Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 review

Advanced Squad Leader wasn’t really published all that long ago, when you think about it. It was 1985 when it first hit the shelves, and was the successor to the astonishingly successful Squad Leader (1977), which had itself sold over 200,000 copies1. I doubt ASL has ever sold that many copies, but in terms on longevity it’s doing quite well.

Although ASL might not quite be the most complicated wargame of all time, it certainly is up there in complexity, and its rulebook is off-putting for most novice wargamers, as is its cost to get started. The world today is also a different place than it was a quarter of a century ago, and the most common “wargames” played by people are likely to be games like Risk or possibly Memoir ’44. Hex and counter wargames have made something of a comeback with the excellent Combat Commander: Europe, but it’s not quite the hobby it once was.

Boardgames, however, are doing quite strongly, led by The Settlers of Catan and other related Eurogames. So, what then? Is ASL now a relic of the past, of no interest to diehard followers and antiquarian wargamers? I would say not, and the reason lies in no small reason due to an initiative by Multiman Publishing, the current publishers of ASL: the ASL Starter Kits. The Starter Kits distill the core of the ASL rules into a readily understandable format, and then provide counters, maps and scenarios with which one or two players can play a wargame set on the battlefields of World War II.

The first of theseries deals only with infantry battles, with SK #2 adding artillery and SK #3 adding tanks. From my experience with the game, there is plenty of enjoyment to be gained from just the basics; infantry-only actions also have the advantage of not needing some of the more fiddly rules that come into the game later on.

ASL SK #1 is reasonably priced – US$24 according to the publisher’s website – and is certainly a full game. Inside the box you’ll find two cardboard maps, six scenarios, a player aid, a countersheet of 280 1/2″ counters, a 12-page rulebook, and 2 dice.

One question that may be on your mind is an extremely pertinent one: How long does a game take to play? Well, in SK #1, I can play through a typical scenario in 1-2 hours, although (very) occasionally a scenario may take longer. The game length really depends on two things: how many turns there are in a scenario, and how many units are involved. For the six scenarios in SK#1, both of these numbers are relatively low, certainly when compared to some of the scenarios in “full” ASL.

ASL is played in turns, with players alternating between being the “attacker” and the “defender”. When you are the attacker, you can move and attack with all your units, with the defender able to reply with defensive fire. Then the roles swap, and the previous defender can move if he or she wishes. So on and so forth. A full turn (both players having one chance to move) is assumed to represent about 2 minutes of game time. Being able to move all your units at once makes ASL quite different to games such as Combat Commander and Memoir ’44, where you can generally only move a limited number of troops in each turn.

ASL belongs to the school of games known as “hex-and-counter wargames”. The action takes place on one or more geomorphic boards with hex overlays, with units represented by double-sided cardboard counters. Apart from the counters for the squads, half-squads, leaders and weapons in the game, there are a number of informational counters as well, that are used to keep track of which units have fired this turn, the existence of residual fire, smoke, ongoing melees and other events on the battlefield.

If there’s one complaint you can legitimately have about ASL, it’s that it can become quite fiddly with all the counters. This Starter Kit does keep everything well within control, so you should be fine.

Turns are broken further down into phases, as follows:

Rally Phase (RPh): Each player can attempt to rally broken (demoralized) units and fix malfunction weapons. Units rally if their Morale score or less is rolled on 2d6, which may be modified by leaders or other factors. In ASL parlance, a “dr” is the roll of one six-sided die, a “DR” is the roll of two six-sided dice.

Prep Fire Phase (PFPh): The attacker may fire any or all of his units; units that fire may not move later during the round. Fire attacks are conducted by adding together all the Firepowers of units participating in the attack together, rolling two dice, and then crossreferencing the factors on the Infantry Fire Table; a successful attack might Eliminate or Pin, or force it to make a Morale Check which (on a failure) would cause it to break and become demoralized.

Move Phase (MPh): The attacker may move any or all of his units that didn’t fire; any unit that moves while in Line of Sight (LOS) of an opposing unit may be fired upon by the defender.

Defensive Fire Phase (DFPh): The defender may attack with any of his or her units that haven’t already fired during the Move Phase.

Advancing Fire Phase (AFPh): The attacker may attack with any units that haven’t already attacked – because they were moving, generally; however, this is done at a penalty.

Rout Phase (RtPh): Any units that are broken must flee to cover or be eliminated.

Advance Phase (APh): The attacker may move any or all of their units one further hex; this is the only way the attacker may move units onto a hex containing a stack of defender units.

Close Combat Phase (CCPh): If the attacker has advanced onto defender’s units, Close Combat ensues and those units may spend several turns just fighting each other and ignoring the rest of the battle until one side is victorious and eliminates the other stack.

After the CCPh, attacker and defender swap roles and you begin the process again.

ASL is famed for its acronyms, which make the rulebook seem quite arcane to outsiders. I mean, a paragraph like what follows is quite common in the rules:

“If an unbroken unit fails a MC by more than its ELR, it is immediately replaced by a broken unit of the same size but one step lower in quality as per the nationality chart on page 12. MMC with underlined morale are not subject to ELR.”

Surprisingly, it takes little time once you start perusing the rules to get used to all these acronyms, and it is certain that they actually make the rules a lot more readable than you might initially expect. The Starter Kit rules have a very useful glossary that define almost all of the terms in the game as well as providing references to where they’re explained in the rules.

