Some ASL players never surrender. As long as they have a mathematical chance of winning a scenario, no matter how astronomical the odds against them, they will keep playing, even if it means hours of additional play with no meaningful chance of victory. I’m not crazy about such die-hard play, because it can often be discourteous to your opponent. If they really, truly have beaten you, be a man and acknowledge it—don’t continue to play for hours because of that .0000001% chance of victory.
However, more common than unrealistic play-to-the-enders are the players who give up the ship when they still have not merely a mathematical but even a very real chance of winning a scenario. They may still have the time, resources, and position to win the scenario, but what they no longer have is the will. Psychologically, they are already beaten.
Some ASLers are inveterate capitulators. I know several ASLers whom I’ve played multiple times but have never really finished a scenario with them—they have always thrown the towel in early, even sometimes far too early. Some of these ASLers have “glass jaws”—an early setback, such as a run of bad luck or a play mistake, causes disproportionate demoralization, to the point where they lose the will to continue. Some ASLers let themselves get too “psyched” when playing a more experienced player and mentally set themselves up for defeat. And there are some ASLers out there who very simply are horrible judges of their own relative position in a scenario, gauging the scenario as lost when in fact their position may be substantially stronger than they estimate.
Most ASLers don’t routinely concede early defeat so routinely, but virtually all of us have some incidents in our gaming past in which we accepted a loss when we ought not have. Moreover, the less experienced we are, the more we are likely make such a concession. Sometimes, later, we realize we should have fought on. Most likely, we never do realize that mark in the loss column could have ended up in the win column had we not been so ready to concede. In other words, we all occasionally misgauge our chances of winning a scenario.
For some reason, players seem most likely to underestimate their position when they are attacking. Perhaps this is because defenders may often be able to avoid personal morale checks by simply hoping for some good luck with defensive fire shots—that this will help them salvage their situation.
All this raises the question, then—how can you minimize the chances of failing a personal morale check? Or, to put it another way, how can you accurately assess your chances of winning a scenario that seems to have been going badly? This question is especially important for novice or journeyman ASLers, who may not have yet evolved a more sophisticated ability to gauge mid-scenario positions. How can you make sure you don’t needlessly gack a personal morale check?
Well, it turns out that if you don’t necessarily trust your own instincts, there are actually some measures you can take to help you judge whether the scenario has slipped from your fingers or you still have a reasonable fighting chance. In other words, there are some things you can look for to help you double-check your own instincts.
Let’s go through some of these mid-scenario self-assessment measures from the attacker’s perspective.
1) Check the Victory Conditions. By this I don’t mean read the Victory Conditions, but rather assess them. Leaving aside things that your opponent might do, just how far are you from achieving the needed victory conditions. This assessment is short and simple; basically, the question you want to answer is whether your chance of victory at this point is more than mathematical. All you need is a rough sense of how many “ifs” there are.
For example, if you have to exit 20 CVP in order to win, 1) how many points do you still have to spare, and 2) how many of your points need astronomical luck to make if off the map? If it turns out that you can’t spare any more casualties, and 10 of your 20 CVP clearly have to have astronomical luck in order to survive the trip to the map edge, then you may be well and truly screwed. On the other hand, if you have a few points to spare, and/or if enough of your forces can get off the map as long as they have reasonable or even unreasonable (but not astronomical) luck, then perhaps you should keep the helmet on.
Similarly, if the VC require a certain number of buildings to be taken, you can make a list of how many “ifs” need to be accomplished. How long is the “if” chain? “If I can break this unit and take that building, and bypass freeze this unit to do that, and move to here so that I can advance to close combat in that building and….” If your “if” chain becomes so long that you have trouble even keeping track of all the things that need to go exactly right in order to win, with no margin for error at all, then you may be right to be a bit demoralized. But if your “if” chain is well under two digits long, and if there even a small margin where something can go wrong and not mean defeat, then perhaps you should soldier on.
