#Wargame Wednesday – 40 Years Later A Grognard’s First Foray Into Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (@MultiManPub, 2004+)

Welcome to the exciting world of Advanced Squad Leader. ASL is a detailed wargaming system that can simulate any company level ground action from World War II. The playing pieces represent squads, half-squads, leaders, crews, guns, and vehicles from every major and minor combatant of World War II. The battlefields are represented by geomorphic mapboards upon which the counters are maneuvered. Starter Kits provide the new player with an easy method for becoming familiar with the basics of the ASL system using entry-level scenarios, counters boards, and rules.

Introduction, Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1

Thus reads the introduction to the rulebook for ASL Starter Kit #1 (ASLSK1) from Multi-Man Publishing. Although I have played wargames for over 40 years now, I have not played any iteration of Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) in all that time. Last year, I listened to the “Unraveling Complexity” episode of the Ludology podcast (Nr. 238) where the hosts took the seemingly obligatory swipe at the legendary rules complexity of ASL. In my blog thoughts on the episode I responded to the hosts and challenged them to get an ASL Starter Kit and try it for themselves before they throw around disparaging remarks so casually. When Multi-Man Publishing announced that ASL Starter Kit #1 was back in stock I jumped at the chance to get it for myself because it’s a hollow challenge if I haven’t actually done it myself. What follows are my thoughts on the game written from the perspective of a Grognard experiencing the game for the first time. Along the way I am going to try to also keep in mind what this game might be like for a new wargamer experiencing it for the first time.

SPOILER ALERT – It’s a GAME, not a simulation, but it does come with a tech manual.

What You Get

Multi-Man Publishing is very upfront about what Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 is and isn’t. New players and Grognards alike need to pay attention for ASKSK1 is “a complete game the introduces players to the ASL Infantry rules.” In other words, the rules for artillery and vehicles are not here (you need to buy SK2-Guns and SK3-Tanks for those).

The contents of ASLSK1 are very nice for a starter package. The game ships in a bookshelf-size 1.5” deep box. Two geomorphic mapboards each 8”x22” can be laid out in numerous variations to form your playing surface. There are also 280 counters that are probably a bit smaller for the Eurogame boardgame crowd (being only 1/2” in size) and, like so many cardboard chits for wargames, do not have come with those nicely rounded corners! Six scenarios each with a setup card are also included. Rules come in a 12-page rulebook. Oh yeah, and two d6 dice!

ASLSK1 Contents

Cost

A very appealing factor of ASLSK1 is the price. Retailing at a mere $28 this game comes in at the low end of cost compared to many wargames and even for many boardgames. The cost is certainly enticing and makes the initial buying decision that much easier. This low cost of entry is very good for new gamers because the “risk cost” factor is relatively low. That said, the next two Starter Kits which cover artillery and vehicles cost $33 and $40 respectively. Alas, when one gets to SK4-PTO which covers the Pacific Theater the cost jumps to $65! For a “starter kit!” One popular meme in wargame circles is that ASL is as much a lifestyle as it is a game. Well, if one “invests” $168 for just “starter kits” then yes, one should also expect that jumping fully into the ASL family will be expensive.

The Effect of Complexity

One barrier to entry for new players of ASL is the game’s reputation—ASL is stuck with the moniker that it is more simulation than game. Even the Ludology crew explained away the complexity of ASL by dismissively calling it a “simulation.” If you listen closely to what they say you will discover that, using their terms, ASL actually is a game with a high degree of Rules/Mechanism Complexity. The complexity and difficulty of learning ASL is legendary and woe be the one who asks to learn to play ASL for they are assuredly going to give up, right?

Notice the ASL rulebook….

The truth, though many gamers new and old might not want to hear it, is a bit more complicated and as usual the legend is not supported by reality. Well, not all of it.

Here I will draw upon the writings of J.R Tracy in his essay “Design for Effect: The ‘Common Language’ of Advanced Squad Leader” found in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (MIT Press, 2016). To quote Tracy at length:

Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly 30 years old, it is still going strong, with a large, ardent fan base and a smaller but no less ardent body of detractors. More a game system than a game, ASL is both respected and reviled as representing the best and worst aspects of wargaming. ASL itself is considered a benchmark for complexity and comprehensiveness, while its players possess a devotion bordering on fanaticism. Though its roots are firmly in the “design for effect” philosophy, it is viewed by many as the paragon of realism with respect to tactical World War II combat. This is born of a misguided equation of complexity and verisimilitude—ASL is at its heart more game than simulation, but it is a rich rewarding game, offering dramatic cinematic narrative as well as an intense competitive experience.

