Hedgerows and Heifers: Drop Zone Sainte-Mère-Église (MMP) Released

After a soft launch at Winter Offensive 2023, Multi-Man Publishing‘s latest Historical Module for Advanced Squad Leader, Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église, has begun making its way to eager pre-order customers.

Detail of cover art by Ken Smith from Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église by MMP

Focusing on the 82nd Airborne Division’s efforts to secure a vital crossroads town to facilitate the breakout from Utah Beach after D-Day, Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église, by designer Ken Dunn, takes gamers deep into the hedgerows of Normandy as the Americans confront the ramshackle defenses of the various German forces available to stem the inevitable tide. Coming in a thin 1.5″ deep box with cover art by Ken Smith, DZ: SME packs one countersheet, three 22″ x 30.5″ maps on nice semi-gloss paper (with combined dimensions of 22″ x 91.5″), eleven scenarios on cardstock, two chapter dividers on thick stock, and twenty-eight pages covering special rules and three campaign games.

Component overview of Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église by MMP

A long paved road commands all three maps, tying them together north to south. The road pushes straight down the middle of all three maps lengthwise, cutting through open spaces lined with bocage and various small villages. With art by the inestimable Charlie Kibler and input from Sharon Boyd, the maps just scream, “Normandy,” giving a very clear example of the endless hedgerow-enclosed fields stacked one upon the next, each a potential strongpoint to be overcome. Should the map dimensions also seem too much to overcome, only one of the campaign games uses all three maps at once; another CG uses two maps, and one CG and one of the eleven scenarios pulls most of two maps into play. The remaining ten scenarios require only portions of a single map—though, at first glance, most of those defy easy map folding, so consider a 22″ x 30.5″ play area the minimum needed for use of DZ: SME.

Map detail from Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église by MMP

A cursory glance through the scenarios and campaigns suggests that only the ASL Rulebook, Beyond Valor, and Yanks! are required to play all of the scenarios and campaigns in DZ:SME, but one will still need to confront that most confounding of foes: bocage. Not quite a wall, more than a hedge, and as tall as a building, this fearsome terrain type that takes up over two pages in the ASLRB dominates proceedings here.

Map detail from Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église by MMP

Suffice it to say that the Ken Dunn scenarios on offer in DZ: SME make it worth your while to untangle the rules thicket and finally learn how to play bocage. Though notionally all fairly simple actions depicting elite American infantry, predominantly from the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd, against mostly second-line (and lower) German defenders with a handful of guns and tanks, the special scenario rules elevate these scenario cards to rather intriguing affairs, including the option for “grenade barrages” in one and command confusion rules in another, to say nothing of the obligatory glider landing scenario. And, of course, the cows.

Rules detail from Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église by MMP

It’s likely that DZ: SME will become known as the “cow module” because of the included rules for nudging Normande as moving cover and, alas, as minefield clearance tools, the latter use not in play in the sole scenario here that utilzes them, but included for the same reason that the panji rules in Chapter G are four pages long, for completeness sake. The rules feature my new favorite sentence in ASL, “A MMC possessing a Cow receives an additional +1 Ambush drm (A11.4).” Three cow counters are on the included countersheet, and one can imagine the cow rules will feature in many future scenarios, given, as Ken points out in his designer’s notes, that animal casualties are a frequent, regrettable, and often overlooked, component of war.

Scenario overview from Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église by MMP

The major new addition to the ASL countermix in DZ: SME is a new German squad type, a boxed second line unit with smoke grenade capability, both spray and assault fire underscores, and a short range, provided in squad and half-squad form representing well-trained but brittle late-war troops. Extra squads and vehicles for both sides pad out the existing counter supply for purposes of the Campaign Games, while Waco gliders adorned with black-and-white invasion stripes receive bespoke counters as well, a nice bit of visual chrome. Custom 82nd Airborne and German division control markers and a counter for the new “dual roadblock” round out the single countersheet. My copy shows razor sharp color registration and no bleed whatsoever, as has been typical of MMP products for a very long time now.

