Gavin Take

My friend Milton is thinking about getting back into ASL after a 15-or-so-year absence. I guess TCS isn’t cutting it for him.

ASL, as you might expect for a game with some 56 pages of small-type rules … in Chapter A … has some positives and negatives. Some positives include:

  • You learned to play the game back in 1984, so all you have to pay is the admittedly non-trivial maintanance costs (this might not apply to you if you aren’t me);
  • You can play a fun, interesting, and challenging game in 2-3 hours;
  • You can also play fun, interesting, and immersive games that take a weekend or more, if that’s more to your taste;
  • You get to joke about how your hobby is more complex than many, if not most, people’s day jobs;
  • No scenario ever plays the same way twice – like they say about baseball, every time you play you’ll probably see somthing you’ve never seen before;
  • And even if it did, there are now so many scenarios of so many types (even just the ASL-branded scenarios must be well over 500) that you could play quite a long time before repeating one;
  • Or, such is the depth of the system, you could play a half-dozen of the better scenarios for a year and not need more;
  • While this is almost certainly the most rules-heavy game ever made, you also get the entire order of battle for virtually every significant (and insignificant) nation that participated in the war. Sure, we’re still anxiously awaiting the Romanian vehicles (well, maybe not actually anxiously), but this is a game with Dutch motorcycle-mounted 20mm cannons, halftracks sporting dual side-mounted flamethrowers, huge multi-turreted Russian tanks, and about 42 different models of Sherman tank;
  • In an age in which gamers have been dominated by collectors and nobody can agree on which wargame to play, ASL at least is somthing you can always find people for. And contrary to reaonsable intuition, a lot of comparatively normal people play ASL. If you go to cons, “bad opponent” experiences are an unfortunate fact of life in wargames, but I have experienced them much less in ASL. Admittedly this was some 10 years ago when I was an ASLOK regular.

Then there are the downsides:

  • You forfeit your right to make fun of people who play World in Flames.
  • It’s easy to talk about these rules as being really not so bad in the abstract, but let’s face it – it’s not a pretty situation. Personal tax law is simpler and less capricious, and ASL might even be more complicated than doing accounting for a mid-sized corporation. If ASL were designed today, nobody in their right mind would put in some of the junk that’s in there. While I feel that most smart people, if they put their mind to it, can learn and enjoy Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage or Rommel in the Desert, I hesitate to recommend ASL to anyone. If you want to play this game, you’ll know it and won’t need me to tell you.
  • As a corollary to the above, I think an unhealthy percentage of the skill involved in playing ASL is in simply knowing the rules. Is this really what you got into gaming for? Every time you play, you’re likely to discover a rule you’ve never seen before, or at least can’t remember ever seeing before.
  • You know, very few people are really all that good at ASL, and it can sometimes feel like a cooperative game, you and me against the rules. I point out you should be using a firelane here because you’ve forgotten, you point out that Surrender is NA because my Partisans are Fanatic, or explain what the hell “HD MG FP OK” means on the back of that tank. The options open to the unscrupulous are left as an exercise to the reader. But when did you last run in to a gamer that was a bit too competitive?
  • Your eurogaming friends will think, with some justification, that you’re insane.

I was seriously into ASL from when it came out in the early 80s up through the mid-90s. I faded out when I moved to California where the demographic is younger, there are more gamers, and I got seriously into eurogames and the Middle-Earth CCG. Then when I started wandering back into wargames again, it was with games that had benefitted from the maturing process of the 90s, stuff like Hannibal and Roads to Gettysburg. But for those 10-15 years, ASL provided me with immense enjoyment and diversity of gaming experience. I think ultimately perhaps the real reason I lost interest was because I got tired of teaching people to play. If you’ve been seriously playing a game this involved for a decade, it’s going to take even a smart new player a while to get to the point of providing you with entertaining competition (both in terms of skill, and in terms of simply being able to play that amphibious assault scenario with fighter-bombers, napalm, and cave complexes you’ve been eyeing – Red Beach One, for those of you “in the know”). For some 5 years I was playing almost exclusively with new players who faded out before they got to that point. It makes a big investment even bigger.

I’ve flirted with getting back into ASL since then, and have played occasionally since I’ve been out here and even kept up with purchasing all the Avalon Hill/MMP releases. There are plenty of experienced players around, and my knowledge has certainly regressed at this point. But, on balance, I like too many other games and have zero desire to turn this into Chris’ ASL blog. I am too attached to other games, and ASL is an all-consuming enterprise.

But, Milton is seriously considering getting back into it, so we played – me for the first time in a year or so, and Milton for the first time in about 15. The scenario was Gavin Take, a classic 1-board, low-density scenario that we finished in just 3 hours, rust and all. I beat him partly because I knew the rules better, but also because I got the most out of my smoke capacity. Sorry, SMOKE capacity (in ASL, smoke and SMOKE are different. Seriously). In the old days, it was common knowledge that the difference between being OK and being good at ASL was knowing how to use smoke, but I always joked that the real difference was just that good players actually suceeded in getting the smoke rolls when they needed it.

I enjoyed the game, it did remind me what I liked about ASL. It’s challenging, it’s controlled chaos and exciting. While much of it is not very historical, it does have that sense of battle, that feeling of everything being just on the verge of being out of control.

But I’m certainly not selling the rest of the games in my collection yet. Then again, I’m not selling off my ASL either.

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