A look at scenario 1 - the one that started it all!
Of course at the time it was never thought of or marketed as 'Basic', but with the evolution of the system into Advanced Squad Leader (ASL), it now seems almost necessary to add the 'basic' monicker to the game title for distinction.
For those of us who have been around long enough to have played and played and played this game in our early years of wargaming, there is a shared understanding of just how important this title was in enthusing a generation of tactical gamers and designers.
Having recently managed to get a decent copy of this game in my hands again, I have been keen to get the game to the table and relive Scenario 1: The Guards Counterattack.
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My re-acquired SL is the 1977 4th Edition, the same version that ensured my life long passion of all things WWII tactical. At the time, the system was pretty complex compared to other wargames in general and so the designer (John Hill) organised the 12 scenarios into what was termed 'programmed learning'. That is, you read the first few pages of rules and played the first scenario and then consumed another section of rules before moving to scenario 2 etc.
So arguably, the first scenario, The Guards Counterattack may be the one of the most significant scenarios ever presented in a game, as players would either fall or become captivated at that first playing and for whatever reason, for some of us, that initial exposure was just magical.
Three modules would follow the base game, introducing fuller orders of battle and substantially increasing the complexity and causing conflicts with earlier parts of the rules as later sets expanded the system and players were left thumbing through up to four rule books during play. In 1985, the resulting mess was dealt with by a streamlining of the rules into Advanced Squad Leader, though this in itself produced a very large ruleset. A myriad of spin off modules covering a wide range of orders of battle and scenarios has since followed.
The diverse journey of this rule set continues with starter kit modules, that are intended to introduce gamers to the ASL system slowly, by introducing infantry first, followed by guns and then armour. There is already starter kit campaign game and a pacific game is scheduled as the next release.
While the first infantry kit is very accessible and highly recommended, those that worry about the complexity of ASL, start to see things get harder with subsequent starter modules and since ultimately the intention of the starter kits is to take the player to full ASL, this should not be surprising and if you want to get to full ASL, then the starter kits are a wonderful gateway.
However, for this gamer, nothing has ever surpassed the elegance / playability of that first basic Squad Leader game that started it all. I have always wished that the basic game would be reprinted, with perhaps a bit of tidying up and the British included, plus a few extra mapboards and scenarios, but the advent of the starter kits has no doubt put paid to such a thing ever happening.
Anyway, after all that, I recently came a cross a chance to get a part punched, good condition 4th Edition game, so pounced on it. I will be happy just to live within the confines of this game as I do the nostalgia thing and play through the scenarios in sequence - Remember Hill 621 and the Road To Wiltz. It will be nice to tread that path again.
So on the table today, we have set out Scenario 1 - The Guards Counterattack. This plays out on a half board, so we are looking at a space of just 15 hexes wide by 10 hexes deep. Amongst their attack force, the Soviets have sub-machine gun units, under the capable command of Colonel Barki, a 10 - 2 leader.
In defence, the Germans are relying on 1st line squads with plenty of extra light machine guns and a couple of tripod mounted heavier machine guns, to guard the avenues of approach and make the streets of Stalingrad a killing ground.
Our first bite of rule learning covers the very heart of the system, the Infantry Fire Table (an old friend), movement, morale, routing, leadership and cover. This is delivered in 6 pages of rules and on re-reading these it is striking just how much of the core system, despite substantial development, has survived through to todays ASL and is held in so few pages.
The victory conditions to the scenario is that all buildings occupied at the start of play by both sides count as victory buildings and that by the end of play, the Russians should control two more of these buildings than they started play with (i.e. They need to control 7 of these designated buildings). Anything else is a German victory.
Setting up the game.
I did a careful reading of the rules, to make sure that I did not include anything that I have picked up from later modules. It was all pretty straight forward and rather nice to get back to the raw system. The Germans set up first and the Russian is player 1. The troop types and numbers are allocated to various buildings, but the players are free to set up how they like within the buildings themselves.
Flow of play. The photograph above shows the German set up positions and the significant points in the game.
The German stack shown in the black circle is Stahler's platoon. He is a 9-2 leader with three squads and three extra light machine guns. That gives his unit a powerful 18 fire factors and his position covers many of the open spaces that the Russians must cross. During play, one of his attacks rolled 12, which caused all three LMG's to break down (probably out of ammo is the designers view, when so many break at the same time). They would never be fixed during the time frame of the game and one would become permanently broken when attempts were made to fix it.
