On target, fire!

Gunners in Action

Artillery is really scary and while sources vary widely on the actual proportion of casualties it caused relative to small arms, there is little doubt that it was capable of really messing up your day whether you were Ivan, Tommy, Joe or Fritz.


The level of artillery bought to bear at some stages of the second world war was truly vast. As the Russians crossed the Oder and advanced on Berlin they developed a strategy of supporting infantry assaults with big guns shooting “over the sights”. Where possible, guns were placed in direct line of sight of block houses and dug-outs, supplementing assault guns and man-portable weapons (the Russians also used captured Panzerfaust to assist in clearing buildings in Berlin). Artillery duels were a large (and dangerous) feature of the terrible stalemate at Monte Cassino in 1944. Even towards the end of the war the Germans were able to bring dangerous concentrations of artillery and Nebelwefers to bear to stop assaults or help launch counter-attacks. Montgomery just about made artillery his signature move. From El Alamein on very few assaults planned by Monty’s staff were launched without arty support.

The effect of artillery was not always, or at least not only, causing casualties to the opposition. It could destroy barricades and obstacles or interdict enemy movement for supply or reinforcement or slow (or stop) troop concentrations.

It was a large part of divisional and army group operations. And this is a headache for a platoon level game like Bolt Action, because while at Army Group level Monty won’t go anywhere without a few 25 pdr batteries opening the way, Dick Winters right on the front line didn’t always have that choice.

Gunners in Bolt Action

The Bolt Action designers recognise this:

“… howitzers, … should be a comparably rate sight on the battlefield. However, a game devoid of tanks and big guns would be a dull affair, so we are prepared to accept that our part of the battlefield just happens to be where the opposing tanks and armour are concentrated.”

Bolt Action rulebook, page 123

And I think they’re right on this point (as on a lot of others, BA is a very clever game).

Given this, the challenge becomes how to represent arty on the table, a topic of conversation wherever BA players assemble (along with what to eat and is the pub open).

I suspect that it is the variability that bugs players.  Outcomes for a barrage range from dastardly to diabolical with a trip via meh, depending on how well the battery ranges in.
The small chance that it can totally change a game can be really depressing – I know it can be when you’re on the receiving end.  On the other hand watching your arty do barely any pins at all is underwhelming. Worst of all is calling the guns onto your own units. That hurts.

But I think that is the point. It is a common trope in war stories to come under fire from your own artillery, but only because in the bewildering place that is a battlefield it is sadly familiar. Most memoirs include the writer coming under friendly fire.  Russian artillery caused a terrible toll on Russian forces advancing from other directions as they all entered Berlin. Russian guns also forced US forces had to pull back from the Elbe.
Comparable stories exist on all sides.  I think it is right that there is a potential for a barrage to come down on your own troops. If we are to include artillery we need to allow for this range of outcomes. It will most often put down some pins, sometimes kill them and occasionally drop on your own head.

What Are We Gunner Do?

Do the Bolt Action rules require any changes?  I’ve seen a few suggestions but on balance I think not.  The mechanism of a variable range from the target point and the variable impact for those within the target area account quite nicely for the random variation of firing a barrage on the target.

The mechanism for moving the target point up to 24″ nicely captures another terrible source of error, shooting the wrong target.  A miss is accounted for as above with a variable outcome. A mistake – targeting the wrong unit or co-ordinates – by this second mechanism.

Is the points cost right? I think so, a single 10 man regular squad is about the same cost at 100 points. Over a game, a squad might die horribly, dish out death to multiple units or do nothing. Arty is like that, just a bit more concentrated.  The free Forward Observer for the British may be the problem here.  The Brits certainly relied on artillery, so it brings the right flavour to the game. The suggestion I like is that the Brits should still be able to have two FAO in a single reinforced platoon, but the second one costs 50 points instead of 100.

A British player is now forced to make a trade-off, albeit a simpler one than starting a second platoon. Is half the cost right? Maybe, it is the cost of a mortar, sniper, or MMG, so you really want to want one.

The other change I would make is that I like the GW scatter dice. If you happen to have one, I think using this for randomising direction is way easier. If you don’t, then the rule book suggestion is fine.

While I have discussed artillery, I think similar arguments hold for air support.

So, is arty perfect? No.  Does it capture some of its terror and destructiveness? Absolutely.  If an air or artillery observer fits the background of your list – take it.


Bolt Action is going to happen either way, so you might as well look good while it’s happening   – D.


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