Bolt Action: On The Moon


In space, no one can hear you leak...

As you might imagine, this submission immediately drew my interest... Ed.

Words by David Burden. Pictures by the Author and Editor

Like many visitors, and particularly those of a certain age, I was blown away by the Dark Side of the Moon game put on by the South London Warlords at Salute in 2019. What’s not to like about a Gerry Anderson inspired wargame set on the Moon where the tech is barely in advance of our own?

Inspired by the game I picked up a set of Moongrunt figures from Ground Zero Games, a couple of nice domes from Brigade Models and set about making craters from large yoghurt tubs in true DIY style. A few weeks later I added a one-inch gridded 3ft mat from Deep-Cut Studio.

The question though was what rules to use? I did download and play the Dark Side rules from the MW&BG web site (tabletopgaming.co.uk/information/downloads) as featured in Issue 440, and whilst they gave a fun game I couldn’t see them becoming a regular set for me. More crucially apart from the “dust” marker there was no real sense of playing on a near future Moon – low gravity, no atmosphere, fragile spacesuits. In fact the same could be said of most SF rulesets – whilst weapons and armour might have an “SF” feel, the location often doesn’t: Terran normal gravity and atmosphere seems standard, and armoured battledress means no fear of falls! Having played a scenario through with Dark Side I tried it again with Stargrunt, but still felt a lack of “otherness”. Albedo Combat Patrol is my go-to SF skirmish set, but again the base setting is very “Terran” – although it does have some rules for zero-gee and vacuum fighting, and I have high hopes for the imminent “Boarding Action” expansion. It is though at a lower level than what I was after for Moongrunts: I want platoons of astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts fighting it out over the water ice deposits of the South Pole!

SLIDE THE BOLT HOME

Having played through over a dozen platoon level rule sets at the start of the year Bolt Action (with suitable house-rules to deal with ranges and better balance firepower) emerged as the ruleset closest to what I was after for general WW2/Modern platoon level play. So why not adapt this for use on the Moon?

WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT THE MOON?

Before adapting Bolt Action (BA) it was important to think about what the “feel” was that I was after. How would BA on the Moon feel different from BA in Normandy, say? A great place to start are the Apollo videos. Whilst those from Apollo 11 are very grainy and stilted, those from the later missions are incredibly detailed and the astronauts unbelievably relaxed. Perhaps my favourite is Apollo 16 where they drive out in the buggy to a large crater and then wander up the hill at the rim – with significant distance between them and the rover – and a long drive back to the LEM if a suit leaks! And given how much they tumble as they bounce around you’ve got to wonder how they survived without any serious incidents – even Capcom has to tell them to reign it in at one point. The original Space:1999 episodes are also not a bad source of inspiration – suit leaks, big bounces and flying debris are all there (and of course the Eagles…).

Of more recent vintage the moon buggy race in Ad Astra also has the right sort of feel – pity about the rest of the film...

Based on this “research” the aspects of moon-based combat which I think differentiate it from Terran combat are:

  • Low gravity lets you move faster – if you want to, but...
  • The chances of a fall are far greater if you start doing things in a less considered way, and
  • Falls are likely to lead to helmet damage or, more likely, suit breaches, which need to be patched up before you get back in the fight.

I’m not talking battle armour here, just Teflon fabric style suits of Apollo, and possibly the Hard-Upper-Torso design of the sort that NASA is looking at for Artemis. The most you can hope for is that hard torso and solid helmet.

 

FOLLOW THE SCIENCE 

Of course 1/6th gravity will have a big impact on weapons too. Assuming all other things are equal just the lower gravity means that a rifle bullet will travel about 6 times further on the Moon than the Earth. Then consider that there is no atmospheric resistance so kinetic energy will be loss less rapidly, so the bullet will hit harder, and with no wind there will be less to deflect the bullet and so accuracy should be increased as well (primarily for aimed shots).

