23 February 2012

One for the Road

Advanced Squad Leader legend Bill “Fish” Conner passed away at home on Friday, 17 February 2012. He was 59. 
Darryl “Action Burk” Burk learned of Bill’s passing on Sunday. He had spoken to his long-time friend earlier in the week. Bill had admitted to not feeling well. Darryl posted the following on the GameSquad ASL Forums:
I don’t know what else to say as I’m still in shock. The world has lost a great gamer and I’ve lost a great friend and gaming buddy. Play a scenario in his memory and use Sgt. Conner, I know he’d appreciate it, Hope to see you at ASLOK but it won’t be the same for me. Sorry, the tears are flowing freely now,
Darryl Burk
My condolences to Bill’s family and friends, especially Darryl.
Bill and Darryl go back a long way. They cut their teeth on Squad Leader (SL) during the 70s and 80s. As part of Bob McNamara’s group in Youngstown, Ohio, the pair also did a fair bit of play-testing during the development of the SL gamettes. 
Bill attended the Origins ‘85 tournament where ASL made its historic debut. Upon his return, Bill and Darryl immersed themselves in the new system. When Red Barricades—the first historical ASL module—appeared, the pair practically lived in the streets of Stalingrad, playing one Campaign Game after another. Top players in their day, the pair also gained some notoriety for their “Series Replay” articles—essentially play-by-play narratives of scenarios—published in The General magazine. 
Bill and Darryl continued to support the hobby by play-testing scenarios. But as they later confessed, it was too much, and the pace eventually wore them out. Their last hurrah was with the “desert module” West of Alamein, published in 1988.1 Bob McNamara was the lead developer for ASL at the time. Perhaps Bill and Darryl felt compelled to lend a hand. Whatever the case, other commitments were demanding more and more of their attention. 
This scenario from In Contact has a novel board layout 

In 1989, Bill and Darryl rolled out In Contact. Although this short-lived publication (1989-1990) contained articles and scenarios,2 its original intent was simply to put ASL players in contact with each other. Disillusioned with the direction that the magazine had taken, Bill and Darryl returned to what they loved most: playing ASL. 
It was the launch of a modest tournament in 1986 that cemented the pair’s reputation in the ASL world. The first ASL Oktoberfest (ASLOK) was held in October 1986, only a year after the release of the ASL Rule Book. It ran over the Columbus Day holiday weekend—the second Monday in October.3 Bill worked for the United States Postal Service and always had Columbus Day off.4 It was a good fit. The inaugural event attracted 17 players. Attendance almost tripled the following year, and since 1990 has never fallen below 100. 
For the better part of a decade, Bill and Darryl ran the tournament in Youngstown (actually, in nearby Austintown), a small city of 67,000 situated on the Mahoning River, in the county of the same name.5 Youngstown lies in eastern Ohio, ten miles the Pennsylvania State line, and midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It is also midway between New York City and Chicago. So in certain respects, Youngstown and ASLOK were “in the heart of it all.”

Mark Nixon took over the reigns in the mid 90s, and moved ASLOK to its current home in Cleveland. The current Tournament Director, Bret Hildebran, has been running the Oktoberfest for almost 10 years. Today, ASL Oktoberfest is the most prestigious, largest, and longest running ASL gaming event anywhere. It is an event where players of all calibres can meet, play, collaborate on future ASL projects, and most importantly, have fun. 

