Alternative Titles/Edition History:
1st Edition (2014); 2nd Edition & Upgrade Set (2015); "Feldgrau" edition (2017).
Critical Hit (1st Edition, 2014; 2nd Edition & Upgrade Set, 2015; "Feldgrau" Edition, 2017)
Country of Origin:
1st Edition: 10 scenarios, 11 unmounted heavy paper untrimmed 8" x 22" geoboards (g2, g3, g5, g11, g13, g18, g19, g21, g23, g26, g33), 10 pages rules, 1 play aid, 648 die-cut counters.
2nd Edition: 10 scenarios, 5 11" x 16" unmounted heavy paper geoboards (A, V, W, X, Y), 1 page of charts, 10 pages rules, 648 die-cut counters.
Upgrade Kit: 10 scenarios, 5 11" x 16" unmounted heavy paper geoboards (A, V, W, X, Y), 1 page of charts
"Feldgrau" Edition: As 2nd edition, but with light gray German counters.Commentary:
How often is it that the title of a movie or book or game is itself a misspelling? That’s what we have here with GWASL 1: Tankschreken! [sic], the first module in Critical Hit’s goofy attempt to port ASL back to World War I. Tankschreken is apparently supposed to be tankschrecken, one of several terms used by German observers to describe the fear or fright that German soldiers had when encountering tanks for the first time.
Critical Hit not only used this misspelling in the title (ironically, it is spelled correctly several times in the rules), it also put a trademark assertion symbol next to Tankschreken!, proudly claiming ownership of the misspelling. That is a little bit ironic, considering the name of their WWI system, GWASL, is an acronym that Critical Hit cannot actually spell out, as it of course refers to the registered trademark Advanced Squad Leader.
The same level of quality in the module’s title can be found in the module itself, which is almost a joke when it comes to simulating World War I tactical combat. Tankshreken (hereinafter GWASL1, because I can’t bear to type that name again) was originally a project of Ian Daglish, a British ASL designer who sadly died before finishing the project–but apparently, alas, not before sharing the uncompleted materials with Critical Hit. Critical Hit, i.e., Ray Tapio, finished the project, such as it is, and published it.
You can often tell when a Critical Hit product is likely to have rules problems or to generate criticism, because Ray Tapio will frequently pre-emptively try to forestall such criticism, often using indirect language. GWASL is thus described as being for the “creative-at-heart” gamer (meaning they may have to fill gaps in the rules themselves). He as much as admits the rules are simplistic, saying that the emphasis was “on brevity–not wordy, ponderous SSRs.” He doesn’t want people to find problems with the rules, so he writes, “you will need to play a part, not play rules lawyer.” This sort of language is even more explicit in GWASL 2.
Here’s the deal: Advanced Squad Leader is a game specifically designed to simulate tactical World War II era combat and is thus a particularly poor choice to represent World War I era tactical combat. Why? For one reason, the squad was not the key element of tactical maneuver for most of the war. Even late in the war, only in a few of the most “advanced” combatants (Britain, Germany, France, for the most part) were tactics beginning to resemble what would be common in World War II. Tactics in 1914 were still closer to tactics of the last year of the American Civil War or to the Franco-Prussian War than they were to the tactics of 1939. Certainly tactical evolution did occur between 1870 and 1914, but combatants entered the war in 1914 with tactics that were still largely linear in nature. Not the squad, not even the platoon, but the company was the basic element of tactical fighting at the beginning of the war.
What happened when these tactics met modern weaponry such as machineguns is well known and the subsequent four years of fighting consisted of a slow evolution (typically through trial and error) of attempts to “solve” the problem of World War I fighting, complicated by the fact that defensive techniques and tactics evolved just as did offensive tactics. The story of this complicated evolution is far too detailed to try to explain here, even in brief, but over the past 40 years, historians of World War I have spent much time coming to understand its nature and nuances, resulting in a wealth of scholarship and increased understanding of the nature of World War I. One part of that story is how the infantry tactics of different nations evolved, separately but with one might call convergent evolution, to something that resembled the small unit tactics that have essentially dominated the past 90 years or so. The British Army of 1916, at the tactical level, fought in a very different way than it did in 1914, while in 1918 it fought in a different way again. This is in sharp contrast to the armies of World War II, which experienced no rapid evolution in tactics during the war, but rather mostly just a myriad of small tweaks and adjustments.
