In the first part of this series of essays, I described the game of ASL at a very high level. If you are curious about how the game looks, there are many many many many videos and still photos of the game at BoardGameGeek as well as other sites dedicated to wargaming such as GameSquad. Just type in Advanced Squad Leader in the search field and you’ll get a long list of the various products published for this game system. I recommend you being with just the rulebook entry, it will get you started.
So how did I ever get into this game? More importantly, why? Why, for God’s sake, why!?
I discovered board wargames at age 10, and was capable of figuring out how to play (pretty much on my own) by age 12. I had a couple of friends who were willing to play these games with me, and the hobby was small enough that if you didn’t buy everything SPI put out (and it was a lot) you could keep up by buying one or two games a year. Most of the games covered “operational” or “battle” level games, such as the German invasion of Russia in 1941, or the Normandy landings in 1944. There were a couple of tactical-ish games, the famous one being Panzerblitz, that was heavily focused on tanks and pioneered geomorphic boards and multiple scenarios. These were some of the most complex games Avalon Hill published, with rules for ranged combat and line of sight, where the larger scale games just had units adjacent to each other fighting. There was also a tactical game that aimed to reproduce pretty much every shell fired by a tank in the battles for Tobruk in 1942 in North Africa. Seriously, you rolled to see how many shells you fired from that tank, whether they hit the enemy tank, where on that tank they hit, and what happened when it hit.
Tobruk required so many rules that Avalon Hill published them in a Programmed Instruction format, or PI. It’s a great way to learn a game and really awful when you want to look up a rule on the fly. The idea was you would play a specific scenario with a subset of the rules. In the first Tobruk scenario, you only had tanks, no fortifications or infantry or guns, and you moved them and fired their guns.
Around 1979 or so, John Hill wanted to bring some of the feel of Panzerblitz and Tobruk to a more general scenario based system focusing on morale, which was (and still is) often the deciding factor on the battlefield. If your guys are running away, you’ve lost. Tobruk did include rules for morale, but the infantry was very much an afterthought. Panzerblitz did not include morale at all. John also wanted to include tanks, guns, all sorts of stuff, largely because he was a miniatures gamer but wanted a board wargame that felt like minis.
The first game was called Squad Leader, largely because the follow-on game to Panzerblitz was Panzer Leader. The base game included Russians, German, and Americans, each with their own units and quirks. There were four mapboards and twelve scenarios, one for each section of the PI rules. The first scenario covered infantry and machine guns, and vehicles were available by the third scenario. The first scenario, The Guards Counterattack, is frequently recalled by board wargamers as one of their favorite gaming experiences.
As time went on, more modules were introduced, such as Cross of Iron, that focused on the Eastern Front and expanded the vehicles available. It also started to massively change rules, especially for vehicles. By the time the third expansion, G.I. Anvil of Victory, came out, there were four rulebooks with conflicting rules, counters that changed with every game, and no effective way to figure out what rules you were playing for a given scenario. It was a mess.
I bought Squad Leader when I was in high school, and we really enjoyed the first three scenarios. Then we got to the fourth scenario, and hidden unit setup and elevation changes were just too much for my regular opponent. I remember trying to play this scenario in 1981 and he just didn’t get the concept. Not long after that, I went off to college, he went on a mission for the Mormons, who he joined around that time, and of course college in the 80’s was all about Dungeons and Dragons. I never did buy the other modules, at least not until much later.
In 1985, Avalon Hill published what was supposed to be the consolidation of the Squad Leader rules, but as frequently happens there was feature creep and a lot of things got changed and it ended up being everything. The rules alone were the price of a new game, and then you had to buy the Beyond Valour module just to have boards and units and scenarios. And you had to buy the original Squad Leader games so you could get the boards from those, as AH felt no one new would buy the game. I passed, as I didn’t have a regular opponent anymore and there was no way I had time for a project like this.
In 1998, the Dott family sold Avalon Hill to Hasbro. At the time, I had been getting back into wargaming, mostly solitaire, and I rushed out to grab a lot of the late AH catalog while it was still available. I got some great games that I would have otherwise missed, such as Hannibal, We The People, Up Front, and Age of Renaissance. I also picked up all of the AH ASL and SL content that was available, which turned out to be a good idea although I didn’t know it at the time. I was just collecting it on the off chance I’d play sometime in the future. Unfortunately, I did not collect the historical products, called HASLs, hahahahaha!, the periodical ASL Annuals, or any of the Deluxe ASL products (which used different maps with very large hexes, the idea being that you’d use miniatures with them).
Not long afterwards, Multiman Publishing got permission to keep ASL available. They started publishing Action Packs that contained new boards and scenarios, Journals that took over from the old AH Annuals, and more modules. They’ve gotten a lot of them republished, and put out quite a bit more as well, but some AH modules, such as the Northern Africa rules and the Italians and French, are still only available in the original editions. Even Yanks, the big American order of battle module, only got republished a year or two ago. When you realize that the original game was published when digital publishing was very much in it’s infancy, then you also realize that pretty much every counter has to be recreated and made so it can be read. Given how small and crappy the AH counters were (in terms of printing), it’s not a surprise.
I was buying other games from MMP, so I picked up Action Packs and a few of the journals. I didn’t go for the full modules so much, although I did pick up things like the Axis Minors module, Armies of Oblivion, and the Pacific theater module Rising Sun more or less when I saw them on sale in FLGSs. I also started picking up HASLs as they came out as well.
