#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. 

Sunday Summary – Starting with ASL Starter Kit #1 (@MultiManPub) and first go with Fifth Corps (Strategy & Tactics/SPI) while getting Supercharged (@DietzFoundation) and Gundam modeling #wargame #boardgame #SDGundam

Wargames

This week I leaned hard into learning Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2004+). Kind of amazing (embarrassing?) that after playing wargames for 42 years I finally played Advanced Squad Leader for the first time. I found some good points and some bad. I’m working up a post that you should see in a few weeks!

Another game I got through a trade is Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1 (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980). I obviously have the magazine version which is a very small package with 16-pages of rules (8 series, 8 exclusive), a single 22″x34″ map, and 200 counters. I’m experimenting with the game now but my early impressions are “Wow!”

Boardgames

My Kickstarter for Supercharged from the Deitz Foundation fulfilled and arrived. In the RockyMountainNavy Family Game Collection we have a few racing games. My earliest is Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1979) which has counters so worn they are almost white. We also have Formula De (Asmodee, 1997) which is good but a bit long as well as PitchCar (Ferti, 2003) which is a blast at family parties. Supercharged is stacking up to be a great addition to the collection.

Books

I was very busy at work this week so my evening reading fell off. That said, I had way too much fun reading Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, the magazine that Fifth Corps was included in. There were more than a few articles that triggered nostalgic thoughts and others that were plain interesting, especially when read with 40 years of hindsight added in. Hmm…I sense a “Rocky Reads for Wargames” column is almost writing itself….

Models

Mrs. RMN and I gave RockyMountainNavy T an airbrush for his birthday and both he and his brother have been learning how to use it. I may even have to get in on the fun as I have way too many 1/144th scale aircraft that I need to complete!

RockyMountainNavy Jr. has been bitten by the Gundam bug, specifically the SD Gunpla variant. He picked up a few kits for assembly during Spring Break and already has added several others. We even got the young girl we tutor into building a few Petit’gguy bears….

Sunday Summary – Now You See Me…. @ADragoons @bigboardgaming @gmtgames @compassgamesllc @MultiManPub @JimDietz1 @Bublublock #Wargame #Boardgame #TravellerRPG #Books

Although I have “appeared” a few times on the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast at the Armchair Dragoons the past few seasons this past week was the first time I “appeared” on Kev’s Big Board Gaming Channel. As in I literally “appeared” on a live stream. Kev is a great host and it was a good time. I’m not sure what sort of impression I’m making on people as I’m just out to convey my love for the hobby. If you have a chance please drop by and take 45 minutes to watch and hopefully get some inspiration to play something.

Wargaming

My next “Reading to Wargame” series started with my comments on Antony Beevor’s The Battle of Arnhem book. Check back next week to see how it influenced my play of Mark Simonitch’s Holland ’44: Operation Market-Garden from GMT Games.

This was a good week for wargame arrivals. Three new titles are in the RockyMountainNavy house and in various at various stages of learning:

As I was waiting for the new titles to arrive I used a random number generator to select a game from my collection to play. Thus, Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990) landed on the gaming table. This “alternate history” game envisions a Stalingrad-like offensive around St Louis in a 1948 as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany face off in a conquered United States. More thoughts forthcoming soon.

Boardgaming

My Kickstarter copy of Supercharged by Jim Dietz is on the mail. I’m looking forward to getting it in ouse this week and not-so-secretly hope the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself get it to the table in a renewed weekend Game Night.

With North Korea making news this week I hope you all have read my comments on Daniel Bullock’s No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War (Compass Games, 2021) that was published by the Armchair Dragoons. I think the whole world is wondering which Missile Test Event Card Kim Jong Un might play next.

Books

With the arrival of Kido Butai in the house I looked at my Midway collection of books. Not wanting to rehash my read of the 2005 Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully I instead picked up Dallas Woodbury Isom’s Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway also from 2007. Written in some ways as a counter to Shattered Sword, I ended up focusing on Appendix D which is the “rules” for a “war game” Isom uses in Chapter 10 of his book. Thoughts forthcoming.

@LudologyPod on #Wargame Complexity – Really?

