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About ericmwalters

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  1. Episode 292: Advanced Squad Leader

    I was one of the original ASL Rulebook and Beyond Valor: ASL Module 1 playtesters, brought on by Don Chappell when we were both Marine officers stationed in Camp Pendleton back in the fledgling days of the Camp Pendleton Conflict Simulations Club in 1984. Everybody has their own story about Squad Leader, the "gamettes," and the move towards Advanced Squad Leader. But in the spirit of the original question the OP asked, I thought I'd pass on my recollections/observations. We lost over half our ASL playtest group at the club over the eight or nine months we struggled through testing the system. It's worth recounting why. Keep in mind that to volunteer for the ASL playtest was no small undertaking; those that succumbed to Don's "arm-twisting" usually did so willingly. The group of players he got into the playtest all had at least some experience with G.I. Anvil of Victory. It's noteworthy to compare the date of publication of that "gamette" (1982) with the time Don gathered people into the playtest (1984). If you ever played GI, you were typically among those who felt the pain of playing SL with that ruleset. As has been mentioned elsewhere, the SL engine really peaked with Cross of Iron. There was much more detail for the AFV and ordnance in that game, plus additions for aircraft, cavalry, paradrops, etc., that didn't feel too overly weighty. If you mastered basic SL, it was a small step to master COI--at least, it felt that way. When COD came out, the rivers and small boat rules weren't that bad, but then we started getting into bicycles/motorcyles, scouts, and rules that felt like--at least to me--that the system was beginning to weigh itself down. GI:AOV pretty much redesigned so much of the basic system that it strangled itself; it was no surprise that the effort to create ASL followed so quickly on the heels of that particular gamette. GI was a morass of attempted streamlining which ended up encumbering the overall play experience. It was too much. And it felt like it. Particularly with four rulebooks. So the bunch that was drawn in to the ASL playtest at Camp Pendleton had the hope that GI could be further redefined and streamlined. People who had given GI a go and played it were up for the detail, they just didn't like the baggage that came with playing. So you didn't have any lightweights in this group. Yet within a few months, half the volunteers left the playtest. Here are their reasons why. I won't pretend these are all-encompassing, that they reflect the whole of rationales a SL player could have. No, I'm talking about why a hardcore SL player who had mastered COD and at least played a good bit of GI would swear off ASL...and, for some, the SL system entirely. The first and most immediate reason for the first wave of people to leave was that it was apparent that all the components were going to be redone. There was an expectation, especially after GI, that the replacements made to the counterset with the last SL gamette would still be useable in ASL. It became obvious that this would not be the case: indeed, the entire counterset would be redone. On top of that, the old maps, while still compatible, were not used in the Beyond Valor: ASL Module 1 playtest kit. For many of the die-hard SL-through-GI players, after years of perfectly sifting and sorting all those nationalities in the old system and making substitutions when each new gamette came out, it was too much. They had invested a great deal in their counter storage systems, both monetarily and intellectually, and were reluctant to start over from scratch. Indeed, it seemed to some that AH was intent on extracting every dollar it could out of the SQUAD LEADER addiction. And so, they left. Some went back to playing with the old gamettes, some were so distraught they left the system entirely, disillusioned with what they perceived to be an organized rip off effort by the folks on the Hill. For those that remained, we pressed on with a xeroxed ruleset of faintly copied typed rules, hand-modified SL-through-GI counters, and B&W reproductions of the maps which were to be in Beyond Valor: ASL Module 1. It was daunting just to get through one complete reading of the rules. