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….