A recent episode of the Ludology Podcast talked about complexity in games (Ludology 238 – Unraveling Complexity). Wargames got some special attention from Emma, Gil, and Scott. Frankly speaking, while their conversation about complexity was good, their treatment of wargames was far from flattering. I want to respond to them, but instead of just complaining about them like they expect an aged Grognard to do I want to take a broad look at wargames as viewed through the lens of complexity the Ludology gang provides.

The Ludological Six Types of Complexity

Ludology 238 discussed six types of game complexity:

  1. Spatial Complexity
  2. Arithmetical Complexity
  3. Zone Complexity
  4. Planning Complexity
  5. Rules/Mechanism Complexity
  6. Component Complexity

I want to look at each of these, but from the perspective of a board wargamer. However, before I start I will warn you that I am going to treat wargames here in very broad and general terms. Wargames come in many varieties and flavors and as a result have a wide range of complexities. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus mostly on the classic perception of a board wargame (since that is what the Ludological gang indirectly does); a game using hex & counters, a Combat Results Table (CRT), and six-sided dice.

Hammer’s Slammers (Mayfair Games, 1984)

Spatial Complexity

Spatial Complexity is the arrangement of game components in space. Some examples given in the podcast are tile-laying or movement of pawns like in Star Wars: X-Wing (Fantasy Flight Games, 2012+). It also is the arrangement of the components and how accessible they are in play as well as any strategy that requires visualization of the game environment.

X-Wing in play (Photo by RMN)

Generally speaking, I contend that wargames have less spatial complexity than many boardgames. I attribute this lesser-complexity to the common use of hexes. Take for example the very first edition of Ogre (Steve Jackson Games, 1977+). Here the hexes:

  • Form the game board
  • Regulate movement
  • Describe terrain
  • Measure distance
Ogre Pocket Edition courtesy sjgames.com

The mapboard in Ogre is great example of how wargames use hexes to simplify complexity. Even the use of area or point-to-point systems generally provide the same advantages as hexes. Some of the more unique wargames out there actually ‘break the rules’ and use a very different spatial orientation to challenge the players to look at the subject differently. The best example I can think of here is Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader series (GMT Games, 2015+) with its side-view of the battle airspace.

Wing Leader – Supremacy (GMT Games, 2017) – Photo by RMN

Another kind of spatial complexity in wargames comes from stacking. When counters stack, the information below the top unit becomes hidden. Most wargames have some sort of rule for stacking but when more than one counter is allowed in a space some degree of spatial complexity is inevitable; even if it is only hiding the map below.

Monster wargames are another type of spatial complexity. I will never get to play my complete Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (MMP, 2017) for no other reason than I will never have the space to play it. In many ways though this is little different than a heavy Eurogame. Thankfully, we recently bought a new dining table which is better sized to support sprawling footprint games like Terraforming Mars (Stronghold Games, 2016) or Scythe (Leader Games, 2016).

If there is a genre of wargaming suffers from spatial complexity it is most likely those games associated with 3D movement like some air combat or submarine games. I will note that wargames that dig into 3D spatial complexity also often invest in tools to help ease the same. Look no further than flight stands for minis or tilt blocks.

Courtesy Ad Astra Games

Bottom Line – Wargames by their nature often strive to simplify spatial complexity.

Arithmetical Complexity

Arithmetical Complexity is basically the amount of math required in the game. Ludology seems to focus on point scoring or tracking points. To me, arithmetical complexity in wargames most often comes from the dice and those classic combat odds. But even so the math is often quite simple.

The use of dice in wargames adds an unavoidable form of complexity often through the use of the d6. Although many role-playing games went with the d20 (which is an easy way of expressing percentage success/failure in 5% increments) many wargames use the ubiquitous d6. Figuring the ‘odds’ of a particular roll on a d6 or 2d6 is not as intuitively obvious as a d20.

Photo by Matthias Groeneveld on Pexels.com

I personally find it interesting to look at those ‘special dice’ from the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG system that use different multi-sided dice with unique symbology. At the end of the day there is math behind those dice and the range of results possible; it just gets hidden behind the symbols. Wargames with special dice, like the Commands & Colors family of games, are actually not that different.

Given the relatively small range of results on 2d6 (11 possible outcomes) it is inevitable that Die Roll Modifiers are used. However, a good designer will realize that the classic 2d6 is very sensitive to shifts so the DRMs are often kept small. Any math required here is the most basic of adding / subtracting small numbers.

