DB081 Lack of Discernment AAR – Attacking

This scenario took place on Dec 15th 1927, a full 12 years before World War Two.  It’s based on some of the earlier conflicts between the Red Chinese and the Nationalists (Guomintang, GMT or Kuomintang, KMT).  The conflict took place in Canton 廣東, not too far away from Hong Kong.  The Canton Red Chinese overestimated their strategic position, started a general uprising on Dec 12th and the Nationalist Chinese came for a brutal visit.

DB081 Starting position-proc

Carl Nogueira and I played this scenario twice.  I was the attacker – KMT Chinese and Carl the Red Chinese.  We then switched sides and played it again, you will read about the second one from a later AAR.

The victory conditions of this scenario is structured around the multi-hex buildings on the map.  The ones north of the canal are worth 2 points.  The ones south of the canal are worth 1 point except for the two building designated as factories.  The game ends on Turn 4 if the KMT Chinese get 8 points, Turn 5 for 9 points, Turn 6 for 10 points and Turn 7 for 12 points.  The KMT has to accomplish that while losing no more than 24 CVPs.

I planned to focus the main body of my troops to the right.  They are to capture the building on the right.  From there they can attack the factory immediately to the south of the canal, meeting up with a smaller force on the left flank.  Capturing the right building also allows for the possibility of forces wading across the canal for the higher value buildings on the north bank.  The small force on the far left is to protect the buildings from possible Red Chinese reinforcement  on Turn 3.  You see, the Red Chinese can choose to introduce their reinforcements from the north (top) side of the map, or the west (left) side of the map.   However if they come in from the south side of the canal, the VP requirements for the KMT drops by 1.

Anyway, that’s the plan .. until bullets start flying.

DB081 KMT1 DF-proc

KMT Turn 1 : The KMT rushed across the street.  A fearful death star appeared on the left flank in the single hex two storey building I never paid attention to before.  On the 2nd level, there was an MMG, a HMG and an 8-1.  On the ground level, there’s the 37mm gun sporting an ROF of 3.  These guys shot up a few of the squads on the left, rendered my HMG team useless for the duration of the scenario and made the rest of the folks very nervous.  The fortunate bit was that the elite Chinese squads were well placed to offer smoke grenades in support.

I was perhaps too careful with the armoured cars.  They are 5 CVPs and 7 CVPs (with a 9-1 armour leader) each, points that I hope won’t contribute to the Red Chinese 25 CVP goal.  Fearing a gun on the right side of the board, I planned to sneak around the side of the roadblock.  However when we ran into the death star, we froze.  In retrospect, the 37mm infantry gun has little more than 6% chance (HE only) of killing the KMT Type 22 armour truck (Chris Edwards’ Kill Calculator).  Granted, MGs can kill these vehicles but freezing in place is not the proper tactic either.

DB081 RC1 Sniper killed RC 8-0 GMT Ldr wound malf deathstar-proc

Red Chinese Turn 1 : Folks in the Red Chinese death star probably didn’t get their ancestors properly lined up.  First, a sniper killed the 8-1 .. and then both the MMG and the HMG malfunctioned on the same shot!  The concealed squads in the factory advanced out to the walls, which was brilliant.  I am not entirely sure why I never made use of the upper levels of the buildings I had to negate the walls.

DB081 KMT2 Sniper broke crew fire lanes-proc

KMT Chinese Turn 2 : KMT attacks!  The turn opened with squads advancing into the smoke that the élite squads laid down.  A 8-0 leader on the right went across the street and kicked the door in with the squad behind him ready to fire.  Other squads moved up and found the second gun at the rear of the building to the right of the map, as expected.  You can see the  laid and the Red Chinese squads putting down residual fire very efficiently.  The deathstar saw the HMG fixed but the sniper returned and broke the crew!

DB081 KMT2 End CVP 4-proc

End of KMT Chinese Turn 2 : This showed how ineffective the KMT attack was.  Losses was light fortunately, the Red Chinese accrued 4 CVP so far.

Red Chinese Turn 2 : On the right of the map, the KMT squads in front of their target building hope to  survived enemy fire and return a massive Defensive Fire back.  The KMT got a MMG team together with a 9-2 and kept the MGs in the death star suppressed. The KMT Chinese were getting ready to attack again.

