22 June 2011

The State of The Game: ASL at 25

Advanced Squad Leader turned 25 in 2010. There was surprisingly little fanfare in the ASL community. I nevertheless thought that the milestone was worth commemorating. 
An Uncertain Future
For those who may not be aware, there was a period in the late 1990s when the future of ASL looked grim. In 1998, Hasbro purchased the rights to the Avalon Hill (AH) game line for $6 million. What, if anything, would the toy giant do with a niche product like ASL? Probably nothing, at least if it were not for the timely intervention of an enthusiastic and relatively unknown publisher. 
During the so-called Dark Ages of ASL—1993-96, according to ASL commentator Mark Pitcavage—the management of AH dithered, and ASL withered. Most of the principals who had been involved with the design and development of the game system had left. Significantly, AH did not publish an ASL Annual in 1994. It was during this dry period that many third-party publishers/producers (TPP) appeared. The thinking was that if AH could not meet the demand, gamers would pick up the slack by publishing their own ASL material.
One of these TPP published a magazine called Backblast. By most accounts, this black-and-white magazine had good production values, especially for an amateur effort. Backblast included well-written articles, and a bevy of new scenarios, some of which remain classics to this day. The magazine ran to only two issues, but for understandable reasons.

Most of the content in Backblast was later published in MMP's "retro" magazine Out of the Attic 1.

After some mixed success with a new hire in 1995, AH decided to contract its ASL line out to the publishers of Backblast. The results were perhaps the finest quality ASL Annuals (1996 and 1997) ever produced, a new historical module: Pegasus Bridge (1997), the first Action Pack, and in the dying months of AH, a hastily released Doomed Battalions (1998). The gentlemen primarily responsible for this turn around were Brian Youse, Perry Cocke, Steve Petersen, Chuck Goetz, Curt Schilling, Carl Fago, Russ Bunten, and J.D. Frazer. What all of these gentlemen had in common was that at some point they were part of a small enterprise known as Multi-Man Publishing (MMP). Fortunately for our hobby, MMP was there when Hasbro came to town.

Pegasus Bridge was the first Historical ASL module developed by MMP.

A New Age Dawns
Suffice it to say that in January 1999—after some protracted negotiations—MMP acquired a licence from Hasbro to produce the ASL line, along with other several other AH titles. Curt Schilling was a successful, Major League Baseball player. His ability to finance the deal was clearly important. However, I suspect that MMP’s track record with AH was a major factor, as was the enthusiasm of Messrs. Schilling, Youse, and Cocke. MMP was also able to reach agreements with Heat of Battle (HOB), another TPP. This likely gave MMP some added credibility, as it was able to show Hasbro that it had new products in the pipeline. 
Indeed, MMP was able to publish two historical modules only a year after taking over the reins of ASL. A Bridge Too Far was a revamped and much expanded version of HOB’s God Save the King (1994). Blood Reef Tarawa (BRT) was likewise an improved version of another HOB title: Blood Reef. The publication of BRT was noteworthy for a couple of other reasons. HOB had offered the game to AH when it was still under development, but AH passed on the opportunity. HOB subsequently decided to produce a limited print run of 250 copies in 1996. After AH took MMP onboard, MMP approached HOB on behalf of AH with the intention of acquiring the rights to the game. With the turmoil inside AH, it would take MMP two years to obtain the rights, by which time Hasbro was on the scene. 
This appeared to confirm what many already suspected, namely that AH had lost interest in ASL, and was content to let amateurs satisfy any lingering demand for such material. A decade was a good run for any niche board game, let alone a game system as expansive as ASL. Besides, computer chips, not cardboard chits, were deemed the future of gaming. Had not many of the ASL faithful already been shuffled off to the AH’s computer game department, or worse, left for the more promising pastures of software game companies like Talonsoft? Perhaps the sale of AH was the best thing that could have happened to our hobby. For if AH had continued to control the production of ASL material, it may well have suspended development altogether and sent MMP on its way.

