ASL Oktoberfest, or ASLOK, is the centerpiece of the Advanced Squad Leader convention calendar, despite taking place in Cleveland. It’s the Masters Tournament of ASL, if you will, and while I’ll always prefer the more casual confines of Winter Offensive, in bucolic Bowie, Maryland, the cachet of ASLOK cannot be denied. It’s just pure ASL, morning to night.
Every few years, Multi-Man Publishing, caretakers and publishers of the venerable ASL tactical wargame system, release an Action Pack in conjunction with ASLOK, and they have just unveiled ASL Action Pack #17: Oktoberfest XXXV to go along with this year’s edition of the tournament. This new expansion for ASL contains two new geomorphic maps (87 and 88) and sixteen scenarios (AP175-AP190) by Kevin Meyer and Pete Shelling centering on the US 1st Cavalry Division, known as The First Team.
The actions depicted take place in the Pacific theater during World War II, with three scenarios against the Japanese in 1944, and then in the Korean War, host to a whopping thirteen scenarios pitting the 1st Cavalry against North Korean and Communist Chinese forces in 1950 and 1951. Despite the singular focus on a particular division, the scenarios manage to cover a varied set of actions, from assault boat landings in a reservoir against Chinese forces hunkered in bunkers (AP189 Bona Fide Effort) and a joint American/Greek assault on a minefield complex (AP190 We Are Sparta) through to an armor slugfest against North Korean T-34s (AP183 Patton’s Ghost) and a river crossing under fire (AP181 No Dunkirk).
The situations tend towards the fulsome, with none that, at first glance, fall into the quick-playing tournament scenario mold; these cards are, broadly, six to eight turns with a dozen or more squads per side, plus interesting special rules and counters that don’t often get fished out of the Plano.
As for the two new maps, designed by Tom Repetti and Don Petros, with art by the inestimable Charlie Kibler, they both feature a multi-level hill running along one long map edge, which, if set together, form one large hill mass. Board 87 hosts a small village abutting the hill, while board 88 has gullies leading down off the hill into a valley, with more crags than you’ve probably ever seen on an ASL map.
Because most of the scenarios are set in the Korean War, which for some reason has not been overly popular in ASL circles since the release of the Forgotten War Korean War ASL module some years back, this Action Pack might not get as much interest as usual for an official ASL product. That would be a shame, as the pack as a whole stretches the ASL rulebook—how often do you use river Ford counters?—and features interesting actions by some of the best scenario designers working today. These might not be scenarios to knock out in a quick sitting at a club meeting on a Saturday, but they’ll reward extended play.
Fresh from the fervid Francophones at Le Franc Tireur comes The Green Hell of Inor, an unofficial expansion for Multi-Man Publishing’sAdvanced Squad Leader (ASL) that adds new counters, sixteen scenarios, a large map, and three campaign games to the venerable tactical wargame system. Focusing on the early war battles between the French and Germans in 1940 around Inor, a town situated on a canal off the Meuse, the module’s thesis, as laid out in the handsome seventy-page historical booklet, suggests that even a nondescript French second line division such as the 3eme DINA (Third North African Division) showed a determination to fight that was at odds with the lack of preparation and will exhibited by higher French military and political authorities during 1940, holding up a German advance for three weeks under increasingly untenable conditions.
At their best, wargames, and conflict simulations more generally, make assertions about history and provide gamers with the ability to test them, driving a heightened understanding through the process of play. The designers of The Green Hell of Inor—Lionel Colin and Xavier Vitry, assisted by a number of scenario designers—seek to provide an opportunity to examine French conduct under fire, in situations approximate to those actually faced, not at a higher operational level but at the squad level that ASL depicts, where fighting spirit, training, and tenacity matter more than grand strategic concerns.
Perhaps ASL is not the best device for a serious study of war; it has been described, fairly, as an exceedingly accurate simulation of war movies rather than the chaos and uncertainty of any real battlefield. But various tweaks, as the designers have provided using different French squad types, all represented on the two die-cut countersheets, change the basic experience of playing “the French” enough that long-time ASL players feel the difference in deploying these mostly colonial soldiers, hailing from Algeria, as opposed to the usual French soldiers seen in the game. The actions represented in the sixteen scenarios are not broad armored thrusts with impregnable tanks or dire city fights between grizzled veterans; they represent meeting engagements, surprise encounters, haphazard offensives, nighttime escapes, and foolhardy charges in tanks that move scarcely faster than men. The scenarios attempt to depict the slog of every-day fighting by unblooded soldiers learning their trade the hard way, rather than set piece battles whose names live on in history.
