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.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Chapter One: A Tale of Two Scenarios

In introducing my friend (who from here on we'll refer to by his club nickname of "Mr Invisible") to Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) by comparing it to Battlefront: World War Two (BFWW2), one of my first steps needs to be highlighting the differences and similarities between the two games and the two scenarios. So let's have a brief overview of the two games.

And here's one point I should make up front: my references to ASL will be to the "full" ASL game, not to the Starter Kit version of the game. I'm a big fan of ASL's Starter Kit (ASLSK--get used to the acronyms--they're everywhere!). I play it often, and I've taught a number of my friends to play using its simplified subset of the main rulebook. But I also know my target audience of one, and I judge that nothing would make Mr Invisible more testy than teaching him how to play a game and then saying, "OK, did you enjoy that? Good. But the actual game is quite different..." Best to throw him in at the deep end. After all, I suspect that, once we've played some Normandy scenarios, he'll want to get knee-deep in Guadalcanal goodness, and ASLSK does not extend to the Pacific Theater of Operations.

Two Games, Alike in Dignity

ASL and BFWW2 are both tactical games, set at almost the same level of play. They have similar units, similar action sequences, similar underlying concepts, but some very different points of focus, some different mechanics, and radically different execution.

BFWW2 has a slightly wider focus: each stand (the smallest unit) is a section or squad of 8-10 troops or 2-3 vehicles or guns. Starting players can easily handle a company of troops, and experienced players can command a battalion with little difficulty. Turns represent ten minutes or so; each inch of tabletop represents 40 yards. Some engagements are quite tiny, representing a portion of a company on each side; but some are quite large--one giant action from the Normandy campaign features a reinforced British infantry brigade trying to fight its way through several German kampfgruppen!

ASL's basic focus is just a bit lower; squads and individual vehicles are the basic units (squads can be broken down into half-squads, and there are a variety of counters that represent individuals--mostly leaders or heroes). Formations are referred to in the historical notes of scenario cards, and if one dabbles in campaign games the reinforcement groups one can purchase correspond to historical formations. but there is no attempt to replicate the command structure of platoons, companies, battalions, or higher formations during the play of the game.Turns represent about two minutes; each hex is roughly 40 meters. Some scenarios involve half a dozen squads per side; others feature OBs that could easily be entire battalions.
German FJs with a handcart full of gear

Both games put a premium on the influence of morale. In BFWW2, the principal factors determining a unit's performance are its training/morale class (specified by scenario OB and fixed throughout) and current condition (fluctuating based on contact with the enemy from good order to suppressed to disordered). These govern how enthusiastically a unit responds to the player's intentions (whether it maneuvers freely, holds position, or retreats/routs) and how well it degrades the opponent's units through fire and close action. Command units (which are combat units in their own right) can influence the performance of nearby units in their chain of command. Thus morale and training and command and control (C2) all work together in an interrelated system.

American paratroopers, also with a handcart full of gear
In ASL, troop units (groups or individual leaders) are rated for morale and for quality. Units are generally in good order (able to operate freely) or broken (unable to do anything but rout and try to rally), though sometimes units are neither fully in Good order or broken (e.g., units locked in melee, units pinned down by fire). Units can break and lose good order at many times throughout the turn (e.g., being fired at, trying to move through a minefield, randomly coming under sniper fire), but they can regain it only once per player turn, during the Rally Phase (RPh). Leaders (which do not so much represent TO&E command elements as the "big men" who actually direct action on the battlefield) can help troops they are directly stacked with to fire better, fight better, and rally faster. Any broken unit with a good order leader in its stack can try to rally in each RPh, but few broken units without a leader are allowed to rally. Leaders are very personal, however. They don't work through a chain of command, and they don't influence anyone outside their immediate vicinity.

