Winter Offensive 2020 After Action Report

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.

Winter Offensive 2020 on Thursday

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.

Croix de Guerre counter closeup

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.

My own game tally for the weekend came in at six plays: two Advanced Squad Leader scenarios and one playing each of Greenland, Pax Porfiriana, Pax Pamir (2e), and Brass: Birmingham.

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.

ASL 210 at Winter Offensive 2020

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.

BFP 35 at Winter Offensive 2020

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!

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Winter Offensive 2019 After Action Report

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.

Winter Offensive 2019 in full swing

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.

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Winter Offensive 2018 After Action Report

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.

Winter Offensive 2018

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.

Saipan: The Bloody Rock at Winter Offensive 2018

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.

215 Red Devils at Winter Offensive 2018

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.

Virgin Queen at Winter Offensive 2018

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.

The Final Tally at Winter Offensive 2018A 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.

Winter Offensive 2017 After Action Report

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.

Winter Offensive 2017

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.

Red Storm Playtest at Winter Offensive 2017; playtest art/not final art

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.

159 White Tigers at Winter Offensive 2017

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.

Battlestar Galactica at Winter Offensive 2017

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.

Winter Offensive 2016 After Action Report

If awards were given out for truth in advertising, then Winter Offensive 2016 would win handily. This year’s edition of the East Coast’s premier Advanced Squad Leader tournament coincided with the largest snowstorm in quite some time. As of this posting, it’s still going on, as I abandoned not-so-bucolic Bowie, Maryland, on Friday the 22nd, opting not to ride out the storm at the Comfort Inn Conference Center. More than a few hearty souls have decided to hunker down, though, obviously tempted by the prospect of being snowed in with nothing to do but play games until the roads clear. Certainly seems like one version of paradise, I have to confess.

By the time I left, about three hours before the onset of the snow, at least sixty people were still rolling dice and pushing cardboard. Over a hundred people were reported to have pre-registered, and more gamers showed up on the con’s initial day, Thursday, than I recall in recent memory. The usual crowd turned out in full force, with the crews from North Carolina, New York, and Norfolk all well in attendance in addition to the local lads. Still, despite the decent showing, Winter Offensive felt smaller this year, solely because the sliding wall partitions between the three convention rooms remained closed for unclear reasons. Also unexpected, MMP gave pre-registered attendees a gratis copy of ASL Journal 11, crammed full of new scenarios, including a pair of three-player scenarios sure to see much play.

So, with only twenty-four hours to play, I tried to cram in as much gaming as possible. Starting off on Thursday afternoon, I matched wits with all-around good guy Mike Vogt in BoF8 “Sting of the Italian Hornet,” an Advanced Squad Leader scenario full of funky Italian vehicles. (I sort of have a weakness for funky Italian vehicles.) We had pre-arranged the match, so I spent a fair bit of time before the con sketching out my Italian defense, putting my infantry guns up front and hoping to keep them hidden until Mike’s Canadians rolled their vehicles by, so I could try for flank and rear shots. Of course, Mike made an unerring beeline right for the gun positions, and both were quickly surrounded by infantry and tanks. I got some lucky shots and landed a few big hits, managing to keep the Canadians at bay long enough to stymie Mike’s carefully plotted advance. He moved as quickly as possible through the protective smoke he artfully laid down, but time was against him.

Advanced Squad Leader at Winter Offensive 16

A solid scenario (if a bit tight for the Canadians in terms of their goals) against a great opponent. Definitely the kind of scenario that reminds you why ASL has been around as long as it has—lots of moving parts that fit together very well to produce an entertaining (if not entirely historically accurate) gaming experience.

Thursday evening, Mike and I joined John Slotwinski, Doug Bush, and Ken Dunn for the traditional Winter Offensive match of Battlestar Galactica. Many, many Basestars were used in the early going, with four on the map at once, accompanied by the entire piece mix of Cylon Raiders. Sadly (for me, as a Cylon), the Galactica and Pegasus escaped from that trap using Cain’s emergency jump one-time ability, and the humans had a fairly easy coast to victory thereafter. In my mechanical defense, I didn’t become a Cylon until after the great escape, so I might have been inadvertently instrumental in helping the humans win just a little bit. Not that anyone cared, because the first action taken after the narrow escape was to put me in the Brig. Hmph. A fine session with some thoroughly enjoyable gamers. As should always be the case after a good game of Battlestar Galactica, the recriminations will last for months.

Battlestar Galactica at Winter Offensive 16

Friday, Doug and I set up Mikugames’ Tornio ’44, a company-level game on the Finnish naval landings behind German lines in central and western Finland, designed to trap the evacuating Germans after the Finnish/Soviet armistice. The game uses an interesting combat system, where the final odds ratio of a combat corresponds directly to the number of dice rolled; the opposing player must spend that dice roll total via a menu, from an inexpensive and relatively mild Broken status through retreats and step losses. The situation itself offers a fascinating challenge, as the Germans have to face Finnish units arriving from several avenues (most of which are chosen by the Finnish player) while keeping escape routes open and protecting victory point locations. The gameplay ebbs and flows. My Finns opened strongly, then the weather turned poor, delaying my reinforcements by a turn and allowing Doug’s Germans to occupy one of my planned avenues of advance. I was able to recover somewhat, but the density of German artillery began to take a toll on my units. We had to call the match half-way through due to the onset of snow (in the real world, not the game) with the Germans arguably in better shape, VP-wise. Hopefully we’ll be able to get this one on the table again for a full session, because it’s the most interesting wargame I’ve played in some time.