The classic odds-based Combat Results Table may be seen as a source of arithmetical complexity. Yes, a bit of ‘higher’ math is required – if you consider division and rounding ‘more advanced.’ For myself, I think I figured out how add, subtract, divide, and round numbers playing wargames before I really understood those concepts in school!

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Many wargames also include Victory Point tracks or other mechanisms to help keep track of scoring. Certainly there are a few math-heavy games like Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau, 1979+) aka ‘accounting in space’ but even then the Energy Allocation Forms are basically a fill-in-the-blank sheet and little math beyond addition or subtraction is needed. Honestly, the plot sheets in SFB are NOT arithmetical complexity but component complexity (which comes later).

Star Fleet Battles Energy Allocation Form

Bottom Line – Wargames use arithmetical complexity in core mechanics but also often rely on mechanical or component design to simplify dealing with that complexity.

Zone Complexity

Dr. Scott Rogers addressed Zone Complexity in Ludology 209 and I talked about my views on it here. Rogers’ Six Zones of Play are best though of as distance from player to game and is shown this way:

Courtesy Ludology

Let’s take a look at each of these in order with a wargame-eye.

Dominant Hand – In wargames, the dominant hand is most often used to move components. This is the physical interaction with the Main Board (Zone 4).

Non -Dominant Hand – I don’t know about you but unlike the illustration above I usually roll dice with my dominant hand. The non-dominant hand is often not a major factor in wargames with the most common exception being wargames that include cards where the non-dominant hand can be used to hold them. Depending on the game, wargamers may use their non-dominant hand to bring player aids or rule books from Zone 5 or 6 closer.

Tableau – Again, not a very common wargame zone unless we are talking about plotting moves or mechanically very different games like Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (GMT Games, 2019) which does away with the board (Zone 4) and instead uses tank tableaus in front of individual players.

Tank Duel courtesy GMT Games

Main Board – Wargames almost universally use some sort of map to portray the area of the battle. This makes Zone 4 the primary zone for wargames.

Iron Curtain (MMP, 2020) – Main Board with tracks and Side Boards (Photo by RMN)

Side Board – Often used in wargames through player aids to arrange reinforcements or maybe handle a subsystem. In the recently published Iron Curtain: Central Europe 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) each side has a Player Display for tracking air units and special reinforcements. Sometimes, space permitting, the sideboard is part of the Main Board such as when the tables or tracks are put on the map.

Rulebooks – Wargames, being analog models of potentially complex interactions, often need the Rulebook close at hand. A more recent innovation has been to also produce Player Books with extensive Examples of Play to facilitate learning.

Bottom Line – Wargames focus on Zone 4 and work their way outward from their. Wargames also have long recognized that in order to overcome perceptions of complexity, good Zone 5 aids are required. This same need has now extended into Zone 6 with the publication of Play Books or the like.

Planning Complexity

Planning Complexity is the amount of ‘thinking’ that is required to play a game. It is an attempt to measure the amount of strategy needed to play. To me, when I am asked how ‘complex’ a game is the degree of strategy needed is what I actually think about. This is different than mechanical complexity; a very mechanically simple game may require much deep thinking (planning) as much as the opposite applies too. For example, look at Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 2017). Mechanically, the game really is nothing more than rolling dice and placing them on cards. But if you roll and place those dice without thinking about it, YOU WILL FAIL. That’s because Table Battles is actually a very deep game of moves and forced countermoves.

With regard to planning complexity, wargames and many strategy boardgames have much in common. Wargames, by their very nature, rely on planning because a good wargame at heart is a game system that challenges the players to develop and implement a strategy to achieve victory.

Bottom Line – If you’re not playing a wargame with a plan then why are you playing a wargame?

Rules/Mechanism Complexity

At this point in their podcast the Ludology gang took the obligatory swipe at wargaming. When discussing rules complexity they started out by naming Advanced Squad Leader (Avalon Hill, Multi-Man Publishing, 1985) as an example of rules complexity (quickly followed by The Campaign for North Africa and the infamous Pasta Rule). Here I doth protests for Gil himself admits he never played ASL and is only passing along the common perception. He does redeem himself (slightly) by explaining that he has been told that, with some effort, ASL can be easily understood if one plays regularly. Even so, Gil and the gang eventually go so far as to dismiss ASL as a ‘simulation’ meaning that, of course, simulations require more rules that ‘just games.’

