Armies of Oblivion Podcast

It is now available on SoundCloud.

A quick bit of background on this episode:

Those of us who play ASL (even as infrequently as I do) have been waiting for Armies of Oblivion for, like, forever. I no longer have any idea how long. Since I still enjoy ASL from time to time, but am pretty far out of the loop, I thought it might be fun to do a podcast of my first impressions of the game – literally breaking the shrink wrap and looking it over, since I had little idea what to expect.

What the podcast ended up being is partly a look at the new ASL module, and partly a reminiscence about ASL and what makes it such a great game. Because not all of this episode will be of interest to everyone, I used the MPEG-4 format’s chapters to break things down. So if you have no interest in ASL specifically, I recommend skipping chapters 3, 4, and 6 (chapter 5 starts at roughly 20:50, chapter 7 at 30:40, for those using the MP3 format). Probably this episode is of the least interest to folks at the extremes, either those with no interest in wargames at all or long-time ASL die-hards who already own the game.

All that said, I hope you find something of entertainment value in there somewhere.

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Defensive Fire in wargames: Mark H. Walker’s Lock ‘n Load: Band of Heroes

I was a fan of Mark Walker’s previous Lock ‘n Load game, Mark H. Walker’s Lock ‘n Load Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam, so I ultimately bought Band of Heroes, although I vacillated a bit. The price point was higher than I would have liked (especially given the component quality), and I’m a bit tired of hearing about the U.S. Paratroopers these days, sort of like I’m tired of hearing about how smart they are over at Google. I mean, I’m sure the Paras were brave and skilled, but weren’t there some other units in the U.S. Army we could talk about sometime? Like maybe some of the units that weren’t all-volunteer who fought with distinction in the Bulge or Huertgen Forest? Or maybe we could, just for yuks, acknowledge the contribution of British and Canadian forces on D-Day? I mean, all Saving Private Ryan had to say about the British and Canadians keeping the powerful and murderous SS armored divisions away from the Americans was Ted Danson calling Montgomery overrated.

With that rant out of the way, on to the game.

Although I have enjoyed playing Band of Heroes, as I’ve played the system more I’ve become a bit less enamored of it than I was of the previous game in the system, Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam. On the one hand, I do like a lot about the game system: I like the simple, chart-light combat resolution system, I like how it uses small back-and-forth impulses instead of regimented turns, and I like the spotting rules, whereby it’s actually kind of hard to find stuff. I like that the scenarios play quickly.

But let’s drill down a bit on one specific design challenge for interactive tactical games: how to solve the “human wave” problem.

The problem is this: units in defensive positions can fire on units that are rushing them, or trying to infiltrate their way through the front lines to victory locations. The general heuristic with these games is that units get to fire once, so the defender has to make choices about which encroaching units to shoot at. The problem with the everyone-shoots-once rule is that an attacker, who has a player’s-eye-view of the board, can see which units have fired and which haven’t, and once the defenders have exhausted their fire, he can run around the board with wild (and rather unrealistic) abandon.

This was a bit of a problem in Avalon Hill’s 1977 classic Squad Leader. For those who remember that game, John Hill tried to solve the problem with defensive fire rules that ended up being totally unworkable in practice: the attacker had to move all his units, and as he did so the defender could mark “defensive fire opportunities”, which he could then choose to take after everyone had moved; so he could theoretically ask the attacker to unwind every single move he had made to take the perfect defensive fire shots. This was clearly a bit out of hand; nobody I know played this way, they just took their shots as they came up – but this, obviously, lead to the above issue.

When Squad Leader became ASL, Avalon Hill took these problems by the horns and came up with solutions that are, in my opinion, brilliant, and the best elements of ASL (which is why most of them have made it into the Starter Kits). The rules for residual fire, rate of fire, fire lanes, and subsequent defensive fires made it very hard to predict how much defensive fire could be laid down, gave the option to the defender to put down more fire by taking chances with the equipment or with unit morale, and were overall far more realistic portrayals of how machine-guns could influence the battlefield – and all was achieved at a very low cost in terms of real complexity. It was still about drawing out the defenders’ fire, but it was no longer such a stark, black-and-white situation, and this particular combination of making some elements more abstract (like machine-gun rates of fire) and some elements more concrete to reflect how the weapons were really used (fire lanes, residual fire), is a perfect mix.

Back to Band of Heroes … compared to the ASL Starter Kits, I think this issue of how defensive fire is handled is the biggest gap in the Lock ‘n Load games, both in terms of simulation and of making an interesting game. Because Lock ‘n Load has gone back to a “one unit, one shot” model, it has become very much about drawing out all the defending units’ fire capabilities, and then doing whatever you want with the rest of your guys. This is compounded a bit by the problem that attackers can force close combat at any time, which makes it much harder for defenders to pass up opportunities to fire on nearby units, and therefore easier to nail down the defenders.

In some scenarios, the effects of this will be worse than others, obviously. This issue hardly ever bugged me in Forgotten Heroes, but perhaps the higher unit morales and tougher terrain (stone buildings instead of bamboo huts), combined with longer sighting ranges and shorter unit fire ranges in Band of Heroes made it more obvious.

I’m not sure what all this means. I like Lock ‘n Load. But at the end of the day, it is a bit “retro”, a throwback to the days of Squad Leader and Panzerblitz. That definitely has a certain appeal, and I like that a design goal was to keep it simple and playable, which is a huge win – the ASL Starter Kits do appear to me to be a bit more complicated. But at least in its WWII incarnation, I think Lock ‘n Load could have benefitted significantly from a bit more work on how to handle this particular issue.

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.