18 January 2013

Crossfire: MMP’s ASL Hat Trick

I have wanted to attend the Winter Offensive event hosted by Multi-Man Publishing for some time. I regret not going last year when the weather was unseasonably mild for January. MMP puts on a terrific gaming festival—ASL is not the only game on the table in Bowie, Maryland. But playing ASL is only one of many good reasons to attend. Getting your mittens on the latest gaming goodies is another.

This is where the swellest guy on the GameSquad ASL Forums comes in. Winter Offensive had barely begun. But that did not stop me from asking Spencer Armstrong why he was not already in Bowie. His new addition to the family notwithstanding, he lives close enough to the venue to hear Larry Zoet scream “Critical Hit!” So why was he still at home? Turns out he was headed to the tourney the next morning.
Excellent, I thought, as I proceeded to tell him about my plans to preview MMP’s latest releases. I moaned that I would not be able to post anything for some time. (It can take a month for an order to reach Ottawa—barely nine hours drive north of MMP headquarters.) Taking pity on me, he asked if he could help. Silly question. I accepted. Then I posed my own silly question. I asked him what his impressions of the new packs were. His reply was blunt, concise, and informative. It was a great read, and I wanted to share it with my readers on Sitrep. Spencer kindly consented.
What follows is a cross-border look at three ASL publications that MMP pulled from its hat last weekend. Nice trick.1 I will let Spencer fire the first shots.  
Rivers to the Reich—First Fire
Components: 15 scenarios (updated versions of Squad Leader scenarios), 2 sheets of overlays (reprints from GI: Anvil of Victory)
MMP assures us that Rivers to the Reich (RttR) completes what I think of as the “Nostalgia Pack” series. This is the one I’ve looked at the least, because I’m unlikely to play anything from it. Scenarios range from the absurdly tiny (one features a side with two squads, another a side with three squads) to the absolutely monstrous (U38 “Clearing the Breskens Pocket,” a 34-turn beast, actually combines two already quite large scenarios). I was curious about the conversions, so I compared some of these scenarios with their original versions. Many are unit-for-unit translations of their Squad Leader predecessors, but some have more significant changes. U34 “The Dornot Watermark” actually uses board 40 in place of boards 8 and 15 in a river crossing. As closely as many track their original versions, I find it difficult to believe that these are really well tested and balanced for ASL. However, I don’t know any competitive players who play these, so it’s probably not a big deal. 
The overlays are of the same style and prettiness as the Map Bundle maps, but are just new productions of the old GI: Anvil of Victory (GI) overlays. They have been renumbered in the style of ASL overlays (hexes 1 and 2) but they still aren’t really ASL overlays. Some have hexside terrain that need to be included, but most are cut inside the hexsides. One is rectangular. All are simply lifted parts of other boards. Consequently, they’re fairly restrictive and don’t seem likely to see much additional use. Thankfully, overlays appear to be cheap these days, so this inclusion likely doesn’t affect the price much (more on this below).
If you get misty about the good old beer and pretzel days, these may be right up your alley. I’ll file them and take a pass, as I did with Turning the Tide. Not all change is progress, but scenario design has progressed significantly since the days of these dinosaurs.
The scenarios of Rivers to the Reich
Rivers to the Reich—Final Fire
It is hard to disagree with Spencer. Most of the scenarios in this pack are museum pieces. Dusting off Squad Leader scenarios and giving them a coat of ASL paint cannot disguise the fact that the scenarios in RttR are from another era. I played some of them when I was in my teens and early 20s. Fine wine they are not. They are, however, a reflection of a time when the hobby was still young. 
Back in the day, we found time to play mega scenarios. We were less fussed about using overlays. We had 15 boards, not 80. We drank more beer than wine. Few of us of were connoisseurs of anything. Squad Leader, like our taste in beer, was not particularly refined.
Thirty years on, the scenarios in RttR have lost their lustre for me. Some appear ridiculously small, even by today’s standards. For example, I played “Stand Fast” at least twice when it was first released. It would be an understatement to say that the scenario plays quick. The defender has only two squads! Because the scenario required the placement of five, sizeable overlays, we resolved to play it a second time.2 Other scenarios in RttR are gargantuan. But then so is the “First Bid” from Valor of the Guards (VotG), published only five years ago. 