The first edition of Doomed Battalions was published in a small print run just before AH closed shop. 
Happily, it did not turn out that way. Instead, MMP got right to work and began producing new material, as well as reprinting some older modules. Here is a break down of what MMP had published since becoming the official producer of ASL in January 1999:
Doomed Battalions (2nd ed.)
Action Pack 2 
Blood Reef Tarawa
A Bridge Too Far
ASL Journal 1
ASL Rule Book (2nd ed.)
ASL Journal 2 (incl. “Kakazu Ridge” CG)
GI’s Dozen (SL scenarios updated for ASL)
Beyond Valor (2nd ed. incl. Red Barricades)
Operation Watchtower (Edson’s Ridge)
ASL Journal 3
Solitaire ASL (2nd ed.)
ASL Journal 4
For King and Country 
Operation Veritable (Riley’s Road)
ASL Journal 5
Out of the Attic 1
ASL Starter Kit 1
ASL Journal 6 (incl. “Primasole Bridge” CG)
ASL Starter Kit 2
Armies of Oblivion
Beyond Valor (3rd ed., incl. extra maps and scenarios)
ASL Journal 7 (incl. mapboard v)
Action Pack 3
ASL Starter Kit 3 
Valor of the Guards
Action Pack 4 
“Singling” CG (in Operations Special Issue 1)
Action Pack 5
ASL Journal 8
ASL Starter Kit: Beyond the Beaches
Turning the Tide (SL scenarios updated for ASL)
Doomed Battalions (3rd ed., incl. The Last Hurrah)
Action Pack 6
Out of the Attic 2
Winter Offensive 1
ASL Journal 2 (reprint)
Out of the Bunker
“Hell’s Corner” (in Operations Special Issue 3)
Blood Reef Tarawa Gamer's Guide 
Action Pack 7
ASL Journal 9 (incl. “Suicide Creek” CG)
ASL Map Bundle
Winter Offensive 2
ASL Starter Kit Expansion Pack

ASL Journal 9 includes a Campaign Game: Suicide Creek, which depicts some of the fighting on the pacific island of New Britain in January 1944. The Journal also comes with a sheet of Japanese and USMC counters.
The above list does not include the second editions of Paratrooper, The Last Hurrah, and Hollow Legions that MMP also published. Nor does it include reprints of the ASL Rule Book (ASLRB), and the ASL Starter Kits (ASLSK).
There appears to be a dry patch in 2002, but this was likely due to a number of major releases before and after 2002. However, it is hard to deny that there was a general decline in the number of publications from 2003 onward. In September 2009, MMP hired a full-time employee to handle the development of its ASL line. Since that time there has been a precipitous increase in the number of new ASL releases. Clearly the addition of Chas Argent to the MMP team is having a major impact on both the rate of new releases, and the quality. In 1999, MMP released five publications. We are only midway through 2011, and we have already seen four new publications, not to mention an enormous map bundle. All well and fine you might say, but how does MMP’s track record hold up to AH’s? Pretty darn good from where I am sitting.

The Balance Sheet
I charted the major publications of each publisher. In spite of a comparative slump in the later half of the naughts, MMP appears to be punching above its weight. AH was owned by Monarch Printing. I will not go into details except to say that AH had a number of advantages over its competitors because of this. AH also had the services of a full-time design and development staff. In contrast, MMP is a small firm that has traditionally relied on volunteers and its owners (all of whom have regular day jobs elsewhere) to design and develop new products on a part-time basis. However, it is remarkable how much the two firms have in common with regard to the quantity and the type of publications.

Bear in mind that while some modules and magazines above were published by AH, they were actually developed by MMP.
Both firms have been stewards of ASL for over a decade—AH for roughly 14 years, and MMP for about a dozen. Both published house organs. AH’s The General often had some ASL content, and usually included a scenario or two. MMP’s Operations magazine likewise has ASL content, but usually of the ASLSK variety. Some of the Operations Special Editions have proved to be a major departure from the norm. Two issues have included historical ASL (HASL) scenarios, map sheets, and in one case a campaign game. Both firms also saw a need for a dedicated ASL magazine. Where AH had the ASL Annual, MMP has the ASL Journal
Most of the so-called core modules were published by AH, but MMP has published a couple of its own: For King and Country, a Commonwealth module less the desert bits found in West of Alamein, and Armies of Oblivion. Moreover, MMP has released second editions of the main core modules and plans to continue this until all are updated with new artwork, larger fonts and the ASLSK-style mapboards. 

