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Posted on May 4, 2006 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

ASL Starter Kit #2 – Boardgame Review

By Robert Delwood

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MMP Aims for New ASL Players, Reconnects to Squad Leader

MMP (Multi Man Publishing) entered a brave new world with their releases of the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kits (ASLSK#1, $24, ASLSK#2, $28). New world in that it is an introductory package to ASL; brave by the fact it is simple. On both accounts, they pull it off.

A Game Made Simple

If a war game could ever get a reputation, it would likely be Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) for complexity – or at least the sheer volume of its rule book. The basic rules (Chapters A-E) alone are 209 pages. Add in the vehicle notes, individual modules and campaign game rules, and the count soars to over 600 pages. In addition, to achieve even those number of pages, the game uses its own lingo and grammar. The “«” sign is used instead of the lengthier “less than or equal” phrase. "DR" in capital letters means to roll two dice while the lower case "dr" is for a single die, and even “ADJACENT” (again in all capitals) has a different meaning than “adjacent.” It seems my tenth grade trigonometry class “iff” statement (“if and only if”) may have actually prepared me for something. Just for the initial shock of the size of the rule book, it’s little wonder why gamers, experienced or not, can be so dismissive of ASL. Besides the perceived learning curve, there’s a perceived commitment and a cost. Perhaps the last point is the most valid since there is a cost to buying the rules book, modules, and magazines.

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However, there doesn’t have to be a steep learning curve or a commitment. The creators of Squad Leader knew that in 1977 when they recognized it was going to be a complex game and warned players “’biting off more than you can chew’ is a guaranteed way of finding frustration,” (Squad Leader, page 1, 1977) and introduced the rules in a programmed instruction format. With the release ASLSK#1, MMP set out to reaffirm the simple learning curve. To prove that ASL does not have to be intimidating, the ASLSK#1 is a scaled-back version of the complete game. It is intended for those wanting to try ASL but who are not willing invest the time, effort, or money, literally on the roll of dice, or DR as it were. In many cases, learning ASL is more of an issue of having other experienced players around. Certainly, the best way to learn is from someone who already knows the game. In the absence of any, the ASLSK#1 may be the next best thing.

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The ASLSK format is not programmed instructions but a reduction of the number of rules overall. The most impressive feat is that the rules are only 12 pages long. More accurately, the rules book is 12 pages; the actual rules are only about nine pages with examples filling out most of the rest. The ASLSK’s may be scaled back but they’re not watered down. So how do they cut so many rules while keeping the heart and soul of the game? To begin with, the ASLSK#1 is only infantry, and ASLSK#2 adds guns such as mortars and antitank weapons. These limitations alone remove 149 pages (of 209) by not having to address unusual terrain (Chapter B), most of the guns and ordnance (Chapter C), tanks (Chapter D), and other special rules (Chapter E). What remains are about 60 pages from the full rule book. From there, MMP removes esoteric features (such as Human Wave, fire lanes for machine guns, and Battle Field Integrity [an optional rule anyway]). At this point, the game is still the full version of ASL and even experienced players may not notice the omissions.

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It is only now that MMP makes hard decisions to compact the rules further. Included in the additional cuts are concealment, bypass movement around certain terrain types, snipers and heroes, among others. True, these all add flavor and some players may argue those rules are fundamental. For example, the concealment rules, which include hidden units becoming less of a target for fire combat, and dummies, are important and definitely affect play. But MMP is trying to say they are not required. Snipers and heroes add variability and reflect “stuff happens” on the battlefield. If ASLSK players move on to the complete rules, they will appreciate the subtlety and nuance of these rules. Don’t worry, the rules will get added back. ASLSK#3 plans to add tanks and other armored fighting vehicles. MMP plans to support ASLSK gamers with new scenarios. However, it will be through The Gamer’s Operations magazine rather than the ASL Journal. The kit is also a complete game just as the box says. Each kit includes all the components required to play — such as two ASL-sized maps, eight scenarios, counters for the nationalities and supporting information, charts, the rule book, and even two dice, as if any gamer since Dungeon and Dragons needs more of those. The bottom line is that these games are playable and fun. It would be helpful to think of ASLSK as a game in its own right – it’s as complete as any other game and there’s no requirement to have ASL.

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