Today is January 1. The Old Year has exited the map and the New Year is on the board edge, waiting for the MPh so it can enter. A propitious time, then, to take a look back at the year 2009 as it pertains to the Advanced Squad Leader world and even to offer a few awards and plaudits.
Some things are universal. We all had worse dice luck than we deserved, while all of our wins were achieved through skill alone. None of us got to play as much as we wanted to, and we all waited for ASL products that never appeared.
How many ASL products did appear in 2009? Yesterday, the year’s last ASL items arrived at my doorstep, Le Franc Tireur #12 and Command & Strategy #7 (a general wargaming magazine with a minor amount of ASL content; see upcoming write-up in the World of ASL compendium). This means that , aside from reprints and re-issues, there were around 16 issues of general wargaming magazines that had at least one ASL or ASLSK scenario in them, about 9 issues of ASL related newsletters (including two issues of Dispatches from the Bunker, which includes scenarios), about 15 third party ASL modules and scenario packs, two official ASL products, and one official ASLSK product. In addition, there were a multitude of problematical “Wild Bill Wilder” items (see below).
All in all a nice catch. Looking at them collectively, though, we can see that three themes or issues seemed to be particularly noteworthy in 2009. One is positive or neutral, depending on one’s point of view, while the other two themes are more troubling.
The Year of the Specialty Product. ASL’s greatest strength is its ability to represent virtually any theater or action in the World War II era. Despite this, many designers have no particular desire to flex their muscles and are content in creating scenarios on familiar subjects and themes. But some designers do look a little farther afield, developing pet interests and projects on less familiar subjects. One of the very first third party ASL products, for example, was Soldiers of the Negus, which looked at the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36. The year 2009, though, seems to have blown away all previous years in the number and variety of ASL publications on obscure subjects and themes. While products on familiar themes, such as Normandy (three products!) and the Eastern Front, did appear, they were greatly outnumbered by products featuring much more esoteric themes.
The tone was set in March, when Xavier Vitry and his Le Franc Tireur released their St. Nazaire: Operation Chariot module, designed by Andy Hershey. This beautiful module allows players to recreate the British commando raid on St. Nazaire, France, in 1942. Two months later, Le Franc Tireur followed up this effort with their From the Cellar Pack 4, a themed scenario pack that features rules and scenarios for the Russian Civil War of the 1920s. This pack combined high production values with considerable originality.
Not to be outdone, Heat of Battle’s lone 2009 ASL release was a scenario pack by Jay Long on the Long March during the first phase of the Chinese Civil War. From this epic 1930s confrontation between the Chinese Communists and the Guomindang emerged the PLA that would eventually overthrow the Guomindang regime and establish Communist rule in China. But Jay and Heat of Battle were matched by a group of Swedish ASL players who banded together to create a very attractive product on one of the most obscure subjects of all: Swedish volunteers in World War II (Sweden, after all, was a neutral country).
Other ASL products also explored unusual or obscure areas. Rally Point 4, published by Schwerpunkt, was a themed scenario pack in which all the scenarios were set in the last week of the war in Europe. And Kansas City ASLers debuted at their annual tournament a small scenario pack that featured nothing but partisan warfare.
For ASLers who get out of their comfort zone when playing something not labeled with Normandy, Arnhem, the Bulge, Stalingrad or Kursk, this 2009 trend might not have been a pleasant one. And few people are interested in all topics, so even someone interested in St. Nazaire might have no interest at all in the Long March. A smaller potential audience is the price one pays for being esoteric. All in all, though, it was gratifying to see designers stretch the ASL system to its limits in 2009, and we probably ought to be grateful to them for giving us something new.
The Wilder Kingdom. A far less happy theme of 2009 was the Wild Bill Wilder phenomenon. Bill Wilder, someone who had dabbled in various tactical board and computer wargames over the years, began in late 2008 to churn out what would probably best be described as ASL pseudo-products. These were amateur ASL mini-modules on a variety of themes, most of them “modern” (i.e., the 1950s up to the 2000s). These mini-modules would contain a small number of unplaytested scenarios, some undeveloped rules, and varying numbers of hand-cut cardboard counters. Bill Wilder would make these a few at a time, then sell them on E-bay, where a coterie of obsessive-compulsive ASL completists would bid absolutely outrageous amounts of money (one recent item went for $378) for the unplayable products.