In a 2010 interview with Dave Kleinschmidt and Jeff Hallett (The 2 Half-Squads), Bill and Darryl explained the rational for their tournament. Their goal was simple. They wanted to ensure that players actually got to play ASL. The pair adopted a round-robin format so that participants would not be eliminated after the first, or even the second round of play. The popularity of their event grew rapidly. Some players began to arrive a day early, then a couple days early. Worried at the increasing numbers of “early birds,” Bill and Darryl added single-elimination, three-round, mini-tournaments. But still they came, earlier and earlier. 
Perry Cocke of MMP
Today, ASLOK is a week-long festival commencing ten days before Columbus Day. The first four days are dedicated to “open gaming.” There are no formal tournaments until the “minis” start on Wednesday.  Players are free to choose opponents and scenarios. Some come prepared to play huge scenarios, and/or campaign games. Most participate in the World Cup by playing someone from the opposite team. The World Cup pits US players against non-US players. Such is the success of ASLOK that Perry Cocke of Multi-Man Publishing (MMP), publicly complimented Bill and Darryl on their legacy. Perry went on to say that ASLOK had been an inspiration for MMP's tournament Winter Offensive. Perry counted Bill among his friends. Like many who knew Bill, he has difficulty expressing how much Bill meant to him and the hobby.
The Gröfaz
As a result of his association with ASLOK, Bill became known affectionately as the Gröfaz, the title awarded annually to the top player at ASLOK. Truth be told, Bill appropriated the title. His friend Darryl had been reading John Ellis’s book Brute Force. Darryl pointed the term out to Bill, and the rest was, as they say, history.  
Gröfaz is a German acronym coined to mock Adolf Hitler: Größter Feldherr aller Zeiten, or Greatest Field Commander of all Time.In the context of ASL, the term is both an acknowledgement of the skill required to win the ASLOK championship, and the recognition that ASL is just game where even the most accomplished remain arm-chair generals. Bill never won the title, but he helped people like eight-time champ Mike McGrath get there. 
Gröfaz has come to symbolize some of the best people within our hobby. In Bill’s case, Gröfaz came to represent something greater. Bill “Fish” Connor was and remains an enduring reminder of all that is good within our hobby. The volunteer spirit, the enthusiasm, the generosity, the sportsmanship, the desire to share the simple joys of gaming and the socializing that goes along with it, not to mention the life-long friendships that come of all this. Bill wanted to put ASL players in contact with each other. He and Darryl have done so much more than that.
A personal recollection
I did not meet Bill until 2007. Until then he was a familiar name from The General magazine. How could anyone forget a nickname like “Fish?”7 Like so many other ASLOK neophytes, I was struck by how easy going and approachable Bill was. He put me immediately at ease.
Apart from SL/ASL, we had a couple of other things in common. Like our fathers before us, we both served in the army. And coincidentally, his father William took a German wife (Wilhemina Baumgartener) while serving in Europe, just as mine did a couple of decades later. But there the similarities ended. 
Bill was born William F. Conner in Denver, Colorado on 10 September 1952. But Ohio would become his home. He completed high school in Youngstown, and spent most of his working life as a postman with the Post Office in nearby Austintown. Bill was a veteran. He served in Europe during the Cold War, and he kept in touch with old friends through the Akron, OH Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division Association. 

Bill had other interests and talents. For instance, he was a big Strat-O-Matic Basefall fan. I am certain that some of his friends have fond memories of playing this game with Bill. 

I know for a fact that many ASL players shared his love of music. For years Bill would show up at ASLOK, not play to ASL, but to socialize and jam late into the night. He played guitar, but had a soft spot for the harmonica.

One for the road
recall shaking Bill’s hand again at ASLOK in 2010. We chatted a bit, and I watched Darryl and him play Guards Counterattack. It was a special moment, their first game in 15 years.

