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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Advanced Squad Leader; My Apprenticeship

By Mitch Reed with Dave Garvin

I have been a gaming junkie since my early teens; perhaps even before if I include Hi-Ho Cherrio and Rock-Em Sock-Em robots.  Like many of us with gray hair, I cut my teeth on the wargames produced by the now defunct companies called Avalon Hill and SPI.  One game that stood out from my teens was Squad Leader, a game by Avalon Hill that dealt with small unit tactics in WWII. Out of all the games I played back then, for some reason Squad Leader always seemed stuck in my mind and when I started playing Flames of War 4 years ago, I was once again reminded of this great game I played in my youth.  In reality, Squad Leader and FoW are worlds apart in many ways besides one being a board game and the other being a miniatures game.  They both cover the sharp end of war; company level combat in close quarters and teach the player how combined forces work in a tactical situation.  I feel the comparison ends at that point; and Squad Leader takes the player into a deep immersion of the subject.
I want to first be clear of my history of the game; I played Squad Leader (SL) a John Hill design which came out in 1977.  The basic game was a smash hit in 1977 and Avalon Hill expanded the game over the next 6 years by adding modules that expanded the rules and nations that were not included in the original game.  In 1985 Avalon Hill doubled down on the series and created Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) which was designed by Don Greenwood. While many hard core grogs would say they are two entirely different games I would argue that if not for SL, you would not have ASL.  In all fairness I never played ASL when it came out, by 1985 sports and rejection from women were more important in my life than gaming.

Throck with the full rules binder

What made these games unique is how they used a core set of rules that utilized generic national counters on geomorphic maps.  So it was like getting a bunch of games in one box.  The basic set had German forces pitted against either Soviet or American troops (British were added later) in deadly close combat.  Each game would only take a few hours to play and the games tended to move quickly between two players who knew the rules.  The game utilized a straightforward combat system that leaned heavily towards morale and where actual proven combat tactics would rule the map board.
If SL is the college level game on combat tactics, ASL would be considered at the master’s level.  Over the years I have seen gamers playing ASL and noticed how huge the rulebook was as well as how much fun they seemed to have when playing.  I have always wanted to give it a shot, but for years I was scared off by my perception of the game being very detailed therefore very complex. My interest was pushed even more over the last year by Al Griffia who I know from FoW and told me how much the game has changed his life.  Al convinced me to get the ASL Starter Kit-1 during the summer of 2015, and that game has stayed unpunched until just recently.

Dave taking us through the game, Throck is shell shocked

I also knew I would need a “mentor” to teach me the game so I wasn’t left groping through the rules in the dark. I found such a person during my return to Flames of War when I asked the tournament organizer Dave Garvin to someday teach me how to play ASL.  Dave took my request in earnest, and like someone trying to get you into a cult, Dave was eager to teach others the game at the drop of a hat.  So after only two weeks of selling the game via email, my gaming buddy Throck and I went over to Dave’s house to drink the Kool-Aid.
I do not use the term cult lightly; ASL now produced by Multiman Publishing has grown up a lot since its introduction in 1985.  The game now covers almost all of the war (including the Pacific) in its many modules, packs, and kits some even done by third party vendors which gives the game a scope that no other gaming system can.  This broad scope comes with its detractors for those wanting to get into a particular period covered by ASL since figuring out what are the required modules is a tough as figuring out the McPoyle family tree.

Confusing isn't it?  From the Wikipedia page on ASL 
The chart above is not a joke or a chart for an eye exam.  I will give you a for instance; I saw that Dave had the module that covers the Scheldt Campaign (named Operation Veritable) and said “I gotta have that”, but I needed to pause because in order to play that game I would need the following; The Core ASL Rules, the ‘Beyond Valor” expansion, and the “For King and Country” expansion besides picking up the Operation Veritable module.  Doing the match quickly tells me that I would need to put up at least $300 in order to play with the ‘Water Rats”.  Besides the cost, another limiting factor is availability; so even if I had the cash to spend, the fact that ‘For King and Country” is currently out of print ends my Dutch gaming quest unless I can get a used copy on E-Bay or break into Dave’s house one night.  While Multiman is good at reprinting certain titles, it may take some time and that fact is not lost on those who wish to sell their old copy of the game on E-Bay for hundreds of dollars.

The starter kits 
If this was not confusing or frustrating enough, I learned that not all that is label as ASL is in fact ASL.  As I said before, I got ASL Starter Kit 1 on Al’s recommendation, however the starter kit is not the true “ASL”since the rules lack things such as snipers and by-pass movement.  I will talk about the starter kits more later on.
The scenario we tried out
So back to our trip to Dave’s!  Upon arrival Dave had the scenario picked, the map displayed and the counters already pulled out of the box.   The scenario we played was developed for tournament play and based upon an online data base that players track their games; the results had each side winning the game 50% of the time.
Example of the counters
Dave gave us an overview of the counters and what the symbols and numerals mean as well as the terrain on the map we were to use.   The units in the game are either full or half squads, leaders and of course squad weapons such as machine guns, demo charges, panzerfausts, etc.  Tanks and guns are also well represented however our scenario today has none of those.  The explanation Dave gave us really made sense and seemed almost intuitive to even the most casual of gamers.  One thing I liked is how each scenario had weather conditions that dictated if the wheat fields on the map were in harvest and blocked line of sight.

