There’s a witty apocryphal quote often attributed to Josef Stalin: “Quantity has a quality all its own.” One can easily see the relevance of such a concept to the massive Red Army.
But it turns out, when you start to think about it, quality itself has qualities all its own as well. By that I mean there are different ways to even think about quality–and what I might consider quality, you might not, or perhaps you might agree it has quality, but for different reasons. This leads us to an interesting question–what is “quality” when it comes to ASL? If you are reading these words in the first place, you probably know that I have spent a lot of time evaluating the quality of ASL products. And when I start thinking about that question, I quickly come to realize that quality can mean many different things with regard to an ASL product. Not only can different ASL products be good in different ways, but different ASLers may place different values on those different attributes.
Vive la difference, of course, but it can get a little confusing. So, in an attempt to shed a little light on this subject, I decided to try to organize my thoughts around the subject of “quality” in ASL, and share them with you.
In thinking about it, I’ve outlined three main different types of ASL “quality,” but before I delve into those, I’d like to discuss a couple of general quality-related issues about ASL.
Quality Is Subjective – Sort Of
So, sure, there are many aspects to ASL products that, judged narrowly, can objectively be considered better or worse. Some countersheets have better die-cutting than others. Some paper is higher quality than other kind of paper. However, people may not equally value different aspects of an ASL product. Some may prioritize the physical quality of components; others may put more value on play quality. ASL components have a lot of aspects which a relatively small number of people may care a great about, one way or the other, but which are just not that important to many other ASLers.
There are some areas, such as map artwork, in which one ASL product may clearly be superior to another in certain cases (bad map artwork certainly does exist), but there may also be two ASL products that use two different styles of art, and some may like the art of Product A better and others may like the art of Product B better. Sometimes things are just a matter of taste.
Some subjective aspects, such as subject matter interest, are unrelated to quality. Just because a particular subject doesn’t interest you does not mean the product may not be quality. Nor does an ASL product on a subject matter you like make it of a higher quality. I may not care very much for ASL products on the subject of the invasion of Tarawa, but that does not make any of them inferior products. That is just an issue of personal taste.
Finally, quality is not the same as value for cost. One can view quality as an issue entirely separate from price. There are high-quality ASL products that cost an arm and a leg and others that are bargains–and the same is true for poor-quality ASL products. Don’t confuse quality and price.
Quality Is Relative – Sort Of
In the strictest sense, quality is probably not relative. But what I argue here is that there are certain areas where perhaps one should consider the quality of certain ASL products in their proper context or contexts. Here are some general principles to consider:
Official vs. Unofficial Products. It is reasonable to hold Avalon Hill or Multi-Man Publishing to a higher standard of quality than one might hold third party publishers, who typically will have fewer resources at their disposal and in some cases may even be doing what they are doing largely as a labor of love. It is, frankly, more disappointing when an official publisher screws something up than when a third party publisher does. I’m immediately reminded of the 1980s, when I bought the Squad Leader module Crescendo of Doom, only to be crushed by the fact that all the counters were inadequately die-cut and the fronts of the counters had been printed on their reverse face and vice versa. Then, a few years later, I purchased G. I.: Anvil of Victory, only to discover the geoboards were poorly rendered, with an awful color scheme, and the new counters featured soldier icons standing in static positions. Not only did these factors cause me to play CoD or GI hardly at all, they also were a factor in my decision not to purchase ASL when it first came out.
Older Products vs. Newer Products. Physical production was a much more difficult thing in the 1980s or 1990s than it would be later, especially for third party publishers. For a third party product even to have die-cut counters was a rare thing in those days. While today, the countersheets from a 1990s-era publisher like Kinetic Energy might be considered average–or even slightly below average, because they are a little thin–back then they were so impressive that they helped give Kinetic Energy a reputation higher than the play quality of some of its products might actually have warranted. In 2020, however, there have been so many improvements in desktop publishing, in art software, in print-on-demand, in manufacturing options, and in other areas, that it is easier–though never quite easy–to publish an ASL product with high quality components than it used to be. ASL scenario design has also evolved over the years, with ASL scenarios typically being shorter, smaller, and more dynamic than their older counterparts. While it is still perfectly legitimate to judge all ASL products by the same standards, you might want to consider judging 80s ASL products by their 80s peers, 90s products by their 90s peers, and so on. It might be a little more fair.
