The observant among the ASL audience may have noticed that the World of ASL compendium was just recently updated with a whole bunch of new entries. I thought this might be a suitable time to discuss some of the criticisms or observations made about the World of ASL compendium from time to time. I know from the e-mail that I get, as well as the postings that appear on various ASL-related sites, that the compendium has a fairly large number of fans, people who enjoy reading what the compendium has to say about new (or old) ASL releases. Alas, not everybody is happy with the compendium, and although part of my yearly budget is devoted to sending trained ninja assassins on elimination missions, some of them continue to survive, curse them.
On the other hand, looking at some of these criticisms might be an interesting thing to write about, or to read, so that is what I have decided to do. What follows is a sort of question-and-response piece in which I respond to some of the criticisms, questions, assumptions, or misstatements about the World of ASL compendium. As with the compendium itself, you are free to disagree with, or ignore entirely, any or all of what is said here. The questions/comments are either taken directly from on-line comments that I’ve seen or are paraphrased versions (typically so that they can be more encompassing). In other words, everything that appears here is something that someone has bitched about.
1. I hate that god-awful color scheme (and other comments to that effect).
MP: This may be the single-most popular criticism of the site. I suppose that it is probably a good thing that the most common complaint is fairly superficial. Certainly, an orange-dominated color scheme may not be to everyone’s tastes, and if you don’t like it, well, you have every right not to like it. However, for whatever peculiar reason, the scheme appeals to me personally a great deal, and it is rather ASLish to have orange on stuff, so I think it’s going to stay. Sorry.
2. Whether a product gets a good write-up or not depends on whether or not Pitcavage gets a free review copy or not.
MP: Oh, were it only true that I get all sorts of free copies of ASL stuff. My pocketbook would certainly thank me. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of products that appear on this site were products that I purchased myself, out of my own pocket. Every once in a while, some publisher will provide me with a review copy of something. LFT has done this on a few occasions, so have the Kansas City ASLers and the EastSide Gamers. The Winnipeg ASL Club recently sent me a copy of their Elite Canadians pack. These are, however, lonely exceptions rather than the rule, and I think that any objective reader of all the write-ups would probably not notice any favoritism on this basis (or hopefully any basis).
3. I get the feeling from reading product write-ups that Pitcavage really has a grudge against (Company X/Designer Y).
I should like to note, for the record, that I view my relationship to ASL primarily as one of being a consumer of ASL products. Not as a designer, or website owner, or anything else, just as a consumer. I think it ought to be clear that my product write-ups are written with the consumer in mind. If a publisher comes out with what I think is a great ASL product, I’m going to speak well of it, regardless of my personal opinions about the publisher or designer. It is well known among “hardcore” ASL players that I have written positive write-ups of products made by people for whom I have a personal dislike. And, alas, I have certainly said negative things about products produced by friends of mine (though it is definitely not fun to do so). When I approach a new ASL product, I pretty much ALWAYS want it to be great.
4. Pitcavage is biased in favor of MMP products because he had a scenario pack published by MMP.
Well, I have indeed had a scenario pack published by MMP. I’ve also written many articles for the ASL Journal, published by MMP. Of course, Schwerpunkt published a scenario pack and several articles of mine, too. And Heat of Battle published a scenario pack of mine and reprinted a play aid I designed. Critical Hit published a scenario I designed. Battles Magazine published an article I wrote. The Last Stand reprinted scenarios I designed. I have friends among most major and minor publishers of ASL products, as well as many “freelancers.” That is actually not unusual at all for someone who has been a member of the “hardcore” ASL community for many years. It is a small, somewhat incestuous community, and people certainly get to know each other. I think anybody who has read my write-ups of all the MMP products will realize that some I like and some I don’t. And that goes for most producers. I really don’t like giving a product designed by someone I know a “thumbs down”–I don’t like it at all–but I do it when required. When I work on this website, I have my “consumer” hat on, not my “insider” hat on, and I think the write-ups reflect that. You may feel free to disagree, but I think I’m a pretty objective writer in this regard.
5. Your site is clunky.
It sure is. I have excellent web-design skills–for the period 1995-1996, when websites of mine were written up in Internet magazines (yes, in the early years of the web, there were actually magazines about the web). But I never had the time to keep up with the web and my skills are hopelessly obsolete. Nor do I anticipate finding the time to educate myself anytime in the near or not so near future. So the website is very primitive. On the other hand, one thing that was true in 1995 for the web is still true in 2012: content rules. And I think the content is pretty decent. I did explore how much it would cost to get a professional designer to revamp the site with a database-driven compendium; the estimates were outrageous.
