Ladies & Gentlemen, the following is Mr. Eoin Corrigan’s “Majestic”, the best essay to date on the beauty of Advanced Squad Leader, published with his permission.
Let’s begin with a provocative statement: Advanced Squad Leader is the greatest wargame ever published.
Obviously, I’m unashamedly partisan. My purpose in writing this review is to persuade you that the preceding statement is true.
I’m sure you know a little about ASL but just in case you haven’t here are the basics. Following the success of its predecessor system, Squad Leader, Avalon Hill published ASL in 1985. The game is best understood as a modular system. At its core are the rules, the famous three ring binder of several hundred pages. Beyond Valor is the first of the modules and provides the German and Soviet orders of battle, the necessary information counters, 20 odd scenarios and the map boards on which its scenarios are played. A series of further modules provide the counters, rules and map boards necessary to play a scenario based on almost any tactical engagement which occurred during WWII.
ASL as a play experience is usually based around a scenario, almost always a one page document which describes the victory conditions, the general environmental conditions, the map boards depicting the terrain and the infantry units, vehicles and guns which will be used in that scenario. In all but a few cases, scenarios are based on an actual historical engagement, although often the representation is somewhat stylised; this is a game, after all, not historical research. Both players set up their forces and begin play, which generally proceeds on an IGO, UGO turn basis, which is familiar to most wargamers and indeed most gamers of any hue. The core of the game is an elegant set of mechanics which are far less complex than the game’s reputation suggests.
Those are the basics. If I may, I think it may be worthwhile at this point to address some of the obvious objections to my opening statement.
Yes, ASL is expensive. So are most things in life worth having. You can’t take it with you, so why not spend your money on things which will improve your life? Like ASL, for instance.
Yes, it can be difficult to source out of print modules. For those of us who have begun playing ASL during the last 10 years this has been a fact of life. However, out of print components of the system are reprinted and, in the interim, it’s possible to source second-hand copies or to simply play the many, many thousands of scenarios which are playable right now with in print material. You don’t need to own the entire system to play. Take the long view.
Yes, we’re still waiting for the Finnish module. It’s coming!
Yes, learning to play competently can be a challenge. So what? Step up. Learning to play ASL well is the wargaming equivalent of the marathon. ASL is obviously not a svelte Euro; the system provides more text describing Belgian armoured vehicles than the entire rules set of some other tactical wargames. That’s a feature, not a flaw. Besides which, no pain, no gain, my friends. And if you’re having trouble with the rules you can avail of a lot of help along the way.
Yes, ASL is chrome rich. But this chrome is usually associated with a dilemma or two, with a set of potential benefits and risks which amplify a play experience which is already decision-rich.
While we’re here, let’s put another criticism to bed. ASL is not a simulation of a WWII company level commander’s lot (nor, for that matter, is any other multiplayer tactical wargame played for fun). The ‘failed-simulation critique’ is often levelled at ASL and is based on a misunderstanding, wilful or otherwise, of what a simulation is. In ASL, each player has:
– Perfect knowledge of the OOB of both sides.
– Almost perfect knowledge of the opponent’s forces.
– Real time perfect knowledge of the quality, status and location of friendly forces.
– Perfect knowledge of the terrain.
– An abundance of control. Players decide the exact movement of individual men and small units. Players decide on the engagement priorities of each and every weapon system and infantry unit.
– Absolute victory conditions. Force preservation is, more often than not, irrelevant. In a standard scenario, casualty rates will be extremely high, as one or both sides fight to utter destruction.
A simulation of a WWII company commander’s perspective would be a very different creature. A host of information and control constraints would be required which would compromise the fun aspect. An umpire would also be required. If you’re looking for a two player simulation look elsewhere and bear in mind that you’ll probably have to look far beyond Boardgamegeek.
ASL is a game and it has limitations. Don’t mistake detail for simulation. Winning a couple of scenarios will not qualify you to lead men into high intensity combat. Recruiting officers from your nation’s military will not be handing you a commission after your first tournament win.