The same effects will also be felt by shrapnel. When a grenade explodes the fragments will go faster and further. In some ways this might be just as well as with no atmosphere the “blast” effect of an explosion caused by over-pressure is significantly reduced – so it’s the shrapnel that would probably cause most of the damage. Science also tells us that there’s no issue with guns actually firing on the Moon: the propellant has its own oxidizer. But recoil will be higher, and there is also discussion about the likelihood of gun oil boiling off in a vacuum, so an increased chance of the gun jamming unless some way is found to counter that.

If you want a touch more science-fiction in your games then gauss/accelerator rifles might be a good substitute for conventional weapons without having a major impact on the rules. Such weapons use magnetic fields to accelerate small metal bullets or flechettes – ideal for puncturing vulnerable spacesuits.

So, armed with this, albeit brief, analysis, it was time to start modding Bolt Action – and this is what I came up with.

 

BOLT ACTION: MOONSIDE

Unless otherwise stated in these rule-mods all BA rules play as published. I haven’t detailed any specific army lists or army special rules (but if the Editor asks...)

ORDERS

Orders are played as normal, however, if a unit is given a Down or Run order then before they execute the order they have to take an Orders Test, after any needed to execute the order. This extra Orders Test is effectively a fumble roll, the troops are acting at speed and without deliberation, and in the case of Down getting themselves up close and personal with sharp rock and abrasive lunar dust. If they fail the test then they take a Pin to reflect someone having to effect a quick suit repair or clean the dirt from their visor. If they rolled a double six then one figure has damaged their suit/helmet so badly that they are out of the game and treated as a casualty.

MOVEMENT

I actually shied away from changing the standard movement rates. “Advance” speed is really all about patrolling, observing and being ready to react – and so the fact that you could move faster is unlikely to have much impact. Watching the Apollo videos the classic “bunny hop” does let you move fast, but at the risk of a tumble (see above and check out the research links at the end), and bouncing up high just makes you an easier target. So moving “at pace” on the Moon may be more about being less fatigued when doing so than about your speed over ground. I treated crater rims as being Obstacles, and being in a crater gives Hard Cover.

SHOOTING

As described earlier weapons should have a longer range on the Moon. I know that some BA ranges seem very short compared to reality, and I, like others, house rule those to make them longer, but for here I’m taking “by the book” ranges and tripling them as a nod to the x6 theoretically greater range, but also reflecting that clear shots are unlikely at long ranges. Even so – for most weapons – it means that the whole of the average tabletop is now in range. The table at the end of the article presents some standard weapon types from the BA (plus a few more modern ones) with their new ranges. Note that since this is a near-future game I haven’t introduced laser weapons and fusion/plasma guns (yet), but have given an option for a Gauss rifle.

Given the lack of wind, significant gravity or atmospheric drag we can expect shooting to be more accurate, so all shooting is at +1.

The final change to shooting is damage. Again, in the interests of keeping things simple I just add a +1 DM to all Damage rolls – making damage that much more likely if hit.

HIGH EXPLOSIVES (HE)

Double the size of all HE templates. Penetration modifier is unchanged due to lack of blast effect, but add 1 to Pins to reflect the greater debris flying around.

SMOKE

Once you explode a smoke grenade or shell on the Moon it has no wind to move it anywhere after the initial explosion. Assuming the weapon has been designed to make the smoke linger (e.g. by emitting at low velocity) rather than rapidly expanding (and not hanging around for long enough to block any view) then for game purposes assume that the smoke stays in place for the whole of the rest of the game.

VEHICLES

Taking the cue from the Moongrunt models, Space:1999 and Ad Astra, near-future moon vehicles will often be open topped, and even closed ones are unlikely to be armoured. All vehicles should be counted as soft-skinned, and open-vehicles should suffer the “Open-Topped” and “Open-Topped Hit by Indirect Fire” rules even for direct fire. The lack of armour and the added damage caused by shrapnel implies that most anti-vehicle weapons will be HE rather than kinetic or shaped-charge based.