This gets us to the main issue of gaming World War I tactical combat: the rules must somehow reflect this evolution in tactics. Unlike ASL, which can represent the tactics of its intended era relatively well with a single system, any World War I tactical system requires the ability for armies and tactics to evolve over time. Indeed, each nationality represented needs its own specific path of progress incorporated into the rules. Here we arrive at the deadly one-two punch of using ASL for WWI. Not only, as described above, is ASL basically at the wrong scale to simulate WWI tactics (at least for most combatants for most of the war), but ASL represents a form of war that is more static than not in its basic tactical nature (the weapons evolved at a much quicker pace).
So, how does GWASL do? Here’s your first clue: the rules to GWASL are a whopping 10 pages long. But even that is misleading. Most of that is vehicle and gun and designer’s notes. The actual RULES designed to transport ASL into the World War I era are only THREE PAGES. THREE. Did you read that? THREE. As in ONE, TWO, THREE. Three little pigs. Three blind mice. Three tenors. There are more HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE than RULES PAGES in this module.
Here are the subjects these rules address, with commentary:
- Basic squad rules. No smoke grenades, no spraying fire or assault fire (except Stosstruppen), no deployment, only crews for SW. For some unexplained reason, “the printed firepower of a non-crew MMC is DOUBLED for use in Close Combat.” This is a bizarre rule as, since all units are doubled, it HAS NO EFFECT, except in cc against crews and SMC. Odds of 8:8 turn out to be exactly the same as odds of 4:4. Go figure.
- Squad values. This first module only features British and German troops. The squad values for these two nationalities will raise eyebrows, because Daglish decided that this was an era of low relative firepower, as units were more dispersed in order to deal with enemy fire, but did not have the communications or tactics yet to maximize firepower under those conditions.
- Thus the strongest unit in this module is a 4-5-8 British elite squad. A 1st-line British squad is only a 4-4-7; a 2nd-line squad is a 3-4-6 and a green squad is a 3-3-6.
- The Germans are even worse. Their elite squad is only a 3-5-8, their 1st-line squad a 3-5-7, their 2nd-line squad a 3-4-6, and their conscript squad a lowly 3-3-5. Late in the war they get a 4-4-8 Stosstruppen squad. There is no explanation as to why German troops are represented as being so inferior to British troops (and there seems to be no historical justification for it, either).
- What is also strange are the low morale values. Even if one accepts this module’s argument that firepower factors should be lower, what on earth would compel a designer to make the morale values lower? Did it not take high morale to be able to repeatedly go over the trenches and make charges against artillery and machine-gun fire, even while one’s comrades were being mown down? It seems to me that many WWI soldiers had remarkable morale in order to withstand what they did. This is rather inexplicable.
- MG Beaten Zone. This is a weird sort of “fire lane” (although it is very different from an actual firelane). Players may use an MG to place residual fire equal to 1 1/2 times the printed firepower of the MG in an “unbroken line of hexes” all at the same range from the MG (i.e., hexes that are all 4 hexes away, or hexes that are all 6 hexes away, etc.). Target hexes need not be at the same level. The only explanation for this is that it is somehow supposed to represent indirect MG fire, although it is not clear how it would represent indirect fire. What is clear is that the rules have potential problems that are immediately obvious. For example, the MGs seem to use regular Residual FP counters to produce this fire. However, since fire lane rules apply, this MG Beaten Zone may disappear (for example, upon malfunction). However, how does one separate MG Beaten Zone residual firepower from regular residual firepower, which does not disappear?
- Bayonet Charges. These are the rules that Critical Hit adopted/borrowed/stole (take your pick) from Kinetic Energy and modified. There is really no reason for these rules to exist, as human wave rules already incorporate the basic concept.
