Aussie Annual: ASL Journal #14 (MMP) Released

In what promises to be a banner year for Advanced Squad Leader products, Multi-Man Publishing has just released their latest installment in the ASL Journal range, ASL Journal #14. It’s a good thing that MMP long since stopped calling the ASL support periodical the Annual, as the last one, Journal #13, came out a scant five months back—and the one before it five years prior….

Detail of ASL Journal #14 title logo by Multi-Man Publishing

Subtitled the “Aussie Special Edition,” this magazine’s contents focus not just on actions conducted by troops from Australia and New Zealand but also collects articles and scenarios written by contributors from the same regions. It’s an interesting and salutary approach to the publication, which often feels like a grab-bag of whatever has come over the transom in Millersville. While I’m not typically an avid consumer of historical articles in gaming magazines, the focus on the Oceanic experience, frequently underrepresented in accounts of World War II presented through a British and American lens, comes across as an agreeable corrective to the typical fare.

Overview of ASL Journal #14 contents by Multi-Man Publishing

Articles in support of Hatten in Flames and the included Sparrow Force mini-CG, plus scenario analysis of AP161 ANZAC Boys and AP163 Dingos at Damour from the Australian-themed Action Pack #16, round out the bound magazine content, which comes in at 56 pages (including front and back covers) with a satin matte finish. The cover artwork by James Flett, Crossing Daoe River, Morotai, evocatively depicts slouch-hatted Australian soldiers crossing a river.

As ever, the stars of every issue of the ASL Journal are the scenarios, printed separately as usual on thick cardstock. Twenty-four scenarios appear in this installment, and while a good number do center on forces from Australia and New Zealand against various foes, the full gamut of participants appears on these cards, including a French vs. Italian affair at the very start of hostilities between those two adversaries and five actions set after D-Day pitting American and Canadian forces against German troops. Of note, there are very few scenario cards with much in the way of armor support, the late war scenarios seeing the bulk of the actions that will require digging into Chapter D.

Scenario Details from ASL Journal #14 by Multi-Man Publishing

As for the scenarios featuring troops from Australia and New Zealand, many of the actions focus on battles against Japanese forces in the Pacific theater—which certainly explains the relative lack of armor-heavy scenarios—and several take fresh looks at the fighting over Crete against German paratroopers.

Article detail from ASL Journal #14 by Multi-Man Publishing

Three of the scenarios, all by Andy Rogers, form the basis for the included mini-CG, Sparrow Force, set in late February 1942 on West Timor. The Australians of 2/40th Battalion, part of the Sparrow Force of Australian and Dutch troops, attempt to hold against elements of the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force tasked with taking the island. Rather than a traditional campaign game structure, the scenarios are designed to be played chronologically, with an interesting in-scenario force purchase system and a highly modified Refit phase between the scenarios. (In effect, VPs carry over, and wrecks/fortifications remain on map, but otherwise the map is cleared after each scenario.) The scenarios can also be played independently as stand-alone actions.

Detail of Sparrow Force Campaign Game Rules from ASL Journal #14 by Multi-Man Publishing

Two rules pages, with American-standard hole-punches and, most notably, a 22.25″ x 32″ map on glossy paper accompany the Sparrow Force mini-CG. The map comes with slightly over-sized hexes, measuring roughly 1″ across, hexside-to-hexside, as opposed to the standard .75″ width. At 26 hexes wide by 30 hexes long, it’s a reasonable solution to a map that would be awkwardly sized at the smaller dimensions, just in terms of folding, and should fit most gaming tables (and plexiglass) with no fuss. It’s good to see MMP’s willingness to tinker with sizing like this in service of a good product, especially since historical maps do not need to match up with existing maps at the usual standard size.

Scenario Details from ASL Journal #14 by Multi-Man Publishing

As ever, ownership of pretty much the entire Advanced Squad Leader system is required for play of all of the scenarios in Journal #14, mostly due to the maps and overlays used by the scenarios, quite a few of which draw on maps released outside the core modules.

