Multiman Publishing (2014)
ASL Starter Kit Module/Expansion
Country of Origin:
22" x 34" historical map, 4 scenarios, 1 campaign game, 3 countersheets with 776 die-cut counters, 28-page basic rules booklet, 20-page Elst rules booklet, charts and tables, dice.
Decision at Elst (DaE) is something MMP had promised (or threatened, depending on one’s point of view) for quite some time: a historical module that uses ASL Starter Kit rules rather than full ASL rules. DaE is a smallish historical module that depicts three days of fighting between British and German troops around the town of Elst in the Netherlands in September 1944. The fighting represents part of Operation Market-Garden (one of MMP’s three “pet” subjects, along with Normandy and Guadalcanal): the very last gasp of the British attempt to reach Arnhem, an effort that finally petered out at Elst. So it is Market-Garden, but without Arnhem or any paratroopers.
As the first ASLSK historical module, DaE is worth analyzing in some detail, both in terms of what it does or doesn’t offer ASLSK players, as well as what it does or doesn’t offer to people interested in full ASL. Before getting into those areas, it is probably best to first discuss what it may mean to someone who has not even tried the ASL Starter Kit before and is considering this product as a possible first attempt to get into that system.
The good news, in that respect, is that it is certainly possible to learn the ASLSK rules by purchasing DaE. Decision at Elst, like the vast majority of ASLSK products, is self-contained. It has all the counters needed for play, as well as a complete set of ASLSK rules. However, a prospective player is required to learn ALL the rules in order to play DaE. This is worth explaining. To play the ASL Starter Kit #1, one must master all the rules in that product, too, which deal with infantry, but it’s not that many rules. If one starts with the ASL Starter Kit #2, one can learn all the rules (infantry plus guns), but because there is a scenario that does not use guns included, it is possible to concentrate on the infantry rules first before moving on to adding guns as well. The same is true for ASL Starter Kit #3: one can go ahead and learn all the rules (infantry plus guns plus vehicles) but there are scenarios that act as stepping stones. The ASL Starter Kit Expansion Pack #1 also has scenarios compatible with all three levels of play.
However, DaE breaks this tradition. The module comes with only 4 scenarios and all four of them have AFVs, meaning that any purchaser will have to learn a minimum of 30 pages of rules (32 for two scenarios) in order to play even the smallest, simplest scenario in DaE. To play the campaign game, of course, the player will have to learn about 41 pages of rules. This means that there is nothing particularly basic or introductory about this product–by generic wargame standards, this is a complex game. It is only compared to a full-ASL historical module like Festung Budapest that DaE is relatively simple.
For the prospective first-time ASLSK buyer, then, the lure of playing on a historical rather than generic map is rather offset by the large amount of rules one must master to play DaE.
What about people who have already mastered some or all of the ASLSK rules? What does DaE have to offer them? Essentially, a historical module can offer the player up to three things that standard ASL play does not: 1) the opportunity to play on a historical map representing a specific area of actual terrain, with all of its uniqueness and atmosphere; 2) the ability to play large, meaty scenarios on that historical setting; 3) the ability to play a form of longitudinal ASL as represented by a campaign game: extended and detailed play over time with a more grand tactical approach than a standalone ASL scenario. Decision at Elst delivers on the first and third of these opportunities but largely fails on the second, as it comes with only four scenarios, none of which are truly large in size and most of which use only a small portion of the historical map. So there is, for example, no “monster” scenario that uses the entire historical map.
Still, there is a historical map, whether used for the scenarios or for the campaign game, and that is theoretically one of the big draws that historical modules have to offer. With DaE specifically, the draw may be a bit less than expected. The main reason has to do with the basic nature of the ASLSK rules, which exclude all but the most basic terrain types of ASL (to keep the rules simple and manageable). Without the ability to represent multiple levels of elevation, large and complex buildings, various sorts of hexside terrain, and so forth, a designer is rather limited in terms of what subjects he can even consider for an ASLSK-based historical map, as well as what can actually be represented on that map. Complex, variegated terrain is essentially out the window. The result, then, is likely to be–and certainly is, in the case of DaE–a historical map that is, in the final analysis, not all that different from the feel of the ASLSK geomorphic boards.
