Review: Bolt Action Second Edition

I am a long time fan of Bolt Action and enjoy the game immensely. It’s a bit Hollywood but for skirmish WW2 gaming it gets a lot right. Another bonus for me is that it’s small enough in scale to offer some narrative potential with scenarios.

I’m not going to go much into the mechanisms of the game as my first review pretty much carries the same opinions as before. You instead for the most part have some refinement with the rules with the new edition. The game still has some parts that are a tad gamey, but some of the more glaring rules and wonky tactics that were in the first edition are curbed some.

This won’t be an exhaustive list but I thought I’d highlight a few changes focusing on some of the more notable ones. Likely the biggest change regards officers. Leaders now can potentially have multiple units to activate under their command. Most allow for 1-2 units within 6”, but higher ranking officers increase this to 12” and up to 4 different units.

If an officer successfully passes their order test (note the Down order is exempt from this), they can pull and assign extra order dice. The assigned units still have to pass their orders, but you can get quite a few units getting that extra boost to act while in the presence of an officer. This is a really great rule. Before the benefits of officers were minor unless working with a lot of inexperienced troops. Plus there was not much incentive to take higher ranked officers. This rule completely changes that and makes leadership have a greater impact on the game.

bolt-action-2-coverSome other notable changes to orders were also made. Rally now is not subject to pin modifiers to see if the order is passed, but the unit still only removes D6+1 pin markers. There is a small change to Ambush. If at the end of a turn you want to return a unit’s order die, on a 4+ the unit can immediately execute a Fire order before doing so. Just a little way to get something out of taking a unit off Ambush, if nothing ever presented itself during a turn to trigger it.

Another big change is that the Down order provides at -2 penalty to shooting at infantry and artillery units. This is a pretty hefty defensive bonus. Likely this will make the option of just hitting the dirt due to excessive fire more enticing for units and a solid tactical option. Not to mention those pesky air and artillery observers being able to evade fire.

Assaults no longer take off pins automatically for units fighting in hand to hand. Also target units can return fire automatically if they have not been given an order. Veteran units still have a heavy advantage in assaults, but at least it emphasizes Rally orders for removing pins. Another change is that assault weapons (like pistols and SMGs) get one additional attack if they successfully inflict a casualty, not automatically double the number of attacks. This lowers the effectiveness of these weapons in assaults (units that are Tough Fighters get this too), trimming down their ability to tear through units as before.

As weapons go, there are a few key changes. I always felt LMGs were lacking in the game and it seems that Warlord has listened to the community. Both LMGs and MMGs now throw an extra die when shooting. Another tweak for fixed weapons is that they can make a special Assault move, rotating in place towards any facing, and still be able to fire (with a -1 penalty to hit). These slight changes now make units like MMG teams a little more fearsome.

Flamethrowers were always a bit of a divisive weapon, especially vehicle flamethrowers. Now they don’t automatically hit and instead hit on a basic 3+ ignoring any modifiers for cover or units that are Down. Vehicle flamethrowers now only inflict D6+1 hits instead of 2D6. The plus side is that all flamethrowers now only run out of fuel on a 1 (instead of a 1-2 for man-packed flamethrowers).

Likely the biggest weapon change is in regards to HE as templates are used to determine the number of hits. I’m on the fence some with this. One aspect I cringe about is that the game now can get a little finicky with a player maneuvering templates around. The basic rules are that a player must always try and place a template to hit as many enemy models as possible, and they cannot also target friendly troops.

This limits the number of potential hits, especially for light mortars but it does add some consistency with the number of possible casualties. The plus is that across the board all HE weapons can potentially inflict more pins. Also there were some weird instances in the first edition where you might target a small weapons team and only be able to hit that unit, despite it being positioned close to other enemy troops. This certainly adds some tactical value to spreading different squads out to avoid being hit by large HE rounds.

There are a couple of notable changes to vehicles too. Empty transport vehicles can now fire one weapon. I love this change as it encourages armored transports to be used and having more importance on the battlefield other than just carting troops around. Mind you, the same rule for empty transports being destroyed if ending a turn closer to enemy units is still a thing.

Another change is that a player decides to fire either a main weapon or the co-axial MG, not both. This really cuts down the firepower of tanks. There is also a pretty big change with recce vehicles. They can only make an escape move if they have not been given an order die. It certainly makes using these vehicles for scouting more difficult, but also reduces the abuse some players had with these vehicles taking pop shots and scooting behind buildings to avoid return fire.