2) Assess Time and Space. Closely associated with #1 above is the need to assess where you are in your scenario in terms of time and position. How much time do you have left in the scenario and how far do you have to go to accomplish your goals? When many players try to do this assessment, they approach it the wrong way, taking only negative inferences away from it. For our purposes, time assessment is simple. Does the time remaining in the scenario confer more than a mathematical chance of winning? If so, then you are good to go. Even this is usually important only when scenarios have exit victory conditions or big building control victory conditions (since it can take time to clear out a large multi-level building). Space assessment is similar: all you really need to know is (taking terrain into consideration) whether you can get to where you need to go without having to CX your entire force at every opportunity for the rest of the scenario, doing nothing but moving and ignoring enemy fire? If you can, you are good to go.
The reason—for the narrow purposes of avoiding a personal morale check—that you don’t really typically have to worry overmuch about time and space except under these extreme circumstances is that it turns out that it is possible to cover quite a bit of ground very fast in ASL (considering typical scenario sizes) and it is also possible to recover quite rapidly from setbacks. In other words, a lot can happen in a turn, so if you have any time to spare, then your position is stronger than you might have thought it was. The corollary to this is that unless a scenario is more than half-way over, then you should rarely ever let yourself take a personal morale check. As we’ll see below, there is a lot you can do to help yourself or hurt your foe in a single turn. If you have time to spare, then you have time to care.
3) Assessing your resources. Now we get to the nitty gritty. It is my opinion that, in the majority of cases where a premature surrender occurs, they occur because of the friction of war. “Everything is very simple in war,” the famed military theorist Clausewitz wrote, “but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.” You will understand ASL a lot better if you read this brief chapter. Everything Clausewitz says applies to ASL. No matter how perfect the plan, reality imposes its own imperfections.
Take this example. An infantry company starts an attack against two enemy platoons in an ASL scenario. But here a unit is broken. Over here a leader is pinned, meaning the squads stacked with him cannot move the extra hex they were intended to move. And over there a hidden Wire counter entangles another unit. After two turns, instead of an entire company sharing the brunt of an attack, some units are in the lead, others are further back, their progress having been hampered in some way, while still others may even be stopped, temporarily or permanently. The defending enemy platoons find themselves facing not an entire company but rather only a platoon or so worth of attacking infantry. Is it any wonder that this attack stalls?
And this sort of situation happens in ASL ALL THE TIME. Units get separated, strung out, diverted from their purpose, surprised, incapacitated, thwarted. No ASL player can be a Montgomery, lining up every duck in a row; they have to be able to improvise, to work with what they have where they have it. But sometimes the mere friction of war results in a player not necessarily getting there “firstest with the mostest,” or even the enoughest. Attacks in ASL can stall due to nothing more complicated than the friction of war just as easily as they do in real war.
So, here’s the thing. Friction in ASL is inevitable. To greater or lesser degrees, it always occurs. But some ASL players don’t know how to handle friction. Instead, they survey the cardboard battlefield and see an attack that failed. They see that they only have three good order squads in the vicinity of four enemy squads. Now things have gone so bad that the attacker is even outnumbered at the key point of contact!
But the secret to friction in ASL is that it can largely be managed. Friction can slow an attack, or even cause it to stumble, but friction itself cannot usually stop an attack unless the attacker lets it. When the attacker realizes that friction has diluted his forces to the point where they are not sufficiently effective, he must regroup.
That’s what this section header (“Assessing your resources”) asks you to do. Has your attack seemingly failed? First, assess what tools you really have at your disposal. Are there units a bit further back who can be brought into the fray? Are there broken units that can be rallied? Sure, your 9-1 may look great stacked with some machine gun toters, but he may be of more use rallying some squads back into action. Are there weapons that can be fixed? Are there units or vehicles or other resources that you haven’t yet adequately brought to bear? Some players are so aggressive in ASL that they feel they can’t spare a turn to regroup, yet attacking with insufficient forces is no more likely to produce success. So the first thing to assess is what you can bring to bear that is not in action right now. Veteran ASLers know that the squad that broke on turn 2 may actually be the squad that eventually rallies and later wins them the scenario in turn 7. But if you give up on turn 3, you never get a chance to see that happen.