The BA movement speeds seem okay, and – as with infantry – crater rims count as Obstacles. Again, inspired by some of the antics of the Apollo Lunar Rover crews I’d force players who make a 90 degree turn to take the additional Orders/Fumble test if under a Run order (but not otherwise). If failed then roll D6 and 1-5 count as Crew Stunned on the Vehicle Damage Table, and 6 counts as Immobilised – they did a bit more than bend the fender!

OFF-TABLE/INDIRECT FIRE

Given the relatively small scale of forces involved, and the fun that there might be in calculating indirect fire plots that don’t put projectiles into orbit (OK, I know escape velocity even on the Moon is still pretty high) I think that off-table and indirect fire is best ignored.

CLOSE QUARTER BATTLE

I must admit I’ve already house-ruled the Close Quarters section of BA, but based on the vanilla version the only change is to apply a +2 to the Damage roll (i.e. Regular damages on 2+ not 4+) since hand-to-hand in vacc-suits with protruding tubes and vulnerable back-packs, and lethal fragmentation grenades, is going to get very messy, very fast. In fact, it’s probably a good reason to revisit the sequential nature of BA melees and treat them as simultaneous as otherwise the defenders are unlikely to stand a chance.

BUILDINGS 

Building rules can be pretty much used as-is, but remember that windows will be as strong as the main walls and most doors will actually be air-locks, plus the enemy will probably be waiting on the other side of the inner door... If the attacker is able to control the airlock cycle assume it takes 1 turn to cycle, i.e. enter in Turn 1, cycle in Turn 2, exit into the interior in turn 3.

Above ground buildings should be treated as “buildings”, and if a successful hit is scored by an HE weapon then not only do units inside take damage as per the rules but the building is now exposed to vacuum and any personnel inside not in vacc-suits are killed. However, above ground buildings which are not made of metal, concrete etc do not protect against HE shells that explode just outside and include the building in the template. Assume fragments penetrate as though hit. Buildings which are part buried (i.e. have regolith surrounds in addition to their shell – typically to enhance radiation shielding) count as Bunkers (but without the firing slits!).

BA ON THE MOON: GRID MODS

The eagle eye’d amongst you will notice that the photos of my Bolt Action:Moonside games show a 1” gridded mat. Given my article in Miniature Wargames issues 404/405, it should come as no surprise that I play almost all of my wargames on grids. As mentioned, the mat is a 3’x 3’ one from Deep-Cut Studios, and I managed to use their Print-O-Mat facility to both add the grid and bias the image away from the bigger craters which I felt would be too dominant on the smaller mat size. For regular and Moonside Bolt Action I use a simple 1” = 1 “ grid square conversion. When measuring distance for movement or firing you cannot count two diagonals in a row.

BEYOND THE MOON

Having pried BA from the cold, dead hands of Earth it’s worth a quick thought as to what changes to the Bolt Action: Moonside mods might be needed if fighting on other planets of the Solar System.

Mars probably needs the fewest mods, the minimal atmosphere can be treated pretty much as vacuum for combat purposes – so more accurate and more damage from direct hits. However, the long-term weathering means fewer sharp rocks, and that with higher gravity means that the “fumble” rolls can probably be ignored, and possibly the enhanced HE damage.

Mercury will be very Moon-like apart from the heat (or cold). Forget fighting on the surface of Venus until serious combat environment suits exist. The larger asteroids (Ceres etc) and the other rocky moons will be very Moon-like (hardly surprising). However, as the moons and asteroids get smaller two issues emerge. Firstly, horizons get to be very close due to the small size (horizons can quickly become a lot less than weapon ranges – try playing a game where all units more than 24” away are hidden!). Secondly, gravity begins to reach micro-gravity values – so the challenge becomes not falling down but falling off. Perhaps change the fumble roll so that instead of falling down you arc up and randomly land 3D6” away. And add the standard fumble roll to any firing of a weapon with recoil to reflect the chances of being disorientated by the kick.

The icy moons (and Pluto) probably behave as for the Moon and small moons/asteroids above, but it’s flying ice chips not rocks that the players need to watch out for. Randomly appearing ice crevasses could be added, and the rilles of Europa and Ganymede would provide some very challenging skirmish terrain.

