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Subject: ASL, A Love Affair rss

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Mark Evans
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Introduction: So why write a review when there are already 11 reviews out there on BGG. Well, I just felt as if I might have something to say. I have been playing ASL since 1990 and played original Squad Leader starting in 1978. I play several types of games. I play zombie games, Euro-games, old hex and combat ratio wargames, card driven wargames, the list goes on. ASL is my favorite game.

History: John Hill wrote Squad Leader and it was first released in 1977. The game drew significant attention in the wargame community and sales took off. Like any good movie the consumers were waiting for a sequel. So three supplements later the system had evolved to the point where the rules and mechanics were starting to lose coherence and focus. A decision was made to scrap the whole project and rewrite the whole game from the bare bones and release it as Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) in 1985. The release was in a three ring binder, which is still the format used today. This allows the publisher to release correction pages to be placed in the binder. Then as a separate purchase you buy the entry level modules. Beyond Valor is the typical gateway, in Beyond Valor you get the boards and counters you need to play. This was also innovative. It is still quite rare for the rules and pieces to a game to be sold separately.

Now today there are several core modules, historical modules, scenario packs, and third party products available for ASL. The passion of the ASL community has kept this game alive for 34 years now (counting the original Squad Leader). In the 1998 Hasbro bought the Avalon Hill Game Company and all the rights to ASL. This caused a panic in the ASL as Avalon Hill rushed to get Doomed Battalions out the door before the closing date. The future was uncertain as Hasbro seemed unlikely to support ASL and equally likely to enforce its copyright which would have killed the game. Through a team effort, as the ASL community joined together, Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) was able to broker a deal with Hasbro to continue to produce ASL. We say it was a team effort, but this writer believes that if there was one person who was removed from the equation ASL would have died. I would express my dual thanks to Curt Schilling. Without him it is unlikely that MMP would have been able to secure the limited rights to publish ASL. Without Curt Schilling it is likely that the Red Sox would not have defeated the Yankees in their 2004 run to the World Series. So I am doubly indebted to Mr. Schilling.

This is where the love-hate relationship begins. We love MMP for saving ASL and curse them for allowing critical products to go out of print. We love ASL for its elegance and detail, we yearn for more counters, we curse the amount of time and space the game takes. I have never played a game that so reliably provokes an emotional response from otherwise unemotional gamers. Read on…

Components: I think a game has to have good components, if the counters a too flimsy, the boards warp, or the counters wash out from continued use (which is real in ASL) then the components becomes distracting for me. Back in the 70’s Metagaming used to release games (e.g. Ogre) where you essentially had to cut the counters from cardstock. A sudden sigh or cough could wreck the board. Various publishers have different levels of quality of components.

ASL has always had high quality components. The boards are sturdy. They switched over the past 5 years from mounted boards to thick cardstock format. I am really fine with each format. I am beginning to prefer the cardstock format as time goes on. The boards butt together easier. The counters are good quality as well. The counters will wear with time and the most frequently used counters will need replacing over the years. It would be nice if they were more resilient, but I am not sure that there is a reasonable solution, it just seems that the game gets a lot of play. In most releases by MMP they provide extras of the most popular counters to replace the fading counters. Overall the components are of good quality.

Aesthetics: If a game is ugly the best mechanics will still make the game feel like it is missing something. ASL does not have this problem. ASL is really appealing to the eye before the shooting starts. The boards are very beautiful. The artwork on the counters is very nice. The detail on the counter artwork is amazing when you get a good look at it. You can see some terrific details on the AFV’s. Each AFV has its own artwork. This is no small task in a game that includes Belgian tanks. Unfortunately so much of this lovely artwork is covered with concealment, motion, prep fire, desperation morale, and first fire counters. Crowd all of these into a congested village and the visual appeal starts to go down. Overall, however, the visual experience is good.

