Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Farewell Advanced Squad Leader

Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) purports to be a game about tactical leadership in combat in WWII. It comes from a long and noble line of hex and counter wargames from the Avalon Hill Game Company, with genetic roots in games such as Panzerblitz, Panzer Leader and Tobruk. Each of those games strived to improve on the ideas and game mechanics of its predecessor to develop a game that produced a better model of tactical combat in the Second World War. 


The IGO-UGO nature of Panzerblitz meant one side could dash armoured units across open ground from one piece of cover to another in the face of the enemy without that enemy having a chance to fire. That was rightly considered ‘unrealistic’ and not representative of combat in the period. In response Panzer Leader introduced the concept of opportunity fire, which in turn ASL further refined into the concept of defensive fire. These changes and evolutions didn’t necessarily make any of these a better ‘game’. Panzerblitz remains a challenging and rewarding tactical game. What these developments in game mechanics did try to achieve was an improved wargame - in other words, one that did an improved job of modelling some of the tactical aspects of the Second World War. The introduction of an opportunity fire rule in Panzer Leader had made those events taking place on the board feel more historically plausible.

I played all of those games, but none as much as I played Advanced Squad Leader. It became a game that dominated my gaming time for more than fifteen years. I won two of the Australian national tournaments at Cancon in Canberra (1993 and 2007). Here I am (on the right) playing the final in 2007 and receiving my trophy.



I also designed several scenarios, two of which J34 Men of the Mountains and J35 Siam Sambal were published in ASL Journal 2.


More recently I was trying to design new ASL scenarios set in Normandy and was immersed in reading about the actions there, trying to work up ideas. I was very interested in company and platoon level actions and particularly focussed on the command dilemmas faced by junior commanders. That brought me to a damascene moment where I realised that ASL had a number of inherent flaws that made it impossible for me to recreate the actions I was reading about using the ASL rule system. At first this didn't make sense to me. Here I was playing a game considered by many to be the ultimate Second World War tactical game and yet I was unable to replicate historical events I was reading about. 

That was a turning point. ASL remained an immersive and challenging tactical game, but it was apparent that this wasn't a game that did a good job of modelling certain critical aspects of tactical combat in the Second World War. Last year, as my ASL material drifted deeper and deeper into storage, I realised I would probably never play it again and sold it all. So, why?

To my mind ASL isn’t just a ‘game’. It’s designed to be a wargame and very specifically one that reflects tactical combat during the Second World War. It is called squad leader for a reason. So we are entitled to ask, what does it show us about the command issues of squad combat in WWII?

Let’s not be mistaken, ASL does not attempt to be a game that exists in its own universe. I challenge anyone to find a single rule in the enormous ASL rule book that doesn’t attempt to reflect a ‘real world’ situation. We see rules that make a stone building better protection than a wooden one; we see that a unit moves more slowly through woods than in open ground; we see a jeep moves fast along a road while a tank risks bogging down in muddy terrain. ASL doesn’t inhabit a fantasy world, the rules indicate that we are trying to replicate events and military units that occurred in the real world. In fact the reference point for every single rule is the real world. However, try interjecting this thought into a discussion in an ASL forum and you will be mocked and derided for using the, ahem, ‘reality argument’. A bit weird.


In this game about leadership and command during WWII, the first major issue is the chapter in the rule book about command and control. There isn’t one. That chapter doesn’t exist.

Here is a game about leadership and yet in ASL there is no chain of command, no platoon structure, in fact no military unit structure at all. It’s astonishing that this key element in the way military forces are organised and operate is missing in its entirety. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Second World War was run by corporals and their squads, with no higher levels of organisation or command.

The leaders that do exist within ASL operate more as unassigned die roll modifiers, free to roam the battlefield at will. Meanwhile the overall commander, you, is everywhere, magically issuing orders and assigning those leaders to whatever task pleases you. And those orders never go astray, never get misinterpreted and are always acted upon. In fact the only thing that prevents an order being executed exactly as you wish, when you wish, barring a few rare instances, is if the unit is fired upon and fails a morale check. 

This assumes that the only thing that impacts battlefield performance is morale, as long as morale is good a unit can be relied upon to operate with almost robotic certainty. For all its emphasis on the technical details of weapon systems the rules manage to distil all human activity down to the determination of a solitary factor - morale. In essence the machines are the main focus of attention, far more than the soldiers that operate them and the commanders that lead them. That was certainly the dominant focus in game design in the 70s and 80s and it is where ASL shows its age. 

Yet, if morale is such a critical component of game design how is it that a unit can suffer 40-50% casualties without any impact whatsoever on their overall morale? In fact ASL can be played right down to the bitter end with the last surviving half squad clinging on to the victory location to win. Not an unusual occurrence and something celebrated by players as a nail-biting game that came right down to the wire, evidence of how great the game is and how ‘well balanced’ the scenario. 

If the rules allow for ahistorical military formations (well, actually, no military formations at all) and for ahistorical command and control mechanisms, it shouldn't be too surprising to see ahistorical tactics applied in the game. And so it is.


The rigid phase system means that combat unfolds in an orderly and predictable fashion. And more fool you if you haven’t mastered that sequence of play - forgot to fire smoke first? tut tut, too late to do it now. Many of the best players I know are mathematicians, engineers, actuaries and systems analysts, and it’s no wonder, the game rewards calculation. I know my squad can move x many hexes each turn, therefore I know they will arrive at a certain destination at a specific time and so, like a complex piece of choreography I plan my turns.

Only the enemy can interfere with my plan and only during specific phases of play. There will be no other surprises. As fog of war barely exists in ASL this normally means I know exactly where my enemy is and therefore I can move with impunity in certain areas of the battlefield without concern. Not only that, I can move with absolute predictability through terrain my units have never even seen before - every pile of rubble is just as difficult to walk across; as is every patch of woodland, every stream. No unit arrives at their planned destination any later or earlier than expected. If you’ve counted the hexes and planned the move your unit will arrive with impeccable timing at their destination. The only possible impediment to this utterly predictable movement is failure of a morale check should the enemy fire at you.

This is one reason ASL players spend a lot of time counting hexes and believe me, counting hexes is a big part of playing ASL. It's one feature that makes it much more about the game than about the history. Platoon and company commanders spend most of their time trying to deal with the unknown and manage men in the confusion of combat, but in ASL you spend your time calculating what is needed to deal with the known. 

If this quote from the recollections of tank commander David Rinder is any indication of what combat is like, then ASL is wide of the mark. 

“The frictions of war – chance, bad weather, mistakes and ill fortune – are the only certainties of combat, along with death, injury and destruction........war is a random and bloody business, where the weird geometry of chance has its play and its frictions and human fallibility and fragility abound. Combat is fast moving, confusing and often bewildering. There is no perfect science, only perfect intent that is unlikely to withstand first contact with the prevailing realities on the ground once battle is joined, and the enemy also gets a vote in the outcome."

And if ASL is not about the history then why the pretence? We have Chapter H and it's detailed listing of vehicles and guns; every ASL scenario is set in an historical setting with references to specific units in specific locations at specific dates, and if nothing else, there are a series of self-styled 'historical' modules set in places like Stalingrad. 


