As regular readers likely know, I am, always have been, and will very likely forever be a Grognard. My first real “game” was a wargame—Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing—found under the Christmas tree in 1979. Over forty years later I still play wargames.
That said, I took in six titles this year that were published in 2021 and thus are candidates for my 2021 Wargame of the Year:
Atlantic Chase (Jeremy White, GMT Games) – Atlantic Chase is a very different wargame—in some ways too different for me. As much as I am a naval wargamer (look at my nickname!) this one didn’t click with me. At heart it’s a game of trajectories and time much more than locations. There are many out there who sing praises to the rule book but I found the 10-episode tutorial a bit much. (Status Update – SOLD!)
North Africa: Afrika Korps vs Desert Rats, 1940-42 (Multi-Man Publishing) – Released late in the year, this one barely makes the list. I’ve yet to explore this title too deeply but the Standard Combat Series version of the very popular Operational Combat Series (OCS) DAK looks to be yet another “playable monster” game.
…and the winner is…
…Empire at Sunrise.
Empire at Sunrise was released so early in the year it’s easy to forget. Also, not coming from from the larger GMT Games but tiny Hollandspiele it tends to get drowned out in the marketing and social media “talk.” Empire deserves attention because that telescopic scale takes what could be three separate games and relates them to one another to make a coherent story. It’s an interesting game design on an under-appreciated historical topic. While Hollandspiele may not deliver the production quality of a larger publisher, the games are perfectly functional and do what they are supposed to do; enable gaming, exploration, and learning.
I am hoping that GMT Games finds a way to get the four titles that are at “At the Printer- No Ship Date Yet” moving. The latest update from Gene tells me that Tank Duel Expansion 1: North Africa is in a container somewhere between China and California and will be charging early October. Hopefully this means that backlog will work off over the next few months. I look forward to a regular GMT P500 delivery schedule.
I might also be better informed if I watched the Compass Games Live / Town Hall on YouTube every week but it goes live at an inconvenient time for me to easily catch it. I have five titles on preorder form Compass and, as best I can tell, none are scheduled for delivery through the end of this year (deep sigh).
My lone Multi-Man Publishing title on preorder shows that the preorder goal was passed. I guess that means it is moving forward in production, but when that is remains a mystery to me.
The big boardgame industry news this week is that Asmodee is looking for a buyer...and they want 2 BILLION Euros. This past year+ of COVID certainly has seen the boardgame industry do well, but with the current raw material shortages and shipping challenges is it truly sustainable at those high levels? I almost feel like the VC group that owns Asmodee is trying to take their money and run. Remember, one of the oldest adages in business is“Buyer beware.”
Foundation and Role Playing Games
I rarely watch TV these days, but I did indulge in the first two episodes of Apple TV’s new series, Foundation:
I thought about rereading the books before the series started but I am glad I didn’t as I am looking at the series with (sorta) fresh eyes and just taking it in. I am especially enthralled with the world-building. I read articles about how the producers were trying to establish a look for the series that is neither Star Wars or Star Trek (Warning: Minor spoilers at the link). If I was put on the spot, I would say that there are many elements of Marc Miller’s Third Imperium setting for the Traveller roleplaying game. Or maybe it’s better to say there are many classic space opera elements in the Third Imperium and Foundation is just catching up. I have to admit I also enjoy watching the series with the RockyMountainNavy Boys who have not read the books (I know, Bad Dad!). They are taking it in without any preconceived notions. So far they like it, which is high praise from the hardcore Stars Wars fans they are.
From Foundation to Blade Runner
What’s this? Hot on the heels of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, Free League has announced publication of Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game in 2022.
The core game and its line of expansions will push the boundaries of investigative gameplay in tabletop RPGs, giving players a range of tools to solve an array of cases far beyond retiring Replicants. Beyond the core casework, the RPG will both in setting and mechanics showcase key themes of Blade Runner – sci-fi action, corporate intrigue, existential character drama, and moral conflict – that challenge players to question your friends, empathize with your enemies, and explore the poisons and perseverance of hope and humanity during such inhumane times.
Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game, The Game
Investigative RPG’s are an interesting subgenre of roleplaying games. Some game systems, like Gumshoe from Pelgrane Press, are designed from the ground up for investigations. Other systems rely on a form of “social combat” game mechanism to handle player vs. PC interactions. Indeed, The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) has a separate mode of play called Social Encounters that covers investigations. It will be interesting to see how Free League adapts the Year Zero Engine to handle Bladerunner-style investigations.