Mechanic: This is where ASL shines. One of the most annoying things about WWII tactical games is the whole opportunity fire (called First Fire in ASL). This is where you are sitting by your weapons and an enemy unit walks right in front of you. You don’t have the right card, you fired already, selected a move order or whatever the case is for the game mechanic. For whatever reason you cannot fire and the enemy walks right in front of your position smoking cigarettes and waving. Nothing you can do about it. This just doesn’t feel right. We don’t see it in the movies and don’t read about it in military history books.

To solve this problem, the original Squad Leader had tracking markers. When somebody moved through a space where you thought you might want to shoot, you put a tracking marker down and after movement was done you called the units back for the shot. This would work well with computer games, but not board games. Even as a youngster (my memory was sharper) with a low counter density we could not always agree on who moved where.

ASL created (or at least was one of the first to utilize) the immediate interrupt mechanic. The opponent is moving, you yell stop, take your shot and apply the results, then he continues moving. No matter how bad things get for the defender you can always keep shooting, no matter how many times you have shot thus far. No enemy will ever walk in front of a functioning machine gun nest in ASL smoking cigarettes and waving. Even current games in other systems continue to carry this flaw. ASL excels in this area and it is the key strength of the game.

The mechanics of ASL are very elegant and after you get in a good rhythm you can feel the flow of the game. It is a very engaging game in that both players are always participating. You can’t go to the bathroom while your opponent moves for example. The mechanics of tanks and infantry moving together on the battlefield feel like the way you would expect it to feel. You can ride the tanks on the back deck, run behind the tanks towards enemy positions, or sneak up with your bazooka to take that enemy tank out.

Additionally ASL allows the player to experience a variety of combat circumstances. You can charge through the desert with your tanks in a blinding sandstorm, assault a mountain villa in Italy, or sneak through the thick jungles of Guadalcanal. There are rules for combat at night, air support, air drops, beach invasions, artillery strikes (OBA), sandstorms, snowstorms, jungles, caves, prisoners, interrogation, and cavalry all in the same rules mechanic.

Lack of predictability is another great strength of the game. During play a variety of events can occur. A hero can be generated. Your air support can get confused and attack friendly troops. Your squads could lose their temper and go berserk, charging the nearest enemy unit with no concern for its own safety. A sudden shift in the wind can blow that smoke screen right across your gunsights. Your poorly designed drive train could fail during the battle. This is a small sample of the variety within each battle.

The system creates special attributes for each nationality. As well as the usual suspects there are less typical combatants with their own special weapons and tanks. To name a few: Japanese, Chinese, Belgians, Poles, Greeks, Italians, and French. These all work seamlessly in the same rules mechanic and the system does a good job of creating the feel of each of these nations.

The mechanics have a few weak areas. Foxholes are considered death traps by many. Enemy vehicles can sit outside your building with the engine idling and you can’t shoot out of the hex. Defenders can crawl away from their firing position on their turn to avoid fire and crawl right back at the end of their turn (called skulking is ASL parlance). Though these situations come up quite often they really don’t break the system and fixing them would likely create more problems than it solves.

Overall the mechanics are excellent and do a great job of capturing just about any type of ground combat from the World War Two era. The opportunity fire (defensive first fire in ASL) principles are at a level beyond excellence.

Rules: Rules need to be clear, complete, and support needs to be conservative. By conservative support I mean to say that when a gap in the rules is presented, the publisher through questions and answers (Q&A) and errata attempts to close the gap with the least amount of impact on the system. It is a common fault for designers to continue to design the game after it is published by opening more gaps in the rules than they close with Q&A.

The rules will not seem clear on your first several readings. After some familiarity is gained with the game the rules will start to make sense. The language takes time to develop. Once the rules start to come together that snarled mass of verbiage, exceptions and cross references starts to reveal an underlying elegance and genius. Things just click in this rulebook. The pieces fit together very nicely. I cannot fathom what kind of brain somebody would have to have to write this masterpiece. The person (it was a team effort so I really don’t know who did the bulk of it) is what Mozart was to the piano.