Some might take exception to this comparison. After all the VotG scenario is played on a historical map, whereas the biggest scenario in RttR sprawls across eight geomorphic boards.3 The massive U38 “Clearing the Breskens Pocket” actually links two other big scenarios in the pack. What’s more, U38 actually uses four fewer boards than the original. In doing so, however, the ASL adaptation requires the use of two ASL boards. Boards 23 and 40 are not exactly rare. But if you are missing one, you can purchase it separately from MMP. 
The big three in the pack are concerned with operations carried out by the First Canadian Army in the Scheldt Estuary of the Netherlands, beginning in October 1944. The scenarios are remarkable for being among the first published by Avalon Hill to feature Canadian troops. 
Do not adjust your monitor; the colours are correct!
The Canadians debuted in The Rogue Series 200 Scenarios, a pad of 13 scenarios released in the early 80s. The series got its name from the so-called rogue boards (9, 10, and 11) that were needed to play the scenarios.4 Joe Suchar, John Kenower, and Jon Mishcon are credited with designing the scenarios. Jim Stahler, the man responsible for adapting the scenarios to ASL, was a prominent play tester. Charlie Kibler, who would later design the first historical ASL (HASL) module Red Barricades, created the illustrations. Michael Dorosh has noted that “Clearing the Breskens Pocket” presaged the development of the HASL. It is certainly possible. Perhaps a more important thing to take away from this observation is that 30 years later some people still enjoy a really big game. Whether or not this will entice ASL players to clear the table for  “Breskens Pocket” is anyone’s guess. But thanks to the efforts of Jim Stahler and his helpers, they can.5
Series 300 Scenarios
More than half of the scenarios in RttR date from 1983. They were either released with GI, or later that year in the Series 300 Scenarios. Most were designed by the trio who brought us the rogue scenarios above.6 I am not in any great hurry to play them. I have played a couple of the scenarios from RttR’s predecessor Turning the Tide, released in 2008. I mention this because I was surprised to see how many people were playing scenarios from this “retro” pack in the latter half of 2012. Admittedly, this is anecdotal evidence based on scenarios played on the global ASL ladder. However, this might suggest that some people still enjoy playing scenarios adapted from Squad Leader. A lot of the scenarios in RttR are ten-turn beasts. Given the current appetite for tourney-style scenarios, they may be a bit of a mouthful for today’s diet-conscious ASL players. For those who revel in big is beautiful, your all-you-can-eat buffet is open for business. 
Before I return the soapbox to Spencer, I want to touch on the overlays that come with RttR. GI: Anvil of Victory came with two sheets of overlays. The overlays were used to replace entire features of a particular board: the airfield on board 14, the chateau on board 6, or one or more of the hills on board 3, for example. This made a lot of sense when the system had only 15 boards. When the first Squad Leader scenarios were adapted to ASL, the overlays from GI were replaced with ASL overlays. A75 “Medal of Honor,” a GI scenario adapted to ASL and published in ASL Annual 95, is a prime example. Scenario A75 used five overlays in place of one (overlay A) used in the original design. Rivers to the Reich includes a table that allows players to substitute the original GI overlay(s) included with RttR for the ASL overlays used in many subsequent adaptations. Sticklers for detail and antiquarians alike will appreciate the table and the “original” overlays from GI.
Over-the-top overlays
The average ASL player may appreciate the revamped overlays too. The artwork is consistent with current ASL graphics. A close inspection reveals that the hex coordinates present on the original overlays have been removed. No longer are the overlays restricted to a particular board, or position, for that matter. It remains to be seen if today’s scenario designers will use these “rogue” overlays in their next designs. Few have been able to resist the ASL Starter Kit series of boards. Can they resist the temptation to obliterate the out-of-scale chateau on board 6? Overlay E beckons.  
Best of Friends—First Fire
Components: 12 scenarios (reprints, some with balance adjustments, from Friendly Fire packs 1-4)