DB081 KMT3 MPh-proc

KMT Chinese Turn 3 : KMT troops advanced forward on the right into the building.  LMG fire from across the canal came straight down the street.  On the left flank the KMT Chinese figured they should take advantage of the crippled death star and tried to rush the building, only to find the bottom floor fortified.  Worse – it’s fortified with a building full of self rallying crew!

DB081 KMT3 End-proc

End of KMT Chinese Turn 3 : We got into the building on the right. The rush on the left failed as the squad got shot up and bounced off the side of the fortified building.  The centre was pretty decimated.  The leaders were working hard to convince a few to get back into the fight.

DB081 RC3 End-proc

Red Chinese Turn 3 : The reinforcement came in from the north.  Things were not looking up for the KMT Chinese.   We only had a foothold on the right.  The troops on the left and in the middle were broken in huddled masses.  KMT didn’t seem to have enough people to make a third try.

DB081 KMT4 MPh All Shot up-proc

KMT Chinese Turn 4 : The KMT made an all out attack for the factory and the rightmost buildings.  Whilst they would get the right most building, the KMT Chinese got shot up everywhere else.

DB081 KMT4 End CVP18-proc

End of KMT Chinese Turn 4 : The KMT Chinese captured the gun on the right although they haven’t quite secured that building.  The force in the middle were almost entirely reduced into broken stacks.  Folks on the right who were there to guard against the Red Chinese reinforcement decided to move north to have a go at the death star.  I really like Carl’s demonstration of high level tactics.  Here we have a position where, if I attack, makes no contribution to the CVP.  However if I don’t, it will always interfere with my attack elsewhere.

DB081 RC4 End-proc

Red Chinese Turn 4 : The Red Chinese counter attacked!  Can you see the stack with the “DM” counter on top and a grey dotted line that extended to the left?  There’s an MMG in the stack and I should have laid a fire lane down that path to stop the Red Chinese from counter attacking.  However instead I was distracted by the first squad that rushed up.  Now I got 2 big stacks of broken troops threatened by marauding Red Chinese troops.  Since the Red Chinese already racked up 25 CVP, the scenario ended and Carl Nogueira won as the defender.

Notice the 2 fortified locations Carl revealed after the game.  He had the commissar situated in a fortified location in the middle of the factory.  He also had the other fortified hex immediately behind.  That last hex would be his “Alamo” before the Red Chinese bow out of the building.  Capturing a building like so was going to take a few turns more.

I would have the opportunity to improve my play by being the Red Chinese defenders against Carl’s KMT Chinese.

That will be in the next AAR!

 

 

 

 

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Shanghai 1937 in Flames!!!

"Shanghai 1937 - Stalingrad on the Yangtze" by Peter Harmsen

(This is an interview conducted via email, where I talked to Peter Harmsen, the author of “Shanghai 1937 – Stalingrad on the Yangtze” about Advanced Squad Leader.)

Iacta Alea Est!

Wargaming is a method for historians, professionals and hobbyists alike, to get inside the minds of the actors of past conflicts. The games, or simulations, can take place at the grand strategic level, as described in a previous post about the game Dai Senso. They can also offer a more intimate look at combat, putting the player in charge of just a handful of soldiers and facing him or her with difficult tactical decisions. The Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) system is an example of the latter. It has thousands of fans around the world who use its flexibility to play scenarios from a range of theaters during World War Two and the years just before and after – including the Second Sino-Japanese War. We asked Jackson Kwan, a veteran Hong Kong-based ASL player, to introduce the system and especially describe how its versatility facilitates scenarios from the war in China. (The Q & A was performed by email, with special thanks to Jon Halfin for editing.)

Very briefly, what is the Advanced Squad Leader system?

Advanced Squad Leader is a detailed tactical gaming system that models company to battalion level combat in the Second World War period.  It simulates an amazing range of combat parameters: from weather to terrain, national characteristics, leadership and morale, different weapon systems and artillery support.  This allows the examination of engagements from the Pacific theatre to desert terrain, to European theatre and even tundra conditions.  It’s detailed enough to have rules for night battles and for vision effects under differing moon phases.

A short synopsis can be found here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Squad_Leader

How do you generate new scenarios?