J.R Tracy, Zones of Control, p. 113

As Tracy points out, calling ASL a simulation doesn’t withstand even cursory examination:

A player enjoys tremendous information advantage over his World War II-commander counterpart, with a complete grasp of the enemy’s composition and objectives in most cases, as well as an exact knowledge of the positions and readiness of his own forces. Many elements of command and control are either abstracted or missing altogether; the morale state of discrete infantry squads varies, for instance, but the cohesion of the overall formation is little affected by losses. Infantry might halt or even run from the fight under enemy fire, but tanks move implacable forward, their crews unshakably committed until their vehicles are immobilized or destroyed. Offboard artillery, representing supporting batteries, is handled via a process both cumbersome and complex (even by the standards of the game!).

Zones of Control, p. 115

Tracy points out that designer John Hill’s goal was not a simulation, but a game “full of snap decisions made under stress” (p.115). He goes on to write:

All this adds up to a very interactive combined arms puzzle. While the C3I aspect of ASL is sketchy to nonexistent, the basic parts fit together the way they’re supposed to, and without proper coordination of the various pieces it all falls apart very quickly. Flexibility and a knack for improvisation are vital; combat is resolved via die roll, and though a given outcome may be likely it is by no means certain. The occasional extreme die roll often highlights the narrative but need not define success or failure—that depends on reaction and adaptability of the players. Adversity provides the stress, and whether a competitor thrives under that pressure determines whether he overcomes or succumbs.

Zones of Control, p. 115-116

ASLSK1 attempts to limit Rules/Mechanism Complexity by focusing solely on rules for Infantry combat. As a “starter kit” one expects that the rules presented are either a streamlined version or just a portion of the main rules set. ASLSK1 takes the later approach by presenting just the rules necessary for infantry-only fights (i.e. squad-carried support weapons only—no artillery or vehicles). This choice means that while the breadth of the ASL rules presented are truncated, the depth of the rules are not compromised on. In effect, ASLSK1 is a “bite” of the larger rules set that introduces only enough of the game system necessary to facilitate play. This “bite-size” ASL is an excellent marketing approach for enticing new gamers in. It also can entice Grognards like me because one gets to experience, or taste, the game system before deciding on further investment in the product line.

The Book of Rules

The Ludology gang also talks about Component Complexity and here is where I think ASL is rightfully criticized, especially so when talking about the rulebook. The size of the full ASL rulebook is legendary with a rule for everything. Buying just the rulebook for ASL 2nd Edition will set you back between $44 and $96 for deadtree versions, and even $59.99 for the electronic softcopy!!

In a starter kit, I generally expect that the rulebook is formatted to ease learning the game. Alas, the ASLSK1 rulebook is not. The ASLSK1 rulebook is 12 triple-column pages of lots of text and few graphics. As a Grognard I know this page count is short compared to many games but to a new wargamer these wordy pages of ‘wall-o-text’ almost certainly look daunting. Thankfully there is color used but still, once you start reading, understanding the rules can be a real challenge.

Writing rulebooks is an art and ASLSK1 draws upon the traditional craftsmen at publishers Avalon Hill and SPI in the 1970s and after for its format. The very formal 1.0 / 1.1 /  1.1.1 format in the ASLSK1 rulebook makes reading the rules very stiff and without a pleasant flow to the voice. This rules format is certainly good for adjudicating rules disputes (“See, 1.2.4 clearly states that a support weapon dropped and by itself does not ‘accidentally’ fire at a passing squad, you idiot!”) but is not so great for readability. Indeed, the rulebook for ASLSK1 is more akin to a technical manual than a book for reading pleasure. According to one assessment I ran some rules text through the readability index was 11.4—quite literally meaning you need be a high school graduate to understand the rules.

A great part of the challenge in reading the rules for ASLSK1 is the extensive use of acronyms. Section 2.0 Definitions take up the equivalent of one entire page of the rulebook. The fact the rest of the rules rely so heavily on acronyms means understanding this “second language” is an essential part of just learning the game.