The other thing to consider is whether or not you can use what resources you have in a different way. In other words, make sure you have not developed tunnel vision. Some ASLers can sometimes unconsciously lock themselves into a form of tunnel vision, perceiving only one route to victory or fixating on one obstacle. For example, an attack may stall because of an enemy machinegun position and the attacker comes to think that he cannot succeed unless he eliminates this position first (the Stalingrad mindset, perhaps). To make sure that you have not unwittingly fallen into this mindset yourself, when performing your resources assessment, also ask yourself whether or not you can use any of the resources you have in different ways. Perhaps you can bypass an obstacle rather than try to take it. Perhaps you can divert its attention with a sacrificial unit in order to allow other units to make more fruitful moves.
Taking a fresh look at the battlefield is key to salvaging your personal morale. Demoralized players often fail to see options potentially open to them, focusing more on perceived obstacles instead. They lose sight of their own strengths and their own potential and overestimate the potential of the enemy. This creates a powerful feedback loop to which players can sometimes completely succumb. The key is to get out of the loop and try to look at your position fresh. This can be hard to do sometimes. Let me offer one suggestion. Sometimes a five minute break can work wonders. It seems like a silly little thing, but sometimes getting up from the table, stretching, getting something to drink, whatever, can reset your brain a little bit, like a breath of fresh air. If the scenario is halfway over and you are feeling a personal morale check come on, take that little break, get up, stretch, move around. Then and only then come back to the table and do your assessment of your resources and how you can use them. Sometimes, you discover that your position may not be great at all, but it was not as hopeless as you were starting to think it was.
4) Assessing Your Opponent. Just as you may have underestimated your own resources, sometimes you come to view your opponent’s position as invulnerable and you despair of ever having any effect on him. However, defenses fail all the time in ASL. A key weapon breaks, a key defender cowers, a helpful sniper breaks or pins somebody, or drops a leader—all these things routinely happen. Every veteran ASL player has at times seen a position collapse because a key unit in a key place somehow failed to do or was prevented from doing its job.
So the first thing you need to do is to try to see your defending opponent’s position as it really, realistically is. In this assessment phase, you don’t necessarily need to come up with a specific plan to defeat a particular enemy unit or position, you only have to see that it can be defeated, because if it can be, then the scenario may be worth playing on. Keep in mind that in ASL scenarios, by their very nature, the defender will have limited resources. He will be weaker than the attacker, at least at the outset. Rarely does an ASL defender have a ton of redundancy.
One of the first things to do, then, is to examine enemy defensive positions. Basically, what you are looking for (always keeping in mind your specific victory conditions and how defeating enemy units can help you achieve those conditions), is enemy brittleness. Brittleness in ASL can be defined as a combination of vulnerability and lack of redundancy. In other words, an enemy unit may be powerful, but there are circumstances in which it may be rendered much less powerful. Similarly, an enemy position may look strong, but perhaps the loss of a key unit might make it far weaker. It is the lack of “backup” units or mutually supporting units that make an enemy position brittle.
Looking for enemy brittleness can help you understand your strengths versus his true strengths or weaknesses. Brittleness comes in many varieties. Any unit that can cower is to some degree brittle because a bad die roll can sacrifice much of its ability to project fire onto an attacker. Cowering can also mess up firelanes or even prevent support weapons from ever having a chance to be used. Low morale units are brittle, especially if not in protective terrain like stone buildings, because they can be broken easily (and may possibly double cower). Support weapons with low breakdown numbers are brittle. Low firepower units can be brittle because they can bring less fire to bear on an enemy, especially in high-TEM terrain (it is not much of a risk to use non-assault movement to move into a stone building adjacent to an enemy 3-4-7 squad).
Examples of less brittle units include units stacked with a leader (no cowering), elite or 1st line British units (also no cowering), elite or first line Japanese units (who are stealthy, who step-reduce, and who have more flexibility in terms of final protective fire) and 8- or 9-morale units (which also can more easily take the risk of final protective fire).