Almost all? Yes. Unfortunately, in the process of compiling the rules, two explanations were left out (although described in other rules or examples): CX, which stands for “Counter Exhaustion”, and ROF, which stands for “Rate of Fire”. Some errata was included in my box, and you can find fuller examples on sites such as www.boardgamegeek.com

However, even though the rules read well, they’re not always the clearest to understand during play. (The clearest set of wargame rules I know of are the excellent rules for Combat Commander: Europe). When I learning the game, I occasionally had to resort to the excellent set of tutorials written by Jay Richardson. With those in hand, you shouldn’t have that much trouble. ASL isn’t Carcassonne by any means; it would rather like to give you a good experience simulating the battlefields of World War II, and mostly it succeeds.

Six scenarios are included in ASL SK #1, providing a good selection of the possibilities available in infantry-only actions. Further scenarios have been published in MMP’s house magazine, and I also hear reports of an “Action Pack” with further ASL SK scenarios being produced. In my case, the scenarios have proved very entertaining and permit numerous replay opportunities – I certainly haven’t exhausted their possibilities yet!

S1 Retaking Vierville sees a group of American Paratroopers defending a small village against a German patrol. This scenario introduces the basics of infantry combat – including smoke grenades but excluding support weaponry (light machine guns, etc.) It is one of my favourite scenarios in the pack, as it has the forces enter the map in waves over several turns, which each set of reinforcements causing both sides to react not only to what is already on the map but to what has been introduced.

S2 War of the Rats is set in Stalingrad in 1942 with the Russian forces defending against a German attack. This scenario introduces the Support Weapon rules, including Light and Medium Machine Guns, Flame Throwers and Demolition Charges.

S3 Simple Equation has the Germans defending Aachen in 1944 from an American assault; this is the first scenario that uses both of the boards adjacent to each other. The American units are superior in quality to the German defenders, but the Germans have a Heavy Machine Gun and two secretly fortified buildings… and attacking is always difficult in ASL!

S4 Welcome Back is a winter scenario with the Germans needing to cross and exit the map against a spirited American defence; although the Americans are few in number their quality makes this quite a difficult scenario for the Germans, although the Americans need to react quickly if the Germans force a hole in their line. The wintry conditions are handled by special rules in the scenario description… snow may fall which hampers fire attacks.

S5 Clearing Colleville is part of Operation Overlord in Normandy… the Americans need to clear Colleville of Germans, but, like the first scenario, both sides have reinforcements entering during the game. This scenario also introduces uncertainty as to how many reinforcements might enter the map for the Americans, with a die roll determining the number.

S6 Released from the East is another winter scenario; this time with the Russians attempting to take back their town of Istra from a small German Elite force. No snow falls during this scenario, but the Russians have winter camouflage which makes them harder to hit as they creep up on the German lines. This scenario also allows the Russians to hold some of their forces in reserve… which allows them to enter from an unexpected quarter later in the game. It’s details like this that make these scenarios so much to play.

Unlike the full Advanced Squad Leader or Combat Commander: Europe, there are no rules included for creating your own scenarios.

I bought ASL SK #1 in May 2007, and since then I’ve played it sixteen times, mostly solo games. For, although it is an excellent two-player game, like many wargames it also provides an excellent solo experience. In fact, SK #1 is better at this than the full ASL as the full game has a number of areas of hidden information, thus causing difficulties for the solo player. (Card-based wargames like Combat Commander: Europe and Memoir ’44 also suffer from similar problems with solo play).

I might have played SK #1 more times, but it was enough to get me onto the second and third starter kits, which progressively add more and more to the game. (14 plays of SK #2 and 14 players of SK #3 so far…) Oh, and I now own the full ASL rules and several of its modules…

One might get the impression from this that the game should come with a notice on the box: “Warning: May prove addictive!”

Although there is a fair amount of dice rolling in ASL, and occasionally some extremely lucky (or unlucky) outcomes, the game hinges a lot on skill. Reckless moves (like moving quickly over open ground towards a machine-gun) will be appropriately rewarded. Scenario balance seemed fairly good to me. The ROAR database provides me with the following numbers:

S1: 63% chance the Americans will win. 103 reported plays.
S2: 50% chance the Germans will win. (Balanced!) 110 reported plays.
S3: 54% chance the Germans will win. 37 reported plays.
S4: 52% chance the Germans will win. 46 reported plays.
S5: 52% chance the Germans will win. 50 reported plays.
S6: 60% chance the Germans will win. 48 reported plays.

I have to say those are pretty good numbers…

ASL, even in its Starter Kit format, does have a certain complexity, although a bright twelve-year-old should be able to handle it, especially with help from an adult. (I could handle 1st edition AD&D when I was twelve, I doubt I would have had much trouble with this game!) As a solo wargame, I find it exceptional, and as a 2-player game it provides worthy competition to Combat Commander: Europe, although I might give the latter just a nose as to how much I enjoy playing it.

Perhaps the best thing about ASL SK #1 is that it leads into the bigger world of ASL. With the mastery of ASL SK #1, already the first four scenarios of Beyond Valor are well within reach. MMP have done a fine thing by publishing ASL SK #1… without it, I doubt I ever would have realised my dream of learning ASL!

A few notes on what ASL SK #1 handles:

Terrain: Open Ground; Buildings; Roads; Woods; Orchards; Grain.
Nationalities: American, German, Russian.
Units: Squads, Half-Squads, Leaders
Support Weapons: Light, Medium & Heavy Machine Guns; Demolition Charges; Flamethrowers; also inherent Smoke Grenades.
Informational Counters: DM, CX, Prep Fire, First Fire, Final Fire, Residual Fire, Smoke, PIN, CC, Melee, Wound.

1: Greg Costikyan, A Farewell to Hexes (http://www.costik.com/spisins.html) back

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