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Subject: The Intermediate Step rss

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Jay Richardson
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Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #2 (ASLSK2) is the second release in MMP's three part series of introductory games designed to help players learn Advanced Squad Leader's (ASL) basic rules.

The initial release, ASLSK1, focused on the basic infantry rules. ASLSK2 introduces the Gun rules, including bazookas, mortars, anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns, and large artillery pieces. The third release in the series will cover tanks and armored cars.

ASLSK2 is a complete game; everything you need to play is included in the box. Two of the eight scenarios require only infantry, so that those players who skip ASLSK1 and start with ASLSK2 can use them to get the basic infantry rules mastered, before they add in the complexity of the Gun rules.

This may raise a question in some player's minds: Why buy ASLSK1 if ASLSK2 can teach you everything that was also in ASLSK1? While there is no requirement to buy every release in the Starter Kit series, most beginners will probably find the progression from ASLSK1 to ASLSK2 (and eventually to ASLSK3) to be the easiest way to learn the rules. ASLSK1 gives you six scenarios of gradually increasing complexity to use in learning the basic infantry rules, but starting with ASLSK2 gives you only two scenarios for this (and starting with ASLSK3 will probably only give you one).

Also, buying each release means you will have more boards, counters, and scenarios to play with. Additional scenarios, published in MMP's Operations magazine or elsewhere, can potentially use the components of both kits, thus allowing a wider variety of scenarios.

Physically, ASLSK2 is identical in quality to ASLSK1. The main differences are an extra half-sheet of counters, an extra data card with the various Gun tables, and eight scenarios instead of six. The scenarios are numbered S9 through S16 (scenarios S7 and S8 appeared in Operations magazine). Two new terrain types are introduced on ASLSK2's maps: orchard roads and hills.

The included nationalities are German, Italian, American, British, and generic Allied Minors. The Allied Minors are used as Greek army units in ASLSK2, but they could also be used as Norwegian, Belgian, etc. in future scenarios. There are no Gun counters for either the Italians or the Allied Minors, but there are Russian Guns that are not used in any of the included scenarios. These Russian Guns could be combined with the Russian infantry from ASLSK1 in future scenarios.

And, included in the counters for ASLSK2 is a turn marker... an item that the counter sheet for ASLSK1 did not have room for.

The Rules

There's a misconception floating around that the rules for ASLSK1 were truly terrible, and that the ASLSK2 rules fixed this flaw. I'm sorry, but that's not true. The ASLSK2 rules are, in large part, identical to the ASLSK1 rules... there's just more of them, because of the added Gun rules, the new terrain types, etc. If you thought that the ASLSK1 rules were a poorly written mess, you'll certainly think the same of the ASLSK2 rules.

The ASLSK2 rules do fix a number of errors that were present in the ASLSK1 rules, and they officially take precedence over the earlier rules, but they also have a few new errors of their own. Most of these errors occur in the new sections of the rules, but I have found at least one typo that crept into a section that was simply copied from the ASLSK1 rules (page 2, Roads, second line from the end, "crosses onlys throughout").

Many of the new errors are questions of ambiguity that arise when the ASLSK2 rules do not completely describe how to handle certain situations... a perhaps unavoidable side effect of distilling the full ASL rules down to such a small size. None of these errors are game-breakers that would prevent anyone from playing the game.

But... are the ASLSK rules a poorly written mess?

You'll find a wide range of opinions on this: some people will claim that the game is unplayable and/or unlearnable with these rules, while other people claim that the rules are fine.

I think that there are three factors at work here:

* EXPECTATIONS: I believe that the Starter Kits were designed to make it easy for wargamers to try out, and learn, ASL. That is, they are an introduction specifically to the ASL system, and not to wargaming in general. That people who have never played a complex wargame would purchase a Starter Kit as their introduction to wargaming probably caught MMP completely by surprise... and the rulebook is going to be an unpleasant shock to such people. It is a huge step to go from Axis & Allies or Memoir '44 to ASLSK!