Now that we’ve dispatched the simulation red herring, some words on ASL’s purpose. The game’s intellectual origins lie in Squad Leader, its fêted predecessor, which had two primary conceptual platforms:
– Post WWII studies performed by the US Army which indicated that the performance of a given tactical unit under fire is highly dependent on the actions of a few individuals. These individuals are not necessarily the NCOs and junior officers, although they are often found in those ranks. These are the individuals who demonstrate initiative, bravery and leadership, the men who turn and win battles.
– The observation that an assault is generally preceded by a bombardment. ASL inherits its turn structure from Squad Leader, in which the preparatory fire phase, which represents fire to reduce and suppress the enemy, precedes movement.
These are the core elements of ASL’s intellectual inheritance. ASL is a refined, more coherent and fuller expression than Squad Leader. ASL’s grand success lies in the fact that its design ambition was to go much, much further than any predecessor had dared. The goal of ASL’s designers was to produce a system which could represent or portray any tactical engagement which occurred during WWII. ASL is designed to comprehend the whole land war at the tactical level; every theatre, every front, every major weapon system, every belligerent, every season, every weather condition, every tactical situation.
ASL has delivered on this design goal. In so doing it has provided us with some superb vistas:
– Vicious clashes of Nationalist Chinese and Imperial Japanese Army infantry and armour in 1937.
– The frustration of German anti-tank gunners facing France’s Char B1bis outside the village of Stonne in the summer of 1940.
– Dutch colonial troops outclassed by the offensive flexibility of the Japanese army amid their assault on the East Indies in 1941.
– Partisan ambushes against rear echelon Axis troops in Croatia.
– Budapest under siege in the winter of 1944. The gradual degradation of the defending Hungarian, Wehrmacht and SS troops as ammunition, fuel and food supplies dwindle.
– Anxious advances by US infantry through the ruins of Aachen, fearful of the inevitable ambush.
– Imperial Japanese troops defending tiny atolls against the awesome firepower of a late war American amphibious assault.
ASL has taken many of us to these places; the game sketches such diverse actions very well. And in so doing, the game can provide some insights into why the war was fought in certain ways, and why certain armies tended to prevail in certain circumstances.
In many respects ASL represents continuity in wargame design. Modular map-boards with hexagonal grids and combat result tables were long established features of wargames in 1985. ASL innovated elsewhere, along two principal avenues. As described, it sought to be all-encompassing. This goal was, and remains, a hugely innovative objective which no other tactical game of World War II has come close to realising, or even attempting. The second path of innovation is gameplay related. The structure of each player turn is relatively simple: rally, conduct preparatory fire, move, defensive fire, advancing fire, rout, advance and close combat, a sequence largely inherited from Squad Leader. ASL’s great leap forward is in the mechanics of defensive fire occurring during the movement phase, a time when moving units are particularly vulnerable. In short, a defending unit may interrupt movement and fire on a moving attacker; however the defending unit may usually fire again at the same moving unit or other moving units subject to certain limitations. A consequence of the defensive fire mechanics is that each player’s movement phase fully involves both players in a sub-game, with a quasi-psychological component, of movement and defensive fire. It’s a vastly engaging element of the game during which both players are totally involved. Rapid decision making based on sound judgement and an understanding of attacking and defensive priorities is required. As the phase progresses, the complex interplay of risk and benefit shifts, requiring fresh mental calculations. Perhaps more than any other aspect of the game, this is where games are won and lost, the part of the game which distinguishes poor players from good players.
Player decisions and agency aren’t the be all and end all, however. Playing the game can be a frantic, chaotic experience. Friction on the battlefield is well represented in ASL. The sniper mechanism is a roving element designed to both provide random loss of cohesion and also to check the good fortune of the side which is benefitting from the better die rolls. In most scenarios, a high frequency of low dice rolls by a player has a greater chance of activating the enemy sniper who may wound or kill leaders and heroes, pin or break squads and even cause tanks and other AFVs to depart the battlefield due to the loss of exposed crew. This is another example of a typical dilemma served up by ASL’s mechanics. Does a player expose his AFV crews to avoid poor vision related fire penalties, or are they exposed to enemy fire? It’s your choice. The rolling of double-6 boxcars can also have disastrous consequences as weapons systems fail, vehicles fail to start or units take unexpected casualties. However, the friction depicted shouldn’t give the impression that the game is a free for all dice-fest, devoid of skill. Good players mitigate risk and ride Fortuna’s wave. ASL tournaments are dominated by a small cohort of elite players; these are the players who consistently make the best decisions.