The production itself meets LFT’s usual high standards; they and Bounding Fire Productions consistently produce the finest in third-party ASL content. The scenarios come on double-sided, glossy but thin stock A4-size pages, and the rules and historical background books are saddle-stapled with glossy pages and a thick stock cover. The two countersheets, with color figures and vehicle depictions, show sharp registration and clean die cuts, and add new French squad types as well as additional counters for the scenarios and campaign games. The two map sheets, on thick stock paper—together roughly 33″ x 47″, or A0—are printed well, depicting the hilly, wooded area around Inor, including a canal with river barges (and, of course, rules for them). Three campaign games, with accompanying charts on the same paper as the scenarios, round out the impressive package. I might have preferred a thicker, matte stock for the scenarios, but there’s no denying that the colors pop on the pages as provided.
Ownership of tons of other ASL product is expected for full use of this module, which should come as no surprise to anyone who contemplates a purchase.
On the whole, this pricey but pretty presentation is worthy of study—and acquisition—by any ASL player with even a passing interest in the early war period, and frankly that should be all of them. It may be that the story of the 3eme DINA is not well known, even inside of France, but that’s not due to their efforts in The Green Hell of Inor.
The essence of Winter Offensive, the premier Advanced Squad Leader tournament on the East Coast, resides in the well-worn flip chart at the entrance to the convention rooms. A similar giant pad of paper has welcomed attendees for as long as I can remember. The sign is both casual and matter of fact, just like the tourney itself. There’s no pretension on display at this annual assemblage of wargamers in Bowie, Maryland; if you show up, you’re welcome, part of the gang, a member of the club. Fancy printed banners and elaborate registration procedures have no place here. There’s not an attendance lanyard or wrist band in sight, unlike just about every other gaming convention around these days. You’re on your honor to pay the registration fee, as hosts Multi-Man Publishing would rather be gaming themselves than babysitting would-be scofflaws.
Attendance came in at 214, a record number by far, though the room didn’t seem quite so crowded on Saturday this year as last year, when table space was at an all-time premium. The threat of inclement weather on Saturday might have driven away some of those who attended on Thursday and Friday. Having all four sections of the big convention hall open from the get-go helped greatly in spreading people out, leaving the atmosphere cozy but not cramped.
Two ASL products made their debuts this year, the Deluxe ASL Module and the new edition of Croix de Guerre, the French extension to the game system that now includes dedicated counters for Vichy and Free French troops and Dan Dolan’s long-awaited Dinant Campaign Game. The large-format Deluxe ASL maps were much in evidence this weekend, as the new module reprints all existing DASL maps in the “new” thin-format style and includes revised editions of practically every official DASL scenario ever published.
Croix de Guerre, by contrast, didn’t seem to garner much table space, at least on my peregrinations through the room, though they were flying past the cash register. Perhaps this can be chalked up to the fact that CdG comes with eleven countersheets, all needing to be punched, corner-rounded (for those with discriminating tastes), and integrated into existing counter storage systems. It’s a monumental task, one that I, personally, decided would be better tackled at a later date. The package looks superb, with a bevy of updated scenarios, a crisp look for the French, and a meaty campaign game in the large box. There’s lot of play in that box.
Staring the festivities, I squared off against one of my oldest gaming buddies (in terms of years known, though none of us are getting any younger!), John Slotwinski. Continuing our Korean War theme from the last WO, we trotted out 210 This Is Where We Stand from Forgotten War, pitting forty-five (seriously) Chinese squads against a mere sixteen USMC squads, at night, in extreme winter, with steep hills. My troops needed to completely clear the hills of John’s Marines, and while I pushed him back a bit, he and his copious firepower outlasted my onslaught for the win. The rules overhead involved ranks as perhaps my most daunting Advanced Squad Leader experience in at least a decade, with ordinary actions, like simply schlepping from one hex to another, taking on new dimensions because of the weather, the darkness, and the special traits for Chinese infantry movement. An exhausting, but thoroughly enjoyable, scenario against a one-time Winter Offensive winner.
Long time gaming buddy Doug Bush and I then tried out a scenario from Bounding Fire’s Blood and Jungle pack, BFP 35 Mai Phu, set in Tonkin in 1940, with Japanese troops supported by six tanks assaulting the French forces holding a garrison in French Indochina. Though not a huge scenario, we spent some time with this one, as many tactical puzzles presented themselves. Doug’s IJA troops ground steadily forward, attempting to take buildings, and one banzai assault in particular resulted in a massive counter stack, topped, as though by a cherry, with a large residual counter that almost never leaves the Plano.
This scenario came down to the final die rolls, with Doug needing to win four Hand-to-Hand Close Combats to secure the victory. I managed to hold two of them for a very narrow escape. Of eleven total vehicles in the game, only one was still standing at the end, pretty much par for the course in our playings. Lots of interesting moments in this one; games against Doug are never dull! Continue reading
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. Continue reading
After a fortnight of arctic cold along the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States, the sun made a stunning, if temporary, return, punching temperatures up to the sixty degree mark in the middle of January. And what did I, and 149 other dedicated board wargamers do? We huddled inside a large conference room at the Comfort Inn in Bowie, Maryland, for the 2018 edition of Winter Offensive, sheltered away from the brief spell of warmth. Rain and snow and sunny skies will come and go, but a chance to game with friends new and old? That’s worth spurning the sun for a few days.
