Having just survived my 11th ASLOK, I thought I might write a few words about ASLOK generally, largely for the benefit of people who have never attended ASLOK and are wondering whether they might enjoy it. I want to do this because the bottom line is that you probably would enjoy it. I hope that, in the comments section, other ASLOK veterans will contribute their own thoughts, impressions, and advice as well.
So let me begin by explaining what ASLOK is. ASLOK is short for ASL Oktoberfest, the longest-running and largest ASL tournament in the world. The ASLOK that just finished was the 26th year of the tournament, if you can believe it. It is held the first week of October each year in Cleveland, Ohio. It is essentially eight days long (more on that below), but you can be there for any amount of time, even a single day. Only the real die-hards and idiots (like me) show up there for the long haul. ASLOK was started by Bill “Fish” Connor and Darryl “Action” Burke, two long time Squad Leader enthusiasts who made the leap to ASL immediately. The first few years it was held in Youngstown, Ohio, but then someone said, “Dude, do you realize that we are in YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO?” and the tournament was immediately moved to the Cleveland area, where it has been ever since. Mark Nixon ran it for many years, with the able assistance of “Wild Bill” Hayward, then turned it over to Bret Hildebran. Bret and Bill have been doing an incredible job running the tournament for past several years.
Attendance at ASLOK these days basically runs in the 150-175 attendee range, though few show up for its entire length. When ASLOK first started, it was only a few days long. But people started showing up early to get in an extra day’s worth of gaming and the tournament was extended to accommodate this. Then people still started showing up a day early so it was extended AGAIN! Lather, rinse, repeat, and now the tournament is basically eight days long. Let’s say that next October 1st is a Saturday. That will be the first day of the event and it will last all the way until Sunday, October 9th. And yes, a few people actually will start playing on the evening of September 30, but the day the actual gaming area opens up is on that first Saturday morning.
Many of the people who stay the longest come from abroad–to them, Cleveland is a geeky Mecca that beckons to them. It is not at all unusual to find people at ASLOK from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, Sweden, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Other countries who have sent folks in recent years include Denmark, Italy, and Belgium. I am sure I am forgetting others. One of the neat aspects of ASLOK is to be able to play fellow ASL fans from around the world. In fact, for some years now, one of the official features of ASLOK has been a “U.S. vs. the World” tournament that runs from the first Saturday through Tuesday. Organizers keep track of who wins when someone from the U.S. plays someone from abroad. The best U.S. individual record and the best foreign individual record each get plaques, too (I have one!). However, in all its history, the U.S. has never beaten the World! Those foreign bastards, infiltrating our borders and winning our wargames!
So let’s say you are thinking of coming. One question to ask is when should you come? If you have the time and money, as well as the stamina, obviously the week-long option is a good one. I’ve been doing that every year since 2003 and have enjoyed doing it. But that may not be for you. A lot of people might suggest that if you could only come for a few days to come late in the week, when it is most full and you arguably get the “full ASLOK experience.” That’s certainly true enough. On the other hand, coming early has its own benefits–you won’t be pressed for space and have the luxury to spread out your stuff. It’s also a great opportunity to play something special, like a big HASL scenario. Plus the place is generally less raucous.
If time and money are not issues, stamina is the main one. How much do you really want to play ASL? You need to ask yourself that question, because you don’t want to plan for a week’s stay, then find yourself burned out after three days. So, first, ask yourself, “Do I have the ASL bug?” If the idea of playing ASL day after day (possibly in losing efforts, remember) gets your juices flowing a lot, then consider a longer stay. If you have attended a shorter, weekend tournament or ASL event and been left wanting more, then ASLOK is for you. The most hard-core players will try to get three scenarios a day in, the whole week long. Frankly, I don’t know how they can do it; my mind would be frazzled at that pace. Here’s my own personal strategy for a long stay at ASLOK: I try to pace myself, to two scenarios a day (unless I get into the finals of a mini-tournament, which will usually necessitate a third scenario). Sometimes, typically later in the week, I may just do one large scenario, then schmooze the rest of the day. It’s good to take a break here or there; perhaps a few hours to watch a pro or college football game or even (ugh) a baseball game, perhaps to go out for dinner and/or drinks with some other ASLOKers. If you have a friend or relative in the area, taking an evening off during the week to see them can be a nice “pause that refreshes.” So this last ASLOK, I played 13 scenarios (it would have been 14 except for an unforeseen circumstance) over eight days. Very fun, very relaxing. You don’t want to force yourself to do anything; pick a length that you like. My first ASLOK, in 2001, I just went Thursday-Sunday. The next year, I expanded it a couple of days. By my third ASLOK, I was a “full ASLOK” kind of guy. But that’s me. Find your own comfort zone. Also, if you know other people who are attending, you may want to coordinate with them.