Now chapter E (weather, night, air support) and F (desert) are different. You can tell that chapter E and F are written by different people, or the same people at a very different place in their lives. Those chapters don’t have that same polish that the base chapters (A-D) and chapter G (Pacific) have. That said they are still far better than so many rule books out there.

Overall the rulebook is beyond excellent and I would dare say a work of art. Gaps appear, as in most rulebooks. The numbers of gaps that appear in this game are remarkably few based on the complexity of this project. When the gaps appear in the rules the team at MMP and its predecessors at the Avalon Hill Game Company always seem to strive for a conservative approach. The answers closed gaps in the rules rather than creating new ones. I have very rarely seen a Q&A or errata update that makes me wonder what they are getting at.

Story: A good game has to tell me a story. Chess for example tells me no story. Luftwaffe from the 70’s told me a story about American airpower gradually taking over the skies of Germany. ASL tells many tales. What’s it like to be sitting in a cave and watching waves of US Marines unloading from their amphibians? It’s scary, there are so many of them and they have so much firepower.

What’s it like trying to hold back the Red Army in Poland in 1944? Very depressing, they have big tanks and way too many of them. Sure it is nice to have a couple of Panthers and a Panzerfaust is an infantryman’s best friend, but no matter how many you kill, there are always more.

How much fun is it skiing around the Russian columns in Finland 1939? Not as much fun as you think. The Russians may be slowly freezing to death and their tanks may be frozen in place but they still shoot back and there are no easy victories in the frozen north.

ASL tells a lot of stories. I didn’t even know that French colonial troops tangled with the Japanese in French Indo-China in 1940 until I saw an ASL scenario. I cried foul here, read the history, the history books said, they sure did fight.

ASL tells a story in a way no other game has told this story. How did those big map movements in the history books look on the smallest scales? ASL answers that question. ASL does an excellent job of story-telling. Plus you have to love those scenario cards. I have friends that never played ASL that love to read the scenario backgrounds.

Conclusion: So what kind of a game is ASL? Why the fascination? When people stop playing ASL it is like ending a relationship or breaking an addiction. There is always a story. I contemplated quitting at one point. I went 5 years without playing. I kept all my stuff, but didn’t play. When I got back into the game, it was like an alcoholic that found a bottle. ASL has a grip on the people who love it. The women in our lives definitely sense it. I had a friend who would have done better to tell his wife he was out having an affair, rather than tell the truth that he was playing ASL. Can you imagine being asked by your significant other, which do you love more, ASL or me?

There is a certain emotional bond that ASL players share as well. Many times I will talk to an ASL player I have just met as if we had been friends for 20 years and it all seems natural. We may not all like each other and may disagree much of the time, and some of us hate each other. I had one player get physically angry with me during a game; I was a bit scared, survived and went on to lose the scenario due to a failed transmission. Other times I have seen long time friends and opponents, break-up, stop playing, stop being friends. These types of emotions run deep in the ASL community. Now we are not all nutcases, really.

What I am saying is, for these types of crazy things to happen to otherwise emotionally reserved grown men it has to be a hell of a game! The question is not, is ASL a good game, the question is, can you handle it?
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Mad Scientist Philip von Doomula
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Great review Mark. It was also a pleasure to play ASL with you. I hope our paths cross again sooner, rather than later.
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Brian Bunker
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Regarding the longevity of the counters in regular/heavy use:
This may be rather OCD'ish, but, I have after corner clipping the counters, mounted them onto the heads of 2" nails using a little blue-tak. The nails then sit into holes previously drilled the correct size in a piece of wood, about 25 at a time. You can now spray them with a suitable mat varnish. I have used Plasti-kote Krystal clear mat spray, and it does exactly as it says on the tin. In fact it is so good a mat finish it removes all shinyness from the counters finish, which makes overhead photos really come out well. The counter now has a very, almost plastic like feel and sound to them if dropped, rather than cardboard.
OK! So I'm a sad OCD suffering Brit!

