Little Men Against Fire

A game of Konflikt '47. German werewolves destroy an American jeep amid desert ruins in this Weird WW2 game.

Modifying Bolt Action to capture the essence of fire-and-maneuver

My return to regular tabletop gaming in my mid-30s brought with it a new humility and respect for the game designer. The heady and hubris-laden days of rejecting rules that “didn’t sound right” and formulating ‘house rules’ upon the first read through of a manual were replaced with a determination to play as close to the rules-as-written, at least until I was intimately familiar with the mechanics and the gameplay. After all, the writer will have played the game more than I have at this point, and I must have thought he had something valuable to offer, otherwise why buy it in the first place?

Nevertheless, every mortal designer has limitations on his abilities, and especially when it comes to satisfying my own particular tastes. I have now played Bolt Action 1st and 2nd Edition sufficiently, especially the Konflikt ’47 variant, that I see definite deficiencies. So, in a humble and experimental spirit, with great respect for Mr. Cavatore and Mr. Priestley, that I offer some suggestions on how to modify this venerable ruleset to better capture the character of World War 2’s small-unit maneuver warfare.

The Problem

The Second World War was first consistent appearance of the kind of warfare we now think of as the default: big on maneuver thanks to large mechanized formations, with individual infantry platoons and even squads wielding exceptional firepower and the flexibility to move and fight in any direction, supported by combined arms (air, artillery, and sometimes naval gunfire), with radio-based coordination that was simply not possible in its predecessor.

The US Army in particular, with its abundance of squad-level automatic weapons, emphasized a kind of multi-pronged maneuver warfare that Bolt Action cannot quite capture due to the rigidity of its units and certain rule conventions. For example, an infantry squad sergeant might order an assault on a dug-in position by having the squad’s light machine gun team and BAR gunner stay back with him and lay down suppressive fire, while the rest of the squad moves, under cover and at speed, to make a close assault on the position from the flank or rear with their rifles and grenades. You can see a good video on this kind of operation here:

Solution 1: the ‘Advance’ Order

Rules as written, the ‘Advance’ order allows a unit to both move its normal movement distance and fire its non-fixed weapons (usually with a penalty), in that order. But why only in that order? The situation just described is better handled by the ability to fire first and then move. Particularly in Konflikt ’47, with its reaction system, this would allow the advancing unit to put some suppression markers on a target before possibly triggering an Ambush reaction by its movement.

Solution 2: Repealing maximum Range

While being well aware that being overly concerned with ‘ground scale’ in a wargame, especially one based on modern(ish) warfare, is fraught and can create ridiculous conditions on the type of tables owned by mortal men. Nevertheless, even accepting a large degree of horizontal compression on a standard 6’x4′ table, the weapon ranges as presented in the rulebook are a little weak. The simplest possible solution is to ignore them, and accept that all weapons (excepting close-in weapons like pistols and flamethrowers) can reach all the way across the table. This prevents infantry units from having to move to within very close distances to begin the two-pronged fire-and-maneuver assaults as described above.

Adopting this rule also produces certain other salutary effects on gameplay. First of all, there is no more need to calculate the ‘half’ distance at which shots take on the ‘Long Range’ -1 modifier. I recommend keeping the penalty, but simply apply them at any shot that is over the weapon’s listed maximum range. The same goes for the -1 damage modifier for heavy weapons. Even with a squad that is festooned with different weapon types (like your average German panzergrenadier squad!), this reduces the mental math and memory element of the fire phase by approximately half, which is much welcome.

Solution 3: Automatic Weapon Suppression

Bolt Action players have complained for a very long time that machine guns aren’t worth the points cost for their in-game effectiveness, particularly compared with their effect in history. Various ideas have been tossed around to fix this, particularly in the K’47 errata with their extra suppression rules, but I think a simpler and more satisfactory solution is to always allow squad-based automatic weapons to inflict a separate suppression marker.

Normally, if any (or all) of a squad’s weapons hit during a fire action, a single suppression marker is placed on the target unit. With this suggestion, all of a squad’s attached automatic weapons (LMGs, SMGs, Assault Rifles, Automatic Rifles), if any of them hit, inflict a Suppression Marker, in addition to any Suppression Markers laid down by the squad’s rifles.

Team, fixed machine guns (MMGs and HMGs) would have variable suppression effects akin to HE weapons, either a D2 or possibly a D3. I’m not settled on which I prefer, and it will take some experimentation to figure out.

