It’s frigid. Windy. Drifting snow. The squad is ready, their bolt action rifles prepared to ambush the Germans below. They’re scrambling towards cover, but you have this one chance. Your troops level their arms, you give the command, and bullets rain, casualties and pinned enemies abound. A success, and one you’d like to clinch with your T-34 tank, so you reach into the action die bag, watch the sweat bead on your opponent’s forehead, and draw.
What is Bolt Action?
Bolt Action, by Warlord Games and Osprey Games, is a venerable WWII miniatures war game that splits the difference between kinetic action and hardcore simulation to deliver small-scale battles in a couple frantic hours.
That sentence alone might tell you whether Bolt Action belongs in your collection or not. Like Warhammer and Star Wars: Legion, these games expect a certain investment in hobby time beyond just reading the rules and setting up the game. Building models, painting them, constructing terrain, and the like are all as present in Bolt Action as they are in its fantasy and sci-fi pals.
So why Bolt Action amid the crowd of orcs and Jedi, dragons and Darths?
Because its setting proves as fertile a ground for compelling, tactical gameplay as any other, and if your gaming group prefers real history, or even hex and counter classics, Bolt Action might be the best way to bring them into a war game like this.
Bolt Action offers a medley of possible armies covering just about every major campaign in WWII, including some ahistorical options, like Operation Sea Lion. To start, decide on your preferred faction, which can include ‘smaller’ powers like Finland, Bulgaria, and so on, and snap up a starter set. Bolt Action, like most miniature war games, operates on a point scale, with roughly 1250 points getting you a full platoon, though 500 works well for learning skirmishes. Most starter sets get you close, setting you up with a few squads and a vehicle or some special artillery for two players. Couple that with a scenario booklet, and you’re set.
Playing a Bolt Action match revolves around the scenario, often tasking one side with capturing objectives or holding territory. You’ll deploy your respective forces, fill a joint bag with dice for your various units, and alternate turns drawing a single die and activating the unit shown, which could be yours or not. You might draw three of your units in a row, granting an early advantage, one that’ll come back around when your enemy draws their remaining dice one after another at round’s end.
Every side on a unit’s dice has a specific order, like advance, fire, or ambush—allowing the unit to ‘skip’ their turn but fire during an opponent’s move. An early attack might force a squad to use the Rally action instead, removing pesky pin markers.
That clever pinning system, where suffering casualties increases the chance a unit might ignore your orders, gives Bolt Action its historical feel: clamping down an advance with a well-placed machine gun nest works just as it ought to. On the flip side, spending a few more points at setup to upgrade a vanguard squad’s leading officer can help buttress morale, leading meta strategies as you send stiffer squads into fire, hoping they can last long enough to break the enemy.
This, though, is about as complex as Bolt Action gets. It’s not intended to be a granular simulation ala Advanced Squad Leader, but a fast-paced skirmish. You’ll tweak dice and distance based on weapons and upgrades applied at setup, but you’re not going to be leafing through table after table, page after dense page.
Bolt Action Campaigns
Which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of pages to be had: Bolt Action is stuffed with campaigns to play. Aside from head to head scenarios or historical campaigns, in which you play out a series of battles and see who wins, Bolt Action has Company Commander rules. This relatively simple addition to any series of scenarios lets your units gain experience, lose soldiers permanently, and build a narrative through gameplay.
Say you’ve assembled a small force of British regulars and you’d like to play through a string of games around Dunkirk. Your buddy bounds up with his advancing Germans, with the first game pitting your forces against one another in a small town. You’re trying to hold the center, but the Germans strike first, getting good rolls and forcing you into a sudden retreat. A few casualties later and any chance at keeping the town is gone, but a well-thrown grenade and a paid-off ambush action means your pal doesn’t get away free.
At the battle’s end, some of your surviving squads did enough damage to earn a veteran’s promotion, giving them better chances to hit in the next scenario. At the same time, you’ll need to replenish your forces to keep the Germans from advancing fast. You ask for a half-track and another squad, as the next scenario is in the open countryside, and make a dice roll to see whether HQ honors your requested reinforcements. Meanwhile, the Germans are doing the same thing, both sides shifting as battle takes tolls and opens doors to changing forces as the campaign wears on. By the end, your grizzled force likely won’t resemble the greenies you started with, and you’ll have memories of every adventure along the way.
Building Your Faction
Bolt Action, like any assembly-required miniatures game, can be an intimidating choice at first glance. While you’ll definitely need to cut some sprues and use plastic glue (or super glue if you’d prefer) to get the figures ready, this has quickly become one of my favorite things. It’s like LEGOs, with every mini giving you a neat puzzle in its assembly. Sometimes you’ll have options, like whether to have a soldier in a charging stance or an aiming one, crouching or standing, barking orders or throwing a grenade. How you choose to build your army is up to you, and makes the final result, even before splashing on some paint, unique.
And if the idea of painting puts you off, whether because wielding a brush brings back grade school art class nightmares or because it’s one more thing you’ll never have time for, a simple black-gray-white highlight with a spray can, known as a zenithal highlight, creates a great look with nothing more than a few minutes and a few dollars effort. Layering the three shades, with black the bottom coat, grey straight at the middle, and white a tight spray from above to simulate sunlight, you’ll get ‘shadows’ and more definition on every figure. Then, once you’ve done the highlight, you can always come back and paint the figures later if desired.
As an adjacent hobby to miniatures gaming, getting comfortable with building and painting is as rich and rewarding a journey as playing the games themselves. If you’ve not tried it before, then consider giving it a look, whether with something like Bolt Action, Warhammer, or any other game in your collection that has some plastic figures. It’s a way to treasure your games, making each more your own with every bit of color splashed on.
Picking a Bolt Action List
Once you’ve conquered WWII to your liking, it’s time to bring your Bolt Action team (a ‘list’ in miniatures gaming parlance) up against other players. Without a campaign framework, you’ll want to make up a list that’s tailored to your goals: you can scour the Internet to find the best ‘meta’ list for your faction, get those models, and arrive at game night knowing you’ll stand a good chance of mowing down the opposition. Or you can find a theme that appeals, like building a force entirely from airborne infantry and parachute into play, or maybe it’s all motorcycles, all the time, and you’ll annoy the opponent by zipping across the battlefield.
The point, as ever, is to choose what’s fun for you.
A standalone match of Bolt Action doesn’t differ much from the campaign and can fit on your average dining room table. You’ll then pick the scenario, which offers up objectives and guides what terrain you might want to use—a plug here for playing at your local game store, like Noble Knight, as they’ll often have terrain , and tables, you can borrow—then confirm your rosters, dump your dice in the common bag, and deploy.
World War Two in Miniature
And that’s what Bolt Action is really all about: getting troops on the table, playing out tense, quick conflicts crackling with historical theme. If you prefer rifles to lasers, Sherman tanks to giant lizards, and hand grenades to magic fireballs, Bolt Action is the miniature skirmish game you’ve been looking for.
Bonus, if you’re local to the Madison area, Noble Knight hosts a Bolt Action night at our game store every other Friday. Check the event calendar and gear up for a great evening!