Armies of Oblivion is a substantial module in its own right. The time required to research the various weapon systems and vehicles must have been considerable. Another factor contributing to its size and cost is the inclusion of a complete Hungarian order of battle represented by "Axis Minor" green counters with a border in "German" blue. This was necessary in order to distinguish Hungarians from other Axis Minors such as the Romanians with whom they later fought.
Both publishers have produced HASL modules. And both have supported Solitaire ASL (SASL), with MMP publishing an expanded second edition in 2001, only a year after publishing an amended second edition rule book (ASLRB2). Although MMP has not produced any Deluxe ASL (DASL) modules, it has published new DASL scenarios. It is looking at publishing an expanded DASL module that incorporates the AH modules with new maps, scenarios, and overlays. With so much in common, where do these firms differ?

What have you done for me lately?
I would contend that where AH was understandably pre-occupied with completing the game system—at least until 1992—MMP is looking ahead to the future of the hobby. With an ageing demographic and the prospect of a dwindling consumer base, MMP has taken the bold step of developing a new ASL product line. The first Starter Kit was clearly intended as a means of introducing new players to the game.

MMP introduced its regular ASL customers to the new starter kit-style boards in 2006. ASL Journal 7 included board v, normally found only in Starter Kit 3. The Journal included the scenario "Marders, not Martyrs," which used this board. Significantly, MMP later released some copies of Armies of Oblivion with cardstock mapboards instead of the traditional mounted mapboards. The company has also announced that the new Finnish module will not include a mounted board 52.
The ASLSK rule set is an abridged version of the ASLRB2. It provides new players with just enough rules to get them playing and having fun. The ASLSK line has also proven attractive to former SL and ASL players who are returning to the hobby, especially those with less time to dedicate to learning a larger rule set. The new product line is controversial and has its detractors. However, the recent release of the ASLSK Expansion Pack suggests that MMP are on to something.
When MMP developed the ASLSK line, it dispensed with the traditional mounted mapboard in favour of a heavy cardstock version. This led to significant cost savings and made possible the publication of inexpensive “bonus packs” containing a single mapboard and a handful of scenarios. The first pack of its kind was the ASLSK Bonus Pack 1: Beyond the Beaches. The pack contains three scenarios, ASLSK rules for hedges and walls, and mapboard p.

The first "Bonus Pack" published by MMP was a Starter Kit pack featuring a board with hedges and abridged rules for walls and hedges. The pack is designed to be used with ASL Starter Kit 1.
MMP has not forgotten its core customers either. The company has taken to producing Winter Offensive Bonus Packs, so-called, because they are released at MMP’s annual ASL tournament of the same name in January. Like the ASLSK bonus pack, each WO pack contains a new mapboard and two or three scenarios. Moreover, all profits from the sales of these packs are donated to charity. 

The first WO Bonus Pack published in 2010 contained a pair of scenarios and a new mapboard. All profits derived from the sale of the pack were donated to Curt Schilling's favourite charity ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).
MMP also pioneered the popular Action Pack in 1997, when working for AH. It has published six more packs, with another due out later this year. In a delightful departure from the norm, the sixth Action Pack contained a new type of geomorphic mapboard designed by Gary Fortenberry. Gary had briefly worked for AH in the mid 1990s—he was the Managing Editor of the ASL Annual ‘95, for instance. His attempts to interest AH in this novel format were nevertheless unsuccessful. Fans of the mapboard will be pleased to learn that Action Pack 8 will feature three more of Gary’s mapboards. The great thing about these maps is that they can be used in tandem with regular geomorphic mapboards to create a less linear battlespace. Even when used on their own, the mapboards provide more room for manoeuvre than the standard mapboard. The mapboards also lend themselves well to the creation of river bends and larger hill masses.