Those ASL players looking for an East Front armor fix might be disappointed in the offerings here, but there’s more than plenty of product out there to fill that need. Players interested in the breadth and depth of experiences across the entirety of the Second World War will find much to appreciate here, and the bespoke attention paid to the Australian and New Zealand effort in particular makes ASL Journal #14 an eminently worthwhile purchase.

Doctor Who Project: Mawdryn Undead

Why am I still on Earth?

By the time Peter Grimwade’s “Mawdryn Undead” (Story Production Code 6F) airs in early 1983, Doctor Who has become fully serialized, in terms of viewer experience if not strictly such in a narrative sense. Aside from appearing twice a week, the show, under producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, takes pains to link every story to past events, creating a continuity that appeals to consistent viewers while accepting that more casual observers may become a bit befuddled. It’s all one long tale at this point, punctuated, certainly, by formal story divisions but relying heavily on its history for much of its emotional and narrative weight. One consequence of this shift is the frequent presence of multiple plot lines, more than an individual story can reasonably sustain; taking the stories as isolated constructs, the screen feels crowded and the narrative threads remain underdeveloped, but looked at as a whole, much as in a soap opera, the fullness of the overarching story takes shape.

A crowded screen with Nyssa, Tegan, and the Fifth Doctor

Such is the case here, with three separate strands running through this clever tale of time travel gone awry. Indeed, “Mawdryn Undead” stands as one of the few stories in Doctor Who to feature time travel as an integral complication to the narrative. For a show about time travel, there’s surprisingly little of it on display, usually employed to set the scene for the story on offer. One has to go back to “City of Death” for the last time various temporal states played a significant narrative role, and before that arguably all the way back to “Day of the Daleks.” It’s a shame, then, that the overcrowding of the story, in order to establish a three story mini-arc dredging up yet another moldy villain from the past, the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall), gets in the way of the far more welcome return of another familiar figure, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney).

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), 1977 style

More precisely, there are two Brigadiers in “Mawdryn Undead,” one from 1977 shortly after his retirement from UNIT (that dating completely upending prior UNIT story chronologies) and one from 1983, bereft of a mustache as well as all memory of the Doctor. The loving care with which Grimwade, Nathan-Turner, Saward, and director Peter Moffat—a potent Doctor Who production team to be sure—delicately intertwine the story between the two time frames and finally unite the temporally bifurcated Brigadiers, explosively, forms the beating heart of this tale and stands as a real accomplishment, proving that callbacks to Doctor Who‘s history can work, when treated with respect and a deft touch.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor and Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, 1983 style

When the TARDIS is yanked out of its trajectory by a spaceship on an infinitely fixed orbit in time and space, the Fifth Doctor makes an emergency materialization inside the interloping vessel, where he, Nyssa, and Tegan discover an empty docking port for another series staple, a transmat capsule, locked onto coordinates on Earth that just happen to be right up the hill from the boarding school where the Brigadier teaches (in both 1977 and the “present” day of 1983). Also at the boarding school is a mysterious orphan, Turlough (Mark Strickson), who has never quite fit in. An ill-advised joyride in the Brigadier’s prized car (in 1983) sees him thrown from the vehicle, near death, saved only by an offer from a mysterious stranger…

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Doctor Who Project: Snakedance

Tell me about the legend.

Surely a papier-mâché serpent would top the list of least-likely villains to return to Doctor Who, but after Omega’s less-than-star return in the prior story, one is hard pressed to be nonplussed at the return of the Mara in Christopher Bailey’s “Snakedance” (Story Production Code 6D), a direct sequel to the psychological slitherer’s first appearance in “Kinda” last season. If producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward are willing to scrounge around in the archives to find a long-lost character with no connection to the current regeneration, why not draw from the Fifth Doctor’s own, more recent past? The real shock comes in seeing how well Bailey and director Fiona Cumming, last entrusted with “Castrovalva,” handle this reptilian reprise.

