Monday, October 20, 2014

Digression: An Essay on ASL's Appeal

In an earlier post, a commentor asked why people continue to play ASL when there are computer iterations of it like Combat Mission. It seems to me that there are a number of factors that I think speak to ASL's continuing popularity in the face of computer gaming.

The simplest is just the texture of technology. Some people would much rather take out a paper or cardboard map, sort out the pieces, look over the scenario card, set up their troops, drop their dice down the tower or into the cup, and feel the experience of playing a game instead of staring at a computer screen for yet more hours. (I know that, with all the wonderful dice I've scored from the good folks at Battleschool, I want nothing more than to find opportunities to try them all out in different, nationality-appropriate scenarios!)

Some of Battleschool's awesome 16mm dice
Another is the ability to tinker. Wargamers love to tinker, whether it's drawing up new scenarios, "correcting" the designer's assessment of this factor or that unit's performance, or adding entire new house rules into the mix (speak to a being named Gor-Gor about this). And with computer games that's almost entirely impossible. Yes, depending on the comput4er program (and the player), one can sometimes design new scenarios, create variant graphics, tweak some stats. But one has to be a pretty skilled programmer to break open the app and start rewriting the basic code that runs the game. Very few ASLers, I would wager, can do that, and the ones who can would probably prefer to sit down with the board and counters. Programming is probably their day job, and this is supposed to be relaxation.

Of course, there's another computer-based instantiation of ASL--VASL. A good many programming-savvy ASLers work on various bits and pieces for that, from the original engine to the add-ons and extensions that are available today, including tireless work to add new maps, overlays, and counters to VASL as new hard-copy modules are published. I think it's striking that the computer program that *has* clearly caught on among ASLers is one that merely serves as a helper--it helps two players, linked by the Internet, to play a virtual game almost identical to the physical game they would play if they were int eh same physical space. A few things are changed or added to the game, but by and large it's just what its name says, and no more. It doesn't replace ASL; it simply makes playing it easier.

For some people, I'm pretty sure, there's a considerable amount of satisfaction to be gained from reading, learning, and (possibly) eventually mastering The Tome, the printed rulebook, the beloved ASLRB. I'm not positive, but I'm fairly sure that ASL is the most complex, most detailed, most fiddly and complicated set of rules I have ever tried to learn. When you learn how to do something right in ASL, whether it's as simple as a basic fire and maneuver attack or as rules-intensive as running a beach-landing on a Japanese-held Pacific isle, with air support, naval gunfire, surf, caves, landing craft, and god knows what else, there's a kind of feeling of accomplishment. Sure, you can get that in another game, but that will be *another* game. A new game that you have to learn from scratch. All the time you spent understanding Subsequent First Fire or Convoys or Night are useless. Wasted time. If you're not playing ASL with a board and counters (real or virtual), most of that "sunk cost" is just that: sunk. Gone. I'd like, instead, to feel it's time I've invested in future entertainment. Playing ASL.

And that brings me to my last point. The reason I don't play any of the Combat Mission games (and I bought, owned, and at one time played several of them) is simple: they *aren't* ASL. They may have started out as ASL, or with someone saying "I'd like to take ASL and port it to the PC," but playing them is nothing like playing ASL. They're a different game. I own lots of different games; I play as many as I can. But I already *have* ASL. Why would I want another, if I don't feel it gives me a better game? (This, for the record, is why I don't own or play GMT's Combat Commander. I bought it, tried it, and found it far less interesting, appealing, or fun than ASL.)

And frankly, when I played Combat Mission, I didn't enjoy it. The AI was far too tough; I'm sure that just means I'm a dunce, but when you play the same scenario over and over, trying to find a variation in tactics that will result in anything but a total slaughter, and just get cut to pieces every fun, no insight, no entertainment or learning process, just a slap in the face... well, that game has failed, in my book.


  1. Jan, All valid points.

    The two biggest factors ASL has over any computer game for me are tactical insight and direct human interaction.

    ASL is transparent enough that I can understand why some tactic worked or failed, why I won or lost. Sometimes, it is just getting lucky, but I can see how lucky I needed to be or how lucky I was. And then I can share that directly with another person.

  2. Another argument in favour of ASL, or perhaps more specifically Deluxe ASL, is that players who enjoy miniatures can incorporate 1/285th scale (6mm IIRC) miniatures into their game. The DASL rules were designed with this in mind. And lest people think that DASL is dormant, one producer released seven new DASL boards and a dozen scenarios for this format only two months ago. As recent as this past June, a large ASL tournament in Texas featured a mini tournament using miniatures, 3D terrain, and DASL rules. IOW, ASL provides plenty of hands on opportunities for players to immerse themselves in the history and atmosphere of WW2, tactical-level combat.