06 January 2013

A Wealth of ASL in Common

Oh, how time flies. When I stood on MacQuarie Point1 and took the photograph above, I had yet to see Advanced Squad Leader. I was aware of ASL, having learned of its release some four months earlier. However, in February 1986, I was on leave in Australia.2 The new game had yet to make an impression upon me. Indeed, ASL was the last thing on my mind as I quaffed a welcome pint at eight o’clock on a sunny, weekday morning. 
Breakfast of ASL champions?
The beer was refreshing, in part, because it helped wash down the aftertaste of the Vegemite toastie I had force-fed myself for breakfast. The pub was in that part of Sydney known as The Rocks. My fellow traveller and I agreed that the name suited the area. In our youthful exuberance we declared that any place serving beer before coffee break absolutely rocks. As cabbies and other shift workers sipped their brews, we made plans to visit a few shops in the city.3 And here memory fails me. 
I know we dropped by a game shop. It was one of those classic shops, not unlike the game store we are fortunate to still have in Ottawa.4 The place was crammed with board games, miniatures, and books on military history. Keeping in mind that ASL had been released only the year before, and more important, my poor memory, I cannot recall seeing a copy of Beyond Valor on the shelves. But something else caught my eye. I had played a bit of Third Reich as a teen, and I was familiar with games of grand strategy.5 On impulse, I purchased a copy of the now classic World in Flames. Published by Australian Design Group (ADG) in 1985, the game won the Charles S. Roberts Best 20th Century Game award that same year. I was excited to own an Australian game, and I was eager to show it off when I got home. 
Greg Pinder and Harry Rowlands designed World in Flames
It never occurred to me at the time that this “Aussie” upstart had upstaged ASL. Both were released in 1985. But World in Flames stole the show, and the awards. Upon my return to Canada, I marvelled at the contents of the ADG publication. I even played it a couple of times. However, it was no contest. ASL stole my attention the moment that I set eyes upon the magnificent rule book. I was an instant convert.
I was not alone. Thousands the world over took up ASL. The Antipodes was no exception. I have met and played ASL with several Australians (and the odd New Zealander). All are fine players. But it was not until this year that I learned of an Australian gamer by the name of Jesper Peterson. 
Jesper quietly joined Board Game Geek in 2011. He also joined Sitrep. On New Year’s Day Jesper tied for first place in our raffle with five aces! He lost the roll off. Normally, that might be the end of it. However, I am feeling a tad guilty for shunting World in Flames aside. Or maybe, I feel bad about the Vegemite. I really wanted to like it.6 Whatever the case, I have decided to give something back to the land down under. It is not much, mind you. I do not know if Jesper even plays ASL. He may well be a hard-core World in Flames player. If so, he will get style points for using our Commonwealth BattleDice while commanding the British Empire. But here is hoping that he will instead spring these crown jewels on his next ASL opponent. Congratulations Jesper!  


