the phantom army

Reading counts as hobby.

Just finished a book about camouflage and deception in the desert war.

The author Rick Stroud does a great job of telling what could be a pretty dull story about development of camouflage in the British Army in early WW2. It is written with wit and not too much detail. Footnotes and bibliography are there for those who crave more detail.

The story culminates in Project Bertram, the lessor known little sibling of the phantom armies that supported the Overlord preparations and invasion.

For those watching SAS Rogue Heroes at the moment, it even has a cameo from Dudley Clarke.

A question I now have is how to include deception units into Bolt Action. I suspect it may not have a place, but it would be funny to be able to pay a premium to be able to deploy a tank that looked like a truck until you got too close, or vice versa.

hobby, sure

Two weeks leave and high hopes for getting a bunch of hobby done. Yeah, sure. Nah.

I did turn these crafty ball things into hedges, so I guess that is hobby.

It was nice to be off work for a while though.

Here’s to getting some hobby done sometime soon.

lessons were learned

In the summer of 1944, German and fascist forces conducted many operations across Northern Italy. The sweeps and armed security-patrols into the rugged mountains were designed to break up the growing partisan companies and restrict their ability to operate.

Many of the rule book missions could be used to re-fight aspects of a security operation. But I want to create a mission where partisans are making a desperate bid to break through a security cordon to escape. With this in mind I played a couple of solo games to get a feel for how squads might interact on wooded table, with one side attempting to exit and the other to stop them.

I went with infantry heavy forces with around 450 to 500 points. A bit smaller than even a small game, but large enough to try out some ideas. For the partisans I tried one game with a small number of squads and another with the same number of fighters, but split into groups of 3 to 5.

I opposed the partisans with a more structured German force: several 5 man squads with rifles, a medium mortar, a 3 man LMG squad, and an officer. Thematically, I think matching the partisans against an inexperienced or green security force could be a lot of fun, but for this experiment I went with regular squads.

In the first game I deployed the partisans randomly, using the paratroop drop rules from Market Garden. Then the Germans entered the board from random board edges. The double randomness was too much and would likely lead to very swingy games- even more swingy than BA is usually!

For the second game I dialed back the random deployment. The Germans deployed up to half of their units on the board, but their reserves came on randomly in from turn 2. The partisans started off board, with at least half coming on as first wave.

The dynamic of using squads of 3 to 5 was interesting. It gave the partisans plenty of dice, but limited fire power, and forced moral checks more frequently. Another idea might be forcing the fleeing partisans to start with 0 to 2 pins on each squad.

I need to sort out scoring yet, and I think the points need to be balanced a bit. A higher number of points for the partisans, perhaps 50% more might even the sides up a bit, given the partisans need to advance into the Axis deployment zone and move off the board in order to win.

Also victory points need to be worked out. I think something like 2 victory points per exited unit for the partisans and 1 victory point per partisan squad eliminated by the Axis force.

More experiments are clearly required.

Partisans in Bolt Action

Bolt Action sometimes get described as Hollywood WW2, capturing dramatic moments of heroism and action that on closer inspection defy physics, history, and occasionally logic. But as a game it delivers with popcorn-munching glory.

Its focus is actions involving what the writers call reinforced platoons, which seems to be as good a name as any. Most armies are built around 4 to 6 infantry squads plus supporting elements from light-mortars and machineguns all the way up to tanks, off-board artillery, and air support. This is an elastic form, set in the moment when the big bombardment is over. Manoeuvre of battalions and companies is on a scale abstracted from the immediate game, and – most importantly- contact is made with the enemy. The game simulates those frantic minutes, up to a couple of hours tops, where troops must close and destroy or displace their opponents to achieve their part in the wider battle.

Being a game, a key design decision is to match balanced forces in the contest. Both sides have (more or less) equal chance of winning. This is not an absolute restriction, but most games will meet this broad outline.

The big 4: Germans, Soviets, British, and US, have all the toys they need to get the job done against most opponents. The largest of the less common army lists: French, Italians, Hungarians (especially with the additional units available in the Budapest campaign book) and even Finnish can build solid, balanced lists without too much extra effort. I’m not sure where Japanese sit, as a part of a big 5, or with the Italians, but they can also meet most table-top challenges.

Then come the minor powers. Not only can suitable miniatures be harder to find, building a good list can be harder too. Greece, Holland, Norway, Belgium. Bulgaria. Not impossible, just harder. All these lists face a central dilemma of fewer choices around armoured vehicles. In fact, pretty much all vehicles. Artillery and some of the other specialist slots can also be limited. These more limited choices are compounded by national rules that are mostly a bit underwhelming compared to the larger powers. Not fatal by any means. Just a larger challenge.

And then there are the Partisans.

You can have a looted tank, inexperienced, of course. Not much artillery. The national rules can be fun- booby traps and a movement bonus. Better than the Italians, anyway.