Newbies vs. Veterans. For a third party publisher, often getting that first product out the gate at all is hard enough, let alone achieving perfection. But a publisher that has been around 10 or 20 years has much less excuse for putting out a shoddy product–they’ve had years to learn lessons, improve products, fix weaknesses, and so forth. There’s still no guarantee of perfection, but it’s perfectly reasonable to cut a new ASL publisher a little slack, in the hopes that they might improve over time in design quality, component quality or whatever else might be a little rough around the edges at first. It’s instructive to compare the physical quality of early products from, say, Le Franc Tireur or Lone Canuck Productions to the physical quality of their most recent works. Though it is not universal (sadly enough), it is generally true that usually the physical quality and often the design quality of the products of a third party publisher will improve over time.
Apples vs. Oranges. Finally, when judging the quality of an ASL product, it is important to keep in mind the nature of the product, its scope, and the intent of the designer, and to only compare or contrast the product to products of similar nature, scope and intent. In other words, don’t think that a scenario pack containing 10 scenarios and nothing else is necessarily of lower quality than a large historical module like Festung Budapest. You’d be comparing two things that were not meant to be compared. You can’t say that a Ford F150 pickup truck is higher quality than a Prius simply because it is bigger, or more expensive. They are two very different products built for different purposes. Compare a scenario pack to other scenario packs, a historical module to other historical modules, a core module to other core modules, and so forth.
Okay, having said that, let’s look at the different types of ASL quality one can talk about. There are a huge number of different things one can evaluate in an ASL product, but for conceptual purposes, I have tried to group them into three more-or-less rational categories: Design Quality, Play Quality, and Component Quality. We can take them each in turn.
Design Quality brings together more of the conceptual and intellectual aspects of ASL products, including some aspects that may be a little behind-the-scenes. At the very least, we can look at these subcategories:
Originality/Innovation. Is the product in question original, or does it simply expand, or even merely repeat, products that have gone before it? One can think of originality in terms of subject matter–for example, Heat of Battle’s Blood Reef Tarawa was the first amphibious ASL historical module, while Ruweisat Ridge, by Critical Hit, was the first DTO historical module. In this one area, Critical Hit has certainly surpassed other ASL publishers, which in a way is a shame, because of its low marks for quality on so many other measures.
But one can also think of this category in terms of innovation–what is something in ASL that no one had attempted before? As I’ve mentioned before, innovation is in shorter supply in ASL than we might want it to be, but nevertheless there have been products that have served as landmarks, including Red Barricades, SASL, and Brevity Assault, each of which pioneered a new way to play ASL.
Historicity/Realism. This is a tricky area, because sometimes realism comes at the expense of play value, and vice versa. Moreover, I might argue a little cynically that many ASLers say they want more realism but what they really want is to be tricked into thinking they are playing more realistically without sacrificing anything in terms of play value. This is one reason why many third party publishers have introduced individual plane designs into ASL, while hardly any have ever introduced command and control systems.
Still, there are certain standards that most ASLers prefer be upheld. Regardless of how closely modeled they are, most ASLers want the scenarios they play to be based on actual historical actions that really did take place vs. some entirely fictitious incident. Many ASLers would like the units named in scenarios to be actual units that fought in the battle. And most ASLers would like designers to do some minimal amount of reasonable historical research rather than designing a scenario based on an offhand reference in a book or a sentence cribbed from a Wikipedia article. Some third party publishers, such as East Side Gamers, were rather notorious for not really caring whether their scenarios had a historical basis, were historically accurate, or anything else along this vein.
It is generally true that the publishers that put the most effort into historicity tend to be the more popular publishers, although it is possible to go overboard, as Kinetic Energy became kind of infamous for so doing, with its lengthy added rules.
Playtest/Development Quality. One can often judge physical quality of components without actually having to use those components, but it usually takes playing a scenario, perhaps more than once, to begin to understand how well the scenario was playtested and developed. Playtesting and development is probably the single most important quality-related aspect of an ASL product. It is no coincidence that some of the most enduring and popular ASL products, from Red Barricades to the Windy City ASL Pack, had the hell playtested out of them. It’s true that no amount of playtesting can guarantee a scenario will be good, but a lack of playtesting is the best way to guarantee one will not be good. One of the reasons Critical Hit’s reputation is so poor within the ASL world is that through most of its history it has had a disdain for playtesting and development. It would rather throw a lot of things against the wall and hope that some stick.