Running and Gunning
In BFWW2, units are rated for movement speed on roads and cross-country and for close action and ranged fire (direct or indirect) against vehicles and troops. Guns and vehicles are rated for size, and armored vehicles are rated for protection. Each player turn, units fire, maneuver (if they did not fire), and engage in close combat. The effect of fire is based on the training/morale of both the firing unit and that of the target (representing troops' ability to deploy to take best advantage of terrain, keep their heads down, etc.) plus the condition of the firing unit, relative cover, and other factors. The result is a change (or no change) in the condition of the target. Each infantry squad is usually assumed to have a single light machinegun; squads equipped with other special weapons (additional MGs, mortars, anti-tank guns, etc.) are rated as different types of units. A mortar squad, for example, will always be a mortar squad, rather than being a generic squad that happens to pick up a mortar.

In ASL, units are rated for firepower, range, and morale: all foot troops have the same speed (with a few exceptions). Generally speaking, each squad is assumed to have one inherent light machinegun, while other special weapons are represented by additional counters that can be assigned to and carried about by specific squads, half-squads, or even single men (depending on the weapon). Some heavy weapons are considered ordnance and can be used to fullest effect only by specialized crew units (such weapons include medium and heavy mortars, infantry guns, anti-tank guns, artillery pieces, and so on). But light mortars, (additional) machineguns, light anti-tank weapons and such like can (generally speaking) be picked up and used by anyone.

To maneuver units in BFWW2, players make a test (again, based on a combination of training/morale and condition) for all troops of each maneuver element (roughly, company-sized groups) to see if they will act as desired, recover condition, hold position, or fall back/rout. In ASL, as long as units are not broken (or Pinned

Units in BFWW2 may be hidden (not placed on the table), concealed (represented on the table by an anonymous marker), or visible (represented by a model on the table). But even visible units are not always spotted--the ability to fire with full effect at an enemy unit is limited to those troops within spotting range, determined by the target's size, the terrain it occupies, and other factors, such as the spotter and target's respective movement. Additional rules handle terrain, indirect-fire artillery (both off-board and on), aircraft, engineering, and the like.

Going to Town

So, having had a quick "one over the world" of the two games, let's look at the scenarios. Both our scenarios (ASL's A59: Death At Carentan [DAC] and BFWW2's The Battle for Ingouf Farm [BIF]) begin with Lt Col Cole's bayonet charge through the smoke. BIF focuses just on the immediate area of the farm and on the period of time from Cole's attack until supporting forces came up to stabilize the position. DAC covers that time and extends to include the German counterattacks (at least the initial ones). BIF is eight turns (about an hour and a half). DAC is also eight turns, nominally about 15 to 20 minutes. Since DAC actually covers a longer portion of the historical action, I think this goes a long way to demonstrating how unreliable the notional time scale of tactical games can be.

BFWW2 map for 'The Battle for Ingouf Farm'
In BIF the American player has portions of two companies of 3/502nd; these total 17 stands of troops: three headquarters squads, nine rifle squads, three LMG squads, and two 81mm mortar squads. Cole's command in DAC is 3 squads; on Turn 2, it is reinforced by the arrival of 7 more squads, 2 half-squads, and 3 leaders. In both scenarios, the Americans get their historical smokescreen. In DAC, it's an off-board artillery (OBA) smoke mission that is plotted before the Germans set up. In BIF, the American player receives an OBA smoke pattern which he can drop at the beginning of the scenario and which then dissipates. The Americans in DAC also get OBA support, a battery of 105s, while in BIF they have to rely on their organic 81mm mortars (which make no appearance in DAC).

On the German side, BIF includes only the FJ's forward defense, 11 stands including a HQ squad, six rifle squads, three light MG squads, and an 8cm mortar section. The starting German force in DAC is similarly small: one squad and three half-squads, plus a leader. The Germans in DAC also get reinforcements, the counterattacking force of 11 squads and 4 leaders, which arrive on Turn 3. To help mitigate the weakness of their starting troops, the German forces in DAC receive x concealment counters, which allow them to create some decoys, confusing the Americans as to which building they actually occupy at the start. In addition, one of their half-squads (HSs) is allowed to set up using Hidden Initial Placement (commonly referred to simply as "setting up HIP"). Likewise in BIF, all Germans start hidden (as well as in "improved positions", essentially an upgrade of the defensive value of whatever terrain they occupy.)