Once Bill Wilder started getting incredible amounts of money for his initial efforts, he seemed to go into high gear in 2009, releasing more than 15 of these awful pseudo-products through the course of the year. And yet, despite the well-deserved reputation he garnered for making complete crap, there were still people willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money for his pseudo-products, thus guaranteeing he would continue to do so.
You might ask why you should care about such a situation, especially if, as one would hope, you yourself would refrain from purchasing them. I will offer two reasons. First, Bill Wilder is dragging ASL’s good name through the mud with what he does. People on gaming sites have even mocked ASLers because there are people willing to spend so much money on such obviously amateurish and low-quality items.
Second, the Wilder pseudo-products are a slap in the face to the many ASL designers and publishers who spend incredible amounts of time and effort to try to create playable, fun, interesting and accurate products for ASL. Contrast the cynical, slapdash efforts of Bill Wilder with the dedication and craftsmanship of people like Tom Morin, Chas Smith, Dave Roth, Bill Cirillo, or many others. These are people who have spent years trying to design quality HASLs; they don’t take an afternoon to slap something together and then “release” it. They are the ones who deserve your money, not Bill Wilder.
On this issue let me say one final word, to those people who continue to purchase Bill Wilder products: YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. CONTROL YOURSELF. The rats will always come back if you leave cookies on the floor.
The MMP Publishing Problem. The last major theme in 2009 was the near absence of official ASL releases. The year 2009 saw only two official ASL original products come out, both scenario packs (the Turning the Tide pack, which ported some old Squad Leader scenarios into ASL, and Action Pack #5). Moreover, both of these packs were released in January 2009, which meant that ASLers had to suffer through an entire year without another official release.
Alas, this was also a major theme of 2008 and 2007 and 2006 as well. Similar to what occurred in 2009, the year 2008 saw expectations raised with the January release of Valor of the Guards, then dashed as the only other releases that year were Action Pack #4 and a mini-campaign game in Operations Special Issue #1. The year 2007 was even more disappointing, with only one new official ASL product released (Action Pack 3). In 2006, there was the traditional January release (Armies of Oblivion), followed by nothing more than ASL Journal 7 (still the latest Journal published, by the way).
The paucity of new official ASL releases is as perplexing and inexplicable as it is dismaying. Releasing a new ASL item is as close to a sure thing in terms of sales that the entire wargaming community has. Official ASL products sell in greater numbers than most other wargames (even many third party products, with a much more limited market penetration, often sell well). The ASL audience is positively ravenous for product; they have money to spend, and it seems they would rather give it to MMP, if they could, than to a third party publisher. Nor is there a shortage of designers out there. Indeed, one reason why some designers have said they chose to self-publish or to publish with a third party publisher is because they despaired of how long it might take their design to come out if they submitted it to MMP. For loyal ASLers, such a situation could only be frustrating. They want to give MMP their money, if only there were something they could buy.
So here we are again, at the threshold of another January. Once more, a couple of new ASL items seem likely to be released during the month (a new Action Pack and, finally, a new Journal). And after that? Will it be another barren year? One certainly hopes not. In a tacit admission that there was a major problem that needed addressing, in mid-2009, MMP announced that they were hiring Chas Argent as a full-time ASL developer; he started work later in the year. A move long overdue, I think. Not enough time has passed to see if this move will have the effect that ASL players hope it will. I believe Chas certainly has the potential to increase the ASL flow (although there are more issues involved than merely development) and I wish him the best possible New Year, ASL-wise. But my expectations have been raised before only to have them dashed by cruel reality, so I—and all of you—will simply have to hope, wait, and watch. May we all have a happier 2010, in terms of official ASL, than we had from 2009.
The Despies. To end our look back on 2009 on a positive note, I’d like to offer a few semi-official Desperation Morale awards for some of the year’s notable achievements. Let’s call them the “Despies.” I label them semi-official because the reality is that it sometimes takes several years for the true value and worth of an ASL product to be fully understood (as few of us can play all of a product’s scenarios and/or campaign games all at once). To be fairest, these awards should probably be given out in 2012. But I do enough waiting around for ASL products to be released, I don’t need to find other things to wait on. So let’s jump straight to it, shall we? On to the Despies!