6. You can be a prickly and nitpicking reviewer/Your reviews are a bit on the pompous side.
Well, first let me say something. I don’t claim to write “reviews” on that site. In fact, if you look through the Compendium, you’ll notice that what is there is always referred to as a “write-up” or a “commentary,” but never a review (unless a mention slipped by me somewhere). That has been deliberate from day one of the Compendium. The reason for this is that what I write for some of the commentaries really is a full-fledged review, but this is not always the case (especially for commentaries of products published before 2006, which are very short). In some cases, I may only have limited play experience with the product. In other cases, I may not have actually played the product–only examined and analyzed it (more on this further down). Because of this, I don’t call what I write “reviews.”
However, leaving that aside, am I prickly and nitpicking? Sure. I think the most common approach that gamers take to looking at products is to (unconsciously) start at zero and add something for each cool thing about a product. If a product has a certain amount of coolness, then it is a great product. That is not my approach. My approach is essentially an assumption that an ASL product should be perfect, and each imperfection, small or large, lessens the product accordingly. Also, just because I point out a flaw that you don’t think is important, doesn’t mean that it might not be important for someone else. And vice versa, of course. Because of this, I think it is good to mention all observed potential flaws in a product and leave it as an exercise to you, the reader, to determine which of those flaws you think may be important or not.
Oh, one more thing. The initial drafts of my write-ups are always more negative than the final versions. I usually go through them one last time before posting to tone down the intensity of the language. So you might imagine what my first drafts for certain products could have looked like!
7. Why don’t you update your site more often?
It can really take a long time to update the site. Sometimes a single write-up can take many hours to write. Some write-ups require research on my part, too. A major update can take up to 4 weekends worth of work. I only have so much time, or patience, to devote to the site. Thus I update it several times a year, but give myself time in-between the updates to have a life.
8. Do you own everything that appears on your site?
No. I own the vast majority of items–98+%–but not every one. I am not a compulsive collector and some very rare items have simply eluded me. In those cases, I have depended on the kindness of friends and strangers to allow me to borrow/examine/use those products that I do not own myself.
9. When are your write-ups going to drop the bias against products which focus on large or monster scenarios? / You favor smaller type actions / Bottom line–if you want a good review from Mark–create scenarios that are tourney-sized according to his view
Personally, I prefer scenarios that range from the larger small scenarios to the medium medium-sized scenarios. That’s my personal “sweet spot.” Sometimes I crave a meaty, “all day” scenario. I rarely ever want to play a scenario with a teeny tiny number of units. But my personal preferences in this regard don’t really enter into my write-ups (except that theoretically I might be more inclined to single out a scenario for mention if it hits my sweet spot than if it radically departed from it).
However, my personal scenario size preference is not, in any case, equivalent to my ASL product scenario mix preference. I have a belief, which I explain here, that typically, an ASL product should have scenarios with a range of small, medium, and large scenarios. The reason I believe this has nothing to do with my own scenario preferences, but rather with the basic fact that different ASL players like scenarios of different sizes and a product that only has scenarios that are large (or small) will be limiting its broad appeal in the ASL world. The greater a range a product has, the more ASLers will be able to enjoy it. Thus I quite frequently criticize ASL products (see Oosterbeek Perimeter/Brave But Doomed for one example) for having too high a proportion of small scenarios, just as I may criticize others for having too high a proportion of large scenarios.
I should note too that merely telling readers the scenario size proportions for a particular product (which I try to do for every single product) does not actually come with an implicit critical subtext. It is simply telling you that information, so that you can see how it accords with your own personal preferences.
10. His bias shows / He has an obvious bias and an obvious agenda / I think he is pretty biased
I guess these are mostly from the “anybody who disagrees with me has a bias” crowd. I think I try hard to eliminate bias from my write-ups, and I think it would be difficult for someone really to explain what my “bias” or “agenda” is. I do have several criteria that I use to help me form judgments about products, but I am open about those criteria–they are all explained here–so that anybody reading it can understand where I am coming from. Any evaluator should have criteria and those are mine. I try to make it as transparent as possible.
And I should reiterate that the criteria do not necessarily reflect my personal preferences (though some of them do). Rather, they reflect a belief on my part that ASL products, in general, should not overly limit their own appeal to the ASL audience. One person one suggested that I believed that no scenarios should have Night, OBA or Air Support. Of course, I have nowhere said or implied that. I do suggest, in my criteria, that products should not have too high a proportion of such scenarios. That’s not because of my own preferences (personally, I’m fine with Air Support, lukewarm on Night, and not at all crazy about OBA), but rather because within the ASL community there are a number of people who don’t like one or more of those things. Thus if 8 out of 10 of a product’s scenarios use Night rules, there will be many people who would not enjoy that product very much. That’s why I always mention the number of Night, OBA, or Air Support scenarios in a product, so that people with aversions to those things will know what to expect.
