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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Bolt Action - Taking The Crossroads: A Closer Look At Bolt Action's Second Edition

For months we, as members of the Bolt Action community, have been subjected to rumour, hearsay and the occasional innuendo about how our great game would change in its second edition.  Leaks of earlier test copies and hints dropped by those who had tried trial versions of the game muddied the waters further. For example a few weeks back, the gentlemen over at Beasts of War recorded an introduction to Bolt Action Second Edition video that was based on an earlier playtest version of the game, meaning it contained a few glaring rules errors when compared to BA's final form. Add change induced hysteria being broadcast loudly by certain members of our online community to the mix and things get even more confusing.

As the great Chuck D says "Don't Believe The Hype!" Make the decision yourself. In my last article, I encouraged folks to kick the tires so to speak and try the game themselves. Wanting to take my own advice, I did the same. Although I have played several "learning the system" games, now that I have gotten my sea legs, I wanted to play a game with the express purpose of recording what has changed and what the implication of these changes might be, for us the players.

Wanting to keep things historical, I lined up my late war German army against my greatcoat American forces in a Battle of the Bulge grudge match. I set up the table to resemble a snowed over edge of a bombed out town and intentionally set up terrain that would test the new rules of the game. Likewise, both armies included units and weapons like snipers, soft-skin transports, big AT guns, flamethrowers, assault rifles and machine-guns that had changed in second edition. Furthermore I rolled a new mission up to try out, Key Positions and four objectives were placed around the board. A secondary objective was picked in case of a tie, because 4 objectives were rolled for the mission. This secondary objective was the crossroads where the four roads crisscrossing the board met up.

While I am not going to go through the game play by play, or even turn by turn (that could take years to write up). I did want to run through certain events that took place that involved new rules and how talk about how the game itself has fundamentally changed.

That said, I found something incredibly comforting as the game went on. This new edition, despite its modifications is still, thankfully and fundamentally, Bolt Action. Units still failed pin tests and went down at inopportune times. Assaults are still brutal and short, compared to Konflikt '47 anyway. Players still nervously look to the dice bag  for the next pull when pivotal moments of the game occur. Units stick to cover to play it safe and walls are still great to hide behind. More than any of that though the game has retained its fun, cinematic elements that have always been its strongest attributes and selling points.

But enough of the generalities... Let's get into some of second edition's finer points.

Officers Ordering Multiple Units

One of the biggest rules changes to Bolt Action is who officers operate in the game. When they activate now, they can choose to activate nearby friendly units. The number of units and the range of this ability changes with the leader's rank. I have used this in every game of Second Edition I have played and while it can lead to early combo punches that can be really effective, it often leads to dice pulling disadvantages later in the turn and the striking units getting hit back hard by opposing forces. True, I have not played this using high order dice armies yet but I will soon.

In this game the American 2nd LT moved up in tandem at the end of the game to wipe German units out in the ruined city. By working together the two units were able to hammer the hapless German squad to the point where the last man standing failed his morale check and ran for the hills. This dis result in the Sherman leaving itself open for a panzerfaust shot (now more accurate I should add) later in the turn, but by then the damage was already done and the American LT team was safely behind cover on one of the game's objectives.

I like how this rule again adds more tactical decision making to the game and that using this rule has its pros and its cons.

It should also be mentioned that Shermans, even though they have a medium AT gun, get a bump up in template size from one inch to two inches in this edition. This mirrors the additional HE bonus that they had in first edition.

Assault Rifles, Submachine Guns and Tough Fighter

As discussed in many places Tough Fighter no longer gives combatants two attacks in hand to hand combat, instead it grants the attacker an extra attack for every successful hit that they cause in combat. This significantly reigns in the power of this rule but still gives units with the rule a distinct advantage in assault. Now assault rifles and submachine guns (and pistols) still have two shots each in the shooting phase but rather than getting two attacks in hand to hand combat, they now have the tough fighter rule. This consistency keeps things simple, I like it a lot.

One thing that has come up in every game that I have played in second edition is that if you have a unit that has multiple weapon types in assault, you should roll for assault weapons separately from regular attacks (so you know how many additional attacks you might have). I use different coloured dice to tell the weapons apart.

In the picture below a unit of 6 Germans with three assault rifles charge a unit of four US riflemen behind a ruined wall. Like in first edition, attacking over a wall makes combat occur simultaneously, but unlike first ed, you will notice that the Germans did not loose their additional pins when assaulting. This would make a huge difference later in the game when that one pin would cause the unit to go down on the last die pull of the game and prevent the Germans from contesting one of the American Objectives. Now, you will see the Germans attack dice on the left. The grey metallic dice represented the assault rifle attacks. They hit twice and got to roll two more attacks, one of which caused another wound to the Americans wiping the unit out. I really like how these rules work. Assault is still brutal and short but it feels more dangerous and risky now.

One last important note about assault rifles, their reduction in range by six inches is more significant than it might seem. During this and other Second Edition games that I have played, this has led my assault rifles to be out of range a noticeably significant number of times. More subtly, it reduces the weapon's short range to nine inches. This makes assault rifles less accurate at medium range which also had a noticeable impact in the weapon's performance. While I understand why this change was made, I am not sure I necessarily agreed that it needed to be made given the weapon's price and its reduction in effectiveness in assault. All that said, I will continue to use and probably love assault rifles going forward into the future. 

