TGN Review of Bolt Action by Warlord Games

We managed to snag a copy of Bolt Action’s rulebook from Warlord Games and have created a little review of it for you.
Also, you’ve got a chance to win the rulebook from us. Details at the bottom of the review.

Bolt Action, by Warlord Games, is the much-anticipated rules set for their rather extensive collection of WWII models. The book is quite a piece of work. There’s a lot inside the book to look over. The rules system is also rather unique, not fitting into particular categories in several respects. It shows that a lot of thought was put into making an experience that, while still a minis wargame, sets itself apart from the rest.

The first thing I noticed about the book was the extensive amount of stats for models in the back of the book. Just flipping through, there are pages upon pages of rules for the various units available to each faction. This is fitting, considering how extensive Warlord’s Bolt Action model line is. I’m sure they’ve still got 3-4 books worth of models stats they can make, even with all they put into this book. They do give you lots of options for the squads in the book, letting you decide how they are armed and what skill level the units are (more on that later). So you really can make a force that accurately represents a historical regiment, or just customize your force using exactly the models you want to use the most.

After this, I moved back to the first half of the book and started looking over the rules. Giving them a quick glance two main things stood out to me: the activation sequence for a turn and the “pinning” rules. I’ll discuss these two separately.

The first thing different about Bolt Action is how you resolve which units activate when. It’s not an IGOUGO or Alternating Activations system. Instead, count out how many units are in your army (infantry units, vehicles, artillery squads, etc) and then get an order die (or some other sort of token) for each one and place them into a cup (or hat or box or whatever). Your opponent does the same, putting their tokens in the same cup. Shake them up. Now, draw one. The player whose die/token is pulled out gets to activate one of their units and gives them an order. They’ll fully resolve that order before the next die is drawn out. In this way, one player could get several activations in a row before their opponent acts, but you never know. Plus, if one player keeps getting activations, sooner or later your opponent will more-than-likely end up with several activations in a row.
After a unit has activated, you leave the die/token next to them to note that they have already activated this turn. At the end of the round, after everyone has activated, you collect up all the dice and put them back in the hat for the next go.

The other thing unique is the combat system and “pinning” enemy units. Stats for models are equal across the board. Every shot hits on a 3+. Every veteran unit has a leadership value of 10. Every regular infantryman is damaged on a 4+. Etc. What modifies much of this through the game is being “pinned.” Whenever a unit is hit by an enemy they receive a Pin Token. This isn’t for each, individual hit, but every enemy unit that scores a hit will give a Pin Token. So it takes multiple units to get multiple tokens. When a model is activated by having a player’s die pulled out of the cup, they are given an order. To actually do the order, if they have any pin tokens on them, they must pass a leadership test with a cumulative -1 for each pin token on the unit. So a unit that has taken shots from many enemy units will have a harder time actually doing the order given to them. The exception to this is the “Down” order, in which the unit basically ducks for cover. Pin tokens also affect a unit’s shooting. As stated above, every shot hits on a 3+. However, much like leadership tests, an attack suffers a cumulative -1 for each pin token. So 2 pin tokens on a unit effectively means it’s a 5+ to hit an enemy.
There are two basic ways to remove pin tokens. The first is to pass a leadership test when given an order. This will remove 1 pin token as the unit gets themselves together as their squad leader gets the unit to do what he wants them to do. The other is that there is a specific Rally order (which you need to pass a Leadership test to do) that will remove D6 tokens (so effectively D6+1, since a successful Leadership Test to issue the order will also remove a Pin Token).

It’s these two rules that allow for the creation of such vast numbers of units in the game. In this way, you don’t have to worry about individualizing each unit’s stats specifically, they just allow the generic rules for every model do that, then change what a unit is armed with to make them unique. Bolt Action is a game of modifiers. There is not a lot to memorize for rules. Movement is much the same, in that every unit can move 6” with a regular advance. There is only a small chart that says what happens in different types of terrain for different types of units (infantry, artillery, tank, jeep, etc). It’s really the modifiers that matter, specifically Pin Tokens.

The game, overall, is pretty deadly. There are several ways that units can be entirely wiped out without having to specifically kill each model. If a unit has more Pin Tokens than there are guys currently in the squad, then they’ll be destroyed. In an Assault, the unit that suffers more casualties, even if there are guys left, is wiped out, assuming that those left are taken prisoner or ran away or somesuch.

I don’t actually have any models to review, specifically, but I have seen enough over my time here at TGN to know one thing about Warlord Games’ modelers: they care about the models they’re making. Whenever I am sent a new release by Paul Sawyer over at WG, the page always has both a picture of the new model and a period photo of the squad or vehicle that the model is based off of. And you can tell that whomever made the model was using that particular photo (and more, of course) and the photographer tried to line it up so the model and photo looked as close as possible. A lot of care obviously goes into the making of the models. For those WWII enthusiasts that like to make sure they know the model they’ve got has all the rivets in the right place, Warlord Games does their best to make sure everything is right.

Overall, Bolt Action is a quick and deadly game that doesn’t rely heavily on a lot of rules, but instead gives a set of generic rules that are adapted based on in-game situations. Modifiers play a large part of how the game operates, with Pinning Tokens being the major modifier-giver. There is a huge supply of models out there available and you can use some of the most iconic units of WWII easily in your force. The rulebook has several scenarios you can play along with rules for air strikes and artillery bombardments as well.

I’m a touch concerned with the “pull a die, activate a unit” format, especially in relation to the Pinning Tokens. In situations, a player can get several turns in a row, getting to pin down a key enemy unit with multiple hits, making it really hard for that enemy unit to do much of anything when it does finally get around to activating. There could also be problems with one player taking lots of small units that aren’t really meant to do anything more than just provide dice in the dice cup so there’s more chances to pull the right color, allowing a more-important unit to activate more reliably earlier in a turn. More work with that system in actual table-top experiences is critical for that.

So that brings us to the contest section of things. It’s pretty simple. We’ve got 2 copies of the rulebook (to be fair, one’s got a slight tear on the cover, but it’s otherwise unharmed) that we want to give away. If you’d like your name in the hat, simply comment below with your thoughts on the review. We’ll pick two at random and they’ll get the book sent their way.

Thanks for reading.