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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Bolt Action - The 'Lowly' Panzerfaust

Inspiration to make a list in Bolt Action most often comes, for me, from history. A movie, a book, an anecdote shared on a forum, or just a conversation with a friend can lead me down a history rabbit hole of listing ecstasy. Sometimes, though, the game's mechanics can tip you in the direction of a list idea.

Many of us have been concentrating on the Germans since the beginning, feeling a bit underwhelmed by what they offer but refusing to give up on them. One of the often mentioned but seldom capitalized upon things that distinguish the German forces is access to panzerfausts; and they represent a game mechanic that recently drew my attention strongly enough to attempt a list built around them.

Yes, you can use panzerfausts!
I'm still not positive about much in my upcoming list, but one thing I know for sure is that panzerfausts will make an appearance. They've been ignored, or only taken in token amounts, for too long amongst the people I game with most often. For those that don't know, the weapon works a bit like this in Bolt Action.

You spend five points and get a one-shot upgrade to a soldier in one of your units. The upgrade lets the soldier carry firepower equal to that of a heavy anti-tank gun with significantly downgraded range - the weapon only reaches out to twelve inches in this game. Additionally, it suffers a one pip penalty when you fire it, automatically, simply for being a shaped charge weapon. My opinion is that the penalty scares people away after they try them out once. Players ask themselves why they'd spend the five on a 'faust when they could purchase an assault rifle for the same points.

I've heard of bazooka jeeps in this game but I don't think the world is ready for 'faustcycles yet.

Initially, some people think a minus one penalty isn't that bad, but let me tell you that it is. Ask any Soviet player and that person will tell you! Those inexperienced rifle squads can't hit anything, relative to regular and veteran troops, because of their minus one penalty; and that's with twelve riflemen. When you simply throw one panzerfaust into a unit, you're really asking for some bad odds.

We've already accounted for shaped charge and its penalty, so where is the rest? Generally speaking, if you put one panzerfaust in each of your infantry squads, you will deploy them on the table and tanks will attempt to stay outside of their maximum range of twelve inches. Players feel fortunate if they get their one panzerfaust into range to fire, but it's normally more than half the range of the weapon and therefore suffers a long range penalty, bringing our total to-hit up from a 4+, to a 5+.

"Gah! He's so far away, I'll almost certainly need a 5+ to hit him!"
Your opponent is no fool. Realizing that you're going to be rolling a 5+ if you didn't move, the wily player will stay at thirteen inches. This, of course, now means that your single panzerfaust-equipped unit will have to move in order to have any chance at all to hit the target with your beloved panzerfaust. Every BARbarian worth his cup knows that an advance order adds an additional penalty to the to-hit roll, so if the target stays outside of twelve inches, you're going to need a 6 on a D6 in order to hit. Things are looking grim!

All that in between the lowly panzerfaust and the juicy side armor of an enemy tank, and there is still the very real possibility that the unit firing at it will have one or more pins on it. The pins, movement, range, and shape-charged-ness brings our grand to-hit total to be the dreaded sixes on sixes. It now appears nearly impossible to ever kill a tank with these historically feared but in-game disappointing weapons. That's a less-than three percent chance of hitting the target, and we haven't even rolled an admittedly much more likely armor penetration roll yet.

"Should ... have ... worn ... my ... glasses ... today ..."

It's likely that at this point you're wondering why I would want to give these awful panzerfausts a shot. If you'll recall, however, I was trying to explain most players' initial reaction to the weapon system. While I absolutely agree that used as mentioned above they are a terrible, terrible bet, we as players have numerous options with which to mitigate some of that failure risk.

The simplest, most direct way to solve this problem may blow some of your minds, but I'm willing to chance it:

Give your squad more than one panzerfaust!

Still with me? This sounds ridiculously simple, but often I see squads in lists with one panzerfaust. The odds of hitting in the situation I described above are awful with only one! Pretending for one moment that your unit hasn't yet received a pin marker, it needs a six to hit. The chance of that is pretty terrible at less-than seventeen percent, but by adding two more 'fausts the to-hit chance increases to over forty-two percent.

