Monday, 25 March 2019

5th Edition Retro - Simplified tactical WWII gaming

Retro is written by Gary Graber and produced by his company, Minden Games. The latest Edition (5th edition published 2016) is available on Amazon.

In essence, the system is a variant, working best with the ASL boardgame, but adaptable with some conversion work, to other WWII tactical boardgames. The roots of the game come from a time when Gary and a co-worker wanted to play a Squad Leader type of game at work, but they didn’t really get much face-to-face opportunity, so Gary set about producing something that would allow one player to take a turn of the Squad Leader boardgame on their own and leave the board set up in the staff room. At some point the other player could then take their turn, when next in the staff room and so on.

To do this, he created a new sequence of play, significantly streamlined play and brought in some clever mechanics that aided non-face to face play. The consequential reduction in complexity of the original game, drew a fan base looking for an easier way to play their tactical games.

I bought 2nd Edition in 2001 and did a ton of games with it, including adapting it to fit Critical Hit’s 'Combat' system (later becoming ATS) and Panzer Grenadier from Avalanche Press (a platoon based game), but mainly went on to use it with ASL.

A lot has changed on the tactical game scene since 2001. Not least MMP, the owners of ASL have introduced a series of starter kits that make access into the ASL a lot easier, plus these days there is a greater range of choice of newer systems for the tactical gamer and a goodly proportion has been deliberately designed around lower complexity and accessibility.

Today, this makes Retro sit in a different place to my mind than it did all those years ago, but my affection for the rules and an admiration of their clever application of process and the hours of gaming pleasure they have given me remain, so I have replaced my 4th edition with the 5th edition and thought that this was a good time to write a ‘re-visiting’ article on the rules, of what made them different and of using them today.

Please Use the ‘Read More’ tab for the rest of this post.

Although the ancestry of the rules are set in the Advanced Squad Leader world, it is important to understand from the outset that Retro is NOT a sort of ASL light. It is quite a different method of playing, you will be not be playing ASL, but you will be playing an ASL style game, which of course is true of several tactical systems that are widely available today, with their form clearly substantially influenced by the original John Hill design (I was introduced to the 1977 4th Edition), that we have come to refer to as ‘basic’ Squad Leader. Over 40 years later, SL / ASL is still the game system that seems to benchmark other tactical designs and indeed some designs can owe their success to simply being ‘easier’ than ASL and in that regard ASL has been a benchmark for decades to reviewers and buyers alike.

The second thing to understand is that Retro works WITH the host game. It is a variant and is not totally stand alone. So for example, it will say something like, ‘Regular Rally rules apply’ i.e. retro is expecting that you will know how the host game deals with rally. So a typical game of Retro will see you managing the game mostly from the Retro rulebook, using the components of the host game, but expecting the gamer also to have the rules of the host game on hand for some reference and with some knowledge of the host system. This is reinforced with some features like Line of Sight rules and references being totally absent from Retro, because it is expected that the basics at least of the host system, will be understood and used. Note this is more a flirtation with the fundamentals of the host main rules, rather than a wide working knowledge of all the host rules and exceptions, but it is something that the player wanting to get into Retro needs to understand.

The intricacies of the relationship between Retro and host could lead to a very long article, so to remain concise, let’s just put six things out right now that I think are keynote aspects of the Retro system.

Opportunity Fire - There isn’t any! The Hesitation sub-system bakes the effect into the Movement Phase (see below).

Hesitation - In the movement Phase, each moving unit when first entering into open terrain that is within normal range of an enemy squad / MG must take a Hestitation Test to see whether it will be forced to stop moving (Hesitate). For infantry, the test is modified by the presence of enemy squads / MG’s, for Vehicles, the test is based upon the gun / armour value differentials between a unit wanting to move and a gun armed unit that can see it. If the unit passes the test, it can then move normally for the rest of that phase without testing again or without regard for the presence of the enemy. It must stop if it moves adjacent to an enemy.

Yep, you can read the paragraph again to make sure you read right! It feels strange at first to pass a Hesitation Test and then move freely in front of enemy guns, but it works and is an inspired mechanic that turns traditional tactical gaming on it’s head. This is in part dealing with the prospect of enemy fire / presence potentially pinning the unit in place. A unit that takes and fails the test, even if they have not actually moved yet, will count as having moved that phase, so importantly will not be able to fire in the Fire Phase.

