A common bit of advice I hear from the ASL crowd is, “Don’t waste your time and money on basic Squad Leader.” I find this advice troubling for several reasons.
Which Squad Leader?
First, it’s hard to know which game or games are even meant by this advice. Like ASL, Squad Leader was a game system: Squad Leader, Cross of Iron, Crescendo of Doom, and G.I.: Anvil of Victory. In the final analysis, the Squad Leader system rightfully earned its reputation for poor organization. ASL players often claim that one has to “unlearn” SL in order to play ASL. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that Squad Leader consists of four truly separate games. In other words, this criticism simply isn’t true of Squad Leader itself, and probably isn’t true of Cross of Iron or even Crescendo of Doom. Prior to G.I.: Anvil of Victory, the expansions added rules, rather than replacing them.
How Complicated is Squad Leader in Comparison to ASL?
Second, gamers today have forgotten what an incredibly elegant game the original Squad Leader truly was. Out of all of the SL/ASL products released, the original game from 1977 ranks as the best overall game, but the worst simulation, in my opinion. Squad Leader originally focused on the “design for effect” philosophy. ASL shares many of the basic concepts of its parent; however, ASL dedicates considerably more detail towards “realism.”
Whether or not a game is “realistic” is somewhat dependent on our preconceptions of what the rules ought to be. Examining one of the “unrealistic” features of the original Squad Leader is helpful. In my mind, the failure to model casualties is a glaring fault in the original game, as compared to later SL gamettes and ASL. However, it does make sense when we consider the “design for effect” philosophy, time scale, and the level of detail in the original game.
As Squad Leader developed, the designers began to sacrifice playability for more detail, assuming this equated to greater “realism.” This is the basic problem inherent to both systems (SL and ASL). Since ASL is still a “living” game, at some point moving on to ASL is more practical and desirable than continuing to invest time and money in the SL series. Since ownership of all four SL sets isn’t necessary, the real question to me is, “when does SL become complex enough to justify the move to ASL?”
Cross of Iron is generally considered the pinnacle of the SL system, or the perfect balance of game and simulation. Cross of Iron adds much more realistic rules for AFVs. Assuming the use of the latest rules for both Squad Leader and Cross of Iron (4th ed.), this roughly doubles the length and complexity of the rules. Still, Cross of Iron is a true expansion, and it resembles the original much more than what followed.
Crescendo of Doom marks the turning point of the SL system. The sheer number of new rules introduced meant that something like an ASLRB would eventually become necessary, if only for tournament play. Crescendo adds many important concepts found in ASL: half-squad casualties, cowering, pinning, inherent terrain, etc. At this point, the criticism that you will have to “unlearn” Squad Leader to play ASL may be somewhat valid.
G.I.: Anvil of Victory is best left to true “collectors” and people with no interest in ASL. G.I. was never as popular as its predecessors, and it was not printed in the same quantities. The fact that G.I. introduced wholesale changes to the rules gave many people, including myself, an excuse to avoid it. I mention this because I personally wouldn’t spend the $100 or more that a LNIB copy of G.I. commands. By that point, you are forced to learn an unwieldy “system” that seems more complex than full ASL rules, if only due to the lack of proper organization and presentation. Both sets of rules are similar in that they cover the same issues, but the actual text and effects can be very different between G.I. and ASL. G.I.’s modeling of U.S. infantry is infamous, and even worse, it makes virtually all of the previous infantry counters obsolete. Even if you are buying G.I. for use with ASL, that’s a lot of money to spend on five mapboards.
I don’t see how the original Squad Leader and Cross of Iron could possibly impede someone from learning ASL. This is fairly basic stuff, and I would compare Squad Leader to Panzer Leader as much as ASL. Despite the inherent similarities between Squad Leader and ASL, it’s sort of like saying playing Panzer Leader on a regular basis is an impediment to learning ASL. I don’t think you’d find many gamers willing to claim that. On the other hand, I would also admit that the time, trouble, and expense of acquiring, learning, and playing G.I. is better spent on a copy of the ASL 2nd ed. Rules.
Availability and Support Problems?
Third, there are some purely practical considerations. Everything else aside, the original SL series is out of print, and most copies of the games are at least twenty years old. Since Avalon Hill went out of business, neither Hasbro nor MMP have supported pre-ASL. Instead, MMP developed the ASLSK products to introduce players to ASL. All that said, used copies of Squad Leader, Cross of Iron, and Crescendo of Doom are fairly reasonable, due to the huge Avalon Hill print runs from the 1970s-1990s.
Squad Leader vs. ASLSK #1 as an Introduction to ASL
To my knowledge, there are five ways to start playing ASL: (1) Buy ASLSK # 1; (2) Buy ASLSK #2; (3) Buy ASLSK # 3; (4) Buy an ASLRB and a copy of Beyond Valor; or (5) Buy an ASLRB and a copy of Paratrooper. Prior to the starter kits, the SL series was the most common path to ASL, if only because ASL presumed ownership of maps 1-15. The only definite, concrete advantage to starting with SL is having mounted versions of maps 1-15.
In my mind, ASLSK #1 has a lot of advantages over the original Squad Leader as an introduction to ASL. Although you are miles away from full ASL Rules, the SK rules are like the Cliff Notes version of ASL. In contrast, the Squad Leader rules are more like an early outline. Similarly, the Starter Kits do not provide many counters, but at least they are actual ASL counters. There is some official product support for the ASLSK environment in Operations and on the MMP website. It appears that future official MMP full ASL scenarios may also use the SK maps.
Even with all this in mind, the original Squad Leader game still has some advantages to recommend it. For one thing, it is a complete game. The counter mix is adequate to simulate ETO scenarios on both fronts. There are counters and rules for squads, leaders, support weapons, artillery, and AFVs for all three nations: Germany, Russia, and the U.S. Squad Leader also includes the mounted versions of the four original maps (1-4), which are critical for playing many published ASL scenarios.
Most importantly, the pre-ASL system features “programmed instruction.” That is, the rules directly apply to the scenarios in published order. The player reads a section of the rules, and then plays the corresponding scenario that illustrates those rules. The player then reads the following rules section, plays the next scenario, etc. ASL has never used this approach.
Currently, there is more aftermarket support for the original Squad Leader game than there is MMP and aftermarket support for the Starter Kit environment. One might argue that this is not a fair comparison, since the original game has been around for over twenty-five years longer. However, its longevity speaks for itself, and it seems unlikely ASLSK support will catch up anytime soon.
I would argue that the claim: “Don’t waste your time and money on basic Squad Leader” is not very good advice. I have played Squad Leader for several years, and I recently finished my last Cross of Iron scenario. Last year, I finally bought Crescendo of Doom. In other words, about $50 worth of wargames kept me busy for over a decade. Squad Leader was the “first step” to learning ASL for an entire generation of gamers. It still has a lot to recommend it as a game in its own right, and even today, it is among the ten best-supported war games on the internet.
Virtual Squad Leader: VSQL is the Squad Leader version of VASL. http://www.wargameacademy.org/sqla/Vsql/
Squad Leader Academy: Pre-ASL news and databases, including scenarios, articles, etc.
Board Game Geek Entry: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1035