The terrain the Germans hold in BIF is a farm, represented by two built-up sectors of stone buildings with walls and hedges surrounding the farm proper, several fields, and an orchard. The Americans attack over flat, open ground, some of it marshy or cultivated (a cabbage field), while skirting several stretches of river and canal.

ASL map for 'Death at Carentan'
In DAC, the German defenders are holding seven building hexes, most of them wooden construction, surrounded by patches of standing grain, orchards, and denser sections of woods. A few ponds dot the landscape, and some of the fields and roadsides are lined with the famous Normandy hedgerows (which ASL has, of course, special, complicated rules for).

Right, that's my quick compare of the two games and scenarios. Next time: setting up Death at Carentan.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Introduction: Why this blog?

In 1977, the Avalon Hill game company published Squad Leader, a fast-flowing game of infantry (and some tank) combat in World War Two. In 1985, they took the game, which had been massively and untidily expanded over the ensuing years, revised and redesigned it, and republished it as Advanced Squad Leader (ASL). Since then it's been a behemoth of a game: rules that need a massive three-ring binder to carry (most players separate them into several binders so as to keep the individual pages in plastic protectors to minimize wear), so many boards and playing pieces that a whole separate section of the game's hobby is devoted to different methods of storing and transporting them, and an arcane, complicated set of procedures that practically require an advanced degree to learn, let alone master.

Despite some elegant design-for-effect simplifications, a game that tries to differentiate between the troops of nearly a dozen different countries (each with several levels of troop quality) and their hundreds of different armoured and unarmoured vehicles, artillery pieces, machineguns, and various pieces of equipment; that includes a wide range of environments (temperate, tropical, desert, steppe, and arctic); a huge array of military missions (paratrooping, glider landing, beach assaults, river crossings, cavalry charges, house-to-house fighting in urban areas, including rules for sewer movement, factories, rubble, and rowhouses)--a game like this is going to be so complex as to have a limited appeal for the weekend cardboard warrior.

But despite all these challenges, I've found it's a very rewarding game. Some of the pleasure, for me
at least, lies in the collecting aspect; I've always been a sucker for modular projects. Some of it has to do with the diversity: thought the game had its origins in portraying the Western and Eastern Front fighting of the Second World War, inventive designers and researchers have added pieces that expand to cover all the war's conflicts (from the Aleutian Islands to Madagascar, from the Philippines to Iraq, and from Norway to North Africa to Manchuria). Anything that involves maps and history will have a huge appeal for me. And, most of all, once one has invested the time in learning even the basics of the game, there's an irresistible urge to put that to use in playing the game.

I can go into detail on my theories of gameplaying--both its intrinsic value and the way I approach it and what I get from that, but at the moment I should content myself with saying that much of the pleasure I get from gaming is social--enjoying time spent and common interests shared with friends. I have a number of friends who share my love of historical gaming, but few of them have been bitten as I have by the ASL bug.

In particular, I have one friend who I think would adapt well to the mental framework of the game, who I know is interested in World War Two history, with whom I have fought over many actions using our collections of military miniatures. I'd love to get him to try out ASL. But he's got a hectic schedule, which makes it hard for us to carve out time to play, and so far he's remained untempted. So in hopes of inveigling him into trying out ASL, I'm going to walk through a scenario, one portraying a battle we've fought before, so he can see how it works out in ASL.

Several different choices presented themselves, but to start with I've decided to pick an engagement from the fighting right after D-Day, a battle where American paratroopers ran head into a force of German fallschirmj√§ger as the US 101st Airborne tried to consolidate and expand the area it had captured on landing in Normandy. The was the battle for Carentan.

Specifically, Lt Col Robert Cole of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, led an assault on a farm on the outskirts of the two of Carentan called the Ingouff Farm. This action is portrayed in a scenario for the game Battlefront: World War Two that my buddy and I have played before--an exciting, spirited action for which Cole was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

This same action, more or less, is portrayed in ASL by the scenario "Death at Carentan". So that's the scenario I'll be replaying here. I have a couple of other ideas as well (the December 1944 battle for Parker's Crossroads is another), but that's what I'm going to start with.

Well, that's the raison d'etre. The next post will explain a bit more about how I plan on going about this and, with any luck, get us underway.