DaE adds a single new terrain type–polder, which is a sort of canal-filled and soggy open ground hex–but other than that, its map consists of essentially of grainfields, orchards, and a selection of spread-out small buildings. Even the buildings have that sort of “Starter Kit feel” to them, as they tend to be small inside their hexes, with lots of “air” around them in the hex. Several of the scenario cards refer to the “dense town” or the “increasingly dense urban terrain,” but if that was actually the case, the DaE map utterly fails to recreate any sort of feel of urban density. This is in part because of the inability to include standard ASL features that provide such density (such as rowhouses and walls), but also because of the decision keep virtually all building depictions in DaE well within the boundaries of their hexes (meaning that there are far more lines of sight than “dense” terrain would typically offer).
Thus, with the exception of whatever meager thrill polder alone might offer, the experience that ASLSK players will have on the DaE map may not actually seem that much different than the experiences they have with their geomorphic board scenarios. One can contrast this with the very different play experiences that full ASL historical modules can offer on maps such as those for Red Barricades or Tarawa or Kakazu Ridge, etc. It is hard to call this a “flaw,” really, insofar as it is a natural consequence of being an ASLSK product, but it is something to understand going in.
Physically, the map itself is reasonably attractive, though bland-looking, for reasons discussed above as well as a relative lack of historical or aesthetic/flavor details (in sharp contrast to other recent MMP historical modules). The latter is not really anyone’s “fault,” but rather due to the lack of good images, aerial reconnaissance or otherwise, as to what the town was like. With a single, full mapsheet, it is large enough to provide a substantial playing field while still small enough for any game table–no reason to break out the old ping-pong tables here. The map is printed on a relatively thick paper but unfortunately has at least a semi-gloss finish to it, which can lead to glare under direct lighting.
It is also somewhat unfortunate that players have a relatively limited number of options at their disposal for playing on the historical map. DaE does come with a full campaign game, as discussed below. Other than that, however, the module contains only four scenarios–a surprisingly small amount, really–and of those four scenarios, one is an ultra-tiny three-turn “trick” scenario, DaE1 (Ambush at De Hoop), that involves a small British force using PIATs to ambush a trio of German tanks. The other three scenarios each feature a small German force holding off a larger British attacking force. Two of these can be considered medium in size (perhaps the light side of medium), while the fourth, DaE3 (Knaust’s ‘Fausts), is the one large scenario in the module and the only one that uses at least a substantial portion of the historical map. This scenario pits 20 heavily-armed British squads and four tanks against 11 German squads (also loaded with SW) and a lone AFV. This scenario, as well as another, DaE4 (Leave…Or Elst), require use of DaE’s OBA rules. The paucity of scenarios does somewhat limit the play value that DaE offers (and sharply contrasts with the 17 scenarios that Festung Budapest and Valor of the Guards each have).
With so few scenarios, the campaign game in DaE becomes correspondingly more important. DaE contains a single campaign game, dubbed The Island (the English translation for the area of land in which Elst was situated), with 6 campaign game dates. This puts Elst on the small side of campaign games, which is probably best for an ASLSK entry. The rules use a somewhat streamlined version of typical “official” campaign game rules and concentrate most on between-scenario perimeter issues and purchasing reinforcements. Neither side has many purchase options; the Germans have slightly more than the British but have relatively few points with which to purchase anything. Experienced campaign gamers will notice that the options seem particularly limited, because there’s no ability to purchase snipers, boobytraps, dummies, fortifications, etc., none of which appear in ASLSK.
The Island gives ASLSK players what is for them a rather rare opportunity: the ability to experience large-scale play. Because each ASLSK module is self-contained, ASLSK scenarios are limited by the countermix of each product (except for those appearing independently in magazines). This, combined with a general desire to make ASLSK scenarios smaller and more “playable” means that ASLSK players inherently have far fewer opportunities for truly “meaty” ASL play. The Elst campaign game can give them that meaty experience, if not in density of simulation at least in terms of numbers of units. For the first time, the ASLSK player (if playing the British, anyway) can truly maneuver and fight with large numbers of MMC across a relatively large playing area. This can be an eye-opening experience for some, who may discover, as many ASLers have before them, that it is the meatier aspects of ASL play that really provide them with their desired gaming experience, much more so than the odd scenario that can be finished in a few hours. Thus for those ASLSKers willing to put up with learning more (gasp!) rules, a whole new way to experience the game can be opened up.