In any case, I try to provide readers with full information about a product, enough so that anybody may be able to determine if a particular product meets or fails to meet THEIR OWN likes and dislikes, not mine.
11. He doesn’t like historical booklets in products
In general, that’s true–at least most of the ones that have appeared, which haven’t been very good, having been written by gamers and/or amateur historians, rather than by professionally trained historians. Here’s a cheerfully snobby rule of thumb: get your medicine from doctors, your car repairs from mechanics, and your history from professionally trained historians. Some of Critical Hit’s historical booklets, which reproduced Center for Military History publications written by real historians, have been okay.
12. What annoys me the most is that he deems anything he doesn’t like as “controversial” or “polarizing.”
Actually, what I deem “controversial” or “polarizing” when I use those phrases in a write-up are things that are, surprise, controversial or polarizing within the ASL community. I may, personally come down on one side or another of an issue, or I may myself not have any opinion on that issue at all, or at least no strong ones. But, again, if something in a product might be an issue to a sizable number of ASLers (regardless of whether or not that number includes me personally), I think it is worth mentioning. Note that calling something “controversial” or “polarizing” is not taking a stand on that issue–it is simply recognizing that there is a debate within the ASL community on that subject.
13. Pitcavage doesn’t play the scenarios before offering up a “review.” He simply looks at the scenario cards, ponders for a while, and then offers up some half-baked judgments. / Since Pitcavage doesn’t play the scenarios before ‘reviewing’ the product, what’s the difference? / Pitcavage’s “reviews” all have a strong positive or negative slant. But without actually playing the scenarios, what is this based on?
This is actually a fairly widely repeated criticism, and often without the slightest bit of justification. First, I should reiterate that I don’t call these “reviews” (see above). However, I have been playing ASL for quite some time now, and for a big chunk of that was playing 80-110 scenarios a year (I have slowed down a bit in recent years). What that means is that I actually have played a lot of scenarios. Someone once posted earlier this year that I had not played any scenarios from Festung Budapest when I did my write-up of that product. I was impressed with their willingness to make pronouncements about my playing experience, if not their accuracy. In fact, not only had I played several scenarios from that product before I wrote my commentary on it, I had even been a playtester! Sometimes I may have played as many as half of the scenarios from a product before I write it up (especially if it gets released at Winter Offensive or ASLOK).
Of course, sometimes I haven’t. Sometimes I may have played only one or two. And sometimes perhaps not any. I have played scenarios from Carnage at Cassino, for example, but did not bother to play any scenarios from its new version, Gustav Graveyard, before writing it up. In general, I am more likely to have played scenarios in scenario packs and less likely to have played scenarios in HASLs. But I do more than simply play scenarios. I also pay attention to the word of mouth within the ASL community about both products and individual scenarios. If I notice a large number of people playing and enjoying a particular scenario in a product, I may mention that scenario as being popular, even if I have not played it myself. I also pay attention to ROAR ratings as well (both for balance as well as enjoyability). In other words, I try to do due diligence.
Lastly, I will also note that one can determine many things about an ASL product without ever playing a single turn of a single scenario of that product. If a map is crappy, people won’t like that fact. If 90% of a product’s scenarios have 10 or more AFVs on a side, it will turn some people off. If a product’s scenarios are full of huge, long SSRs, that will turn some people away. If there are obvious errors on scenario cards, some people won’t be happy. None of that is exactly rocket science.
14. With reprints an exception, Pitcavage writes his commentaries shortly after products come out, then doesn’t come back to them. Thus many have an “initial reaction” feel, even several years later.
It can take me from weeks up to around six months after a product has come out to have a commentary up on it. People usually clamor for me to be faster, not slower.
It isn’t true that I don’t come back to older products. I actually do that to at least some degree, though not perhaps as much as I might. However, I don’t ever announce when I have updated an entry or changed something about it, and I am also usually not likely to re-write an entire entry, as opposed to slipping in another sentence or paragraph, so someone reading it might still get that “initial reaction” feel, even though it might have some language in it added years later.
I am always open to suggestions to go back and revisit certain products (including pre-2006 products that have very short commentaries). I should warn people, though, that some products just don’t get played all that much by the ASL community and there might not be that much more to say about them.
15. I have an ethical issue with Pitcavage, who authors scenarios on one hand and provides critical reviews on the other.