Scenario designers from all over work with Multi-Man Publishing and other third party publishers to produce scenario packs and/or entire new modules (settings) that includes map boards and new counters that represents new nationalities, troop types or weapon systems that did not already exist in the system. Scenario designers combine detailed research of certain engagements and various elements including weather, terrain, troop types, conditions and morale, weapons available and ammunition supply into an abstraction that may or may not completely parallel historical outcomes. The best scenarios often have a creative feeling of the historical events, yet balance out asymmetric conditions, allowing both sides equal chances of winning the engagement.

How good is the system at simulating the Second Sino-Japanese War? Are the results realistic, i.e. are they similar to what really happened during the war?

This is a game system that reflects the feel of the position the opposing commanders faced. It seeks to address asymmetric conditions that battles often are while giving both sides a balanced opportunity to prevail through specific winning conditions and other parameters.

T6 Axis Move-procFor example : if you look at the battle at Shanghai’s Sihang warehouse*) alone, you will find at least four scenarios from different designers that put their own interpretation to the events.  My favorite of the four is a scenario named “Shanghai in Flames” where the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) battles top quality Chinese troops (who were still around at the time) across a generically represented map reflecting the terrain styles, into the warehouse. Some of the buildings start already on fire and may spread according to wind conditions as the battle progress. As the Chinese fight a desperate withdrawal through the streets against the IJA pushing aggressively in, as the spreading fire almost becomes a third player, routing friends and foes alike.

Producing realistic results is not the primary objective of Advanced Squad Leader designs.  Putting players under similar decision making parameters and operating constraints to reflect the feel of combat command is the bigger goal.

But making these battles competitive and fun is the biggest objective!

What are the main differences between scenarios based on the war in China and, say, scenarios from Europe 1939-1945?

Obvious differences are weapon systems that the IJA uses (vs various European combatant). Differences in national characteristics, leadership styles, training and morale level – of the Japanese, Chinese, Gurkhas etc vs the Germans, Soviets, partisans plus the myriad of Allied and Axis minors. Differences in weather and terrain – jungles, kunai, caves, beaches, marshes, palm trees and huts in the Pacific Theatre of Operations vs woods, brush, buildings, rubble etc in the European Theatre of Operations.

If people want to get into the ASL system, what should they do?

The heart of the Advanced Squad Leader system is the Advanced Squad Leader Rulebook (version 2).  There are various modules for different nationalities and theatres.  The more modules you have therefore, the more variation you will have in the scenarios you can play.  The best thing to do however for new players is: Get in touch with Advanced Squad Leader players in various cities (and there are tournaments held almost every month around the world  http://aslladder.com/asltournaments.html) and/or on online forums.  Advanced Squad Leader is primarily about the chap across the table and definitely not meant for solo play.  (Although a well-developed Solitaire ASL system does exist, it has been out of print for some time. It does indeed make solitaire play possible.)  Most people in the ASL community are willing to teach new players and proficiency in the basic rules usually requires 3 to 6 games before you are ready to move into the various spectra the system can provide.

The Advanced Squad Leader Starter Pack 1 is designed as an initial step to see if this game’s for them. The Starter Pack is a small, self-contained system that will help any new player make the decision as to whether to dive into the full system headfirst, at a minimal cost – and was designed to replace the long out of print original “introductory” module for Advanced Squad Leader “Paratrooper”.

*) An incident during the 1937 battle of Shanghai when during a general retreat about 400 Chinese soldiers stayed behind, defending the Sihang Warehouse next to Suzhou Creek. The decision to make the stand at the warehouse was mainly motivated by a wish to demonstrate to local and foreign opinion China’s willingness to continue the fight.

(Original of this interview can be found : China in WW2)

“Crossing the Moro” by Lone Canuck, Pictorial

Got up on this fine Saturday morning after two days on the road and decided to give the mailbox a peep … found this delivered by Helen & Chris at BattleSchool today!  George Kelln’s (Lone Canuckdescription of the scenarios therein.

photo 1

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photo 3

FE27 The Bravest Thing I Ever Saw

This scenario from Fanatic Enterprises describes a situation in Bataan in January 6 1942.  The Americans fought a delaying action that saw the gunners from both sides exchange shells for shells.  Carl Nogueira played the defending American and I the attacking IJA in this after action report (AAR).  We actually exchanged sides and played this twice, with me getting my teeth kicked in both times.  This is already the less ugly version, rated PG-13.