Regards
Phalanx58
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Mark Evans
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Quarashi wrote:
Great review Mark. It was also a pleasure to play ASL with you. I hope our paths cross again sooner, rather than later.


Yeah, I hope so to Phil. Thanks for reading the review.
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PS

Sorry forgot to add, Great Review, well worth the read, and thanks for the effort put into doing it.

Happy Gaming to all

Phalanx58
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Jim Cote
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drmark64 wrote:
It is a very engaging game in that both players are always participating. You can’t go to the bathroom while your opponent moves for example.

A very important point. ASL is often called IGOUGO, which is only correct insofar as there's a player turn for A and a player turn for B. But both players participate in almost every action of every phase. IGOUGO is often a negative phrase used to describe games where one player waits for 10+ minutes while the other player takes his actions. ASL is not that game.
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Brent Pollock
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drmark64 wrote:

Introduction: [snipped]
No matter how bad things get for the defender you can always keep shooting, no matter how many times you have shot thus far. [snipped]


Now, you know this isn't strictly true, what with SFF restrictions and all.
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Paul Franklin-Bihary
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Great review. I agree that it is worth the effort. After three failed attempts at teaching myself the game, the Starter Kits finally helped me over the hump. I wish I would have had the guts to meet with someone who already knew the game, but I didn't. But I learned it with the help of a fellow friend I met on BGG. And we still play. And will for life.
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Murray Fish
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They explained everything in detail and at great length. After they finished I sat, despondent, contemplating a bleak and empty future. "I’m glad you’re depressed" said one. "It means you’ve understood the situation.”
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Great review! I found this to be really enjoyable and very well reasoned - thanks for taking the effort to post this.

Quote:
Can you imagine being asked by your significant other, which do you love more, ASL or me?


What was the answer to this one?

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Jan Colpaert
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Great review indeed. ASL is the queen-mother of all WWII-tactical boardgames. I learned myself as well with the starter kits and the Jay Richardson-tutorials. Can't wait to start playing the real thing!
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Mark Evans
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muzfish4 wrote:
Great review! I found this to be really enjoyable and very well reasoned - thanks for taking the effort to post this.

Quote:
Can you imagine being asked by your significant other, which do you love more, ASL or me?


What was the answer to this one?



Honey, I've been playing ASL for a very long time.
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Mark Evans
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WBRP wrote:
drmark64 wrote:

Introduction: [snipped]
No matter how bad things get for the defender you can always keep shooting, no matter how many times you have shot thus far. [snipped]


Now, you know this isn't strictly true, what with SFF restrictions and all.


I think it is true. There are conditions of course, but the enemy won't be strolling by asking for a light for his cigarettes until you are actually broken.
 
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Brent Pollock
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You know about the range limitations vs closest Known Enemy unit for SFF, yes? Or are you really just considering the PBF kind of cases?

Hmmm...you just gave me a Combat Commander house rule to try out - allow the use of any card as an Op Fire action, but exact some form of ASL FPF penalty from the shooters...hmmm...hmmm...I'll run this past Gary....hmmm...

drmark64 wrote:
WBRP wrote:
drmark64 wrote:

Introduction: [snipped]
No matter how bad things get for the defender you can always keep shooting, no matter how many times you have shot thus far. [snipped]


Now, you know this isn't strictly true, what with SFF restrictions and all.


I think it is true. There are conditions of course, but the enemy won't be strolling by asking for a light for his cigarettes until you are actually broken.
 
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Mark Evans
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WBRP wrote:
You know about the range limitations vs closest Known Enemy unit for SFF, yes? Or are you really just considering the PBF kind of cases?