Courtesy BGG

[Sigh] Where do I start?

I’ll contend that here the Ludology gang confuses Rules/Mechanics Complexity with their later category Component Complexity. The fact that ASL (or even my beloved Star Fleet Battles) requires rulebooks in binders is NOT an automatic mark of rules complexity. I think the Ludology gang would better served us all by focusing this part of their discussion on just Mechanical Complexity. Yes, some wargames can be quite complex, especially with many rule interactions, but just as often (maybe more often?) wargames use a simple core mechanic or set of mechanisms that make learning, and playing easy. To me, complexity in ANY game comes from rules EXCEPTIONS or too much ‘chrome’.

Mechanical complexity is how hard it is to operate the game system. Like every other niche of the hobby gaming genre, I’ll admit that there are certainly wargames that are way too mechanically complex for what they are doing. In some ways the Ludology team is correct that when games veer towards simulation they can get very complex very quickly. My poster child wargame example here is Birds of Prey (Ad Astra Games, 2008) and the nomograph used for movement.

“Kinda complicated….”

Bottom Line: Wargames run the full gamut of Rules/Mechanism Complexity no differently than any other segment of the hobby gaming market. Indeed, ‘simple’ boardgames are under appreciated (if not outright disrespected) by large segments of the hobby boardgaming community (which I term ‘Vassalizing’ – see later).

Component Complexity

Component Complexity focused on the ‘usefulness’ of components. This complexity can range from functionality to aesthetics. Here is where I think the classic design approach to wargames again has its advantages. I already discussed how hexes simplify movement or range determination. Counters often use symbology (the most famous being NATO symbology) to help identify units. In wargames, perhaps to a greater degree than in other segments of the hobby boardgame market, many game execution and adjudication systems are reduced to tables.

South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) – Photo by RMN

That said, wargames are not without component complexity. Wargame designers and publishers are notorious for having poorly arranged player aids (just where is that table?). Those small 1/2″ counters are a great example of component complexity because they are often hard to read and hard to handle (how many Grognards own tweezers for counters?). As an aging Grognard I appreciate publishers like Canvas Temple Publishing or Academy Games that make bigger counters for their games.

Rulebook size can also be a form of component complexity. Wargames with binder-sized games are complex to read and assimilate, but they often strive to overcome this complexity with a useful arrangement (and those that don’t get rightfully lambasted). Look at the discussion in the hobby boardgame world over the rule books (both of them) for Root (Leder Games, 2018). The first rule book, Root: Learning to Play, is written in a very boardgames-like conversational style. In many ways this narrative approach is similar to Play Books that GMT Games often add these days. The second rule book, The Law of Root, is numbered and generally arranged similar to the classic SPI rules layout. Frankly, the SPI approach is more appropriate to referencing rules than it is to learning.

Photo by RMN

Unlike the trope that wargames rules are bloated and complex (which the Ludology gang leans into) I would point you to nearly any title published by Tom and Mary Russell at Hollandspiele. Tom and Mary know how to make a tightly written set of rules. I swear, they do more in eight-pages than many games do in dozens. C3i Magazine Nr. 32 even helped them present the rules on a single double-sided, full-page card.

Bottom Line: Component Complexity in wargames is often assumed because of the classic reliance on hex & counter and a long history of using certain symbology as a short-hand language.

Vassel-izing Wargames?

I found the Ludology discussion of complexity in gaming somewhat enlightening. However, I also perceive a bias of the hosts against wargames. Their treatment of wargames demonstrated to me that they ascribe to the common perceptions that wargames are complex simulations of conflict with high degrees of complexity. For what claims to be “A podcast about the “why” of gaming” that this is, frankly, a very unenlightened position. Looking back over the history of the podcast, I see few attempts to understand the wargame segment of the market, the notable exception being way back in Episode 110 – The Battle Begin in August 2015 where then-hosts Geoff Engelstein and Mike Fitzgerald interviewed Richard Borg and discussed the Commands & Colors family of games.