The ritual representation of the Mara

Unlike other “blasts from the past” in the Fifth Doctor’s run to date, this conclusion to the Mara story stands well on its own, the prior events on the Kinda homeworld that saw Tegan posessed by this malevolent entity being efficiently alluded to without requiring either cryptic asides or elaborate explanations. In short order, the TARDIS lands on Manussa, guided there unwittingly by Tegan, who has been having nightmares about a serpent-mouthed cave entrance. Some quick exposition reveals that very cave to be the site where, precisely five hundred years earlier, the nascent Manussan Federation defeated (sort of) the Mara, under whose thrall the highly-advanced Sumaran Empire fell into degeneracy and decay. The original Federator put paid to the beast by means of the cobalt blue Great Crystal, and his descendants continue to rule Manussa to the present day, with the title soon to fall to the layabout Lon (Martin Clunes), who considers the Mara myth to be a bunch of discredited superstition that is interrupting his nap.

Martin Clunes as Lon

Aware that the Mara is both quite real and very much not destroyed, despite the best efforts of the ancient Federation—and his own swing-and-a-miss with the help of the Kinda—the Doctor whips up a device not unlike an early portable transistor radio to block out external sensations, theoretically allowing Tegan the mental concentration needed to keep control against the remnant of the creature that still lurks in her subconscious mind. But when he drags her and Nyssa out to find the cave, the resulting disorientation causes Tegan to flee. A friendly fortune teller helps her and removes the device in order to converse with her, allowing the Mara to emerge, its presence announced in a crystal ball…

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Doctor Who Project: Arc of Infinity

Not the most welcoming return.

Recurring foes have been a staple of Doctor Who since the Daleks first returned to invade Earth. Typically, though, the Doctor’s repeat nemeses share a certain simplicity of purpose—conquest, domination, revenge—that makes sense even to viewers who have never seen an Ogron or a Sontaran before, their power coming from their present menace as much as their past misdeeds. Not so with Johnny Byrne’s Season Twenty opener, “Arc of Infinity” (Story Production Code 6E), which digs deep into the archives to resurface a complicated villain who took not one but three different Doctors, at the same time, to defeat: Omega.

The Mighty Omega, anti-matter man!

Curiously, Byrne, producer John Nathan-Turner, and script editor Eric Saward never bother to clue viewers in to Omega’s backstory as the most tragic figure in Time Lord history, the ancient solar engineer who became trapped in an anti-matter dimension after triggering the supernova that powers all Gallifreyan time travel. His plans to wreak vengeance upon the Time Lords for abandoning him for millennia required the services of the First, Second, and Third Doctor to defeat, an effort that, supposedly, resulted in his final destruction in a second supernova (with which the Time Lords refilled their time travel tanks for another several thousand years). Without such knowledge, from “The Three Doctors,” which aired some ten years earlier in late 1972 and early 1973—albeit with a rare repeat in late 1981—much of the story of “Arc of Infinity” lacks significance or importance, rendering Omega (Ian Collier) just another in a long line of megalomaniacal madmen in an ill-fitting latex costume and with a litany of ill-defined greivances.

Councillor Hedin (Michael Gough)

Lacking this understanding of Omega’s role in the annals of the Time Lords, it becomes difficult to comprehend why Councillor Hedin (Michael Gough), a member of the High Council of the Time Lords and an old friend of the Doctor, would offer up the Doctor’s “bio-data extract” to Omega, knowing full well that the following chain of events would put the Doctor in great danger. Though Hedin, who wears the orange of the Doctor’s own Prydonian Chapter of Time Lords, exclaims to Omega, “What we are, we owe to you,” such reverence offers thin justification for the acts of treachery he carries out in order to help Omega transfer his being from a state of anti-matter to matter, even if one recalls the minutia of “The Three Doctors.”

