There and Back Again, with Five Points for a Try
Just back from the Netherlands after a long weekend of Arnhem, Poldercon and the wonderful hospitality of our kind hosts, Jasper and Christy, who truly went the extra mile in making us feel welcomed. I have much to say about Poldercon and my visit to Arnhem, but having just got home I’ll keep them for later. My ability to Tweet from Holland was, sadly, limited due to problem getting internet data from my service provider. In the end, only a few snaps saw the light of day when I could hook up with wireless networks.
One of the images which got the most response was my opportunity to try out, for the very first time, the “Bolt Action” rules for WWII games. It’s a system which many people have told me about and compared to Chain of Command but, having never played, I felt somewhat in the dark as to its finer points. Anyway, getting home late Monday evening, my computer was bursting at the seams asking “How did it go?”, so I thought’d I’d spill the beans.
Firstly here’s the table we played over. It’s 6′ by 4′ and the German edge is shown in blue, the British in red.
The game began with some high-tech dabbling with an on-line army builder. I asked if my platoon could be as close to a standard platoon as possible, so I got three Paras sections of seven men each, each with one Bren gun. These were commanded by a Lieutenant. I got a “free” FOO (not sure if that refers to points or his lifestyle), a sniper team, a medic and a Cromwell in support. The German force was somewhat more funky; a true kampfgruppe in miniature, with two squads of five men including one MG42 in each, a 251 “Stummel” mounting a 75mm support gun, a SuG III and an SS recce squad with five blokes (MG42 included) in a SdKfz250.
We rolled for our scenario and got one where something very important was sat in the middle of the table and both sides were seeking to recover it and get it back to or table edge. Somehow this became the CO’s sandwiches whose parachute had drifted off-course and, whilst crucial for our operations around Arnhem, would be equally appealing to the Jerries who were heartily sick of sausages and pork luncheon meat by now. The hunt for the sarnies was on!
Before we commence I should warn the reader that as well as being the weekend of Poldercon, this was also the opening weekend for the Six Nations competition in Rugby Union, where the national teams from the northern hemisphere compete to see how much worse than the All Blacks they are. Spending the weekend in a land where the joys of the oval ball are yet to be fully appreciated was a wrench, albeit one tempered by the joys of Poldercon. I can only suggest that constant references to the BBC sport web page to catch up on the scores must have left some kind of impression upon me, as we shall see.
As the whistle sounded and the game began I trundled my forward section up towards the half way line where the sandwiches could be seen. Behind them my second and third section moved up in a neat line, whilst off to the right the FOO and sniper team took up their position with a great view right down the road. At this stage both sides rushed forwards towards their objective, but the luck of the dice draw saw my Paras get to the half way line first and seize the lunchbox.
On my left, my Cromwell put a couple of hard hits in on the StuG, failing to take it out of the game, but hard enough to get it rattled and stop it interfering with my forward advance. The Hun at this point was advancing cautiously, but putting down fire from its two lead squads. They failed to kill anyone but any successful hit adds a “Pin” to a unit, and these were mounting. The Stummel added its fire, but, fortunately, being a howitzer, its fire is counted as indirect which sees it slow to get any real effect and the result was minimal in terms of losses, but again the pins were mounting.
Now the SS team roared up in its 250. I was under the cosh here as my forward section was awash with pins, even though only one of the elite men had been killed. They elected not to assault me as, apparently, all pins are removed if they charge into close combat, effectively restoring my Paras to a completely rallied status, but wanted to use their firepower to really hurt me. Fortunately I had put my sniper team onto “Ambush” and I slotted their MG42 man, reducing their firepower.
Now I rushed my second section forward up the field, the much pinned lead section passing the lunchbox back to them. Rushing forward, my Lieutenant whipped the box from the scrummage and took the play from there.