Yet, despite this facade of historical accuracy, the basic structure of infantry platoons and companies is absent. Take the Japanese infantry platoon for example. For most of the war it was a four squad platoon, with three rifle squads and a grenade discharger squad (the 50mm 'knee mortar'), with three grenade dischargers concentrated in the single squad. They were not parcelled out to other squads, it was doctrine to concentrate them. You wouldn't know or learn this from playing ASL.

It's strikes me as very ironic that the ASL community will argue vociferously that it's just a 'game' whenever anyone tries to trigger a discussion around how well the rules replicate the period and yet that's exactly what they do. ASL may appear to be about the Second World War, but in reality it's all about playing ASL. At times it does feel ASL exists in its own universe, a fictional, alternative Second World War that only exists in reference to the ASL rules, not to any other external reference.

The ASL rules writers tell players to focus on 'COWTRA' - concentrate on what the rules allow. The rule book being the ultimate reference point and arbiter. It's quite a contrast to a different set of rules for a similar level of combat in the Second World War that states "From time to time, situations will arise which are not covered in the rules. When this happens, consider what is and isn’t possible in real life in the relevant span of time. Discuss the situation with your opponent and come to an amicable agreement". Many ASL players reading this will find that statement utterly laughable.

So while the ASL rule book dedicates pages to Panji sticks or the slope of a beach for a beach landing, it neglects to deal with so many aspects of combat during the period, not least of which are the mechanics of command and control. To me that’s a major flaw in a game that has the words ‘squad leader’ in its title. 

It’s a wonderfully challenging two player tactical game, don't misunderstand me, but not one about combat in the Second World War. I enjoyed it back in the day, but I won't miss it.






73 comments:

  1. Nice post. No fog of war, no command and control, the certainty of movement - all major flaws. But the game is a product of its time - designed in the 80s from a game developed in the 70s from information that was around in the 60s. At the end of the day it’s about playing the game most efficiently to win - if that means suppressing enemy MG positions by running suicidal half squads at them, so be it.

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    1. Yes I agree. It has pedigree but it shows its age. Gaming in general has moved on and there are other ways of abstracting the key elements of combat and keeping it playable that have arrived since ASL was published.

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    2. No fog of war? Ever heard of concealment counters? HIP?

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    3. Here's a second to what commissar said above.

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    4. Concealment is but one aspect of of the fog of war. The lack of situational awareness extends far beyond that and ASL doesn’t extend into those areas at all.

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  2. Great article. I recently returned to playing ASL.. My problem I'm playing that have been writing scenarios that have been published by different companies. I routinely bet my butt handed to me. David Lamb and PJ Norton are just two of the players. If I lucky I can inflict a couple of KIA's before I get steam rolled over. Now being locked down in my state I haven;t played in a year. I did notice a number of people returning to the Original Squad leader. What are your gaming with. Thanks

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    1. I've been exploring rules for miniatures. The nice thing about miniatures is your investment in components is not tied to any rule set. That allows you to try different rules, combine rules and introduce house rules to get the gaming experience that you want. I really like that, it's much better than being tied to a rigid (and very large) rule book. I'm currently playing a lot of Chain of Command (explore the blog, about 80% of the content is related to the rules).

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  3. I enjoyed this very much! You make some excellent points that have me wondering if my recent return to SL was the correct choice. For gaming at the level of SL or ASL, which gaming system do you recommend?

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    1. Thanks Jonathan. The problem with ASL is it requires a huge commitment in time to learn and master the system, so much so, you can't really play anything else. What turned me away from ASL in gaming terms was discovering some of the miniatures rules like Crossfire, that tried to break away from some of the usual constrictions of games (Crossfire has no turn structure and no measurements). That led me to Chain of Command and at the moment that ticks a few boxes for me. I still enjoy Up Front and have found Undaunted: Normandy (reviewed in the blog) quite enjoyable for something quick and fairly light (easy to learn too!).

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  4. An interesting article. SL / ASL touches an audience between the extremes of being the only thing they play to the gamer who totally shies away from the complexity and depth, plus all shades between, creating 'dabblers' to various degrees, so I say the following as my perspective, while not wishing to antagonise anyone else.

    I stated out in the late 70' with 4th edition Squad Leader (what we now think of as basic Squad Leader) and it was a fantastic revelation and created the spark that has given me a life long passion for WWII tactical games.

    Whether for reasons of nostalgia or otherwise, I found the 1st module hit all the right notes for me and really just SOME of the rule changes that came with Cross of Iron could have made a 5th Edition (basic) Squad Leader pretty much my perfect game.

    It is interesting that this would include the lack of formalised command structures and surrendering myself to the full abstraction of 'the' Squad Leader, but I am fine with that, it was a game with the heartbeat of abstraction.

    What became an increasing problem for me was when AH developed John Hill's subtle design with the ever increasing complexity of Cross of iron, Crescendo of Doom and GI. Initially I was drawn in, but it just became too much and worse (as you point out) the increased drive to give the illusion of realism, retained the abstraction of the structural nature of command and organisation, crucial to realism.

    By the time ASL came to make sense of all that disjointed change over 4 modules, we were relieved to get a rulebook of a cohesive whole, but some of us were dismayed by what the relative simplicity of basic SL had become, together with the fact hat there wasn't an alternative tactical WWII system of any depth for the disillusioned amongst us to turn to.

    John Hill's later design on 'Tank Leader' was a lovely design, with an innovative command system, but still a lot of abstraction and high playability and it stood to remind those that liked gaming at that level, what Squad Leader had been and what it had become.

    By 2018 I had collections of four (5 if you include ASLSK) major tactical board game systems with more than 35 modules and including ASL. My real problem was that this was too many big systems too closely related to keep in my head and allow me to play any one of them well enough or even to get enough play time to spread amongst that collection, plus the myriad of other games I play.

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  5. Sorry - my post is too long so it is in two halves.

    So I decided to thin down to one collection, a very tough decision and it was not until a few months ago, down to my last two collections that I decided ASL would go and it has - there is always a ready buyer for that most enduring of systems. I have kept my ASLSK, but who knows, even that suffers the problem of rule bloat as one moves beyond the elegance and simplicity of infantry only combat.

    Did I make the right choice, I am not a 100% certain, I am still playing something abstract with gamey elements without a 'realistic' command and control / organisational structure, but it reminds me of basic Squad Leader and I am playing it a lot, so there are some strong positives there, plus I know I am playing a playable game, so my critical observation is hugely dampened down.

    I have always maintained that if someone produce a 5th Edition basic Squad leader that was VERY true to 4th edition but included another nationality (say brits), a slightly bigger order of battle on the vehicles and a couple of extra mapboards, it would probably make killer sales and again be the game the of a generation, but I think ASLSK has probably seen off any such prospect of that.

    Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now ..... is that there is choice for the tactical gamer (even ASL to the alternative ASLSK is a reflection of that), a good thing and something to celebrate rather than having a dig at any particular system, there is something for each of us to enjoy.

    Anyway, I lost my way a bit here, what I wanted to say,is that I disagree with the poster a bit from the perspective that I don't think a tactical game has to show realistic command and control / organisational structures to be a good and enjoyable or absorbing game or to to model a subject, as long as there are enough abstractions to reflect tactical warfare, which to me is all about jumping over hedges, running from house to house and playing cat and mouse with armour.

    thanks for the post, between that and my coffee I am ready to start my day :-)

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    1. Thanks Norm. I think your reply was almost as long as my article LOL, but thanks, a very interesting read and much that I agree with. I thought Panzerblitz was a revelation (and a revolution) and with Panzer Leader and then Squad Leader things just seemed to get better. They were ground breaking in their day and delivered all I could ask for.

