The new 10th anniversary edition of the first starter module has recently been released at a buyer friendly price and concentrating on infantry actions. It gives a very good opportunity for players to dip their toe into the ASL waters.
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ASL gives plenty of attention to the differences between infantry unit types and this scenario reflects that. From the outset we have some diverse forces. The Russians have conscripts, 1st line rifle units and sub-machine gun units, while the Germans have 1st line rifle units and elite squads. There is only one special rule for us to know and that is that the German elite units have their smoke exponent increased from 2 to 4, making it easier for them to place smoke in their movement phase.
The above shows a typical scenario card. The Germans are in blue and you can just make out that the elite units have 5-4-8 values and the 1st line squads have 4-6-7 values, which equate to firepower - weapon range - morale. The firepower of the elite unit is under-lined showing that it can use 'assault fire'. Although the values may seem quite close, in play, their differences become quite apparent. You can also see named leaders, who have different levels of effectiveness. To the right are various support weapons that squads can carry and use. Here the Germans have a medium machine gun, 3 x light machine guns, 1 x flamethrower and 2 x demolition charges.
All these things taken together help give the game a very tactical character and a good narrative. You do get the 'close in' feel and a sense that everything that is going on right down to the individual squad level matters.
The scene is a cityscape, using a half board full of stone buildings. A road roughly divides the board and below the road the Russians set up to defend three multi hexed buildings (shown A, B and C below). The Germans mostly set up above the road. They will need to cross the road and break into the Russian defences and capture all three buildings if they are to win. The Russians have a group of three SMG units that will arrive as reinforcements on a randomly determined turn from turn 2 onwards. The Russian player needs to roll less than the current game turn number to get them, so that adds tension to the game.
The Russians decide to deploy all of their conscripts with a 7-0 leader in the objective building on the left (A). These are to be a distraction and slow the enemy while waiting for the reinforcements to arrive. The remaining force deploys into the two objective buildings on the right (B and C), with their HMG and an 8-1 leader in the building that is shown in the red circle. This area is likely to see the greater German effort.
The German response is to place their MMG, a 4-6-7 and the 9-2 leader centrally in the building at (4) with the intention of quickly neutralising forward defences. The elite units and all of the support weapons including flamethrower and demo charges are in area (3). The far right unit has the flamethrower, which can reach the Russian positions. Areas (1 and 2) each have 3 x 4-6-7 squads and a leader.
Game Turn 1 - (above) The Germans will use turn 1 to lay down as much fire as they can to breakdown the Russian front line. The flamethrower (on the right) is a powerful weapon and can fire at half effect at 2 hexes away, allowing it to reach the Russian squads, but the German roll 12 and the flamethrower has a breakdown value of 10 - so as well as not causing harm, the flamethrower also breaks down (it has likely run out of fuel) and is removed from play. This is a blow to the attackers as this is a valuable asset in these sorts of assault. In my last game, it performed well and remained in play for most of the game, so this opening just shows the re-playability of these scenarios.
(above) - The German stack containing an elite squad, an LMG and a 9-1 leader fires at the Russian stack with the 8-0 leader and they roll double 1. The lower the dice roll the better, so this is as good as it gets for the German stack. The result of 2 is increased to 5 because the Russians are in a stone building that has a defensive bonus of +3, but is then lowered to 4 because the German leader gives an attack bonus of -1.
The total firepower of a 5-4-8 squad with an LMG is 8, so the final result of 5 rolled is cross referenced with the 8 column on the combat chart giving a 2 Morale Check result. (note when doubles are rolled and a leader is not present to direct the fire, then the firer is considered to have cowered and fires on one column lower, if this had been the case here, that would have dropped the firepower from the 8 column to 6).
So now the Russian 8-0 stack must take a morale check but add +2 to the die rolls (for the 2 Morale Check result), each unit checks individually against their morale values (8 for the leader and 7 for the squad stacked below him). The Russians roll badly for both units and not only fail to roll less than their morale values, but the rolls each exceed the respective morale values by more than 3. This causes each unit to not only break (flip) but to reduce in combat value / quality. The Russian 8-0 leader is swapped out for a 7-0 leader and the 4-4-7 counter is swapped out for a 4-2-6 counter (the same as the conscripts on the other side of the board).
Also the '1' rolled on the red dice is equal to or less than the Rate Of Fire value on the German LMG, so it retains fire and can fire again (alone, not with the squad, so it fires with a value of 3). It does so and to groans of despair by the Russian player a 1 and 2 are rolled (with the red die being '1' so again rate of fire is retained). The LMG inflicts a 1 Morale Check on the Russian stack Both of the broken units fail their morale checks and broken units that fail the check must take casualty reduction. This means that the 4-2-6 squad will reduce to a 2-2-6 half squad and the leader (Corporal Bessorov) must roll for survival. On a 1-4 he will be wounded and on a 5-6 removed from play. He rolls a 3 so is marked wounded but his capabilities are now further reduced.
The LMG can fire again and again gets 3 (2 + 1 but this time the red dice is 2, so rate of fire is not retained), but the result is just a PIN check, which will not effect the broken units. That was a devastating attack and in total contrast to the previous attack with the flamethrower, it is these sort of changes in fortune that helps make for more interesting games.
The Russian part of the turn (above). I have only just become aware of the tactic of 'skulking', which felt gamey at first, but I am getting used to putting this into play. It reflects units keeping their heads down. Basically in their part of the player tun, a unit can give up their ability to use Prep Fire, leaving them free to move and then they use this movement to pull back 1 hex and drop out of the line of sight of enemy units. The effect of this being that the enemy will not be able to target them with Defensive Fire later in the turn. Example - the situation above will change to look like the situation below.
