Whatever fickle spirits guide the weather must have it out for Advanced Squad Leader, because it scarcely fails to threaten snow and rain whenever Winter Offensive, the East Coast’s premier ASL tournament, sets up shop in Bowie, Maryland, and this year proved no different. Perhaps the decision to hold this gaming gathering in January has something to do with the invariability of inclement weather, but no matter, for a brave (and record) crowd of 190 people attended this year’s Winter Offensive.
Hosts Multi-Man Publishing unveiled Red Factories, the long-awaited companion campaign module to Red Barricades, at the tourney, and the very large boxes were much in evidence all weekend long. The smaller scenarios from the module likewise saw a fair amount of play; even with the extra tables MMP brought to the enlarged convention space this year, there would have been scarcely enough room to set up the larger scenarios, for the combined Red Barricades/Red Factories maps take up a substantial amount of table real estate.
The tournament, the 28th running, also played host to a celebration of MMP’s twenty year anniversary as custodians of the Advanced Squad Leader series, complete with a cake replicating an ASL board. It’s remarkable to think that they have shepherded ASL for longer than Avalon Hill did at this point, and I for one consider the game series to be in exceptional hands. While core modules may occasionally go out of print, MMP faces a delicate balancing act between keeping the large and expensive core modules in print to satisfy new players while still producing new products for the players who already own two copies of everything. By and large, I think two decades of success shows they strike the balance appropriately.
My own WO 2019 experience included far more ASL than I normally play at these events, with two ASL scenarios and one Starter Kit session with a player relatively new to the game. Plus copious amounts of Euro gaming to boot. And maybe a little beer.
First off, I faced off in a long-overdue match against one of the first people I ever played ASL with, John Slotwinski. Actually, make that two matches, as our initial playing of WO28 Dean’s Defiance, a Deluxe ASL scenario set in the Korean War and pitting a massive force of North Koreans attempting to exit a built-up urban area against a holding force of US Army troops with the “Super” Bazooka, ended after said bazookas tore holes in three of my four T-34s on the first turn. (Have I ever mentioned that I’m not the most proficient of armor commanders?) With their loss preventing me from exiting enough points to win, I sheepishly mentioned the fact to John. He graciously allowed us to re-start the scenario, though I made sure to count the initial playing as a loss for tournament purposes.
Not that it mattered, since John won the second playing as well, but I gave him a bit more of a run for his money, making some headway on one flank and exiting about half of what I needed before attrition knocked me out of the match. I’ve never been very good with scenarios that require both exiting troops and securing objectives on map; I seldom get the timing down and either leave the exiting for too late or run almost everyone off and hope that a far-too-small stay-behind contingent can get the job done. Nevertheless, it was good to play against John again, and I always learn something from our matches. In this case, that would be giving bazookas a very wide berth.
Friday saw a teaching scenario of S25 Early Battles, from Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #3, with a friend of John’s, Ed Brogdon. I’d met Ed several years earlier at one of the gaming shindigs John occasionally throws, and I was happy to work with him on some of the finer points of ASL vehicle and ordnance rules. Those who know of my spotty skill with all things vehicles might be wondering about me being a tutor in this subject, but I’ll have it known that I understand the rules perfectly well; it’s just the execution that gets a little fuzzy.…
Ed more than held his own, tactics-wise, and while I was finally able to grind down the infantry defending the victory buildings at the very end of the scenario, his massive Russian KV-2 tank took quite a toll on my armored forces. I was only able to take it out with a demolition charge after I swarmed the tank with infantry. I’d like to think that Ed picked up a few pointers, because his tanks were giving John fits the next day when they played.
Breaking from tradition, my usual match with good gaming buddy Doug Bush was fought over an ASL scenario, BFP58 San Manuel Melee, a monster set in 1945 Philippines. In one respect, it doesn’t really break from tradition, because the scenario features all kinds of chrome, with dug-in captured American tanks on the Japanese side, anti-tank mines, and US Priest artillery vehicles.
We spent the better part of Saturday on this one, with Japanese forces doing a good job of holding the Americans in the entry areas for a few turns. Once they crumbled, though, Doug, aided by copious amounts of smoke and white phosphorus, advanced steadily on the victory buildings. I had good fortune against his armor, immobilizing or destroying over half of his vehicles with anti-tank fire and tank-hunter heroes, but his tanks got the job done regardless, laying down withering fire on my machine gun nests. By the time Doug’s end game reinforcements came on, the victory was in his hands. It’s always a pleasure to match wits with Doug, so my thanks to him for a quite enjoyable match.
Once the evenings hit, the Euro games came out to play. I managed four matches this year: Terraforming Mars, Root, and two playings of Eklund’s Greenland. The latter seemed to captivate everyone’s attention, as the engine building was at once simple to grasp (somewhat rare for an Eklund) and always susceptible to the game destroying said engine (not rare for an Eklund). Focusing on the development of civilization amongst various tribal groupings on Greenland, the game revolves mostly around hunting and foraging, with a clever mechanic seeing players depopulate animal species if hunts are too successful, removing the number of possible locations for worker placement on subsequent turns. I managed to win one of the two games by focusing almost exclusively on colonizing the New World, a strategy I tried earlier in the weekend that left me with only one worker, who by itself could do nothing at all. (I lost that particular game, perhaps obviously.)
Long-time gaming good guy Joe Jackson joined us for Root on Saturday night to conclude my Winter Offensive. He taught the cute-but-cutthroat game of woodland creatures struggling for dominance in a forest, and while it took a while for everyone to get up to speed with the rules—all four factions play asymmetrically, so there are effectively four games to learn—once we caught on, the game became very tight, with final scores all within a few points. I snuck out a win with the Vagabond, using that character’s ability to trade cards to other players for victory points and items to establish a steady engine that the other players had a hard time contesting. It’s a fascinating game due to the differing nature of each faction, one that promises a fair bit of replayability as a result. I’m going to have to dig up a copy of the expansion, which adds two additional factions, in the near future here.
As ever, my thanks all my gaming buddies for the dice slinging and meeple moving and to MMP for another outstanding event. Year after year, people keep coming back to Bowie, and it’s not hard to understand why—Winter Offensive is a well run tournament with an easy-going vibe and lots of camaraderie. I suppose some people come to play to win, but most of us win by playing, and that’s what Winter Offensive is all about.