One of the strengths of the Advanced Squad Leader tactical combat game series, produced by Multi-Man Publishing, is its extensibility. From the near infinite combinations of its geomorphic mapboards to the comprehensive rule system capable of encompassing almost all armed conflict from the 1930s to the 1950s, ASL has, over its nearly forty year lifetime, taken players on a tour of all manner of battlefields, from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War through to the Korean War. Designers continue to find new corners of history to explore through this game system, building on and extending the range of possible conflict simulations. While often these new battles require little more than special scenario rules to translate the actions into standard ASL format, occasionally a more substantial expansion is required to encompass the magnitude of the conflict portrayed.
MMP’s most recent release, Sword and Fire: Manila, an historical module by designer David Roth covering the battle for Manila in early 1945, is just such a grand production, arriving in a thick box with four countersheets, twenty-five scenarios, five campaign games, copious rules and charts, and a whopping six standard sized maps.
The combined map setup size is such that if you have to ask how big it is, you probably don’t have the room for it. (Roughly six feet square, if you must know!) The map covers much of downtown Manila in 1945 in exacting detail, with several rules sections devoted to the peculiarities of this urban environment, including wrought-iron fencing, cattle pens, stone monuments, steel-walled buildings (with a inherent TEM of +5, possibly the highest terrain defense value in the game system), and buildings made of multiple materials on different levels (stone/wood/adobe). The six paper maps themselves come in a glossy finish, the standard for new historical ASL maps since at least Hatten in Flames in 2018, though these seem slightly glossier to me than older maps. A scaled-down overview map of the six maps put together helps give a sense of the scale.
While one can admire the sheer scope of the full map layout, with art by Tom Repetti, it’s frankly overwhelming in size, at least in terms of ergonomics. A three-foot reach to the center of the map to manipulate a stack of ten counters in close proximity to other such stacks requires steady nerves and eagle eyes, neither attribute being quite rampant in the game’s target demographic. One suspects that the module was tested, as most wargames are, on a computer using VASSAL, and I wager that nearly all playings requiring the full map spread will be completed using VASSAL as well. The creation of games that are unwieldy to engage with physically but easy to manipulate digitally is not confined to ASL, of course, but it’s to MMP’s credit that they have a sensible approach to the virtualization of ASL. As such, the size of the full map spread should not be an impediment to picking up this module.
Indeed, the majority of the twenty-five scenarios use a portion of a single mapsheet, and none use more than two maps put together, making for a much more manageable table presence. And these are scenarios that just beg to be played, ranging from rather meaty assaults on fortified locations requiring armored bulldozers to clear and river crossings under fire to tense cat-and-mouse affairs in giant cemeteries and urban block clearings. Both the US Army and the Japanese Army forces come equipped with significant ordnance and armor, the use of which is constrained by the built-up city terrain, creating interesting tactical puzzles for each side. Comparisons to the Battle of Stalingrad are perhaps inevitable, but these scenarios feel somewhat more mobile and fluid, at least at first glance.
As for the five campaign games, only one uses the entire six map setup, one uses parts of four maps, and the remaining three call for portions of two maps each. All the CGs seems to follow the standard ASL campaign game rule structure, and with most coming in at only a handful of campaign dates, they represent a reasonable project for two or more gamers to tackle.
In a relief to those whose counter storage systems are already maxed out, not many new counter types are introduced. Both the Americans and Japanese get a full complement of dedicated elite assault engineer/commando squads and half-squads, and a new terrain type counter in the Bomb Crater is added to the system. The majority of the countersheets just add additional vehicles, squads, half-squads, concealment markers, and the like to supplement those from Yanks! and Rising Sun (or Code of Bushido/Gung Ho!), plus location control markers and plenty of rubble, smoke, and debris counters, giving you a good feel for the kinds of actions to follow. A handful of errata counters for Forgotten War and some variant British vehicle and support weapon counters are also included.
As ever with Advanced Squad Leader, to play it all you have to own it all, but broadly speaking, only the rules, Beyond Valor, Yanks!, and Rising Sun (or Code of Bushido/Gung Ho!) are probably needed to play the scenarios and campaign games.
MMP has shown a refreshing willingness to produce Advanced Squad Leader modules and scenarios that go beyond the more typical Western or Eastern Front slugfests that sell so well—did anyone ever go broke selling a game on the Bulge? From including rules and counters for the Ethiopians and Eritreans in Hollow Legions (3e), expanding the system to the Korean War in Forgotten War, and tackling a tricky yet fascinating river crossing in the Dinant historical module included with Croix de Guerre (2e), and now exploring, in great detail, a little-known episode of the Pacific war in Sword and Fire: Manila, MMP is consistently putting its faith in gamers to appreciate the breadth and complexity of the conflicts that indelibly stained the twentieth century. Designer David Roth and his team of testers and researchers obviously put years of labor and care into Sword and Fire: Manila, and while it may, at times, feel like too much of a good thing, there’s plenty of play value in the box no matter how big your table, as well as a window into a battle that deserves attention.
(Cover detail artwork pictured above by Keith Rocco.)