Indeed, the Ludology gang comes very close to ‘Vasselizing’ wargames. Tom Vassel of Dice Tower very unfairly and disrespectfully dismissed Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019) simply because it didn’t have a mounted mapboard and came with simple chits and a short rulebook – and a d6. Given the example wargames the Ludological team sites and their own testimony that they have little familiarity with few wargames titles discussed, I think they need to expand their horizons if they truly want to be respected for their gaming views.

So here’s my challenge to Gil, Emma, and Steve: Rather than just passing along “what I heard from friends,” why don’t you try to play ASL Starter Kit #1? When doing so, look at the game (not simulation) in terms of your six types of complexity and give us an honest evaluation. Tell us, just how spatially complex the small hex maps are. How much arithmetical complexity is there in both executing actions as well as tracking points? How do you rate the need for planning in ASLSK#1 versus a heavy Eurogame like Food Chain Magnate or even Power Grid? How does ASLSK#1 employ the different zones; and when it does so do they facilitate or hinder game play? In terms of mechanical complexity, just how complex are the game mechanisms and do you see any abstraction in what you have already termed a ‘simulation’? Finally, how complex are the components to manipulate and how are they are conveying useful game information? Love it or hate it, this aged Grognard would be very happy to listen to your comments and engage in a conversation with you.

Yeah, as that aged Grognard I’m biased (somewhere the Ludology folks took a swipe at Grognards in this episode too) but I also try to be fair. The Ludology Six Types of Complexity is a useful tool for looking at ALL games. Wargames, like all games, can be complex but they are not automatically so like the Ludology gang projects.


“All game, no history.” Really? Musings on why I play #wargames

Recently on Twitter, the following tweet was reupped for comments:

The Tactical Painter @PainterTactical ·

Goodbye #advancedsquadleader Won 2 Australian tournaments, played 100s of games but had a damascene moment designing scenarios when I realised ASL had actually taught me little about WWII and nor could it. Play the rules, not the period. All game, no history.

I was added to the thread for my thoughts. Sorta hard to condense it into one short tweet but I tried:

Mountain Navy @Mountain_Navy · 
Thinking about what a #wargame means to me. Went to the tomes of Dunnigan, Perla, & Sabin as well as Zones of Control book for thoughts. My Answer: A wargame is an interactive model to explore conflict; it doesn’t define it. I use wargames for fun (to game) & inspire learning.

Complexity as Realism…or Not?

First, a disclaimer. I am not an active Advanced Squad Leader player. I played long ago but my ASL-like game was actually Star Fleet Battles (SFB). Like ASL, SFB is also accused of being overly complex. But when I was reading through Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, MIT Press, 2016) I was drawn to Chapter 10, “Design for Effect: The “Common Language” of Advanced Squad Leader” by J.R. Tracy. Tracy starts out by stating:

Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly thirty 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 of complexity and comprehensiveness, while its player 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 richly rewarding game, offering dramatic, cinematic narrative as well as competitive experience. (p. 113)

Mr. Tracy goes on to point out that Squad Leader designer John Hill was, “striving for an impressionistic depiction of combat…based on his interpretation of eyewitness accounts and recollections” (p. 113). He goes on to say, “For Hill, ‘Realism is in the stress and snap decisions of small unit combat’….” (p. 113).

“Realism is in the stress and snap decisions….” More than anything else that line captures for me why I play wargames. For the longest time I was caught up in that ASL-like versimiltude of equating complexity with realism. My favorite games were the likes of Harpoon, the Fighting Wings Series, or Panzer. Those games all bordered more on simulation than games.

Or so I thought.

Wargames as Insight

Years later I have acquired a more nuanced approach to gaming. These days I recognize that all games are models – and models are often imperfect. I now approach games more in line with the thinking of designer Mark Herman who tell us, “As a designer, I always strive to develop game systems that allow the players to compete in a plausible historical narrative that allows for the suspension of disbelief and offers insight into a period’s dynamics.” (ZoC, p. 133)

My undergraduate degree is in History and I always have viewed myself as an amateur historian. Starting in my youth, I used wargames to help me explore history. Robert M. Citrino, in his Zones of Control contribution “Lessons from the Hexagon: Wargames and the Military Historian,” gives us three ways wargames augment the study of history:

