06 November 2011

Crossed Purposes?

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the largest and longest-running ASL tournament anywhere. ASL Oktoberfest, or ASLOK for short, originated in Youngstown, Ohio. In 1986, Bill “Fish” Conner and Darryl “Action Burk” Burk held their first tourney. Seventeen enthusiasts attended. As time passed, the event grew up and left home, drawn to the bright lights of Cleveland. Today, ASLOK is the most significant event on the ASL calendar.1 
One hundred and sixty-three people registered for ASLOK this year. While not a record, attendance was well above the median of 134. In its second year, ASLOK drew 47 people for what was then a weekend tourney.  Attendance climbed to 85 the next year, and to 95 the year after. From 1990 onward, registration has never fallen below 100. From its humble beginnings as a regional event, ASLOK has morphed into a ten-day international festival. No other tournament has come close to matching the magnitude of Oktoberfest. 
Silver jubilee
Perhaps the most impressive thing about ASLOK is its longevity. A handful of regional and national tournaments have been around for 15 years or so. None, to my knowledge, have surpassed the 20-year mark. ASLOK is the only exception. Twenty-five years is a long run for any tournament, let alone one devoted exclusively to ASL. For this reason, as well as more selfish ones, I thought that this particular ASLOK milestone was worthy of commemoration. More to the point, I felt that this memorable occasion would be more memorable if I created a set of precision dice to mark the occasion. 
Last year I designed a set of German and Russian BattleDice to commemorate the 25th anniversary of ASL. The silver anniversary of Oktoberfest presented me with an opportunity to build upon this earlier work by adding a couple more nationalities to the dice mix. The German and Russian set had proven quite popular. However, the set also raised expectations. Would I be making an American set, how about the Japanese, or had I considered...?” I was not opposed to the idea of creating dice for each major nationality in ASL. At the same time, I had not contemplated producing additional dice with the same level of detail found on the ASL Anniversary set. In other words, although I was comfortable with the prospect of creating a line of smaller dice featuring basic national symbols, it had never been my intention to create an entire line of dice festooned with elaborate graphics.  
Notwithstanding this, I had established a pattern with my German and Russian BattleDice set. Each nationality pair would feature a medal on the ace of the coloured die, and a soldier on the corresponding spot of the white die. I had already set aside green for the Americans and amber for the British Commonwealth. Designing the ASLOK set should have been a simple matter of inserting new graphics into this template. It was not. I was conscious of several problems before I started. In the end, some of the designs proved far more difficult than I had anticipated. Throughout the design process, that forgettable Sesame Street ditty taunted me: “One of these things is not like the other...” What follows are my rationalizations for the final designs of the ASLOK Anniversary set.
The natural order of things
My first anniversary set was a nostalgic nod to Squad Leader (SL). The German on the lid of the SL box is an enduring reminder of the roots and the evolution of our hobby. It is not for nothing that this iconic German squad leader continues to feature prominently on the cover of the ASL Rule Book.2 The Russian officer, snatched from the cover of Cross of Iron, reinforced the SL legacy. It stood to reason that I would draw upon the last two gamettes in the SL series for my next project. That was in fact the plan.
As plans go, it began well enough. I modelled one of the white dice on the steadfast corporal of Crescendo of Doom fame. I was unable to track down a copy of the original photograph. Fortunately, Rob McGowan’s artwork contained more than enough detail for my purposes. Of the four designs, the British corporal required the least work—about a day.3 The nature of the design was such that it also provided the broadest canvas for the placement of text. He remains my favourite. The American soldier was another matter.
General Issues
Why an American, and not an Italian? After all, the first set of dice was a study in contrasts: German versus Russian; Axis versus Allies. Honestly, it never occurred to me to square the British corporal off with an Axis rival.4 In keeping with the title, the cover of G.I. Anvil of Victory had an obvious American theme. And given that GI was the fourth and final installment of the SL series, it seemed appropriate that my fourth nationality pair would be an American one. 
Original (rejected) artwork
It also made sense from an ASL perspective. The first core module, Beyond Valor, contains the bulk of the German and Russian orders of battle. The next two core modules add the Americans (Yanks) and the British Commonwealth (For King and Country).5 I have not done the math, but I would contend that the majority of ASL scenarios use one or more of these general “nationalities.” In light of this, I felt that American and British dice would see almost as much use as the German and Russian dice would.