Defensive Fire - The defender can fire on enemy units, but only those that are within 3 Hexes only. Yep, read that one again as well, it is right just as much as it is surprising. The Defensive Fire and Hestitation mechanisms are working together to give a very different game. Gary used these mechanisms, cleverly, to allow himself and his co-worker to play the movement phase without the other player needing to be present to call opportunity fire. Yes, it does feel strange not to be able to defensively fire that HMG that you have so care fully placed with wide views and open sights at anything further away than 3 hexes, but the HMG has also already been influencing the enemy Hesitation tests in the earlier movement phase. To become immersed in Retro, one needs to get used to discarding some things that decades of tactical gaming has put into our minds as ‘right’.

Weak Combat Result Table - The table initially looks like the standard Squad Leader type Combat Result Table, but it is weaker in terms of giving an effective result, but once gained, results can be more devastating, effecting everything in the hex, so a KIA means it’s all gone! Also the numbers that usually generate morale test modifiers, instead here instructs all target units with a morale value of that figure or lower, to simply and automatically break without any further morale test. The weaker fire table makes it difficult to cause casualties to units defending buildings. In town / city fights, the +3 for stone buildings can be tough for the weaker Combat Result Table to deal with, the result of this can be that the players who are up against the clock, will move out and manoeuvre to assault instead of laying down fire first and sometimes that brings a rather unsatisfactory ‘hope for the best’ style to play.

Simple and devastating Rout - There is no Rout Phase, rather units will rout at the point of taking fire if they are broken and they get just one chance to rout to cover, which they do at the moment of breaking (i.e. during the enemy Fire Phase). If they can’t make it, they just stop where they run out of movement points and stay there until rallied, they will not rout move again! If they do any of this in an enemy LOS while in the open, they are simply removed from play. This in part makes up for the weaker fire table, units that break, can be in big trouble.

The Sequence of Play is different - Movement Phase occurs before the Fire Phase and both occur before the Defensive Fire Phase (remember there isn't any opportunity fire), so we are not laying down fire to make the follow on movement easier, instead we are often manoeuvring to get into (1) better fire positions, understanding that a unit that moved cannot fire in the same turn or (2) moving to directly get into melee positions, which if they survive Defensive Fire, they will be able to prosecute in the Close Combat Phase.

So just taking the above key points, it becomes obvious that one is not playing ASL, the game parts can be used and terms such as ‘Experience Level Ratings’ are used, so it has an association with ASL, but you are playing Retro, not ASL.

Changes to 5th Edition.
Broadly, the text has been smoothed out, to reduce ambiguity. Where there is smoothing, then all the core intentions of the rules remain unchanged. For example, it is made specifically clear that the Rally Phase is a single player Phase, before (not in V3), it was possible to think it may have been a joint phase.

A few more scenarios have been added, as have a few more OPTIONAL rules. I suppose the most significant change contained within the optional rules is that a unit that gets enough modifiers can no longer automatically pass a Hesitation Test.

In essence, if you have 4th Edition, it will still work for you and there is no reason to 'must' have the new edition, but I think fans will want to go to 5th edition.

I know I keep saying ASL, but that is simply because I have ASL and the terminology in Retro is ASL friendly, but it is the case that you can use retro with other systems, but typically not straight out of the book. One needs to do some conversions to get there. This can feel strange for games  that use more inter-active impulse driven game systems, such as Lock ‘n Load or Old School Tactical, in which Retro can seem even more of a shock as it forces players that know those systems and expect impulse type play, to instead flip to a more structured IGO-UGO game.

Note though, that to use Retro with systems outside of the ASL family, one has to tinker with the system so that relationships between firepower, cover and armour are both preserved and converted over to the world of Retro, so you have to like or at least be confident in doing that and need to have a grasp of how to manage gun / weapon / terrain / armour values to keep the relationships similar to those used in ASL.

So taking Old School Tactical (OST) for example, like ASL, it uses a differential system between gun and armour values, so conversion is fairly straight forward. The squads have a basic firepower of 4 and a range of 6, so again, this gives a ready conversion to Retro use. But the impulse system and the ability to repeatedly activate units etc will go and is replaced by Retro turn and game structure and as a consequence the game will feel significantly different and what makes OST tick, will essentially be gone.

This causes some problems for things like ‘Broken’ status, because OST handles broken units in a different way to ASL. For a start, it does not have a rout system and also, units can rally independently of a leader and attempt to rally repeatedly through play by spending points. So a player trying to apply Retro to OST must decide how they want the relationship between Retro and the OST rules to manage those situations. So yes, to use Retro with a non-ASL system requires some work, it can be done, though of course when looking at OST, which is a pretty low complexity game anyway, one may ask the question why they would want to use Retro with it anyway. So the question of retro use moves away from one of complexity issues and perhaps gets used simply because one prefers the way Retro plays and want to use it across a number of systems that they own.