Partisan actions were desperate, brave and fierce. Fighting with limited resources, with little help or hope of relief or reinforcement, is its own special brand of courage.

They are also mostly a long way from the reinforced platoon level of all the other armies in the game. The Partisan army list in the French and Allies book acknowledges this dilemma. The official list focusses on late war Soviets and Yugoslav forces. The early war selector would require being matched to a suitable early war opponent- the Security Force from the German selectors or Bulgaria. This is not so different to many of the selectors that focus on particular periods or battles. The Warsaw Uprising also fits, being a prolonged city-fight.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying I like Partisans, but to bring them to life on a Bolt Action table they need a bit more than just the ordinary matched play.

Pack more ammo

If medium machines guns sometimes seem underwhelming on Bolt Action tables, squad based support weapons seem to suffer from not even being invited to the dice-rolling party. Squad based light machine guns are a common topic when BA players gather. A lot of the debate centers on the cost of including LMG in your infantry squads.

With a basic cost of 20 points and requiring another squad member to act as loader, LMG are not cheap. In return, you get 4 shots with a range of 36″. An increase of 2 shots over two soldiers with rifles. LMG also increase the reach of a basic squad with rifles by 12″. In game terms, the choice to include LMG will depend on what role a squad has in your army.

I often include squads with LMG in my armies. Partially this is because I tend to play Germany who, with the Hitler’s Buzz Saw national rule, get an extra shot for LMG and MMG. However, the main reason I include LMG is because they were typical of German infantry doctrine. Especially in defense, squads were mostly porters for MG ammunition. A kind of history tax paid by players who are not completely focused on list optimisation.

I have never notices that big-arsed mold line until I took this photo. A misshapen head won’t stop him from doing his duty though.

I toy with what rules changes could be made to LMG to encourage their use. A points reduction is tempting, but moving the value of just one weapon, especially one that appears in nearly every list, will likely have unintended knock on effects. As ever, Konflikt 47 has a nice solution, allowing squads with at least two LMG (or one MMG) to use suppression fire. This is a trade-off of -1 to hit to cause an additional pin if you do, which is handy at times and captures some of the weight of fire aspect of MG.

An alternative could be to allow squads with an LMG to split into combat teams, creating the opportunity for (historical) fire and maneuver tactics. The LMG provides supporting fire as the rest of the squad moves to assault or take ground. This idea has all sorts of headaches, the magical addition of an extra order die for starters. I suspect the most simple answer is to take slightly smaller squads to represent combat teams, and use the officer rule to pull additional dice to help co-ordinate assaults.

Surely nobody did this outside of posing for a photograph? It is still an ace vignette from Crusader

So, LMG: don’t leave home without them. Oh, and remember to bring plenty of ammunition.

Machine guns are scary

Or, at least they should be. Alas! In Bolt Action, medium machine guns are somewhat underwhelming. They can be nasty, but it also feels like they can be neutralised far too easily. Snipers often seem to be a better choice, and moreover also seem to be an effective tactic against MMG teams. I’m not really sure what can be done about this. Perhaps nothing has to be. There are certainly a lot of opinions about.

Members of the People’s Volunteer Army lay down support with a Chinese built Maxim

The basic economics make sense. For 50 points you get a regular MMG team that has 5 shots (6 for the Germans) and a max range of 36″. A regular infantry squad with rifles has 5 shots with a range of 24″, but has two more bodies and can move and shoot. If you can manoeuvre an infantry squad to within assault range, they will probably win. Getting to a place to charge an effectively dug-in machine gun team, that is dangerous work. This describes pretty much every squad level engagement since machines guns were widely adopted in the early 20th century. Yet, this is not part of the Bolt Action vibe, and the game is a little less than it could be because of it.

Fallschirmjäger crew an MG42 on a fixed mount

In the recent campaign book, Italy- Soft Underbelly, there are scenarios where the defender gets multiple MMG. So the designers at least have faith, and it does reflect history, which is at least part of the point. Perhaps this is all that is needed. Allow 0-2 MMG in a standard list, use terrain, hidden set-up and ambush. Job done!

An MMG holds up the Soviet advance into Stalingrad

One of the most successful tweaks has been the introduction in Konflikt ’47 of the ability to perform suppression fire. Trading accuracy for weight of fire allows additional pins. A neat mechanism and one that would port into Bolt Action well and present players with additional tactical decisions.

Built by the Italian military, the machine gun pits formed a key part of the strong defenses of Tobruk

Extra shots, cheaper points. Some wonky equivalent of tiger fear. Solutions that likely come with a bunch of unintended consequences. I keep coming back to some form of extra pins as an attractive way to increase the power of MMG.

