How to Get Started In Bolt Action
Updated: Jul 7
Maybe you've always wanted to dabble in historicals, but they've seemed so hard to get into. Maybe you're a life long 28mm player and historicals' 15mm and 6mm scale has scared you away. Maybe you don't feel you have the same freedom with a historical army that you have with a fantasy or science fiction army.
Whatever the reason, if you're a lifelong gamer (or a new gamer) who has never taken the plunge into an historical wargame, Bolt Action by Warlord Games makes it as easy of a transition as possible. 28mm, rules that are easily translatable from the big franchises, and plenty of room for customization.
The rules to Bolt Action weren't written by some 80-year-old historian in his musty library; the rules for Bolt Action were written by Rick Priestly. Yes, THAT Rick Priestly. The same Rick Priestly who wrote Warhammer. So, yes, you're dipping your toe into a different world, but in gameplay you'll find that an awful lot of it is the same as modern SF&F gaming.
The Easiest Way Into Bolt Action: Band of Brothers
By far, the easiest way to get started in Bolt Action is to buy their current starter set, Band of Brothers, which does in fact represent the US airborne dropping into Normandy the night before D-Day.
Here are the contents of the box:
24 New Plastic US Airborne
12 Plastic German Grenadiers
Plastic SdKfz 251/10 AusfD. 3.7cm PaK half track
Plastic Ruined Farmhouse
A5 Softback Bolt Action 2 Rules Book
Quick Start Guide
Quick Reference Sheet
12 Plastic Pin Markers
Plastic Templates and Tokens
10 Six Sided Dice
10 Order Dice
Now, nothing there should sound particularly intimidating to you, except maybe the "SdKfz 251/10 AusfD. 3.7cm PaK half track." The Germans had long abbreviations for their vehicles and even though you might think "I could never keep track of that tongue-twister", believe us: it's just a half-track.
So it comes with enough forces to play with two players: Germans and Americans, and it comes with scenery (the ruined farmhouse). And it comes with both the rule book and a quick reference sheet--and when it says "rulebook" it means "rulebook". Every rule you need for the game is in that book. It's not a starter pamphlet--it's the full rulebook.
The plastic pin markers, templates and tokens are really easy to manage in-game.
And the order dice are the biggest selling point of the game, in my opinion. (Order dice work this way: for every unit you have on the board, you get one order die. All of the order dice--yours and your opponent's--and placed in a bag, and drawn out randomly. You can then choose one unit in your army to use that order to do one of the things on the die--Fire, Advance, Run, Rally, Go Down, or Ambush).
It's an extremely simple game to learn, but has plenty of depth that will take you years to master.
So get the Band of Brothers boxed set, try it out--it's pretty basic--and see if you like how it runs.
Pick the Bolt Action Army You Like Best
Most people choose a Bolt Action army based on historical interest. For example, my first army was US Infantry Starter Army, because my grandpa served in the US Infantry (333rd, 84th Infantry) in the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Germany. So, I wanted to recreate some of that.
But you don't need to do that at all. If there's an army that you have a certain allegiance to--say, you're a New Zealander--and you want to represent your country then you could pick the British 8th Army that was made up of many of the Commonwealth nations. Or maybe you could pick your army based on a specific battle that you're interested in: after watching a battle report on Little Wars TV, I decided that I wanted to recreate the Raid on St. Nazarre, so I bought a box of British Commandos. Maybe you find that Germans have the best tanks (they really have an amazing selection) then play the Germans.
One thing that is particularly fun about picking an army for Bolt Action is that they offer armies that are lesser known. It's not just the Big Five Axis and Allies (USA, Britain, Soviet Union, Germany, Japan). They also have Polish, Belgian, French, Finnish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Italian, Chinese, and even French resistance.
Also, this is not like Games Workshop where you are constrained to using only Games Workshop models in Warhammer games. You can play with any WW2 models you want, from any company (Perry Miniatures makes a good line, but so do many others.)
The Starter Army boxes are the best values as they usually come with a platoon of soldiers, a heavy machine gun, a heavy mortar, an anti-tank gun, and two vehicles. Yes, you can add and subtract to your army from there, but seeing as how most games are played with 1000 points, a Starter Army box is really all you need to get going.
Now, there is one warning: early on in Warlord Games manufacturing, they produced models that had the guns separate from the arms. While some people like this because of customizability, a lot (including us) find this to be incredibly frustrating to try to assemble. Fortunately, most of their modern kits have moved away from that, but you'll still find them in most of the Soviet line, and in the British Infantry (however, the British Infantry box is currently being phased out by their brand new British and Canadian Infantry box, which is excellent. I expect that in the next year or two it will have completely replaced the British Starter Army box.)
Get the Rules
Now comes the fun part. If you're coming from a Games Workshop background think of these as Codices or Battletomes. Every army has a book that accompanies it that lays out all the details of that army. Yes, I said that the Band of Brothers book comes with all the rules, but it comes with all the game rules. These other rulebooks come with the army lists and stats.
But once you have the army stats, you can begin to customize your force. Buy the US Army book, which will give you all the rules for American Airborne as well as Patton's Third Army, and then buy the Battle of the Bulge book, and either play the Airborne desperately defending Bastogne from the German offensive, or play Patton's Third coming quickly to reclaim the city.
There are books like this for all sort of theaters of battle: North Africa
Stalingrad, The Pacific Islands, virtually any place you can think of, they've got a book to get you into the thick of it. (And the books don't need to be expensive. I buy all my on Kindle for my phone a half the price of the paperback.)
Once you get going in Bolt Action, you'll find that the average Bolt Action 1000 point game will only give you one or maybe two vehicles. But there are some people who really love the tanks (and the models are so great, who can blame them?)
So Warlord Games made a rules set called Tank War which follows most of the core rules of Bolt Action, but each side can play with three or four (or five or six) tanks. It's a lot of fun, and it's the way I tend to play the game with my son.
How Do I Paint My Bolt Action Army?
This is where you can be as historically accurate as you want to be. Warlord Games sells painting guides (for only $4). But this is an area where you can go down the rabbit hole as deep as you want (figuring out the exact shade of the webbing on the Americans' uniform) or be comfortable with a good approximation of the camouflage.
I really got into Bolt Action through the expert painter Sonic Sledgehammer studios, and below we'll link to several of his excellent tutorial videos.
And that's really all there is to it! Of course, you'll need some terrain, but building terrain is something that every good wargamer probably knows how to do (or, at least, knows someone who knows how to do it.) One of our starting 3D printed options (for FDM printers) was PrintableScenery.com