The game has what may seem to be a schizophrenic relationship with history. In some respects it seeks to be faithful, in others ASL departs from history. My argument is that ASL consistently and sensibly privileges player latitude and agency over the imposition of historical constraints.
For instance, engagements in ASL tend to emphasise unit destruction and manoeuvre, and are therefore probably quite unrepresentative of many WWII assaults, particularly in the late war European theatre on the Western Front. The role of supporting artillery is present but downgraded and the role of manoeuvre units is correspondingly elevated. Company and battalion level indirect and direct fire support is often absent; for instance, by the end of the war German infantry companies were each allocated three 81mm mortar tubes. These weapons are rarely represented in ASL.
The nature of engagements is different to that often depicted in the historical record. In very few ASL scenarios does a defending unit take 10-15% casualties and then elect to undertake an orderly withdrawal as generally tended to occur in real life; in most cases units fight to their utter destruction. Similarly, attacks are often high intensity and very direct. Formal reconnaissance is largely irrelevant or is outside the scope of the typical scenario; if it does occur in the course of a scenario it’s usually achieved by aggressive manoeuvre or reconnaissance-by-fire, as opposed to a cautious advance by specialist regimental or divisional reconnaissance assets. If WWII had actually been fought this way it would have ended a lot sooner.
ASL does not enforce doctrinal imperatives. For instance, ASL allows, and even encourages in some circumstances, a panzer grenadier commander to use his halftracks with reckless aggression, to levels which would likely have resulted in a court martial. Specialist units, such as AFV crews which have abandoned hors de combat vehicles, are not safely ushered to the rear but are usually thrown into engagements for which they had little training. There are different schools of thought; some players generally try to avoid ahistorical practices and especially the (mis)use of transport assets. I generally don’t like to play against opponents who accompany their attack with a host of empty trucks seeking cheap overrun targets. Other players have no problem at all with such practices. Fortunately, it’s easy to find players who share one’s preferences.
In other ways ASL displays faith with the historical record, although again I stress that it does so with gameplay in mind.
Nationality distinctions are an important feature of the game. Different nationalities have differing squad types. Nationalities are further distinguished by Heat of Battle modifiers; an elite German squad is far more likely to produce a hero or become fanatic than a conscript Romanian squad. Certain nationalities also have special rules. Pre-October 1942 Soviet units may be accompanied by political commissars. Certain Chinese infantry units have close combat bonuses and may voluntarily go berserk. Most Commonwealth squad types have steady nerves and therefore do not cower, which has important implications for defensive fire. The ASL designer notes freely admit that the nationality distinctions are based on stereotypes. I think it’s fair to say that they are also inaccurate, in several respects. For instance, the treatment of elite Italian units, such as the famed Alpini or Folgore, surely does a disservice to those high quality formations with proud combat records. However, with minimal rules overhead, belligerents are well differentiated and the points of differentiation tend to produce interesting narratives. Most ASL players have a story about how a Soviet conscript squad has won them a scenario with an unlikely act of derring-do.
The Japanese in ASL deserve special mention. At first glance, their squads and half-squads seem unremarkable. However, some ingenious mechanisms specific to Japanese units lend them a very special flavour. Japanese infantry tend not to break; instead they step reduce. Their leaders never break. Japanese can launch a special form of human wave attack, the famed banzai charge which, when used well, can win a scenario outright. The Japanese are depicted as close combat experts with a great skill for camouflage and concealment. Japanese units are also skilled in the use of set demolition charges and may produce tank hunter heroes; in modern parlance, IEDs and suicide bombers. All in all, these qualities provide scenarios featuring the Japanese with a unique set of characteristics which are highly entertaining to play with or against. Happily, the Pacific Theatre expansion for ASL, Rising Sun, will soon be back in print and will give a new generation of ASL players an opportunity to experience the many delights of the Pacific War, as rendered by ASL.