      The problem with ASL, as you point out, is that it requires a massive commitment in time - spent learning the system and then once learned playing regularly to hone your skills. It becomes a lifestyle and you find you have little game time for anything else. Having made a substantial investment in the modules and other components you feel you should make the most of it. Sadly that is also why you stop exploring other options. It's easy to lull yourself into believing you have arrived at the pinnacle of tactical WWII games, so why look elsewhere? You also develop a snobbery that considers any other system that lacks the detail of ASL as being somehow inferior.

      I guess it also depends what interests you about tactical warfare. Like you, I'm also interested in jumping over hedges, running from house to house and playing cat and mouse with armour, but what I want to know is how do you get men to do that? More importantly how did one force get to do that better than the other guys? That's where I need some modelling of the period. If I just want to play a friend in a highly competitive two player tactical game where I pit my wits against my opponent then I don't think you can beat Backgammon. When it comes to WWII tactical games I'm looking for a good, playable game but it must have something deeper that feels historically plausible. Those levels vary considerably for different gamers.

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    2. I think the article's author is making assumptions about other ASL players. You assume one only has time for one game, if that game is ASL. I am not that way. I play multiple games, and find time for them all.

      Also, you are saying that ASL is bloated, and rules-heavy...and then saying that ASL should have MORE rules to it, to overcome the (honestly, very minor) idea that it doesn't have chain of command, etc. You also say it has no fog of war. HIP and Concealment have something to say there, I think. No, it's not complete fog of war, but fog of war DOES EXIST in ASL. I do think ASL is the best WW2 system in existence. I also do NOT look down on other games in a snobbish way, as I play many of them. Thinking one game is the best, and liking other games is not mutually exclusive.

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    3. There are rule sets that do a better job of modelling company level action during WW2 and do it in 20 pages. ASL is bloated with rules on minutiae and yet very thin on more critical aspects of this level of warfare. More is not necessarily more, sometimes less is more.

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  6. Agree. Your area of interest ‘Chain of Command’ shares a similar juxtaposition with ‘Bolt action’.

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    1. Excellent point. My first experience of BA was taking part in a demo game at a convention. Alarm bells should have started to ring when the organisers told us all to think of this in Hollywood terms. But that was okay, I'm not set against the idea, I can take a few cinematic moments in a game.

      I was assigned a German squad as part of a German defence of a Normandy village facing US Paratroopers. It was a 6x4 table in 28mm, so we are talking a small section of a small village. I set up my MG42 team to cover a road. The paratroopers moved into the road in their turn and when it was my turn to activate I wanted to fire the MG42. "oh no" I was told, "you can't, it's out of range". In scale terms it represented a distance of 50 yards at best. Of course mowing down those Americans before the game had hardly started probably would have spoiled the fun for someone but it was the point at which I began to lose interest. Personally I think it would have made a very good Hollywood moment to have them cut down in the street like that. I can just see it in a Sam Peckinpah movie, all unfolding in gory slow motion.

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    2. Wow. What is wrong with excitement and drama in our games? Do you only enjoy a game if it is dull and has a complete lack of theatre? It sounds like you want a simulation, not a game.

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    3. Well, if you'd bothered to spend a few minutes looking around this blog and reading the AARs instead of jumping to conclusions you would probably have made a far more informed comment. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the 'ASL's a game, not a simulation' comment. So, what is it a game of then, Orcs vs Space Marines? And why can't a game be a simulation? And if ASL isn't a simulation then why does it matter how fast a tank turret turns or whether the tank commander has his hatch open or closed? Why can't a simulation be full of excitement and drama?

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  7. "That brought me to a damascene moment where I realised that...I was unable to replicate historical events I was reading about."

    I had a similar experience a year or two ago with a game I was working on at the time that caused me to lose a lot of interest in it. While internally functional, it couldn't replicate the kinds of encounters that the media it was tied to routinely depicted, and so I struggled to find meaning in its gameplay after that.

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    1. It's also about your expectations. If I play Memoir 44 my expectations for a good model of WWII combat are low, I understand it is primarily a game and WWII is more of a theme. ASL on the other hand has heightened expectations - the size of the rule book, the thousands of detailed components, the historical scenarios and modules, these all say something about what a game like this is trying to achieve. It's expensive to get into and time consuming to learn and therefore we have every right to vigorously question how well it meets expectations. I understand it's a game and that elements have to be abstracted and compromises made, but the core premise has to be sound and that's what's missing.

      I suggested to a good friend and fellow ASL player that it wouldn't take much to introduce better C&C and unit structures and he gave me the classic ASL response, 'but that would make all the scenarios unbalanced'. As if that was all that really mattered. It convinced me more than ever that for many players ASL is actually just about playing ASL, few of them want to have even consider the 'reality argument'.

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  8. Mark - very well written.
    I think the big problem is that SL was slick and easy to play because of the UGO/IGO structure which was broken down into multiple phases. This system was easy to learn and played well. The trouble is when you load it up with more and more mechanics (Double Time, Sniper Activation, Bypass Movement, Heat of Battle etc etc) inherent to ASL the simple system collapses in a confused heap. I think at various times John Hill gave "hints" they he didn't agree with all the complexity added to ASL.
    Also with evolution of the ASL system, units tend to be able to move further and further each turn (due to mechanics like Double Time & Bypass Movement) which exacerbates the failings of the IGO UGO system.
    Also, in stark contrast to say the Too Fat Lardies approach of keeping things simple, ASL just "has to" throw in everything without considering the impact on the game.
    Take for example Bypass Movement. For almost no increase in "playability" it introduces a raft of incredibly complicated issues - what happens when you shoot at a unit in bypass, what happens if it breaks, how is the turret marker aligned, what if there is a concealed unit in the bypass hex etc etc.
    I also hate how every unit can, without any penalty, move at its maximum speed. Take a jeep with 30 + MP. In real life a Jeep moving at top speed would not be able to spot enemy units or react to what it sees - it would be shot to pieces by an unseen enemy in short order. The same with a squad running down a road at full tilt (Double Time with a Leader) - in ASL the said squad often "knows" (magically) that there are no enemy units nearby so it can safely do so.
    A lot of the "issues"with ASL would fall away with a few simple rule changes.
    1. Allow a simple form of C & C mirrored on CoC - assign a given number of command points (based on the number of leader etc etc) that are expended to activate a unit.
    2. Have orders of battle - like a platoon or company structure per CoC to work in with 1. above.
    3. Slow down the rate of movement to reduce the impact of the IGO UGO problem. Eliminate Bypass and Double Time. Only allow units to move during the Advance Phase if they are entering CC (this would also stop skulking) Allow variable moves like CoC. Maybe allow a unit to move one hex and then roll to see much more of available MF/MP it has left (thus making units "commit" to their intended movement without being sure whther they will be able to complete it - to stop the "hex counters").
    4. Allow an opportunity for the non phasing player to "activate" his units during the phasing players turn (a bit like a CoC "Interrupt"). This would allow both sides to move in the same movement phase.
    5. Simplify mechanics like sniper activation and HoB (where only certain types die rolls can activate these mechanics).
    6. Get rid of ordanance breakdown (it is a game changer).
    7.Simply the horrendously complicated Routing rules.
    8. Stop squads from deploying during play it is just wat too "gamey".
    6.