* MARKETING: To some extent, the ASLSK rulebooks are victims of marketing forces. Could the rulebooks be improved? I think so, but only at the cost of using many more pages. Part of the great appeal of the Starter Kits is that they are ASL in only 12 pages of rules (ASLSK1) or 20 pages of rules (ASLSK2). The marketing paradox is that, if you increase the page count of the rules, the rules will be better... but the game will be less successful because potential buyers are driven off either due to the higher cost of the game (more pages = more cost to produce) or by the apparent complexity of the game (for many players, more pages = more complexity). I believe that the reasonably sized rulebooks are a vital part of the Starter Kits' success.

Some players claim that the rules simply need to be written better, without adding to their length... but I don't think that this is possible. In every instance in which I've tried rewriting a rule to explain it better, I have taken far more space than the original rule. I just don't see any way to dramatically improve the rules while still keeping them as short and concise as they are now.

* FOCUS: One clear problem with the rules is that they try to do two things at once. They try to teach people how to play the game in an easy to read format, and at the same time they try to be a useful reference to be used in a game. These two goals will often be in direct conflict with each other. Complex games really need two separate documents: an introduction/tutorial that explains the basic concepts and demonstrates how they work, and separate rules that control the actual playing of the game.

The ASLSK rules clearly make it difficult for some players to learn the game; and I can speak from experience when I say that the lack of extensive rule numbers, the lack of a correspondingly detailed Index, and the placing of many concepts together into large paragraphs make the rules difficult to use during a game.

***

These three factors: high expectations, marketing pressures, and focus conflicts, combine to create requirements for the Starter Kit rules that are nearly impossible to fulfill. It should not be surprising that they fall a little short.

My personal opinion is that the rules are amazing for what they've done in terms of capturing the essence of ASL in a handful of pages, and that they work OK when actually playing the game, although they could be better. They don't do a particularly good job of teaching the game to someone who has never played before. For some people, that will be a major problem.

The Starter Kits have definitely made learning ASL easier, but it can still be quite a challenge if you are on your own. Having an experienced player teach you how to play remains the best way to learn the game, either face to face or, increasingly now, via the VASL online program.

One item that is missing from the rules is a detailed step-by-step sequence of play summary. This is unfortunate, but you can easily find and download good ones that have been created by players to fill this need.

A very common complaint about the rules concerns their extensive use of abbreviations... or as some would say, their "excessive" use of abbreviations. This truly is unavoidable; the rules with no abbreviations would be mind-numbing. But, until you learn the abbreviations, they are a real impediment to understanding the rules. This again is where a separate tutorial document would make sense, as it could introduce the abbreviations gradually.

There are two notable features of the ASLSK2 rulebook that I'd like to briefly comment on.

As an aid for players who have already played ASLSK1, the ASLSK2 rulebook has highlighted every change or addition to the rules. Thus, players who have played the first Starter Kit need only read through the highlighted areas to begin playing the scenarios in ASLSK2.

While this is a very useful feature, the highlighting does make the rulebook appear rather cluttered. You have boxed rules summaries, like the Defensive Fire Summary on page 11; you have examples of play printed on colored boxes, as in the Orchard Example on page 2; and you have entire new rules highlighted, like rule 1.2.4.1 on page 4... all of these colored boxes tend to look the same at first glance, which makes the rules more difficult to use than they should be. And, in some cases, the highlighting borders on the excessive... the first paragraph of rule 4, for example, contains 13 separate highlightings!

I would have preferred to see the highlighting restricted to a narrow colored bar in the margin alongside the type. This would do just as good a job of indicating the new areas and changes, but without making the rules harder to read. You would lose the ability to highlight individual words, but I don't feel that's really necessary. And there is a good precedent for this: in the full ASL system, the chapters for the Desert rules and the Pacific rules use colored bars in the margins to indicate theater rules that change or override the standard rules.