If you doubt that scenario design has improved, look no further than Friendly Fire, the gold standard in third-party scenario packs. I asked Mattias Ronnblom a few years ago which Friendly Fire pack was the best. Without a second’s hesitation he said: “Three. We really got it right with three.” Clearly, Mattias truly believes this, since five of the twelve scenarios in Best of Friends come from that pack. Along with the previously republished “Elephants Unleashed,” six of the eight scenarios from that pack have now been reprinted by MMP. And if “Wunderwaffe didn’t call for a couple of unique counters, maybe it would have been seven? Five of the twelve scenarios included have also had some balance adjustments made to them. This approach seems very likely to have produced an excellent pack of scenarios, especially as contrasted with the “loving all your kids equally” nonsense that often plagues these sorts of projects. If you’ve never played any Friendly Fire scenarios, this should be a must-buy. Even if you have, Friendly Fire’s scenarios bear replay well.
Out of the Bunker was a great product from MMP. If anything, Best of Friends improves on it. With any luck, additional issues of Dispatches from the Bunker and Friendly Fire will be officially anthologized in the coming years. Additionally, I certainly hope that other publishers will accept the invitation on the back of Best of Friends to contact MMP about adding more to this line. 
The scenarios of Best of Friends
Best of Friends—Final Fire
I must confess that I am a big fan of Friendly Fire scenarios. I have played four of the scenarios in Friendly Fire Pack 3. Coincidentally, all of these scenarios have now been republished by MMP. Does this make me a fine judge of exemplary scenarios? Not really. Were that the case, I would have played the rest of the scenarios in the pack before now. Although “Adolf’s Amateurs” has never appealed to me, “Forging Spetsnaz” has been on my radar for years. Personally, I would have preferred to have seen “Through Fire and Ice,” or “Wunderwaffe” published in Best of Friends (BoF). Perhaps the Winter War scenario will be “officialized” following the release of Hakkaa Päälle. “Wunderwaffe,” meanwhile, is a perfect candidate for inclusion in a future Special Ops magazine. The celebrities in this scenario—a pair tapered-bore 75mm anti-tank guns—could be added to the counter sheet that appears to be a regular component of the magazine. 
Wunderbar, wundervoll, Wunderwaffe!
Friendly Fire is based in Sweden. The publisher has been producing top-notch scenarios for a tournament of the same name since 2005. Martin Svärd’s excellent “Maczek Fire Brigade” appeared in Friendly Fire Pack 1, and subsequently in ASL Journal 8 as scenario J113, four years later. Martin is the creator of the Swedish Volunteers scenario pack, and BoF includes four of his designs. Fellow Swede Erik Leander contributed his popular “About His Shadowy Sides.”7  The design house of Mazzei and Struijf is responsible for “Sting of the Italian Hornet.” You may be more familiar with Chris and Peter’s smash hit “Rage Against the Machine,” which appeared in Journal 10. Chris Mazzei is Swiss. Peter Struijf is Dutch, but recently immigrated to Canada. Together, the foregoing designers account for half of the scenarios in BoF.
The other half is the work of the “Swedish Terminator” Mattias Rönnblom. Friendly Fire is his baby. At least it was until he and his wife replaced the surrogate with the real deal last year. Mattias is a details guy. He runs the Friendly Fire tourney, and is de facto editor in chief of the scenario packs. He is also a prolific and successful designer. His “Second Thoughts” was one of the first Friendly Fire scenarios that I played. I cannot comment on his other scenarios in BoF because I have yet to play them. Of these, two have been tweaked by adding a Russian squad to each of the respective orders of battle (OB). I am fast running out of excuses not to play them now. 
Having said that, I must take exception with what Mattias told Spencer several years ago. The scenarios in the third Friendly Fire pack certainly have stood the test of time. But in my view, Friendly Fire Pack 6 eclipsed the earlier pack. Mattias created an instant classic with his unassuming “Totensonntag.” I am not suggesting that you pass on BoF, and purchase Friendly Fire Pack 6 instead. No, no, no. What I am suggesting is that your exposure to Friendly Fire should not end with MMP’s “official versions.” There is plenty in BoF to whet your appetite. But why stop there?
The following scenarios have had adjustments to their orders of battle:
  • The Abbeville Bridgehead
  • The Fields of Black Gold
  • Cavalry Brigade Model
  • Pursuing Frank
  • A Polish Requiem
Winter Offensive Bonus Pack 4—First Fire
Components: 3 scenarios (new), Board 66, Overlay 7
