As I write this entry, postal employees around the world are delivering copies of MMP’s latest ASL release, Action Pack 6: A Decade of War, into the greedy little hands of ASLers. The thematic notion of the pack—essentially a scenario per year (not quite achieved) for ten different years of war—is not its appeal; the “hook” that drives the product is that it comes with three maps that are a new style of geomorphic mapboard.
These “new” geomorphic mapboards mate with each other on their lengthy sides, but those lengthy sides can each also mate with two “old” geomorphic maps on the narrow edges of those maps. Similarly, two narrow edges of the “new” maps can mate with the lengthy edge of an “old” map. Theoretically, a series of such “new” maps can greatly increase the effectiveness and flexibility of the existing geomorphic map system.
Nice, right? But here’s something to chew on. These maps have debuted in 2010. That’s twenty-five years after the birth of ASL. And when one considers that the “old” geomorphic maps debuted in 1977 with the release of the original Squad Leader, it turns out that it has taken people 33 years to come up with this variation to the original geomorphic map style.
If this same level of innovation had applied to the development of the Internet, you might well be reading this essay with a CRT linked to a mainframe, and it might have originated as a multi-part Usenet posting. Over three decades for such a simple yet practical innovation? Really?
In 1977, wargamers immediately realized that Squad Leader was something different. Almost every aspect of it seemed different. It wasn’t the first tactical game—there was the popular platoon-level Panzerblitz, for example—but it was the first game that actually felt like a tactical game. It wasn’t the first game to have geomorphic maps—Panzerblitz also had those—but it was the first game with maps that actually attempted to look like reality, with real buildings and sidewalks and sewers and so forth, rather than abstract “urban hexes.” Its interactive sequence of play made it seem like actual fighting was going on.
In the wake of SL, there was a flurry of innovation, as Avalon Hill tried to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their new tactical system. New nationalities? You bet. New toys to play with? All over the place. New maps? Oh, yeah, including the first not-quite-geomorphic maps (the river maps). As the system developed, a new armor system replaced the initial one, new counters (at least for the Americans and Germans) replaced the original types of unit counters, and it seemed obvious to many that there was actually too much innovation. Or perhaps a better way to put it would be that there was innovation without integration; things just kept getting added or re-done in willy nilly fashion, with no underlying plan or coordination behind it.
Thus was born Advanced Squad Leader. ASL was itself innovative, not merely collecting and integrating previous changes or additions, but implementing entirely new systems. However, ASL was a project with a vision and a plan. It concentrated on finishing the rules—comprehensive rules (oh so comprehensive)—so that future modules would not need to add new rules to the basic systems, but could provide topic specific rules (such as desert rules, for example) and concentrate on adding new maps, overlays, and counters to the existing system. In a sense, creating ASL was like creating a tool cabinet. One might not have all the tools yet, but the cabinet still had a place for the not-yet-purchased wrench or saw, and when finally purchased, that new tool would fit in snugly among all the others.
The real question, though, is how much room is in the cabinet for unanticipated or newly-invented tools? This essay seeks to explore the extent (and possible limits) of innovation in ASL.
Innovation: Threat or Menace?
I think I’m going to “spoil” the ending to my own essay: readers will come to find that, overall, I am not all that impressed with the level of innovation in ASL so far. But before I go on to discuss its relative lack, I believe it is important to note that innovation is not a necessary thing for ASL, nor is it perhaps even always a desirable thing.
Does that seem strange to you? Yet consistency is clearly ASL’s greatest strength, and innovation for the sake of innovation does not always end up helping the end user (“New Coke,” anyone? Anyone??). Some game systems have “innovated” themselves almost to death. One only has to look at the tortuous design history of Star Fleet Battles, which debuted around the same time as the original Squad Leader, to see the nightmarish alternative history that SL/ASL might have had.
It might be argued by some that the science fictional premises of Starfleet Battles led to constant pressures for “new” features; after all, there were no historical limitations. Designers could just make stuff up. Yet other historical wargame systems have also taken “innovation” paths that might make ASLers cringe. Two examples readily at hand are ASL’s two “cousins”, the Europa system and the World in Flames system. If ASL is an attempt to provide a comprehensive examination of tactical combat during World War II, Europa is an attempt to do the same thing at the operational (regiment/divisional) level, and World in Flames is an attempt to do the same thing at the strategic level.
