Last Thursday we held the “Matt Pendle Farewell Commemorative Bolt Action Battlegame”. After four years of happy gaming, Matt is inexplicably moving away. He said something about jobs, wives and quality of life and I wish him well, but the simple fact is that a splendid opponent is leaving the area.
We have played various periods and rules since 2015 but as Matt, Ian and I started out on Bolt Action together, it seemed fitting to return to BA for our final encounter. We were joined by Dan, a player of various games including Star Wars Legions and RPGs. Having watched a Youtube tutorial beforehand on Bolt Action basics, Dan picked up the rules remarkably quickly.
We played a 1000 point game with D Day US versus Late War Germans. I wanted a suitably heroic and memorable game so adapted the Hill defence scenario from Battleground Europe, replacing the defending Poles in the original with Matt’s Americans and transposing the setting to operation Cobra. The briefing is set out below.
“Last Stand on Hill TW20
It is the third day of Operation Cobra, the US breakout from the Cotentin Peninsula. General Bradley’s First Army has pierced the German’s Western flank and is advancing south and eastwards into the interior. If the US armour can break out of the bocage country, the German forces in Normandy face encirclement and annihilation. Aware of the stakes, the Germans are throwing everything they have against the neck of the American advance, aiming to cut off the spearhead from its crucial supplies.
The corridor opened by the assault is narrow. While the tankers race ahead, it is down to the long-suffering GI to keep that corridor open.
Hill TW20 is already behind the US spearhead. It overlooks a key road along which the gasoline and ammunition must flow. It is held by Major Matt “Hedgehog” Pendle and his hard-bitten platoon of veterans. Their task is to hold the hill at all costs.
Approaching from the East is a scratch force of German grenadiers, as determined to take Hill TW20 as Matt’s Marauders are to hold it. Their commander, Hauptmann Rudolf von Rotthund, peers at the hill through his binoculars and plans his assault. He is confident of success: what Ami can resist the power of his new dice tower?”
Matt set his force up on the hill, minus a half track with infantry section in reserve. He was allowed to dig in his infantry, which he did on his left and centre. Dan and I shared the Germans between us. Matt had a pretty clear killing ground to his front so we agreed that we would try a pincer, Dan on the left and I on the right.
How did the game play? Well, I did say I wanted it to be memorable. The first scene unfolded on the German left/US right, as Dan set out to dislodge a US squad behind a row of bocage. This started well, with several useful pins falling on the US squad. Matt regained the initiative with a direct medium mortar hit in its first round, followed by a bazooka taking out Dan’s command halftrack. In return, Dan achieved a first-time direct hit with his medium mortar and started to filter his command squad across to the US side of the bocage. So far, honours were about even. At this point, Matt pulled a very clever turnaround. At the end of one turn he rallied off all of the pins on his right hand squad. When he then drew the first order die of the next turn, he sent the rallied squad smack into Dan’s command squad and wiped it out. Shortly after, Matt’s halftrack arrived and joined in the destruction. From that point on, Dan’s wing was doomed, even with the arrival of a German section from reserve.
On the German right, meanwhile, I was footling around behind a hedge, swapping pins with Matt’s MMG and left hand squad in foxholes. Matt shifted his central squad around his left-rear, overrunning as he did so a sniper team that hadn’t even set up for business yet. This was getting embarrassing. With Matt’s encircling squad arriving to my front, I no longer had cover from enemy fire and suffered the consequences. The rest was a blur: some nasty close combat which went in US favour, a last ditch attack by a panzerschrek team using their bazooka as a club, and eventually agreement on all sides that the Germans were unlikely to get a live body onto the hill. After five turns, Dan and I surrendered, first to the inevitable and then to Matt.
Blimey! What happened there then? Being a modest bloke, Matt pointed out that the dice had been with him at certain key points, both in shooting and in the drawing of order dice. He argued that had a German die been the first to be drawn in one particular turn, this could have reversed the whole course of the game. Let’s be clear: had the luck been strictly balanced, he would still have beaten us, if perhaps a tiny bit less emphatically. We were beaten - and soundly - by the player, not by any dice gods.