My tastes in ASL tend towards the esoteric, and I’d probably be happy playing nothing but Chinese vs. Japanese or Italian vs. Greek scenarios for the remainder of my gaming life, but there’s an undeniable appeal to Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église. Ken Dunn has provided a focused look at a very specific moment of the invasion of Normandy, adding his usual, and quite welcome, flair, all put together with the standard Multi-Man Publishing polish and high quality Charlie Kibler maps. It is a worthwhile purchase and a solid addition to the ranks of Historical ASL modules. It’s easy to feel a bit sated and to take a publication like this for granted, given the amount of high quality Advanced Squad Leader content coming out these days, but had Drop Zone: Sainte-Mère-Église been published in the Avalon Hill days, it’s all gamers would have been talking about for a very long time.

(Cover detail artwork above by Ken Smith.)

Village Victories: Winter Offensive 2023 Bonus Pack #14 (MMP) Released

Wargamers have once again flocked to Bowie, Maryland, for the East Coast’s finest Advanced Squad Leader tournament, Winter Offensive 2023, where hosts Multi-Man Publishing released yet another of their annual bagged scenario-and-map Bonus Packs. This edition, the fourteenth, comes with three scenarios and two maps in the now-standard cardstock “Starter Kit” style, with proceeds from the sale of the pack—and the tournament generally—going to MMP’s long-time charitable partner, the WWII Foundation.

Detail of Winter Offensive Bonus Pack #14 Cover by Multi-Man Publishing

The Winter Offensive Bonus Pack #14 retails for US$20 and features a glossy cover sheet with art showing smock-clad riders atop a tankette in a snowy scene by an uncredited artist, three scenarios (one backprinted on the cover sheet, the other on standard scenario cardstock) from Pete Shelling and Don Petros, and two maps, 89 and 90.

Overview of Winter Offensive Bonus Pack #14 Contents by Multi-Man Publishing

The maps share a similar road-grain-village theme and look quite sharp put together. Map 89 in particular stands out as a much needed addition to the cartographic canon, with a narrow two-to-three hex wide village of single story buildings running much of the length of the board, connected by dirt roads and surrounded by shellholes, grain, orchards, and a handy gully that will make for intriguing defensive possibilities. The other map, 90, provides a bit more open space but shares a similar rhythm of grain and roads as 89, making them a pleasant pairing.

All three scenarios, WO43-45, use the new boards, and given that they are all German vs. Russian affairs, this Bonus Pack marks the rare ASL product that can be played using only the ASL Rule Book and a copy of Beyond Valor. My relative indifference to German/Russian scenarios is well known, but I’m capable of appreciating fine scenario design, and there are some well considered situations and special scenario rules here.

Detail of Winter Offensive Bonus Pack #14 Scenarios by Multi-Man Publishing

The pick of the crop looks to be Don Petros’ WO44 Little Village, pitting Russian defenders (using a trademark Pete Shelling fortification purchase chart) with a stout gun line and dug-in tanks against elite Germans with plenty of heavy metal of their own. At seven and a half turns and 16-20 squads per side, a reasonable diversion for a long game day, which is all any of us can ask.

Detail of Winter Offensive Bonus Pack #14 Scenario WO44 by Multi-Man Publishing

On the whole, the 2023 Winter Offensive Bonus Pack more than earns its price, and the fact that the sales benefit a worthwhile charity makes it an easy purchase indeed.

Doctor Who Project: Earthshock

What are we supposed to have done?

Season Nineteen has been about change. A new Doctor stands at the helm of the TARDIS, and producer John Nathan-Turner has interwoven psychedelic psychological drama with pseudo-historical potboilers and manor house murder mysteries. The shift in tone from story to story leaves viewers guessing as to what comes next. None of it quite prepares viewers from Eric Saward’s “Earthshock” (Story Production Code 6B), which takes Doctor Who to brand new ground: a companion dies.