Even before you begin to play the scenarios of a product, you can check to see the playtesting credits. If there are none at all, it’s a very bad sign. If there are only a very small number of playtesters, or if playtesters are referred to generically (like “the east coast crew”), it’s not a great sign. If the playtesters listed include well-known, quality players, that’s often a good sign. If a developer is credited, and is not the same person as the designer, that’s often a good sign. I prize Friendly Fire scenarios quite a bit because I have high confidence in their playtesting and development.
Writing Quality. Writing quality shows up in rules, introductions, scenario summaries, historical summaries, articles, and elsewhere. It’s an unfortunate fact that most ASLers are mediocre to poor writers and that ASLers with good editing skills are also generally thin on the ground. Bad writing–including bad spelling, bad grammar, poor organization, rambling text, etc.–can not only make a product seem sloppy and unprofessional but can also really reduce the clarity of rules or articles about rules. This is why a number of ASL publishers seek out people to help edit and proofread their works. A lot of ASLers undervalue this area of quality; perhaps they shouldn’t.
Fidelity to ASL. Every ASL designer has a right to their personal vision of the product they are making, but not every ASL designer has a right to their own personal version of ASL. ASL products must be faithful to the ASL rules, modifying them as needed to suit the specific situation called for by the specific project, but not changing or altering the rules simply because the designer hates certain ASL rules and wishes to force purchasers of his products to substitute his views for those of the designers of ASL. Doing so is called writing “grudge rules.” An ASLer tends to tolerate a grudge rule if it runs close to his own prejudices or vision of ASL, but tends to be irritated at those that don’t. The best thing for designers to do is not to insert grudge rules in the first place, but if they must, they should do as optional rules–or publish their own variant rules module.
Connecting Design Quality principles, like those outlined above, with Physical Quality principles are what we might call Play Quality principles. Some of these principle are related to design, some to components, some to the interactions between the two.
Replayability. Definitely the most important Play Quality principle is replayability. Will an ASL product have you keep coming back to it for more, or will you quickly exhaust its play value? A number of different factors come together to determine replayability. These include:
- Individual Scenario Replayability. Some scenarios, by their inherent nature or deliberate design, are more replayable than others. They may offer players multiple possible victory conditions, or different possible force compositions, or may simply allow players different strategic or tactical decisions during the course of a scenario. Other scenarios may be less replayable, whether because they take very long to set up and/or play, because they involve extensive use of advanced or obscure rules that many players may not want to use too often, or because the scenarios are fairly scripted and tend to play out the same way each time. All other things being equal, the most replayable individual scenarios are, the higher the play quality of the product.
- General Product Replayability. The more scenarios a product has, the more playability a product has (if, and it’s an important if, the scenario themselves are varied and interesting). But also important is how many ways does the product allow you to play the game? Does it also have one or more traditional campaign games? Linked scenario campaign games? Scenarios that can be combined together for larger actions? Monster-sized scenarios? A three-player scenario? Double-blind scenarios? SASL options? Play variety adds to play quality.
- Individual Scenario Variety. The more the scenarios in a product seem similar to each other, the more monotonous playing the scenarios of a product tends to be. Lack of scenario variety can show up in a number of ways. First, in scenario sizes. If most or all of the scenarios in a product are large, long and meaty, there may not be much appeal to a player who doesn’t have the time or preference for such scenarios. If there are small, medium, and large scenarios in a product, there may be more options to fit a player’s particular inclinations or circumstances. Similarly, if all scenarios are designed for advanced players, or all for beginners, that may be somewhat disappointing. In products with historical maps, a too-high concentration of scenarios set on certain map areas and reduce the fun of a historical map. And products can seem especially bland if their scenarios tend to have similar victory conditions, SSRs, setups and reinforcements, and so forth. Several Bounding Fire Production products, though possessing high quality in other areas, suffer because too many of their scenarios seem too similar to too many other of their scenarios. That’s something that has rarely ever been said of Multi-Man Publishing or Friendly Fire.