The other notable feature of the rulebook is the inclusion of about two pages of Gun information from Chapter H of the full ASL rulebook. This is a nice touch that illustrates ASL's attention to historical detail, and gives the players a taste of what the full game is like. Indeed, for some people, Chapter H alone justifies the expense of the ASL rules... with additions from all of the add-on modules, Chapter H has over 200 pages of historical notes and special rules covering every major vehicle and weapon that was used in World War II. It is an incredible resource for anyone interested in WWII tanks and guns.

Mapboards



ASLSK2 comes with two new mapboards. Board X is a mixture of extensive tree lines and grain fields, along with a few scattered buildings.



Board W is a town set on and between a series of low, flat-topped, level 1 hills. These level 1 hills introduce players to the idea of multi-level LOS while avoiding the complex LOS calculations that are necessary once you have height differences of more than one level. This board may well be unique among all ASL mapboards... I don't recall seeing wide, low hills like this on any other board.

As someone who has played ASL extensively with the "old-style" mounted boards, I find the new SK-style boards to be quite nice. The printing is excellent, and I had no problems with the thin boards not laying flat. My only criticism is that the building textures seem artificial when compared to the hand-painted buildings of the older boards.

Game Play and Scenarios

The title of this review, "The Intermediate Step," is illustrated by the game play. You have anti-aircraft guns... but no aircraft to fire at; you have bazookas and anti-tank guns... but no tanks to shoot at; and you have mortars and artillery pieces, but there's no indirect fire or calling in of off-board artillery.

The only thing you can shoot at with your new Guns is enemy infantry; and since none of these new weapons are motorized or vehicular-mounted, they will often only be useful when defending. This leads to a certain sameness in the scenarios: desperate defenders blasting away at attacking infantry with their big guns... which are not really suited to defending against infantry.

Guns can certainly do a lot of damage to infantry... if they score a hit. It's scoring a hit that is the tricky part. In many of these scenarios, replacing the Guns with HMGs would make the defenders far more deadly. For most Guns, their natural targets are vehicles, which are absent in this game.

Thus ASLSK2 is an intermediate step, introducing players to the "To Hit" method of firing ordnance, but only providing limited targets to shoot at. There's a definite feeling of something missing. This is not meant to imply that the scenarios are poor; they are, in fact, both interesting and challenging. But once tanks appear in ASLSK3, I suspect that the popularity of these scenarios, and ASLSK2 itself, will drop a bit.

Here's a quick look at the included scenarios.

S9 – Ambitious Assault
An Italian force in Sicily, well-equipped with MGs, is first attacked by American paratroopers from one direction, and then later British infantry attacks them from the opposite direction.

S10 – Paper Army
An Italian force, complete with a malfunctioned MMG, attempts to escape from pursuing Greek infantry... only to find themselves blocked by a Greek flanking maneuver.

S11 – A Long Way to Go
In another Sicilian scenario, an American force, with bazookas and a light mortar, try to hold off a much larger German force.

S12 – Over Open Sights
A scenario that generates a lot of interesting game reports: an American artillery unit equipped with two 105mm howitzers... and one 155mm howitzer... tries to hold off German infantry during the Battle of the Bulge.

S13 – Priority Target
During the German airborne invasion of Crete, a mixed force of British, Australian, and Greek troops have to defend three AA Guns from attack by Germans equipped with demo charges.

S14 – 88s at Zon
During Operation Market-Garden, American paratroopers find their path blocked by two of the fabled German 88mm AA Guns.

S15 – Hammer to the Teeth
A rare gun-vs-gun battle (of sorts) that does not involve vehicles: poor quality German infantry, equipped with an 81mm mortar, attack poor quality American infantry, equipped with two 57mm AT Guns, at the start of the Battle of the Bulge.

S16 – Legio Patria Nostra
A Free French force (represented by British infantry) with a light mortar and a captured German MMG, attacks a German force in Italy equipped with a 75mm AT Gun and a 20mm AA Gun. A fortified building (+4 TEM) is also present.