A broken mathematics badge

The argument can be made that two prior companions have lost their lives in a story, with Katarina and Sara Kingdom both perishing during “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” but neither really “settles in” to life on the TARDIS to the extent that viewers develop a relationship to them, certainly not to the degree that viewers have come to know Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric, the precocious and persnickety Alzarian maths whiz. Adric’s TARDIS tenure has not been the smoothest—from his first appearance in “Full Circle,” he has been an outsider, the butt of many a joke and never really given a chance to shine, to be the focus of a story. His single outing as the sole companion, “The Keeper of Traken,” sees him sidelined almost immediately by Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa, and in the very next story, “Logopolis,” Janet Fielding’s Tegan comes aboard, to say nothing about the little matter of Tom Baker regenerating into Peter Davison.

A crowded TARDIS

Nevertheless, Matthew Waterhouse does the best he can with the scripts, which so often lean into Adric’s youth and callowness, and though few might proclaim Adric to be their favorite companion, he’s firmly part of the TARDIS team, and indeed is the longest serving cast member by the time Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner decide to remove him. Saward litters the script with foreshadowing of someone’s demise, and there’s more on-screen death in this story than has been seen in years, but the ending still has the power to shock, because it is ultimately a pointless death. Indeed, the most stunning aspect of “Earthshock” is not that Doctor Who finally had the narrative courage to fatally write off a companion but that it didn’t matter at all to the story’s outcome.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, mightily annoyed with Matthew Waterhouse's Adric

Which is not to say that Adric is not heroic or that his death does not matter. Rather, to have Adric try, and fail, to alter the course of a gigantic space freighter as it is about to hit prehistoric Earth speaks to the very heart of Doctor Who, particularly the new vision of it as conceptualized by Nathan-Turner and embodied by Peter Davison in the character of the Fifth Doctor. Where every other Doctor in every other story (save the Third Doctor in “Doctor Who and the Silurians“) would have succeeded and rescued Adric, here, the Fifth Doctor fails, even as a plot to destroy Earth is foiled and history falls into its rightful patterns once more. His success, such as it is, comes, finally, at a cost. It’s a sobering moment, one that hints at a depth in the Doctor only suggested before, and one that helps viewers forget that these guys show up again…

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Lucky Thirteen: ASL Journal #13 (MMP) Released

Absolutely fresh off the printing press from those military-minded mavens of Millersville, Maryland, Multi-Man Publishing, comes the much awaited ASL Journal #13, a magazine dedicated to Advanced Squad Leader.

No longer just a plain periodical, the Journal has long since turned into a multi-media affair, and in addition to the usual assortment of articles devoted to everyone’s favorite tactical level World War II conflict simulation, the fifty-two page Journal #13 features Board 77, a whopping thirty-three scenarios (including four in the new “pocket” format) separately printed on cardstock, and a replacement for the long rowhouse overlay, X20, that was misprinted in the ASL Overlay Bundle. The cover art, by Terence Cueno, depicts minefield clearing at El Alamein in 1942.

Overview of ASL Journal #13 contents by Multi-Man Publishing

The articles in this issue of the Journal hearken back to some of the earliest ASL Annuals put out by Avalon Hill, with extensive tactical and statistical analyses of scenarios and rules sub-systems, with a particular focus in this issue on off-board artillery (OBA). Two of my old gaming buddies, Jim Bishop and John Slotwinski, have articles in this one, Jim on alternative OBA systems and John with a look at changes in a scenario updated by MMP when they re-released Yanks! several years back. It’s an in-depth set of articles this time, perhaps more for the seasoned player looking to wring a slight edge out of the counters and dice than the newcomer just getting to grips with the game, but decent reading all the same.

Article close-up from ASL Journal #13 by Multi-Man Publishing

Board 77, in the now-standard “Starter Kit” style, finally makes an “official” appearance after years of being available only in the Supplemental Map Bundle (and with no official scenarios that used it). To put it kindly, it is a board only a mother could love, as they say, a long, multi-level grain-festooned hill with crags and buildings scattered around haphazardly. That it comes from the imaginative mind of Ken Dunn explains much! Care has certainly been taken to make it playable, with contour lines popped out clearly via artistic openings in the hilltop grain fields. One seldom sees grain covering multiple levels, or indeed in that much profusion, and it’s a striking board that will take some getting used to, but it’s a worthy addition to the lineup all the same.