One of the things that Retro does have is a very good ‘Do Your Own’ scenario generator and these produce very good games that are well suited to the retro flow. Not all of the commercial scenarios, particularly the smaller ones, will play as well with Retro as they do with the host system alone and certainly tested game balance of official scenarios will be put under stress, so the DYO throw down games can be very satisfactory.

How much of the host system you allow to come through is up to the individual player. So will you allow multi level buildings or class all buildings as single level, will you use hindrance rules? There will be some things you never need such as Fire Lanes or Residual Fire, because the re-structured sequence of play makes them redundant, there are some things you can leave out of the rules such as spray fire and by-pass movement (and Retro encourages them to be left out in its quest for simplicity) and there are things that you can leave out because you just generally find the rule to be more trouble than it’s worth - so Retro becomes your tailor made game.

There is also scope for creativity. For example Retro does not use vehicle turrets, basically all guns fire within their front arc. But you could easily absorb a turret rule into your Retro by saying something like .... a turreted vehicle can fire in any direction, but if the target is outside the vehicles front arc, then there is a +2 column shift on the Armor Combat Table. Such a simple single sentence reflects the advantages of turrets, without the typical ‘baggage’ that turret rules can bring in relation to hit locations on the vehicle and different armour perspectives for turret and hull and then all the special cases that can apply to turret use. You could even use a turret counter, so that the penalty is not paid a second time if firing through the same position. You could even ‘complicate’ this further by saying that any subsequent shot from a turret that has already turned and fires again through the same aspect, does not pay the penalty.

This basic robustness of retro to bolt on bits of host system rules or house rules, while keeping the game stable is probably its greatest asset and once any basic conversion work has been done, allows gamers to move across different tactical systems, while staying with the Retro rule book and house rules.

This in turn can mean of course that for every 10 Retro players, there are likely 10 modified house ruled styles of play, with everyone finding their own level of suitability and there can be entire sections of the host rules that you can choose to ignore forever if that makes play smoother for you.

The main issue that I have with Retro is that when using commercial scenarios, the CRT is too weak to effectively deal with troops in buildings. You are looking for that ‘lucky’ lower dice roll, otherwise a lot of time can be spent of ineffective fire. This can encourage the player to abandon fire and instead manoeuvre to get into close combat situations for direct and often decisive action and this gaming style of assaulting a position without preparing the way with fire can give a sense of not caring by striking out and taking a chance and the consequences are reflected in a high casualty pile, despite that low powered CRT. Close Combat is pretty brutal.

I have been planning on using Retro 5th Edition to play through a large scenario of the recently released Red Factories, just to see if it works well enough to take on a bigger campaign scenario and so this issue will be relevant as the map is 'building rich' and something I will will give some close attention to. Years ago a fellow gamer (Hello Armando) did Red Barricades with Retro and felt that there was too much cover to make the Hesitation rule work properly, so he changed the status of the debris hexes to be included as a terrain type that causes Hesitation tests and he thought that worked quite well, so that will be a starting point for my tinkering.

For those wanting to explore the rules further, I opened a ‘Retro’ page at Consimworld in 2001, a link to the first post is included below in the Resource Section. 600 posts followed. Also, a few years ago, I did a side-by-side comparison of 5 tactical games, Retro, being one of them. A link to that blog post is likewise available in the Resource section below, it is fairly useful because it is benchmarked against the same scenario being used with ASL.

It has to be remembered that when Retro came out, it did so against a background of ASL absolutely dominating the tactical scene and plenty of the ‘easier’ systems we have today did not exist then, certainly the ASL starter kits (to ease the path of ASL learning) were still a few years off and so Retro found favour with gamers who wanted a tactical game without complexity.

But it would be short changing Gary Graber’s work if it was seen purely as an ‘easy game’, it was, in its own right a revolutionary way of approaching a tactical game, the Hestitation rule is inspired, but so simple and his management of the internal relationship between his sub-systems and his sequence of play have been subtlety crafted.

For anyone widely interested in tactical systems, Retro it is a worthwhile buy just to discover and explore these rules for their own sake and even to see whether that Hesitation rule can find a place in any of your games. For anyone who has ASL on their shelves and is unlikely to play it under the ASL rules, then Retro is certainly worth looking at, just to bring some life to ‘never to be used’ games. I would like to see whether I could apply it to GMT's Panzer, but that will have to wait for now.