Hmmm...you just gave me a Combat Commander house rule to try out - allow the use of any card as an Op Fire action, but exact some form of ASL FPF penalty from the shooters...hmmm...hmmm...I'll run this past Gary....hmmm...

drmark64 wrote:
WBRP wrote:
drmark64 wrote:

Introduction: [snipped]
No matter how bad things get for the defender you can always keep shooting, no matter how many times you have shot thus far. [snipped]


Now, you know this isn't strictly true, what with SFF restrictions and all.


I think it is true. There are conditions of course, but the enemy won't be strolling by asking for a light for his cigarettes until you are actually broken.


Yes, I am talking about FPF. A brilliant and innovative concept.
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Phalanx58 wrote:
Regarding the longevity of the counters in regular/heavy use:
This may be rather OCD'ish, but, I have after corner clipping the counters, mounted them onto the heads of 2" nails using a little blue-tak. The nails then sit into holes previously drilled the correct size in a piece of wood, about 25 at a time. You can now spray them with a suitable mat varnish. I have used Plasti-kote Krystal clear mat spray, and it does exactly as it says on the tin. In fact it is so good a mat finish it removes all shinyness from the counters finish, which makes overhead photos really come out well. The counter now has a very, almost plastic like feel and sound to them if dropped, rather than cardboard.
OK! So I'm a sad OCD suffering Brit!

Regards
Phalanx58


An example of the kind of obsessive love that players will lavish on this game. We all have our own favorite story of excess...
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Martí Cabré

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fubar awol wrote:
Phalanx58 wrote:
Regarding the longevity of the counters in regular/heavy use:
This may be rather OCD'ish, but, I have after corner clipping the counters, mounted them onto the heads of 2" nails using a little blue-tak. The nails then sit into holes previously drilled the correct size in a piece of wood, about 25 at a time. You can now spray them with a suitable mat varnish. I have used Plasti-kote Krystal clear mat spray, and it does exactly as it says on the tin. In fact it is so good a mat finish it removes all shinyness from the counters finish, which makes overhead photos really come out well. The counter now has a very, almost plastic like feel and sound to them if dropped, rather than cardboard.
OK! So I'm a sad OCD suffering Brit!

Regards
Phalanx58


An example of the kind of obsessive love that players will lavish on this game. We all have our own favorite story of excess...


Buying all the pricey official modules on eBay after a gaming hiatus of fifteen years does count?

Great review!
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Jude Jenkins
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I've been playing SL/ASL since the purple box days and have enjoyed it immensely over the years. However, one thing that is praised in the review I see as a (often) major negative; specifically, the multiple rate of fire of weapons and unpredictability. I can't remember the number of times I've been raked over the coals by a heavy machine gun that decimates everything in sight with its 3 rate of fire, AND it could still fire if there were anything left. I appreciate the fact that this mechanic helps curb soldiers casually walking up and taking out a well fortified position, but it is equally unrealistic for the gun(s) to lay waste to everything in sight. I've also drawn two red cards in a row at the beginning of a game negating my off board artillery, had a critical weapon break down on its first shot, and rolled a 12 on a morale check with my best leader at the get go to name a few things. Sure I've had the opposite happen, but I've seen many scenarios ruined by extreme luck one way or the other. Someone may counter by saying proper tactics can help alleviate some of the luck, and that's true, but sometimes the counter density or turn limits is so low recovery is difficult, if not impossible. I've had many a scenario ruined in the first turn due to extreme luck/bad luck. That’s when it’s particularly galling. When you consider that a typical scenario takes at least an hour to set up, and the game is over before it really starts, that's a shame. This is not sour grapes, though. I don’t like it when extreme bad luck happens to my opponent or I get extremely lucky either. I want to win because my tactics dictated the outcome, not the dice. When scenarios play out as designed with a natural ebb and flow, there is no greater game. The unpredictability actually makes it more enjoyable because the outcome is always in doubt. However, when the dice take over, it’s like playing Yahtzee or Risk and not the serious strategy game it should be.
 
