Have you ever played a scenario that had a rules discussion? Ever played one
that did not? Although we need those debates, what roles do they play and
how does Avalon Hill encourage them?
The Role of Critical Dialog
The Role of Critical Dialog in ASL
If Squad Leader (SL) was ever designed as a simple game, it lost that naiveté long ago. Perhaps starting with Cross of Iron and its revamping of the armor system; perhaps each book in turn made it more complex, if only just by obsolescing arbitrary sections of previous ones. Ironic that the very criticism of too many separate references in SL that forced Advanced Squad Leader (ASL), is happening again with the canonical approach of a non-exclusive Q/A. We need to look in no less than three places now for rules.
The voluminous nature of ASL might be disconcerting for those wargame hobbyists. Certainly it is true for ASL players themselves. We are becoming nostalgic for simpler rules. Suggestions like games without looking up rules or introducing chess clocks are gaining popularity. Yet, when pushed, they know it will never be possible and resign themselves to it. Observers need not look past the rules themselves to understand all the emotions: 100 pages of loose leaf rules updated erratically over the since 1992. Is a person to know all the rules? If it stultifies experienced players, imagine neophytes or curiously interested ones. We have created a game that requires mentors and teachers to learn. The older players among us remember the folly of the War in the East or Europa: games based on sheer size, for complex rules were unthinkable then. Some of us recall Campaign for North Africa and dismissed the rules at their 50 pages.
Our ASL rules are detailed indeed. To their credit, they are impressively thorough, covering minutia not always appreciated until that moment arises. Most of the rules can be combined in inexhaustible ways, some logical, other infelicitous. There is no way to catalogue the possible mistakes and we make no attempt. There is no requirement because the nature of the rules provides critical methods for problem resolution: by explaining the general case and setting up frameworks of which to work inside. Players need only to look up Demolition Charges, for instance, to learn procedurally how to use them. Effective in the learning process, they often exhaust the scope of the subject. It is when they do not that criticism arises. Early disputes were waged intramurally with players tacitly agreeing to the wages and stakes. Players rarely disagreed with ordnance fire during the Movement Phase, for example, but only the specific implementation is disputed. That was the common ground that allowed reconciliation. But that assumption, although perhaps still true, has long been complicated by irreconcilable camps.
Gone also are the two sides of the issue. The appearance of different parties make resolution difficult. The Realists arguing that aspects of ASL are not practical. Practicalists, conforming the game to their opinion. Legalists, adhering to the printed rules. The Populists, embracing the latest trends by the industry leaders. Traditionalists, resisting change...a complete list is not possible. In truth, it is more a continuum, than distinct camps. Although we agree to the fundamental virtues of the rules - order, clarity and conciseness - as being unassailable, ironically we constantly reinterpret them. But that is completely understandable. The more we learn of the rules, the more we expect. Perhaps viewed by some as a set of fix, unchanging descriptive set of behaviors that together form a basis of ASL, it is also too important to excuse it from responsible critical review.
The Role of Custom
There was a time when one company owned ASL and it spoke with one voice and moved with one motion. Custom fixes the rules of the game but does not justify them. Even complete uniformity of source did not make the rules exempt from critical review. Custom is partly our acceptance of the rules and in this we might be wrong. Rout may seem simple but even recently Q/A felt the need to clarify it still. To my knowledge, no third party company has superseded any of the rout rules. But there was enough nonconformity about aspects of rout that a segment of the community was playing it incorrectly, that is, differently than the One Voice intended. Clearly, even mass acceptance did not produce an environment free of criticism. Even within sanctioned options, such as the IFT vs. IIFT debate, the logic is sound. It is merely the expression of the results that differ. One cannot fault the popularity of the IIFT's graduated tables without recognizing the granularity problems of the IFT. If Avalon Hill changed us with ASL, then certainly we changed them too. They conformed to our criticisms by introducing the IIFT.
So gamers of the early 1990s took the matter in their hands. Not intending to undermine the process but enhance it, these gamers became impatient with the rate of change and developed prescriptive programs themselves. If formal acceptance of custom vitiates criticism, then rightly, they added, variety necessitates consistency. In other words, by having more opportunity to use the ASL system, the rules have to get uniformed to fully standardize play. In short they circumvented the existing process and produced scenarios themselves. Provably, this was the correct approach. We need only to count the number new scenarios printed each month by third parties to see this point. But a very unexpected result occurred as these alternate game producers had to make new SSRs and new rules to accommodate their new scenarios. Avalon Hill was no longer the One Voice for the product.
The Role of Usage
Custom provides precedents and critical dialog provides principles but each still has to be evaluated in practice. Of course the rulebook registers usage but it was increasingly useful to have an explicit means of recording change, that is, a list of people who have a critical interest in the process. In ASL, this would be the various third party companies
Do not think of them a panel setting standards or charged with ruling acceptability issues. Indeed, the panel is often divided even though they are all in the same pursuit. They may agree with Human Wave attacks in theory, one group even developed Japanese Banzai rules before Avalon Hill and another has the Bayonet Charge. But the Bayonet Charge has not been fully accepted yet and overlooking the limited application (it was introduced not as a rule but merely an SSR), the community dismisses it as a superfluous variation. Even more poignant is the various and often contradictory Q/As and campaign rules.