Europa began in the 1970s as two monster games (Drang Nach Osten and Unentschieden; actually, they were the first true monster games) that portrayed East Front warfare 1941-1944 at the divisional level. Their popularity led to sequels (Their Finest Hour, Narvik, Case White, etc.) and very quickly its publishers (originally Game Designers Workshop) realized that they could use this system to create a massive series of operational level interlocking games that could replicate the entire war in Europe. This was a great concept, ambitious and revolutionary. Yet as time went on, problems quickly amassed. The designers never created any standardized rules system, so that game rules could still vary (sometimes significantly) from one game to the next, which made mating any of them together very difficult. Eventually, games saw major systems changes (such as in the air rules), which rendered earlier games obsolete, while in other areas, such as naval rules, there were never any real rules developed at all. When Games Research/Design succeeded GDW as caretaker of Europa, things got even worse. Unhappy with the lack of geographic detail on the maps, and realizing that some of the Order of Battle work in the Europa games was quite old and obsolete, GRD began to redesign and re-release Europa games with new maps, rules, and counters—before the older system was ever completed. Now there were two entirely different groups of maps while the game-to-game rules changes never stopped. Eventually, the air system was replaced yet a third time, leading to three different air systems in Europa (as there were games with earlier systems that had never been re-released). Europa, even before its third owners, HMSGRD drove the final nails into the coffin thanks to mismanagement and cupidity, was a dying system.
World in Flames (WiF), which has always been published by Australian Design Group, took a different but equally frustrating route. Or rather, the system took two different roads at the same time. On the one hand, ADG kept re-doing WiF in different editions, fixing and adding elements to the system, creating five different editions of WiF before releasing a “Final” edition (which turned out not to be “final” after all). They have done similar multiple editions of related products Days of Decision and Fatal Alliances. On the other hand, ADG also released a steady series of additions to the system that would add new units, new rules, or both, including Ships in Flames, Planes in Flames, America in Flames, and so on. Players new to the system had no idea what they needed to buy in order to have a “complete” system. Even now, ADG is releasing several new versions of or additions to the WiF system, including one which will essentially be the same game but at the divisional level. WiF has no idea when or how to stop, and the result is an increasingly nightmarish system.
ASL, in contrast, once it emerged as a butterfly from the problematic SL cocoon, has managed to avoid all of those problems. It has had a consistent framework (even the 2nd Edition ASL Rulebook, released in 2001, essentially just included errata and rules fixes) and a very stable platform that has allowed both official and unofficial publishers of ASL material to freely add to the oeuvre.
So there is every reason to thank the various caretakers of ASL for being good stewards and for not presenting us with one of these awful alternatives. At the same time, though, one cannot help but ask whether designers of ASL products (official and unofficial alike) are perhaps missing opportunities to add to the system, to take it places that it has not gone before, or even to reinvent it. Is there room for innovation in ASL, or would any significant innovation actually threaten its foundation and possibly lead down a path like Starfleet Battles, Europa, or World in Flames?
Innovation in “Official” ASL Products
Perhaps the best way to answer that question is by looking at what innovation actually has occurred in ASL since its creation in the mid-1980s. Someone just getting into the game right now might not realize it, but when ASL debuted, its designers were quite optimistic about its prospects for expansion and innovation. It is instructive to look at the Table of Contents for the First Edition of the ASL Rulebook. The original ASLRB consisted primarily of Chapters A-D. The Contents, though, anticipated the future. For example, Chapter E (Miscellaneous), F (North Africa) and G (Pacific Theater) were all given chapters, as it was known those would be covered in future expansions.
However, beyond those planned concluding rulebook chapters there were other things in the air. One of these was Chapter I, designated “Campaign Game,” promised as “available later.” Another was Chapter H, “Design Your Own.” A third was Chapter J, “Deluxe ASL” (about which more in a minute). And then there was Chapter L, “Postal ASL” (this was in the days before disgruntled postal workers might have been featured in counters of their own). The publishers of ASL thought there were all sorts of directions the system might actually eventually go.
However, in the end, it didn’t take most of those directions. The “Campaign Game,” which may have conceived of as a more complex and detailed version of the “personal leader” campaign game that appeared in the original Squad Leader, never emerged. Chapter H contained some of the basic information needed for “Design Your Own” scenarios, but no materials were ever added to allow generation of such scenarios, leaving it uncompleted. “Postal ASL,” the official system for ASL-by-mail never emerged (not even when e-mail made it more feasible in the 1990s).