A further element of nationality distinction and historical accuracy is the attention paid to capturing the effect of each combatant’s mix of support weapons and ordnance. The designers of ASL were clearly fascinated by the gadgetry of warfare. In general, support weapons are assigned to squads and half squads and are individually depicted with their own counters. Most common are the three classes of machine gun; light, medium and heavy, the distinctions usually based on ammunition and tripod availability. Each belligerent’s machine guns have bespoke counters; a German medium machine gun is far superior to its Soviet counterpart. The famed Japanese knee mortar is depicted and is a highly effective tool. The Soviet anti-tank-rifle has a greater likelihood of penetrating armoured vehicles than similar British or French weapons due to its larger calibre. A seductive array of company level support weapons are available: flamethrowers and demolition charges for the assault engineers; low calibre mortars and direct fire guns for company level fire support; bazookas, piats and panzerschrecks for anti-armour teams. Certain weapons are abstracted, such as panzerfausts, molotov cocktails and anti-tank magnetic mines; the subsystems governing use of these abstracted weapons provide fog of war and some delicious moments of uncertainty at the cost of a little additional rules complexity.
A mechanic associated with certain shaped charge weapons which I particularly relish is the backblast rule. A player may opt to absorb the dangerous backblast effect of firing a bazooka or similar weapon from a building or rubble, but with the benefit of a much greater chance of hitting the enemy target. For me, this is a superb example of an interesting gameplay decision made possible by ASL’s attention to detail. The average player turn in an ASL game is punctuated by such dilemmas. The chrome pays off.
While ASL’s nationality distinctions and gadgetry fixation reveal some of the systems predilections, the vehicle and terrain rules reveal the evident fascination the designers have with the battlefields and AFVs of WWII.
ASL’s depiction of the geographical environment is exceptional. Chapter B of the rules address terrain. Again, the hallmark is the comprehensive approach. It’s no great insight to observe that geographic conditions have a pronounced impact on tactical considerations. The suburbs of Arnhem and the high mountains of the Caucasus are very different places. An ASL scenario set in Normandy’s bocage, Stalingrad’s factories or the Libyan coastal road will have the terrain to match. Olive groves, graveyards, swamps, wooden huts, cactus hedges etc. etc. are depicted in over 60 official geomorphic map boards. You can even send your brave boys into the sewers, hoping to emerge from a basement and achieve a close quarter ambush. The historical modules provide maps based on actual terrain, often sourced from photographs taken during aerial reconnaissance sorties. The rules differentiate terrain types in a manner which is usually simple and concise, although some of the Pacific-specific terrain types, such as caves and paddy fields, are overly complex. Deformation of the physical environment is not uncommon; shell-holes can be created, grain fields set alight, buildings may collapse due to large calibre high explosive hits. Achieving a hit on an enemy machine gun position which not only eliminates the crew and weapon, but which collapses an entire upper storey and sets a building ablaze is the kind of drama which ASL excels at delivering. And such changes can often have a huge impact on the tactical situation. The smoke produced by a burning copse can shield an assault. The collapse of a steeple can deny a perfect observation post for an artillery observer. Stuff like this doesn’t happen in other games.
ASL’s treatment of the urban environment is particularly notable. Sewers, cellars, roofs, burnt-out buildings, huge factories and terraced houses are all addressed. Much of Chapter E concerns weather effects. Dry conditions result in increased chance of fires breaking out. Icy conditions freeze streams and jam weapons. Gusting winds cause fires to spread and play havoc with landing gliders. Mist and rain result in vision based modifiers to fire attacks. Mud impedes off road movement.