The best part is, it's not like you're investing heavily in increasing your odds so dramatically. These things are only five points each. Do you want to hit the tank or not, junior? Pay fifteen instead of five and give yourself a chance!

They're going to need more panzerfausts.

Of course, I'm not particularly satisfied with a slightly less-than forty-three percent chance to knock out a tank. We're going to need to shake up the equation a bit more. Another penalty we have some control over is the long range drawback. Believe it or not, players can have a lot of control over that dimension of the game.

I would never suggest piling lots of points into panzerfausts you planned on deploying into an easily avoidable position on the table. Really, I wouldn't even suggest deploying them into a defended objective where you knew your opponent wanted to be. Any place that's easily avoidable or limits movement is probably not the best place to keep them. Certainly, it is convenient for you to plop the squad onto the objective and forget about them for the rest of the game, but your opponent won't forget about them. He'll focus on destroying them, as a matter of fact, since he needed to get the unit off the objective panzerfausts or not.

Alcohol and lethal weapons - probably not the best combination, but welcome to The BAR anyways!

Instead, I'd rather put your most heavily laden-with-'fausts unit(s) in Reserve or Outflank. While limiting in the sense that you cannot get them across the table quickly, the freedom of movement that Reserve offers an infantry squad is incredible. There is no other time in the game an infantry squad can, in essence, move seventy-two inches. A unit entering the board from Reserve can enter anywhere on the long table edge, and that's a lot of movement. If your opponent's vehicle is coming towards your table edge - for an objective, perhaps - try putting the anti-tank squad in Reserve and Advancing onto the board as it approaches the objective.

Outflank is the way to aggressively move your panzerfaust toting unit in a way which cannot be easily avoided. Both of these methods are vastly improved if a cheap transport of some kind is also employed. A panzerfaust's maximum range is thirty inches if the unit begins its turn inside a wheeled transport vehicle. Avoid that, tanker! If you can launch them from Outflank, chances are pretty darn good that you're going to be shooting at the side or rear of the target, as well. Double bonus!

The best part of this mobility is that you've got a decent chance of dropping off the unit within six inches of the target. Ending an advance within six inches gives us a confusing series of bonuses and penalties: We lose the long range penalty and actually gain a short range bonus, while keeping the shaped charge and moving penalties. This leaves us needing a four or better on three dice, if three of the weapon were purchased. Now we're talking odds I can make a plan with.

Too many panzerfausts in your Mercedes, though, and you'll end up mired somewhere west of Moscow.
Ultimately, however, the panzerfaust won't suddenly appear in everyone's list. Its effect won't be that dramatic. I like to look at it, though, as a low cost investment that provides me an answer to the "what if they've got a tank" question. A player can sprinkle twelve of these disposable anti-tank weapons into a list for a mere sixty points, which is quite a savings compared to a two hundred or more point tank. In purchasing panzerfausts over a tank, you also avoid the biggest pitfall many tanks suffer: What if the opponent doesn't have a tank?

So many tanks in the game with decent anti-tank weaponry have extremely limited anti-infantry capability. One German infantry squad with a couple weapon upgrades has vastly more anti-infantry capability than a StuG III. Infantry is simply more flexible than any tank in the game. If you can turn your infantry into a reasonably effective tank killing force, why buy the tank?

Before I close it out, let's look at that final anti-tank gun versus panzerfaust comparison. Admittedly, the extended range of a true anti-tank gun is a great advantage, but how often are players actually hitting with their single anti-tank gun? Any one of us would prefer multiple shots - therefore multiple die rolls - to the single shot inefficacy of anti-tank guns in Bolt Action. There's a reason "go ahead and roll your six" has become a bit of a saying. If the opponent has three chances to roll the six, the statement stops sounding confidently incredulous and becomes more downcast and accepting of the inevitable.

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