Still, all of this sat on the shelf.
About 12 years ago, MMP tried to produce a “gateway” version of the game with a limited ruleset, called ASL Starter Kit, or ASLSK. They used mostly the same game scenarios and counters, but ignored a lot of rules and the scenarios had to be tweaked to reflect this. In all, they published four products, three SKs that focused on infantry, guns, and tanks respectively, and a HASLSK on the high water mark of XXX Corps in Market-Garden, called Decision at Elst. I also bought these, but even a 20 page ruleset in the highly technical language used for this game defeated me, and I was trying to learn on my own.
I’ve had friends who have tried to get me into the game over the years, but I was never at the right place to take it on. I’m trained as an engineer, and for most of my life I’ve enjoyed games as a system that you work within, especially wargames. I also enjoy the history but it was seeing how to simulate, even at a very low level, a real life situation. As such, I like tight, clear, and enjoyable rules. ASL was not that.
And then I very nearly died. A failing congenitally defective aortic valve that was going to require replacing turned up a set of coronary arteries that were, to quote the guy who is pictured very prominently on the wall of the hospital I had the surgery at, “the worst case of arteriosclerosis I’ve seen in a fifty year old”. That will get your attention, or it should. I ended up with a triple bypass and instructions to radically change diet and exercise choices or die within five years.
So I did. I lost fifty pounds. I started running and changed my diet both for my heart and also to live with the blood thinner keeping me from having strokes. No one does this in America, maybe 3% of heart patients make lasting changes.
Then I had another valve go bad, I’m told it was just bad luck that a minor defect developed that required another valve. This surgery was relatively easy, as I was in good health and knew what I was getting into. I also learned, at the angiogram I had for the second surgery, that no new plaque had formed in the grafts bypassing the clogged coronary arteries. So whatever I am doing, it’s the right thing. Hint: Sugar is a motherfucker, get off that shit now.
That’s not really part of the story, though. What is part of the story is that when you face a life threatening situation, and I was days from a massive heart attack when I had that first angiogram, your perspective changes. In my case, I decided I was ready to take on a game where I would probably never play it completely correctly, and would enjoy the personal challenge.
And it would never have happened except for a couple of things. First off, I retired several years ago. My family co-owns income producing real estate, and I get enough money from that to live comfortably, so I left the workforce at the start of 2002. You can’t learn ASL without having some time to play, and most people only have time to play just that game. Me, I’m an omnivore, so I wanted to play other stuff too.
What made learning the game possible was that my good friend Chris also more or less retired after a lifetime of pretty good decisions. He’s a little younger, but smart, curious, and is a good opponent. When he suggested learning ASL, I jumped at the chance.
We did this primarily on our own. We started with the SKs, got through a couple of the Elst scenarios, and decided to jump straight into the full game. I don’t know that this was the best route, I think that the first SK is a good intro but that you are better off going full if you think you can handle it. The problem is that there are lots of rules that really change how you use your forces. I am constantly missing things like bypassing buildings, or voluntarily breaking, or spray fire, or a billion other rules the SKs don’t have.
I take that back, you might try the third SK, the one with tanks, because it’s pretty much an entirely different ruleset. For example, infantry move using Movement Factors, or MFs. Vehicles use Movement Points, or MPs. Yeah. The other good news is that there are excellent videos and PDFs out there that will run you through the basics for the SKs. Full game is tougher, and I’d strongly recommend you find a teacher. I’ll go into that in more detail in a later post.
So, for about four years, Chris and I have been hammering away at this game, even playing via VASL, a Java-based program you can use to control the board and pieces and play remotely, which Chris and I have done over the summers while he’s off in rural New York while I’m back in Portland, OR. The good news is that I believe we have crossed over into the realm of “actual players” who know not only enough to be dangerous, but to be dangerous to your opponent. On purpose.
I got far enough that this past November I actually played in an ASL tournament at BottosCon in Vancouver, BC, run by George Kelln of Lone Canuck fame. It was an epiphany, and I’ll elaborate on that more later as well. I went in an idiot, came out a player. Just a couple of months later, we’re taking on large scenarios with pillboxes, crazy early war tin can tanks, all sorts of stuff. We are learning like crazy. At this point, I feel like I know what worked and what didn’t in terms of our learning process, and more importantly, the game feels like a miniatures game. I can look at a board and see the terrain, see where Line of Sight will be blocked, see where my opponent has most likely placed that hidden gun.
There are still things I’m getting down, and probably always will. We haven’t touched Pacific Theater or North Africa, or night, or aircraft or airdrops or naval invasions. Well, that last one just a little. What we are doing is having a great time and learning a lot. There was a study some years ago that pegged social activity combined with a complex game, such as Bridge, as a really good way to avoid dementia later in life. ASL is my Bridge, although I have played that as well, and now in my mid-50s, I’m more concerned than ever about my big brain failing. I’ve had a stroke in the very recent past, as well as a TIA scare the year before, and in both cases I haven’t lost any ability to play or learn new elements of the game.
In other words, I went from being afraid of a game that I thought would be too hard to learn to embracing a game I am simply going to enjoy. Sort of like the rest of my life. And, when those who scoff at my efforts as a waste of time wonder why I would ever devote so much time and effort to something they consider frivolous and too much like “work,” I simply smile and know that I’ve joined a small club that rewards high level learning and application in a simulation environment, and know that what they call “work” I call “fun.”
In my next installment, I’ll discuss my first tournament experience and what I learned about how to approach these for the first time.