While Retro works out of the box with ASL, various amounts of tinkering with reworking of attack / defence values, will get Retro working with a range of other tactical systems, but you have to be something of a rules tinkerer to go down that road.

Today there are ASL starter kits and there are new tactical systems that are intentionally friendly to the new player, especially those systems that have their tank rules closely aligned to share some of the infantry processes, so that learning with infantry scenarios and then moving across to tank based scenarios is not off-putting. In that gaming environment, Retro is just one more tool in what has become a rich tapestry of available tactical product. There really is something for everyone.

The gunfire had became sporadic as Patterson’s Sherman slowly broke from cover and trundled across the farm track into the paddock beyond. Passing a disused and dilapidated milking parlour, the tank suddenly shuddered to an abrupt, body jerking halt, the driver yelling “Bloody Hell - Panthers ahead”!

That is what hesitation looks like :-)

Resource Section
A comparison of Retro to other systems, including ASL. LINK

The 2001 post at Consimworld that has spawned over 650 conversations. LINK


  1. Hi Norm,

    Great analysis of this excellent rules version. I'll now be carrying this around with me on my commute! Thanks for reminding me!



    1. Hi Jay, a recent re-familiarisation with Retro has been a pleasure for me, especially in remembering to appreciate such a clever design, I know that you will feel the same.

  2. Norm, this is the first I have heard of Retro. The Hesitation process sounds brilliant to me and represents a good example of the design for effect School of Thought. The active player is exposed to fire throughout his movement and the player is taking a snapshot in time to determine if this incoming fire is disruptive enough to keep his unit from carrying out its movement. Assuming the enemy units are doing their job, is this incoming fire enough to suppress the active player from continuing? Pass this test and incoming fire has been ineffective in stopping the movement. Fail and enemy fire has suppressed the moving unit and halted his advance.

    I have seen at least one other miniatures' rules that had a similar mechanism. Rather than defensive fire, the attacker tested to see what the effect of any potential incoming fire might have on his unit. I forget the rules but it turned the Turn Sequence on its head and opened my mind to alternative processes and approaches. This does the same.

    Have you used something to Hesitation before?

  3. Hi Jonathan, I wonder whether the commercial figure rules you are thinking of are Crossfire? I know in that you keep moving until an enemy can stop you.

    The system / hesitation rule fascinates me as a mechanic, especially as it just seems to be counter-intuitive to how we have come to expect tactical games to work, likely due to our Squad Leader heritage. I think some gamers will simply not be able to surrender to the notion of moving in front of enemy guns without taking fire or having to take further Hesitation Test that turn.

    I suppose in some respects it is like the Combat Commander / Great War Commander boardgame series in which you can only fire at an enemy if you hold a Fire card in your hand, which can also lead to units moving unmolested in front of enemy guns, not everyone likes that loss of unit management.

    When the rules were published as 2nd Edition in 2001, I was big advocate of them on my old website (no blog in those days) and used them extensively with various systems to various effects. Interestingly, if you can get into your stride and adapt them to several systems, you end up with a fairly consistent playing system (Retro) over those systems and even a generic 'host' set of rules can start to form i.e. you might use the Line of Sight rules from one system and apply them to all game systems and playing often means that essentially a fully filled out Retro becomes what you are always playing.

  4. Great post. Over the years, I have dabbled with Retro but never really got into it. Maybe I need to try again.

  5. Thanks Ellis, we have been exposed to several new systems since 2001, but Retro at the very least still has to be thought of as clever and is well worth a familiarisation. It may well then go back on the shelf for the reasons that it did so 'last time', but the pleasure from a re-visit is tangible.

  6. While I don't play Retro this was still a really enjoyable post. The effort you put into your posts makes them most readable.

    1. Thanks Peter, it just so happens to be my 200th post, so thank you for the thumbs up.

  7. Very nice write up of a game system. I wasn’t aware of these rules. This will be a valuable resource for anyone wanting to know more. 😀

  8. Thanks Stu, re-visiting was enjoyable and I think worth writing about.

  9. Entertaining write up,your obvious enthusiasm kept me interested in spite of it not being anything I'm likely to use!
    Best Iain

  10. Thanks Iain, even though it is not your thing, your visit and comment is always appreciated. :-)

  11. Hi Norm,

    I was a big Squad Leader fan and played it a lot back in the 80's with my wargaming buddy. I tried to get into ASL and purchased their rules and several modules but never really enjoyed it, too complex. However then ASLSK's came long and reinvigorated my interest and along with Retro I have enjoyed playing/re-playing any scenario solo, especially those involving the Canadians (I do have all the maps MMP published).