A light mortar gets d2 pins, so additional pins is a simple extension that is probably not overpowered. I wonder if making MMG d2 and light mortars 1 pin + 1 additional pin on a 5+ might give the right feel? Or vice versa. Simply doing extra pins also avoids a new mechanism to remember, which has a merit of its own.

MMG were used in all theatres and climates

I would restrict MMG buffs to infantry teams and pintel mounts. Most gun ports on vehicles have such restricted views that the big sweeping shots, and even prepared fire lanes are rarely an option. And they will still throw out 5 shots in most situations, which is still dangerous. Adding a small benefit to infantry-crewed MMG will help tip the balance back the other way a little. I include pintel mounted MMG since most vehicles will become open-topped as the brave soul operates the gun. Maybe too complicated already. This does illustrate the point that trying to fix one thing might (will!) cause a new problem.

The role of many riflemen is often restricted to carrying extra ammunition for the squad MG

Here is another thought. Only provide additional pins to MMG that are deployed at the start of the game. A special rule like “fixed lanes, or prepared positions” where because crews have had time to prepare fire lanes and ensure enough ammunition, they get the additional effect of extra pins. Once you move (other than rotate as part of an advance order), you loose extra benefits. Depending on the mission this will tend to benefit the defender, which is perhaps as it should be.

Great War British MMG team, 15mm, Plastic Soldier Company
Many MMG designs, like this water cooled Vickers, were largely unchanged from the first world war.

Lots of ideas on MMG here. What do you think?

Do MMG need a tweak or are they fine as they are?

Mission Rules

There are heaps of missions in Bolt Action including a dozen in the main rule book. Despite this choice missions can start to feel a bit stale. Tournaments especially carry this risk as organizers seem to focus on the most balanced of the missions. I understand why, but it can make things start to feel a bit same same.

A simple way to mix this up is to add a mission special rule. Some players hate this, as some random rule messes with their carefully crafted list. I’m not one of them. I like adding a little twist. Not too many. I don’t want too much extra to remember during a game. Here are a few ideas on adding a little something new to existing Bolt Action missions.

New officer: A new officer has arrived; he seems OK but he doesn’t know anyone’s name yet and it is causing some confusion.

The commanding officer begins the game with a pin.

O-Group: There is an O-Group meeting, and the old man is back at company HQ when the battle starts.

All officers (lieutenants, captains, etc.) must start the game in reserve and cannot be deployed on the table or come on as part of a first wave.

Supply problems: Supplies have been delayed causing fuel shortages.

After deployment but before turn one, roll for each vehicle in your list. On a 1 it gains the Fuel Shortage rule. Vehicles that start in reserve may re-roll the supply problem check.

Last day of the war. The war is nearly over, and nobody wants to be the last person to die. Even experienced troops are reluctant to press home attacks.

After deployment but before the first die is drawn roll for each unit in your list. On a 4+ it gains a pin. Vet and/or fanatics may re-roll. Units in reserve roll when they first move onto the table.

Dutch Courage A cache of liquor has been discovered and drunk. The unit is still under the influence when the battle starts.

To represent their drunk condition, a single unit receives both the Shirker and Fanatic special rules.

New Orders Local commanders can’t always see the big picture. Assets must be redeployed to a more critical mission.

A support asset is being reassigned. Randomly (and secretly) select one unit in your list from the following: tank, armoured car, or artillery. Following from turn 4 onwards it must be withdrawn from the battle by moving off the board from your table edge. If successfully withdrawn this unit is worth 1VP at the end of the game to the owning player.

What do you think? Are extra rules the road to tears and unnecessary complexity or can they help build a fun narrative?

Will the real dave please stand up?

There is a new kid on the blogging block: Soul Marmalade. Another project from me, and is intended to create an online presence for a hobby that is mostly not-online. Soul Marmalade has no paint brushes. It is dedicated to words and my efforts as a poet! This is probably the last time I will mention it here at Faith and Steel, which is dedicated to gaming and miniatures.

But, I’m a wee bit excited because I have just released my first book of poems, published by the Melbourne Poets Union as part of their Red Bellied Poets series.

this is a proof copy; the actual books are like this but even more beautiful

You can get copies by emailing mpu editor-in-chief: tinagiannoukos AT
or contact me because I still have some author copies.

Normal services will now resume.

what’s out your window?

Everyone loves a little internet challenge and I have been enjoying this one started by Borganwald to show people the view from their windows.

My place is set in bushland in central Victoria, in Australia. It feels a bit like bragging, but it is not a bad place to be if you need to isolate. I’m certainly not stuck indoors, and being laid off work (like so many others) I have plenty of time to plant more trees and maybe even get a bit of hobby done.


A shout out to some of the other blogs I’ve seen in my feed: The Imperfect Modeller, Just Needs Varnish, Pat’s. Be sure to check out some of their other posts too. Talented hobbyists all.