ASLSK1 includes several examples of play that should help learning. However, the extensive use of acronyms forces one to interpret the examples on two levels—first one must decode the acronyms and then second translate the game terms into the actions in the example. For instance, look at this example of play:

During the American PFPh, one 7-4-7 in hex yN5 forms a multi-hex Fire Group with the 6-6-6 in hex O6 to fire at the German units in hex P5. The total firepower is 19 (6 FP for 6-6-6 in O6 is doubled for Point Blank Fire plus 7 FP from 7-4-7 in N5), and the attack occurs on the 16 column of the IFT. The DRMs include a +3 for the TEM of the stone building and a +1 for the orchard Hinderance for a total DRM of +4. The original DR is 6; after adding 4 the final DR is 10. Cross-referencing 10 on the 16 column of the IFT results in a Normal Morale Check (NMC). Thus, each unit in hex P5 undergoes a NMC. One 4-6-7 rolls an original 9 and the other rolls a 7; neither DR is modified. The 4-6-7 that rolled a 7 has a Pin counter placed on top since it rolled equal to its morale on a morale check. Finally, the American units have a Prep Fire counter placed on them.

“Prep Fire Phase Example (assuming German ELR of 3)”, ASLSK1 Rulebook, p. 5

Aside from the extensive use of acronyms, this section is difficult to understand in great part because of where it appears on the page. This example of play is placed above rule 3.2 Prep Fire Phase (PFPh) and Fire Attacks meaning it is very possible to read the example before the rules involved are introduced. It also doesn’t help that the rules for “ELR” in the title do not appear until the end of the rulebook a whole seven pages later. 

The net impact of the approach used to write the rulebook in ASLSK1 means that to learn the game one must either invest significant time ahead of play to learning the game or find an experienced player to teach you. To help learning to play, I strongly believe ASLSK1 could use a play book; that is, a dedicated second book that uses a highly narrative format to explain a game. Further, the play book should use a tutorial approach staring with setup and progressing through a play of the game. The tutorial should not be designed as a lesson in tactics, that is for players to discover on their own, but rather a comprehensive description of the different situations that players might commonly encounter in a game. One possibility is to use a two-column playbook with a narrative/mechanical explanation of the activity on one side with a facing “as the rules tell it” on the other. This could allow a player to both see how the game operates both narratively and “by the rules” while comparing them to each other.

Due to the absence of a play book or strong tutorial, and given the few examples of play, it seems to me the best way to learn to play ASLSK1 is to first peruse the rulebook to gain a basic familiarity with the rules then set up ASL Scenario S1 “Retaking Vierville” and simply walk thru the first few turns together with your opponent. Unlike many boardgames, one (preferably both) players need to read the rulebook ahead of time—this is not a game where you can just open up the rulebook and start playing immediately after unwrapping. During this first play refer to the rulebook liberally. Step thru a few turns very deliberately. Accept the fact your first game (or two) will not be competitive but for learning.

On the Table

I have to admit that ASLSK1 on the gaming table looks very nice. The small footprint of the game (often a single 8”x22” map) and low counter density in the scenarios take much of the intimidation factor quite literally “off the table.” These smaller looking games help invite new gamers in as the legendary difficulty of the rules look quite manageable when you have only a small handful of counters on the map. Even experienced gamers will enjoy the smaller scenarios that don’t take up an entire day (or more) of precious time.

Solo play

Game Story

When playing ASLSK1 I can hear a narrative developing out of the Sequence of Play:

  1. “Hey guys! Let’s go get them! (Rally Phase)
  2. “Cover me!” (Prep Fire Phase)
  3. “Move it!” (Movement Phase)
  4. “Where did THAT machine gun come from?” (Defensive Fire Phase)
  5. “Get ‘em over there!” (Advancing Fire Phase)
  6. “Come back, you maggots!” (Rout Phase)
  7. “Go go go!” (Advance Phase)
  8. “Bayonets!” (Close Combat Phase)

This eight-phase game turn is actually easy to start processing and understand once you start playing around with the rules. Even the Ludology hosts admit that they “heard” ASL is not that complex of a game once you learn it. I agree.

Snap to It!

As I played my games, I kept asking myself if ASLSK1 was delivering those “snap decisions” that designer John Hill wanted or was this truly a “slog” of a game with lots of chrome but little to show? I found my answer a bit mixed. Each turn starts off very procedurally with the Rally Phase and Prep Fire Phase. The Prep Fire Phase in particular lends itself more to pre-planning than snap decisions. However, after Prep Fire the next phases become full of more and more snap decisions. As the turn progresses and your plan inevitably “comes apart” it really does become an issue of who is more adaptable and manages the chaos more effectively.