Although I didn’t totally enjoy ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game I am nonetheless happy to see Free League lean into the 1980’s sci-fi IPs and turn them into RPGs. Philip K. Dick’s short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the basis for the movie Bladerunner and is a very deep story. I hope the game does real justice to the IP.
As a wargamer, there are a few battles one can count on to be the subject of a wargame. The number of Battle of the Bulge wargames is uncountable and, in a similar way, the Battle of Gettysburg has been getting the wargame royalty treatment since the Avalon Hill Game Co. published Gettysburg by the Father of Wargaming, Charles S. Roberts, way back in 1958. The book world is much the same—it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Gettysburg may be one of the most written about battles in American history. Which means that picking up any Gettysburg book, or wargame, runs the risk of of it simply being a rehash of the old.
Much of the criticism emanated from Lincoln’s notion that Lee’s army, somehow, could have been destroyed if Meade had only vigorously pursued the enemy then blindly attacked it when the Army of the Potomac came face to face with it on 13 July. Incredibly, no civilian official from inside Lincoln’s administration ever gave Meade credit for out-generaling General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and thereby delivering the first victory of the Army of the Potomac since its formation in November 1861. Few historians have done so either.
“Epilogue”, p. 371
In Meade at Gettysburg, Kent Masterson Brown uses published and unpublished papers as well as diaries, letters, and memoirs to try and gain a better understanding of Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg. He does so by looking at Meade in four phases: From assuming command on 28 June 1863 through the advance to Gettysburg on 1 July, his tactical actions on 2 July, his decisions on 3 July, and the pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army after the battle.
In wargames, we take the mapboard for granted. Indeed, a mapboard is often a necessity by defintion for a wargame. It is amazing to me that Meade and many of his generals fought the Gettysburg campaign without a decent map. As Brown tells us, “What Meade could not discern from the maps were any topographical features such as hill and ridges. Meade was using what were called residential maps, and they did not include such topographical features, although the Frederick County, Maryland and Adam County, Pennsylvania, maps provided outlines of the South Mountain range, but nothing more” (p. 57). Further, not only did Meade lack detailed maps, but he had a hard time understanding where his own forces were, much less that of the enemy. To use more modern terms, the Union generals in the field had no “common operating picture.” Indeed, Meade’s understanding of both the terrain and location of his own forces was so poor that on 1 July he ordered his corps commanders to sketch “their respective corps, their artillery, infantry, and trains” and to share this sketch with the army headquarters (p. 208).
The lack of maps and hidden force location is hard to duplicate in a wargame which all-too-often delivers a “God’s-Eye,” information-rich view of the battlefield. For example, Roads to Gettysburg II is played on a map with lots of information—far more than either army commander had at hand at the time.
There are ways that a poor map can be duplicated in a game, but the cost in playability is astronomical. Maybe a computerized version can simulate the gradual “discovery” of map details as units move and scouts operate, but I prefer tabletop wargames not screens. The reality is the lack of maps, topographical knowledge, and “common operating picture” that Meade faced at Gettysburg is not easily duplicated in a wargame.
What Year Did You Graduate West Point?
Whether one wants to admit it or not, whenever you play a historical wargame you almost always, inevitably, benefit from hindsight. Nobody wants to be like Sickles’ Third Corps and push out ahead only to be shattered by Longstreet. Often times players do things “differently” than in the past because they “know” what works…and doesn’t (didn’t?). On the other hand, sometimes players want to “try to get it right” and do one-better than history. After reading Meade at Gettysburg I found just such a moment in Meade’s orders to Reynolds’ First and Eleventh Corps: “Meade’s directive that the First Corps, followed by the Eleventh Corps, ‘advance on Gettysburg’ was not an order directing Reynolds to occupy the town or hold a position near there; rather, Meade intended for the presence of the First Corps along the turnpike axis to cause the enemy to coalesce and show its intentions” (p. 99).