    Retro is a great variant and with ASLSK's it has brought me back into the world of SL/ASL and made the games simpler and more enjoyable for me.

    Thanks for the great write-up as usual which I enjoyed reading.


    PS Did you ever hear about Avalon Hill's microcomputer war game called "Close Assault", published in 1982. It came with a Squad Leader style board and counters that are easily recognizable in the Squad Leader world. It was infantry combat only (both East & West fronts) and the computer resolved all combat. It has John Hill's fingerprints all over it I believe and it must have been worked on when he was doing Squad Leader (or shortly thereafter).

  12. Hi Dave, for those that came through the Basic Squad Leader ranks all those years ago, I think there is an affection and appreciation of exactly what that game did, that has probably not been realised since by any other game title.

    It is interesting to note that when Retro came out, the ASL Starter Kits were still a few years away.

    I can't recall Close Assault, my loss I think, as I was a bit of an 8 Bit computer addict at that time.

  13. Holy cow man, what a write up. Impressive.

    I struggled with Retro because I was having to make and test too many rules. I would rather play out of the “box” when it comes to my board games.

    That said, there are some ASL packs I would like to play with simpler systems. I’m thinking Pegasus Bridge and Flames in Hatten.

  14. Thanks Todd, it was a major writing effort because it took a big re-write just a couple of days before Christmas because it was a jumbled mess. Really, there should be a second part that covers another 4 or 5 mainstream systems, I have always intended to do this, but I need some fortitude for that :-).

    Hatten looks to be a lovely game, certainly a nice and interesting map to game over and of course, like all things ASL, it will go out of print.

  15. Hi Norm,

    Congratulations on your 200th post! I started tactical gaming in the early '80s with Squad Leader and Cross Of Iron, but the rules overhead wore me down as I worked through Crescendo Of Doom. GI: Anvil Of Victory just sat on a shelf untouched! Retro brought me back to playing Squad Leader again. I've also used it to adapt En Pointe Toujours. I'm currently reading the rules for Mike Denson's Last Hundred Yards which also doesn't have an opportunity fire mechanic. I wonder if Gary's hesitation rule will fit with this game.


  16. Hi Paul, it seems such a common theme that many of us played with great excitement up to Cross of Iron and then hit a wall. It's such a shame that the system just pushed on instead of consolidating.

    Re Last Hundred Yards, it is interesting to see that some modern titles are increasingly breaking away from 'the way' that things have been done for decades under the influence of SL / ASL. Last time I look at the game proposal, I was not keen on the maps (elevations mainly) ..... but new and shinny! :-)

  17. Both this article and the comparison article prompted me to get Retro (5th ed.). My hope is to be able to use it help bring some reluctant players to squad level tactical war gaming, and also get more use of my ASL(SK) kit.

    Failing that I’m also acquiring CoH and BoB (and even games like Memoir ‘44 and Undaunted: Normandy) in hope of being able cover the “sweet spots” to lure in potential opponents.

    I do have a question wrt Retro’s CRT: Do you believe it is worthwhile to alter in some way the CRT to overcome what you consider to be its short-comings? perhaps with DR modifiers?

    I haven’t actually received the Retro book yet, so I am unsure about what to expect. Your reporting of the CRT encouraging CC seems unappealing potentially.

    Cheers and thanks for the great articles,

  18. Hi Edwin, thanks for visiting. I think Retro is a wonderfully crafted system and I tend not to be a tinkerer of systems as small changes can impact other parts of the rules and I think this is particularly true of these rules as everything seems to matter, so I didn't alter the CRT.

    I actually sold off all my ASL(SK) stuff at the start of the year - though I suppose amusingly, was looking yesterday at the prospect of buying back in to some modules.

    If you have a go at Retro with an ASL scenario and don't like it, I would recommend using one of the scenarios from the Retro booklet before making a final decision, as they work quite well.

    I have a high respect of the Retro design and when first envisaged, it was pre starter kit and when ASL pretty much dominated the scene and getting something with reduced complexity was very important. These days, there are more lower complexity systems about, though Retro remains a relevant product for those who already have an unused ASL(SK) on their shelves, if it gets its onto the table then it is worth it and I know some have used it to get the bigger historical modules to the table, so they play in a more reasonable time.

    Hope it works out for you.



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