Close-up of Board 77 from ASL Journal #13 by Multi-Man Publishing

The scenarios, of course, are the star of the show, and new with Journal #13 are the “pocket” scenarios, PK1-4, featuring a full-color map printed on the card itself, measuring between six to eight standard map hexes tall and roughly ten to eleven hexes wide. I lack an encyclopedic knowledge of the map boards by sight, but they appear to be cut-down versions of existing maps with overlays, if any, pre-printed. It’s a brilliant concept, ideal for a club meeting or quick match. Even though the forces deployed by each side are surprisingly hefty in each of the four scenarios, they have short turn lengths; the constrained scope for maneuver will see sharp actions from the off. There’s no map or overlay info printed, making reproducing these scenarios via VASL more complicated, but that’s not a major concern. I can only hope that we see far more of these self-contained cards, encouraging as they do in-person play.

Scenario Card and Overlay X20 Overview from ASL Journal #13 by Multi-Man Publishing

The remaining twenty-nine scenarios cover a wide range of actions and fronts, from a dense action between the Japanese and Nationalist Chinese in 1937 Shanghai, a waterfront fracas pitting Albanians against Italians in 1939, Partisan action in Yugoslavia on Deluxe boards, and a full seven cards depicting Korean War confrontations to go along with the two KWASL articles in the Journal. Even the standard, near-mandatory German vs. Russian slugfest scenarios, the bane of many an ASL product and seldom proving interesting, look rather sharp this time out, including one set in far Northern Norway. I’ve already had to reorganize my scenario play list to fit several of these scenarios into the top of the queue.

As ever, to play it all you have to own it all, but even people just starting out with Advanced Squad Leader will find material of value here, and while it’s true of most MMP ASL products, this one is a necessary purchase. There’s really something for everyone in ASL Journal #13, and the scenarios, both “pocket” and regular, will undoubtedly be seeing heavy rotation on 2023’s convention schedule.

Doctor Who Project: Black Orchid

Why didn’t I leave after the cricket?

The TARDIS may be bigger on the inside than on the outside, but the typical Doctor Who story is larger still: worlds warring, cultures collapsing, aliens attacking, universes unravelling. Terence Dudley’s “Black Orchid” (Story Production Code 6A) shrinks that scope to the quotidian, presenting a simple two episode murder mystery with little on the line except the Doctor’s own fate, and in doing so, produces a tale grander than the usual galaxy-spanning fare. The actors, both guest stars and regular cast, take precedence over special effects and fantastical plotting. While most of Doctor Who‘s best stories are ones that it alone could tell, this noteworthy outing for the Fifth Doctor succeeds because it practically ignores everything unique about Doctor Who—except for the characters themselves.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions at a railway station

After a disorienting opening sequence showing a violent strangulation, then someone who looks very much like Nyssa turning over in bed, then an indigenous South American with a lip plate reading a book, the TARDIS lands on the platform of a railway station in the English countryside on June 11, 1925, where the Doctor is, apparently, urgently expected by Lord Cranleigh (Michael Cochrane). Before the Doctor and companions can catch their breath—to say nothing of the audience—they are whisked away to Cranleigh Manor in a stately green Rolls Royce.

The Fifth Doctor greets Lord Cranleigh

The initial establishment of the Fifth Doctor as a cricketer in “Castrovalva” pays off here, as Cranleigh needs the Doctor to both bat and bowl in the charity game held in conjunction with the annual fancy dress ball given for a local hospital. And bat and bowl he can, hitting frequently for six and taking several wickets to win the game. Director Ron Jones fully utilizes the location shooting to display Peter Davison’s own cricket skills in a loving montage that stretches nearly five minutes, a fair allocation given that the full runtime of the story is under an hour.