Practical Playability. Do the physical components of the game help or hinder the play of the game? Are map hexes big enough? Is the map itself a single huge mapsheet or has it been cut into more practical sections? Are enough counters included to play everything in the product (assuming a standard set of ASL counters plus any counters coming with the product), or will players have to scrounge for extra counters? Do players need to own too many previously published products, especially previously published third party products, in order to play the product in question? This last issue is particularly relevant for Bounding Fire Production products, virtually none of which (even their historical modules) are standalone products but rather almost always require rules, maps, counters or charts from other Bounding Fire Production products. This not only means that players must purchase all that older ASL-ware but must also remember to cart it around with them in case any of it is ever needed.
This takes us, finally, to physical quality–which unfortunately is sometimes the only type of quality that some ASLers tend to consider. Still, they are important enough on their own and in some cases can help make–or break–a game.
Rules & Scenarios. Leaving aside the design or play quality of a scenario, the physical quality of the rules and scenarios (or campaign games, etc.) in an ASL is important. Of the different physical aspects here, paper quality is probably the most important. Are rules pages printed on premium, regular, or thin paper? Is the paper glossy or matte? Are the rules bound into a booklet of some sort of, or do they have holes punched for use with three-ring binders. The paper quality may be the most important–thin, easily tearable paper (like that found in the rules pages for Bounding Fire Productions or Advancing FIre products) has to be treated gingerly, perhaps with page protectors. Booklet rules are frustrating for people who like to put their rules in binders, as well as for people who like to bind their rules themselves. Just as important as the paper quality is the quality of the layout of the rules or scenarios. Most ASL producers are influenced to a certain degree by “official” ASL scenario layout and don’t vary too much from that. But some publishers of ASL materials just really punish the eyes with their poor layouts–Dispatches from the Bunker being one of the more notorious offenders in this regard.
In addition to layout, there is also the issue of counter artwork/values on scenario cards. Early third party publishers generally all put counter artwork and counter values on the counters that appeared on their scenario cards. However, in 1997, Avalon Hill pitched a fit at third party publishers for so doing, claiming copyright violation and threatening lawsuits, which pressured most American third party publishers to abandon scenario card counter artwork in favor of much less appealing and much less user-friendly alternatives (see examples below). MMP continued this hostility for some years, only gradually and partially abandoning it. But even today there are ASL products that only include minimal information, which often makes it harder to identify or find counters.
Counter Quality. ASLers have always been fascinated by or fixated on counters and for many ASLers there’s no such thing as enough. Heck, even your Humble Author bathes naked in a tub of ASL counters on a regular basis. So counters in an ASL product almost automatically make it more attractive as a purchase. Critical Hit figured out this psychological weakness of ASLers many years ago and as a result began including at least some counters in almost all of its ASL products, even if the counters were entirely unnecessary, or even entirely irrelevant, to the product. In the early years of ASL, the main issue was whether a product had no counter at all, unmounted counters (i.e., paper counters you had to glue on to cardboard squares yourself), or regular mounted, die-cut counters, which were a rarity. Then came the Copyright Clampdown, which made some third party publishers wary of printing any counters at all and others–notably Critical Hit–resorting to “alternative” counter layouts and graphics which were painfully difficult to use (esp. for vehicles and guns) and may have been worse than no counters at all. In the mid-2000s, third party publishers once more ventured into counter production, with more or less standard layout (and often with color artwork), which greatly upped the game for many third party publishers. Today, it is not uncommon to find well-done counters in third party products.
Still, there all sorts of issues, even if minor, that ASLers, or at least some ASLers, can get hung up on. The most important aspect is die-cutting: although too-deep die-cutting (which can result in counters easily falling out of countersheets) can be dealt with, insufficient die-cutting (depth or length/width) is a nightmare for ASL players, who must then carefully handcut each counter using an Exacto knife or some equivalent. Also extremely important is making sure counter fronts are printed on the physical fronts of the counters, and counter backs similarly printed on physical backs. Woe to the third party publisher whose printer screws that up. A third very important factor is whether counter nibs (the little bits of cardboard connecting the counters to the counter-trees) are set in the corners (greatly preferred) or in the middle of the sides (much disliked).