That’s a unique position to take. First, I should note that I have always considered myself an ASL player first and a scenario designer second (at best). I don’t play my own scenarios after they are published, in any case–I only play other people’s scenarios, and why wouldn’t I want to tell people which of those scenarios I’ve enjoyed and which I didn’t, same as any other player?
Second, it’s hard to see how that could even be a negative. There’s a reason why historical journals ask historians to review the works of other historians (and why all scholarly journals do the equivalent)–it’s because they know what they are talking about. The fact that I have some experience as a designer can only lend me greater perspective when commenting on the work of someone else.
The only thing I can think of is that someone making this criticism might think I have something to gain by trashing someone else’s product. The reality is that when I do a negative write-up, the only thing I have a chance of “gaining” is the enmity of the designer/publisher. There is one publisher out there who would not publish anything else by me because of the negative commentaries I made about some of the products he had published. If I were doing this out of self-interest, I’d write nothing but positive reviews, so as to curry favor with publishers….
16. Pitcavage uses his product write-ups to demonstrate his level of commitment to ASL, then uses that to sell the scenario designer’s guide he wrote.
Yikes. If that was my evil plan, then it misfired, because that guide came out in 2006, which coincidentally was the same year the guide sold the most copies. These days, a full six years after release, it sells on average a couple of copies a month. If I were doing the World of ASL compendium just to sell that guide, then that would have to be the worst work-to-result marketing effort in the history of marking!
17. Pitcavage should give numerical ratings for ASL products in different categories, like uniqueness, historicity, professionalism, content, and fun factor.
I would not want to do that, I think, first because it would attempt to quantify things that are not easily quantifiable, but also because it would unfairly hurt some products, especially those products that might be very fun for a small group of people (like Operation Chariot), but probably not as much for the larger ASL audience. Would I rate “fun factor” for that on how much fun I personally would have, or how much fun fans of commando raids would have, or how much fun the ASL community as a whole might have? In a descriptive review, I can say that “lovers of X will like this,” but numberizing everything can’t do that.
18. Pitcavage should have some sort of disclaimer on his “standards” on scenario size. They do not match with many others. What do you expect with someone who thinks 9 squads on a side is medium?
When I call scenarios small, medium, or large, there is a degree of subjectivity that is involved, as I primarily take into account the number of units, but also number of turns, size of the map, certain SSRs, etc. In any case, my categorization in this regard is not meant to be taken in some anal retentive way, but rather only as a rough, relative measure.
I will say that, in the early years of the website, the “units” part of scenario size was roughly this: if both sides had 10 squads or less, it was small. If both sides had at most 16 squads or less, it was medium. If one side had more than 16 squads, then it was large. Vehicles could count as one or two squad-equivalents, depending on different factors.
However, in later years, those standards were relaxed somewhat, so that vehicles generally counted only as one squad equivalent, the “small” range for infantry-only scenarios was increased, and in general there was a little bit more relaxation, so that some scenarios I might at one point have put at the small end of large, were now in the medium camp, and so forth.
Bottom line is, take the scenario size categorizations as rough estimates, not rigid and inflexible tabulations.
19. Pitcavage seems to have a compulsive negative attachment to OBA as he mentions it in every write-up as if it were a critical make or break of the product.
I mention OBA because, as noted above, it is one of several rules sections that some people don’t like. Some people don’t like OBA because of the complexity, others don’t like it because whether or not one successfully gets OBA can play too much weight in the outcome of a scenario (try playing Hill 621 without OBA). Because of that, I note how much of a role OBA has in an ASL product, and I might be critical a disproportionate amount of scenarios contained OBA, because that would mean part of the ASL community would not get enjoyment out of those scenarios. I do not think that an ASL product without OBA is better than an ASL product with OBA; it is all about proportionality.
Leaving aside those times in which I actually do mention the opinions of others (usually collectively) in the ASL community, I am indeed the final arbiter on my site. It’s my site. Feel free to start your own website that comprehensively describes and comments on every ASL product created.
Bonus question: How can I help?
I guess I’m supposed to say that money would be nice, because it costs a lot to maintain this compendium (buying Critical Hit reprints solely in order to find out how they differ from previous editions is not cheap), but I have never really solicited money. In the decade (so far) that the site has existed, I think three people have donated money to it, which was nice of them, and unexpected.
Instead, what I will actively solicit is photographs of ASL products (old and new). I am a shitty photographer. I have no training, skills, or patience. The better a photographer you are, the more I’d like to see you send me images that would beat the crap out of images I have. I’d give credit on the site for any I used. They should be jpegs and ideally somewhere between 40k to 100k in size (use the size of images on the site as rough guidelines). One way you could help me make the site better is by providing better images.
Thanks in advance!
(not that anybody has read this far!)