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    1. Thanks Rob, I totally agree. I’ve often discussed with others how some easy changes could be applied and still using existing counters and boards. One of the things I like about miniatures is that generally your figures and terrain are not tied to any rule set. Unlike ASL where your substantial investment in pieces ties you to the one game, with miniatures you are free to use the same miniatures for other rule sets as things evolve. As Dave mentions above ASL has its roots in the games of the 70s based on what we knew about WWII in the 60s. Knowledge of WWII and how games can model that combat have progressed considerably since then. Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed reply.

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  9. A fantastic and thoroughly absorbing post. I used to love playing SL, Cross of Iron, Crescendo of Doom and GI, but after going to college they got packed away and when I returned to them, this new beast called ASL had emerged. I got the new rules, and several of the supplements, but struggled to re-capture my enthusiasm for the game, as I felt it was submerged in layer after layer of detail. It was arguably more 'technically' realistic, but I just did not have the desire to invest the time in learning (never mind mastering!) the vast array of rules - I quite simply did not enjoy it. I was also becoming more interested in things like C&C, friction, and mechanisms such as random movement distances which attempted to replicate these. So ASL got packed away and remains so to this day - I don't think I have played it in nearly 2 decades. The game components themselves still have a huge emotional pull- they and the game were a formative part of my wargaming journey, but I find myself agreeing with all that you have written and they have helped me articulate why my own ASL days are done! A great post!

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    1. Like you, this was a formative part of my journey, I think it’s why it took so long to let go even when I sensed it was no longer working for me any more. It has its place in the evolution of gaming and that’s my main issue with it, gaming has evolved, but it hasn’t.

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  10. Hi Mark, and thanks for sharing your feelings / thoughts about ASL. According to me, the best sentence of all what you've written is the following:

    "From time to time, situations will arise which are not covered in the rules. When this happens, consider what is and isn’t possible in real life in the relevant span of time. Discuss the situation with your opponent and come to an amicable agreement".

    This makes perfect sense and it should be used everytime you've managed to fire smoke but you miss your target. Or that your opponent voluntary breaks a Squad so that it may rout towards a VC hex or some other sneaky spot of the map. Sometimes (some people will say "too often"), the rules allow things that couldn't happen in the real world, this is true. That very sentence above would help to solve all these tricks, and people using them again and again would therefore be well known among the community.

    Another thing IMHO not to forget is that SL was designed as an Infantry game, and as such, the system was exclusively designed for Infantry; the vehicles were just some extra stuff. AFVs, or better said, MBTs were definitely not designed to fire at point blank range or at distances of 10 hexes (ASL scale), which is what's happening in most ASL scenarios. Rather, the effective range of most of the WWII main battle tanks was comprised between 1000 and 1500 meters (that would be 25 to 37 hexes...). The tactics that an ASL player has to use when playing a scenario are definitely different from WWII reality, true.

    Oh well... thanks for sharing your thoughts and although it's a pity you're giving up ASL, I understand that sometimes, a break needs to be taken ;)

    All the best,

    X

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  11. I could have written much, much more, sorry Mark :)

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    1. Thanks for the great comments Xavier. I think a lot of players have realised that ASL may be a great game but it's not very good at representing WWII combat. By creating the complexity they have also the game up to unrealistic game play and so that it has become more about playing ASL than it is about playing WWII. Luckily we have lots of other alternatives.

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  12. Great article and great responses. It has really thrown me for a loop, and is forcing me to reconsider my investment (both in time and money) in ASL going forward.

    In the process of rethinking what tactical wargame I should spend my time on, I ran across this game: The Last Hundred Yards by GMT. It's description on the GMT homepage is promising, and it's rule-book is only 20 pages. "The Last Hundred Yards is unlike any tactical wargame published to date. It introduces innovative systems intended to model Small Unit Behavior in Combat during WW2. It is fun, fast-paced, and provides a very good simulation of what it was like to command combat units at the platoon or company level."

    I intend to look in to this game in more detail, but it does seem to try to address the both the issue of command, and the reduction of unrealistic gamey unit behavior.

    If I find something better I'll come back here and post. If anyone has more suggestions for me to investigate I'd appreciate it. My main intent with wargaming is to recreate history, and test out "what ifs", of course as well as have fun (not necessarily in that order). So with that in mind, your article pointing out that you could not recreate a particular historical situation via ASL was eye opening.

    Thank you,

    -Greg

    Major, USMC
    1991-2004 Active Duty
    2005-2014 Reserve
    VFW Post 2955 Roscoe IL

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    1. Thanks Greg. It sounds like you've gone down a path trodden by many of us. The broad scope and detail of ASL can be quite deceptive. On the surface it appears to have reached some sort of pinnacle for tactical WWII wargaming, but it does not always stand up to scrutiny. I think we all have those WTF moments when gamey play and unrealistic events raise doubts in our mind, but as you note, once you have made a significant investment in time and money, it's not easy to just walk away. I would be very interested in hearing more about what you find in other or new games. Having 'let go' of ASL I've found I'm much more open to new games and new ideas.

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    2. Greg, I’m still in the Corps and if you’ve ever been under fire, which I believe, you will NEVER find any single simulation (not to talk about games) that may be “realistic”. ASL is a great game, and perfectly simulated Hollywood war. You should reconsider your investment possibilities ;-)

      Xavier (can’t login with my phone, sorry...)

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    3. This issue of game 'realism' often rears its head and people often equate realism with capturing the violence of combat. In this interpretation for a wargame to be 'realistic' it seems blood must be shed. However there's a different view that depends on what level of command is being represented and how realistic the game makes the command decisions. The more senior a commander the more removed they become from the sharp end of combat. If they cannot actually see what is happening then it should be possible to simulate or model the command process and environment. This is how Kriegspiel works, the father of all modern wargaming. Von Moltke was sceptical when he heard about it, but when he first saw it demonstrated he exclaimed, 'this is not a game, it is training for war'. It's not hard to simulate limited intelligence, poor communication, slow command response, or unexpected enemy reaction in a way a commander may receive it. If the player is faced with a plausible stream of information then it could be said to realistically portray the command process. An ASL scenario featuring 10-12 squads per side represents a clash of two companies, which is probably part of a battalion level action. At the lowest level the player is the company commander, most likely the battalion commander, in which case the realism you are looking for is the command process at that level. If the player can see everything in real time and issue commands immediately that are received without any issues by those on the front line of the fighting then I'd have to say that is not a 'realistic' model of company or battalion command. Speaking personally I find most Hollywood war films are rubbish, so my desire to replicate the nonsense in those is non-existent. It does however probably explain why Bolt Action is probably the biggest and most popular WWII tactical game system at the moment.

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  13. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for your well-articulated thoughts concerning ASL's missing rules related to managing scenario tactics according to a chain of command. I spent twenty years in U.S. Army special operations. I served as an infantryman in the 75th Ranger Regiment from 1994-1999 then as an operational member of 1st SFOD-D (DELTA) from 1999 to 2014. In addition to a fascination since childhood with the military, the original Squad Leader game inspired me to embark upon a military career. Today, I'm returning to ASL as a hobby after many years of fond youthful memories.