Stahler also had the misfortune to break twice in the game, causing his men to have to take extra morale test and each time that caused one of his squads to be removed from play. What should have been a pivotal German position was soon negated.
The black arrow indicates that German units managed to remove all the 4-4-7 units from the map on their right, allowing them to advance and take that Russian building. This made the game harder for the Russians who needed a net gain of two buildings.
The red arrow on the left shows the advance of the very powerful Russian sub-machine gun company with 12 x 6-2-8's and the superb leadership of Colonel Barki with his 10-2 ratings. He was able to bulldoze ahead with his substantial firepower, take the building opposite and end the game also controlling Stahler's old position.
The red arrow in the centre reflects a lucky moment for the Russians when enough German units were broken, for them to move down into the central building block with a single squad and a medium machine gun. By the end of play, they had taken control of the building.
So three buildings gained and one lost, gave the Russians their net gain of two buildings that they needed to win the game.
This is a simple but superb scenario to hook gamers in. The tactical nuances caused by strong building and open streets, together with a system that uses a combination of firepower to suppress, followed by manoeuvre to close with the enemy or take ground, is very engaging. The two forces are quite different. The Germans have more leaders, more machine guns and their weapons are less likely to break down. They will be the ones that mostly benefit from the -2 modifier when shooting against units moving in the open as the Russians just have to cross those streets. For their part the Russians have those excellent well led and well motivated SMG troops (6-2-8's), but they are up against the clock, it is not enough just to use firepower alone. Manoeuvre to capture ground (buildings) is essential to winning the scenario.
Moments of note:
Above - The Stahler stack, with his high leadership value and three extra LMG's, looked imposing, but his early loss of all three support weapons was a blow to the defence.
Above - The Germans take the right hand building, thanks largely to the firepower of a HMG and MMG helping break all of the 4-4-7 troops there.
Above - The Germans abandon the building on their left after suffering heavy casualties from the Russian SMG teams.
Above - One of the Russian SMG teams (now in red) becomes berserk. It will be immune to all future morale checks, but must close to contact as soon as possible. As soon as it steps out into the street, Stahler's men fire on it in defensive fire and roll low enough to get a KIA result and the berserk unit is removed from play.
Conclusions: Well as a moment of self indulgence, the repurchase of the game has certainly been worth its money to me. It was really nice to go back to something that does what the system does well, but without the distraction of a lot of complexity and rule exceptions.
I have always liked the argument for design by abstraction that John Hill gave in his design notes and this is operating admirably in several places including the armour rules (presented later in the rules). The limited vehicle pool works very well, but I remember creating a Panther tank counter years ago and having a bit of trouble squeezing it in to fit with the other statistics of the game - no doubt the reason why the armour saw a total overall in the subsequent module (Cross of Iron).
The pleasure of returning to this game is not just a case of looking through rose tinted spectacles, for me, The Guards Counterattack retains its crown as a very special and enjoyable scenario in its own right, the fact that it laid the foundation for so much is just a bonus.
I have just peeked at the next rule section, which brings flamethrowers and smoke to the game and starts the process of being able to get a real nuanced tactical feel going on at different parts of the game board, giving that strongly narrative based game that the system does so well.
Time: After several playings of this particular scenario, I would average the time out to around two hours. The scenarios are of varying size and to the playing times will likewise vary, but they can all be described as 'single session' games.
Solitaire: It is a two player game that plays fine solitaire and is engaging on a minute by minute basis. I like the way that concealment counters simply reduce the effects fire by half (creating area fire), this is a good solitaire friendly mechanic for bringing a hint of concealment into the game without going down the path of hidden or dummy unit status.
Size: The game has a number of scenarios that range from a half mapper to all four boards being used (lengthways!), but in general, this game fits well into a typical kitchen table space.
Complexity: Well the box says it is a complicated game, no doubt right at the time of publication, but looking backwards, certainly against what followed in the system, the complexity seems less significant these days and of course, the programmed learning system, in which the game rules are introduced bite sized over 12 scenarios is as useful now as it ever was.
EDIT - For a face-to-face game tonight, because we are playing across a wide dining table, I have taken the map to the copy shop and had it enlarged. The half board has been enlarged to A3 on 160gm card - plenty of room to spread stacks around. Note the 3 squads and the leader in the single hexed building ( by the dice ) placed into 4 sub-stacks.
A blog article on ASL Starter Kit No 3. LINK
A blog article comparing various tactical systems including ASL. LINK