ASL vs. SL:

by Robert Delwood 

[Back to the Squad Leader page]


Squad Leader is Avalon Hill's venerable World War II squad level game. It almost single handedly introduced a generation of players to wargaming. Released in 1977, players from middle school through college flocked to the game in record numbers. With over 200,000 copies, it became the industry's largest selling title ever. Some players made the move from earlier games such as Panzer Blitz and Panzer Leader, others through the individual tank combat of such as Tobruk, or some just jumped right into it. Its popularity created a third-party market, a rarity for a board game at that time. When Avalon Hill couldn't produce Squad Leader materials quickly enough, amateur magazines (such as On All Fronts, Fire For Effect, and Back Blast) cropped up to the fill the void.

Squad Leader innovated, or at least popularized, many gaming endearing game mechanics. Programmed instructions introduced rules as they were needed for each scenario, a feature that made learning the game easier. A modular board system used geomorphic, or interlocking, maps and unit pieces that could be reused in an infinite number of ways. The game scale (squad level for platoon to even regiment level actions) lent itself well to recreating any number of historically accurate scenarios while remaining interesting to play. The key, however, was an interactive sequence of play. By departing from the tired sequential you-move-I-move format, the non-phasing player now became involved throughout the turn. Both player's units rally at the same time, the defender could fire at moving units, and the rout and melee phases require decisions from both players. In short, the timing of the game in 1977 was excellent.

With its success, evolution was inevitable. The players seemed to like the changes and the proof was that each module became sales leader. Finally, seven years after the original Squad Leader module came out, Avalon Hill released Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) in 1984. But then a curious thing happened: nothing. Players weren't moving to ASL but they also stopped playing Squad Leader. What happened?

What happened?

For starters, events like SPI going under and the wargame market crashing didn't help. However, the players may have resented the direction Squad Leader was heading. Squad Leader suffered from its own success. The programmed instruction format that was so well-received, had become fragmented. Rules were referenced or changed in several places, or were introduced and then deleted. New players made the criticism that it was difficult to learn the rules. In addition, the nature of the game changed too. It originally focused on infantry tactics (reflected in the very name of Squad Leader) but expanded to include other aspects including tanks, off-board artillery, and even aircraft. The progression can best be seen through the armored fighting vehicles (AFV). AFVs in the original Squad Leader were representations of an entire classes. The Germans had just five types of AFVs: two tanks, two tank destroyers, and a self-propelled artillery vehicle. Cross of Iron, the second module, overhauled the AFV system and introduced seven pages of new rules (actually, replacements for the existing ones) and the Germans alone got over 40 AFVs. The next two modules went to refine this even further. Even to date, it seems they are still discovering and cataloguing British armored cars.

The problem was that the game system lent itself exceedingly well to its new scope. More than being just Squad Leader II, ASL incorporated many of the lessons learned and comprehensively included all the fragmented components and rules. This clarification meant that the programmed instruction format had to be abandoned for a conventional, decimalized format. ASL also presented a detailed historical foundation that is arguably the best database in the game market. It wasn't that Avalon Hill was trying to be different just to sell new modules, the game was better. The latter may have been overlooked since one fact was clear: ASL represented a new round of cash investments. You had to purchase an expensive rulebook and most components.

However, the most cited reason was that ASL had become too complex. Stated more accurately, it had the perception of being too complex. ASL is no more complex that its immediate predecessor, GI: Anvil of Victory. Seriously. It was obvious that ASL followed the GI model. There was a growing number and diversity of topics and each topic was covered in more detail, which is the definition of complexity. The ASL rulebook did grow some. Through GI there were 133 pages of rules; ASL, 150.

The perception is further supported by an exaggeration of the total size of the rulebook. In addition to the rules, supplementary features include chapter dividers, charts, and a detailed listing of all the weapons, from the smallest of mortars to the tank behemoths. These listings alone attach another 100 pages. Add two more chapters of esoteric features such as the Japanese, Pacific theater of operations, and naval invasions and you do get a thick rules book indeed. It's made thicker still since most ASL players have the loose leaf pages in a plastic protective binder.

Even the most experienced can be overwhelmed. Game designer Greg Costikyan in his famous article A Farewell to Hexes: SPI Died For Your Sins, criticizes ASL's complexity, citing "such minutiae as the Kindling Availability Table (sic) and the Sewer Emergence Chart." However, those tables were not new to ASL but copied almost verbatim from Cross of Iron, and the original Squad Leader respectively. For that matter, the fundamental aspects of ASL, such as the use of Defensive First Fire (DFF, or attacking moving units as they enter new hexes), and rate of fire (ROF) were also introduced in the original Squad Leader rule.


The perceived complexity is difficult to overcome but it should not prevent gamers from looking at ASL, or trying it again. The trick is that not all of them are needed for play. This is no different than with programmed instructions. For example, if you weren't playing with demolition charges, you didn't use those rules.

To this end, in 2003 Multi-man Publishing (MMP), who holds the licensing rights to ASL, came out with the ASL Starter Kit #1. This $24 introductory module contains all the components (such as two maps, units, and game counters) to play ASL. The rulebook is 12 pages; of which only about nine are actual rules. They did an excellent job of condensing the essence of the game. Gone in this infantry-only game are esoteric features such as heat of battle, snipers, and throwing demolition charges (instead they can only be placed) but kept the spirit with defensive fire, the deadliness of machine guns, rout, and melee. Squad Leader players will be instantly familiar with the sequence of play and almost as quickly familiar with the rules. This is not just an ASL-like game. This is ASL. And the market agrees. The game was critically acclaimed, having been named as a finalist in the 2004 International Gamers Awards. It was also MMP's best selling title last year.

More than 20 years after ASL first invited Squad Leader gamers to play, the invitation is has been renewed.