Advanced Squad Leader: Advocation or Career?

For the record, I've been with the Squad Leader family of games since they came out thirty years ago. My copy of Squad Leader doesn't have the purple sky, but it is close.

I follow it through GI: Anvil of Victory, and then waited patiently for Advanced Squad Leader to come out. The day it appeared at my local hobby shop, the owner was thrilled to sell me copies of the rulebook and Beyond Valor, both for the profits and to shut up my nagging.

Since then I've played it on and off. I'm not an Advanced Squad Leader fanatic, I play a lot of other games, but I do have a great deal of respect for the system and its modules. Like it or not, it is the standard for the World War II tactical games against which all others are judged, and looking at tactical games without considering ASL is a little like studying geology while ignoring volcanoes.

There is a trend that I noticed over the years. I the beginning, at the dawn of purple-skyed game boxes, Squad Leader was considered a great game, but one of many, or maybe in 1978 several, in a player's collection. It was not the be-all and end-all of one's gaming experience. If there was a game that got exclusive play in the late seventies, it was Dungeons & Dragons, not Squad Leader, or any other hardcore wargame.

Then with ASL's introduction, things changed. The rulebook remains very dense, legalistic, and packed with acronyms and abbreviations. It is organized well enough that players can learn the system in pieces, but it is still a very complex game that attempts to anticipate a vast array of conditions and circumstances, leading to a vaster array of rules. Advanced Squad Leader is not for cowards.

Due to a combination of factors, love of the game and the demands of mastering its systemic and tactical complexities, many players became ASL exclusivists. All of their wargaming centered on ASL, and it was a rare time that they played anything else.

Now, I'm noticing something different. I look at a lot, if not most, of the profiles on the Social Networking Site, and make an effort to welcome new people, if nothing else than with a quick hello. There appears to be a growing number of members who list Advanced Squad as a game that they play, alongside others that have an equal level of allegiance.

Does this mark the end of ASL as a virtual career within wargaming, or am I noticing a phenomenon that just isn't there?

I strongly suspect that it's the former. There are a lot of new, highly replayable systems that earn massive fan loyalty, at least equal to that of ASL: Card-driven games, block games, Richard Borg's tactical block designs. Generally, they combine replay value with an ability to reach beyond the hard corps of historical wargamers. One does not need to devote weeks to learning Command & Colors: Ancients. Yet one might start to wear out the components with repeated play.

As I see it, Advanced Squad Leader remains the long-term standard in World War II tactical gaming, though other systems, such as Avalanche's Panzer Grenadier, have strong legions of devoted adherents. Yet as far as being the system that generates exclusive loyalty, that day is ending.

My view is that none of this is bad for the system or for the hobby. ASL modules will continue to enjoy healthy sales, and it will not fade away like an athlete who hangs on two seasons two long. Simultaneously, the wargaming community, and industry, becomes more rounded and healthier, both from an intellectual and commercial standpoint.

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Comment by Don Lazov on October 3, 2008 at 10:22am
I started playing SL in 1979 when I was a wee lad. I did the normal progression through the gamettes up to GI and then played it off and on, mostly solo. I got to play with a few soldiers SL and COI a few times.

In 1985 I picked up the ASL rule book and sometime after I picked up BV. At this time I had a lot of wargames and most all of my gaming was mostly solo.

I started playing solo through BV and then in 1987 I joined the Army. This pretty much curtailed my gaming for 4 years, but I kept picking up games at the time (I also got into Europa and purchased those).

After I got out of the service I started buying even more games and rounded out my collection ASL collection but the wonderful thing I discovered at this time was the social aspect of ASL. I put in many weekend long gaming sessions playing Red Barricades with my buddy (usually from 6 on Friday to about 6 or 8 on Sunday) and I went to a few tournaments, but I had a lot of steady gaming players and that really helped me learn ASL.

When I got married in 1995 I put away all gaming for a time and then slowly got back into it over the years. Just this year I got back into ASL and I was pleasantly surprised to fine that my knowledge of ASL only waned a wee bit. I met two local groups in my area that only play ASL and we meet once a month at each group so I can get in 2 ASL sessions a month. I have read through A, B and am on C now and have played half a dozen scenarios without a lot of time involved.

The ASL social aspect is what is really appealing to me, to sit around with other ASL and play the game has been great. Both groups have opened up their arms to types like me and to the new people that have only been exposed to ASLSK. Although a word of caution since I am not a ASLSK person, when I was helping two newbies playing ASLSK while my oppenent was setting up they ask if a die roll was a hit, I (from memory) said "Oh that's a 75L you need a x to hit and in fact you got a critical hit! Roll again", they rolled like a 3 (I should have saw the confusion on their faces) when I said "That's a burning wreck!".

The other system I have been getting into of late is OCS. There is a local group that is playing GBII & CB and I have noticed that this is also like a social event. Hopefully I can make there next session and take a small group of Soviets and learn that system.

So I think that yes, ASL does require some reading and learning but if set or played with the right fellows you can learn it just fine. I would not keep this from allowing me to play other games and interests. In fact that same OCS group I mentioned piqued my interest in GMT's Prussia's Glory system.

I still think my biggest beef is that companies like MMP and GMT go out of print way to fast, of course I am spoiled in my game days of old where SPI and AH always had games in print.
Comment by Eric Walters on September 27, 2008 at 12:13pm
I had the purple box original Squad Leader set--misaligned hard-mounted boards and all. My tactical system at the time was the original Tobruk, even with all the die rolling. Yaquinto's Panzer series wasn't far behind. But as soon as I played Squad Leader, I gave all that up. Play just moved along fluidly and the excitement level was just far more than any other tactical game I'd played--it had color, it had unpredictability, it was just abstract enough yet felt realistic enough to allow for proper suspension of belief. I was cheering for my favorite leaders and moaning over the ones who never seemed to do anything right. The gamettes followed and I played them all.