The Jerries were looking menacing on the left with the StuG, so I crashed my Cromwell forward to palm off any threat from this quarter. By now my FOO had called in an artillery strike which had yet to arrive. Seeing the opportunity he moved in from the left towards the centre, waving frantically to my medic and third section who were now strung out neatly across the pitch on and angle from my metaphorical 10m line to my 22m line. (Those not familiar with the dimensions of a rugby pitch may wish to click here)
As one turn ended and another began, the StuG fired on my Cromwell causing massive damage, and destroying it completely. I could have allowed it to completely removed from play, utterly vapourised, but I left it there as it was nicely shielding the man with the sandwiches. The next dice was mine and the Lieutenant began to run. Like a flash he was out with the lunchbox tucked under his arm before laying it off neatly to the next dice, the third rifle section. Taking the box on the run they thundered towards their table edge, hurling back a neat pass to the FOO who swerved round some trees (with a hint of a Garryowen) before one final off-load saw the medic take up the precious box and hurl himself over the base line, swan-dive and all, for the winning try. Had this been in the Twickenham of my dreams, the crowd would have been on their feet and Johnny would have been stepping up for the conversion.
So how was it? Well, it was the best try I’ve scored in a quarter of a century, so that may cloud my judgement. It was a very fun game played in great company. Looking at specifics. My lead section was paralysed by the pinning effects of fire, even though their losses, until the last moment, were trifling. In Chain of Command, the impact of a pair of MG42s with some rifles would likely have been more mixed, with some kills and some shock, but we’d have been more likely to see the Paras enter into a firefight or withdraw under their own steam, albeit slowly due to weight of fire.
Certainly, the Stummel in Chain of Command would have been much more menacing, with its low velocity H.E. shells tearing chunks out of their target as it would have reduced cover to zero. What is more, both with the Stummel and MG42’s, the fire would have affected not just the front Para Section, but also the one immediately behind it, as the two were so close together that you couldn’t treat threat them as separate targets. That amount of firepower would have meant that I couldn’t just run in, sacrificing the front unit, before legging it with the ball to score my try. I’d have needed to construct a more measured defence in order to engage and defeat the enemy before seizing the objective once they were dealt with.
The same is true with the Cromwell on the left flank. The exchange of fire there was actually very similar to the kind of result one would expect to get with Chain of Command; the rattling of the crew and temporary reduction of effectiveness is fairly typical of a CoC game. As it was, the scenario we played was about winning at all costs, so I had no qualms whatsoever about sacrificing the Cromwell in order to protect the Lieutenant. It was simply an element I could afford to lose in order to guarantee the win. We could certainly see such a situation in Chain of Command; however, the force morale system does mean that sacrificing any unit can be very costly indeed as a shaken force can lose some of its effectiveness. It is also worth mentioning that, with a massive damage result on the Cromwell, Chain of Command could have seen an explosion which affected the Paras immediately adjacent to it, including the Lieutenant. If that had occurred, the sandwiches could well have been toast!
The big shock for me was the removal of pins from a unit which is assaulted. This is really the chief point where the two rule sets are diametrically opposed. Chain of Command encourages the players to mass Shock on their opponent before assaulting them; it is absolutely key to success in close combat and is an approach stressed in every tactical manual of the war I can think of. You simply do not charge to contact with troops who have not been degraded by fire. Bolt Action does not share that approach. I am not sure why not.
Finally, the run half way across the table to take the “ball” from the halfway line to the table edge was done in a run of five dice pulls from the pot. Four of them were mine, one of them German. It was certainly dramatic and I cannot pretend that Chain of Command has rules to cover such a superb dash for the try line. The reason it doesn’t is that the turn structure is very different. In Bolt Action you could, in theory, have that run across the whole length of the table if the dice came out in the right order and the units were lined up correctly. I had recognised that fairly early on and had set up my force in pretty much the perfect rugby backs formation. The lead sections were the forwards in the scrum of combat; the Lieutenant went forward as the scrum half to get the ball out and into play. Once that was done the backs ran the ball home in the most dramatic manner as we got a run of dice.
In fairness, even if we hadn’t got a run of dice we had deployed our backs in a position where the Germans couldn’t have interfered with their run even if all of their dice had come out before any of ours. That makes what looks like a dramatic try less impressive as, in truth, we were bringing the ball back to deposit it across our own home try line, not taking it forward across that of the enemy. But I shan’t let that spoil my imaginary moment in the white shirt with the red rose of England when gentlemen in England, then a-bed, shall think themselves accursed they were not there…
Ultimately, I think that whether you like Chain of Command or Bolt Action, you should play the one you enjoy. Which are “better” is a matter of personal preference. They certainly “do” WWII in different ways and with a different focus. I certainly had fun with my game of Bolt Action; if there were rules for conversions, penalties, scrums and line outs, I’d probably play them again. For now I can but dream of the summer and glories to come…