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  • Keith

ASL Homecoming: The Beginning

This is the story of my ASL Homecoming. ASL, or Advanced Squad Leader, can be a polarizing subject for folks in the wargaming community. It’s “all-in” on hyper-detailed rules, expensive out-of-print modules, and has been the talking-point mainstay of tactical WWII since it bounding-fired onto the scene in 1985. For many, it remains their game of choice, and in fact, their hobby of choice. There are literally dozens of ASL products released each year between Multi-man Publishing, the game’s steward post-Avalon Hill Game Company, to the many third-party producers (TPPs). ASL enjoys an active tournament scene, even in COVID-topia where tournaments have been moved online to use VASL. Yes, VASL, which was the precursor to VASSAL all those many years ago and still continues strong today. So, what else can possibly be said about ASL at this point?

Quite simply: not much.

I am going to document my journey back to ASL from a roughly six-year hiatus that hasn’t seen me push a counter either digitally or physically in that time. The reality is, that ASL is a bit of a hamster wheel and once you’re on, you stay all the way on or you just get right off of it. That hamster wheel has to do with keeping up with product releases. Once they’re gone…they’re gone and the prices skyrocket. As a result, I’ve never stopped purchasing ASL products during my hiatus. But…that’s getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s take it back to the start.

1991 – Red Dragon Hobbies, Otisville Michigan

I grew up in a northern suburb of Detroit. My hometown had zero hobby shops. It had an art supply store that also carried scale models and model rockets, but that was a “hobby” as it got. My best friend down the street from me was the one who introduced me to hobby wargaming when his dad started buying them for the two of them to enjoy around the time I was in 5th grade.

Our love the hobby exploded and we spent every rainy or snowy night tucked away in his bedroom playing wargames on the floor. Tables be damned. We were only allowed to game when conditions outside were not suitable for boys to be outside…so…roughly never. That made every opportunity we were allowed in the house for a few hours a special treat. Given the lack of hobby stores within our non-driving age reach, we resorted to the Wargames West catalog.

Wargames West Catalog

The catalog made us drool every time it arrived and probably because of that, my friend’s dad somehow got wind of Red Dragon Hobbies in Otisville, Michigan. This place was about a 90 minute drive north from our neighborhood, and we had no idea what to expect when we arrived. Our only exposure to hobby wargame stores was Wargames West, so we assumed we could stroll into this hexy bazaar and snatch up any number of titles we had pined for over the past few years since our gaming obsession started.

Instead, we were greeted by a humble blue building in the middle of rural Michigan.

Red Dragon Hobbies in Otisville

The photo above was from August 2018 according to Google, but it might as well have been taken from my memories of arriving in 1991. Nothing has changed. This squat blue hobby shop would change the way I spent my leisure time for the rest of my life. Talk about humble, but beloved, beginnings!

My parents were ADAMANT that I not spend any of my allowance money on boardgames. It was one of the great taboos in my house that I ever enjoy anything that I was interested in that didn’t pass my parent’s muster. Stepping inside of the Red Dragon Hobbies store was like stepping into a little piece of heaven. There was no way I could resist not spending my hard earned cash. In 1991, I made $40/mo. mowing my great aunt Ruth’s lawn with a 13″ push-mower. Her “lawn” was a 3 acre property that included a dilapidated orchard of overgrown trees that were thick with bees and just HATED the lawn-mowing. It was harrowing and I felt like I deserved to spend my money as I saw fit! After all, a 13-year-old had to stand up for something!

Red Dragon Hobbies Interior

The interior photo, like the exterior one, are straight from my memory. This time, the photo is from December 2019. I’m so glad they’ve hung on to the look and feel of their store for all these years. I HAVE to go back with my son at some point whenever I get to travel again assuming COVID-apocalypse ever ends.

Love at First Sight

On that shelf you see above on the right side of the photo there were Avalon Hill boardgames. There were so many, they were packed in side-by-side. A few games had been set aside so you can see their cover in all its glory and Advanced Squad Leader was one of them. Lo-and-behold, I had enough money to buy the amazing red and orange box that looked like a binder of rules. What else could a kid love?

My friend’s dad was greeted kindly by the owners. If I recall, a husband and wife team who were super welcoming to everyone who came in the store. The man came over and saw what I had in my hands. I’ll never forget what we said next….Son, if you want to play that game you’re going to need to buy this as well and held out a copy of Beyond Valor to me.

My heart sank.

I did not have enough money for BOTH the rules AND Beyond Valor. I explained that this was WELL out of my price range and he kind of chuckled knowingly and I handed the Advanced Squad Leader rules back to him and moved on to other games. Being the cool guy that he was, the dude recommended West Front Tank Leader from West End Games and before I can reach down, my friend had plucked it off the shelves for himself. I looked around and couldn’t really find anything else I wanted as badly and settled on the purchase of A Line in the Sand by TSR.