However, this past October I was rushing about so much that Bill and I only exchanged smiles and brief hellos. I had intended to check in with him later, but missed my chance. It is hard not to feel regret. I can nevertheless count myself among the fortunate few who have met Bill. I was not his friend. Nor was I one of his gaming buddies, or a fellow musician. I was just another ASL player. But like everyone he met at ASLOK, he treated me like I was a friend.
An ASL, elder statesman has passed. But his vision lives on.
Below is an extract of a Series Replay published in The General 25 years ago. I was only 24 when I first read it. Time passes so terribly fast. Be sure to spend some of it with your friends.
Streets of Fire, Scenario 1 “Guryev’s Headquarters”
German Player—Darryl Burk
Russian Player—Bill Conner
Neutral Commentator—Mark C. Nixon
Bill Conner has long been a familiar figure in the final rounds of tournament play, winning a healthy share of Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader events not only at Origins, but at a number of other conventions. He first became involved with SL through playtesting with Bob McNamara’s group in Ohio, and most recently Bill has organized his own SL/ASL tournament-the Oktoberfest, which makes its second annual showing this fall. 
Darryl Burk was also involved in the McNamara playtest group. He has always been a tenacious opponent and can lay claim to having beaten Bill more times than everyone else in the world combined. 
Mark Nixon is readily recognizable to our long-term readership, having crafted a number of articles on G.I. [Ed. G.I. Anvil of Victory, the last SL gamette] some issues back. Though he has won many ASL events, he is quick to point out that none have required him to face either Bill or Darryl, making him content to look over their shoulders on this meeting.
Opening Comments
Russian: Since meeting through The General’s “Opponents Wanted” column early in 1982, Darryl and I have been each other’s principal and toughest opponent, teaching one another the game system along with many valuable lessons. Having played hundreds of scenarios—published and in playtest—we are well accustomed to each other’s style of play. Darryl is not afraid to try the unorthodox, and will seldom use the same plan even if previously successful. His greatest weakness is in feeling sorry for me while destroying my forces. He takes his lumps better than I and deserves much of the credit for my tournament successes.
We chose to play “Guryev’s Headquarters” because it is our favorite Streets of Fire scenario, maybe even our favorite of all those for ASL. It is the quick-play piece of Deluxe ASL, much as the SL classic “The Guards Counterattack” was for the original game. It is a simple, small-area action utilizing only basic infantry; only this time it is the German line infantry attacking the Russian elite forces instead of vice-versa. This replay should be easily followed by experienced ASL-ers, SL-ers, and maybe even the uninitiated. We highly recommend playing it several times because it is extremely enjoyable as a training scenario for those new to the gaming pleasures of the ASL system. insert pic of dice
Each ASL scenario has a balance provision, which is influenced by our choice of sides. It tends to make for some very interesting variations while also keeping players from being overly greedy. Usually, this is some kind of relaxed Victory Condition, terrain or troop alteration, or even some special restriction on the enemy player. It all boils down to one thing: if each player wants the same side, a die is rolled with the winner getting to play that side and the loser getting the balance provision in his favor.
Although I would rather play as the German in this scenario, in order to be on the attack, I chose the Russians. My reasoning is that if “Action Burk” also chooses to play the Germans, one of us will get the Russians and the HQ fortified. This doesn’t sit too well with me, unless I were to get that fortified building, because I feel that it makes the Russians a little too tough, whereas the reinforcement restriction by both of us choosing the Russians is much less dramatic. Besides, the Russians have been winning a lot lately.
German: I consider “Fish” [Bill Conner] to be the ideal opponent, not just for ASL but for any game. The traits that have made him a master of the SL/ASL system apply to any game he plays. First and foremost, he is an outstanding gamesman and good sport. Over the course of hundreds of games I’ve never known him to lose his temper because of an unfavorable result, lost game, or for any other reason. His gaming ethics are matched in quality by his skill in actual play.

My choice to play the Germans in “Guryev’s Headquarters” was based mainly on the results of our previous experiences with it. While it appears an easy scenario for the Germans to win, the Russians have won whenever building bEl was strongly defended (which is most of the time). Though I have lost several times as the German player, I have a plan for the Germans to take that building and I am eager to try it out. 
Also, I don’t want the balance provisions to come into effect if Fish and I both chose the same side. Here I’ve tried to outguess Conner. If he should choose the Germans to play, thus giving the Russians fortification of building dL1 on the ground level, I feel my plan for the Germans would still work if I win the die roll for sides and get the Germans. The fortified building would not hamper my plans that much. However, if I lost the dice roll, the fortified building would be a nice refuge to weather the fury of Fish’s attack.
Neutral Commentator: I first met “Fish” Conner and “Action Burk” when they entered the G. I. tournament at Origins ‘83. In a field of 28, I had them ranked #I and #6 respectively, based on a short questionnaire I used to seed the tourney. Today I would change only one thing: I would now rank Darryl higher than I did then. 
They have played each other hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of times. This is their eighth confrontation at “Guryev’s Headquarters”, so I expect this replay to reflect their familiarity with one another’s style of play as well as the general situation. They have previously tried several tactics, including an end sweep across the south side of the battlefield, the “north board edge creep,” and the “up front defense” in building bE1 with remote firebases (such as dH3, second level).
As luck would have it, this game is something of a special occasion for our antagonists. This playing marks their 100th ASL confrontation. Their caliber of play is very high, so expect a clean, crisp game.
[Ed. If you have not played this classic scenario, I urge you to do so. I have played it perhaps a dozen times. It is always a treat to play.]

On 5 March 2012 Mark Nixon wrote:
I am deeply saddened with the passing of Bill Conner. All my sympathy goes out to his family and friends and of course most of all to Action Darryl. What a serious loss to the ASL community. This is a guy we cannot replace; we can only accept the loss and remember him, honor him and carry onward as he would want us to do. Gamer #1 is down. ASL would not be the same today without Bill Conner; he made things happen which would not otherwise have taken place, and I think it is most appropriate that some are planning to find the right way to venerate him at ASLOk. Bill was always a tremendous friend and a talented player, mentor, thinker, competitor and set a high standard everywhere he engaged his tremendous energies. The guy was simply brilliant and I will miss him as long as I live. GROFAZ!