Mapboard 3a from Action Pack 6 is shown here with mapboards from Croix de Guerre and WO Pack 2.
The switch to cardstock mapboards has also allowed MMP to reprint all of the older mounted mapboards, up to and including board 52, as a Map Bundle. Many of these boards were long sold out and no longer available, even in the much expanded Beyond Valor 3rd edition. Some dated back to the Squad Leader line (EX: board 6 from Crescendo of Doom). Others were only available in an out-of-print Action Pack (EX: boards 46 and 47 from AP2), or core module (EX: boards 25-29 in West of Alamein). This massive and unprecedented reprint provides all of the mapboards required to play every scenario in the core modules, and in every ASL Journal save Journal 9. The anticipated publication of a complementary Overlay Bundle bodes well for the future of ASL topography.

Mapboard 25 from the ASL Map Bundle. It is much easier to distinguish scrub from hammada on these new boards.
But what about all those out-of-print core modules? Is MMP doing enough to get them reprinted? Until recently, the answer would likely have been no. However, of late, the pace of production appears to have increased. The 3rd edition of Doomed Battalions appeared in 2010, and a reprint of For King and Country is due out later this year. Work appears to be progressing well on Rising Sun. This hefty core module will incorporate Code of Bushido, Gung Ho and several other goodies for the Pacific Theatre of Operations (PTO). Other modules such as Yanks and Hollow Legions are in the pipeline too. 
In the shorter term, I suspect that we will see a new core module, the understated Hakkaa Päälle! This Finnish module will include a more human (and much expanded) order of battle for the Finns. Not a fan of winter warfare? No problem, many of the battles in this module take place after the snow melts. This is due to the fact that the module boasts a more representative selection of scenarios than heretofore seen. The scenarios cover the three wars fought by this tiny state: the Winter War (1939-40), the Continuation War (1941-44), and the Lapland War (1944-45). The latter conflict pits the Finns against their erstwhile German allies. Hakkaa Päälle! will also expand the Finnish and Russian orders of battle. We get heaps of new vehicles and ordnance for the Finns and the Russians, including aerosleds. That is a lot of new counters to punch and clip, and arguably more than enough to keep us content until the release of Rising Sun.

Some of the new, and not so new, vehicles that will appear in the new Finnish core module.

I had the pleasure of play testing many of the scenarios for Hakkaa Päälle! What I enjoyed the most was the subtle changes to game play brought about by the addition of Light Woods and Prepared Fire Zones (PFZ). Not only do these elegantly simple rules open up new possibilities for scenario designers, but they also create a refreshing and new game dynamic. More importantly for our hobby, I think that the addition of these rules underlines the philosophy of MMP as stewards of our hobby. While MMP is open to new ideas and innovation, it takes pains to ensure that any modifications to the game provide a far greater return than any time required to learn and incorporate them into play. In my view, this shows maturity and wisdom befitting a game that stayed the course for 25 years. 
With a new HASL (Festung Budapest) also due out later this year, and more on the horizon, I think it is safe to say that our hobby is in good hands. MMP has had its ups and downs, but the trend as of today is clearly onwards and upwards. Three cheers for ASL!
Happy 26th!

Further reading


Eric said...

As one of the original playtesters of ASLRB and BEYOND VALOR, it gives me pause to think about the game system as being a quarter century old. It still feels quite fresh in this day and age. Best of all, it enjoys a huge following--no other WWII tactical board wargaming system enjoys such devotion and assurance of a large potential opponent base. One never has a problem finding other ASL players--and VASSAL has made this even easier.

ASL certainly seems to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts, no doubt due to the STARTER KITS but also because of increased interest in promoting new material enhancing the core modules and historical situations. We wait eagerly for FESTUNG: BUDAPEST and the new Finnish Module; then the dedicated ASL hardcore will clamor for a return to the Pacific modules. It's a great time to be an ASL player!

Dickie said...

Grerat summay for those of us who are new to this great hobby