Thursday, 18 July 2019

ASL Starter Kit 4, Pacific Theater of Operations

This is the 4th Starter Kit core module for the Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) system published by Multi Man Publications (MMP).

The Starter Kit series is specifically designed to introduced gamers to the world of ASL. The aim is to take gamers through the various major aspects of the rules in a gentle way, with the ultimate goal of gearing the player up to be able to step across to the full ASL rulebook. Of course there are many gamers who are quite satisfied stay within the Starter Kit system.

Kit 1 gave us infantry, Kit 2, Guns, Kit 3, Tanks and now Kit 4 delivers the ‘Pacific Theater of Operations’ (PTO), which as well as giving us a new Order-of-Battle, introduces the concept of Concealment.

The rest of this post gives an overview of the module, highlighting some of the new features that give this module a different feel to what the Starter Series player will have experienced so far. A brief AAR will highlight some new features and hopefully encourages those with Starter Kit 1 to see how relatively easy take up the PTO rules.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.

The box provides the latest version of rules to date, integrating the rules from the previous modules together with the Pacific stuff and that document now stands at 32 pages of rules, plus 4 pages of support material. We get 2 Countersheets, which adds U.S. Marines and Imperial Japanese forces to the series counter mix, plus new markers for Caves, Banzai and Concealment.

There are three new mapboards, M,N and O, with O being particularly heavily forested and therefore useful for a host of future scenarios. The mapboards have the same terrain symbols to the European based maps, rather the rules convert the features to represent other terrain. So what ASLSK users will know as woods, will be classed as Jungle, Orchard symbols are Palm Trees and Brush is Bamboo and of course Grain will become classed as Kunai, making boards across the system universally functional and the adaption is a surprisingly easy thing for the mind to switch to.

There are eight Scenarios. Four of which are pure infantry scenarios, but each of those additionally has small mortars, so the player already familiar with the infantry rules need only learn the mortar rules (very easy). The other four scenarios have infantry, but also include the gun and vehicle pieces. Four of the scenarios use only part of a single board, one use a full board and the remaining 3 need two boards on the table, so this module as a whole is compact for the space strapped gamer.

As with each starter kit module to date, this is a stand alone package and so the first question may be asked as to whether someone new to the system could go straight for this without going to earlier modules. 

As a strict point of fact, the answer has to be yes, since it is a stand alone package, but I don’t think it is the best answer for most gamers new to the system. Module 1 is excellent in its objective of getting the gamer their first leg up into the system with 6 infantry based scenarios. I think having the basic system already under your belt makes an easier approach to Module 4, which has the Japanese using a modified method of applying Morale / Breaking / Leader rules. 

So I would suggest that if module 1 is in print and available, then that it is the best starter package and the one most likely to bring you further into the system, but if Pacific is your only interest, then go with it and just read just the infantry and PTO rules, ignoring guns and tanks and then just playing the infantry based scenarios first. In the resource Section below, I have included a link on my attempts in 2013 to get into the Starter Kit Series straight from the 3rd Module (Tanks), which might give some parallels. 

The two main widely applied changes to the feel of play are that in combat, rather than going Broken on an adverse Morale result, the Japanese full strength squads suffer step reduction instead by flipping over to a slightly reduced full squad. The next Broken result will drop them to a half squad, after which point, they can become Broken.

Secondly is the introduction of ‘Concealment’. In full ASL this applies to all nationalities and so one might assume that this is a new mechanic that can be retrospectively applied to all scenarios in the starter series to date ..... but it can’t or rather shouldn’t. Firstly, the module introduces concealment counters just for U.S. and Japanese forces, but more importantly, earlier scenarios have been playtested without the concealment rule in play and if ASL/SK can claim anything, it is that scenarios are very well tested and balanced, so the introduction of concealment retrospectively might likely unhinge those scenarios, especially in favour of the defender.

Concealment is a pretty simple concept and has been present in the system right back to the days of the original basic Squad Leader first core module. Essentially if a unit can claim to be concealed and there are a list of situations about having, gaining and losing Concealment status, then any Ordnance attacks against the unit suffers a +2 To Hit modifier and non ordnance IFT (think rifles and machine guns) fire is treated as area fire and so is halved. 

Units under Concealment cannot be examined and so other than Hidden Guns, this is the first application of a rule in the starter series that is not solitaire friendly and yet in truth, it actually works fine solitaire and is a much kinder mechanic for a solo point of view than ‘Hidden’ placement, which by the way, also has a greater presence in this module.

To date, we have had some rules for Hidden Guns, but module 4 is extending this potential out to roughly 10% of the Japanese Infantry / MG part of the Order-of-Battle. Again while not a solo friendly rule, it is the sort of thing that the solitaire player can work around with various degrees of success.