Dense Terrain

I gotta say, this one surprised me. In my prior games I had not played on boards that featured large chunks of area terrain like ruins or woods. In this game the table had four large kidney shaped woods and they had a massive impact in the game. Both the American and the German forces evaded enemy fire by ducking behind these woods. It felt a little weird that being IN the woods only conferred light cover and being on opposite sides of dense terrain blocked line of sight completely. I do like this rule after playing it out, it led to ambush being used by defending teams since they were often left without a good target to fire at. This added a level of tension to the game as units had to risk incoming fire to make tactical moves necessary to win. Though it felt a little gamey at first to tip toe around cover. I really like what the dense terrain rules bring to the game.

Below you can see the US Hellcat having to take the long way around a wood to take a pot shot at the Ersatz Panther in the distance.

On the other side of the board, a veteran unit of Germans advance carefully forward, shielded from enemy fire by a dense copse of pine trees.

Multi-launchers and Templates (on the whole)

Well kids, the nebelwerfer is still a thing. true to form it missed everything over the course of the game... except when it was able to capitalise on a conveniently placed American transport late in a turn.

Now had this been first edition, I would have predicted four dead units. Instead by placing a template, hit units actually stood a chance of survival and while the bazooka team and the one of the rifle squads were wiped out completely, the transport and the other rifle squad took some hits and survived. You can see the aftermath below. HE was just too good in the last edition (for its points, especially when compared to the point cost of AT guns).

I like how though HE is still deadly, it has been pulled back a bit, especially since AT guns get the option to use templates too. As a side note, when AT guns go on ambush, you need to declare, at that time, which ammo type it will be firing. A small but important tidbit to remember. Speaking of AT guns, the Panther with its ability to reach out and punch things at long range with its super heavy AT gun or throw out 3 inch templates up to 84 inches away, all the while having armour ten on the front was terrifyingly scary in this game. It was the first time I think I could ever say that before. Especially now that its machine guns get additional dice in second ed and more dice from Hitler's Buzzsaw. I like how it felt like the brute that it was always supposed to feel like in the game. Even after taking a pile of hits from bazookas (which are awesome now that they are more accurate by the way) and Allied armoured vehicles. It sat immobilised on the secondary objective with its turret jammed forward, still punching holes in US forces for the rest of the game. It was incredibly cinematic!

Pintle Mounted Machine Guns

The addition of the rule that make enclosed vehicles open topped if they open their hatch to fire their pintle mounted machine guns for the rest of the turn has some surprisingly interesting implications on the game. It mean that the Sherman and the Panther had to weigh up waiting until later in the turn to activate if they wanted to use their pintle mounted weapons. Waiting though often meant risking incoming anti-tank fire and destruction. It lead to some hard tactical choices that made the game really interesting at points. Conversely, the Greyhound and Hellcat, were already open topped, so for these units getting in fast and hitting hard early was a priority. Given that this is how these units operated on the battlefield in real life, I really like how this works. 

As you can see below, the Sherman rolled forward with the first dice of the turn to get the jump on a squad of Germans caught between ruined buildings. Though its fire would have been more effective if the tank used its pintle mount, it could not risk sitting open topped that close to enemy forces. 


The change to rally made a significant impact over the course of this game. Both sides had multiple units that sustained 4 or more pins that after rallying were free to reengage in the game. In essence it brought these units, almost, back to life.

Now you see pins....

Ta Da... Now they are gone!

Now I have heard several people talk about how pinning is "gone" or is now ineffective as a tactic. Well, not really. Being pinned is a more temporary state now. Units cannot ignore pins. Failed order checks still cause units to go down. Bolt Action still happens so to speak. Units buried in pins must give up a turn's action to try and clear pins out. Given that most games are six turns, and mobility is needed to get to objectives to win, this is still a hefty penalty to play. The knockoff effect of this is that we get more out of our units on the table and that the rally order is worth considering as you weigh up what to do with a heavily pinned unit. It increases your viable choices as a player and I think that is a very good thing.


The last rule that I will discuss today is Down. In Second Edition, units shooting at downed opponents suffer a minus two to hit. This is remarkably significant, especially if an opponent is behind or in cover. It means that you often need to hit on a six on six which is statistically much harder to do than just hitting someone on a six. This gives units who are down an incredible boost to their durability. To dig people out it is often necessary to assault them or shoot at them at point blank range with assault weapons. I need to play this more to fully get all of the implications of this rule. I especially want to play more objective based missions to determine if hiding units while down is really the best way to hold an objective, rather than say, shooting at an opponent as they come in. I am really unsure about this addition to the rules BUT I am happy to say that I am going to look forward to playing more to find out exactly what it means for gameplay.

I could write about changes to the game all day but this article is probably getting a little bit too long. To summarise, I LOVE THIS GAME! It feels like the Bolt Action that I have always known and loved but it IS improved in so many ways. I didn't even get into new and better rules around flamethrowers, recce and snipers for example. Needless to say, I look forward to writing more articles going into the future about these new rules and the game itself as my understanding of Second Edition grows and matures.

For those who are wondering, the battle over the Crossroads ended with a true draw, not only did both sides take two objectives. The crossroads was contested by a squad of pinned American Engineers and a battered immobilised, turret locked Panther. As we would say down here in Australia. Bolt Action won and it was great to see.

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