Despie #1: Noteworthy Achievement – Publisher. The judges mulled over this one for weeks, and sometimes even slightly postponed episodes of debauchery in order to consider on the matter. Still, I think the most impressive publisher in 2009 was certainly Le Franc Tireur, which managed to release three major ASL products this year, all of high production value. LFT’s St. Nazaire module contained beautiful components and great attention to detail, while its From the Cellar Russian Civil War pack is one of the more original and colorful ASL releases we have seen in some time. Its just-released latest issue of LFT Magazine, issue #12, is flawed somewhat by a just-discovered printing error in the included geomorphic mapboard (the resolution of which has not yet been announced), but nevertheless contains a variety of ASL goodness. What is perhaps most impressive of all is that the main person behind LFT, Xavier Vitry, is a serving French Army officer who has had to coordinate an international coterie of writers, designers, playtesters, artists, and printers, all while stationed in the Caribbean.
Despie #2: Noteworthy Achievement – HASL Release. Another tough decision. I’d say it’s an honor just to be nominated, except that we don’t have a nomination process. While St. Nazaire was certainly well-done, and an obvious runner-up, I’d say the edge actually goes to another geographically Gallocentric product, Critical Hit’s First Wave at Omaha. What is perhaps most impressive about FWaO is that such an ambitious product (though it only covers half of Omaha beach; the other half is coming) was released at all. Over the years, several Omaha designs were started, never to be completed. What is also impressive is the relative simplicity and brevity of the rules. It would be extraordinarily easy for an Omaha HASL to be bogged down in endless special rules and chrome. FWaO, however, does a good job of keeping things straightforward and simple; one does not need to memorize a whole host of additional rules. The maps are attractive, the counters (especially the vehicle counters) somewhat less so. The only real flaw of the scenario is that too many of the scenarios are too small; there aren’t enough meatier scenarios in the mix. There is, however, a huge invasion scenario. It is a product well worth looking at.
Despie #3: Noteworthy Achievement – Scenario Pack Release. The award here probably would have been a tie, had I not resolved that there would be absolutely no tied results in the very first Despies, no matter how hard it was for us to make up our fragile little minds. So let me announce first the very, very close runner-up, the Swedish Volunteers Pack, which was a fine and impressive achievement all around. Action Pack #5 was also nice. But the actual award goes to—well, heck, it goes to some more friggin’ Swedes, because it goes to Friendly Fire Pack #5. Over the course of the past five years, the Friendly Fire Packs have been amassing an ever greater collective reputation. Friendly Fire Pack #5 does nothing to dent it. It is a nice collection of varied, well-designed, and well-playtested scenarios. You really get your money’s worth with these scenarios. What is it with these Swedes? Maybe they have nothing better to do during the long winters.
Despie #4: The Lt. Aldo Raine Achievement Award. The last Despite is a little bit different, as it is intended not to recognize a significant contribution to ASL simply in the last year, but rather each year to highlight a different contributor who has really benefited the ASL community in some way. There are so many potential people and groups to recognize, from tournament directors to designers to podcasters to others, but the inaugural Lt. Aldo Raine Achievement Award goes to Vic Provost and his Bunker Crew for their sterling work in producing the Dispatches from the Bunker newsletter. It is hard to sustain any hobby newsletter over the long-term, and all who have done so deserve acknowledgment, but Dispatches from the Bunker goes further and includes fully playtested scenarios in each and every issue. It has been coming out for so long that sometimes it seems in danger of being taken for granted, but here in the hallowed halls of Desperation Moraledom, we definitely don’t take it for granted. And that is why we think Vic and the Bunkerites deserve the Aldo Raine award.
On that pleasant note, I’d like to finish by wishing everyone in the ASL community across the world a happy, healthy, and safe New Year. May all your opponents point out your SAN, may none of your Critical Hits be duds, and may all of your ASLOK opponents be well-groomed and well-behaved. I hope you’ve enjoyed the inaugural column of the Desperation Morale Blog.