Titan and Io are probably the most alien worlds in the Solar System to fight on. Titan’s atmosphere severely restricts visibility, and the methane pools are major hazards. It’s probably closer to fighting on Earth, in a lethal swamp, with minimal visibility. For Io all the Moon changes apply, but the sulfur vents and plumes make for a very dangerous environment. Randomly place vents and then dice for them to become active, damaging anyone close (2” HE template), and also dice for random plume-fall anywhere on the table!

MOONIFYING OTHER RULES

Hopefully, the suggestions and discussions here for BA should give you a head-start in converting any similar mechanized warfare skirmish rule set. The key things to capture are:

  • Fast and uncontrolled movement becomes risky
  • Weapons are more accurate and have greater range
  • Damage is greater, primarily due to fragmentation
  • Vehicles and buildings offer minimal protection

CONCLUSION

I think there is a lot to be said for modifying existing rule sets to play on the Moon, rather than having a unique set – even an SF one. I think it’s interesting to show how combat in low-gee, in a vacuum is different from terrestrial combat, and players will appreciate that most when they realise just how much more deadly and uncertain their familiar rules are when played on the Moon rather than when playing in Normandy, Vietnam, the North German Plain or in Afghanistan.

WEAPONS LIST

The table below presents a set of generic near-future Bolt Action: Moonside weapons to get you started, but feel free to add your own. 

WEAPON

RANGE (“)

SPECIAL RULES

Pistol

18”

 

SMG

36”

 

Automatic/Battle Rifle

90”

 

Assault Rifle

54”

 

LMG

108”

 

MMG

108”

 

HMG

108”

 

Lt Cannon

144”

HE 2”

Hvy Cannon

216”

HE 2”

Man-portable anti—tank missile

180”

1 Shot, +5 pen, HE 2”

Carl Gustav style anti-tank/structure short recoilless rifle

180”

1 Shot, +4 pen, HE 4”

Medium anti-tank guided Missile

Unlimited on table

1 Shot, +7 pen, HE 2”

 

AIDE-MEMOIRE

The tables below summarises the Bolt Action: Moonside changes and a copy is also available as a two page PDF from the downloads page tabletopgaming.co.uk/downloads.

ORDERS

  • Extra Orders test for Down or Run actions. If fail take 1 Pin, if rolled double-six then take one casualty from suit/helmet breach.

MOVEMENT

  • No changes – risks from movement covered by extra Orders roll.
  • Treat crater rims as being Obstacles, and being in a crater gives Hard Cover.

SHOOTING

  • All shooting is at +1.
  • Add a +1 DM to all Damage rolls.

HE

  • Double the size of all HE templates.
  • Penetration modifier is unchanged due to lack of blast effect
  • Add 1 to Pins to reflect the greater debris.

SMOKE

  • All smoke stays in place for the whole of the rest of the game.

VEHICLES 

  • All vehicles should be counted as soft-skinned, and open-vehicles should suffer the “Open-Topped” and “Open-Topped Hit by Indirect Fire” rules even for direct fire. 
  • Players who make a 90 degree turn take the additional Orders/Fumble test if under a Run order (but not otherwise). If failed then roll D6 and 1-5 count as Crew Stunned on the Vehicle Damage Table, and 6 counts as Immobilised – they did a bit more than bend the fender!

CLOSE-QUARTER BATTLE

Apply a +2 to the Damage roll (i.e. Regular damages on 2+ not 4+) 

BUILDINGS

  • Airlocks: Take 1 turn to cycle, i.e. enter in Turn 1, cycle in Turn 2, exit into the interior in turn 3.
  • Above ground buildings when hit by HE loose integrity and any personnel inside not in vacc-suits are killed. Non-metal/concrete buildings does not protect against HE shells that explode just outside and include the building in the template. Assume fragments penetrate as though hit.
  • Part-buried buildings count as Bunkers. 

 

LINKS

Research Apollo 16 examples on YouTube: youtube.com/watch?v=mlD0ogq8tVU and youtube.com/watch?v=x2adl6LszcE


This article originally appeared in issue 458 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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