- Élan. Basically, élan is something that can be assigned to a side by SSR; it is a rating like ELR. Units that have it start off Fanatic. If/when a MMC with élan fails a MC by a number greater than its rating, it loses its fanaticism and becomes broken. At this time, ALL other fanatic SMC/MMC immediately lose their Fanatic status and must take a PTC. This is a mildly interesting concept, but more or less ruined by the fact that it disappears for the entire OB as soon as one single unit fails an ER MC.
- Platoon Formation Number. This is the single most important rule in GWASL, as it is basically the ONLY rule in GWASL that tries to simulate the fact that squads were not the tactical unit of maneuver as well as basically the ONLY rule in GWASL that tries to simulate the evolution of small unit tactics over the course of the war. Essentially this number is a minimum “platoon” size (it doesn’t literally represent a platoon, but is more a vague measurement of tactical flexibility) required to move freely as a “platoon,” the main form of movement in GWASL (although see below).
- The PFN values are as follows:
- Russian: 8
- British 1914-1917: 6
- British 1918: 3
- French 1914-8/1917: 6
- French 9/1917-1918: 2
- German 1914-1915: 3
- German 1916-1918: 2
- American: 2
- Other nationalities: not mentioned
- One can see that, generally speaking, GWASL armies become somewhat more tactically flexible over time, though no nationality evolves more than once. Some oddities immediately present themselves. The first is that the British never get better than 3, while by 1918 they had the most tactically advanced army except perhaps for the Germans. The second is somehow the Americans, green at WWI warfare, somehow appear here as tied for the most tactically advanced army in WWI. In reality, the Germans, British and French were all better than the Americans, who disdained many of the lessons learned the hard way by their co-belligerents and, as a result, learned the hard way themselves. It almost seems as if the Americans are given too much credit here to compensate for their having been given too little credit in ASL.
- The Platoon movement rules are confusing. Basically, units move by these platoons, which are formed from MMC in adjacent locations. SMC and crews may choose to accompany them but may move separately if they choose. The rules say that each platoon moves in Impulses in a manner “similar” to a Human Wave, though it does not say that Human Wave rules are followed except as contradicted, so it is not clear what this really means. Moreover, platoons actually can do a Human Wave attack, too.
- In a section called “Non-Platoon Movement,” the rules state that individual MMCs or groups of MMCs that are less than the required PFN “not otherwise eligible to move may move freely.” That quoted phrase does not really make sense. What makes even less sense is that the next sentence says “All other Infantry units not eligible to move freely or via Platoon Movement (i.e., a stack or Platoon that does not meet the minimum PFN) may attempt to move by passing a PTC based on the lowest morale level in the group. Thus in one sentence, the rules seem to say that MMC groups of less than the PFN “may move freely,” while in the very next sentence, it says that MMC groups of less than the PFN “may attempt to move by passing a PTC.” Well, which is it? How can both be true? This is pretty important, as it makes a huge difference in play. I would have presumed that SMC and crews could move freely, while MMC less than PFN would always have to do a PTC, but that is not at all what the rules seem to say.
- The PFN values are as follows:
- Tank Fright. Units designated as subject to tank fright by SSR; must take 2PAATC, must take 2PTC when enemy tank enters adjacent hex, must take 2MC “each time an enemy tank enters its hex.” These apply to fully tracked vehicles, not armored cars. There is a 1917-1918 lesser version of tank fright as well.
- Vehicle rules. Units with red MP must take bog check DR to change VCA unless it spends 2MP to avoid it. Crew survival may have an x-factor, like x2 or x3, indicating that 2 or 3 checks are made (for vehicles with very large crews).
And that, friends, is basically it. No special artillery rules, no extended trench rules, no new terrain types (not even flooded shellholes or flooded trenches), no rules other than platoon movement to account for tactical evolution, no rules to account for platoon specialization, no rules for poison gas (though these come in a later module), no explanation of how or if platoon movement rules apply to cavalry, nuthin’.