Conflicts of interest
Straight aces were only part of the story in our New Year’s contest. One person rolled straight sixes. The trouble is that this particular Squad Leader is directly related to the bonnie lass who rolled the dice. I smell a rat. 
John McMahon is my brother-in-law. He dabbled with Squad Leader in the 90s, and took up the ASL torch in 2007. He co-hosted our Battle at Beau’s event in June 2010. But aside from a few games in the VASLeague tournament one year, his play has been infrequent. 
Time to come out swinging
I have an unfounded suspicion that this is a conspiracy to get John playing more ASL. It may also be a jab at John for ducking the “champ” since she returned victorious from Cleveland last autumn. 
In fairness, John is a busy fellow. When not on a sales trip, he struggles to find a free moment between his all-consuming business, his family, and his precocious daughter. As Helen continually reminds me, her niece is remarkably mature for her age. But at six, I think that she is a little young to take up ASL. For the time being, I recommend ASL Starter Kit (ASLSK). Now where was I? Ah yes, Helen challenges to her brother to an ASL match. The prize is a pair of Baby BattleDice and a $10.00 gift certificate. Winner takes all!
Beaucoup fun
The Brats: tiny trouble makers
I first met the winner of our New Year’s raffle on a sweltering June day in 2010. He had travelled 600 kilometres from Waterloo, Ontario to attend a one-day ASL event—at a micro-brewery halfway between Ottawa and Montreal.7 To put this in perspective, another attendee drove over 500 kilometres from Maine. 
Lee Kennedy has been a wargamer for more than two decades. ASL is a recent addition. He was drawn to The Game because of its reputation. If you browse any of the major board-game forums online, you will invariably run into some discussion related to ASL. These discussions are often heated and divisive. What can possibly get people so fired up? Why do so many people care? Lee had to find out.8  
Russ Gifford
Initial searches of the Internet led Lee to the excellent ASL tutorials created by Russ Gifford of Sioux City, Nebraska. Lee compared these tutorials with those written by Jay Richardson of Lindsborg, Kansas. You can find Jay's popular tutorials for ASL Starter Kit (ASLSK) on BGG. Lee had one answer, although the question in this case had been whether to begin with ASLSK, or dive right into the big orange book. The answers to his other questions were as complex and varied as the game that he had adopted.
Lee then turned his attention to finding a local player who could help coach and mentor him. He found two. The Internet had again proven its worth. A largely outdated player registry of the Canadian ASL Association nevertheless provided him with the current contact details of two local players. Lee had unearthed a pair of grognards who had been playing each other regularly since the heady days of Squad Leader. Confusingly, both were named John.9 They invited him over. Lee came as a spectator, but quickly found himself in the heat of battle. His tutors had selected a scenario from The Long March. It was a good choice. Most of the scenarios in this pack are infantry-only clashes between Communist and Nationalist Chinese forces during the 1930s. It was just as well, because Lee had yet to get his hands on the ASL Rule Book, let alone read it. That was quickly remedied by a loaner. Lee returned home with a first edition copy of the ASL bible. He read it within a couple of days, and boldly purchased a copy of the second edition rules. 
Next time, consider taking the long way home
Three years have passed since Lee’s first foray into the world of ASL. He is a fortunate fellow. Thanks to his newfound ASL buddies, Lee has been able to get a face-to-face game in most Thursday evenings. It has been decades since I enjoyed that frequency of play. Most of my play these days is “virtual.” Although Lee occasionally plays online using VASL, he usually reserves this medium for the odd solitaire game. With three small children—the oldest is six—Lee is hard-pressed to keep to his weekly face-to-face schedule. So imagine my surprise when he expressed interest in attending Battle at Beau’s in 2010. He had only a few months of ASL under his belt. Moreover, Lee had to drive up from Waterloo with three infants in tow because his wife had to work. 
Leaving his young charges with their grandparents in Ottawa, Lee was able to get in a full day of gaming at Beau’s Brewery, an hour east of the nation’s capital. He brought a friend with him too. Brad had never played ASL before, but had agreed to come along for the ride. Lee’s first opponent was Ken Young, my ASL nemesis and friend since the 70s. According to Lee, Ken “schooled” him in the finer points of upper-level encirclement (A7.72), the rules for which Lee has never forgotten. Lee recalled having a blast and meeting a lot of great people. I recall him convincing Brad to play his first ASL game. It was a memorable day for all of us, but likely more memorable for Lee and Brad.