Another year, another Winter Offensive Bonus Pack. Yay! Another Winter Offensive Bonus Pack (WOBP), another village board. Sigh. Over the past four years, each of these packs has provided us with... another village! Boards 59, 63, 64/65 and 66 have all been village boards of some description, and they comprise over half the “normal” geomorphic boards released in that time frame. I love geo boards and the more the merrier. However, there are real needs in the official geomorphic system (wilderness, open terrain, and additional PTO-friendly boards being the biggest). Villages we have. Sure, each is different and has potential uses (board 66 has a stream and a small hill), but the needle seems badly stuck. And village boards aren’t the only aspect of these packs that is getting to be repetitive. With the exception of last year’s pack, each WOBP has included a Normandy scenario from Brian Youse and Ken Dunn (or Youse). This certainly may be related to the boards being villages and it may be an intentional theme, but it feels increasingly tired. Unless you’re totally living in an MMP bubble, Normandy is probably more over-covered in ASL than Stalingrad and that is really saying something (especially coming from me). It would be a nice change if next year’s WOBP included a true wilderness board, or a double-wide tank country board, or a deep jungle double-wide to complement Rising Sun. I’m pretty sure scenario designers would line up for any of those and we could get a year off from bocage
That said, this year’s Youse and Dunn Normandy scenario (WO10 “All Along the Merderet”) clearly looks to be the most original of the pack. Definitely bigger than tournament sized, the Americans have a conventional OB, but the Germans get to purchase virtually their entire OB. Also, the board configuration is highly unusual in that one of the three boards is staggered from the others and uses Overlay 7. 
Overlay 7
About Overlay 7: This seems to be a new thing for MMP. I can only describe it as a “board specific overlay.” It’s 10 by 10 hexes and it’s pretty much entirely marsh at Level -1, crossed by a single road at Level 0. It’s clearly only intended to be used in one place, since it doesn’t have standard ASL overlay hex numbers. Rather the overlay reproduces the hex numbers of the hexes that it covers. It also includes the corner bend of the board 66 stream, which will make it almost impossible to use anywhere else. My initial reaction to this overlay was to think it was silly and a bit of a vanity project to print for one scenario. But then I realized that this pack wasn’t noticeably more expensive than previous WOBPs. If there’s little associated cost, it hardly matters if the overlay only exists for one scenario. With any luck, this will be a tool other designers will be able to use. Imagine what situations might open up for Pete Shelling, Gary Fortenberry, or the design team of Peter Struijf and Chris Mazzei with this added tool. (Chas Smith has already pretty much used this trick for a ruined-city overlay in Into the Rubble, published by Bounding Fire Productions.)
The other scenarios don’t stand out quite as much. Both are tournament-sized affairs. WO9 “Sting ‘em at Zingem” by Chas Argent appears pretty straightforward. It has a neat reinforcement rule and features Allied Minors (always welcome to this tin can fan). WO11 “Across the Issel” by Michael Koch features an entirely hidden (HIP) defense for the Germans in 1945 against a bunch of British armor. Fireworks seem likely to ensue. 
At least there’s no Stalingrad.
WO11 "Crossing the Issel" by Michael Koch
The fate of board-specific overlays will be the litmus test on this product from my point of view. If a new tool is opened up to designers, this will be a triumph along the lines of Action Pack 6 or Winter Offensive Bonus Pack 3. If this stays a one-time thing, it’ll be just “another year, another village board.” Still, it has a new board, so it’s pretty much a must-buy. 
Three scenario packs is not a bad Winter Offensive release slate, especially since Journal 10 was released not that long ago. Not quite on par with last year’s Festung Budapest-WOBP3 duo, but enough to warm your gaming table this winter. Who knows what next year will bring? Myself, I’m hoping for a more inventive WOBP5, Journal 11, and “Fort’s” next Action Pack.
Roll low and never underestimate a StuG.
The scenarios of Winter Offensive Bonus Pack 4 (2013)
Winter Offensive Bonus Pack 4—Final Fire
I like new boards. Provided they are not uninspired knockoffs of board 7 or 27, I am happy to add more to my collection. Some readers will invariably disagree. Enough is enough, you say. I could not agree more. I have had quite enough of board 3, thank you. Board 17 is not far behind. Board 66 is not just new and shiny; it is actually quite useful. There are two distinct settlements on each half of the board. That makes the board more flexible when it comes to marrying it with other boards. I also really like the juxtaposition of the bridge and the immediately surrounding terrain. The hill looks a bit odd at first, tucked in the corner, as it is. But I imagine that it will come into its own when more boards are in play alongside it. 
Faites un voyage dans Route 66...