    Your recognition of the lack of chain of command parameters highlights the game systems yawning gap. Yes, there are other inconsistencies. Tank and artillery fire, for instance, are typically at what amounts to point blank range, if for no other reason than the game boards, and subsequently the scenarios, simply do not support long firing ranges. Another gap is the managing of battlefield wounded. Granted, ASL cites two-minutes as the time frame of a turn, or at least that's my understanding, so in the heat of battle on a small-scaled tactical front of under 1 kilometer the wounded would typically be triaged and managed after the critical points of a gunfight are resolved. Still, it's a missing element of battlefield psychology that significantly effects battlefield decision-making all the way down to the squad level.

    A few thoughts and a suggestion:

    (1) I reconcile missing chain of command parameters this way. First, every squad, or MMC, counter would by definition have a squad leader. Therefore, by logic, the SMC leader counters aren't meant to represent squad leaders, but instead represent company-level leaders, such as company commanders, executive officers, and senior enlisted such as First Sergeants.

    (2) Following this line of logic, indeed, we might even see some SMC's as battalion-level leaders. For instance, a scenario might portray what amounts to a battalion's main effort, in which case a battalion commander or operations officer or even the Command Sergeant Major might reasonably position himself near to the fighting.

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  14. THE SECOND HALF OF WHAT WROTE ABOVE:

    (3) If we recognize SMC's as company-level and perhaps even battalion-level leaders, it follows that they might "float," or act freely to roam the battlefield at will, as you point out. This is something those leaders would have very likely done. Even if a scenario represents in the abstract a supporting effort, company- and battalion-level leaders would be present. If a main effort is to succeed, a support effort may represent the decisive point of a mission plan, and therefore company and battalion commanders would deploy themselves and other key leaders near the fighting in a deliberate effort to influence and certainly oversee operations.

    (4) An inconsistency with my line of logic. What would a corporal be doing floating around even a tactical-level battlefield? It is highly unlikely a corporal would be a company's senior non-commissioned officer. The only thing I can imagine to rectify this logical hiccup is that, since ASL scenarios typically range well within a one kilometer battlespace, and usually within a 500 meter battlespace, remembering that hexes for some reason represent 40 meters (and not a mathematically easier 50 meters), it is plausible that a highly regarded and experienced E-4 might be assigned a senior role within a tactical mission plan.

    Again, these are the considerations I use to rectify the inconsistencies you point out.

    Have you considered attempting to design a scenario, or a set of scenarios, that prescribe special rules concerning chain of command parameters? I think it might be done. A scenario might limit specific MMC and SMC movement to a hex range or hex area based upon starting positions. A scenario card might even assign counters by platoon. For instance, three 4-4-7 counters are assigned to 1st Platoon and four are assigned to 2nd Platoon--and 1st Platoon is limited to A through F hexes, while 2nd Platoon is limited to G through I hexes. MAJ Jackass must move only with 1st Platoon, and CPL Schmuckatelli must move only with 2nd Platoon.

    A problem, of course, is how to track MMC squad counters upon initiation of play. Which 4-4-7 is assigned to which platoon? A jerry-rigged solution would be to mark concealment counters by number. A concealment counter might then be required to remain on top of MMC's and SMC's throughout play. This would help to reduce the other glaring inconsistency of ASL you point out, which is the God-like omniscience of players "seeing" and knowing much more about the enemy than battlefield leaders realistically would. I've never played Solitaire ASL, but my understanding it that it does a decent job of building in a large degree of battlefield friction and fog. Perhaps some of that might be captured by the use of concealment counters that assign SMC's and MMC's to a chain of command.

    A final thought. Perhaps is it time for someone to approach Multi-Man Media for support in designing a full module that includes the missing chain of command rules chapter. Along the lines of what I've described above, such a module might include counters that mark SMC's and MMC's by a chain of command structure. It follows, then, that module scenarios apply chain of command parameters to tactical decisions during play for the purpose of proscribing the unrealistic elements of play you rightly highlight.

    Best,
    John

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    1. Thanks for your lengthy comments John. I had wondered about making changes to ASL but it didn't seem worth the effort. There are sets of rules that manage much of what your are looking for in a fraction of the pages. Check out the miniatures rule system Crossfire - no turns, no measurements. Platoons have leaders who can only direct the three squads of the platoon. The games flow in a much more realistic manner with great fog of war, plausible command and control and rewards for historical tactics. All achieved in about 12 pages of rules.

      Most of our WWII games use the Chain of Command rules and they has a mechanism for handling hidden units that requires no record keeping at all. All squads have their dedicated leaders and platoons have leaders and 2ic to enable effective command and control at decisive moments. All units begin the game hidden. Like Crossfire there is historically plausible command and control and plenty of fog of war. Most critical you will be punished for poor tactics without the opponent resorting to gamey tactics or obscure rules you didn't know about.

      ASL is what it is, a game of its time. I think that time has passed but that shouldn't stop people enjoying it for what it is.

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    2. Thanks for pointing to Crossfire and Chain of Command, Mark. Sounds very cool. I will Google and read up on them. Do you play the rules at any conventions you could recommend? I live in Tampa, but since I’m excited to restart gaming as a hobby, I’m willing to travel. With short rules, CF and CoC must be easy to grasp, but I haven’t got miniatures and don’t yet know of any gaming clubs near me. It would be fun to first play on a team with or watch either game. FYI, before the military, in the early 90s, I went a half dozen times to a nearby game club that played Napoleonic, WW2, and other era miniatures. It was a lot of fun.

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  15. Indeed.... and these rules have already been written and proposed but ASL is already difficult enough not to add such a burden to the system. A scenario would need twice as much time to play if this chain of command has to be implemented.

    Also, one should remember that in bigger scenarios and HASL, some units are differentiated in order to try not to forget this chain of command (even if it is minimalistic): the panzer Lehr in Opération Veritable, and several German units in Budapest module.

    As I replied to Greg, and after reading your deployments, just think that ASL perfectly simulates Hollywood war and as such, it is really a fantastic game :-)

    Best,

    X

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  16. Interesting, Xavier, thanks. I'm only returning to ASL after many, many years. My suggestions above reflect as much. I'm simply not up to speed on everything that's been done to attempt to rectify the C2 gap.

    More importantly, yes, I agree that ASL is still a wonderful game that on balance does an excellent job of replicating ground combat. Your "Hollywood war" analogy is apt. As long as one can accept its deficiencies, ASL offers a lot of satisfying fun, I agree.

    Best,
    John

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  17. SASL introduces dog of war and command and control quite well. Also, the campaign Structure of SASL makes you think about conservation of troops and whether or not a retreat is the best option when you’re getting slaughtered. I’m loving SASL

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  18. Thanks for this post and the replies - it started me down an interesting path! I had the SL series back in the 80s. Like many I impatiently awaited the arrival of GI: Anvil of Victory, but when it arrived I had mixed feelings, and my friends and I generally continued to play COI instead. Once I went to college I gave the games away but tried getting into ASL in the mid 90s, getting as far as KGP I and WoA. But ASL did not do it for me and the boxes sat in the attic until a couple of months ago and I am now prepping to sell them. As I was searching the web, I came across this post and all of the thoughtful replies and it led me to rediscover gaming. I bought a copy of original Squad Leader and started enjoying that, then I picked up CoI and CoD. I am really enjoying it, playing 'bare bones' rules. But this thread got me thinking about C&C...