As comprehensive as ASL’s terrain and weather rules are, its treatment of the vehicles of war is outstanding. Turning its back entirely on the simple approach to armoured combat taken by Squad Leader, which is simply an adjunct to infantry combat, ASL fixates on the technical details. Every major vehicle of every combatant is depicted, from the legacy WWI tanks fielded by many nations at the beginning of the war to the late war behemoths which fought on the Eastern Front in 1944 and ‘45. Extensive vehicle notes supplement the information found on counters and provide for bespoke rules specific to vehicles which have unusual capabilities or limitations. Reading the vehicle notes is an enjoyable and educational experience, in and of itself, and the detail provided offers its own narrative of the evolution of the war. See, for instance, the ad hoc development of tank destroyers by the Wehrmacht in late 1941, as it responded to encounters with the T-34 and KV series tanks fielded by the Soviets. Consider the very different design philosophies of the various combatants and how they evolved over time.
Squad Leader’s initial scenarios are set in Stalingrad. As a consequence, Stalingrad is a spiritual homeland for ASL players, the place where it all began. Stalingrad 1942 is the subject of the first historical module, Red Barricades. One of ASL’s unique aspects has been the production of historical modules based on specific actions. They come with a map based on the actual battlefield and a set of scenarios describing elements of the battle. They also include campaign games which are a set of linked scenarios in which force preservation becomes an important factor. Thus far, a wide variety of official historical modules have been produced and each has been based on extensive research by the designers. Besides Red Barricades, others are set in the Ardennes, Normandy, Tarawa, Guadalcanal, the Rhineland and Arnhem. Most recently, Festung Budapest describes the late-1944 siege of Budapest. The historical module campaign games are perhaps the point at which ASL most closely resembles a simulation of sorts: the maps are faithful renditions of the actual terrain and the players are required to deal with some real life constraints, such as the need to limit losses and to trade space for time. Each historical module is an opportunity to experiment. Festung Budapest is particularly innovative as it models the impact of a protracted siege on the Hungarian and German garrison; the impacts of ammunition, fuel and food shortages are captured. The map is fantastic, a beautiful treatment of an urban battlefield completely unlike any other ASL map. Playing a module like Festung Budapest gives one a very strong sense of some of the tactical dynamics of an actual battle and the impact of the actual geography; as a player one develops a very real understanding of the savagery of a late war, urban winter siege.
Another unique aspect is that ASL can boast a literature of sorts. A lot of words have been written about ASL during its three decades of existence. The official magazines, the ASL Annual and ASL Journal, have been in semi-regular production. In recent years the ASL Journal has been published on a yearly basis. Third party magazines and rules guides have also been published, some of which are of extremely high quality, such as those produced by Bounding Fire Productions or Le Franc Tireur. As such, there’s an extant bank of articles on specific areas of the rules, beginner’s tips, scenario guides, play analysis, designer notes etc. This knowledge is extremely useful to players new to the community; a great way to learn the subtleties of play is to read articles on specific matters written by distinguished ASL players. A very wide range of excellent articles are available, many of which are hosted online and are free of charge. Many of the older Annuals and Journals are out of print, but are available on ebay etc., although sometimes the prices can be very high.
ASL’s detail and rules provides some insights into the war and how it was fought. The manner in which the game depicts WWII combat can be illustrative. The game’s rules provide an answer to questions such as ‘How did the Wehrmacht’s Panzer IIIs and IVs overcome the Soviet KVs and T-34s during Operation Barbarossa?’ A player of ASL will be familiar with many of the simple tenets of modern warfare. An early learning outcome for all beginners is the dangers of stacking. Fire attacks usually apply to all units in a location, so the greater the degree to which you stack, the more efficient your opponent’s attacks. The game provides other lessons, such as:
– The positioning of important weapons systems.
– The importance of camouflage.
– Combined arms, particularly the benefit of infantry and armour working well together.
– The frailty of unsupported armour in urban settings.
– The bankruptcy of the cavalry charge yet the continued usefulness of horse borne dismounted troops operating a lá dragoons, particularly against partisan formations.
– The advantage of high ground; as an ASL player part of the skill set you will develop is the analysis of terrain depicted on the boards, identifying vantage points, lines of sight and dead ground.
– The peril defenders face when surrounded and when avenues of retreat are cut off.