The side that gained the most Victory Points (VP) wins.  You can gain Casualty Victory Points normally and you gain 1 VP for controlling each Level 2 hill hexes on your opponent’s side.  The Americans set up on the bottom of the map and the IJA on the top.  We get 5 and a half turns.

01 FE27 JT2 02 CC Kill-proc

IJA Turn 2 : You can see where the IJA guns were.  Line of sight (LOS) to the American hill tops were limited due to jungle terrain.  You can also see two hidden 2nd liners to slow down any sort of American counterattack.  The big stack in the middle of the top map were two IJA medium machine gun (MMGs), but their leader, a 9-1 who’s also the best leader in the IJA order of battle (OB) was killed by a sniper early in the game.  You can see the 3 lines of IJA advance on the American side.  The left most IJA rush would have been the most threatening but I failed to capitalise on the situation properly before they got wiped out.  The middle advance would be stuck for a while and in retrospect I should have strike out through the swamp towards the right to put the squeeze on the Americans on the hill on the right of the American positions.  On the right, the IJA caught and took an American 8-0 and a squad together with it in a flurry of hand-to-hand action.  At this point I expected the American guns to be towards the bottom of the map.

02 FE27 AT3 01 Start-proc

American Turn 3 : The IJA found the first American gun on the left by walking straight into it.  There was nothing left of the squad.  The attack on the left was also wiped out and the Americans started moving towards the right.  The attack in the middle was floundering as well.  The IJA on the right kept pushing towards the bottom of the map, fully expecting to find the second American gun there.

03 FE27 AT4 01 Start-proc

American Turn 4 : The American gun on the left malfunctioned!  The IJA forced their way through the bamboo to kill the gun crew before they had a chance to fix the infernal contraption.  You can see a blotch of red on the hilltop to the right where once again, the IJA found the other American gun the wrong way.  You can also see the pair of IJA MMGs moving in during the last turn as it didn’t look like the Americans were going to make a push to the north.

04 FE27 JT5 02 CC IJA dead US CR-proc

IJA Turn 5 : The IJA troops surrounded an American 8-0 and a 2nd liner in a 3 point stance.  The IJA were of course, feeling very pleased with themselves.  There was an IJA demolition charge laying on the ground in the middle.  That was the aftermath of an IJA half squad’s attempt to blow up the American MMG stack.  On the right, the IJA made another attempt up the hill and caught more Americans in close combat.  Unfortunately this IJA half squad could only take half of the American squad with it.  On the bottom right of the map you can see the Americans on a reverse slope defence configuration, looking to get the first shot in if any IJA pop over the crest line.  The probing stack of IJA troops however decided to move back up to their leader for a last push as time was running out.

05 FE27 AT5 01 Ring of Fire-proc

American Turn 5 : The “ring of fire” on the left broke the American squad but they failed to encircle the Americans properly.  Apparently you need to fire at the target sequentially for encirclement to happen (A7.7, note to self).

06 FE27 AT5 02 Ops-proc

American Turn 5 (still) : On the left, the broken American squad surrendered and the IJA picked the weakest (a 1-2-7) amongst the trio to be the guard.  That was the last mistake they would ever make.  The American 8-0 promptly jumped on the otherwise occupied IJA half squad in close combat …

07 FE27 AT5 02 Counter Capture-proc

American Turn 5 (aftermath) : The American 8-0 singlehandedly killed the IJA guards, rescued his men and found enough weapons to rearm half of his squad.  (Note to self : encircle properly & be mindful about who’s to play guards).

08 FE27 JT6 02 Banzai DC Hero-proc

Final IJA Turn : The IJA decided that they wouldn’t go down without a proper Banzai charge.  Therefore they targeted the gun crew who ventured out to retake a hill hex.  Just to be professional about it, they even short-strawed a poor chap to be a DC hero as well!  He was well perforated, his DC satchel went flying but he drew enough fire from his “friends” for them to jump on the American gun crew.

