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 issues 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.

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.


  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.

    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.

  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

    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).

  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?

    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!).

  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.

  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 :-)

    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.

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

    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.

  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.

    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'.