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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bolt Action - For Starters, Let's Just Call 'em Walls

There's a piece of terrain famous in all of war gaming, Bolt Action included, that for the sake of simplicity we'll refer to as a "wall"; but it really incorporates any sort of feature situated in a straight(-ish) line that at least partially obscures the models on the opposite side.

Time to launch an assault over a six foot obstacle, boys!

Oh walls! As I believe Catullus (should have) once said, "I hate and love (walls). And why, perhaps you'll ask? I know not - but I feel, and I'm tormented (by walls)."

I've seen all sorts of things serving as this elusive, nearly-all-inclusive term we use: Hedge rows; tree lines; rows of tombstones; park benches; sandbags; felled trees; bocage; and even occasionally actual walls are used as walls! Fortunately Bolt Action does provide one distinction between some walls in the form of soft and hard cover, but otherwise we're left to our own devices with linear obstacles.

I've never seen a universal carrier called a wall, but c'mon - look at those dudes launching out of it! Just pretend it's a low stone wall.
 The love/hate relationship starts in that loose-as-Lachlan distinction. We're calling all sorts of things walls, when walls really can represent a wide variety of things. Should you get cover saves from flimsy wooden fences like the one pictured below? Probably not when we consider modern weaponry, but it's much easier to slap either a hard or soft cover rating on one of these and call it a linear obstacle. We want the game to be complicated enough to reasonable represent reality, but we don't want to refer to a chart to see how much cover a 5'3" rifleman would receive from a wild hedge in the lowlands of Western Hackensack that averages 3'1" in height and 1'10" thickness.

Sure, sure, these guys are turn of the century types rather than WWII, but you get the idea.
This is the problem with walls and wall-type things. They're everywhere in life, made up of all sorts of materials, so we want them on our tables, but we don't want to be bothered with breaking them into more than two categories. Terrain, in general, will always cause these sorts of headaches if we allow it to. It is simply the nature of these games that we have to make generalizations and sacrifices regarding one's interpretation of reality - something that often varies wildly proves every "well actually" ever uttered - in order to play a relatively quick and enjoyable game.

"According to this chart here the sands at Du Hoc have a molecular density of x therefore if we know the barometric pressure we can determine the save modifier. Please pass me that slide rule and my graphing calculator and we'll get this underway."
This has been said time and again, but I won't apologize for repeating it: Talk about the table before you do anything else in a game. Luckily, most interpretation has been taken out of the game courtesy of those generalizations we mentioned earlier, so it'll only be up to you and your opponent to decide if something is hard or soft cover. If you can't, flip a coin and game on - although I've never seen anyone disagree over cover type before. That doesn't eliminate all of the wall controversy, though, does it?

Hard cover or "well actually the water cooled thirty caliber machine gun could fire ammunition types that penetrated up to five inches of brick depending on whether the clay was harvested -" *I couldn't type the rest due to rage-induced brain aneurism.*
Walls make almost everything about close combat in Bolt Action very interesting. For the uninitiated, the rules of Bolt Action start out explaining that close combat works very simply as follows: You issue a unit a run order and assuming it passes the test, the enemy unit can react by firing at the target (without taking an order test and before the charging unit moves) then all surviving attackers move in and swing. Casualties are inflicted based on the rolls of dice compared to the rating of the defenders, and those casualties are removed before the defender gets a chance to swing back. Whichever side inflicted more casualties on the other side wins, and the losers are all removed as destroyed. Simple, right?

This looks like a much safer position than men hiding behind that wooden livestock fence from earlier, but I wouldn't want to be stuck inside that little hole if any assaulters survive the defensive fire.
 It is simple, and we all are used to the "feel" of an assault in the open like this. There's some firing, there's some stabbing and swinging, then someone's gone. This all gets changed slightly if there are walls on either side of the equation. In Bolt Action it essentially favors everyone to maximize the amount of time they spend behind walls over the course of a game. Please note that I am not suggesting players should find one wall and hunker behind it for six turns, but if players can move across the table from one linear obstacle to the next, this is ideal.