Solution 4: Flank and Rear Suppression

Superior maneuver and positioning should be rewarded. Thus, attacks made on an enemy unit from the flank or rear, especially in enfilade, would inflict additional negative effects on a target. My suggestion is that flank and rear shooting imposes an additional Suppression Marker as long as any rolls hit. This in addition to any of the additional Suppression Markers handed out due to Solution 3. Further, any attacks made in enfilade — that is, with raking fire that can hit most or the whole unit along a single vector — gains an additional +1 to hit.

On the defensive side, this also encourages players to not stack their troops in a line, and to face some of their troops in other directions against the possibility of such an attack.

If you are using the Konflikt ’47 Reaction rules, any attempts to react to flanking or rear fire incur an additional -1 penalty.

Solution 5: Detaching Units

In my view, this is the most complicated and possibly objectionable idea here, especially because it might require the player to keep and track extra order dice. Nevertheless, as in the original example, it was common to split a squad between its automatic gunners and an assault team, and so a squad should be able to do the same thing in Bolt Action.

To accomplish this, I suggest that each squad should have to make a standard order test, taking into account any suppression markers or other penalties from a dead NCO or the like. If unsuccessful, the unit receives a pin and goes Down owing to the confusion, but if successful the unit can split up in whatever way the player desires, with the separate elements no longer required to keep coherency with each other. The detached unit then temporarily receives its own order dice, but will have to be removed from play once the squad reforms as a single unit again.

It can be tricky to keep track of extra order dice, so I recommend not using them. Instead, from that point on, the original unit (the one with the NCO) would typically receive the order dice, while the split-off section receives a ‘Detachment’ marker of some kind (Stargrunt II counters have these in abundance), and a ‘standing order’, which might include multiple order dice combinations, and thus be understood to take place during separate turns of activation. This mightbe something like “ADVANCE to position X on the table and then make a RUN close assault (two turns)” or “MOVE to position X and then FIRE to provide cover for the rest of the squad as it bounds up into a new position, then RUN to close assault (three turns)”. These instructions should be written down and shared with either the GM or the opposing player so that they’re clear. Any attempt to alter these orders after they are written down would require an order test with an additional -1 penalty.

If both elements of the squad come back into coherency, they automatically reform as a single squad again.

I would be grateful to hear your opinion on these alterations, particularly if you’ve tried them in a game. Also let me know if you have made any similar modifications yourself.


8 responses to “Little Men Against Fire”

  1. When I got into Bolt Action, the first thing that bugged me was the deeply silly range rules. As you say, that’s an easy one to fix (as is allowing Advance to shoot and move).

    Breaking down a squad into subcomponents is getting down into man on man skirmish territory. I think you can get most of what you’re after by specializing your squads a little – one with the MGs to lay down fire, one with SMGs to assault.

    I play Italians, and they actually set up their platoons like that IRL. Only two squads in a platoon; a smaller one with two machine guns and a larger one to manoeuvre.

    Have you played Chain of Command? I’ve heard it’s a little less ‘gamey’ than BA.

    • I do own Chain of Command; bought it at the last convention, but I haven’t given it a full read-through or played it yet. I’ve heard almost universally positive things about it, yet I know it has something similar to command points so I am leery of it.

      As you say, you can just break down the squads in the beginning, but it changes the dynamic quite a bit, especially in terms of the order dice. Since having a larger number of order dice than your opponent gives you an abstract advantage over them, and since ‘detaching’ the squad with the second option I mentioned makes them more limited and ‘tethered’ to the original squad, I thought there was a reasonable tradeoff rather than what would seem to me to be all advantages. Another complication is that you should be able in theory to detach a section that is smaller than the minimum allowable size of the squad per the unit selectors. I will have to play through it a few times and get an idea over how unbalancing it is, or how hard to keep track of.

      Also, surprising that you play the Italians! I only know one other person that plays Italians, which is a shame because I think they look great. They are really saddled with some tough national rules, though.

      • Ahistorical matchups bug me, so I went with a practical choice: the Italians fought almost everybody! I can match up with just about anyone in my group… except the one goof who plays Finns. ๐Ÿ™‚

        I knew basically nothing about them going in, so it’s been a fun learning experience!

  2. You could have the detached unit have to reunit with it’s parent unit at a certain time span.. like say two turns or something.. or if they come under fire they may have to fall back immediately. I don’t know just some dumb thoughts.

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