The Banzai rule brings another interesting dimension and is straight forward to learn and there is an interesting inter-relationship with Banzai and the new Hand-to-Hand fighting rule that very simply modifies the Close Combat Table. Indeed, the bulk of the new PTO rules only add some four pages of rules to the system and these are well exampled, but within the text are nuanced sentences that are easily over-looked or forgotten in the rush to set up that first game :-)

These include how Japanese leaders deal with failed Morale Checks and how failing may affect those stacked with them and how the -4 DM status is handled, just another reason why I feel that players new to the system would be best at least being familiar with Kit 1 (Infantry rules) in none PTO game situations and then the new bits are easier to assimilate against a background of having some play  experience.  

I know I mentioned Caves, something that has the potential for complexity, but here, it is easily managed. They appear in one scenario and are explained in one of the Special Rules at the foot of the scenario card, so like everything else with this module, the design team have worked hard and done really well to get this chunk of ASL into such a friendly and accessible format.

Taken together, the new PTO rules bring a change to the nature of play that can give Starter Kit players a ‘system refresh’ and a sense of something genuinely new to play.

Anyway, today we are putting Scenario 65 ‘Take it Back’ on the table just as an opportunity to highlight some of the rules and units. It is one of the Infantry only scenarios (plus mortars) and I am using this, so that those familiar with Kit 1 will get an idea of the ease of moving across to PTO infantry scenarios.

The playing area uses the middle section of the game board (bounded by the two red markers) and I have placed the 5 white CX markers to clearly show the reader the victory hexes that the U.S. player must capture, needing at least 4 of them to win. The Japanese forces start under concealment markers, as they are in concealment terrain and there are no enemy units on the map. The U.S. forces will attack on turn 1 by entering the board from the north (left hand side) and on turn 2, another force enters from the east (top of the board).

The Plan - This is a short scenario, with the Americans getting just 5 turns (the Japanese 4) to fight their way through jungle and reach the objectives. Accordingly, they plan to approach along the far edges of their deployment lines, where the jungle is thinnest, with the consequence that this will result in a ‘pincer’ approach. The Japanese player has set up a perimeter defence and also holds four of the objective hexes, their job will be to simply slow down the Americans and then do 'last stand' type tactics for the objective hexes.

Turn 1. Lt. Banta (9-1) leads a platoon (3 x 5-5-8) onto the board through the palms (orchard symbol) and into light jungle. Note, heavy jungle is any jungle hex that has jungle adjacent to all six sides, so light jungle typically tends to be the edges of jungle. The Japanese squad decides to First Fire, but this will cause it to lose Concealment status. The fire is effective and Banta and one squad break, another goes pinned, leaving only one in good order.

In the U.S. Advanced Fire Phase, that lone squad fires at the Japanese unit, causing the unit to take a Morale Test, which it fails. Normally this would cause a unit to break and if isolated from a leader, as this Japanese unit is, such a broken unit would be pretty much out of the game, for a while anyway. But here, under PTO rules, the Japanese unit does not break, instead it flips over to a its reduced side (3-4-7) and remains in good order. This trait makes it difficult to neutralise Japanese squads, the effect is that they take their knocks, but remain in place and in good order to fire, move or engage in Close Combat, so they are very flexible in defence and from the point of view of slowing down an enemy, trading these reductions for time is a frustrating business for the U.S. player.

Turn 2. The 2nd wave of American attack comes in from the top of the board. They arrive on the right, so can drive straight down the board and threaten those victory objectives, while at the same time, putting many of the Japanese perimeter forces out of position and which will need to move to prevent being by-passed. The Japanese squads tread a careful path to keep out of enemy line of sight, allowing them to keep their concealment counters, though forcing them to move through the most difficult terrain.

‘That’ Japanese squad at the bottom left is attacked again and again it fails morale, but rather than break, it drops to a half squad in good order, so again is proving to be a tough position to clear out (note if a half squad fails its morale - it does break).
Note Japanese units moving and
retaining Concealment by carefully
moving out of line of sight.

A U.S. leader led stack reaches the jungle edge (bottom left in above photo), ahead is Kunai (which uses the grain symbol and hinders fire in much the same way as Brush) and on the opposing jungle edge, 3 hexes away, a Japanese MMG (under the white CX marker used to mark objectives) under concealment sits and has open sights to the American stack. Now in Starter Kit 1, the temptation would be to First Fire the MMG on the moving American stack, the Japanese leader modifier negates the +1 light jungle defence value and the firer would also get the -1 for non-assault movement. Normally there is nothing to lose by firing, other than the possibility of breaking the MMG, but here, firing would lose the Concealment status of the Japanese stack. I take the decision not to fire and instead retain the benefit of Concealment, so that any fire against the MMG is halved as Area Fire, so increasing my chance of surviving to get good first fires against any further U.S. movement into the open. So again, something new (concealment) is changing player style or at least giving a wider range of tactical options to think about.