The difficulty arose when I tried to use the lieutenant on the cover of GI. The outstretched arm and leg made for an awkward design. I would either have to chop off part of each limb, or settle for a tiny, almost unrecognizable image on the face of the die. Neither prospect appealed to me. So off I went in search of an alternative. I did not have to venture far. 
Yanks did nothing for me. But the cover of the Paratrooper module worked on a number of levels. It had an interesting subject, a sergeant of the 101st Airborne Division, the famous Screaming Eagles. Paratrooper provided a convenient segue from SL to ASL. Avalon Hill published the module in order to assist/entice SL players contemplating the transition from SL to ASL. Except for the ASL Rule Book, Paratrooper was largely self contained, requiring only the four original boards from SL to play. Finally, Bill Conner, one of the founders of ASLOK, was a former ‘trooper—in the 82nd All-American, if memory serves me. 
The sergeant still required some work. His blackened face had to go, as it would “muddy” the image at scale. I was loath to remove the grenades and kept them even though they are barely visible on the finished die. The netting on the helmet—Helen’s favourite detail—turned out surprisingly well considering the scale. (Photographs do not do it justice.) But for the most part I had to reduce the amount of overall detail drastically. I must have redone the drawing more than 20 times. Consequently, the paratrooper was the most labour intensive of the four graphics. But it was not the only graphic to require a lot of work.
The trouble with medals
Deciding upon which military medals to pair with my American and British squad leaders should have been a snap. The German and Russian set suggested to many observers that I would use the most prestigious, or highest, American and British military decorations in my designs. I may as well set the record straight. 
Medal of Courage
Where military orders are concerned, the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves is a mid grade order of the Iron Cross. There are five grades above it, one of which was never awarded. As I explained in an earlier post, I used this particular grade of the award because it looked the most interesting at scale. The Hero of the Soviet Union is not a military order, but rather an honourary title bestowed upon civilian and military personal for heroic deeds in the service of the Soviet state and society.
Order of Glory
The highest Soviet military order during World War II was the Order of Victory. It was reserved for generals and marshals. The highest medal awarded to a soldier for bravery in battle was the Medal of Courage. Over four million were awarded. The Order of Glory, awarded to non-commissioned army personnel for bravery in the face of the enemy, was less common. Roughly 2,600 soldiers received the First Class of this Order. In retrospect, the Order of Glory may have worked for the Russian set, although the T-35 on the Medal of Courage beckons even now. But in my defence, I still feel that the Hero of the Soviet Union works best. The gold star has good contrast, while the red colour of the die does double duty as the “ribbon” of the decoration. 
Therefore, when it came to selecting medals for the ASLOK set, I did not feel constrained by any particular  precedent, other than using medals, I suppose. Unfortunately, my options, where medals were concerned, proved more limited than I had imagined. The top three candidates for the American die are shown below.
Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, and Silver Star
The "Gillespie"
I had ruled out the Medal of Honor (MOH) early on. During the war, the US Army had used two different designs: the Gillespie (1904-44), and the current version above. The other difficulty was that the Marine Corps shared the Navy version of the medal. Additionally, some Americans are sensitive about how and where the medal is displayed, and for what purpose. Until 2006, it was illegal to reproduce or sell the medal—some transgressors have paid stiff fines or gone to jail for doing so. However, for my purposes, the MOH was simply too complex a design to replicate well on a die, especially the star-speckled ribbon. 

Military Cross
I initially turned to the Silver Star, which oddly enough, is not silver, save a tiny central star. The Star is not very elaborate, and thus was a good candidate. I even considered cutting out the central silver star so that the green of the coloured die would radiate from the centre. The trouble is that the comparable British medal was actually two medals: the Military Cross (MC), and the Military Medal (MM).6 The former was reserved for junior officers and warrant officers, the latter for the lower ranks. US decorations for bravery make no such distinctions. 
I had the same problem with the second highest US award for gallantry. The Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) was awarded to soldiers of any rank “for extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force.” The British equivalent for officers—usually above the rank of Captain—was the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), and for other ranks, the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).7 Moreover, the DSO often was awarded for inspired leadership rather than gallantry per se. The DSC nevertheless had its appeal—at least from a design point of view. 
Photo of DSC
The DSC is fashioned in bronze, which gives the medal a certain understated dignity. The design is not very elaborate either. It features a bald eagle, the national bird of the United States since 1782, and a small scroll with the words “FOR VALOR.” Now work with me for a moment. Remove the eagle, and replace it with a lion. Modify the shape of the cross a bit, and add a “u” to the scroll. Et voilà: a Victoria Cross (VC)—the supreme award for gallantry across the British Commonwealth. 