This was our first Bolt Action game in several months and I’d forgotten how much fun it can be. The game mechanics are robust, logical and easy to learn: Dan was off and away pretty much from the start of his first ever BA game. There is real suspense in the drawing of order dice and lots of tough choices on who to activate next. There are also moments that may not be historically plausible but are great fun in the game context, often involving success against the odds. And it is the sign of a good rule set that Dan seemed thoroughly to enjoy his first Bolt Action encounter, despite being roundly trounced.
On the whole I don’t find the scale distortion in BA troublesome, although I would happily adopt a house rule that while mortars are paid for as usual, the only presence required on the table top is that of their spotter. It did feel quite cramped to have a German and a US mortar within four feet of one another.
Inspired by Thursday’s game I have painted a new German NCO and MG42 team, to round out another section of grenadiers. I increasingly feel that the more cost-effective investments for a general scenario are in infantry squads and MMG teams: exotic specialist units that might not get to use their kit are less likely to justify the expense.
As for Matt, I hope he was satisfied with the performance of his GIs on their final outing in South East England. What do I mean, final? I am determined to get him back down here for some more games in the future. It would be criminal to lose touch with an opponent who is as sporting, capable and likeable as Matt has been over the past four years. Excuse me for a moment, I have something in my eye….
On Wednesday evening I played my second game of Chain of Command, arranged by Spencer. I took a German platoon with an extra section and HMG, plus a STUG to introduce the vehicle rules. Spencer took a platoon of British airborne, together with a Sherman and a flamethrower.
Let’s get it out of the way quickly: I was pulverised. We played a patrol scenario and both came on in the same table third (my left, Spencer’s right), which had a big house around the half way line. We ended up with jump off points quite close to and either side of this house and it was the scene of an interesting sequence of events. Spencer deployed first and placed one section behind the house, one in a hard cover ruin in the centre of the table and one behind the ruin, ready to swing round to his left. I deployed a section behind hedgerow on my left, a second further along the same hedge nearer the centre, a third in woods close to Spencer’s section in hard cover (what was I thinking?) and the fourth behind a Hill on my right.
On his right, Spencer advanced his right hand section along with a senior leader, aiming to knock out my left jump point. I met him with fire from behind the hedgerow and from a fence behind his left flank.This took out several Paras and he decided to withdraw behind the house. Thinking I would go for a wipeout, I sent a full strength section into close combat with his five (count them) surviving men. Well! That was quite a way to find out how tough elite infantry with stens and a senior leader can be. Spencer had many more dice to roll than I. My section lost six men and routed back to their starting hedge line, while Spencer lost only two. His depleted section took no further part in the game but they didn’t need to as they had done their work.
In the centre my third section in the woods fought an unequal duel with Spencer’s middle section in hard cover. I had thought my MG42 with its extra dice would partly counter their cover advantage but when that combined with elites being harder to hit, I was heading for a sticky end.
On Spencer’s left I think we both took some odd decisions. His left hand section legged it towards my right flank, then ran back almost the way it had come, intending to assault my section in the woods. They stopped short in the open and got shot up good. My right hand section, meanwhile, deployed behind a hill that lacked any cover and started out to meet Spencer’s flanking section, but when Spencer turned this unit around, mine jumped up on the hill and helped to shoot it up.
Next to appear were our respective AFVs. Neither made a huge impact on the game although each helped to whittle down enemy numbers.
In Force morale terms, Spencer made early gains through his brutally successful hand to hand defence, reducing my morale further as he broke my guys in the woods. I made some counter gains by beating up the section he had sent to his left then brought back again, but Spencer used a chain of Command die to end the turn and two of my routed sections left the table. In the final stage he deployed a flamethrower who fried my third section then engulfed my senior leader in flame, taking my force morale to zero. Game over.
Lessons for the next game? Regulars won’t win a firefight with elite troops in hard cover. Don’t even think of close assaulting elites as you’ll get stomped. Before you place a unit, think about the avenues open to it after deployment: beware dead ends. Also (and I did know this but it’s easy to forget) you don’t have to mirror your opponent’s deployment. My right hand section was wasted for most of the game and could have been more useful reinforcing the hedgerow line on my left. Finally, think more about the mechanics of the patrol phase and remember the jump off point will be some distance behind the patrol markers once these have been locked down.