Kent Masterson Brown in Meade at Gettysburg demonstrates the power of understanding not what we know today, but what the historical participants understood when describing Reynold’s mission as assigned by Meade on 30 June:
To force the enemy to concentrate and deploy so as to reveal its intentions was what Meade ordered Reynolds and his First Corps—followed by the Eleventh Corps—to do; it is identified as one of the most dangerous tasks in mid-nineteenth century warfare. Th strategy requires using an “Advance Guard,” according to Dennis Hart Mahan, professor of military and civil engineering and the science of war at West Point. Mahan published a book on the use of an advance guard in 1847, entitled An Elementary Treatise on Advance-Guard, Out-Post and Detachment Service of Troops and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in the Presence of an Enemy. Mahan taught military science to Generals Meade, Reynolds, Slocum, Sedgwick, Hancock, Howard, and many others in the Army of the Potomac when they were West Point cadets. General Reynolds and Mahan had in fact taught strategy and tactics together at West Point just before the war. Likewise, many of Lee’s lieutenants studie under Mahan at Wet Point, and Lee was superintendent of West Point during Mahan’s tenure. Much of what Mahan taught was incorporated in the Revised Regulations of the Army of the United States of 1861.
“Force Him to Show His Hand”, p. 101-102
One of the key requirements of a leader is to understand the commander’s intent. As wargamers, we don’t always have a professional military education and, if we do, it more often than not the military science of today and not that of the past. In Meade at Gettysburg, author Kent Masterson Brown explains Meade’s intent as his fellow generals likely understood it. After reading the book, now I understand it too. This new understanding totally changes how I would play out a 1 July scenario in a Battle of Gettysburg wargame.
The Tactical General
The Army of the Potomac was about to enter the struggle of its life. What happened on 1 July was difficult enough. Now, the insubordination of a corps commander had placed not only his own Third Corps but the entire army at risk. No cavalry screened the army’s left flank. The troops would have to fight as they had never done before, and even that might not be enough, given the sheer magnitude of the attack the enemy was about to unleash on Meade’s left. Although Meade was the operational commander of the army, he was about to take tactical command of the fighting on 2 July.
“I Wish to God You Could, Sir”, p. 228
While Meade at Gettysburg focuses on the operational campaign, for 2 and 3 July it digs into the tactical level. That’s because Meade personally took command on the battlefield. This situation is most often what wargamers experience—direct tactical command of the pieces on the board. Here is your chance to “out-general” General Lee (or Rob, your longtime wargame partner). As a wargamer, this part of Meade at Gettysburg was what I could most easily relate to. It was also very disappointing. That’s because I suddenly felt “railroaded” by certain wargames.
Take for instance Mark Herman’s Gettysburg. The game starts on 1 July with Buford’s cavalry to the northwest of Gettysburg as they were historically. The Union First and Eleventh Corps enter on turn 1 from the south again like history. It is at this point the game diverges from history.
Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is played for up to six turns (three days) and victory is determined as follows:
The game usually ends at the conclusion of game turn 6. However, if at the end of any turn the Confederate player can trace a continuous road path from Entry Point A to any one or combination of Entry Points I, J, or K, uninterrupted by Union units or Zones of Control, not Influence, they win the game. If this condition does not occur by the conclusion of turn 6, then the player with the higher VP total wins. Each player receives 1 VP for each eliminated enemy unit. The Union player wins ties.
C3i Magazine – Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 – Rules of Play, p. 11
In other words, Mark Herman’s Gettysburg assumes that Meade wanted the battle to be fought at Gettysburg and not at Big Pipe Creek like he planned and Kent Masterson Brown explains in Meade at Gettysburg. Mark Herman’s entire game is predicated on the assumption that the player will be like Sickles and violate his commander’s intent and bring on a general engagement at Gettysburg. Sure, it makes for a nice wargame, but at this point is it even really historical, or just another counterfactual?
[Don’t take the above part wrong—Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is a very well designed wargame from the perspective of mechanics and does a great job for what is designed to do—”distilling history to it’s essence.”. It’s just that this game, like many other Gettysburg wargames, is designed to play the battle as it historically occurred—not as it was planned—and in the process makes several assumptions as to how the battle developed and the decisions of non-player commanders.]
In many ways, Meade at Gettysburg is a good primer for wargamers playing almost any Gettysburg game. Here you, the player, nominally are the commander at the head of the Army of the Potomac (like Meade). However, you often also assume the role of a corps or division commander, and depending on the game you might even devolve down to the brigade level. This “sliding command perspective” is part-and-parcel of wargames. Meade made it work; can you?
Let’s Play Operation!