The U.S. stack fires at the MMG in their Advanced Fire Phase, with firepower halved and then halved again for the area fire. They roll very low and cause a Morale Check. The Japanese stack pass the Morale Test, but the fact that the American fire got a ‘result’ on the Infantry Fire Table, means the MMG stack loses its Concealment counter ...... so it may as well fire in its own subsequent Prep Fire Phase, which is does ....... and breaks down!

In an ongoing Melee, American forces hope for success, because Close Combat follows the usual rules for strict removal of anything successfully attacked, so Japanese forces can be removed directly from play, rather than going through the repeat reduction process that failed morale brings - however, they roll exactly their CC number, so the Japanese squad is reduced in the normal CC way and swapped out for a half squad, rather than being flipped.

Turn 3. On the right, Cpl. Boles might normally fire against the Concealed Japanese stack in M5, but there is a Japanese (-1) leader there and units present with a Japanese leader have their morale value increased by +1.

Having regard for that concealment, the increased morale of the unit and the -1 for leader led morale tests, Boles instead will send a squad out in an effort to draw Japanese fire, causing them at least to lose Concealment status. So again the PTO differences are causing a rethink of tactics (Concealment and the uplift the Japanese unit morale when with a leader).

Turn 4. Another incident of fire and failed morale leading to a Japanese unit flipping to reduction (3-4-7) rather than breaking and again that units stays in place, fully functioning to carry on thwarting U.S. intentions. 

The U.S. stack however retains its Rate of Fire on its MMG and fires again. The Japanese unit suffers a massive failed morale test that causes it to exceed its ELR value (this reduces unit quality), so the 1st line 3-4-7 is immediately exchanged for a second line 2-3- 7 reduced squad, which then drops to a second line 1-3-7 half squad for failing its morale ....... but it is still there, to annoy the American player!
U.S. units spread out and start to advance
through the Kunai. They can be seen, but the
Kunai is a Hindrance to fire.

Turn 5. The American side have managed to capture 4 out of their 5 objectives, largely due to the efforts of the turn 2 troops that entered at the top of the board and so can claim a win. The 4th hex captured (K2) is the furthest away (bottom right) from their starting lines and which was initially unoccupied and control of it came down to some last minute manoeuvring and surviving of Defensive Fire, so this scenario was a fairly tight affair, going down to the last moments in the game.

Conclusions. The game used most of the new rules, other than the Banzai rule, which at one point I considered for the sake of demonstration here, but in this scenario, the discipline of just sitting tight and frustrating U.S. advances seems the best strategy.

The introduction of Concealment and the friction caused by Japanese units reducing rather than breaking, brings quite a different feel to play and both players need to adopt new styles and tactics to best ‘manage’ how these things influence play. It is much harder for the American player to get Japanese squads out of position or to break them in preparation for close assault or to pass them, though the Americans do largely enjoy good quality units and firepower, which helps their cause. 

This is a really nice module regardless of whether one sees it as progression to full ASL or as an opportunity to expand and stay within the Starter Kit series.

From the progression to full ASL perspective, the leap is fairly small, with the players gaining an understanding of Concealment, Hidden units and the Human Wave (Banzai type rules). If progressing to full ASL, the current main ASL PTO module, Rising Sun is out of print, making this kit useful for anyone wanting a limited PTO order-of-battle, while waiting for the Rising Sun reprint, whenever that might be.

At the very least, the new rules and the PTO flavour will give the ASLSK'er a systems refresh and a genuine different playing experience on what they have played to date and it serves as a good example of how widely this system can be employed.

Finally, if sitting on the fence about this, then one motivation to pick it up now may be the experience that ASL stuff does go out of print and the timing of re-prints is never a certain thing. I am glad I bought my copy.

Playing Time - There is a good mix of scenarios, that give the typical spread of playing times that are already experienced in the system to date. We are talking single session games here. New players can expect to have the rulebook in their hands frequently, as their initial game or two will take a little longer to play through as the new rules are absorbed. The above scenario was my first play with PTO and that together with recording the game, I was done in a little over two hours.

Complexity - The starter kits by definition set out to ease the path of learning. Even so, there is a lot of information in the text and the number of exceptions can disrupt rule learning, but once one understands that the basic principles of play are actually quite straight forward and that some of the exceptions are in fact very obvious, but are laid out for completeness, things become more second nature. For initial games, the gamer will be making frequent reference to the rules, I don’t say this in a negative way, the system is what it is and those that play / delight in it, understand and indulge in that depth. In an odd way, it is the complexity of the detail that draws you in and actually leaves you caring about what is happening and that builds a narrative. Module 1 (Infantry) is the ideal gateway to this system and the best way to learn the basics in a focused way. That rulebook has exactly and only what you need to know for infantry action. If you already know these fundamentals, there is less reason not to go straight for Module 4 if that’s what you want to do. 