How does one sum up the total play value for the ASLSKer, then? It really, truly depends on how much the player is actually going to engage in playing the campaign game. The scenarios are few in number and do not add much, so the product largely revolves around the campaign. This is a more important calculation than it otherwise might be, because by ASLSK standards, DaE is an expensive product. DaE retails at $64, compared to prices of $25 to $36 for previous ASLSK products. So compared to Festung Budapest, it’s a steal, but compared to any ASLSK product, it is a significant investment. It is simply not worth the cost, in terms of play value, if one is unlikely to get substantial play out of the single campaign game. The scenarios alone cannot justify the purchase price (which would not be true if, for example, DaE came with 8 or 10 scenarios). The bottom line is that DaE adds a lot of rules and a lot of cost to the standard ASLSK experience and this may not be for everybody, especially the player who likes ASLSK for the quick, casual gaming experience. It presumably would appeal far more to someone interested in a meatier, more in-depth playing experience, but those are just the sort of ASLSK players who are likely to gravitate, or who may already have gravitated, towards full ASL. It will be interesting to find out whether DaE finds a large, receptive audience or whether it somehow falls between two posts.
The last thing to consider is what Decision at Elst means or offers to the full ASL player. There are really two ways to look at this. The first is from the perspective of seduction. Might an ASLer be more able to lure someone into getting into ASL through a historical module like Elst rather than with the more generic scenarios of a Starter Kit module? The answer is perhaps yes, and with a guiding veteran hand to teach the newbie, it will be relatively easy for them to learn the Elst rules. Thus Elst might possibly be used effectively by an ASL player to bring more people into the fold. And if someone does get into Elst and likes it, the lure of even more meaty historical modules might well bring them into full ASL.
The other way to approach Elst is the perspective of selfish play. In other words, leaving aside issues of recruitment/seduction, what does Elst offer the ASL player as a product on its own? For some ASLers, Elst might actually serve a useful purpose. Because it contains a streamlined version of more or less standard campaign game rules, Elst can be used by ASL players as a way to ease themselves into campaign games generally. The real advantage is that Elst contains none of the complex rules about terrain, rubbling, walking wounded, ammo shortage, and so forth that fill the rulebooks for products like Festung Budapest or Valor of the Guards. Instead, one can concentrate on getting a feel for redrawing the battlefield after scenarios, campaign purchases, and the like. One needs to learn fewer things before getting involved.
Theoretically, Elst can be of service to ASLers in this way, but in practice one must also consider the question of how many ASLers would be willing to put up with the many limitations of the ASLSK rules simply in order to get an easy way into campaign games. Some ASLers might even try to play the Elst campaign game using full ASL rules (concealment, heat of battle, etc.), though this requires some home-brewing.
It is a shame that MMP did not think more strategically about Decision at Elst and try to offer more of value for the ASL player as well as the ASLSK player. They easily could have made and playtested ASL versions of Elst scenarios (and/or a map with full ASL terrain) and could have come up with a full ASL campaign game for Elst. Not only would this have given ASL players more reason to want to buy DaE, but it would have also been of interest to some ASLSKers as well, knowing that if they moved on to full ASL they could, in essence, bring Elst with them to ASL. But throughout the 10-year history of ASLSK, MMP has never made any move towards products that could be played both by ASL and ASLSK players, even though this seems like one of the most natural things to do.
It is hard to predict the long-term reception of DaE. It may be a bit daunting for some ASLSKers, while more scenario-oriented players may not find enough here to be worth the cost. Elst is only of limited interest at best for full ASLers. Its sweet spot clearly consists of those people who might want an extended playing experience without subjecting themselves to full-ASL overhead in rules, but what is not at all clear is how many people in the ASLSK audience fit that bill. It may be a lot, in which case DaE will sell quickly and may be followed by more such modules. Or it may be smaller than hoped; it is simply too hard to figure out in advance. It is also not clear how sexy, or not, people will find the particular subject matter–Market Garden without paratroopers. It is certainly a bold experiment, in any case.