That leads us to another aspect–managing cost. There are travel costs to and from ASLOK, for those not lucky enough to be local, the cost of 3-9 days hotel stay, food and drink costs, and, of course, the cost of any ASL thing you might want to buy while there. It can be very expensive, especially for someone traveling from abroad. First of all, plan in advance. Well in advance, if you are international. Get those cheap flights. Don’t pay extra to bring all your gear (see below). Second, consider sharing a room with someone or more than one person. This is common, and dependent only on factors like fartiness and snoriness. If you know other people coming you can suggest an arrangement; some people may also post “roommate wanted” notices on ASL forums like Consimworld or Gamesquad. Keep an eye out, or post your own. The food at the current hotel, the airport Holiday Inn, is actually pretty reasonably priced, and they typically run sandwich specials for ASLOKers. There is a very convenient Subway nearby for other cheap eats. Some people with access to a car sometimes bring their own sandwiches, snacks, sodas. But luckily, ASLOK is not too expensive in the food department. There are some other nearby hotels, but I don’t think any are cheaper than the Holiday Inn (which actually provides a pretty decent convention rate). If you have a car there are some cheaper hotels a few exits down the highway, which is also a possibility for ASLOKERs on a budget. Google maps can help you there.
Is ASLOK for you? That’s typically a question that beginners and novices ask themselves. Let me just say that ASLOK is typically very friendly to new players, with one caveat, which I’ll explain. I’ll give a personal example. Though I played Squad Leader “back in the day,” for all practical purposes, I did not really start playing ASL until 2001. Even then, it was only against a single, similarly inexperienced opponent. When I went to my first ASLOK, it was only about 6-7 months after my first ASL scenario and I probably had not played more than 12 or 13 times at most before then, all against that one opponent. So I was understandably nervous about going to ASLOK. When I walked in, almost the first gaming table I saw had two grizzled old players going at it with each other using counters that had been used so much they were so faded that the numbers could barely be read. You can bet I peed a little right there. However, from the time I walked in and introduced myself to Mark Nixon, every single person I met was incredibly inviting and friendly. Newbie though I was, I had a great time. I went 1-6, of course, and lucky to get that 1, but it was awesome. At some point late in the week they will even offer, if needed, a little session called “Maneuvers” or some such, to help people learn (or remember) ASL. Are you a Starter Kit player? I am reasonably sure that you would be able to find people willing to play the Starter Kit with you (I would, for example; I am happy to).
Here’s the caveat to all that, though. The people who go to ASLOK do so out of a love for ASL. They may be relatively new to it, or grizzled veterans of 20+ years experience, but they do share that love for ASL. That’s one reason why they may be willing to play a rank newbie–out of wanting to help someone else develop that love and affection for ASL. You’ll find people happy to play you, heck, happy to help teach you–as long as you are willing to put in that effort to learn ASL. If, however, you are pretty sure that ASL is not a love for you, or not likely to become one, then you might want to reconsider going. If you are ambivalent about ASL, then you would be asking someone else to put themselves out in order to teach you or help you learn with no corresponding gain for them or the hobby as a whole. Similarly, if you play Starter Kit and you have pretty much decided that you will only be playing Starter Kit and never advancing to ASL, then ASLOK may not be for you. However, if you view Starter Kit as the first step of many, you’ll find many welcoming people.