The only one of these ideas that ever really saw print was Deluxe ASL, which was actually designed at the same time as ASL itself was, and released (in the form of the first DASL module, Street of Fire) concurrently, along with a line of ASL miniatures from Micro-Armor. DASL featured the first innovation to the standard SL geo-board, with a new style of geo-board featuring ultra-large hexes and designed to be played with 1/285th scale vehicles as a quasi-miniatures system. Given the roots of the original SL, which was inspired by the miniatures genre in several respects, it is easy to see how Avalon Hill thought that ASL might be able to exist in a miniatures-friendly version.
However, the concept—though definitely innovative—was not actually that popular. Though Streets of Fire sold well enough, its sequel, Hedgerow Hell, sold comparatively poorly, and Avalon Hill decided its map artist would be better off spending time on regular ASL mapboards. Except for the occasional new scenario designed for existing boards, Avalon Hill essentially stopped supporting DASL.
The end reality became something different from the initial promise. Though it seemed at the beginning as if a hundred schools of thought might contend, ASL quickly became an extremely conservative system, concentrating on finishing the core modules and adding conventional scenarios to the existing system. Over the next 15 years, there would only be two true innovations to the ASL system, and in the end, only one would be really exploited.
The first true innovation for ASL came about five years after its initial release, when Charles Kibler designed the first Historical ASL (HASL) module, Red Barricades. ASLers need no explanation for this product, still popular two decades later. Red Barricades was particularly innovative for a number of reasons. First, it was the first ASL product to break the bonds of geomorphic mapboards (after all, even DASL used a form of geo-board). It was also the first ASL product to truly escape the shackles of scenarios, offering in its campaign games a much greater length and depth of play. It was also the first ASL product to focus on a particular historical battle.
Red Barricades proved highly popular and its success resulted in a number of other HASLs, published both by Avalon Hill and its successor MMP, including Kampfgruppe Peiper (I & II), Pegasus Bridge, Blood Reef: Tarawa, A Bridge Too Far, Operation Watchtower, Operation Veritable, Valor of the Guards, and more. It is strange, though, that all of these modules essentially used the same game system as the original Red Barricades. The situations changed, but the rules basically remained the same (some of the later modules also included geoboard scenarios, but that is no innovation).
Oddly enough, in the twenty years that HASLs have been around, no one has attempted to create a different form of campaign game. They have all basically emulated Red Barricades. Thus the incredibly innovative Red Barricades was followed by decades of little innovation at all. Even obvious possibilities, like players making strategic decisions that would generate scenarios on certain portions of the historical map, have remained unexplored.
The second true innovation for ASL came in the late 1990s with the development of Solitaire Advanced Squad Leader (SASL). It was published in a small print run as one of Avalon Hill’s last products before giving up the ghost, then was republished by MMP in a revamped and expanded 2nd Edition. SASL was quite innovative; not only did it create a surprisingly solid set of solitaire rules for ASL, but added new fog of war and command and control concepts that the original system did not have. It even had a company campaign system to allow the linking together of multiple missions. Its designer? None other than Charles Kibler, who had designed the first HASL, the only other true ASL innovation.
Unfortunately, though truly innovative, SASL was not well supported by MMP (AH did not last long enough to not support it), which never released any follow on SASL products (though it did include nationality data in subsequent products like Armies of Oblivion). In the mid-2000s, MMP announced it would not even reprint SASL. To a certain degree this is understandable, as ASL is so well suited for face to face play (and unlike most other wargames, has an audience big enough to allow easy face to face play for most people), and as a result, SASL did not prove as popular as it might have were it released for some other game system.
Nevertheless, it is a shame that no further attempts were made to broaden its popularity—especially because a dedicated few have not only continued to play SASL but also continued to innovate on the system. The most interesting innovation regarding SASL is the so-called “Group SASL” (GSASL). It seems a bit oxymoronic to have a “group” “solitaire” game, but that is the novelty. GSASL allows multiple people (2 to infinity) to come together in a sort of campaign game in which they generate the overall course of action by playing and recording SASL scenarios. It’s a distant cousin of some of the large play-by-mail wargames that used to be fairly common in the 1980s. More than 10 years after the introduction of SASL, people continue to play GSASL campaigns on a variety of subjects, yet there are not even any officially sanctioned rules for GSASL.
The MMP years have seen even less innovation than the Avalon Hill era. Although MMP has added new core modules, new HASLs, and new Action Packs and publications to the system, they have all used systems, rules, or component styles that originated long ago. MMP have been very conservative stewards of ASL, even down to its components. Though forced by missing original artwork to create new artwork for reprints of existing geo-boards, and forced by rising costs to turn from mounted maps to an unmounted style of geo-board, their changes to rules layout, counters, and charts have been limited to extremely minor font changes and other similar minor changes. MMP has resisted even changing to the “whitecore” counters that all of its other games use, even though it would save them money and convenience to do so (because they are concerned that some ASL veterans would object to counters whose sides are white rather than grey). Indeed, the one true component innovation that MMP has ever tried—and only once at that—was to use new map artwork in a mini-HASL that appeared in an Operations magazine special issue.