One might think that faced with disagreements, players interested in merely knowing which is correct usage would be perplexed. If there is no consensus amongst these highly knowledgeable sources, what hope is there in setting standards? Such a question is missing the point.
In the first place, the variation itself might be instructive. The campaign game was once resisted by the community as being too large for the scope of ASL, a game of small scale unit actions. On All Fronts, one of the early independent ASL companies, produced the first true campaign games in Armor Leader and Partisan Leader. The marketplace of ideas risked the concept of the campaign game, without the support of the establishment. Yet for that risk, it was eventually adapted, although not before fundamental changes. Although there is no precise rules for campaign games, they are still very specific to the titles, we all know the terms Strategic Locations, Refit Phase and CPP.
More important, the diverging opinions underscore the point that usage will always be critical. It must be critical. We are not creating a game but rather we are refining, almost redefining, a game. And there are many reasons to search for this critical approach. The rules are not perfect in either form or expression. The theory itself might be flawed as well as the verbiage used to describe it. Crescendo of Doom's Scouts did not pass this criterion and has been long since dropped entirely from ASL collective. On the other hand, no one argues the rout itself is unneeded but the expression is still under going refinement. For instance, the rout states a unit may ignore a location if it is not closer to the enemy. Read ambiguously by some: ignore that location in determining rout direction or ignore it as a rout terminus once reached? We are left in important situations undergoing the critical review process at the time that is least opportune. The 1997 Q/A addresses it.
But need it have been addressed? The Q/A is a disturbing trend. We leave the relative safety of critical dialog for a canonical approach of lists. Rather than explaining what is meant in a general or in a specific framework, the Q/A lists instances and implications of the rules. They are trying to define a rule by listing examples and letting the readers make the framework themselves. Hardly a supposition to be envied. If the general case is not clear, how will allowing subsets of that case to define it be more clear? It is like playing an ASL $100,000 Pyramid: they cite examples and we state the category.
This change in critical attitudes should not obscure the rise of canonical solutions since the issues came from inconsistencies of usage. Players have questions about specific implementations of the rules. It is felt by addressing those exact cases canonically, the general rule framework gets stronger, in part since so-called loopholes are filled. It is a very tempting solution and its merits can be easily seen, if not taken to extremes. But remember, those questions are present because of a particular wording of the rules and until that wording is changed, the confusion will still be present. It would be simplistic to think that addressing one specific question, really corrects outstanding concerns. Over the years the selected canon has accumulated a great deal of unexamined material that has not been held up to scrutiny. They might cause more problems than they attempt to fix. If for no other reason than the constantly changing positions the authorities take at various times (e.g., 97 Annual A8.3). What makes the canon central is not as much as the individual cases it makes but the possible conflict of larger issues. By focusing on a little issue, myopia sets in.
So all canonical issues are inappropriate? No, not at all. Where it truly addresses issues, it is good. Redundancy clarifies meaning. Take the question of canister having ROF. Quite clearly, the rules allow it. The general rule is all weapons with a ROF box qualifies for ROF; it uniformly and consistently applies to IFT and TH processes; canister is an AP shell fired from the MA (Chapter C note 22); it appears in the same section as other ordnance weapons. From this point, exceptions have to be explicit. Area fire, cowering and malfunction all lose ROF. There is no implicit contradiction otherwise and there is no explicit exception for it. However, it is commonly perceived not to be a ROF weapon and that causes the confusion. Canonically, they address it and reaffirm the rule in a Q/A (97 Annual). This is excellent use of the Q/A.
I would be remiss if not appreciative of the work and effort expended in producing ASL. It an outstanding game, the rules are concise and the quality of the product is arguably the best in the industry. I doubt neither the sincerity nor the competence of its providers. Certainly the sheer size of the rules makes maintenance of the rules difficult. Equally certain is that the ASL community needs an authority on the subject and that authority is Avalon Hill. They have every right, if not an obligation, to make corrections and errata. It is not just the format of those corrections to that is of concern but the tacit expectation that they will be commonly and unquestionably accepted.
Players before the 1990s argued that the rules were simply immune from criticism merely because Avalon Hill decreed it. Even the fact that some independent ideas were occasionally unsound does not strengthen that case. Critical analysis teaches us the rule structure is a good deal more subtle and elusive than even hard core gamers would like to believe. But it does not follow that acceptance has yielded consistency - particularly with regard to Q/A and their corrections to their corrections. Since the 1990s players inadvertently demonstrated that by coming out with their own visions of ASL.
Avalon Hill and lately MMP are to be applauded for their support of such a fine system like ASL. There is no disagreement that continual attention of the game costs money and that they are entitled to remuneration. If the price of that update becomes the price of the Annual, we should gladly accept that. But the myopia mentioned earlier is creating slight fractures in the seams of the ASL community that threatens instability. By having several references that must be examined separately, players may be pushed unreasonably. Contrary to the intended result of strengthening the rules bonds, as players refuse to look up all the references, the very opposite happens: the rules bonding loosens. Although this might be acceptable in local or regional game concentrations, remember that the rules provide the only consistency among different groups: it is the only way to assure that geographically separated players may have a common ground when they do meet. That standard is at risk.
As always, I encourage discussion. If you agree or disagree, feel free to write me.