In fact, the rules even say that one of the “design parameters” of GWASL was to avoid simulating actions in which large numbers of troops moved abreast only to suffer high casualties by automatic weapons. In other words, GWASL was deliberately designed to avoid large chunks of WWI.
So that’s the rules. The counters, two and a half sheets worth (one British, one German, one 5/8″, are done in typical modern Critical Hit style and are reasonably attractive and certainly functional. Nothing to complain about there.
The boards are another thing, however. There is certainly a lot to complain about with them, starting with the fact that they come in the so-called “Sweet 16” format, which means they are not really boards but board kits. Each geoboard actually consists of two half-sized boards printed on two sheets of heavy paper. These sheets are NOT trimmed, meaning there is a white border all around them. In order to use a board, a player must use scissors, a rotary cutter, a boxcutter or some other implement to trip the white border off of all 8 sides–only then can it actually be used. Unfortunately, GWASL I comes with 11 boards, i.e., 22 half boards, which means that there are 88 sides that must be trimmed exactly.
But it gets worse. The “boards” also use the “Sweet 16” graphic standards, which are subpar, especially for buildings. There are two reasons or this. First, most of the time, when a building is not oriented on a purely vertical or horizontal angle, it has jagged, pixelated graphics that make it look like it is a refugee from some sort of obsolete video game. Second, there are only a relative few pieces of building artwork, which means that the same buildings get used over and over and over again, on different maps or even on the same map. The paved roads tend to blend into the green open ground hexes when the lighting is not bright.
But it still gets worse. Players may notice that some of these boards may look somewhat familiar, or even awfully familiar. To explain why will take a minute, so please be patient (but who am I kidding, if you are reading this far, you are hopelessly hooked and I could start talking about my lumbago and you would still keep reading). There have already been several references to “Sweet 16” above. This is a reference to the Sweet 16 Geoboard Collection, as well as its sequels and winterized variations. These are a set of “variant” geoboards that actually ape official ASL geoboards. So, for example, Sweet 16 geoboard 23 is a take-off of official ASL geoboard 23. It is not a direct copy, but it has the same general look and feel (complete with canal), just with some of the particulars changed. In other words, Critical Hit tries to sell people variants of boards they actually already own (and usually asks a premium price for it, too).
So, it turns out that the GWASL boards are all “variants” of the Sweet 16 “variants” of the official geoboards. Let’s take an example, say, official geoboard 18. You’ve probably played on this board, it is mostly open ground, with a few skinny low hills. The Sweet 16 “variant” of board 18, dubbed x18, looks like that, too. But the hills, though, are not exactly the same or in the exact same places, the road network is not quite the same, and so on.
Now let’s take board g18, which comes from GWASL. Board g18, it turns out, is very close to being an exact copy of board x18. Let’s look at the R-GG half-boards first. The road network is exactly the same on both of them, the buildings are the same buildings and in the same places, the gully is the same, the hill is exactly the same and in the same place. The only differences are that some woods hexes from x18 were replaced with brush hexes in g18 and the orchards are gone. The A-Q half-board is pretty much the same. Road network the same, hills the same, buildings the same. But woods are replaced with brush and orchards are eliminated. Also, some of the buildings now have on-map rubble and there are some shellholes. One suspects that the whole woods-to-brush thing is an attempt to simulate a battlefield in which trees have been pounded away over time, but who knows. The bottom line is that anybody who has purchased the Sweet 16 maps is essentially re-purchasing them here.
Players will note that the rubble is rare, the shellholes far and few between. On map trench systems, on-map wire systems, on-map bunkers, communications trenches–all the things needed to actually represent the typical WWI battlefields–are actually absent from these maps. Nor are there maps or overlays to represent major constructed fortifications, either.
That leaves us with the scenarios. GWASL I comes with only 10 scenarios. All of them feature British (not Commonwealth) and Germans, all set in France/Belgium, ranging from 1914-1918. The scenarios may well have been designed with official ASL boards in mind, because only the board number(s) appear on the scenario cards, such as 2, 18, 19, etc., while each scenario has an SSR that says “”Use the ‘g’ version of all boards.” This may mean that the scenarios were not playtested on the GWASL boards. But who are we kidding? No playtester credits are given at all and it may well be that none of these scenarios were actually playtested using any board versions.
