Review: ASL Starter Kit #2

By Robert Delwood 22 Dec 2006 0

The large wargame was about to be pronounced dead. At the least, few doubted that it was dying. Dinosaurs such as War in the East/War in the West, Europa (attempting to replicate the entire war one division at a time), to the insanely detailed Campaign for North Africa (which attempted to replicate the entire war one company at a time) have long since faded and Euro games’ ascension is in full swing. The timing was no coincidence. Generation X-ers influenced board games with the same desire for action sequences that fueled their computer games. German companies sparked the new revolution. Being prohibited from developing overt war games, their settlers, star farers, bike races, and global explorers paved the way for a new breed of artistically dazzling games, with fun, innovative mechanics but ultimately were simple and short, and often had game mechanics that bore no resemblance to reality. Some large wargames hung on, although these didn’t escape unchanged. World in Flame produced Planes in Flames, and soon Africa, Asia, Ships, Carrier Planes, Leaders, Cruisers, America, and even Patton went aflaming.

Well, the death announcements can be put off. The venerable Squad Leader system (since redone as Advanced Squad Leader [ASL]) is seeing new-found popularity with Hasbro’s ASL Starter Kits. ASL Starter Kit #1, debuted in 2003, hit a chord the in market, both critically and popularly. It was an International Gamers Awards finalist, won the Charles Roberts award, and quickly became the line’s best seller for the year. ASL Start Kit #2, released in Summer 2005, is on a similar path (although the licensed producer, Multiman Publications [MMP], is tight-lipped about sales figures).

However, an ASL revival seems almost an anachronism, like Pong in an X-Box world. Its 30th anniversary makes it older than some of its players. But the game has changed very little in that time. Sure, it switched from Squad Leader to Advanced Squad Leader in 1984 but in retrospect, and certainly contrasting it against other games, that seemed almost like an administrative change. The rapid development of the system from covering only infantry to all aspects of war required consolidating a series of rules. The graphics changed the least. The original boards (maps 1-4) are still used. Only experienced players will notice a difference in counters (for example, they now have three figures in a half-inch area instead of two). In all other regards the artwork today is virtually identical to its 1977 version. What changed the most is the sheer number of available modules and expansion kits. Unlike World in Flames, however, each kit compliments the system rather than redesigns game mechanics.

The popularity of the ASL system is not hard to understand. Far from being outdated, the designers found their mark early and mercifully stayed with it. Its mechanisms are great, from the elegance of the two-dice combat to the constant interaction of both players for the duration of each turn. It is an endearing system. Although the ASL Starter Kits may have caused the revival, the interest smoldered for some time. ASL’s longevity indicates that.

Realizing there might be a market there after all, mainstream producers, such as Hasbro, are starting to cater to these gamers. And why shouldn’t Hasbro? In their case, they also own ASL and know something about tactical-level action. The twist is that Axis & Allies, itself at the center of a hugely successful franchise, is trying cash in on this market too. Axis & Allies is best known for its Risk-like simplicity and grand strategic scale. That makes their most recent product, Axis & Allies Miniatures, puzzling, in two ways. First, it abandons their previous global scale that proved to be so successful to become tactical. Maybe they just succumbed to something that every Axis & Allies player did at one point: push the little tanks around with their fingers while making machine gun noises. Whatever the reason, the miniatures game is now down to the squad and individual tank level. Second, if that doesn’t sound familiar enough, the look of the game is indistinguishable from ASL even to the point of having their own starter kits. But it’s not the differences that are worth noting, it’s the similarities. Although Axis & Allies  Miniatures keeps the large number of dice (don’t worry, the attacker can still roll up to 20 dice per attack), the telling characteristic is that it keeps the simplicity.

The original Squad Leader was simple and it was popular. But something happened to it along the way and, as a result, it became the epitome of the complex game. Certainly the two hundred plus page rulebook doesn’t disprove that position. No matter how elegant the mechanics are, the process of playing (that is, attempting to understand the myriad of options each piece has, and to merge components together comprehensively) is another matter. That’s what makes the popularity of ASL as a game hard to understand. Yet, in spite of its own success, it endures. MMP learned their first secret: Make the game simple again and it regains its popularity.

The chord that they hit using Starter Kits include several differences from the full ASL:

First, this is a scaled back version of ASL. MMP learned their second secret: Not all the rules are needed. Missing are the tank rules, more than 30 types of terrain, and special features (such as snipers, random battlefield antics, and roadblock destruction rules). They distilled the rules, allowing players to experience the essence of ASL in 18 pages. Distilled but not watered down. In this, MMP did an excellent job. The rulebook includes all the material from the first starter kit and most of the six additional pages relate to the scope of including guns.

Second, this is a complete game. For $28 and one purchase, players get counters (combatant units and weapons as well as informational counters), maps, charts, scenarios, and the rulebook. This is everything you need to play ASL including dice. All the components are fully compatible with the full version so if you choose to upgrade there is no waste.

Third, the scenarios are short. The net result is that games play in an hour or two. This is what many gamers want. Therein is the third secret: Make the game easy to learn. The new rules or differences from the first starter kit are even shaded in salmon (an inoffensive pink color) for easier learning. If players like what they see, they can always choose to move on to more complicated scenarios.

ASL Starter Kit #2 expands the scope from the first kit. Included now are large guns, such as mortars, anti-tank guns (although no tanks are included yet), and the famed German 88. The nationality count increases too with British, Italian, and allied minor forces. The American and German forces are expanded, supplementing the first kit. The game box (not to be called a module or expansion kit) has two new maps. They are consistent with MMP’s expected high quality and like the other components, are fully compatible with ASL. They provide eight scenarios, five with guns, and have a little of everything, from brute force attacks to subtle manoeuvring. The meeting between the Italians and the Greeks should have both sides routing even before the first shot is fired.

The Starter Kit #2 is complete game and not even Starter Kit #1 is needed to play. There’s no reason experienced wargamers can’t start with Starter Kit #2. New players may still want to ease into the game with the first kit since those scenarios are smaller, play quickly, and are purely infantry actions. Either way, the rules are interchangeable between the two kits; you just don’t use the inapplicable sections.

If the criticism was that the ASL was too complicated and took too long, then the ASL Starter Kit as a response is the right one.

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