One other issue to consider for international folks: the language issue. Basically, English is going to be the language at ASLOK. You need to be able to speak English well enough to make yourself understood in gaming situations. You don’t have to be 100% fluent, but you have to have a basic knowledge. Reading knowledge of English is good, of course, but people need to speak while playing ASL. I personally have not met anybody at ASLOK who did not have that bare minimum of English. Second, you need to know how to play ASL. The worse your English is, the better your ASL should be, because it would be very difficult for someone else to explain ASL things to you in English. If you can, try to find other people from your country who have gone to ASLOK and ask them about their experiences with language. The nice thing is that most ASLers will be very patient with you if English is not your first language. At least learn a few curse words for when you break a weapon. I suggest the following phrases: “fucking motherfucker” and “Christ on a crutch.” You’ll go far.
What should you bring? Plenty of people will be bringing tons of gear, so if space is at a premium, like if you are flying to ASLOK, you can be more selective. You can always use your opponent’s gear (this limits your opponents to people with gear, of course), or bum some off a friend (if applicable). In descending order of priority, here is what you need to bring: 1) rulebook and charts (always bring), 2) Dice, 3) Dice tower or dice cup to roll dice in (free range rolling is DEFINITELY frowned on at ASLOK), 4) scenarios you are interested in playing, 5) counters of common nationalities (german/soviet/US). Beyond that, bringing additional counters and maps/overlays is gravy. Obviously, if you have the space, you should bring all your basic travelling gear (by this I mean you don’t have to bring HASLs or other things you will clearly never play, etc.).
If you are traveling from Europe and have extra luggage space, one possibility to help defray your travel costs is to buy one or more RAACO handy boxes in Europe (http://cpc.farnell.com/1/3/raaco-handy-box, for example), bring them with you, and sell them in America. Many ASLers prefer these for counter storage, but they are not sold in America. Bring some and you will probably find buyers. Remember, ASLers prefer the RAACO A75 (115759) INSERT and the RAACO A78 (115766) INSERT, so make sure your trays are filled with those.
That’s stuff to bring. What about taking stuff back? What can you expect? Well, if you love getting ASL gear, ASLOK is usually the place for you. First of all, there are usually annual scenario packs that debut at ASLOK every year, so you are pretty much guaranteed to get stuff that still has that new scenario smell. Currently, the Friendly Fire Pack, the Dezign Pak, Schwerpunkt (magazine/pack), and Rally Point (pack) regularly debut at ASLOK (though Rally Point may go to every other year from now on). Usually there are reps from third party publishers such as Bounding Fire Productions or Le Franc Tireur, who may have things to sell if there is something new. Recently, Chris and Helen Doary have been debuting ASL-themed precision dice at ASLOK and that may continue. Usually Dave Lamb, a Critical Hit rep, will have an array of recent Critical Hit offerings for sale. Sometimes dealers like Alex Key or Larry Zoet may come with ASL packs old and/or new to sell (though you never know if this will be the case for sure). And you never know what surprising new thing may debut at ASLOK–that’s frequently the most exciting, when there is some unexpected new piece of gear announced. That’s when players look up and eye each other and say, “Umm, you want to take a quick break?” Note the absence of MMP. Sometimes an MMP person will show up, typically Chas Argent or Perry Cocke, but they won’t be bringing stuff to sell. So don’t expect to stock up on official ASL stuff unless you are lucky enough to get something off a dealer. MMP tends to debut stuff at their own tournament in January, Winter Offensive.
In addition to actual ASL products, often you can find other stuff on which you can place your grubby little fingers. You may be able to buy a dice tower, or a pair of tweezers or various other gewgaws and bric-a-brac that people have made for ASL.
What does ASLOK offer? The coolest thing about ASLOK is how many ways you can have fun there. First, there is the main tournament, called The Grofaz (google it), which runs from Thursday to Saturday. This is the big deal for the veteran high-skill players, and who ever wins the Grofaz is basically the unofficial ASL champion of the world for that year. Anybody can take part in it; the nature of it, though, is that essentially if you have won loss (and absolutely if you have two), you are out of it. So you don’t necessarily have to commit yourself to the Grofaz for those last few days. You can just play it by ear.