The game was great fun and looked good. In particular, Spencer’s Paras were beautifully painted. I’m looking forward to the next one.
This week I finally played my first game of Chain of Command. I have had the rules for about four years but found them a daunting read and never got around to trying them. Somehow Bolt Action was that bit easier to grasp. Then along came Spencer, member of the Staines Wargamers and keen CoC player, who very kindly agreed to run a game in the shed for me and Matt, who has played it a little but is also pretty much a beginner.
What can I say? I am hooked. These rules are so much more intuitive in play than in print. We had a platoon of regulars each, with no supports. Matt took the Brits and I had the Germans. It was a patrol encounter with a twist: there was a crashed kubelwagen near the middle of the table that I needed to control and Matt needed to deny me.
Chain of Command has been around for a long time so I presume it’s main design elements are pretty well known. The salient features for me are the patrol phase, jump off markers and Command dice. Spencer offered some useful tips for using the patrol phase to win ground, which was actually an intriguing game within the game. When it ended, Matt had a row of jump off markers in the centre of the table while I had two markers facing his in the centre and a third a little behind his left. I hoped this would give me a flanking advantage but in the event my daft deployment nearly cost me the game.
Once we started placing figures, I quickly got into trouble. I deployed my first squad from the jump off point on my right flank in the open, placing the LMG team on overwatch and going tactical with the rifle team (increasing their cover save). Matt then deployed his first team in the building on his left, fired at my squad and began to dismantle it. Thanks to rolling several sixes, he played three phases on the trot, by the end of which I had lost my LMG team, junior leader and a couple of riflemen. My remaining troopers were pinned in the open. Bummer.
When my next turn came around I could do nothing to help the battered squad so deployed my remaining two squads and senior leader on my centre and left, close to the kubelwagen. Matt meanwhile deployed his second section beside his first on his left and his third section in the centre. I think his decision to reinforce his first section gave me a chance to recover from my stupid first move, as although he could now wipe out my first squad, I had more weapons firing at his troops in the centre than he had firing at mine.
To cut a long story short, my left hand squad and senior leader reached the kubelwagen and lined a hedgerow, from which they won a duel with Matt’s third section; Matt moved his second section forward but they were pinned by my central squad; and he took his first section out of their building to put an end to my first squad and neutralise its jump off point. By game end, I had lost one squad and a jump off point, but Matt had lost two sections, two jump off points and control of the kubelwagen. I used my first and only Chain of Command die to end the turn and Matt’s force morale fell to zero.
The game was exciting throughout and I only just managed to swing the win. The dice favoured Matt at the start with his series of rolled over phases but later on, I had some well above average shooting results, so (as always) the luck evened out. Spencer was an excellent tutor and umpire, advising us both on rules niceties and options. I found the rules far easier to absorb in play than they had been while reading the book. I think this is true of all rules to an extent but I do find Lardies rulebooks especially hard to navigate.
As for subtlety, I am sure it will be several games before I start to get the hang of how to play properly.
Having played a great deal of Bolt Action, I suppose I am bound to compare the two rules. BA is easy to learn and plays quickly. It has lots of tension and is always fun. It can however see some pretty unlikely tactics, the ranges are way too short and a lot of hardware appears on table that should be a long way away. I also hate the fact that some players create gamey army lists to get a killer - but unhistorical - army, but that isn’t the fault of the rules themselves.
By contrast I think Chain of Command will take longer to master, even with the help of Spencer. But it will be worth the effort. CoC is definitely exciting to play. I really like the friction and uncertainty from the Command dice; the combat mechanics are not that complicated once you learn them and the players are faced with a wider range of tactical choices than with BA, both in what their figures can do and how they can operate.
Of course, the most important factor to affect enjoyment in any game is the other player. Matt and Spencer were great company and the evening flew by. Spencer has recklessly agreed to come again. Before he does I’ve got some jump off points to build.