The scenarios are divided between small (often very small) and large, with no scenarios that are medium in size. Three scenarios have OBA. There are no barrages or pre-game bombardments. No scenarios use Night rules. No scenarios use Air Support. Three scenarios have AFVs.
Most of the scenarios are set in 1914 or 1918, when things were a little more mobile (which may be a good thing, as the system is clearly inadequate for portraying trench warfare). The scenario cards are replete with typos.
GWASL I is now selling for $89.95, which is a lot of money. What is more is that you could pay your money, get this product, trim the boards, set up a scenario, and you still wouldn’t be playing something that resembled WWI. This should never have been published.
2nd Edition/Upgrade Set Comments: At the end of 2015, Critical Hit released a GWASL I Upgrade Set consisting of a new set of charts and tables, new versions of the 10 scenarios and 5 11″ x 16″ geoboards that replace the ones that came with the original product. At the same time, it also relased Tankschreken! (sic) in a new, second edition. Comments below describe the Upgrade Set; other components of the 2nd Edition are essentially the same as the first, so the reader is referred to the above comments.
The GWASL I Upgrade Set is a set of components designed, more or less, for use with Critical Hit’s poor World War I module, GWASL I: Tankschreken! (sic). The Upgrade Set is a curious product and very, well, Critical-Hitty. It consists of a sheet of charts and tables, which presumably has corrections from the original sheet, plus new versions of the 10 scenarios that appeared in GWASL I.
It is why there are new versions of these scenarios that is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this product. Though there are changes to some of the scenarios (for example, in the new version of one scenario, the defending Germans now get 8 concealment counters that they did not have in the original version), the major reason why there are new versions of these scenarios is because they take place on new and different maps.
As is noted in the DM write-up of GWASL I, the original module came with a host of 8″ x 22″ geoboards, which themselves were derived from other boards (and which were untrimmed, meaning players had to cut out each board as if it were an overlay) and which had poor graphics. The Upgrade Set throws away all of those boards and replaces them with 5 11″ x 16″ Gary Fortenberry-style unmounted boards (A, V, W, X, Y).
Why was this done? It is not clear. GWASL II, III, and IV all use the 11″ x 16″ style of board, a style that Critical Hit founder Ray Tapio seems considerably enamored with and has gravitated to, to switching to the new style of board would make GWASL I consistent. Then, too, Critical Hit always likes players to re-buy its products. It is true that the physical quality of the Upgrade Set boards–which are trimmed–is far higher than that of the original GWASL I boards.
But here’s the deal: these are not new versions of the original GWASL I boards, reconfigured into a different format, but rather new boards altogether. Scenarios that used board 23g in the original GWASL I, a board featuring a long, thin canal, now use board A from the Upgrade set, which is a full river board.
The terrain is sufficiently different in every instance that all of these scenarios would have to be replaytested from scratch–but there is no indication that this was done. One cannot be but suspicious that purchasers themselves will be doing the playtesting.
The building artwork in the new boards is, incidentally, not any better than that of the original boards.
Feldgrau Edition comments: In 2017, Critical Hit quickly released a new version of this product, with the difference that the German counters were now rendered in a light gray color (mistakenly called “feldgrau” by Critical Hit). The color choice was not great. There appear to be no other differences.
2020 Update: In 2019, Critical Hit released, for separate purchase ($59.95), a so-called “HotHex” version of the maps. Critical Hit has released “HotHex” maps for several of its products but it is not entirely clear what they are, though they seem to be larger-hex versions; Critical Hit claims that “each map found in the module is provided as a 22″ × 34″ set of 4 linking boards.”
2020 Update #2: In 2020, Critical Hit released (for $39.95) something it called the GWASL German 1914-15 NAT Set, which is supposed to be some sort of alternative counterset for CH’s WWI Germans, but its marketing material says nothing about how it is different. It may be only that it has different counter artwork.