Enemy positions are most brittle when they are not supported by other enemy units or positions. This makes them extremely vulnerable to bad luck (such as a sniper) and also may make them overwhelmable (either to assault them or to bypass them). Often a defending position may look strong, especially if it is a squad with a machinegun and a leader, but if that stack is not supported by other units which can also fire on key hexes, the position is not as inherently strong as it might look at first glance. And if that position falls, or is neutralized or bypassed, your opponent’s entire defense might seriously be compromised.
Because of this, it is important for any assessment to examine enemy brittleness. If every position is mutually supportive, if there are backup defending units everywhere, well, things may not look so great. But few defenders have that sort of luxury and most defenders will be spread thin somewhere. Discovering these brittle points may give you the heart to carry on.
I should note up front that there is one sort of defender situation which can rightly make an attacker quail, and this is a defensive position situated such that, in order to win, the attacker must brave a true gantlet of fire. For example, you need to capture building X in order to win, but the only way to get to building X is to somehow move through a large number of open ground hexes, all of which are subject to substantial enemy fire and/or residual fire. It is extraordinarily difficult to survive such a gantlet and it virtually never happens.
If your only chance to win is to brave such a gantlet of fire, then your opponent definitely did outplay you, defending well enough not only to have surplus forces, but to have all these forces positioned to thwart your suicidal charge up the street. Some attackers console themselves with the thought, “Well, I made it to the last turn, but couldn’t get that one building,” but they are fooling themselves. They had their ass handed to them; it just took until the last turn for that ass-whupping to play itself out. If, in your assessment, you realize that you must face that dreaded gantlet of fire, things are not looking good for you.
On the other hand, one thing that often does paralyze players when assessing things for a personal morale check need not really do so. Here I’m referring to HIP units. Some players, especially less experienced ones, when assessing the battlefield, will also think to himself, “and beyond all that, he’s still got that HIP AT gun. I’m doomed!” Part of the problem is that, because the unit is invisible, they see it EVERYWHERE, giving it a reach and danger that it simply doesn’t possess. Regardless of where it is, that HIP gun is not everywhere, it is SOMEWHERE, and although that somewhere may be very good, it may quite possibly be somewhere quite bad, somewhere where it has little chance to affect the scenario at all. The attacker, when making a self-assessment, simply cannot assume that the HIP unit is optimally placed and, in fact, he can effectively leave it out of his personal morale check assessment altogether. Concern yourself with what you can see, not with what you can’t.
That’s really all there is to it. It is not rocket science. When the scenario hasn’t gone your way, and you are wondering whether to continue, this is what you need to do. First, clear your head. Second, do a quick check to confirm that the victory conditions are still achievable without needing astronomical luck (even if you will require a fair amount of luck). Third, assess your own forces, and ask what more you can bring to bear and whether or not there are additional avenues by which you can bring to bear your forces. Lastly, assess your opponent’s forces, looking especially for brittleness (whether units or positions) against which you can deploy your resources.
Often, by making this assessment, you can see that the light at the end of the tunnel hasn’t winkled out altogether just quite yet. Often, the scenario is actually worth playing through. You may, in the end, still not win, but you’ll have made it a much closer fight and you’ll have given your opponent his money’s worth. And if, after making this assessment, you realize that you truly do have no options other than hoping for astronomical luck, well, then you can tip your chess king over and shake your opponent’s hand, knowing that it was a sober assessment of the situation and not a psychological collapse that motivated your decision to concede. But if you learn how to do a sober mid-scenario assessment, the odds are that you’ll be playing a lot more of those scenarios to the end than you were before.
Very true. I have seen victory slip from my grasp many a scenario, because my opponent kept his head in the game and never gave up.
And I too have on occasion thrown in the towel after a string of one too many mishaps. But I can only recall doing it when attacking. I’ll always defend to the bitter end.
Good to see substantive work like this appear on your blog, Mark.
Tim Hundsdorfer says
Case in point from a Pitcavage scenario:
This is Eddie Zeman from the original HOB crew.
I have a favor to ask if you can keep all of this “clandestine” (and even removing this from your blog after you have read it).
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
PS. great tips! Especially #4.