Size - We have one and two map scenarios and the two maps are always played side by side and not lengthways. It is nice to also put the scenario card down on table and to have the various counters and game markers needed also set around the board, so as a general statement, this is a game that can comfortable fit in a 2’ x 3’ space. You can go smaller if you rest the play aids and rules on a chair or some such.  

Solitaire - The ASL community is huge and there is often opportunity to have someone to help you learn the rules, but there are also many gamers playing their games solitaire and learning alone. The above scenario was played solo, just to make the point that it works fine to do so, though I did simply drop the Hidden special rule for two of the Japanese squads for ease. The newly introduced Concealment rule is fine for the solo player, with the Area Fire aspect of it being a friendly halfway house between Hidden and non-Hidden type rules and the sort of rule that solitaire players are used to managing. More restricting is the Hidden rule, in which an opponent would record off map the position of a unit only to surprise the other player at an opportune moment, but again, for a small loss in the excitement of surprise (which one could still get with a house rule mechanic), the solitaire player is used to managing such things. 

Resource Section.
My sister webspace COMMANDERS is more snippet based than here. LINK

A 2013 article on learning the infantry system by starting with Starter Kit 3 (Tanks) LINK

To help with some insight into this theatre of war, I just picked up Burma '44 by James Holland. It is on the high street today at £10, but in Works (UK high street retailer) they have it discounted to just £3, so well worth a punt at that price.


  1. Thank you for this review. I very recently acquired Starter Kit #1 and have been slowly digesting the rules; I don't think I've been this excited about a game since I first picked up a D&D book in 1983. Based on your review, I'll probably pick up the PTO Starter Kit next, as it's an area of interest. Actually, to your point about getting them when you see them in print, I should probably just buy the rest now before they disappear again!

  2. Thanks John, the system is rich and the learning curve is rewarded by being able to play the game / system so many times. I was a 1977 original basic Squad Leader 'discoverer' and have been forever touched by the cleverness of that John Hill design.

    1. Count me as a charter member of the 1977 SL Discovery Corps too!

  3. Thanks very much for that review and playthrough, informative and helpful.

  4. Thank you, it is a promising start to the rest of the module delivering good situations.

  5. Always enjoy reading your reviews and play-throughs. You are spot on about MMPs somewhat annoying tendency to let games slip quickly out of print. “Buy ‘em when you can” is good advice.

  6. Thanks Jonathan, the reprint thing is a strange one, especially for basics such as the starter kits, I always thought bigger print runs worked out cheaper, but there must be a cut off point v storage space and length of time that stock (read money) is tied up in a particular run when it could be turned into producing something else that is new and will shift copies immediately. As you say the lesson of get them while you can is well learned.

  7. As always an interesting review of a sound seeming rule set!
    Best Iain

  8. Thanks Iain, the system is pretty big, so the learning curve is rewarded by the potential of a lot of game play.

  9. I’ve always heard great things about ASL and this game looks cracking and a lot of fun. Nicely written overview of what sounds like an ever expanding system. I’ll have to try it one day. 😀

    I was a toddler in 1977. Lol.

  10. Thanks Stew, it is certainly a system that has stood the test of time. You young’uns with your smart phones, computers and your own teeth - crack me up :-)

  11. Great review Norm (as usual). Squad Leader and Panzerblitz were my two introductions to board gaming. I liked SL but my regular opponent soon got heavily into ASL and the complexity (or depth if you prefer) used to drive me nuts. Gaming sessions would last for hours - most of it taken up with rules clarification. I guess the starter kits are an admission that the system itself can be a little daunting in toto?

  12. Thanks, I think the starter series has been widely successful and in consequence now serves a dual purpose of not only teaching for full ASL, but is now a big enough series in its own right for some gamers to just stick with the series itself, as a sort of ASL light.

  13. There are two great Black Holes (though many smaller ones) in my wargaming experience. In board games one is the complete absence from my collection of 1200 games of any ASL even though I have Squad Leader and its gamettes. In miniatures the second is the absence at any scale of Napoleonic. This is odd in one sense because I have dozens and dozens of Napoleonic board games. I suspect that had I started 50 years ago in 6mm rather than 25/28mm I would have almost certainly built up some Napoleonic armies.

  14. Both those subjects can scare because of the size of the potential commitment in time and money and yet for many, they are the most fulfilling of subjects.



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