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Overwhelming could not describe the feeling. These guys had juggled four rulebooks and persevered, but the behemoth that was the ASL Rulebook in draft was too much for many. When "the Hill" sent us ten pages of one and two-line changes to be pasted in to our pages--at certain points occurring once every month--it proved to be the last straw. "I just can't do this," many complained, "I just can't." So even more left our diminishing ranks. For the long-distance endurance types that hung in there to read the rules, comprehend the basic system, insert and adjust that understanding based on the frequent changes from Don Greenwood, there remained the playing of the BEYOND VALOR scenarios. And so we started to breaking them out and giving them a spin. The next objections were the design decisions in the ASL system itself. Gone was the physical control of snipers dating back to COD. The system and the dice would handle most of them, making snipers a counterbalance to lucky attack and morale check rolls. That did not sit well with some of the grognards. The infantry defensive fire system was also completely different from the old game, taking out a great deal of the chess-like quality that so many were used to. Gone too were the fixed rates of fire for AFVs; you could not determine ahead of time how many shots a tank or ordnance piece could get off from phase to phase. The chance for chaos and absolutely wild streaks of firing increased. The same was done for the machine guns. To many of the old SL-through-GI players, the system redesign had completely changed "their" game. Old tactics no longer worked. All those years of play, honing their tactical judgment and execution skills, now seemed wasted for these veteran players. Yet another wave of playtesters left, some with heavy hearts, some with a sense of utter betrayal as their favorite game system had been fundamentally trifled with too much. And then there were the scenarios. While there seemed to be some real winners in the BEYOND VALOR set, the lack of programmed instruction and the intricate nature of the system AND the scenarios seemed to defeat players. Lessons learned in "Fighting Withdrawal" didn't seem to carry over well into "The Citadel." Tactics learned in "Mila 18" were unique to that scenario and didn't seem to prepare anyone for any other situation in the box. The scenario set showed the capacity of the ASL system to deal with a wide diversity of situations. The trouble was that this same broad range just discouraged too many players who felt like they could never get a handle on the rules applications from scenario to scenario, much less the scenarios themselves. Where was the easy-to-absorb sequence so essential to basic SL, moving from "The Guards Counterattack" to "The Tractor Factory," to "The Streets of Stalingrad" and thence to "Hedgehog of Piepsk," "Hill 621" and beyond? At the end of the day, only a few intrepid ASL souls were left standing. Good thing I was one of them, because when the game system rules and first module were published in 1985, I pretty much already knew how to play. After that, it was much easier to keep up with it. But I can sympathize with those who took a look at what the system had become and said, "no thanks--this is good for some, but not good for all." They either stayed with the old system (and many did for a long while...and some still do) or they left for different pastures. Some became game designers in their own right, creating Advanced Tobruk System--one of the first imitators, arising out of the old Critical Hit! COMBAT system. Others created the very different Tactical Combat Series. Lock 'N Load followed with its squad-level Vietnam game, Lock 'N Load: Forgotten Heroes – Vietnam, spawning yet another new line. Before long there was an avalanche of squad level games by those who felt that the ASL path was not for them: Combat Commander Series, Conflict of Heroes series, Valor & Victory, and--most recently--Band of Brothers: Screaming Eagles. No doubt there will be more. MMP, who took over ASL after the demise of AH, created the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit series to get people into the basics of the ASL system and--ideally--attract them to the "full" game. But so many like ASLSK just as it is and are happy to stay there. To each their own! I don't see a need to bring back the old Squad Leader game, particularly given the wide range of choices available today. It was a spectacular title in its day and deserves to garner high prices in the secondary and tertiary market. Unpunched copies still in the shrinkwrap rates collector's item status (and prices) to my mind. But like another wildy popular game in its day, PanzerBlitz, I'd only play it now out of nostalgia. Sure, I could get new players interested in that scale and genre, but why not use a game they could buy for themselves at lower prices? A postscript. In 1985, when wargamers watched us ASL playtesters break out the published version of the game, they just stood there and marveled as we played. They were either intrigued or put off, but rarely were they indifferent. Their reactions then aren't much different than the reaction of wargamers to ASL today when you see the game played at conventions all over the world. You are going to be either drawn in or you are going to be turned off by what you observe. It's just how it is. But isn't that the same for any game?