Relearning Humility: An Advanced Squad Leader Story
“Oh yeah! I forgot about inherent terrain there didn’t I?” I said, for the umpteenth time as my opponent graciously pointed out yet another detail I forgot during a recent Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) game. If you’re not familiar with ASL at this point, it’s a 1985 tactical wargame that covers armored and infantry combat from the Spanish Civil War through the Korean War. It has a reputation for being overly complicated and for being a “lifestyle” game that people must play regularly in order to remain proficient in the detailed nuance of the rules. This article is just a quick reflection on my experience as I prepare to attend Winter Offensive 2022 in order to play ASL with other hobbyists.
The heart of the game, at least from my novice experience, is the sequence of play. On the surface, the sequence of play isn’t intimidating:
Prep Fire Phase
Defensive Fire Phase
Advancing Fire Phase
Each phase, however, is meticulously crafted. The when and why for each action a unit on the board can perform can be a mini-game all in and of itself. Forget to do it, and there are no “backsies” in ASL. The game is punishing in that way. For example, only on your player turn do you get a free self-rally of an eligible unit or gain concealment. Forget to do these things and it may prove costly. Success is as much about tactics as it is about understanding when and how things works.
You might be thinking, “Yeah dude…that’s how ALL wargames work!” The difference here is that the sheer volume of details that must be committed to memory puts most games to shame. For some, that’s a selling point. For others, that’s the single best argument against playing ASL. After all, we gather around the table (virtual or otherwise) to have fun and enjoy the company of someone that thinks moving cardboard around is the best thing going for their leisure entertainment.
A little humility
As you might imagine, a little humility when it comes to learning this system goes a long way. In fact, you only start with a LITTLE humility, you earn it in economy-sized buckets as you continue to play the game against different opponents. You begin to see just how little you know when playing someone who is skilled AND has the rules down cold.
During a recent game, I managed to place my pillboxes facing the wrong direction. Bonehead mistake…However, it reinforced an important point that within the pillbox rules, there is substantial nuance to how and where you place them prior to the start of play, especially since you can potentially set them up hidden if you’re even borderline competent. My opponent was gracious and offered to let me change their facing, but they were “close enough” to where I wanted them that I thought I could pull it out and, though I was giving myself an aggravating factor on top of a number of others, I wanted the lesson to burn into my brain.
A few weeks later and I’m still a bit fuzzy on the specifics, but I highlighted my trusty rulebook and will at least have that for reference.
A lot is made of the rulebook. Is it too long? Too detailed? Too obtuse with the many exceptions and reliance upon English grammatical norms to convey meaning? Let’s be clear, it’s all those things and more. Again, to some that’s a plus and to others that’s a great reason to enjoy the dozens of other fantastic tactical WW2 games on the market. To me, it was a plus, but as I’m playing the game more I’m quickly realizing just how poorly I grokked some of the rules and how they relate to other sections.
During my games, I like to go back and highlight the sections for the key information I may have missed. Often, I find myself highlighting sections that didn’t initially stand out to me.
That’s the crux of the humility game with ASL: You don’t know what you don’t know UNTIL you play.
In effect, you can ONLY learn to play ASL by playing. Again, you’re reading this and thinking, “Look at this moron…he thinks he can learn any game by just reading it…” You are right to some degree, it’s an oversimplification of my point. ASL’s detail means that each game is going to feature a number of edge cases that UNLESS you have both played previously and understand how to apply the game’s rules, you may not be able to figure out exactly what’s supposed to happen. In other, even complicated wargames, I’d say that I can reasonably learn those rules interactions within a few plays. It’s just somehow, different and more humiliating to THINK you have it figured out only for your opponent to stop and say, “You might want to read that one more time.”
Now, you add on the scenarios. To me, the largest pull of the ASL system. There are literally thousands of scenarios playable on the generic geomorphic map boards that represent everything from France to French-Indochina and the deserts of North Africa to the frigid wastes of Finland or Russia. There are probably close to one hundred historical ASL modules at this point between third party publishers and official publications that give you historical scenarios, maps, and orders of battle.
That’s amazing! A game for a lifetime and a game you can bring to a desert island and probably build a reasonable raft out of to sail back to civilization if necessary.
The downside is that each of these scenarios presents a tactical challenge for the players to figure out. In some cases, it’s a run of the mill problem like “How do I dislodge those guys from that place?” Others are more devious like, “How am I supposed to defeat that armor with these pea-shooters and a bunch of incompetent leaders?” The brilliant part is that there are players who look at these scenarios and simply think, “got it.” They move on and play. Then there are the players like myself who look at the scenario and think, “Woah…that’s impossible!” until someone gently says, “Hey…read these sections and then tell me what you think.”
The Apprentice Model
I’m not talking about getting fired on TV. I’m talking about the learning journey of an ASL player. It’s an apprenticeship which means it starts from a place of eagerness to learn, grows through the admission of inexperience, and is honed by those who are better and have done it all before. The conversations around the maps are indispensable to the novice and journeyman alike.
Don’t believe me? How do you explain decades of fan-created and official publications that talk about tips, rules breakdowns, and scenario replays of ASL content? There are other games out there that have been around that long. There are other complicated games that deserve that kind of coverage as frequently and by as many diverse sources worldwide as ASL. They just don’t exist for one reason or another.
The apprentice model isn’t one-sided. It’s time that’s spent and invested. The investment is that when that time and expertise are given, you become the one who shares it with others who are interested. The community model of ASL is quite remarkable. Some of the earliest software written for boardgames was written to help people manage the learning and data crunching of ASL! When computer programming was a dark art relegated to the true enthusiast hobbyist…ASL was a part of their thinking.
A final thought
I still have a long way to go, but I would be remiss to not call out the fact that the ASL community is genuinely interested in helping new players and veteran players alike. I’m sure there are other communities like that out there, but I’ll be honest I never found them. I couldn’t point to a similar community in terms of the depth, self-organization, and formalized event hosting that the ASL community provides. It’s very similar to the historical miniature wargaming community in that regard or the roleplaying game community.
While I’m certain that I’ll be finding new and interesting ways to lose in mid-January at Winter Offensive 2022…I’m equally certain that it will be time well spent with folks who will genuinely enjoy a laugh across the table as we engage in some competitive fun together. I will return with newly appreciated humility and an eagerness to see if I can preserve my cardboard soldiers a little better next time.