Byrne never fleshes out this motivation on Hedin’s part, but he does find time to intercut this taut, tense tale of Time Lord treason with the drawn-out travails of two hitchhikers, Robin Stuart (Andrew Boxer) and Colin Frazer (Alastair Cumming) who decide to sleep rough in an Amsterdam crypt…

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Desert Delights: Le Franc Tireur 15 (LFT) Released

Advanced Squad Leader’s greatest strength lies in its extensibility, but it’s safe to say that Don Greenwood, John Hill, and the rest of the ludic luminaries present at its creation couldn’t have anticipated just how varied and wide-ranging the additions to their game system would become. Case in point, the brand new offering from Le Franc Tireur, the self-titled Le Franc Tireur 15. While technically a “magazine,” LFT 15, much like MMP‘s ASL Journal, is a multi-media affair, featuring twenty-two scenarios printed separately from the eighty-two page magazine and, most impressively, a whopping eight new maps in the traditional single-fold, thick cardstock style of the official boards.

Cover detail from Le Franc Tireur 15 by LFT

The magazine itself, in A4 format with a thick cardstock cover, comes with a ton of articles covering a little bit of everything concerning ASL, from tournament overviews, product reviews, and designer interviews through to rules primers (in this case, for the surrender rules, desert rules, and the interactions between night and desert), historical articles, and new rules for the included map terrain and for scenarios set in Russian Civil War-era Manchuria and Mongolia. It’s all in color and profusely illustrated; there’s even a two page comic on speeding up play.

Article detail from Le Franc Tireur 15 by LFT

As pleasant and varied as the articles may be, however, the real attraction of LFT 15 has to be the eight new arid/desert maps, printed for the most part in standard DTO colors and adding some much needed variety and spice to the existing collection of AH/MMP desert and arid boards. There’s actual terrain here, with canyons, villages, depressions, and hills dotting the otherwise open expanses. As Steve Swann notes in his overview of the maps, which he designed along with Tom Repetti, there’s something to fight over instead of just something to drive over. The new arid terrain types mostly tweak existing terrain, like Thick Grain (with +2 hindrance and 2MF infantry entry instead of the +1 and 1.5MF values of regular grain) and combination terrain (crag-brush, crag-hammada), but desert and arid villages receive new details and features as well.

Map overview from Le Franc Tireur 15 by LFT

Physically, the maps come excruciatingly close to being perfect matches with the existing “Starter Kit” style maps that are the current standard in ASL. They share a similar sturdiness and thickness—I don’t own the calipers required to tell if there’s a difference, but to my untrained eye they’re the same. In terms of dimensions, the LFT maps seem a scant millimeter longer and less than a millimeter wider, measuring against the newest MMP boards (89 and 90), just barely sufficient to throw off precise hex alignment over a long stretch but, frankly, not enough to worry about in actual play. They’re the nicest third party maps I’ve seen to date (and I’ve seen a few).

Map detail from Le Franc Tireur 15 by LFT

The twenty-two scenarios included with LFT 15 are printed in color and come on glossy A4 paper of reasonable thickness; though not cardstock, they should hold up well regardless. Many of the scenarios make use of the new maps, taking the ASL system to some out-of-the-way places indeed. Most striking are the scenarios set before the 1930s; one, FT274 Bear Valley by Steve Swann, takes place in 1918 Arizona during the American Indian Wars, pitting warriors from the Yaqui tribe against mounted soldiers from the US 10th Cavalry. Another, FT276 Genghis Khan Lives! by Robert Hammond, occurs in 1921 Mongolia using the new Russian Civil War rules, with Chinese troops defending against a White Russian mass cavalry assault. I’m not really sure the ASL system works effectively to depict conflicts that far back—not that ASL is renowned for its verisimilitude—but it’s interesting to see the attempt nonetheless.

Scenario overview from Le Franc Tireur 15 by LFT

The other scenarios range a wide gamut of forces and actions, with several in North Africa and the Levant to take advantage of the arid maps and an interesting emphasis, throughout, on horses, a rules section of ASL that has long been underutilized. You’ll learn how to conduct a cavalry charge for sure with these scenarios.