Brad Mazurek, Ken Young, and Lee Kennedy, 19 June 2010
Lee is grateful to have found an experienced, yet patient, opponent and teacher so close to home. Another perk of knowing an ASL veteran is having access to multiple copies of all “official” ASL material, and stacks of third-party publications. Lee has been expanding his ASL collection steadily, but he is realistic about what can acquired in three years versus almost thirty. This is particularly true of out-of-print material. Without access to Red Barricades, for example, Lee may not have had an opportunity to play a slew of scenarios from the granddaddy of all historical modules. “Storming fortified factories with flamethrowers and lobbing demo charges everywhere is lots of fun,” Lee enthused. “Hanging on by the skin-of-your-teeth as the Russians, hoping the Germans attack the fortified building with the full squad, and not the one with that concealed crew you had to sneak into the front line,” makes for intense play.
More recently, Lee and his friends have been slogging their way through Crucible of Steel. This hefty Battlepack by Bounding Fire Productions contains 32 scenarios on the Battle of Kursk. I have enjoyed every scenario that I have played from this pack. So has Lee. The appropriately titled “Panzer Spirit” was Lee’s armoured baptism, the first real scenario that he got a chance to use an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) in. His German tank destroyers—four Marder III H, to be exact—laid waste to a squadron of Soviet T-34 tanks. “These AFV things are easy!,” he thought to himself.
Tollwütigen Marder
I asked Lee what he liked about ASL. His first comment is telling:
It’s a huge amount of fun. Scenarios are tense, with lots of meaningful decisions, and at the same time there’s a constant anything-can-happen feeling with HOB [Heat of Battle], Snipers, Critical Hits, and so on. The rules are (mostly) not nearly as complex as they seem and give lots of interesting options. And then the huge variety of scenarios, theatres, boards, and units feels like a different game every time. It really does feel like a whole world to explore instead of just a single game.
Lee has enjoyed learning and playing ASL. Not everyone does. There will always be people who view ASL as an unfathomable beast. In spite of this, I believe that some would-be players become discouraged prematurely. For them ASL is just too big, too complex, and too varied to learn, let alone master. It is insightful to hear how a new player has overcome these challenges. Like me, Lee is a long way from mastering ASL. Few have. However, he has adopted a sensible approach to the game. I will let him do the talking: 
Find someone experienced to play against and don’t feel intimidated or embarrassed. The players I’ve met have all been happy to help bring new blood into the fold. You’ll make dumb mistakes, mess up rules, and learn a lot. And you’ll have a lot of fun. Also take advantage of the great online communities available (EX: BGG, GameSquad, ConsimWorld). There are always people willing to help out with rules questions and advice no matter what level you are at.
I jumped straight into full ASL, but still followed the basic Starter Kit approach of adding things piece-by-piece. I did infantry-only scenarios for awhile and then added in guns. You can play for years this way and still have huge variety. I wanted to feel like I had a firm grasp not just on the rules but also infantry tactics before moving on to AFV. I followed the same approach with things like fortifications, terrain types, and offboard artillery (OBA). Play a bunch of scenarios in a row all using the same new thing you want to learn.
I know that many of you have heard this before, but it bears repeating. Try not to bite off more than you can chew. ASL is not a steeple chase. Slow and steady are the by words. There is no prize for learning the rule book by rote. Nor is there an award for the player who plays every ASL scenario at least once—although I am beginning to wonder if there should be. On second thought, no. A martyr’s reward is not of this earth. So take your time to learn and appreciate ASL for all it has to offer. There is no rush. 
High rollers are always welcome at Lee's table
Okay, that is not entirely true. There are times when it pays to make haste, as Lee reminded me. First, on the attack, you are probably not moving enough. Prep Fire less, and pick up the pace. Second, when you are on defence, if you think that it is time to fall back, you are probably a turn too late. And third, buy everything ASL that you can afford, especially while the getting is good.
For following Sitrep, and not least his good advice, Lee wins one of the following prize packages. Congratulations, and Happy New Year Lee!