    So that led me down two paths. First, I have been trying to figure out how to add C&C to SL, and I have toyed with some of the ideas on this stream. For starters, I assigned units to formations and tied leaders to them and assigned each unit a 'task' for the scenario. A squad from a platoon assigned defense of a building can't go cross the mapboard to take a victory location, or respond to an enemy flanking maneuver that it can't see. So far, it is a minor effect, but I think that splitting the turn up a bit - initiative and platoon activation - might be what is needed. Second, I have explored some of the games discussed on this stream, starting with Tank Leader, then Combat Commander and Last Hundred Yards. I am pleasantly surprised how far games have come since the 80s (when it was pretty much just AH and SPI). I have fallen hard for LHY, and even CC is really fun - I can see how some people are turned off by the cards - but to me it is just a different form of abstraction. So, I am a kid in a candy store at the moment, exploring the catalogs of Mike Denson and the late Chad Jensen. And Tank Leader, which is really an updated Panzer Blitz, now has me back into platoon level games. I have yet to break out my 1980s copy of Panzer Leader, but I did pick up Fighting Formations.

    So thanks again to everyone on this thread - your collective thoughts have rekindled my enjoyment of games and have me thinking about C&C for SL. But as I spend more time with LHY, part of me thinks why bother... I should just enjoy each system for what it is. Finally, I should note that several local craft breweries are not happy with you since some of my beer money has been reallocated to GMT and eBay the last few months!

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  19. That's an interesting journey. I tend to agree with you that it's not worth trying to change ASL, it is what it is and new systems have come out in the last 30+ years that offer much of what is missing in ASL. Like I say in the post, ASL is a rewarding tactical game, it's just a question of whether its the tactical game of the second world war that you are looking for.

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  20. So as someone who has been intimately involved with the development of GMT's "The Last Hundred Yards", I would encourage you to give it a spin if command and control is what you are looking for in a game. I know the designer, Mike Denson personally, and he shares many of the same frustrations/outlook that you do, and he has gone to great lengths to develop the c&c and fog of war into his game.

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    1. Thanks! By "explored LHY" I meant I bought it and have played a bunch, just wrapping up 'Black Cat Blues'. I am on P500 for #3 and am waiting for #2 to go on sale, so it would be reasonable to say I am hooked. About my only 'nit' is that so far it doesn't seem THAT scary to charge an MG section, but the M4 vs. Mk V felt scary enough. Thanks, and I look forward to future developments!

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  21. This is a well-written article, but one must remember that ASL is not a simulation. It is as much of a wargame as Chess is a wargame. Instead of focusing on the command and control structure (there is a method used in SASL, but that would alter any face to face game), it focuses on the matching of wits between you and your opponent.

    History shows that the same people keep winning this game that relies so heavily on dice (as you know, a simple IFT attack can result in literally dozens of subsequent rolls, especially if you hit SAN, etc).

    That said, there are games with great command and control rules (Assault comes to mind) and I'm sure there are others. That said, ASL does for me what miniature games couldn't. Yes I get it; my universe is stuck on hexagons (ending up with some oddball moves), but like the squares in chess, it's just a means of regulating the game. And let us not forget that it is a game and like it or not, I'm not sure that this article does anything other than complain about it.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. You’re obviously passionate about the game and that I understand. However I have to address your points and to do that I’d like to use your own words and take a few quotes from your own Technoviking blog:

      “I’m not sure about others, but for the majority of ASL players I know and have played against, the one shared obsession we generally share is our passion for military history, specifically of the Second World War. We take pride in our knowledge of various battles and we treat our hobby seriously, not as a mere game.......We play our games mainly for the enjoyment, but in so doing, we gain a much better understanding of the greatest event in history, the Second World War.”

      This seems to contradict your point that it’s just “a game”, it strikes me from these comments that you take your interest in the Second World War very seriously and playing ASL is part of that (in the same post you refer to ASL as a “serious wargame”).

      In another of your posts, where you report on an ASL game you played in a tournament you summarise it by saying:

      “In the end, a great game. Once again I was able to see why the Germans were able to dominate the Soviets early in the war.  They had superior leadership at the company level and below, they had much better and more mobile support weapons and their troops were better trained.“

      Those suggests that you look to ASL to help increase your understanding of the war and that you believe it does model tactical warfare of the period. You say in your comment on my post "one must remember that ASL is not a simulation. It is as much of a wargame as Chess is a wargame", however that seems to contradict several of the comments on your own blog where you refer to taking it “seriously” and you don’t see it as a “mere game”.

      Your post-game comment refers to how ASL gave you an insight into how “superior leadership” and training had given the Germans an advantage in the early war, so it seems to me you do believe that ASL models aspects of tactical combat in the Second World War, that you don’t see it as a game but as a simulation or model of a real world event in game form. One in which historical lessons can be learned.

      My post outlines why I think ASL doesn’t do a good job of some of that, because the basic model is flawed. You have reverted to the old chestnut that it’s “just a game”, something I alluded to in the post, yet your own words and blog would indicate you believe otherwise.

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    2. I don't see any contradiction. Monopoly can introduce someone to deal-making and Cluedo can teach people how to run go through a process of elimination, but neither are simulations. You seem to be taking a binary view whereby something is either a game or a simulation. There are plenty of tactically valid lessons that ASL can teach, even while being a game. The same is true of any wargame based on any period. The true simulation wargame doesn't exist; instead what you have is vary levels of modelling for process vs designing for effect, with games varying in emphasis on different sides of the scales. More detail does not necessarily mean more realism, no matter how much it might feel like it. Personally as a historical gamer I ask only one question: are the results plausible? The rest is just a matter of taste.

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    3. The same argument says Risk and Memoir 44 can teach valid tactical/operational lessons. That is certainly true of both games but neither will teach you anything about 17/18th century warfare (in the case of Risk) or Second World War tactical warfare (in the case of Memoir 44). Yet both are very satisfying games that are instructive on a number of levels. Incidentally neither require a voluminous rulebook to achieve this either. Which begs the question, why does ASL require such a big rulebook if not to provide a comprehensive simulation of warfare? Surely a game that deals in detail such as the speed of a turret traverse, the difference in armour on its front and sides and the various chances of penetration of AP rounds is striving to simulate something specific other than some general lessons in tactical decision making?

      I agree with the desire for plausible results but I'd also argue for plausible process. A game representing a period where all commands are by voice would not have plausible process if the commander can issue commands to all units on the battlefield regardless of how far away they are positioned. There would be no valid lessons in the problems of controlling units on that battlefield and the process would not be plausible, even if other tactical lessons are learned.

      I assume most ASL players play the game because they want to game the Second World War, otherwise one would assume they would be quite happy with something abstract like Chess or Go, which would have plenty of valid tactical lessons without the need for excessive period detail.

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  22. Perhaps that's why there's a blank sheet of paper included. Add your own rules. Throw a dice for did the message get through. The tank threw a track, a squad got lost in the woods. All it takes is a little immagination. Organise Squads as infantry sections, platoons or whatever. I was a tank crewman. On exercise we'd frequently break down, then the replen at night, of fuel and so on. I see the rules as a skelaton to flesh out if you want to.