VC awarded during the Boer War 

I admit that the DSC and the VC are not equivalent awards, but they do have a lot in common. Both are bronze, both feature iconic national or imperial symbols, both are awarded for valour, both are crosses, and neither award discriminates on the basis of rank. The VC is also a good fit because, unlike the MM and the DCM, which some members of the British Commonwealth were not entitled to, the VC could be won by any subject of the British empire. That is how I came to choose a DSC and a VC for the ASLOK set.
Click to enlarge

The trouble with metals
The DSC required the least work of all the designs, but it still took the better part of a day to complete. In order to maximize the amount of detail, I discarded the ribbon and the suspension ring. Not only did this simplify the design, but it also allowed me to increase the size of the cross relative to the surface of the die. But no matter how hard I tried, a lot of detail was lost, including the text in the scroll. This had an unintended consequence. I had dispensed with the (lengthy) name of the award in favour of the official abbreviation, which I positioned to the left of the medal. With the space below the cross now “for let,” I was able to place the text from the scroll here. I am pleased with the result. The text highlights the “linguistic” differences between the United Kingdom and its former American colonies, but for the most part reinforces the elements common to both awards. 
The VC was the more labour intensive of the medals. I cannot recall how many times that I scrapped the design and started afresh. I dispensed with the ribbon for the same reasons as noted above. However, I kept Queen Victoria’s “V” and a portion of the bar above it. Unlike the ring on the DSC, I felt that these small details were an important part of the design. The lion and the crown were the most time consuming details. I had to repeatedly rework them throughout the design process. Having said that, I was surprised that the lion turned out as well as it did on the finished die. 
My troubles with medals did not end here, however. I needed to choose a foil for each medal. My first designs had used gold and silver foils. The DSC and VC are bronze. 
Copper foil
I had a number of metallic foils to choose from, but only three “metal” ones: gold, silver and copper. Although bronze is almost 90 percent copper, the bright copper foil had nothing in common with the dark bronze of the VC above. More problematic, the copper foil would be lost on an amber die. Copper had the opposite effect on the green die. So stark was the contrast that I feared people would find it too garish for their tastes. 
I agonized over the foils for weeks. In the end, I thought that an actual DSC had enough of a sheen that gold foil would be an acceptable compromise. The toughest call was using standard black foil for the VC. I was worried that the VC would be hard to see. While Victoria’s cross does not pop out of the die like the DSC does, I am good with the more subdued feel of the British award. Looked at another way, the foils on the green and amber dice tend to reflect national temperaments: the American predilection for hyperbole (or exaggeration), and the British penchant for understatement. 


...versus understatement

So there you have it, my reasons (or excuses) for the final designs of the ASLOK Anniversary set of BattleDice.
I rest my case.
1. ASLOK did return to Youngstown for a brief period in the mid 1990s, but has been held in Cleveland ever since. So important has this week-long event become, that many third-party publishers make a point of releasing their latest wares at ASLOK.
2. Some might argue that cover art adorned with German soldiers helps sell games. There was undoubtedly some truth to this when SL first appeared. However, I think that it takes more than a “Jerry” on the cover of an ASL Rule Book to get people to open their wallets these days.
3. Without access to the original photograph, I admit that I am speculating with regard to nationality.
4. Strictly speaking, if I were to stay true to the SL legacy, there could be no Italian set. Despite the promise of their appearance—in the forthcoming G.I. Anvil of Victory—as early as 1979, Mussolini’s much-maligned minions did not make their cardboard debut until the release of Hollow Legions, in 1989. 
5. I realize that West of Alamein was the original core module for the Commonwealth, but it has been superseded by For King and Country. As for the second and fourth ASL modules, neither should be considered a “core” module. Paratrooper was essentially a standalone product. The only unique component was board 24 (and the scenarios), which is currently available for purchase separately. The scenarios will reappear in the second edition of Yanks. Partisan! (1987) was a clever stopgap measure, a convenient vehicle for the release of Axis Minor infantry, and little else. The partisan counters have always been part of the Beyond Valor counter mix. With the release of Armies of Oblivion in 2006, the rationale for Partisan! finally evapourated.
6. Technically, there is a third award, the Indian Distinguished Service Medal (IDSM). This medal was conferred to Indians serving with the BIA. Many of these men fought in East and North Africa, the Near East, Italy, and the Far East, especially Burma. More than 1000 IDSM were awarded. Indians also won 30 Victoria Crosses during World War II. 
7. The closest equivalent in the BIA was the Indian Order of Merit (IOM) 2nd Class. The IDSM and the IOM were discontinued after 1947 with the independence of India. In 1993, the British revamped their honours and awards system in an effort to rid the system of bravery awards based on rank. For instance, a new award, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, replaced the DSO and the DCM. The MM was discontinued, but the MC was kept, although the latter is now open to all ranks. 


Ian said...

Nice read Chris, the dice images are very very nice.


Liam Whalen said...

Thanks for the history lesson. ASL's connection to historical information is one of the things that attracted me to the game.

Your articles provide even more background that increase the overall appeal of the game.

Keep up the good work.

Bryan Martin said...

Thanks for the interesting read. I just got my dice, and I've been putting them to good use.

Keith said...

Hi Chris, Thank you for sending the new dice and the extras. I love your dice and appreciate your efforts. The Commonwealth soldier is good but I'm glad to have the Para. Merry Christmas

Bryan Martin said...

Didn't get a set for Christmas. Might just have to buy myself a late Christmas present.