Having fortunately never participated in a WWII assault, I'm curious to know if pistol dropping incidents occurred often enough to justify those lanyards, or if they were simply issued so you could dangerously yet jauntily swing a loaded weapon around during down time.
It's ideal for three key reasons. Number one and most obvious is that you'll be considered in cover against any enemy units that fire at you through the wall, yet being up against the wall yourself you'll ignore the same penalty firing back at them. There's nothing earth shattering about this principle if you've played any other war game ever, as they usually revolve at least in part around the struggle for favorable terrain.

The second reason is that you're exposing your unit to danger of elimination after you issue them an order that brings them within twelve inches of an enemy. What I mean by that is, after your unit has run or advanced to a position, it must sit there for the rest of the turn until you can activate it again. If you run your unit to within assault range of an enemy unit, you may have set yourself up for an assault next turn, but you've also potentially set yourself up to receive an assault in the current turn! Since this is the case, it stands to reason that you'd put yourself in the best position to survive an assault, and the best way is to be on the other side of a linear obstacle, because assault casualties are resolved simultaneously if the defender is occupying a position up against a wall.

Finally, a unit that starts its turn from a position up against a wall that then decides to assault receives the cover bonus from the wall if the opposing unit decides to react by firing at the chargers. (More on that later, so put your torches down for a second.) The thing to take away from all of this is that being behind walls is, as I mentioned, ideal in Bolt Action.

Yep. Looks like a great place to either attack from or be attacked.
Walls! They're crazy! What in Alessio Cavatore's name shall we, as mere players, do? For starters, we stop making ladder tables. Look, the fact is, these sorts of staging points are where modern warfighters fire and assault from. Bolt Action does a great job of simulating the extreme hazards involved in exposing a unit. Certainly, much like a real commander, you have the option of advancing into the middle of an open field, blazing away bravely as your unit does so; perhaps, however, the more prudent thing to do would be to run to the cover on the opposite side. Yes, you forgo a precious turn of shooting, but you don't leave your men in the open to either be assaulted or destroyed by incoming fire. These openings or gaps on the table need to be present. If you create a "ladder" of linear terrain that allows my unit to safely hop its way from one wall to the next, all the way across the table, I'll strongly consider it. Walls and buildings are almost equally important, and much like buildings, walls will strongly effect the outcome of the battle. Be wary when putting walls down!

Let's say that the walls are already on the table, shall we? If they are, don't be as Dano refers to it, ambushed by obviousness. You and your opponent talked about the terrain before the game, right? You therefore cannot be ticked off if, as it turns out, the wall played a significant role in your ultimate defeat. Let's be honest with ourselves and admit that sometimes the other guy moves his toys around in a more intelligent manner than we can manage. That's why we play these games! If not for the element of maneuver involved, we could just exclude the terrain and models and chuck six-sided dice until one side rolled more fives and sixes than the other. Pay as much attention to the walls as you do the buildings.

There's also a strong argument out there against things like cavalry launching assaults from behind a wall or, even worse, outside of the range of some close range - dare I say "assault" range - weapons. I can see the rub here. Cavalry is mean and nasty once they get into close combat, but I think part of the matter that bothers people is being once again ambushed by obviousness. Since they'd never played against it before, they didn't like it the first time they realized that submachine guns couldn't defensive fire against cavalry because it can start a charge outside the maximum range of SMGs.

The other bother for people is that they imagine their toy soldiers bravely standing and spraying Thompsons at the oncoming horsemen. Remember earlier when we discussed the fact that the game needs to make abstractions to be as enjoyable and playable as it is? I believe this is one of those. The SMG is an assault weapon in every way in Bolt Action. In order to use it, you must ultimately be within assault range, since its range is the exact same as a charge distance. Can't the abstraction simply be that the weapon wasn't designed to fire in such a manner? Can't the abstraction be that it's difficult to hit the charging riders with such inaccurate weapons and the one or two 9mm or .45 pistol rounds that hit the breastplate isn't enough to drop the war horse? I mean, outside of my own personal issues with the term, the biggest problem with a "well actually" is that they guy across the table can just fire off an "I think you'll find" that counters your "well actually".

Maybe we just need to pay attention to the walls, or the eighteen inch charge ranges of cavalry for that matter, and enjoy the game. If my opponent puts me in a situation where my assaulty submachine gun unit is within eighteen inches of his riders, good on him - unless I kept them up against that wall commanding the center of the table!

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