Peter Davision as the Fifth Doctor, getting ready to bat

But it is this attention to detail, to a deliberate development of the setting and character, that sets “Black Orchid” apart from the usual Doctor Who story. We see the Doctor reveling in a passion that has, ultimately, nothing to do with the outcome of the story, and yet it is not just a throw-away segment. Dudley draws upon the series’ larger scope, its vast store of lore, by having the local constable, Sir Robert Muir (Moray Watson) give both the Doctor and the audience a momentary pause:

Sir Robert: “A superb innings, worthy of the master.”

Fifth Doctor: “The Master?”

Sir Robert: “Well, the other doctor.”

The reference, ultimately, is to renowned cricketer W.G. Grace, known occasionally as “the Doctor” himself, but the brief possibility that the Master, or more intriguingly another Time Lord, is somehow involved creates a resonance that never quite goes away. Was this a knowing aside, a hint at the true culprit behind the opening murder? Has the Master summoned the Doctor to break his duck?…

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Lays of the Land: ASL Overlay Bundle (MMP) Released

No matter how many maps are produced for Advanced Squad Leader, some enterprising scenario designer is going to come up with an action that needs slightly different terrain—a building here, a grain field hindering a line of sight there, a whole river running down the board just because. As far back as original Squad Leader, terrain overlays have solved this problem, providing an easy means of altering the look and feel of a map to better suit the situation being portrayed. Long-time ASL players have accumulated scores of these cardstock contrivances, all lovingly (or less so) cut from sheets accompanying many ASL modules.

Cover Sheet detail of Advanced Squad Leader Overlay Bundle by Multi-Man Publishing

In order to replenish those stocks of cardstock cut-outs, Multi-Man Publishing has released the Advanced Squad Leader Overlay Bundle. The Overlay Bundle does not come in a ziplock bag or box; it’s literally a shrink-wrapped package of thirty-seven sheets of overlays, on the same glossy stock as prior overlay sheets. The overlays represent all official published ASL overlays except those that have been replaced by actual maps in subsequent products (the Board 25 Escarpment and Gavutu-Tanambogo islands) and the overlays from Red Factories and Deluxe ASL.

Overlay sheet detail of Advanced Squad Leader Overlay Bundle by Multi-Man Publishing

Some of the overlay sheets are straight reprints from recent module releases, like Hollow Legions 3rd Edition, but the majority have been laid out specifically for this product, collecting the various sheets from the past three decades. Curiously, one of the overlays, X20, a long rowhouse, has a fold running through it, on the single double-fold sheet in the bundle that contains the long river overlay. I can only imagine that’s an oversight, as there’s ample room on the rest of that sheet to lay out X20 without a crease straight through the length.

Overlay sheet detail of Advanced Squad Leader Overlay Bundle by Multi-Man Publishing

Players like myself, who have picked up ASL products faithfully over the years, probably don’t need the Overlay Bundle, but I’m betting they’ll want it. Overlays tend to live a rough life, at least in the gaming circles I run in. Smeared with plastic cement, tossed haphazardly in envelopes, left behind at conventions and game days, I imagine pretty much every ASL player has lost or otherwise mistreated an overlay or two, making this product a nice replenishment of the closest thing ASL has to consumables. If nothing else, it’s a chance to cut them out a little better than we might have all those years ago.

Overlay sheet detail of Advanced Squad Leader Overlay Bundle by Multi-Man Publishing

Owners of Croix de Guerre 2nd Edition who lack the original edition also will want to pick this up, as MMP made the decision not to include the original CdG overlays in the new edition of the French module. The decision was explained at the time by the fact that the Overlay Bundle was going to be coming out, but it took several years from CdG 2e being printed for the overlay bundle to arrive.

Overlay sheet detail of Advanced Squad Leader Overlay Bundle by Multi-Man Publishing

I’m glad to have the spare overlays, and this kind of product is well received for people who use their kit often. It will fill several holes in my overlay collection from dice well rolled over the years. Perhaps more could have been done—there was scuttlebutt on various forums in the past that the fabled Overlay Bundle would be printed on some sort of clear acetate, or pre-scored to enable ease of removal—but this sort of maintenance release is needed for the long term health of the hobby, and I appreciate the effort put into its production.