16th May2018

‘Hold The Line’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

hold-line-box-1

In Hold the Line and its simultaneously released expansion The French and Indian War, two players re-enact battles from the late 18th century using dice, miniatures and a highly customisable, hex based board. The expansion adds new figures for the British, French and Indian (henceforth I shall refer to them as Native American) forces and another scenario book, but the fundamental principles of the game remain the same.

Because the expansion adds to (rather than changes) the base game, I’ll cover both within this review and where necessary, I’ll call out any major differences between the versions. The base game includes a large number of red, British units as well as a similar number of blue American units. The expansion adds white French pieces and then green Native American and British ranger forces.

Miniatures in both games are relatively small scale, but the poses for each kind of unit are relatively clear and to make certain that there is no ambiguity, standard bearers are included with adhesive flags that detail the kind of unit they are in. Unfortunately, a good number of the pieces will likely arrive with bent weapons, flags or bases, but I found that hot water makes them malleable enough to be remoulded.

As I mentioned earlier, the board in Hold the Line is hex based and customisable. This is achieved by placing a number of additional tiles onto the large spaces to represent different situations. The base game comes with a lot of terrain pieces, buildings and forts, but the expansions adds even more which results in near limitless potential for variation, whether it is outlined in the scenario books or of your own imagining.

On that note, the scenario books in both the base game and the expansion are excellent and between them, there are more than twenty varied scenarios. From roadside ambushes to fortress assaults, the game includes fairly balanced setup instructions for many of the famous battles during the period and it also offers a good level of historical flavour.

Scenarios provide a clear layout of where to position each troop and how to setup the board, but they also offer different command bonuses and victory conditions depending on the specific makeup of the mission and the belligerents on the battlefield. This kind of “in game storytelling” is enhanced by the leader tokens, which broadly speaking show how resilient and effective different Generals are. Large armies with poor leaders and a low command value can be broken by smaller, more effective forces.

Whilst I’m discussing command values, let’s talk about how turns are structured in Hold the Line, because it is perhaps the most simple and elegant thing about the whole game. Rather than the interesting but occasionally frustrating card based systems that drive games like the Command & Colours series, Hold the Line uses a simple dice based system modified by the leaders involved in any given scenario.

Every leader has a command value that might give one or two actions for any turn. In addition, a dice is rolled to add between one and three more actions based on the outcome of the roll. Each action can be spent on any unit, which then adheres to a specific set of rules. Infantry, for example, can move or shoot for one action. Light infantry can move and shoot, but the chance of hitting if they do so is very low (at best it will be a one in six chance.)

Units are typically made up of two cavalrymen or cannon, or for foot units, three or four models. Leaders are always standalone, but can be attached to any other unit. The number of models in any unit does not matter for resolving fire or firepower, but it is relevant for morale checks that happen whenever close combat is declared. A large or well drilled unit (like an Elite infantry unit) will often push a smaller irregular unit back several spaces with ease.

As a unit takes hits, pieces are removed (hence the chance of routing when close combat is initiated becomes greater) until the last one (always the standard bearer if there is one) is removed. When this happens, that unit is destroyed and the opponent will usually receive victory points for defeating it. The game also uses an interesting “unlucky roll” mechanism to determine if attached leaders are hit by stray bullets – this is a tense and interesting inclusion.

Cavalry is used purely to provide light fire support and cannot charge, which seems odd when compared to games like Command & Colours that force considerations about the weight of cavalry or the ability of infantrymen to form square. In truth, it’s a way of representing the real world use of dragoons in North America, even though it is unfortunate that the models show the cavalrymen with swords (and not pistols) drawn.

Artillery, as you can imagine, is used mostly for ranged fire and it is arguably the only unit in the game that is effective at more than a single hex away from whatever it is firing it at. This is also true of both infantry and dragoon units, which can usually shoot two hexes and hit on fours by default, with a minus one modifier for each hex beyond one and for terrain factors like hills or forest.

By combining a free action allocation system and a straightforward set of rules for range, fire and terrain, turns in Hold the Line are probably the quickest in any wargame that I’ve played so far. The game creates tremendous combat momentum when units begin to fire at one another and it’s tempting to activate the same units over and over as blows are traded.

The outcome of these gunfights can be determined a little bit randomly (sometimes because of the number of action points rolled, sometimes because of the combat rolls) but it is always equally random, if nothing else. On other occasions, a commander willing to take withering fire to bring up other troops will ultimately succeed – on another day their whole line can collapse.

Somewhere between the table presence (which is the product of having such a huge number of decently made miniatures positioned on a feature packed board) and the very rapid turns, Hold the Line delivers a really enjoyable experience. It takes a while to setup and pack down, but because it plays so fast, it often makes sense to play two or three games (perhaps a mini campaign) each time you unpack it.

As a light wargame, it is a hugely viable alternative to Memoir ’44 or Command & Colours and it deals with a very interesting time and place in history. It celebrates its setting by delivering interesting, relevant flavour alongside its excellent variety of built in scenarios, all of which I felt were balanced and enjoyable.

**** 4/5

A copy of Hold the Line (and the French and Indian War expansion) was provided for review by The Plastic Soldier Company/Worthington Publishing, and you can purchase it directly from PSC Games right here.

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