  • Wargames are a visual and tactile representation of the real-life event.
  • Wargames help illustrate the various levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic.
  • Wargames are the ultimate “Jomini-Clausewitz conundrum.”
    • Wargames are Jominian at their core; they quantify, order, and prescribe military activity.
    • Wargames incorporate a Clausewitz artifact – the die as a randomizer

I find Citrino’s conclusion most powerful:

Beyond the informational content or fun quotient, however, wargames offer the operational military historian a means to interpret past events, to unpack the calculations that go into planning a campaign and then to analyze the reasons for success or failure. Wargames allow for compelling analysis of time, space, and force dilemmas; they clearly delineate the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war; and they allow the player to appreciate the truths inherent in both Jomini and Clausewitz, rather than choosing one and rejecting the other. In the end, war itself is a violent, bloody, and unpredictable game, with time-honored Jominian principles serving as the “rules” and Clausewitzian Zufall interfering as the randomizer. (ZoC, p. 445)

Games, Not Simulations

Remember when I said that I loved all those more “simulation games?” I didn’t really understand why I thought this, but Robert MacDougall and Lisa Faden in “Simulation Literacy: The Case for Wargames in the History Classroom” (Zones of Control, Chapter 37) helped me understand maybe why I feel this way.

MacDougall and Faden make the case that simulations are often used to model social phenomenon. “They try to distinguish between dependent and independent variables, to make generalizations that will be applicable in many places and times, and ultimately, to uncover the laws of human behavior” (ZoC, p. 450). Games, however, are different, especially with respect to decisions:

Game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as “a series of interesting decisions.” In a historical simulation game, the players take on the roles of those who made interesting decisions. The rules of the game define the structure that constrained those decisions. “Play can be defined as the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules,” writes Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011, 18). Play, in other words, explores the boundaries of agency and structure – and the “ability to make interesting decisions” is about as succinct a definition of historical agency as we are likely to find.

…But Fun

Wargames make for interesting decisions. When I started wargaming, I thought for th elongest time that complexity led to more intereting decisions. These days, I find that it is often the simplest games, with less decisions, that are the most fun. Games like Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing), 878 Vikings (Academy Games), or Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games) will never be held up as detailed models of conflict, but each is fun and offer up interesting decision spaces. They do teach, at least in broad strokes of history, and that is part of what makes them interesting too. But in the end, I play most wargames these days for fun.

I still play the more complex games, but my approach to them has changed. While I still use them to explore conflict, I also try to enjoy it. My attitude these days is one of wanting to game a conflict, not simulate it. I think many designers and publishers get this. This is why the new Harpoon V from Admiralty Trilogy Games is more player-friendly. It’s why Buffalo Wings 2 (Against the Odds) is having a successful Kickstarter. And yes, it’s why even Advanced Squad Leader is still a money-maker for Multi-Man Publishing (especially when one looks at the face-to-face tournament play aspect).

All of which is to say I play wargames for the fun of learning and making interesting decisions. They don’t teach me history, but they offer a pathway to further insight.

“All game, no history.” Not true for me.


Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

Thoughts on commercial wargames in RAND report “Will to Fight”

IMG_0056Will to Fight: Analyzing, Modeling, and Simulating the Will to Fight of Military Units. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

Will to Fight is a 2018 RAND Corporation study undertaken on behalf of the US Army G3/5/7 “to explain the will to fight at the unit level and develop a model designed to support assessment of partner forces and analysis of adversary forces” (iii). Within the report, the authors offer a model of Tactical-Operational Will to Fight. Of particular interest to me, as both a hobbyist and part-time professional wargamer, is the report’s use of commercial wargames. Reading these sorts of studies is always interesting because I get to see how others, often outsiders, view the wargaming hobby. In the case of Will to Fight, the view is definitely mixed with some good for the hobby…and some continued (negative?) stereotyping.

Here is how the authors describe war games (note the use of two words):

War games and simulations are approximations of combat intended to help people think about the nature of war, to help people understand complex military problems without actually fighting, to reduce uncertainty in decision making, and to forecast and analyze notional combat outcomes. War games are played between people, usually across a table, and usually across a flat two-dimensional map. Some war games use three-dimensional terrain and figures to represent soldiers and vehicles. (p. 113)

The study defines simulations as, “computer representations of combat” (p. 113). The footnote to this section makes mention of other types of games, specifically matrix games and card games.