Overall – An ASL Player's Opinion

As a long-time ASL player, the Starter Kits don't interest me. That is, I think they are fine products whose success can only help ASL survive as a viable hobby... but I don't care to play a simplified version when I can play real thing; and I've never had any trouble teaching ASL to new players using the full rules. So, until recently, I had never played a Starter Kit scenario.

It was the recent playing of some ASLSK2 scenarios that prompted this review. (Well... that, and the fact that no one else had yet written a review.)

The action in these ASLSK2 scenarios was fast and furious... and a lot of fun. But I did notice two differences from regular ASL:

* There is a lot of die rolling, considering how small these scenarios are. Without ASL's sniper rules to discourage players from taking shots that have little chance of success, ASLSK players will roll every possible shot. At times, this bordered on becoming tiresome, and I suspect we will see few, if any, large (20 or more squads per side) ASLSK scenarios designed. The endless die rolling that would occur in a large ASLSK scenario would quickly become unbearably tedious.

* Luck seems to play a bigger role in ASLSK scenarios than it does in full ASL scenarios. Partly this is due to rolling lots of low odds shots... occasionally you'll get an unexpected result from a poor shot. And the small scenario size also contributes to this: if your HMG malfunctions, it obviously hurts you more if you only have one HMG than if you have two.

But I am impressed with what MMP has accomplished with the Starter Kits. In the past, trying out ASL was a costly undertaking that was not for the faint-hearted. Now the Starter Kits make it easy to see what the game is all about, and, for some people with limited time, money, or interest, the Starter Kits may well be all they are looking for in a tactical WWII game system.

I have no hesitation in recommending ASLSK2 to those who have purchased and enjoyed ASLSK1. And the only caution I have for people considering making ASLSK2 their first ASL purchase is that it will require a bit more effort to learn the rules, as compared to starting with ASLSK1.
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Jim Cote
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Very nice!
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Wow, nice review!
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Michel Boucher
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richfam wrote:


There's a misconception floating around that the rules for ASLSK1 were truly terrible, and that the ASLSK2 rules fixed this flaw.


This is not Squad Leader :-)

Quote:
But... are the ASLSK rules a poorly written mess?


Not...inasmuch as I who had never played either SL or ASL was able to play a scenario the first time out from beginning to end.

As for the need for a "detailed step-by-step sequence of play summary", I actually did one on my own without any problems.

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Peter Vrabel
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richfam wrote:



...

Board W is a town set on and between a series of low, flat-topped, level 1 hills. These level 1 hills introduce players to the idea of multi-level LOS while avoiding the complex LOS calculations that are necessary once you have height differences of more than one level. This board may well be unique among all ASL mapboards... I don't recall seeing wide, low hills like this on any other board.



Board 11. Though that's a country board, not a village one.

One thing I like about board X is that it feels completely different depending on wether you have grain in or out of season.

Quote:


...

S12 – Over Open Sights
A scenario that generates a lot of interesting game reports: an American artillery unit equipped with two 105mm howitzers... and one 155mm howitzer... tries to hold off German infantry during the Battle of the Bulge.



And is pretty much the only scenario where you'll ever see a 150mm artillery gun.

Quote:


S13 – Priority Target
During the German airborne invasion of Crete, a mixed force of British, Australian, and Greek troops have to defend three AA Guns from attack by Germans equipped with demo charges.



The SSR that allows the germans to enter on any board edge on any turn is very intersting, and make the set up of the AA guns very tricky.

Excellent review.
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Will DeMorris
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Thank you for the excellent review. I have SK #2 on order and after reading this I can't wait for it to arrive.

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Jay Richardson
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Michel Boucher wrote:
Not...inasmuch as I who had never played either SL or ASL was able to play a scenario the first time out from beginning to end.

The continued strong sales of the Starter Kits indicates that most purchasers are successful in learning how to play, as you were.

In learning to play ASLSK (and ASL), a person reads the rules... cusses at the abbreviations... tries a scenario or two... and at some point everything suddenly comes together and he thinks: "Aha! Now I see how it works. This is great!"