Le Franc Tireur 15 is, unquestionably, a specialist product, focusing as it does on some quite obscure corners of the Advanced Squad Leader game system. Newer players might not be well served by picking it up. For those who appreciate something a bit out of the ordinary in their ASL, though, it’s a gem of a publication, taking some chances and stretching the bounds of what the game can become. Besides, you can never have too many maps…

Doctor Who Project: Time-Flight

I’ve never heard such an extravagant explanation.

Never let it be said that Doctor Who skimps on season ending stories. For “Time-Flight” (Story Production Code 6C), Peter Grimwade’s Season Nineteen finale, the BBC combines the best of British science fiction with the best of British (fine, Anglo-French) engineering by filming in and around the Concorde. John Nathan-Turner even manages to get permission for Grimwade to put British Airways’ very expensive and prestigious airplane in jeopardy, with not one but two separate supersonic transports disappearing on approach to Heathrow. Try getting a major carrier to allow its livery in even the most benign piece of fiction nowadays.

Two time-trapped Concordes

In keeping with producer Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward’s devotion to continuity, we find the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa still in shock over Adric’s demise, with the Doctor adamant that he cannot revisit his own history to undo the young Alzarian’s death. As a peace offering, the Doctor offers to cheer everyone up with a quick visit to the Crystal Palace in 1851 for the Great Exhibition, as one does, only to find the TARDIS on a collision course with another object in time and space. After an emergency materialzation, the TARDIS appears over a runway at Heathrow in the present day (so, roughly 1982) before the Doctor “parks” the blue box in an observation overlook in Terminal One, which of course attracts some slight attention. The Doctor pops out to get a paper to check the cricket scores before being confronted by the authorities as a crestfallen Nyssa and Tegan look on.

The TARDIS in Terminal One, Heathrow

Unlike the Doctor’s last impromptu visit to an airport, “The Faceless Ones,” the Fifth Doctor now has bureaucratic contacts of his own to call upon, and he shamelessly name drops UNIT and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a pleasant call-back to a once-important feature of the series and and also a very convenient means of involving the Doctor in the disappearance of Concorde. Indeed, absent Whitehall’s imprimatur, Grimwade would have needed to put the Doctor through a convoluted series of hoops—well, more convoluted, at any rate—in order to have him, Nyssa, Tegan, and the TARDIS as passengers on another Concorde flying the same descent approach as the missing plane into Heathrow, just to test a theory.

Cramped Concorde Cockpit, with Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, Richard Easton as Captain Stapley, Keith Drinkel as Flight Engineer Scobie, and Michael Cashman as First Officer Bilton

Which is not to say that Grimwade and director Ron Jones don’t take their sweet time making anything actually happen in this four episode story. Having gained access to Heathrow and Concorde, the BBC take full advantage. Several scenes occur in the cramped cockpit, with the flight crew of the second jet (Richard Easton as Captain Stapley, Keith Drinkel as Flight Engineer Scobie, and Michael Cashman as First Officer Bilton) occupying nearly as much screen time as the Doctor and companions, calling out checklists and repeating radio instructions, while the plane itself, on a side tarmac on a snowy London day, features in plenty of glamour shots as our time travellers climb the long stairs to the entry.

Concorde Glamour Shot

Sure enough, the second Concorde disappears off the radar scope just like the first one, confirming the Doctor’s suspicion that a “time warp” exists over the approach path to Heathrow. But despite the TARDIS registering a temporal displacement some one hundred and forty million years into the past, Stapley lands the Concorde right back at Heathrow, parking where they started. (British Airways wasn’t going to actually move the plane for Doctor Who.) Or so it seems.

Michael Cashman as First Officer Bilton, Richard Easton as Captain Stapley, Keith Drinkel as Flight Engineer Scobie, and Sarah Sutton as Nyssa

The Doctor feels something is wrong, and once everyone disembarks down a ladder that miraculously appears next to the airplane, Nyssa pierces the illusory veil. All around, nothing but rocks, as befits the Earth over a hundred million years prior, and, curiously, a wrecked spaceship and a lone stone building, quite out of place indeed. They have been tricked by a hallucination powerful enough to have momentarily affected even the Doctor, caused by a most unlikely foe…

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