Reading Meade at Gettysburg not only provided an interesting look at the campaign around the Battle of Gettysburg, but it also helped me understand more about my taste in wargames in general. Meade at Gettysburg reminded me that it is the operational level of war that is the most fascinating to me. Now, I certainly like tactical games and getting down to the nuts & bolts of battle. There is a certain joy at employing a weapon system in such a way to outfight your enemy, but to out-campaign an opponent is truly another level of achievement.
I understand that when a wargamer picks up a Battle of Gettysburg wargame they kinda expect to fight a battle at Gettysburg and not someplace else. Meade at Gettysburg shows readers—and wargamers—that fate is fickle and what one calls history is sometimes accidental and far from what the participants intended.
But what if….
What if you could do as good as Meade did? Wargames let us be like General Henry Jackson Hunt, Meade’s Chief of Artillery, who was not a fan of Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg. Yet, in 1888, he saw the battle in a new light:
Meade was suddenly placed in command. From that moment on all his acts and intentions, as I can judge of them, were just what they ought to have been, except perhaps in his order to attack at Falling Waters on the morning of the 13th, and especially on the 14th of July, when his Corps Commanders reported against it, and I was then in favor of the attack, so I can’t blame him. He was right in his orders as to Pipe Creek, right in his determination under certain circumstances to fall back to it; right in pushing up to Gettysburg after the battle commenced; right in remaining there; right in making his battle a purely defensive one; right, therefore in taking the line he did; right in not attempting a counter attack at any stage of the battle; right as to his pursuit of Lee. Rarely has more skill, vigor, or wisdom been shown under such circumstances as he was placed in, and it would, I think, belittle his grand record of that campaign by a formal defense against his detractors, who will surely go under as will this show story.
The Standard Combat Series (SCS) enables both experienced and beginning players to enjoy simple to play and quick to learn games. Each game is a quick-start, complete simulation: rules, a detailed color map, 280 counters, and everything else needed to recreate the campaign in question.
Rostov ’41 and the SCS are exactly the type of game I was hoping to use to “Rev My Gaming Engine.” In this case, the “standard” in SCS is the main draw. Opening up Rostov ’41, I first pulled out the eight-page Series Rules, v 1.8 and gave them a quick skim to remind myself of the fundamentals of the game. I then pulled out the eight-page Rostov ’41 Special Rules and read them a bit more closely. New series rules really only cover three pages with the balance of the Special Rules given over to scenarios and charts. In the case of Rostov ’41, important ‘changes” from the Series Rules are a modified Sequence of Play (1.1) and Barrages (1.6).
Unlike Atlantic Chase, which took me multiple hours (spread over multiple days) to learn before play, Rostov ’41 was on my gaming table literally within an hour of opening the box. It’s at this point that I usually slow down; study the setup, make cautious moves at first as I not only rediscover the game system, but also explore the strategy and tactics needed to reach victory in the particular scenario.
The box back of Rostov ’41 is actually a very accurate description of game play. I don’t usually associate “wild gameplay” with a SCS title but with this game it’s quite appropriate. The warning on the back of the box is also easy to ignore…at the player’s own peril:
The German player must use his limited and overstretched forces to pull off a brilliant coup. Playing it safe won’t cut it; speed is all important. With a lot of skill and a bit of luck, Rostov will be yours. Then you’ll have to pay the piper.
The Russian player must conserve his forces as the German rapier expends its energy. While the capture of Rostov requires a lot of skill and some luck on the German part, don’t begin to think your job is easy. Derailing that German drive can easily consume precious forces needed for your main effort: turning the tables on the Germans and taking back great swaths of the Motherland.
Rostov ’41, Box Back
I usually play the full scenario for new games but in this case I decided to take a graduated approach to my Rostov ’41 play. Scenario 2.2 “Fritz on the Mius” is the initial German assault and covers turns 1-4 of the campaign game. Scenario 2.3 “Fritz Grabs Rostov” starts mid-game covering turns 7-14 while scenario 2.4 “Soviet Counterpunch” is the Soviet counteroffensive on game turns 11-14. Taking this approach allowed me to explore each segment of the battle separately. Most helpfully, this approach allowed me to learn what both sides need to accomplish in the larger campaign.