The map for the scenario
So with Throck taking the Germans and I taking the US Paratroopers Dave gave use the victory conditions of the game.  I had to enter my forces in two locations on one end of the board and exit troops on the opposite side.  Throck who held the town in the middle was going to stop me.  Not only did Throck occupy a good defensive position in the town’s buildings, he also had a few MG-34’s and MG-42’s in the mix, and with the hidden placement counters on his stacks I did not know where they were.

Throck's German set up, note the hidden counters on top
I was able to split one of my squads into two half squads and I planned to use them to draw fire where they would lose their hidden status.

My forces lined up at their entry points 
After set up Dave went through the turn sequence.  This is the heart and soul of the game and I felt it was easy to pick up on.

Here is the turn sequence in basic terms;
  • Rally Phase:in which "broken" units attempt to rally and malfunctioning weapons are repaired
  • Prep Fire Phase: Player whose turn it is may fire on enemy units; any units that do such cannot move or fire again for the rest of the player turn.
  • Movement Phase: the player may move their units; if the enter into a line of sight of a defenders unit they may open fire on that unit.
  • Defensive Fire: Defenders can fire at the enemy
  • Advancing Fire Phase: Units that moved may fire
  • Rout Phase: All your "broken" units must find cover.
  • Advance Phase: The player may move each of their units, not broken one hex, including into an enemy hex.
  • Close Combat Phase: if you’re in a hex with an enemy unit, you get to fight it out.
After the close combat phase the other player repeats all of the above steps.  Once each player has gone through this sequence the next turn begins.

My two half squads rush the German positions while my main force infiltrates 
While the turn sequence seems easy enough to grasp, there is a lot going on.  During each phase the player has to know what die roll modifiers, when to halve or double firepower numbers, or what cover is applicable during each shot; same detail is required as to what factors effect movement or your ability to rally your forces.  Dave seemed like Rainman; each time we had to make a roll he quickly told us what number we had to roll below for each action.   As for the die rolls, the game used two D6, and requires you to use one red and one white die because at times the red roll effects your rate of fire.

My Other flank had no luck and got stuck quickly
Combat uses a “fire table’ where you roll based on the firepower you are putting into a hex.  Results can be anywhere from killing the target to forcing a morale check with a possible modifier making it hard to pass. As I said above morale is a key element in the game; broken units are just targets waiting to be eliminated and you have to make sure you have a leader to rally them and get them back into the fight.

Tactics mean a lot in this game so my plan was to take my two forces and use terrain to get past Throck’s forces in the town.  I took some of units that came on to fix Sean in place so he couldn’t quickly fall back and guard the exit hex that was my objective.

Dave's collection of the first "Squad Leader" series

I would love to say it worked but as gamers do we started to “BS” about other topics and I also wanted to see Dave’s extensive ASL collection.  By the time we realized how much time we spent away from the game it was dinner time and we had to go.  By no means should you take it as a criticism of the game, I know I really wanted to get back to playing.  Dave was an excellent teacher and really knew the mechanics of the game and I was shocked to learn he has only been playing for two years.

More of Dave's Collection
So what are my thoughts on ASL; the game is excellent!  I like how the mechanics flow naturally and how well it actually simulates tactical combat.  The game is also deep and very detailed yet easy and fun to play.  Another factor I like is how it seems to cover every theater of the war, so you can play almost any period or nationality you have an interest in.  The ASL community also plays a huge role in the popularity of the game; any quick web search will lead you to many tutorials, user designed scenarios, tips and tactics that will help you understand and enjoy the game.

One of the many 3rd party products available for ASL

So if you are still with me now I am assuming you are interested in trying out the game but you have the same concerns I had; cost and availability.  If that is the case let me recommend getting any of the ASL Starter Kits (ASLSK).  Each ASLSK kit is a standalone game that focuses on either infantry (SK1), guns (SK2) or vehicles (SK3) and each has a bunch of scenarios you can play.   However as I said before, the ASLSK modules are not the true ASL. Multiman also has a game called “Decision at Elst” which is part of the starter kit series but it focuses on one historical battle and has a campaign game and a map that depicts where the battle was actually fought instead of using the geomorphic maps.  Like the other starter kits “Decision at Elst” is a standalone game and does expand the rules from the other starter kits.  Right now I own all three of the starter kits and picked up the ‘Pocket Edition” of the rules to read over and use as I learn the game.

Found this online, pretty neat
I would really recommend the game to a lot of Flames of War players; not so much the casual player but the player who likes the historical aspect of the game and often mutters how the FoW rules are not as realistic as they can be.  I think they would get a real kick out of ASL and really enjoy it.
So my plan is to get into this game with the intention of playing in the January 2017 ‘Winter Offensive” tournament which is hosted by the developers of the game.  I promise to keep you informed of my journey as I learn to play Advanced Squad Leader.

More info from David Garvin on the differences between ASL and the Starter Kits:

 Each of the Starter Kit packs is complete on its own.  The counters used, from informational to the unit counters are all compatible with the full game.  The differences between the full game and the starter kit are not all that much; roughly 80% of the rules needed to play 80% of the time are found in the few pages in the starter kit; the Devil really is in the details.  Every rule in the Starter Kit is found in the full game, and those that aren’t found in the Starter Kit take nothing away from either the learning process or the transition from SK to full ASL; there is no relearning when “graduating”.  In short, the starter kit doesn’t involve snipers, concealment (which can be daunting), weather effects, starting deliberate fires, off board artillery and the like. In short, once you decide to move up from Starter Kit to full ASL, there is some learning to be done, but it’s surprisingly easy to make the leap.  As a sake of interest, Decision at Elst is very popular with the full ASL players and they play it “as is”, but incorporating the full ASL rules.


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