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    1. Well, of course that's an option, although how you can take a rule book that big and see it as a 'skeleton to flesh out' surprises me. Surely ASL doesn't need any more rules? Truth is ASL reflects the wargaming ideas of the late 70s and early 80s. There are new ways of approaching these issues without the need for an excessively large rule book. Take Arty Conliffe's Crossfire rules. About 20 pages or less and yet for a game at the same tactical level as ASL you will get a much more satisfying feel for the tactical issues of company level combat than you will with ASL. Sometimes less is more.

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  23. Interesting and thought-provoking post. Can you elaborate on which aspects of the engagement you were unable to include in the scenario and why thy couldn't have been included by way of an SSR?

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    1. Two main issues I think. Firstly variable movement rates. One of the issues in Normandy was the difficulty of coordinating movement of units, even at platoon level, never mind company or higher. It all happens too smoothly and easily in ASL and that wasn't the way the commanders saw it at ground level. Secondly, the lack of command and control which talks partly to the first point. Platoon commanders lost contact with squads/sections; company commanders lost contact with platoons and so on. This was the a key part of the tactical challenge I was reading about. Different armies approached the issue differently - the Germans were very mission based, the Americans used flexible reserves, the British worked on more rigid planning - none of this can be applied in ASL with the rules as written. Any scenario would be artificial with the player able to ignore or overcome most of the problems the commanders on the ground had faced. Rather than start writing SSR to overcome this I found alternative rule sets that delivered this effect and did so without the need to master a massive rule book. It's ironic that John Hill who created Squad Leader used to talk about 'design for effect' and yet TAHGC took his baby and mutated it into the monster we know as ASL, which is anything but design for effect.

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    2. Seriously - Solitaire ASL (SASL) adds a great command and control rule set. It’s simple
      And it works very well. Also, the fog of war is all there with SASL. You never know your enemy’s OOB, and the random events can bring another element of dramatic swings into the game. I’m finding SASL to be much better than ASL

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  24. Agreed but... you're not playing against your ASL buddy :) So much better as far as C3I is concerned, nothing else.

    Cheers,

    X

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  25. Some people, much smarter than I, have argued that ASL has all of the command and control baked ride into the standard rules themselves. Pin status, breaking, rallying, heat of battle, and many other rules are outcomes of command and control on the battlefield. The same people have argued that adding on a layer Of additional command and control rules often kills the fun of the game and isn’t much of an issue on small Engagements of ASL’s scale anyways. After all, we are playing advanced squad leader, not advanced Pentagon leader.

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    1. It's not about the amount of rules it's about how well they model the situation. ASL is not a better game of WWII combat because it has a lot rules. I've played better games that have only 20 pages of rules, yet they model the challenges and decision making of junior commanders in a much more elegant way. Have you read Philip Sabin 'Simulating War: Studying conflict through simulation games', if not I'd highly recommend it. He demonstrates how you can get to the essence of an issue in often simple yet elegant ways in game form. He does it for the military, so one assumes he knows what he's talking about.

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  26. Greetings The Tactical Painter
    Is there any hex and counter game that comes close to what you wanted and obtained from chain of command? Or do those limitations come with the hex territory so to speak?
    Thank you so much, i wish to invest in a hex and counter game to play because they don't take so much space and don't require models either, if you could help me find one that could be used as a simulator or close to being one, i'd be very grateful!
    Thank you in advance

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    1. To be honest I've found the flexibility with miniatures very attractive, in the sense that they can be used with almost any rule set which allows for a lot of trial and experimentation using the same game elements, unlike a board game and particularly ASL which ties you very much to their system. In terms of board games you might want to look at GMT's The Last Hundred Yards or Columbia Games' Combat Infantry. I have played neither but I hear good things about both.

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    2. If you don't mind another opinion... I suggest you look at original Squad Leader. It is a bit dated, but gives you US/German/Russian infantry and AFV combat with programmed rules so you read a couple of pages and then start playing. You do NOT need any of the follow on games (Cross of Iron/Crescendo of Doom/GI) and it is NOT ASL.

      I am also a big fan of The Last Hundred Yards series. Is currently US/German only, though Pacific and then Russian expansions will come out eventually. You can pick up either the base game or Airborne over Europe sequel - do not need the base game. The game system is elegant and has a strong C2 element - something Squad Leader lacks. Disclaimer - I am a play tester for it, but I gain nothing if you buy other than a potential opponent.

      Finally, only the Airborne over Europe is available for sale now (GMT's site) but you can find the others on eBay easily enough.

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  27. It's an interesting essay and you raise some valid points. I think part of the problem with ASL has been the increasing focus over the last couple of decades on competition and tournament play. This has resulted in shorter scenarios with basically limited options for the players, balance being everything, and the notion that ASL is a lifestyle where people have to play at least once a week to keep their competitive skills up. (if I really wanted to commit to something like that, I'd spend more time on studying chess. Much cheaper, easier to find an opponent, and a rule set that fits on both sides of one sheet. Hell, you can even make your own set if you want or need to!)

    To me, all that is the antithesis of what I want in a game. I want something fun, maybe imbalanced or a little sloppy at times, and not feeling like I have to commit ample time to something to enjoy it. This is still something that can be achieved with ASL, either playing solo or against someone who has the same mindset about the game. Having fun, not eking out a win at all costs, not complaining about having to take the side in a scenario that only wins 45 percent of the time, and so on, are all still quite possible. The "suicide rush" present in ASL is a design issue and can be solved with appropriate victory conditions.

    "Realism" is always going to be an issue in any game system, and is only maximized with the use of computer simulation. Otherwise, you have to have some sort of structure, be it turn-based, card-based, chit draws, whatever. Playing Firepower back in the day, the issues with chit draws became pretty obvious, and at a tactical level, doesn't offer anything over turn-based interaction. Cards seem to work better, particularly in Combat Commander, where players do not draw from a common deck and can't count cards as easily.

    The lack of military hierarchy in the game is a very valid point and something that cries out to be addressed, along with super-gamey thoughts like skulking. Solving skulking could be done by letting residual fire persist through the end of the advance. People complain about it, but then everyone uses it, because they don't want to see scenario balance upset again. With regard to military hierarchy, I think this is less of a problem than being able to activate and coordinate all squads at will. Reading accounts of actual firefights seems to indicate that these break down under the chaos of actual fighting, at least in the scale represented in ASL. On the other hand, the problems that Fields of Fire tries to solve could also be solved in ASL if people were willing to admit that there's problems with the game that need to be addressed. How does the conscript squad sitting in a secure stone building psychically know to go out and move out into the open to draw fire so that better troops can move?

    I guess, ultimately, it's a question of whether the cost and effort to learn the game has enough of a payoff for a player, if they enjoy the experience, and so on. Up Front was (at the time) inexpensive, had minimal components, and the buzz around it was that it did a great job of simulating the uncertainty of squad-sized combat. Personally, I thought the game sucked. A stream magically appearing from nowhere? Only a few high-firepower attack cards floating around, and so on. Same criticism could be leveled at Combat Commander, but I find the latter far more fun to play, even if it's not any more realistic.