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Robin Reeve
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Luck is a factor in ASL.
Small, "tourney" sized scenarios are much more dependent upon luck (and bad luck).
I would say that medium and large sized scenarios do reduce the effect of luck.
The fickleness of the OBA or the unpredictable ROF of HMGs will be compensated by the players' skill, which allows adaptation to the situation...
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Mark Evans
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I have been to many tournaments and the same names appear in the top 10% every year. Over a period of time the skill offsets luck.
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Sometimes luck ruins a good scenario. Just play it again and confirm luck was really the factor...
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Ah, I knew my comments would elicit responses. Gentlemen, I can’t disagree with what you’ve said. In fact, luck HAS to be a part of the game or the outcome of each scenario would be preordained. My beef with the system is when extreme luck occurs in bunches. Small things are irritating when they occur as the following examples suggest. If the order of battle gives off board artillery or air support, you should get off at least one shot or one attack. A 10-3 leader shouldn’t be taken out by a sniper in the first turn. Your lone tank shouldn’t have a gun malfunction on its first shot and then either never repair it or have it disabled on the subsequent rally phase. As for rate of fire, that’s when I’ve seen ASL at its worst. Incredible rate of fire coupled with miserable morale rolls have doomed many a scenario. I agree that the best players should, and usually do, win, but I’m a casual player (albeit, one who has played well over 500 scenarios over the past 30 years) and when I do get a chance to sit down with an opponent, I want a tense, gripping battle. I fully expect to roll "snakes" or "boxcars" at some point, and I expect for fate to rear its head several times a match. That’s what makes the game fun and exciting. However, because of the sheer amount of time it takes to get set up and going, it’s hard to swallow when the dice take over. Yes, I could start over, but when do you and the opponent decide to do so? Do you even have the time to do it? Also, the element of surprise from the initial set up is taken away. I’m not looking for answers; I’m just stating a fact. I love ASL and no other game I know of simulates war as intensely and perhaps as realistically. I just think that over the years, I’ve seen many a good game ruined by the dictates of the dice and that’s what frustrates me about the system.
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Lee Kennedy
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RonneyG wrote:
I love ASL and no other game I know of simulates war as intensely and perhaps as realistically. I just think that over the years, I’ve seen many a good game ruined by the dictates of the dice and that’s what frustrates me about the system.

I think this is the paradox. A big part of the intensity comes from the "things could go wrong at any moment" feeling and knowing that there are events completely out of your control. But that also means statistically there are times when a bunch of those things will go wrong all at once.

The more variation you allow in a game the further out your outliers get.
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thelivekennedy wrote:
I think this is the paradox.

Well put. If all results were constrained to "slightly good/bad", wargames would feel contrived. They feel more real (and fun) when extreme things can happen in low-probability cases.

When that conscript half-squad runs through 2 hexes of open ground, survives multiple-ROF shots from a HMG, goes berserk, and takes out the crew in Close Combat, your opponent may weep, but you will both tell the tale forever.
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Andy Beaton
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I think the risk of ruining a game with luck is unavoidable, and the smaller the scenario, the more likely it is that a bad patch of luck will wreck the game.
All I can offer is the advice to play larger scenarios, where a single bad stroke will have less of an unbalancing effect, and to keep bashing, knowing that you won't get your counterbalancing lucky fluke if you aren't still in the game.

And if you're still being wrecked by the dice, you can console yourself with the knowledge that history also turned on bizarrely improbable happenings. At least you've got historical realism on your side.
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Tom
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As Gygax intended.
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“It is a trivial grammar-school text, but yet worthy a wise man’s consideration. Question was asked of Demosthenes, what was the chief part of an orator? he answered, action; what next? action; what next again? action.”
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ekted wrote:
thelivekennedy wrote:
I think this is the paradox.


When that conscript half-squad runs through 2 hexes of open ground, survives multiple-ROF shots from a HMG, goes berserk, and takes out the crew in Close Combat, your opponent may weep, but you will both tell the tale forever.

Yep, this is not a bug but a feature! cool
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