Some ASLers, but not necessarily all of them, will squawk if third party counters are a bit thicker or thinner than official counters, or if they are white core (have a white interior as seen edge) vs. greycore (preferred, because official ASL counters are greycore, even though whitecore counters are physically slightly better), or whether they have colored vehicle/soldier icons vs. black and white (opinion seems rather mixed). Some ASLers welcome any counters they can get, while others do not want to see a third party countersheet that does nothing but duplicate existing official counters they already have. Some ASLers welcome counters with new, original squad types (like a 4-3-8 squad or a 5-6-8 squad), while others dislike creating new squad types. Most ASLers welcome new vehicle types. Some ASLers like specific-model plane counters, while others hate them like hellfire. Many ASLers dislike weird SMC additions like BAR gunners, Pipers, or Chaplains.
Map/Geoboard Quality. Finally, there is the issue of the physical quality of any historical maps or generic geoboards included in a product. Probably the most crucial single aspect, even more so than the actual quality of the graphics themselves, is the physical nature of the map–specifically, the thickness (or lack thereof) of the paper that it is printed on. Every now and then, a publisher will publish a historical map on extra-thin paper, and every time this results in a negative reaction. First, it means the map can only be used under plexiglass or some other sort of protection, and not all ASLers like that. But more importantly, it is because even when precautions are taken, such maps can easily tear or be damaged, and third party maps–always printed in low numbers–are hard to find replacements for. At least one ASL third party publisher ended up reprinting the map for a product on a thicker paper in order to satisfy ASL consumers.
The paper maps are printed on will also either be glossy, semi-glossy, or matte. Glossy and semi-glossy maps tend to have brighter colors, but they also reflect glare, especially semi-glossy maps. Some ASLers perceive glossy and semi-glossy maps as being more likely to crack along folds as well, especially if thin. Matte maps often seem the most durable. Generally speaking, ASLers seem to prefer semi-glossy or matte maps over glossy maps, although glossy maps are usually not in and of themselves a dealbreaker.
Another physical quality aspect for historical maps is map size–both the overall size of the map as well as the size of each map component (if there is more than one). Map size becomes a concern primarily for space and convenience, but also for durability–a single huge mapsheet is unwieldy and more likely to suffer damage. Additionally, it must be folded back to allow play of smaller scenarios or play on smaller tables. There have been a couple of ASL maps that were originally printed as one large mapsheet but ended up getting reprinted as two or three smaller mateable maps.
The debut of “unmounted” geoboards with the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 in 2004 helped improve the physical quality of ASL geoboards generally. While some people preferred the original mounted maps that started with Squad Leader and continued up to Armies of Oblivion, in part because they were more durable, over time most ASLers seem to have come to prefer the newer, unmounted map style. First, the unmounted boards proved fairly durable in and of themselves; second, they were far easier to mate up with other boards than were their older counterparts. The quality of the computer graphics was also generally higher than that of most (though perhaps not all) of the hand-painted older maps.
The boards were also a boon to third party publishers, who found them much easier to print than they did the older mounted boards. The history of third party geoboards prior to the unmounted board style was not a happy one. However, third party publishers like Bounding Fire Productions and Le Franc Tireur (with a few growing pains) managed to master the unmounted board style (and, because they are cheaper, print more boards). The most common problems involved the boards being miscut or misaligned. Critical Hit in particular had an extremely difficult time making unmounted boards right, with alignment problems, cutting problems, and more (they also used a much thinner cardstock for their boards). The graphics of Critical Hit geoboards have also often been substandard. However, Critical Hit has produced more unmounted geoboards than anybody else, though they rarely get used.
The most striking changes in this area has been the evolution of graphics over time, as higher quality computer graphics became available and more people learned to use them. The number of ASLers who could handpaint an attractive map was quite low, but as of 2021, MMP, Le Franc Tireur, Bounding Fire Productions and Lone Canuck Productions are all capable of making very attractive historical maps and geoboards, while Advancing Fire appears to be a promising newcomer. Even Critical Hit’s graphics capabilities have improved considerably over time, although all their other quality deficits keep the overall quality quite low.
As you can see, when it comes to ASL, “quality” is no simple thing, because there are so many different variables to consider, from conceptual to physical–and because so many of these variables also interact with each other. Personal taste hovers over everything, too, which is why some people’s vision of a high quality ASL product is a Friendly Fire scenario pack, while some other people may fantasize about Red Factories or Battles for Seoul.