The Discussion

On the way back home, as my friend poured over the rules for West Front Tank Leader, I kept thinking about ASL. How could a company expect to sell games to kids (I had not yet encountered adult hobby gamers and couldn’t even fathom it…lol) if they cost so much! I was angry and still forever intrigued. I HAD to have Advanced Squad Leader in my life one way or another. The complexity made me drool. The “elite status” that must be bestowed upon people who have played such a complex game would clearly be my pathway to greatness. The mind of a 13 year old can do a lot with a little…

Computer Wargaming Intervenes

One thing my parents weren’t as weird about was computer games. I could purchase those, or ask for them for my birthday or Christmas. And so, my love of board wargames was set aside for quite a while as computer wargaming took over at my house.

This extended through all those great SSI titles, Talonsoft games, and even a few oddball ones here or there.

Until one day I was in college and had my own set of wheels and decided to look for local hobby shops to see what they had going on in them. My love of wargaming hadn’t died and I was keen to check out what was in Lansing Michigan.

1999 Rider’s Hobby Shop, Lansing Michigan

Rider’s Hobby Shop in Lansing, now closed along with most of the other branches, was a hole in the wall shop in the old run-down part of Lansing. It had a small parking lot out back and you entered through this odd glass door in the back of the shop that was sort of on the back side corner.

Rider’s had been around for ages and was THE hobby shop chain in southern and mid-Michigan. Stores were in Flint, Ann Arbor, Lansing, and I assume elsewhere in the Detroit suburbs but never really explored it too much. They catered to a little bit of everything from Napoleonic Miniatures to model railroad enthusiasts, model makers, and wargamers.

The Rider’s Hobby Shop was run by a strange dude who was kind of stand off’ish, but incredibly knowledgeable. You just had to be the one to ask. They were selling out all of their boardgames and, lucky for me, I was flush with Christmas cashola. I started poking around and saw they had the ASL rulebook and Beyond Valor. I took them immediately to the register because I was certain that someone, though the store was nearly empty, was there to buy them before me.

My heart was racing!

I went back and scoured the shelves and found Hollow Legions, Croix de Guerre, ASL Action Pack 1, Code of Bushido, Yanks, and West of Alamein. I bought the lot of them. If ever this gif was used properly…this was it.

I was, of course, still missing a bunch of modules, but the knowledgeable dude behind the counter started calling around and he was able to help me located Paratroopers, Partisan!, The Last Hurrah, and Gung Ho. So, within a few hours, I went from thinking “well…let’s check this out” to I now own or have holds on just about every core module released through 1999 and my first taste of using a credit card. This was an emergency.

ASL The Homecoming – The College Years

Now, you might think that upon hauling all this across the Michigan State University campus from a remote parking lot beyond the railroad tracks, I was dripping in hot girls just chucking panties and their phone numbers at me. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I got back to my dorm room, a mere 20 minute walk….in the snow…no hills (this is Michigan after all), I was confronted with the cold hard reality that I had nobody who would ever play this game with me.

College in the late 90’s and early 2000’s was all about Madden and NCAA Football tournaments. I enjoyed that too, but as I withdrew into my single room in Wilson hall, I realized that FINALLY owning Advanced Squad Leader was the thing I was most interested in beyond my girlfriend (who I ended up marrying) and attending classes. It consumed my evenings with nail clippers and reading as much as I could via Dial-up (Wilson Hall didn’t have ethernet at that point) on the ASLML (ASL Mailing List).

I set up Fighting Withdrawal and managed to move zero counters. I didn’t even have a clue how to begin interpreting these rules and how to play this beast. I decided this would be a summer project. I was living off-campus that summer in a studio apartment and I would simply learn it then when my class schedule was shorter and I didn’t have a job. It would be perfect. Except, I only got moderately proficient with it then and the old computer wargaming bug bit me again with the release of the beta version of Battlefront’s Combat Mission. This game was, after all, supposed to be the computer 3D version of Advanced Squad Leader.

The games moved with me from apartment to apartment and I kept buying things up here and there as I could find them. Ultimately, it was the year of my wedding in 2002 and I had to make a choice. Keep lugging this heavy massive collection of ASL around with me only to see it sit on the shelf or to actually start playing it.

Combat Commander: Europe & The Rebuying of ASL

In the winter of 2002, I sold my ASL collection for the tidy sum of $500. I thought I had made a fair price for this stuff and quickly spent the money to support my upcoming wedding. That was, I thought, the end of my interest in Advanced Squad Leader.

Then I met Chad Jensen’s masterpiece: Combat Commander: Europe. It re-ignited my love for board wargaming and brought me head-over-heels back into the hobby again. I was bit and I knew the other anti-venom was Advanced Squad Leader. So, I started looking for a collection to buy. After all, this was only 6 years later. I could CLEARLY find a seller.