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  28. (the rest of my post)

    I never got the miniatures bug, outside of a brief stint collecting and painting WH40k back when it was still fresh and cool. Too much space, too much complication, more difficult to represent modern actions (I think it works just fine for historical battles with clearer lines, etc). That is a sunk cost that is less likely to ever be recovered than games that can be sold, even if used. On the other hand, the cost, space, and difficulty organizing ASL components is sort of a turn-off in the end, too. I can play Combat Commander or Last Hundred Yards, and get about as much of a rush out of it as I can from ASL, at a fraction of the time, cost, and need for storage and organization.

    All the people harping about what a perfect experience ASL is I think maybe are reluctant to admit that they have bought into a system that is not the ultimate tactical wargame. More options don't mean a better outcome (go take a five year old into a toy store to see that in action). Is the payoff there? I guess it depends on the individual player - I gave Panzer a whirl and didn't really care for it. It was too mechanical (pun not intended) for my tastes. ASL is far less data-driven, for good or bad, and I found it far more fun than Panzer. Other people love Panzer, no worries, we don't have to like each other's games.

    In the end, I think the best summation is that Dungeons and Dragons has gone through four radical overhauls (five if you count Pathfinder) since 1985. ASL is 36 years old now and hasn't changed much since the day it came out. There's been a lot of room for new approaches and ideas since then, and some of those work pretty well. Not saying everything in ASL has to be chucked, but it really might be time to start thinking about a new edition. No more design for effect, no more unlimited control of forces, no more goofy rules situations, no having every bleeping vehicle that fought in WW2 represented in all modules. And so on. I doubt that will ever happen, given the resistance of the community to change, but one can dream.

    In the meantime, ASL can still be an enjoyable experience. I've never played in a tournament, and have less than zero desire to do so, but I've taught others to play the game, and so on, and have had a lot of fun with it. On the other hand, I have less and less desire to deal with the mountains of boards and counters. Maybe it's just having less patience with that as I get older, or maybe I just balance that aspect of the game with the fun I can have with it. Our tastes change over the years, no crime in it. The crime comes when we defend things to others for reasons that we ourselves know are hollow.

    Again, thank you for a well-reasoned and thoughtful essay.

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    1. Thanks for such a detailed response, lots of interesting points there. I think your comparison with D&D was illuminating, I never thought about it in those terms but I recall the reason the original ASL rule book was in a ring binder was so it could be easily updated with rules modifications and changed. That idea was stillborn!

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  29. ASL is a fantastic game with the tense defensive fire system when i can be fired upon in every hex i enter. Also a lot of historical detail in the equipment and vehicles. I love the versatility with the scenarios and mapboard combinations. There is a gold mine of published scenarios and its so cool that i can pick out a box frpm 1980ies set it up and play right away. It is perfectly ok to want realism in some aspects but not others, it is in the eye of the beholder and reflects what game experience is wanted. If one is bothered by control issues i understand that one wants a changed system, fortunately i am not and will continue playing ASL. Interesting to learn about the miniature rules will check them out.

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  30. Had the misfortune of reading this right after purchasing the rulebook and beyond valor. Have a made a very expensive mistake?

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    1. If you’d asked me this question in 1985 when ASL was first published I would have said, no, but wargaming has evolved a lot since then. The choices you have for playing tactical games set during the Second World War have increased in scope and where as ASL was very focussed on weapons systems more recently there has been a much greater shift toward dealing with the performance of the men behind the weapons. ASL, for all its technical complexity, distilled the human element down to one single factor - morale (and a very simplified model of it at that) and it didn’t even bother addressing command and control in any meaningful sense. I often think ASL treats soldiers as robots who will occasionally suffer mechanical problems (break) but can be repaired by the roving mechanics (leaders) that the player can send out to them. That satisfied me 20+ years ago, but I want a lot more out of a system now to reflect the human element that seems so pivotal in determining battlefield performance. Unfortunately ASL is not just an expensive investment in terms of money it also demands a huge investment of time. I think you can getter better mileage on both fronts elsewhere. So far you’ve only lost the money, how do you feel about losing the time as well?

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    2. Nah it’s a great game, worth playing, but not the best simulation

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  31. Excellent post! I need to re-read it to take it all in. I just started ASL SK 1, so I'm curious if you found a board wargame system to replace ASL?

    Thanks

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    1. I hear good things about The Last Hundred Yards but these days my focus is on miniatures. The good thing about these is that they are rules agnostic, I’m free to try different rule sets, create house rules and take on board adaptations by others. Unlike ASL when I feel a set of rules no longer works for me, or a better version comes out I’m not stuck with thousands of counters and 100 boards that are only good for one game.

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  32. Late to the party but I'll comment anyway. ASL is irredeemable as a World War II tactical simulation. It can't be "fixed" but I also don't think it should be. It's a game, that developed over a long period and occupies a unique place in the hobby. The command and control issues with ASL were first addressed even before ASL was written - Phil Kosnett wrote about the original Squad Leader in MOVES Magazine in the 1970s, comparing it to SPI's Vietnam game (Grunt and/or Search & Destroy) and noting stuff like the leadership modifiers in SL (or ASL) are more suited to Civil War operational simulations than World War II tactics.

    Mark is correct about ASL's lack of C&C, simplified leadership and morale models, and the "finicky" nature of the game where you spend the last turn counting MF to see if your surviving HS can take the last victory location, etc., but of course, that is exactly why people *do* play it. It's like watching an action movie - you either buy into the dumbness of the situations - "willing suspension of disbelief" - or you don't. Just depends what you're in the mood for.

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    1. Thanks. Yes, this article is about why I don’t play ASL anymore and not about why others should not, it just doesn’t do it for me but clearly it still works for some.

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  33. A good thought provoking blog post. I definitely appreciate the point about miniature gaming can easily switch rule sets.

    Several have mentioned SASL as providing more C&C elements to ASL. In particular, units have to roll before they attempt their first non-Rph/RtPh action, based around their morale level, and if they fail they are marked as Panicked (effectively TI) until the next player turn. This introduces a level of uncertainty when you come to move or fire your troops - will they actually do it. Leaders are useful here, as they exert a command radius, so if a leader passes then all units within range are able to activate, with a nuance about leader rankings - so a lower level leader (e.g. Corporal) can't command a higher level one.

    This encourages what I think is more historical realistic play - where your highest level leader will be towards the back and central to maximise their command radius, and sending an odd unit or 2 off on a wide flanking manoeuvre may lose them for the rest of the game in panic.

    There is nothing to stop you using this rule for both sides in a ftf, although existing scenarios might then play very differently.

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    1. Yes. I've played regular ASL (albeit DYO) with the SASL command rules, and enjoyed the experience.

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    2. Thanks for the SASL explanation, I never tried that, mainly because I never had a shortage of FtF opponents. I remember discovering the Crossfire rules and being aghast that in less than 20 pages Arty Conliffe had created a very elegant tactical system that offered historical unit structure, effective C&C and excellent fog of war and uncertainty all at company level (which is where most ASL scenarios seem to sit). That was on the money for me, I was more interested in the men behind the weapons than the weapons themselves. The irony is the original ASL rulebook came in a ringbinder for a reason, so it could be updated and evolve, where as in reality it has become set in stone and chained to its roots in 1970s gaming.

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