In addition to The Grofaz, there is also the US vs the World tournament, mentioned above. And from Wednesday through Saturday, there are each day a variety of three-round 8-player single-elimination mini-tournaments, typically on different themes (France 1940, molotov cocktails, Tiger tanks, Night rules, you name it). Each of these gives you an opportunity to win some “wood” (as the plaques are called) and a valuable cash prize (well, ixnay on the aluablevay part). Theoretically, if you take part in the US vs the World, a mini-tournament each day, and the Grofaz, you can come back loaded with awards. You smug bastard. If you want to do the minis, plan in advance–you need to sign up for the mini themes you want well in advance of the tournament (eight slots fill up fast). If you want to be in a mini, you’ll get in one, but if you don’t do it in advance you may have no choice as to what theme it is. For US vs the World and the Grofaz, scenarios are completely open–people can play whatever they want to against each other. For the minis, players are given small lists of scenarios to choose from (usually there are extra copies of the scenarios floating around for someone who did not bring them with him).
However, ASLOK is much more than that. Many people don’t engage in so-called competitive play at all, but simply show up to play. I tend to be that type of person. I will play in the US vs the World because I am an early arrival and I will naturally play some non-Americans. I typically can force myself to do about one mini-tournament–but because they start at 8am sharp, it’s difficult for me to rouse myself that early. I usually eschew the Grofaz because by the end of the week I am usually in the process of ratcheting down my ASL intensity, not ratcheting it up.
What do you do instead of “competitive” play? Whatever the heck you want! Most of my games are just flat out open games against an available opponent, where we find a scenario that’s cool and play it, may the best man win. Often people may pre-arrange games, especially if you and a long-lost gaming buddy are reuniting at ASLOK, or if there is someone you don’t get to play very much whom you’d like to. Do you want to spend a day or two or three playing some huge monster thing–you can often find someone who will do it with you, especially if you advertise in advance. I once saw two guys come in from San Francisco and basically do nothing but play The Last Bid against each other the whole time. I don’t think they even finished. But they had a blast. Another thing you can do is play scenarios with multiple people on each side. If you like playtesting, there will definitely be designers and publishers looking for people to help them playtest. You may well get a chance to see scenarios, or even maps and counters, before they are released!
When can you play? Whenever the fuck you want, if you’ll pardon my French! Do you and someone else want to have a marathon all night session of ASL? Go right ahead. From Tuesday on, the gaming room is open 24 hours a day, every day, thanks in large part to voluntary night owl Bill Hayward.
Basically, if it is ASL, you can do it there.
What if it’s not ASL? You can find, especially later in the week, the occasional Euro game or other mindless game (Zombies, for example) late in the evening, as players blow off some steam. But don’t come to ASLOK expecting that you can play Lock n Load or ATS or Gettysburg ’88 or whatever. That ain’t what it is about.
ASLOK is very informal, very friendly. But there are some basic etiquette rules that are useful to keep in mind:
1) Bathe early and often. You may be full of energy, despite having been on the plane or in airports for 16 hours while trying to get to Cleveland, but before you jump into that game, take a shower first. With 150+ gamers crammed into a room, it might get malodorous of people don’t hop into those showers. If you are wondering whether or not you need one, you probably do.
2) Bring something to roll dice in. And I don’t mean the box top for Beyond Valor. Get a dice tower or a dice cup. You’ll find tons of them on-line or on e-bay or even at your local gaming shop. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my stacks of counters by rolling dice on the table that bounce onto the gameboard.
3) Bring some scenarios you are interested in playing. Really, make an effort. Some people will just sit down and have no suggestions for scenarios at all, thinking they are being flexible, when really they are just putting the burden on the other person to suggest something. Bring at least 20 scenarios that you are interested in playing. Maybe you’ll get some played, maybe not. But you’ll have made an effort for your opponent.