Additionally if opting to fire pintle-mounted weapons the tank is considered open topped. This is a small change to differentiate them from tanks with just co-axial weapons. However likely the pintle mounted guns are also flak weapons, and that now has some greater use on the table.

Certain weapons can now provide flak support. When a plane comes in due to an air observer, each flak unit can try to attack it, rolling to hit on a 5+. If scored total hits are 3 or more the plane is either shot down or sent away. I love this rule. It makes using air support a bit trickier to use (and possibly encourages the more expensive artillery observers instead). Lastly, it gives a greater role to flak weapons and encourages a player to add a few as a potential counter to air attacks.

There are some more small bits and tinkered rules (dense terrain, reduced assault rifle ranges, changes to sniper teams, etc.). Overall they are pretty much a refinement and incorporation of a lot of popular community house rules. Some of them shift away from truisms of the past editions. Now you have a reason to take a higher ranking officer. Now full infantry squads can re-roll failed order tests until they suffer a casualty, meaning investing in a large squad can get some tangible benefit other than just being able to suck up a lot of hits (which works especially well with inexperienced troops).

The book has a total of 12 new scenarios. Six of which are more meeting engagements, where the other 6 have clear attackers and defenders. Unfortunately, three of the scenarios are still a Maximum Attrition type of game, where you just have to kill as much of the enemy as possible. But the wrinkles in setup and some scenario specific rules shake them up some.

Much like the previous book, a truncated army force list is provided for each major nation. This time Japan is also included. Fans of a particular nation will eventually want to pick up the army books, but the lists in the book are serviceable and provide options to field a robust platoon. Lastly there are some other supplemental rules for night fighting, rules to incorporate more players, larger forces with multiple activations, and even multi-national forces.

The Good – The second edition is more an assembling of tweaks and house rules than a full blown rework of the game. For the most part this is great news. Some of the changes likely will mean players have to adjust their tactics (leaders with multiple activations, and units no longer automatically removing pins in assaults are a few). There is still that random order activation. Pinning units to degrade morale and effectiveness is still there. In short it’s still Bolt Action.

I like that more scenarios are presented. I’m especially glad to see them mine other games for some fun scenarios (like a classic 40K cleanse mission).The sprinkling of scenario specific rules also helps reinforce that Bolt Action can be very much a narrative historical game, and also an enjoyable tourney game.

The artwork and layout is pleasant, with each section having a nice heading on the outer edges of the page. There are more examples and more diagrams. And typical of Osprey books, lots of great art and pictures including a concise timeline of key historical campaigns and engagements to spur on ideas for possible battles in different theaters of the war.

The Bad – This isn’t a simulation game. There is still some abstract mechanics and you are going to get some pretty shifty tactics from players. With the addition of officers being able to allow multiple activations, some might feel the random initiative is simply too chaotic for their tastes over an IGOUGO system. And lastly, it’s still point based. You are going to get those guys making cheese platoons and trying to game as much out of the force lists as possible.

Another minor quibble is that the background of the pages have this stressed border graphic that appears like flock. All the pages on the right have what appears to be a smudge of gunk. While for a page with a sparse layout of figures and pictures, it doesn’t stand out. But for me it gets a little distracting having it among paragraphs of text.

The Verdict – I love Bolt Action and the 2nd Edition is certainly an improvement of the former rules. There are a lot of small changes and enough so that I would consider picking up the new edition. However if you only play the game once in awhile, likely you could get away with just sticking with the old rules and try to scoop up a new QRS/player aid.

It’s still a great, robust set of rules. It doesn’t lend itself too much towards being a staunch historical game. There are plenty of opportunities to play out those ‘what if’ games, and a few of the mechanics might be too abstract for die hard WW2 wargamers. Not to mention some platoon force lists that will likely make someone well versed in historical TOEs tear out their hair. But it gets so much right.

Bolt Action is chaotic and the concept of throwing a lot of fire at a threat to force it to hit the dirt, so your troops can maneuver, is still there. It’s just such a fun set of skirmish rules. And I particularly enjoy how the game encourages players to dig into historical books and fish out odd units. If you want to field a platoon of Moroccan Goumiers that fought in the Italian campaign, you can do that. That to me demonstrates how pliable the rules can be.

So like with my original review, Bolt Action is still a fun, WW2 skirmish game. And if a die hard fan or a new player interested in getting into historical gaming, the second edition is very much a great book to pick up.

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