Hosts Multi-Man Publishing put on another well-run show, with their venerable Advanced Squad Leader tournament seeing games of all stripes being played. Attendance of 150 was near the all-time high of 165, spurred no doubt by the release of the long-awaited Korean War module for ASL. The new module adds counters and rules for the North and South Korean armies as well as United Nations and Communist Chinese forces, and copies were flying off the sales table as quickly as, well, as a several pound box could fly.
My first game of the weekend came against Doug Bush, great gaming buddy and designer of Next War: India-Pakistan and the forthcoming Red Storm, both from GMT Games. We sampled a scenario from the recently released Saipan: The Bloody Rock, the first entry in Compass Games’ Company Scale System. This game sits between the tactical and operational (and, indeed, has rules roots from the Grand Tactical Series put out by MMP as well as the earlier Panzer Command), with random chit draws determining which formations are able to act. The key to the game is doing what you can with the chits you get, because they seldom come out of the draw cup in the most efficient order, and you’re not guaranteed to be able to receive every formation’s chit every turn.
The scenario we played covered the initial US Marine landings on Saipan; Doug had the leathernecks and I took the Japanese forces tasked with keeping the Americans confined to the beaches. The system, through the chit draw mechanic, really tries to simulate the command and control confusion inherent in any military operation. The problem of the omniscient player sitting above the map with perfect knowledge can sometimes be offset by stripping the player of omnipotence, and this game does a nice job of frustrating any plans that the player may have—and that’s before your opponent has a chance to have his or her say.
In the end, my forces were able to inflict sufficient casualties on Doug’s to eke out a very narrow win. Had the Marine landings not been pushed into a confined area due to surf drifts, I think they would have been able to break out of the beachhead much sooner to secure a solid victory. A good match in a very promising system with one of my favorite opponents.
On Saturday, I cracked open the Korean War module for my traditional ASL match against another of my good gaming buddies, Mike Vogt. Always on the lookout for interesting situations with funky, seldom used game pieces, we picked a scenario (215 “Red Devils”) featuring a US Army artillery park, with six self-propelled artillery pieces, being overrun by a swarm of Communist Chinese squads.
My American Redlegs had only a few squads with which to defend the valuable guns, but they were amply supplied with firepower, and Mike’s Chinese had a lot of open ground to cover. He did his best to balance the scenario’s time limit with the need to keep enough squads in good order to destroy the guns, but between my frighteningly hot dice rolling and all the weapons at my disposal, including a blast from one of the monster guns, he fell just short. Once the Chinese got in close, they couldn’t be stopped, but the getting-there was the problem.
The scenario didn’t offer many interesting tactical puzzles for either of us—I pretty much just fired my weapons and he pretty much just moved to try to cover the space. I think we both would have preferred a more nuanced scenario, with each side having to move and shoot and outthink the other. A fascinating action, and a cool premise, but it didn’t check all the boxes we would have liked. Regardless, I had a blast playing with Mike, as always, and I do appreciate his forbearance over my extra-lucky dice rolling. We’ve got a standing date for another scenario on Saturday next year.
Keen eyes will have noticed that the Communist Chinese (two-tone brown) in the picture have already been counter-corner-rounded. Yes, I did indeed bring an X-Acto knife, self-healing cutting board, and, of course, a handy dandy counter corner rounder with me to Winter Offensive, and I actually wasn’t alone. I probably saw ten of these miracle instruments on tables throughout the course of the weekend. Playing with un-rounded counters strikes me as simply uncivilized…
What the inevitable side gaming lacked in quantity this year, it made up for in quality (not to mention duration). On Friday night, Mike, Doug, long-time buddy John Slotwinski, and I took to the heavens once again in High Frontier, by Sierra Madre Games. Every time this behemoth of a game hits the table (with, yes, a thud), it takes at least an hour of play to get our heads around the rules required to put a functioning spacecraft into orbit around various bodies in the solar system, to say nothing of the requirements to put one on another planet (and possibly even bring it back to Earth). But once it’s all clicking, the satisfaction in actually putting that solar-sail powered exploration probe into Mercury’s magnetosphere (on purpose, that is!) can barely be beat.
Where, usually, Saturday night features a raucous game of Battlestar Galactica, replete with all the backstabbing and treachery that a group of determined friends can muster, we opted instead for a no-less treacherous game on the politics of the age of religious transformation, Virgin Queen from GMT.