– For the attacker, the importance of outflanking and achieving envelopment. The destruction of opposing infantry is often most efficiently achieved by breaking key units, penetrating the defensive line and rendering the entire position untenable, as opposed to destroying enemy units using direct fire attacks or closing to close combat and exposing your forces to the risks of close combat.
Much of ASL’s detail is intended to cause players to incorporate actual tactical considerations into their play. Players are often incentivised by the rules to deploy their troops and weapon systems in ways which mirror historical practice. Infantry will disperse in attack and in defence. Once in contact with the enemy, your troops will assault in short dashes under cover. Tank platoons will manoeuvre together, each responsible for different sectors. Defending machine gun teams will be placed in prime vantage points, covering open ground, junctions and interdicting movement along streets. Overwatching firegroups will attempt to suppress enemy defences with weight of fire. AFVs will deploy behind walls or hull down on hillsides. In scenarios set later in the war, hidden tank-hunter infantry teams armed with shaped charge weapons will lie in wait by crossroads and bridges, hoping to ambush enemy armour. Antiaircraft halftracks will accompany your armoured columns hoping to discourage or impede enemy air support. ASL’s rules, more often than not, encourage behaviour which maps well to how we know the armies fought.
ASL’s unique advantage over every other wargame is the scale and degree of connection among the playing community. Estimates of the playing population vary, however I’ve read that there’s a core of 5,000 active players and I have no reason to dispute this. These 5,000 are largely dispersed across North America, Europe and Australia / NZ in numbers sufficient to support vibrant local clubs in many of the larger cities. There are also regular weekend tournaments which occur all over the world. Even if you lack local opposition and cannot travel to play, there’s a very lively and supportive online community. There are at least two ongoing international PBEM tournaments and a less formal ASL Ladder. Finding an opponent is very easy. There are a number of forums where one can ask for a PBEM or live VASL game and I can guarantee that in 99% of cases opponents are found within 24-48 hours. And it really is a community, members of which are happy to teach newcomers and often to share or sell-at-cost material which is difficult to find or out of print.
I think it’s important to dwell on the community point. Wargames are designed to be played. To an unhappy degree, wargaming has taken a backseat to the hobby of collecting wargames. The wargames industry, such as it is, annually produces a quantum of games which quite obviously dwarfs the capacity of the wargaming population to play those games to any meaningful extent. As a consequence, it’s all too common for a wargamer to own shelves of unplayed wargames. Possessions take precedence over experiences. ASL is in counterpoint to this general state of affairs. First and foremost, ASL is played. There may be many ASL collectors or those who have abandoned ASL for greener pastures, but there can be no doubt that ASL as a play phenomenon dwarfs all but a handful of other wargames. ASL provides a venue in which those who may be tired of buying unplayed game after unplayed game can, if they wish, halt and commit to play, as opposed to staying on the merry-go-round of new game after new game, or worse still, collecting purely for collecting’s sake.
Quite aside from strength of community, ASL is also flourishing in another sense. Multiman Publishing, the official publisher, regularly produces new product and reprints of out of print modules. A stable of well-regarded third party publishers, such as Bounding Fire Productions, Le Franc Tireur and Friendly Fire, produce complementary material, usually scenario packs and campaign games, some of which are highly innovative. That’s a remarkable testament to the strength of the fan base and the dedication of the publishers; after almost 30 years fresh, quality material is still coming.
ASL is an intense and immensely engaging game experience – decision point after decision point, dilemma after dilemma. The design’s devotion to capturing detail is outstanding. The game system can describe almost any tactical engagement which occurred during the war. ASL boasts a large and growing literature. The system is still growing; a healthy stream of scenario packs, magazines and modules are produced every year. The community is large, friendly and supportive of new players.
For all of these reasons, ASL is the greatest wargame. Hence the remarkable longevity of ASL and its vibrant playing community.
If you haven’t played ASL before, I hope I’ve convinced you to consider joining us. Buy a starter kit. Give it a go. Come join us! Come play!
Eoin Corrigan’s “Majestic”, originally published on BoardGameGeek, July 10 2013.