Overlay 7 looks like a cut-and-paste from a HASL. Could be it a foretaste of MMP’s newest project? I cannot say. It is, as Spencer pointed out, rather limited in its utility. Despite this limitation, I suspect that we have not seen the last use of this overlay. Apart from the region in Normandy it is designed to reflect, the overlay can be used to model other terrain. Stay tuned for a scenario set in the Netherlands. All marsh is polder.
Before I wrap up, I would like to say a few words about the scenarios in the latest WOBP. In order to avoid disappointment, I want underline the fact that WO10 “All Along the Meredet” requires board p. This board was originally released in Beyond the Beaches, an out-of-print ASL Starter Kit (ASLSK) scenario pack. The board is available separately from MMP. New players should also ensure that they have access to a copy of board 54, one of the three “bocage” boards included in Action Pack 4. The same goes for board 40. This Croix de Guerre river board is a prerequisite for WO9 “Sting ‘em at Zingem.” Fortunately this board is still available from MMP in ASLSK-style—not so board 41. 
You will need these boards to play the scenarios in WOBP4
As for the scenarios themselves, all are new to me. Players who enjoy the Western Front will probably find something to like in the pack. My first choice would be WO9 “Sting ‘em at Zingem.” I am a sucker for early-war scenarios. The Belgian tank destroyers in this smallish scenario add a little zing, to the ping, ping of machinegun fire on thin German armour. This scenario, and “Across the Issel,” are perfect candidates for evening play during the week. It will take me an evening just to get my head around WO10. But I am curious to see how this novel design works out.
Tiny it may be, but this tyke deserves some respect in WO9
For the fourth year running, there is nothing for fans of the Pacific Theatre. And unlike last year, there is nothing east of the Elbe. Did I mention the cool, new board?
I would like to thank Spencer for sharing the burden of the work involved with preparing this post. Not only did he provide the central narrative, but he also helped with sundry requests for additional information and graphics. The post is better for his assistance. Any errors are mine. Kitshop stocks all of the scenario packs in this post.
1. Rising Sun was too big for the hat. 
2. Mercifully, the ASL version has dispensed with two of the overlays.
3. The original version used 16 boards.
4. Scenarios R211 to R223 were designed to be played with only the rules up to and including the Crescendo of Doom “gamette.” Notwithstanding this, Spencer directed me toward an official pronouncement he found on the cover of the Fourth Edition Rule Book of Cross of Iron. The good book states that: “There is no official version for any scenario and the rules to be used are a matter of personal choice between you and your opponent.” As Spencer so eloquently put it, “It was horseshit, but it was official horseshit.”
5. Wayne Hadady, Jeff Leonard, Jim Mehl, Bill Stoppel, and Lee Tankersly play tested many of the scenarios in RttR. I recognize most of these names. I do not think that they would have been involved with the project if they had not seen some value in adapting Squad Leader scenarios to ASL. Or maybe they just came for the beer and pretzels.
6. Steve Myrberg was also credited as a designer.
7. I have played “Maczek Fire Brigade” at least twice, once against the august Tom Repetti. The scenario gets two thumbs up from me. Erik Leander also designed several of the scenarios in Swedish Volunteers, including my favourite: “Lions and Tin Men.”


Mark Morrison said...

Can't wait till i get mine in the mail.

Ian said...

I want's the RotR and WOBP, not so keen in the FrF pack as I have all the scenarios, though obviously not the corrected versions


Chris Doary said...

I want it all. :)

Thanks for reading guys. And good luck in the draw on 1 February!


Bryan Martin said...

I feel like this is going to be an expensive ASL year...

Chris Doary said...

And busy year. Finding time to organize all this new kit will be a challenge. But I think it best to start by using some of it first.

Event Horizon said...

Bryan I think any year is an expensive ASL year :-)

M.Dorosh said...

Don't know one way or another if the Rogue scenarios were the first to feature Canadians, but worth noting that one of the lettered scenarios in the General - "Semper Paratus" - depicted the RHLI. I never noticed Semper Paratus at the time (only one hobby shop sold copies of The General, and my limited means at that time prevented me from making the cross-town trip to find it). But I did order the Rogue Series 200 and was delighted to see the inclusion of Canadians (it may have made up for the shock of seeing the red terrain on the boards). Even more of a thrill was seeing my own regiment's name in the historical summary of one of the cards.