A card-driven point-to-point game in the long tradition of We the People, Virgin Queen simulates the struggles surrounding the spread of Protestantism in the era of the game’s titular ruler, Elizabeth I. Joined by Doug’s friend Will, we fought through several years of intrigue that culminated in Spain being at war with the nascent Netherlands, France, and the Ottoman Empire—and doing well at it, too! Mike’s England took advantage of the turmoil and garnered enough points via less militaristic means to take a win when we called the game. It took us a good six hours to get through three turns (with breaks for pizza and such), but given growing familiarity with the rules, we started moving along much more quickly towards the end.
So, though the sun may have shone brightly (and then just as promptly disappeared), I consider myself to have had the better experience indoors over the duration of Winter Offensive 2018. My thanks, as always, to Perry Cocke, Brian Youse, and the rest of the crew at Multi-Man Publishing for yet another wonderful long weekend of gaming, and of course to my good gaming buddies, who, with only the slightest of grumbles, put up with my dice and derring-do every year.
Certain occurrences trigger a realization that another year has passed, making one wonder just where the time has gone. The swallows return to Capistrano, the bulls have their fun in Pamplona, and, for wargamers of a particular bent, the Comfort Inn in Bowie, MD, opens up three conference rooms and hosts Winter Offensive. This year’s running of the gamers has come and gone again, with hosts Multi-Man Publishing putting on yet another sterling Advanced Squad Leader tournament and general purpose gaming cavalcade.
Attendance this year seemed slightly down from the 2015 peak of 165 gamers, with no exhortations needed on prime day Saturday to free up table space. A minor weather scare might have dampened attendance somewhat, and with no marquee MMP product being released this year, the crowds that typically attend in conjunction with such releases also failed to materialize. But the room was still nicely packed, and while the fair majority of gamers were there to play ASL, wargamers interested in other MMP product lines, like the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, the Standard Combat Series, and the Operational Combat Series, as well as other wargames, took up a good third of the table space by my rough estimation. It’s no longer a safe assumption that anyone you speak with at Winter Offensive will be an Advanced Squad Leader player only (if, indeed, at all!).
My gaming weekend started out with an exhaustive playtest of Red Storm: The Air War over Central Germany, 1987, an operational air combat game being designed for GMT Games by Doug Bush, one of my long-time gaming buddies and an all-around good guy. We tested one of the larger scenarios in the game, portraying a large NATO air strike on several Warsaw Pact airfields deep in East Germany.
Defended by a massive belt of anti-air missiles, the airfields were a tough target, one that took the full complement of Doug’s considerable forces some time to pick their way through. The game system features many rules for air-to-ground and ground-to-air combat, including electronic countermeasures and anti-radar missiles, and we used them all in this one. The scenario depicted (all art is playtest and provisional; not final art) falls on the more complex side of what Red Storm has to offer; a full range of scenarios covers actions from small fighter engagements and bombing missions through to night paratrooper insertions. Several people stopped by to ask questions and watch a few minutes of gameplay, and I think this game has quite a bit of appeal—lots of interesting and difficult decision making, cool hardware, and a well-tested game system chassis underneath.
Saturday’s main event fell on the ASL side of the equation, as Mike Vogt and I sampled 159 “White Tigers,” a classic scenario pitting Japanese attackers against Gurkha defenders in the midst of an unrelenting rainstorm near Imphal, India. Mike, another of my very good gaming buddies and another all-around good guy, took the IJA forces with the task of occupying buildings. In my defense, I had some stout Indian soldiers and, as importantly, the services of a very flooded river that served to channel the attack into three main avenues.
The Japanese made good progress on two of the three fronts, Mike’s progress helped somewhat by a few of my attacks turning his cardboard soldiers into berserkers who could run through the withering fire covering the most critical chokepoint on the map. My dice were quite hot throughout, a situation Mike bore with good grace, and by the end of the ten turn scenario, the Japanese had a foothold on the final two buildings they needed to secure the victory. But time just ran out, with the remaining Gurkhas holding on for a very narrow win.
Truly, one of the best ASL experiences I’ve had in a long time—great opponent, tense scenario, and a visual treat as well. Matches like this one encourage me to try to play more of this unparalleled game, about as close to a resolution as I’ve made so far in this new year.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Winter Offensive without the side gaming, and I managed to fit in two matches of group favorite Battlestar Galactica and three of The Dragon & Flagon, a relatively new fantasy bar fight game that seemed to be a big hit (pun slightly intended) with everyone. Many old friends were in attendance, too, and having the gang back together just makes a good gaming convention even better.
My thanks, as always, to Perry Cocke, Brian Youse, and the rest of the team at MMP for another successful Winter Offensive, and to my gaming compadres for a great weekend of gaming. It might not keep getting bigger, year after year, but it certainly seems to keep getting better.