The first seller I found was selling the whole collection, everything, including annuals and a bunch of stuff I didn’t have in my original collection for $1,800. This was an incredible deal in 2008 and as much as I tried to convince my wife of the value, she was as adamantly opposed to dropping that much on a game as my parents were back when I was 13. She had good reason to say that. We just had a baby. Our daycare costs were more expensive than our mortgage and we were both in the early days of our careers at that point without great salaries as public employees.

She did relent and say I could start buying things piecemeal. Years later, she would concede that we should have just bought that $1,800 collection. I agreed. The lesson learned was that I was never going to stop buying ASL or sell my collection again for fear of the cost of a third entry. Around this time, The Gamer’s Armory was opening up in a nearby town. The owner, Scott Blanton, was a big ASL fan and we corresponded before I had ANY idea what a big deal in the hobby he was, and was excited to be at his store. It was exciting…ASL right here in the community.

2010 – 2013: ASL Golden Age

Between 2010 and 2013, I was lucky enough to play ASL at The Gamer’s Armory on Monday nights when I could sneak away from my job that was almost an hour away. It was tough to do so, and I ended up having to stop in 2011, but I was able to connect with a bunch of the gamers and keep playing on weekends when I had more time. My amazing wife, has always been supportive of me being out the house while she watched our son and knew that I was happy to do the same in return for her!

Consequently, I got a chance to play ASL and fell in love with it even more. The downside, however, of playing games in a game store is that you’re constantly surrounded by people playing other cool games. You’re looking at your game, and looking around to see what games other folks are playing and thinking, “I want to try that too!” So, as 2012 rounded the corner into 2013, I was stretching myself between ASL and other games which, for those of you who have tried it, is just not possible really. Maybe ONE other complex game in additional to ASL, but certainly not a ton of them unless you’ve played so much ASL that it’s like baked into your neural pathways.

As a result, my skills got rusty. I would occasionally revisit ASL at home to shove some counters around, but nothing competitive or concentrated. Then, in the summer of 2013 my back finally got so bad that I started seeking treatment for it and was forced to get lumbar surgery. That meant no long periods of time sitting. That meant a lengthy recovery. That meant, that I stopped gaming as frequently as I had been prior to my surgery and I let ASL pretty much fall by the wayside with some exceptions here and there into early 2014.

2014 to Present…

It’s been 6 years now since I pushed a cardboard panzer across a geomorphic board in ASL. I am re-reading the rules and remembering a lot, but also forgetting far more than I remembered. I’m not exactly starting over, but I am remembering just how complex some of the layered rules can be as you start playing again. I remember now how frequently we would ask other ASL’ers for guidance on odd situations that would arise. ASL is not a simple game once you’re in the thick of layering status counters on and tracking who’s in motion, stopped, in Melee, what’s on fire, where the smoke is at and who has acquisition on what and when. Throw in trying to remember all the fire options and related DRMs / column shifts…and it’s a lot to grab back onto!

Our hobby has changed. Yet, ASL remains a vibrant part of it. It’s just as alluring to me in 2020 as it was 29 years ago standing as a 13 year old in the Red Dragon Hobby store in Otisville. While I wish I could reach back through time and reassure my 13 year-old self on the drive home that some day I would have the ASL collection I yearned for…there’s still something missing and that’s the ability to play the game with fidelity with a broad group of opponents.

So, I’ve recommitted myself to learning the game and getting my collection in order. I’ve kept it pretty up to date, but I have a lot of cutting and corner rounding to do. I have a lot of binders to organize scenarios into and I have to overcome my self-imposed exile from VASL. I’ve stayed away from online gaming because I just don’t like it as much as face-to-face or solo using the physical components. I guess I have to get over that because from a purely functional level…I won’t game as much if I don’t!

I was excited to get started again, and created an account over on the Gamesquad forums which remind me quite a bit of the old ASLML from 20 years ago with the bickering and irritable personalities. The constant “one upsmanship” of who knows more and squabbles over various aspects of the hobby. I was quickly reassured that someone would reach out after I posted in the opponent’s wanted. Still, 2 weeks later nobody has reached out. I did the same over on the ASL Discord…and much the same…nobody has reached out. I suspect there’s an unfamiliarity that comes with the Internet that makes folks reluctant to spend their limited time with a stranger. After all, if the person on the other end of the Internet is a real douche-nozzle…you’ve just wasted your time which burns with the bright intensity of hatred. As a result, it’s easier to stick with the folks you’ve enjoyed playing against who had manage multiple games at once, don’t need live play to be coached and reminded when they screw up the rules. It’s a conundrum!

So, as I venture back into ASL…the best way to hopefully get folks comfortable will be to try and document my journey here so potential opponents can try to get a feel for who I am and what my skillset might be in advance of them risking their time with someone they completely don’t know!

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