It is a complex game, but after that "Aha!" moment it will also be logical, elegant, and relatively easy to play.

But, unfortunately, some people who buy a Starter Kit just never get to that "Aha!" moment. This naturally leaves them frustrated and upset, and they blame the rules. Even experienced wargamers can have this problem.

A separate, detailed, step-by-step tutorial would greatly reduce the number of players who never get to that "Aha!" moment.

Peter Vrabel wrote:
Board 11. Though that's a country board, not a village one.

I stand corrected; that shows how many years it has been since I used Board 11 in a game!

Peter Vrabel wrote:
And is pretty much the only scenario where you'll ever see a 150mm artillery gun.

Well, maybe for the Starter Kit scenarios... but artillery does show up in regular ASL scenarios on occasion. There's even one where the Americans again have three artillery pieces, a 155mm howitzer and two 105mm howitzers, but they are using them to support an ATTACK on a highly fortified Japanese-held building in Manila... firing directly into the building at close range!

The 155mm howitzer isn't even the biggest Gun in ASL. The Germans have a 170mm howitzer and the British have 183mm howitzer, both of which attack on the 30 FP column (just like the American 155mm). And the Americans also get their 200mm howitzer, with its 36 FP attack.

The Germans and Russians also have several heavily armored assault guns mounting 150mm weapons. I'm not sure if any of these will make it into ASLSK3, but it appears that the next Starter Kit will at least have some German 105mm assault guns (StuH 42), and the Russians will get their monstrous IS-2 tanks (122mm gun) to match against the German King Tigers.

The biggest bangs you'll ever see from a tank in ASL would be the British Churchill AVRE, a special design for the Royal Engineers with a bunker-busting "mortar" rated at 200mm... and the German Sturmtiger, a vehicle so rare it isn't even in Beyond Valor (it was included in the historical module Operation Veritable). The Sturmtiger was created by mounting an anti-submarine rocket launcher from the German navy onto a Tiger I chassis. It's rated at 380mm (each round weighed 726 lbs). Folks, this is a tank that fires the equivalent of a battleship shell! Because the IFT doesn't go high enough for this weapon, its hits are resolved on the 36 FP column with a bonus -3 DRM!!! The Sturmtiger has a half page of special rules in Chapter H (it fires VERY slowly and cannot hit a moving target except by luck), but that's nothing compared to the Churchill AVRE with its page and a half of special rules.



One class of weapons that you won't find in ASL are the multiple rocket launchers (Nebelwerfer, Katyushkas, etc.). These weapons were not capable of direct fire, and their minimum indirect fire range is so large that they would never be able to shoot at anything if they were on the map. They are present only as off-board rocket artillery that can be called in by artillery observers.

EDIT: corrected my German usage (see the following post)
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Martin W.
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richfam wrote:

One class of weapons that you won't find in ASL are the multiple rocket launchers (Nebelwerfers, Katyushkas, etc.).


Nebelwerfer actually is the plural (both s. and p. are the same for 'Werfer'). So there's no need for an aditional 's'.
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Alan Lynott
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I appreciate that including a seperate detailed step-by-step example of play of a complete scenario would push up costs for the starter kit, but an alternative would be to include a link to a PDF on MMP's website rather than relying on people to know about websites like BBG.

MMP could do a lot more with their website, and though I appreciate the comment someone made above about MMP not expecting the starter kits to be bought by people new to wargaming, I thought the point of them was to introduce people to the world of ASL, so new people coming to the hobby via ASLSK is a good thing!
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Alessio Mittiga
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I recently purchased ASLSK#1 and I was really, really disapponted by the rulebook.
I like your review and your analysis of the rulebook was enlightening.
The weakness of the rulebook, in my opinion, is the lack of a decent rules indexing and organization: it's really hard to look for a particular rule in those big sections (expecially if you are a wargamer familiar with other, better wargames rulebooks).
Anyway, the game is still very good to play, the rules per se are easy to understand and to teach.
 
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