how to use it? Well, you can use the medium or heavy mortar to lay down one big smoke template at the beginning of the game to cover either an avenue of advance or to block the line of sight of a big team weapon. Sure, you may not place the smoke exactly, but when you are using a larger smoke template, the deviation on the miss roll doesn’t have that much effect and you can normally maneuver your advancing units to take advantage of the cover. Who knows, you may even get lucky enough to force your opponent into moving a team weapon and losing a turn or two of fire, while you get closer. If you pull that off, then you can get down to dropping HE rounds on everyone.

I’m not sure if everyone plays this way, but when firing smoke in built up areas, if a round of smoke hits a roof of a building (not a ruin), the template does not remain on the rooftop, but rather rolls off to the nearest side, landing in the street, garden, courtyard, whatever. This has made smoke very effective in town battles. But hey, perhaps you might want to use the indirect fire rules for hits on buildings and have internal areas flooded with smoke. Play it how you please (That is a very good question- Old Man Morin).
Just remember that you roll at the beginning of each round to determine what happens to the smoke. If you roll a 1 on a single die, a gust of wind dissipates the smoke. And a 2 causes it to randomly drift. But hey, I never said this was without risks.
But I prefer to use the light mortar instead. Apart from satisfying my desire for historically accurate list construction (light mortars were very common at the platoon level), they really can support an aggressive advance well.

OK, now the range on a light mortar is not so impressive – only 12”-24”. This effectively means that your light mortar team has to move up with your advance in most circumstances. Luckily it does not qualify as a Team weapon, so you can move and shoot.
Advance six inches, drop some smoke. Advance six inches drop some smoke. Advance six inches…

Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

In three turns, which is when your forces are normally getting in harm’s way, if you’ve have played it right and had a spot of luck on your side, you may have built an effective smoke screen, helping your guys capture objectives, hold positions and launch assaults unmolested by enemy fire. I would also like to add that because smoke is not used very often (on the Australian scene anyhow) your opponents are likely to be bewildered by it and not used to dealing with it.
I have recently begun playing with Japanese. As we all know, the strength of the Japanese force is the fact they are fanatical and when Banzai! charging the ignore the requirement for an activation roll. Pins mean nothing. As many people have said, you just have to kill every last one of them before they make contact. Sadly for players of the imperial Japanese army, it is not that difficult a task if you are hunkered down with a nice rice paddy to your front and a sweet arc of fire.

This is the reason the Japanese have knee mortars. When advancing with the human wave, a couple of knee mortars can close down an entire flank letting your crazed infantry get their pointy bits into you. And while you can grab a light mortar for as little as 26 points (inexperienced) it does take up your single mortar slot for the Platoon. But the Japanese can have light mortars integral to their squads, giving you the option to take more…. Or even take a couple AND leave the mortar slot open for something heavier.

So, this can be great for the Japanese player… but it comes at a cost. While the single mortar team is 26 points for inexperienced, adding a mortar to a squad costs 25 points, plus two men need to be dedicated to firing it. If you are running regulars, that makes it a total of 45 points, so you really have to be sure you want to run that rout. I am more inclined to go for two platoons and give their mortar options to the light mortar.
As the light mortar team does get towards the front, you may consider increasing their experience level to up their survivability. I like to run veterans as they are more likely to get in range of enemy fire than the medium mortar at the back of the table . 46 Points is a bit, but worth it for my money.

So, once your light mortar has smoked things up, he is probably in a somewhat forward position and now is time he changed to his auxiliary role – Team Weapon Hunter.
Don’t waste your time setting him and his buddy to firing at a large moving infantry unit. It only does d3 HE and will probably only be hitting on sixes. Find your nearest enemy MMG, mortar or artillery piece and attack. D3 HE is enough to seriously mess with a team weapon’s crew, who probably only number three or four. Start firing indirect HE, preferably from behind some good cover. You may hit first up, but unlikely. D3 HE could take out the entire team, or at lease set you up on 2+ for the next round to finish the job. Or you could miss and continue ranging in next round.

Whatever the case, you have their attention. Your opponent must now divert their assets to managing your threat (And that is the name of the game- Old Man Morin). Either a unit will have to fire on your light mortar, to kill it and as a small unit behind hard cover, that can be difficult…. And if you have veterans, harder still. And if no one is firing on you, the chances are the enemy will move the team weapon…. In which case you just start again at 6 next round…. So they don’t gain much. Or they nerve it out, hoping you don’t get that hit. And when you do, enjoy the killing.

Not bad for something that cost as little as 26 points.

So while we drifted a little, like smoke does, into the offensive role of light mortars. I hope you have found this discussion to be good food for thought and I recommend you give smoking a shot.

Just be careful…. It’s addictive.

If you would like to further discuss the trials and tribulations of smoke us… Head over to our forums for a chat.  We would love to hear from you.

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