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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bolt Action - Establishing General Plans of Action

Everyone playing Bolt Action has a couple things in common, whether they want to admit it or not. A table top war game is, at its core, a competition, maybe even a zero-sum game. There are finite objectives - even in Maximum Attrition - which means that whether your approach precludes you from using the term "compete" or not, you're involved in a situation where there are only so many ways to cut the cake, and if you end up with less, you've lost. Sometimes the pieces of cake are objectives, sometimes they're real estate on the table, and sometimes they're your own forces - regardless, everyone playing is competing for the lion's share in every game, even if they classify it as "just for fun"; as if there was another way to play.

The other commonality all players share is that they must independently devise a list of units to bring to the table in order to accomplish whatever goals each scenario sets. You simply can't play a game of Bolt Action without a pile of models representing your force. One might logically conclude, then, that players select their units with a focus on how exactly those units will accomplish their objectives, but I'm here to tell you that this is not necessarily the case.

You might be thinking, "this doesn't apply to me! I know exactly what tasks the units in my list will execute. Infantry will advance. Tanks will fire. Mortars will attempt to roll sixes. Easy!" Yet hopefully the lack of foresight present in a statement like that is evident when you see it in print. To effectively control your forces, you can't just take a tank and think it will go destroy things. A generic plan of action should be in place for the relatively few circumstances you will find your forces in during a book scenario game of Bolt Action, regardless of the list construction.

For simplicity's sake, I classify the missions required of my forces into a few groups:

1. Move out and get something.

That something might be three objectives, or only one objective, or even something less specific like "the other half of the table"; but whatever it is, you will often be moving your forces to go get something. You should have an idea of how this will happen, and it should be more thought-out than simply moving your force towards the goal. How will my force go take something forcibly from the opponent's forces?

2. Stop the other units from getting something.

In most scenarios, if you're not actively trying to go-get, the opponent is trying to get yours. This means you should know beforehand, roughly, how you will prevent them from coming and getting. Again, more specifics are desired than simply plopping units near objectives and opening fire on approaching enemies. In Demolition, of course, you're even called upon to take an objective while defending your own.

3. Minimizing your own attrition while maximizing the opponent's.

It truly is an outlier, as the other scenarios can all be sorted into groups 1 and 2, but Maximum Attrition gives the list-making questions their third dimension. You might be able to write what you think is an amazing list at accomplishing mission 1, but if executing the mission successfully requires sacrificing several units, the list might fail to accomplish mission 3. It takes foresight and planning to prepare yourself to meet the demands of a scenario, even if you simplify the demands into these three categories.

Often, players are able to practice their way through these three categories and thereby skip utilizing a thoughtful design approach to their list making. This is, of course, fine - preferable, even - if the practice time and opponents are available. Many of us, however, are not able to get games in at the rate we'd like to. With some general Bolt Action experience under your belt, and a thoughtful design approach, you can skip the practice with a specific list and get right to playing it more than competently.

Thanks in part to posters on the forum, I plan on taking the following list to participate in multiple events at Cold Wars this March. For brevity's sake I've eliminated much of the gritty details of the list, since for our purposes the exact amount of SMGs in a unit, for example, is not important.

Armored Element: Three regular Panzer IIs.

Mobile Infantry Element: Two Hanomags with three veteran assault infantry squads, an "assault medic" unit, and an anti-tank rifle.

As part of the design process, the three tasks mentioned above have been considered. Bear in mind, and this is of utmost importance, that this does not mean the list has been "optimized" in any sense of the word. Panzer II tanks are not the "best" way to spend 105-points in Bolt Action. Purchasing "fanatics" for several infantry squads is not the most "optimal" use of points. None of that mattered, because I designed a list thoughtfully, mindful of the three steps, yet consisting of units I wanted to take for no other reason than personal taste and preference. I'm a fan of Panzer II tanks, big halftracks, and vehicles painted in panzer grey!

The list can most easily accomplish the first category's mission. It's a tank list, for starters, so theoretically going someplace on the table will not be as complicated an endeavor as, say, successfully navigating ten rifle squads across the table. The entire list takes up a very small footprint if the mobile infantry element is mounted aboard the halftracks, and is of course relatively mobile. This means lines of fire won't be hard to come by, and it also means the vehicles can provide heavy cover to each other if I position them correctly. Sure, SdKfz are not know to be particularly robust, but at any range, a +2 to-hit penalty is severe. The armored element will focus their fire on priority targets, because frankly their weapon systems cannot be depended upon to destroy anything in Bolt Action, with their primary goal being assuring the mobile infantry element survives to disembark and do some real damage up-close. If multiple objectives exist, the strongest point should be addressed by both elements combined, and attempts at secondary objectives must be made by individual units peeling off or outflanking. This situation will not be ideal, because individually the Panzer IIs in particular lack any sort of punch.

As for stopping the opponent from taking an objective from me, I think the list will perform surprisingly well in this regard. Tanks are deceptively good at defending objectives. Many offer a variety of weapon systems and enjoy nothing more than sitting like the iron bunkers they were once intended to be and firing at approaching enemy. This particular armored element does not boast impressive firepower, but the important tank hull still exists for each one. These hulls can be positioned in ways to severely limit the opponent's ability to access objectives. Additionally, they can tempt the opponent into slowing an advance in order to take fire orders over advance orders. The mobile infantry can - surprise - remain as a mobile, quick reaction force ready to respond to a push on an objective. Flanking on defense might be desirable given certain situations, such as a preponderance of armored targets, so that my own armored element can more readily access the relatively vulnerable side armor of opposing tanks. Attacking infantry will have to weather the static fire of defending halftracks and tanks before being assaulted by the veteran infantry squads. While it may not be the ideal defensive force, the vehicles' ability to block and the reactionary speed of the force is encouraging to me.

Maximum Attrition, a perennial thorn in my side, might not be so terrible this time around! This particular list does not contain particularly fragile units. The two smallish teams - three-man veteran medic and two-man veteran ATR - are at least veteran. Worst case scenario, they can either cower inside the halftracks for safety, or hide themselves within the terrain outside of dangerous lines of sight. The armored element can sit back and fire light auto cannons from the safety of my table edge.

Did I fool you? I'm going to get after my opponent with this list! It's my over-aggressive weakness!

Much like this list's response to the first category of missions, the answer to the third category will be to condense all forces into a small unit that focuses all its fire on single targets until those targets are eliminated. Getting close as quickly as possible will be a goal, so that infantry can disembark and assault vulnerable soft targets, but also so that the tanks can hopefully get side or rear shots on defending armor. Yes, I called it "defending", even in Maximum Attrition. My goal will be to take advantage of players' propensity to "turtle-up" and sit back in Maximum Attrition. Hopefully, focusing on one side of the line players often end up deploying, the left or right can be neutralized before swinging everything in the opposite direction. It might take a few losses in getting to the hinge point, but often in my Bolt Action experience, taking down one or two key units can mean a defensive plan crumble under an aggressive push.

Will I be able to accomplish the missions given the plans I've laid out for my forces? Only time will tell. These are, due to the nature of the game, only bare bones plans. Too many variable exist which drastically change each and every game. However, if you can come to the table with more than just a vague idea of how you'll address the few objectives presented to you, I guarantee an increased rate of success is in your future.

One significant factor that I've left out of this article is the half-on, half-off requirement of many scenarios. Often you're required to commit forces to reserves. Make sure your consider how your list will play with half of it off the table. What half will you exclude? We've mentioned it on the shows before, but maybe this calls for a future article! In the meantime, tell us all about your pre-game considerations on the forum!

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