One passage in the rules under 3.3.1 Defensive First Fire brought the whole “snap decision” design front-and-center for me:

Any time a unit or stack expends MF in the LOS of a Good Order DEFENDER unit, the DEFENDER has the option to temporarily halt movement while he fires at it in that location with as many attacks as he can bring to bear. The DEFENDER must first place a First Fire counter on top of any unit or SW that has fired and exhausted its ROF. Defensive First Fire must be resolved before the moving unit or stack leaves the intended target hex or expends another MF. The DEFENDER may not request that a moving unit or stack be returned to a previous position to undergo attack, however, the ATTACKER must give the DEFENDER ample opportunity to declare his fire before moving on, and must declare the end of that units’s movement before moving another unit. (My emphasis)

3.3.1 Defensive First Fire, ASLSK1 Rulebook

This is “snap decision” in action by the game design. As I first looked at the Sequence of Play I first saw ATTACKER and DEFENDER in an IGO-UGO pattern—I totally missed the real interactive nature of the design. It was though my plays of ASLSK1 that I discovered every turn is indeed full of “snap decisions” for both the Attacker and Defender. 

As I played and experienced turns of many snap decisions, I started asking myself if this is the real ASL experience. The back and forth turns of infantry combat in ASLSK1 are very enjoyable but I question if that same free-flow of snap decisions can be sustained by a game system that adds in artillery and vehicles and more and more special rules. My opinion here is that ASLSK1, and possibly SK2 & SK3, when played together may be pushing the “limit” of the snap decision game design. As more special rules (chrome) gets added onto the core design of the system I fear those snap decisions will be overcome by managing all the rule “exceptions.” Too much rules overhead is not very inviting and the thought of that challenge may be enough to scare new players away.

Are you Chitting Me?

ASLSK1 uses markers stacked on the board to show current unit status. This very typical wargame solution to manual tracking of status could drive new or potential players away. Some players may bristle with the constant adding/removal of status markers. Admittedly, the markers take away from the visual spectacle of the game and some players might lament losing sight of their counters under several administrative markers. In practice I found the numerous markers very helpful as they are the quickest way to note unit status. Offboarding this information to a player card would likely slow the game down as it introduces a different layer of complexity to the board and would force players to constantly reference back and forth between a unit on the board and data held in their tableau area. No thanks!

Admin markers – necessary but a bit unsightly….

Starter or Finisher?

If you are a new wargamer I absolutely encourage you to try ASLSK1. You can’t beat the price and though learning will take a bit of some effort (and brain cells) the narrative experience that comes from play is very rewarding. Who knows; you may end up liking the game and go further down the ASL path of play life. Even if you chose to shy away from ASL, the fact that you have learned such a foundational game in the hobby means you will be more ready to explore other game systems. If you can learn and play ASL (even the Starter Kit version) there are few wargames you can’t learn and play!

If you are an experienced gamer and either never tried ASL (like me) or tried it long ago and was turned off by the complexity, ASLSK1 is an excellent low-cost, low-risk way to dip back into world of ASL. In a way, the starter kit family is akin to a “chose our own adventure” approach to wargmaing ASL—get the starter kits that interest you the most and learn the rules in a modular approach to mix and play as you like. You may find that ASLSK1 is a good “filler” game that can fill some time on a game day while waiting for all the gamers to arrive or to fill-in when your opponent gets that sudden-death victory and you have some time to kill.

Do I Finish What I Starter?

Now that I have ASLSK1 under my belt, where do I go from here? Personally, I am curious to see how artillery and vehicles fit into the game system so it is very likely that SK2 and SK3 will end up in my collection in the near future. Beyond that I am less sure. I can’t help but feel that the game system will get “overloaded” with “bloat” if one adds in too much of that “chrome” that ASL is infamous for. I genuinely enjoy the “snap decision” part of the game design and don’t want to lose that. A part of me wants to go back to a simpler time with my Avalon Hill 1980 fourth edition copy of Squad Leader and just play that title for it captures the snap decision elements in a game design that is not overloaded. 

4 thoughts on “#Wargame Wednesday – 40 Years Later A Grognard’s First Foray Into Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (@MultiManPub, 2004+)

  1. I have an interest in the Starter Kit. Back when Squad Leader became ASL, I bought the rulebook and the first two modules. And never played them.

    That kind of burned me, especially since the rulebook by itself cost so much money.

    But the Starter Kit sounds like a great way to dip your toe in.

    Great post!

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