In 1984 I was a first lieutenant stationed at Camp Pendleton when I met Don Chappell, an infantry captain, at the Camp Pendleton Conflict Simulations Club a bunch of us had started up. He was playtesting ASL for AH--and corralled a bunch of the G.I.: Anvil of Victory players. I remember being stunned by the xeroxed rulebook and disoriented with my first few games of the Beyond Valor playtest. We lost over half the playtesters--it was just too much. But I hung in there and the new system grew on me. Yes, it was a huge investment in time. But when the game was published, I knew how to play it and enjoyed all the scenarios all over again, this time in their final form.

I've never really progressed much beyond Chapter E because I kept teaching new players, many of whom have gone on to greater ASL nirvana. I got Nadir El-Farra into the system and he went on to create Baraque de Fraiture and do the Operation Watchtower HASL for MMP. He's since gone over to ATS from what I can see. Dave Van Kan and I served together--he of "Where's my Dutch Trucks?" Spuddy award fame (look at his last name and you can understand his query, which became the rallying cry for the Axis Minor ordnance and vehicles module Doomed Battalions. Tom Meier and I played ASL in Korea together and he's helped MMP with a number of HASL modules...now heavily involved in the "March Madness" ASL tourneys in Kansas and the Korean War module under development.

I long for desert scenarios, I long for the Pacific. I have played HASL campaign games Red Barricades, both Kampfgruppe Peiper sets, and Pegasus Bridge. But none of the others--although I dive into the scenarios here and there.

I will never get really good at ASL. It takes so much time to develop that level of intimate familiarity with the rules and play applications across the truly vast variety of nationalities, situations, time periods, and scenario types. And it is intimidating, even with the Starter Kits. Because the system demands exclusivity if one is to truly master it. And yes--there is so much else to play out there. Had I not been coached by Don during the playtest and gotten involved in ASL from the start, I'm not sure I would do so now, even with the Starter Kits. I probably would have gone to ATS--it's just much simpler, even if it lacks all the range and variety that ASL offers. It still has a great amount of color and period feel, especially with the historical terrain in most of its games in that series. And then there's the Combat Commander series for those with that kind of bent. PanzerGrenadier? A completely different kind of tactical game with a completely different feel--and I like it as well. Very approachable and perhaps the easiest of all to get into.

I'll still keep playing ASL and the Starter Kits--regarding the former, I just accept I will never be more than a mediocre player. But that's okay, because there's so many other things to play!
Comment by Jon Compton on September 26, 2008 at 10:24am
I've found that the starter kits have made a good bridge between wanting that ASL fix but still playing lots of other games. I've pretty much got the entire ASL inventory, but these days the SKs are all I play from it.
Comment by Andreas Ludwig on September 26, 2008 at 10:08am
I really don't know if that's a trend but if other gamers are like myself and Denny then I suppose you have to make a serious decision: to be an ASL player only or to play lots and lots of really good wargames on different game levels and themes. I think that we are living in interesting as well as difficult times these days because on the one hand we don't get that many new players/young players interested in this hobby to carry on our torch.

But on the other hand there were never so many good and even excellent, fantastic looking and well supported wargames available than we have today. And the latter point makes it a tough decision imho to focus on one game only no matter how good it is.

We also play ASL and when we play it we play it almost exclusively for a longer period of time to make sure that we get back into all the rules that we may have forgotten and to be able to learn new stuff while playing thru the modules. We are one or two scenarios before WoA now.

But then we always have a break from it to learn and play all sorts of new games. This year we had wonderful experiences with EotS, Arkham Horror, Vietnam 1965-75, Imperium Romanum II and there's not one among them I would like to miss - now that I know what great games these are. Denny and I like to learn new games because it's a thrilling part of the hobby itself. To see how certain aspects of simulating combat/war reality are done on a specific level of play, what new ideas the designer introduced to the hobby, how well the rules are written compared to others etc.. This keeps the hobby fresh so to say and there are always new games on the shelf and if you are in a certain mood then there's the chance that you also have a game on this topic waiting for you so you can use the motivation to learn a new game.

I also try to combine my interest in different topics, so I read books, watch movies and learn/play games on the same particular theme when I'm in the mood for it. The positive thing is of course you get to know many games this way, the negative aspect is you won't become as proficient as the xy-only players since you don't have the time to go really deep in a given game and this way you most surely pass up chances to develop some effective rules/tactics finesse. But for us playing only one or even a few games only was never really an option.
Comment by Rob Zacny on September 26, 2008 at 9:44am
I only ever played a handful of serious boardgames, but ASL was definitely one of them. In part, though, that was because of it's fearsome reputation, and the fact that a lot of wargamers seemed to think it was almost the only tactical game worth playing.

Personally, I never felt that was a healthy phenomenon. It was a great game and I had some wonderful battles in it, but the time investment was off the charts. A lot of times I'd want to play a game, but ASL was the only game in town and I just couldn't get pumped up about playing it. It's one of the reasons I shuffled along to computer wargaming and kind of left boardgaming behind.

So I'm in total agreement with your notion that this diversification is good for the hobby. It makes it easier for people like me to find a good fit with a few different games, rather than choose between rejoining the ASL priesthood or relying on Grigsby and Koger exclusively.

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