09 FE27 JT6 03 Wounded Leader-proc

Final IJA Turn (still) : An IJA leader in the middle rushed in and tried to grab the DC pack.  He got shot and was wounded as he picked it up and he never managed to place it.

10 FE27 JT6 04 CC again-proc

Final IJA Turn (almost done) : An MMG crew from the original “Ring of Fire” caught up with the American leader and squad on the left, knives drawn …

11 FE27 JT6 05 End-proc

Final : The banzai’ing IJA came victoriously out of the close combat on the right.  The folks on the left however would be locked in perpetual mêlée.  You would know I lost the game a long time ago if you can see the huge stack of IJA casualties.  Carl was nice enough to play this through to the bitter end!!

Lessons learned:

  • When playing against the Americans, the IJA needs to make good use of the Advance Phase.  Try to move into American Line Of Sight only in the Advance Phase, and if you can stay concealed, even better.  This way the IJA don’t have to take high American firepower with “First Fire Movement in Open Ground” (FFMO) and “First Fire Non Assault Move” (FFNAM) modifiers.  If the Americans fire in the following Prep Fire, they don’t get to move away and the IJA will have a chance to fire against their low morale (US Marines excepted).
  • Don’t give prisoners to someone who might not fare well in (close) combat.
  • Encirclement : remember to fire on the target sequentially.
  • Use 7 as a gauge, if you can get a result on a 7, it’s a good choice.  Alternatively, try to move in routes that stack so much DRMs on your opponent’s shot that he/she can’t get results on a 7.
  • Don’t spread your forces too thin.  There should be reserves behind an attack to exploit results.

Other thoughts?

“Advanced Squad Leader is the Greatest Wargame Ever Published”

JT3a-proc

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.  

What Do We Enjoy The Most About Advanced Squad Leader?

chL61 am747S ge548S M36GMC BanzaiAs an ASL’r who’s almost 1-year-old, I often find it hard to tell my family and friends what I enjoy the most when they see me fussing over cardboard counters and maps.

Why am I so drawn to Advanced Squad Leader?

Recently on the GameSquad forums, someone started a discussion about aspects of Advanced Squad Leader they enjoyed the most and suggested that perhaps the most enjoyable aspect is the “immersive” nature of Advanced Squad Leader games.

Robert Wolkey, a long time “ASL’r”, put it best. So I got his permission to share his thoughts verbatim.

1. The people. I only play face-to-face, because I enjoy playing the game with a friend. I’m a social animal and I like seeing how other people play and react to what happens on the board. The after game discussions are fun too. I also log into GS every day, because of you guys.

2. The competition. I’m highly competitive and ASL is a great way to match wits with another player. For that reason I could never play solo. Some players teach you something new and some make some boneheaded moves that make you scratch your head. I love tournaments and wish I could attend more than two a year. I will be going to ASLOK 30th to see all the guys again.

3. The variety. I crave variety. I always buy expansions for any game I own. I’m more likely to buy a game if I know there are expansions planned. No need to tell you about the variety that ASL offers. But, if a TPP offers new mapboards, squad types, leader types or new AFV, I will buy them over a regular scenario pack.

4. The fun / immersion / tactics. It’s just a blast to play and it sucks you in from the first Wind Change DR. Enough has been written about immersion. I love the tactics aspect. To win consistently you must have solid tactics. You can tell by the first few turns whether you should beat an opponent based on their setup, how they move and their fire discipline.

5. The history. That’s how I found wargames in the first place, because I was interested in WWII. It has to be based in history or I won’t play it. That’s why I have zero interest in DYO.

If you just started off and are on the fence about Advanced Squad Leader that is truly massive in physical size and intellectual commitment or if you are merely curious about this game, I hope Robert Wolkey helps you understand.

I hope you will make the jump.

Unboxing the “RISING SUN”!!

The Rising Sun is the latest reprint module from Multi-Man Publishing.  It’s an impressive combination of the out-of-print modules Code of Bushido and Gung Ho!.  The counter artwork was redone, the rules updated and the scenarios rebalanced, giving ASL‘rs everything he/she needs to get into the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO).  While a lot of our American compatriots have gotten their copies already, I suspect the rest of the world is only starting to get theirs.

Here’s the unboxing of a copy that hit the PTO today!

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