4) Don’t be a sore loser. Look, we all get diced from time to time. Sometimes the dice really screw us over. And it is entirely okay, especially late in the game in a tense scenario, to expostulate briefly at yet another die roll. Even to curse a bit. But don’t yell, don’t slam your hand, don’t throw dice, don’t endlessly complain. Get it out of your system and go back to playing. And pick your battles. If you curse at the first bad die roll, your opponent is in for a long, un-fun afternoon. Think about the effect your behavior might have on your opponent, who has done nothing worse than be lucky.
5) Shaking? Some people hold that you should shake your opponent’s hand before a scenario and wish him good luck, and if you lose, quickly shake your opponent’s hand afterward and say good game. To me, this is unncessary–what is important to me is that, however you communicate it, you are friendly to your opponent.
6) What to do with a big dick. I’m not referring to your own, but to an opponent who really tries to screw you over. Let me say that, thankfully, such people are extremely rare in ASL. But even though they are very few in number, there are a few Big Dicks out there in the world. I am happy to say that in my 650+ scenario playings, I have only run into one person who fit that category. If someone tells you on the opening turn that you’ve lost the scenario because you rolled the wind change DR before you set up your reinforcements (that actually happened once to a friend of mine), just say “good game” and find another opponent as soon as possible. Look at it this way. You may have had to spend some small amount of time with a Big Dick, but you will have the long-term pleasure for the rest of your life of telling the rest of the world exactly how big a Dick he really was. Just find a normal regular human opponent as soon as possible and wash that away. Again, you will likely never experience this. But if you do, heed my advice, grasshopper. Don’t get mad, get away.
7) Whose table? ASL naturally tends to divide itself between Nesters and Nomads. The Nesters like to set up in one spot and play all their scenarios there. The Nesters par excellence may even bring lamps and laptops and music; this past ASLOK, one person even brought furniture. The Nomads travel around from table to table. They don’t care where they are. Even if they brought their gear, it may be lumped against a wall until needed. Ideally, Nesters play Nomads and everybody is happy. When two Nesters meet, however, it’s sort of like hermit crab sex. Everybody wants to do the nasty but no one wants to leave their shell (I really have no knowledge of actual hermit crab sex. Just go with me on this). If you are a Nester, just try to gauge how disturbing and nervous you would actually make this person if you insisted he leave his nest. If it looks like he would collapse, then be the bigger crab and go to his nest.
8) IFT vs. IIFT. IFT is the default; if someone wants to play with the IFT, don’t try to argue them out of it.
9) Dice mishaps. Try to establish before the game or very early on that if a die ends up cocked, or if one flies out of the dice tower or whatever, then all dice will be re-rolled. Don’t wait until that crucial die roll to bring it up.
10) HELP YOUR OPPONENT SORT HIS COUNTERS. When the game is over, if you have been playing with your opponent’s counters, help him put the counters away. Do NOT walk away. Even if you have to piss like crazy, stay there and help him put the counters away. This is major ASL etiquette.
11) Before playing a scenario, go over the scenario card with your opponent. Make sure that both of you fully understand the victory conditions, all the set up and reinforcement areas, and all the SSRs. Do NOT hope that your opponent misconstrues a VC or SSR. It will only cause trouble later. Be on the same page.
12) Give your opponent a break. Don’t be an asshole about little timing issues. Did he forget to try to fix that LMG? Just let him do it even if it is half way through his prep fire phase. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you did not have to make any decision or take any action based on what he did or did not do, it is usually okay to let him do it, even if slightly out of sequence. Remember, it’s just a game and if you win, you are not made King of the World. You are no better a strategist because you didn’t let your opponent pick up that dropped SW he forgot about during the Rally Phase.
The bottom line is that you are there to have fun and so are your opponents. Most of the time that’s what will happen, too. ASLOK is a tremendous amount of fun. If you’ve never gone, consider going. If you have the ASL itch, this is the best place to scratch it. Plus, one of the fun things about ASL is meeting new people, and if you don’t show up, how can I meet you?
I hope to see you there!