Until AP6, that is, in which the new geo-boards were introduced. It is perhaps worth mentioning that AP6 was designed by a troika of outside designers, Gary Fortenberry, Bob MacNamara and Charles Kibler (yes, that Charles Kibler), who were all figures originally associated with ASL at Avalon Hill. And the modified geo-boards in AP6 are, it should be admitted, a very minor innovation (it should probably also be noted that they did not invent the non-standard geo-board; Critical Hit and Heat of Battle both released non-standard geos of different sorts years ago).
The history of innovation among official publishers of ASL is thus very limited—and one wonders if there would have been any at all had it not been for Charles Kibler.
Innovation in Unofficial ASL Products
If official ASLdom has not seen much innovation, how about the vast conglomeration of unofficial ASL? Over the past decades, dozens of individuals, groups, and companies have produced a tremendous variety of ASL-related products. Surely among all of these products, we can find a large number of innovations created by people with no real need to hew to the limitations of the original system?
Actually, it turns out that third party publishers (TPP) are hardly any more innovative at all than official publishers. One of the reasons for this, perhaps, is that the sine qua non for TPP is to produce a product which is very similar in nature and quality to official products. In other words, there is in some ways more pressure for TPP to emulate official ASLdom than to transcend it.
The most innovative unofficial development for ASL was actually not any sort of change or addition to the system at all, but rather the development of a way to play ASL on-line. VASL, designed originally by Rodney McKinney and honed and enhanced by a variety of VASL elves, certainly was a revolution in the way many people played ASL, and really brought the ASL world closer together, but it did not change the actual system one bit.
One legitimate area where TPP have expanded the boundaries of ASL is in the area of conflicts other than World War II. Official ASL has not gone beyond the bounds of WWII except in a few isolated scenarios. TPP, however (especially Critical Hit), have released full modules or products on subjects such as the Italo-Ethiopian War, the Spanish Civil War, the Israeli War of Independence, the French war in Indochina, the Korean War and others. Although an official Korean War module has ostensibly been in the works for a great many years, progress on it has been excruciatingly slow. On the fringes, a few people have tried to take the ASL system backwards to WWI or forwards still more to the Vietnam War and later, but without much success, as the ASL system doesn’t necessarily translate well to those conflicts from other eras.
Otherwise, innovation has been hard to come by. Though a great many HASLs have been produced by TPP, they basically all use systems derivative of Red Barricades and its official successors, save for a couple of products which use “fake” campaign games that consist of playing several scenarios in succession.
Some innovative concepts have come up, but not been carried through to execution. For example, for some years, Heat of Battle floated around the concept of a “Company Commander” game that would simulate mobile battles over a large distance by using a card-based system to generate specific scenarios during the campaign. This would have been a very innovative system, had it been developed. Though HOB went as far as generating a rough draft prototype for playtesting, the inherent difficulties of getting such a complex system to work apparently proved too much and the idea was abandoned.
One TPP has actually produced an inarguably innovative use of the ASL system—a product clearly more imaginative than any other that the TPP has released, though it is clearly a niche product if there ever was one. The Detroit-based East Side Gamers troika created and released a set of “Zombie rules” for ASL that allowed the ASL system to simulate fighting zombies during a postulated future zombie apocalypse. These were not just joke rules, but a thoughtful use of ASL concepts to represent this unique sort of supernatural combat. Obviously, though, their popularity has been limited.
This survey may depress some. Will we always be seeing the “same old same old” in ASL (not that it isn’t tons of fun, of course)? Is it even possible to be innovative with ASL and still have it be ASL?
As rich as ASL is, I have to have confidence that more can be done with it, and that there is still room for imaginative and innovative designers to leave their mark and to discover new ways that people can enjoy it. Just as Charlie Kibler gave us Red Barricades, I think that some future designer, suitably inspired, could give us some other ASL gift. I think that the areas of greatest opportunity remain in group methods of playing ASL, and new campaign systems and ways of using ASL to fight larger battles, but there are almost certainly other areas of opportunity out there as well.
Perhaps this essay might even start some brain cell action out there somewhere that will years from now result in a new way to delight and amaze ASLers.