For my first “real” post, I thought I’d start what will be several essays on the Lifestyle Choice that wargamers call Advanced Squad Leader, or ASL for short. That’s the same acronym as American Sign Language, and good luck using that to read the rules “aloud” without risking serious cramping.

ASL has always been one of those games that I have historically bought everything for, but never played. I think I took on the rules a couple of times but it’s not a very good way to learn this game. Understand that this game has a rulebook in a three ring binder, a big one, and the type is exceedingly dense. As is the prose. Every fifteenth word is in brackets and italics so you know that some ridiculously esoteric rule connects to the one you’re looking at, and about 90% of the time you won’t even know what those rules are.

As such, I think it’s a good idea to start with a basic idea of what ASL is trying to be, how well it works at being that thing, and why it’s still a going concern more than 30 years after publication. It’s been around longer than my marriage, although not by much. And if you go back to where it started, it’s even further back.

ASL is about WW2 tactical combat. If you need help with figuring out what WW2 means, you are probably in the wrong place already, but it’s mid-20th Century combat. The game actually has scenarios that are outside the scope of official World War Two, such as the Spanish Civil War, and most recently the Korean War, but the vast majority of the scenarios are set in the biggest conflict the world has seen. Pretty much every hostile nation in the war is represented at some level, from Germans and Russians down to Bulgarians and even partisan actions.

The “tactical” part of the previous paragraph refers to the scale combat is represented at. As the player, you are directing the actions of squads of soldiers, individual officers, heroes and others, individual weapons such as artillery, flamethrowers, and anti-aircraft guns, as well as individual vehicles and even cavalry and motorcycles. The games are presented as “scenarios,” which can be thought of as a game situation. They all use the same ruleset, although most add some “special scenario rules” or SSRs, and the same little squares of cardboard representing the units mentioned above, printed with information such as how fast they can move, what kind of weapon is in use and how effective it is, and most importantly, how well the unit will stand up to enemy fire.

The game was originally designed to be a “board” version of a miniatures wargame, which uses a table set up with tiny terrain (trees, buildings, rivers, etc) and small painted figures to evoke the actual combat. Minus the actual lead in the air. These mini’s games (Warhammer is perhaps the most popular of these, although not concerned with historical or even possible events) use rulers to allow for movement, and it’s easy to see if a tank, for example, can drive between a couple of buildings, you just put the tank between the models and see if it fits.

Board wargames, by comparison, use a flat map, usually printed on heavy cardstock or paper but also frequently “mounted” onto a firm board of some sort. That map is divided up by some method so that you know how far a unit is from another unit, or how far it can move. In ASL, the division is by hexagons, so a unit can move in one of six directions at any given time. Hexagons are common in wargaming, but there are also area-based maps, like you’d see in Axis and Allies, or point to point maps, which are really area-based but presented differently.

In ASL, many of the scenarios use “geomorphic” maps that are 22″x8.5″ cardstock that can be connected together in many ways. The game currently has about 100 maps available, so while a scenario very frequently won’t be a perfect representation of where the battle took place (although there are “historical” ASL modules that use a larger historical map, like for Stalingrad), it’s probably going to be close enough for our purposes. Very few games at this scope use historical maps, preferring geomorphic maps as ASL does.

Each scenario will have an order of battle, or the units that fought this specific action, usually a company’s worth of soldiers, a goal that each side needs to achieve to win, the maps you will use and how they are laid out, and how long the game lasts in turns. There’s also frequently text describing the events leading up to the hilarity as well as how things turned out in real life. And, of course, the SSRs that aren’t covered in the rules, or that use specific rules such as Night Fighting.

Some scenarios will use a very small subset of the rules, others will take you years to get to the point where you can play them (I’m looking at you, Blood Reef Tarawa, with your amphibious landings and cave complexes and pretty much a division or two worth of units on the enormous map). Being able to effectively choose a scenario that meets your level of expertise is useful and important if you don’t have someone teaching you the game.

I should also mention that if you have every possible rule in the game (and some only pertain to Pacific volcanic islands or tank warfare in the desert), there are about 400 pages of rules. I just lost you, didn’t I.

If this sounds like utter insanity, it is. This is a big game, with elements from the original publishers Avalon Hill, reprints and newer material from Multiman Publishing, which bought the rights to publish the game from Hasbro when it purchased Avalon Hill in the late 90’s, as well as several small press guys putting out scenarios and occasionally maps and counters. A full “official” game set with every nationality module, historical module, ruleset, periodical, and scenario pack will set you back a considerable amount of money, certainly thousands of dollars. Fortunately, you can get by with a lot less.

That should give you a sense of the game if you aren’t familiar with it. If I’ve done it right, you should almost certainly be wondering why anyone would take something like this on for fun. I myself was wondering the exact same thing. In my next post, I’ll give a little history of how I ended up learning and loving this game.