On the positive side, the study makes the point that commercial tabletop games and computer simulations are “generally more effective at representing will to fight, but focus varies” (p. 126). This conclusion is based in great part on a nonrandom sample of 62 commercial products and military games and simulations drawn from a pool of 75 products (p. 126). The study broke this sample into four categories (p. 127-130)

  1. Commercial tabletop games using hexagon maps or model terrain, counters, or figures
  2. Commercial simulation, or computer games from platoon level to the battalion level
  3. US military tabletop games typically using hexagon maps and counters
  4. US military simulation from the squad level to the corps level

As much as I want to commend the authors for taking the time to actually learn about commercial wargames, I also feel they missed an opportunity to experience many great wargames that are out there. By narrowly defining commercial wargames as only “hex map” (hex & counter) or “tabletop” (miniatures) they actually exclude many great games that could help their research. Further, the study group actually reveals a bias against many of these games with comments like this footnote talking about Advanced Squad Leader:

Some commercial game players would argue that rules are always fixed. For example, many hard-core players of the game Advanced Squad Leader would never consider bending a rule to speed game play or to account for an unusual situation. Official military tabletop gaming tends to allow for greater flexibility to account for the messy realities of combat to ensure the purpose of the games not lost at the expense of hidebound conformity (footnote 4, p. 113)

There are other little examples, like the seemingly off-hand comments such as, “Complex commercial tabletop war games like Lock ‘n Load Tactical Modern Core Rules 4.1” (p. 130) that show a belief that commercial tabletop wargames are by nature complex. As an long time grognard, I understand I have a different definition of complexity but have to wonder just how much of the study typing is based on “wall-o-text” reading versus actually playing a game.

Looking a bit closer at the commercial tabletop war games chosen for study shows a mix of old and new games and a variety of designers and publishers. Taking games typed as “Hex map” only from Table 3.5 War Games and Simulations Assessed and Coded (p. 128-129) we find:

This is the point where I am supposed to say that there are better, more representative games out there that could be used for this study. I personally missed my favorite Conflict of Heroes series or Panzer / MBT. I am sure there are many games that could of been used. I can only wonder if this “nonrandom sample” is actually someones game collection (and if it is, it’s a great collection…just not mine!).

All that said, the study reports that commercial games are better than military games at depicting will to fight. The authors define this advantage using a near-formula expression:

  1. Will to fight (not) relevant to combat outcomes + will to fight (not) relevant to victory conditions + game or simulation type – US military simulation
  2. Culture affects will to fight (yes) + training affects will to fight (yes) + veterancy affects will to fight (yes) + cohesion affects will to fight (yes + game or simulation type – commercial (p. 130)

I found it disheartening to read the contention that “none of the military war games or simulations…gave priority to will to fight as the most or even one of the most important factors in war” (p. 133). Indeed, military war games and simulations are, in the words of National Defense analyst Michael Peck in 2003, “firepower-fetish attrition models that award victory to whoever has the biggest guns, rather than giving equal weight to soft factors such as morale, fatigue, and cohesion” (p. 133).

So it looks like military war games need to take their cue from the commercial sector. The strongest accolades are given to a tabletop (miniatures) game, GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad rules:

…GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad, place will to fight at the center of the game. GHQ created a cohesion system that rolls together leadership, morale, and other aspects of will to fight. This meta-cohesion system applies at each tactical fight, and it clearly influences the outcome of the game. WWII Micro Squad and a handful of other tabletop games represent the kind of aggressive adoption of will-to-fight modeling that might help make military simulation more realistic (p. 130)

Wargame designers may benefit from the Will-to-Fight Model (p. xx) presented in this study. It certainly provides a different way of looking at those factors that affect a soldier on the battlefield.

My own reaction to the study is mixed; I like the model but shake my head ruefully at the games selected for study. If nothing else, maybe Will to Fight will give another generation of wargame designers and publishers a chance to assist the military and create a better war fighting force. I can only wonder what designers and publishers like Mark Herman or Uwe Eickert or Volko Ruhnke, or even small start-up companies like Covert Intervention Games think as all in the past or presently support government or military gaming.