Be a winner! 
Our next raffle will take place on 1 February. To qualify, you need to be following Sitrep as a Squad Leader as of 31 January. We recommend that you also subscribe to Sitrep. A subscription will ensure that you are notified when we publish a new post.
A Squad Leader receives one ballot for each raffle. In addition, all Squad Leaders who joined before 1 July 2012 receive a bonus ballot—a thank you for joining early. Finally, all Squad Leaders displaying their full names (first and last), and a non-generic avatar receive a bonus ballot. 
Good luck in the next raffle!
To claim a prize, add a comment at the bottom of the appropriate post and email your contact details to us at: battleschool at rogers dot com

Notes
1. Technically this spit of land is called “Mrs MacQuarie Point,” after the wife of a former Governor General of New South Wales in the early 19th century.
2. At the time, a Canadian reservist (from Moncton, New Brunswick) and I were serving with the United Nations in the Golan Heights (between Israel and Syria). I had convinced him that the land down under was worth a look. We had but three weeks leave. It proved to be a quick look. It would be another 20 years before I returned for a second look.
3. We also stopped by a record shop. I snapped up all the Midnight Oil vinyl that I could find. The Oils, as fans refer to them, have always been controversial. Funnily enough, the first time that I saw Peter Garrett’s unbridled power and passion was at a performance in Ottawa some five or six years later. I must have shot two or three rolls of film that evening.
4. Fandom II is located on Laurier Avenue in downtown Ottawa, just steps from new City Hall and the Parliament Buildings. I have purchased many books and games from this store over the years. It is one of only a couple of stores in the city that stock ASL publications.
Don Greenwood
5. Avalon Hill published Rise and Decline of the Third Reich in 1974. The game won the Charles S. Roberts Best Professional Game that same year. Now here is the interesting bit. Along with John Prados, Don Greenwood was the principle designer of this popular game. In 1980, Don would win the Charles S. Roberts award for the Best Twentieth Century Game that year: Crescendo of Doom—the third installment in the Squad Leader series. Those who like to read the fine print already know the rest of the story. Don was the lead designer of ASL.
6. According to Wikipedea, “Vegemite is made from used brewers’ yeast extract, a by-product of beer manufacturing, various vegetables, wheat and spice additives. It is salty, slightly bitter and malty, and rich in umami – similar to beef bouillon. The texture is smooth and the product is a paste. It is not as intensely flavoured as British Marmite and it is less sweet than the New Zealand version of Marmite.” Some of my wife’s cousins in New Zealand were especially fond of “Marmite and chippie” sandwiches. However, as the English ASL player Nigel Blair would be quick to point out, “Kiwi” Marmite is not the real deal. True, the recipes are different. But in both cases, the taste remains quite salty. Why one would want to combine this brown paste with salted potato chips is beyond me. 
7. It helped that Lee’s in-laws lived in Ottawa. It was nevertheless an incredible act of faith for a new player.
8. Lee was drawn to Magic Realm for similar reasons.
9. I believe that one of these gentlemen was John Fedoriw of Kitchener, Ontario.
Get a fresh perspective. Aussie rappel (abseil)!

7 comments:

Lee Kennedy said...

Thanks Chris! What a great way to start the New Year. After much deliberation of the three great prizes I have decided to take Cholm. I'm a sucker for great-looking maps.

I have two slight corrections to my bio write-up as well. First, anyone rolling boxcars (or anything else) at my house will do so using BattleDice :)

Second, what Chris didn't mention about our first meeting was that I stopped by his house on the way to the Battle at Beau's to pick up some new ASL gear. What I thought would be a 5-minute pickup was an hour tour of ASL. Chris showed me modules, action packs, journals, and examples from all the major 3rd-party publishers. He showed me his map, scenario, and counter storage (Plano and Raaco) systems. As a newcomer to ASL it was a great opportunity to see all the things I'd read about, and to get lots of advice on how to go about building my collection.

So thanks, Chris, for getting me off to a great start in the hobby and for the excellent prize!

Dickie said...

Very good post as always, I am an avid wif player and my only exscuse for not playing more is I don't have rooms for all the maps

Chris Doary said...

Sorry about the oversell Lee. I can run at the mouth when I get started on ASL.

I need to have a word with the manufacturer of our BattleDice about those double-sixes. One of the design specifications was that they never roll simultaneous sixes. Must have been a bad batch. ;)

Chris Doary said...

Thanks Dickie. WIF deserves better from me. ASL is a jealous lover. :)

John McMahon said...

Chris...you say you smell a rat...well you did! The return of the Desert Rat. Happy to be a winner and am ready to get started with some VASL play again.

Chris Doary said...

Hey John,

How did you make out with VASL? It would be great if you could take ASL on the road with you. Something different to do the next time your flight in cancelled and you are stuck in a hotel again.

Game on!

Jesper Peterson said...

I win? Woot! I accept, thanks.