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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Bolt Action - Veteran Units and How Plans are the First Casualties

It has been the generally accepted way of thinking that veterans, for all the cost, are the way to go when making your infantry selections during the list making process in Bolt Action, assuming table top effectiveness is your primary concern.

Wait, those Veterans were supposed to be safe inside the halftrack.

However, it is arguable that this is at best unreliable and at worst completely inaccurate; because as we all know, the dice don't always behave the way they're supposed to.

For the sake of this article, points cost will be generally excluded from the discussion. Whether or not a player receives a positive return on the extra few Regular or several Inexperienced troops purchased in lieu of Veterans is an article unto itself. Instead, this will focus purely on the expectations placed upon a player's soldiers.

The thought process behind selecting Veteran infantry is that they are more likely to succeed when rolling an order test; more likely to survive when the targets of small arms fire; more likely to win in close combat; and in general the most reliable option. All of those points are completely accurate. Veteran soldiers are the most likely to succeed in the various tasks table top commanders expect their units to execute over the course of a game. This is a terrible beginning to an argument, wouldn't you say?

Go ahead, roll your five, PIAT.

There is, however, a problem with the argument. The underlying assumption is that we are talking about generalities. Over the course of, for example, six turns' worth of play, it can be reasonably expected that Veteran troops will outperform their counterparts in every situation. Yet while Bolt Action is a game of many turns, the results of any single action can create waves which reverberate through the rest of the game in manners impossible for the player to predict. Therefore, individual orders, events, and actions should absolutely be considered individually as well as in the aggregate.

Take, for example, a player commanding a squad of veteran Gurkhas. This player, considering the comparative superiority of the Gurkhas to a similarly-pointed Regular Commonwealth squad, opts to purchase them. Once purchased, this sense of superiority - and that sense is not misguided - leaves players with the idea that the Gurkhas will never fail to achieve anticipated results when it comes to rolling the dice. Herein lies the problem with Veteran troops: They give their commander a false sense of security which leads to lethal gaps during the creation of a battle plan.

Wait, how many vets died to that round of shooting?

Continuing with the Gurkhas example, at the beginning of the game a player might plan to move the soldiers across the board, utilizing cover, as rapidly as possible before engaging the enemy in close combat. Being Veteran, the player decides not to allocate any support of alternate plan to engage that enemy, given the flawed thinking that as Veterans, only x amount will fall to small arms along the way. As an aside, if the player only purchased Veterans believing them to be in every way superior, he or she might not even have spare units to support the Veterans with.

The plan probably moves along smoothly before contact with the enemy units, much in the same way it would have with Regular or even Inexperienced troops; remembering of course that the drawbacks of lower quality soldiers are only apparent when engaged. Once in range of the opponent's units, a round of shooting from the opposing squad might be fairly anticipated to only hit four or five times and therefore inflict one or two casualties, since the troops are Veteran. Everything falls apart, though, when the dice results fall outside of the expected range.

So many decisions to make. So many plans yet to crumble.

Yes, decisions can - and indeed should - be made based on the likely results of die rolls. Unfortunately for the Veteran infantry player, the handfuls of dice you roll don't care about the most likely results you might expect over time. Every group of dice rolled is its own individual. While you might expect the dice to roll a certain way over time, the one set currently rolling can come up with any combination of results. So the player that pushes his or her veteran Gurkhas forward, thinking that they will be safe since 5+ is needed on six dice to hit them, is potentially in for a surprise. Often enough, the outlier results occur - that bell curve, after all, represents all results - and the opponent ends up rolling six 5+ results on six dice. After that, the opponent may well roll six more 5+ results, killing the majority of the Gurkhas squad; which, by the way, would be combat ineffective on the table, had it not just failed to roll a nine or less on two six-sided dice, again rolling outside the player's anticipated results.

Wise players, of course, will speak up at this point in order to let me know that these wild swings of Poseidon's dice favor also occur when dealing with Inexperienced and Regular troops. Those wise players, however, have identified the exact reason why playing with Veterans can be such a dangerous proposition. The table top Captain pushing Inexperienced soldiers across the same gap traversed earlier by the Gurkhas already anticipated losing half the squad to small arms! That means he or she accounted for the anticipated losses in planning by either allocating more support to the area of attack, or supposing that the Inexperienced troops remaining would be enough to get the job done.

Sometimes, you've just got to advance to within three inches to fire off six pistol shots.

Our poor Gurkhas commander is left with an exposed flank, or the attack has faltered and nothing remains to support it. Players can fortunately learn from that commander, though. Always plan with the expected dice results in mind, but never consider the possible extreme results as impossible. You've probably often heard me say, "roll your six," and I'm not trying to talk you out of playing with dash and dare, but I am suggesting that you should anticipate craziness. "Bolt Action Happens" is just another saying you'll often hear. Sometimes, you're forced into a position where the only way out is to indeed hope that the results of the dice will swing wildly to the left or the right of the bell curve. That said, putting a plan into place in Bolt Action which requires the dice to behave is setting unrealistic expectations, and so begs for disappointing results.

I'm reminded of my first Bolt Action tournament a couple years ago, squaring off against Nemesis Andy for the first time in Maximum Attrition. He brilliantly brought a squad of tough fighting American veterans on from outflank with the last order die of a round, where they promptly advanced to within six inches of a seven-man British rifle squad, killing three. The first order die of the subsequent turn went to him, and the tough fighters assaulted, leaving no opportunity for defensive fire. Andy promptly rolled miserably, only killing one riflemen and the remaining soldiers managed to kill two Americans, ending the assault in British favor. No sane commander should ever plan for results like that - I got lucky and it robbed him of a victory in the game.

Your best bet is to always keep in mind that Bolt Action Happens, and usually when it does, a great game and story to tell afterwards has happened as well. Disagree, or have your own Veteran failure story to share? Let me know on the forum.

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