Tornio 44 at Winter Offensive 16

As always, my congratulations and thanks to the team at Multi-Man Publishing for another solid event, albeit one that was cut somewhat short for me. It felt strange, and somewhat wrong, to be leaving on Friday as opposed to Sunday, but since I used up quite a bit of my luck via gaming, I didn’t want to take chances with Mother Nature this time out. I hope everyone still there has a safe and enjoyable time of it.

Winter Offensive 2015 After Action Report

How many wargamers can you fit in 4,500 square feet of conference space, assuming you factor in room for tables, chairs, dice towers, and a keg? At least 165 if you were at Winter Offensive 2015 in Bowie, Maryland, the latest installation of the East Coast’s premier Advanced Squad Leader tournament, held annually over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend.

A Sea of Gamers

This year’s event saw the most attendees ever, nearly twenty more than last year’s record crowd. By noon on Saturday, all available table space seemed to have filled up, though most people were happy to share space. Attendance was likely boosted by the debut of the long-awaited “final” core module for ASL, Hakkaa Päälle, which (re)introduces the Finns to the tactical gaming system.

The printing on the new Finnish counters came out quite nicely, and the light grey color chosen works well in the system, as long as you don’t have them fighting the Italians, who share the same counter palette. The counter material also rounded quite nicely, as I brought my handy-dandy deluxe counter corner rounder with me to the tournament for the express purpose of clipping the Finns. Quite a few people stopped by and asked about the labor-saving wonder device, which gently rounds off the otherwise nubby edges to produce an aesthetically pleasing and easily manipulable counter. I dare say I converted at least a few people to the church of Oregon Laminations (just in case there’s a rounder referral rewards program I don’t know about…).

Fear the Finns!

I had the privilege of taking the fresh Finns out for a spin against regular gaming chum and all-around good guy Mike Vogt, who had the Soviets on defense in 172 “The Last Attack,” a scenario chosen almost entirely because one of the Finnish leaders enters the game on a bicycle. He didn’t last long, but the match went almost to the end. Mike set up a canny defense (and employed some absurd fire discipline) and was able to slow my progress enough to hold one of the required victory conditions for a well-deserved win. We had a series of interminable melees that I kept pouring units into, only to see them ground up. Probably not the best strategy, but a greater principle was at stake. I was not going to lose those melees. I did, of course, but that’s beside the point. A pleasure as always playing against Mike.

Long-time opponent Doug Bush provided the other major gaming event of the tournament for me, our traditional all-day non-ASL match. Following on last year’s playing of SPI’s BAOR, we switched to a tighter scale with SPI’s Berlin ’85, covering a hypothetical attempt by the Warsaw Pact to overrun the NATO West Berlin garrison at the start of WW III. The map, a Simonsen classic, took some getting used to, with its welter of colors and symbols depicting the various types of city terrain and transportation routes, but after a point, they became comprehensible and showed well under the counters. I have a real fondness for the SPI counters from this era, with their crisp lettering and glorious colors.

Berlin 85

The combat system reflects the game’s early ’80s pedigree, with locking Zones of Control, mandatory attacks, and a heavy reliance on retreat results. I still managed to lose quite a few Soviet mechanized battalions to ill-advised attacks against West Berlin police units holed up in heavy urban terrain, and while my East Germans managed a sweeping thrust from Potsdam into the American Sector that threatened to unhinge the NATO defense, Doug managed to hold off my attacks long enough to edge out a Marginal Victory once NATO succumbed to a surrender roll. Both Doug and I agreed that the game deserves another playing, as the system contains a few subtleties that, once grasped, allow for a different tactical approach. A real gem against a great opponent, and a game I’m happy to have added to the played list.

As ever, I managed to get in some side gaming as well, more this year than ever before. Group favorite Pax Porfiriana made the table three times (and, it must be said, I somehow won all three, leading to a prohibition against my playing it anymore). Mike introduced everyone to Panamax, a game about shipping through the Panama Canal. That game, a cross between worker placement style action choices and 18XX financial manipulation, hit the table to rave reviews and got played a good three times. A Study in Emerald came out on Friday night, with the Restorationists solidly thumping the Loyalists, who made their move about a turn too late. I had the honor in that one of putting a stake through the heart of Vampire Sherlock Holmes.

And, of course, the annual playing of Battlestar Galactica on Saturday night ended with, as always, a Cylon victory. The humans were done in by the cagey play of John Slotwinski, who held the Admiral card and concealed his robotic nature long enough to jump the human fleet into the middle of nowhere for the win. We used the Pegasus expansion, adding another Battlestar and Cylon Leaders to the game. The new rules didn’t add much complexity and worked well with six players, but with our standard five player games, I’d opt to use the base rules alone.

My thanks to the team at Multi-Man Publishing for another fine Winter Offensive, and to all my opponents for three days of amazing, and exhausting, gaming.