1. Bill is also credited with helping play-test the scenarios in The Last Hurrah. Published in 1988, this module contained a partial order of battle for the Allied Minors. It was superseded by the module Doomed Battalions, released in 1998. Darryl advised me on 25 February that Fish was playing Squad Leader during the 1970s, but that he did not pick up the game until 1980. Bill was part of Bob McNamara's play test group for Crescendo of Doom. Darryl joined the group for the play testing of GI Anvil of Victory. The pair later play tested ASL for "Mac" and Rex Martin. The last module that Darryl recalls play testing with Bill was West of Alamein
2. Of the dozen scenarios published by In Contact, eleven were reprinted by Multi-Man Publishing in their “retro” ‘zine Out of the Attic 1. The scenarios featured the work of at least nine designers. Although they may have had a hand in testing some of the scenarios, to my knowledge neither Bill nor Darryl designed any of them.
3. Coincidently, Colorado—where Bill was born—was the first US state to declare Columbus Day an official holiday in 1906.
4. Before becoming a letter carrier, Bill had served with the 82nd Airborne Division. There was a time in the 1980s when he was hooked on the card-based variant of Squad Leader called Up Front! So keen was he to get home to play that he would occasionally do the “airborne shuffle,” a kind of slow jog, for his entire route.
5. In point of fact, the tournament was run in Austintown, some 10 kilometres west of downtown Youngstown, for eight years. As Darryl clarified on 25 February, he and Bill also ran ASLOK in Brookpark, a city adjacent to Cleveland and the Cleveland International Airport. I attended my first ASLOK (2007) in Brookpark. The new venue in Cleveland is not far from the old one, but the new one is miles ahead of its predecessor in so many respects.
6. The term is attributed to Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. Although no fan of Hitler, Keitel had given up trying to argue with the Führer. Incredibly, Hitler took the comment at face value, oblivious to the fact that Keitel was far from sincere. The term persisted. Indeed, General Heinz Guderian once showed his scorn for Hitler’s amateur prosecution of the war by referring to him as the Gröfaz.
7. For those interested in such things, Bill’s nickname predated his involvement in ASL. The monicker is actually a contraction of a longer nickname: Fish L. Pou, pronounced like the Pepe le Pew of Looney Toons fame. Bill acquired his nickname while working in a grocery store. One of his jobs involved putting up signs for fish, veal and poultry. The signs tended to overlap. When they did, they spelled “FISH L POU.” Overtime, this was shortened to Fish. But I much prefer the fanciful tale below, posted by “Psycho” on the GameSquad ASL Forums.
Back when I had my falling out with Mark Nixon I decided to look up another ASL stud, Bill Conner. I went to the Cleveland area but couldn’t find him. I got word that he was in Spooner, Wisconsin so I went there. When I got there I hear that he just left for Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. I followed him there only to find he was ducking me by running all over the country.  I finally tracked him down in a little shack outside Lincoln, Montana. He was living there with a guy named Ted who kept to himself. 
I sat him down and forced him to play ASL with me while Ted sat at his typewriter and mumbled to himself. I thrashed him soundly and taught him a thing or two about real ASL and not that bastardized version he played. He didn’t even own the rulebook!  
We stayed there and played for a few months. I tried to teach him properly but he kept walking into every trap I laid for him. His roomie, in one of his few moments of clarity, said it was like shooting monkeys in a barrel and started calling him “chimp.” I told him it was fish and that’s where he got the name. He didn’t like his new nickname and Ted mocked him endlessly with it. 
I finally got tired of the beatings I was dishing out and felt it was time to move on. On my way out Ted asked me to mail a package for him. Sure, what could it hurt?
7. The General, Vol. 24, No. 1, p.10-18 (Avalon Hill Game Company: 1987).


horseshoe said...

What na nice tribute to a great man and fellow gamer. I only met Fish once at Avaloncon 95. He treated me like he had known me my whole life and we were old friends.He will be sorely missed by the ASL communuty as well as the community at large.

RIP FISH, and may God bless your family.

Paukrs said...

A fitting tribute to a man who became a cornerstone of our hobby.

The 2 Half-Squads said...

We have never noticed that Youtube of Bill Connor and the band. Fascinating to see his talent in so many ways.

Chris Doary said...

Yep. Fish lives on!