Playing Rostov ’41 this way took me a few days but still far fewer than I devoted to Atlantic Chase. By the time I ended my exploration of Rostov ’41 I found myself very satisfied. The main difference in playing Rostov ’41 and Atlantic Chase was that my familiarity and understanding of the SCS system allowed me to “fight the battle” and not “fight the game.” What I mean here is that in Rostov ’41 I was able to study the campaign and the history whereas in Atlantic Chase I am still learning the system making game play more about “manipulating the levers” vice “fighting the battle.” As I am a wargamer that enjoys studying the history of a battle I derive far more enjoyment from the later.
Finding the Right Gear to Maximize Revolutions
Playing Rostov ’41 helps me to reaffirm my “Rev My Game Engine” approach to playing wargames. Looking at my current preorder list, of the 28 games I’m waiting for, seven are truly “unique” to me. All the others are either expansions or derivative designs from ones known to me (with admittedly varied levels of familiarity). Although I look forward to exploring new and different game designs, I also realize that I personally need to take the new in moderation. This is also why I have mad respect for content creators like Grant & Alexander (or is it Alexander & Grant?) from The Players’ Aid or Kev at The Big Board Gaming because they seem to always be taking in the new. How do they enjoy what they’ve got?
Miss A brought her birthday present game, Barnyard Bunch (HABA, 2019) to the house this week when she came for her tutoring with Mrs. RMN. This is a very kid-friendly cooperative game that was really fun to play together with her and Mrs. RMN. The goal of the game is to keep the animals from running away. Every turn, a player rolls the die to see what animals advance (depends on color of die face), or retreats one space (the Farmer), or which is taken all the way back to the barn by the Dog. Then, you draw a card that will advance an animal, lure an animal back one space with food, or show the Farmer (choose one animal back one space) or Dog (one animal back to barn). Not much strategy needed as the game is played cooperatively with all players participating in the choice of animals moved by the Farmer or Dog. Given Miss A is 7-years old we thought that maybe the game is actually too simple for her. However, we were later told she took the game to a friends house and taught it to her friend. So…it was an obvious good choice by Mrs. RMN, right?
The second new game arrival this week was Ray Weiss’ Rostov ’41: Race to the Don (MultiMan Publishing, 2020). This is a Standard Combat Series game. I have come to expect that a SCS game has a “gimmick” or some special rule to highlight the battle or campaign depicted. However, in my first look through the rules I don’t see any obvious special rules. This might be a case where the scenario and order of battle are the “gimmick.” A deeper look will have to wait until after I get through Atlantic Chase.
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.
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-Tanksfor 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!
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 ASLfamily will be expensive.
The Effect of Complexity
One barrier to entry for new players of ASLis 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?
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 ASLSK1means 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.
When playing ASLSK1 I can hear a narrative developing out of the Sequence of Play:
“Hey guys! Let’s go get them! (Rally Phase)
“Cover me!” (Prep Fire Phase)
“Move it!” (Movement Phase)
“Where did THAT machine gun come from?” (Defensive Fire Phase)
“Get ‘em over there!” (Advancing Fire Phase)
“Come back, you maggots!” (Rout Phase)
“Go go go!” (Advance Phase)
“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 ASLSK1that 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 inASLSK1 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!
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 SK3will 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 ofSquad Leaderand just play that title for it captures the snap decision elements in a game design that is not overloaded.
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!
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….
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….
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.
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.
Spring has arrived meaning those long, dark winter days are behind us and outdoor chores demand my attention. Spring is traditionally a slower gaming time in the RockyMountainNavy home as we all are more busy and “spring fever” sets in.
In the past few months there has been something of a renaissance of wargames on Kickstarter. Since early February I tracked at least eight wargame(ish) titles that I was VERY tempted to pull the trigger on and purchase. Add to that a further seven boardgames and it is very easy to see that the first quarter of Kickstarter in 2021 could be very costly for me—as in nearly $900 in pledges assuming lowest levels of support and not factoring in any shipping! Alas, I ended up only backing one wargame/boardgame (Root: The Marauder Expansion from Leder Games) and even then I went in at a lesser level.
As I write this post, I am tracking 26 items on my Preorder & Kickstarter Roll GeekList. With a bit of some luck, I might see three games deliver this week and another two within 30 days:
Supercharged (Jim Dietz) – Kickstarter. From an update on March 16 – “Bad news/not controllable: The games are still being processed on the West Coast–this is due to a backlog of shipping arrivals and also a shortage of labor at the docks (whether this is underemployment or people out currently due to COVID, I was not told). I am supposed to have an updated ETA by the end of this week..”