Then in the players Advance Phase, when units are able to advance 1 hex without attracting opportunity fire, the players can return those units back to their original positions, so that they are available to threaten the other player in the other players part of the turn.
It is a tactic that typically works for the defender, though at the cost of them making Prep Fire. It can unravel if the defender becomes out-flanked or if something happens to the unit (such a receiving a Pin result) before it gets chance to move back into place.
In the below photo this nearly happened to the 8-1 stack, they fell back from M5 to avoid the enemy MMG and several other units but were still exposed to that German lone squad in the upper right of the photograph - which fired and inflicted a Pin result in its Defensive Fire Phase. The 8-1 stack was lucky to pass the Pin test. If they had not been able to get back into the M5 hex, their entire defensive line would have been compromised.
German Turn 2 - The Germans cannot afford to hang around taking up precious time conducting widespread Prep Fires. One of the elite units (below) takes the plunge and uses assault movement (move 1 hex, but consume less than full movement allowance to do so), which will slightly reduce the effect of enemy fire.
The Russian unit (4-4-7) has its firepower doubled against an adjacent unit. They roll 10 (double 5's), but because they have rolled doubles without a leader directing their fire, they cower and their firepower drops one column to the '6' column and the fire is not effective. The Russian is marked with a First Fire Marker.
Also their fire leaves residual fire in the target hex, so that if another German unit was to enter that hex in the current movement phase, they would be hit first by the residual fire. Note residual fire is equal to half fire-power, I have made a mistake here, because the Russian unit cowered, the residual fire value would not be 4, but rather the next value down - which is 2.
On the left in M5 (see below), the Russian stack that has the MMG also fires on the moving elite 5-4-8, it has a pinned leader, but the squad and MMG can still fire normally. They roll too high, their fire fails and they are also marked with a First Fire counter. They likewise leave residual firepower in the target hex. Half their firepower is 4, so that hex now correctly shows a 4 valued residual fire marker.
Now the German squad in P2 decides to dash forward and support the 5-4-8 in P4. It wants to try and use smoke to hide its movement, but will not have enough normal movement points to do that. To raise its movement allowance from 4 to 6 MP's it declares that it will go 'CX' (think of running). It enters O3 for 1 MP. It is safe from defensive fire here because the two Russian stacks marked First Fire can't fire again at an enemy if there are other enemy who are nearer to them.
They then attempt to throw smoke into O4 for 2 MP's and succeed (they need to roll 1 - 4, with 1 added to the die for being CX, they roll a 3 so do make smoke). They then move into the smoke filled hex for 2 MP's, they have spent 5 MP's so far. Once in O4, the Russian stack on the left can Defensive Fire at them, since now they do not have a 'nearer' enemy unit, but subsequent first fire is halved in strength. That combined with the defensive benefit of smoke (+2) makes the fire a failure. The Russians flip their First Fire counter over to the Final Fire side (so now it will only be able to fire at adjacent units in this player turn) and a 2 value Residual Fire marker is placed in the same hex as the smoke.
Turn 2 (Russians), The Russians roll the die to try and bring on reinforcements. They need a '1' this turn and they get it. The German player sighs! They choose to arrive just bellow building B as this is likely where the last stand will be. In the Rally Phase, poor Corporal Bessorov rolls 12, which is not only a fail, but also reduces him to the next lower value, He is replaced by a 6+1 leader, it is as bad as it gets, especially when wounded.
The conscripts (over on the left flank) shown above, look like they are about to get mopped up as the better quality German units advance across open ground ready to assault the buildings complex. To the right (off map), a Russian squad and LMG fire and roll 11, this fire fails and the LMG will breakdown on a score of 11 or 12, so it is flipped to its broken side (German machine guns only break on a 12). Attempts to repair broken weapons (not the flamethrower) can be made in each Rally Phase.
Turn 3 - things are seldom certain and so it is with our 'mopping up' operation (above). The two German 4-6-7's have entered the hex of the Russian conscript for Close Combat. In CC both sides attack simultaneously. The Russians are attacking at the low odds of 1:2, but they roll lower than their 'kill' number and that removes both of the German squads from play. However the far better 2:1 reply by the German squads only score equal to their 'kill number', not lower than it, so the Russian unit just takes unit reduction instead and it is replaced with a 2-2-6 half squad.
Later, encouraged by their last Close Combat result, a conscript squad enters the hex of a German unit in F8 (see above). When first entering Close Combat in a wood or building, both sides roll a d6 to see if an ambush occurs. If one side rolls more than 3 less than the other side, they are able to spring an ambush. This means that they get to fire first instead of using simultaneous fire, plus there are beneficial combat modifiers. In the above case, the Germans roll 2 and the Russians roll 6, so the Germans fire first. They get exactly their kill number and so reduce the Russian squad, which now fires back at a lower strength and they fail their attack. Both pieces survive and will now remain locked in melee until the next Melee Phase.
The Russian reinforcements had entered in one stack and had been taken by surprise by a shot from an unexpected quarter and most of the stack broke. It then took a couple of turns for them to get rallied and re-sorted. Once done (Turn 4), they pushed up into building B.
Turn 5 - The Russian reinforcements reinforce a local ongoing melee, resulting in the German loss of two elite units, leaving the Russians dominant in buildings B and C. The German casualty rate has been too high and there is not enough time for them to stand any chance of winning this scenario, so they call play and the game ends in a Russian victory. Below - the positions at the close of play.
Conclusions - ASL has a reputation for complexity and our first indications of that can be seen in this module. Its 12 page ruleset contains the basic rules for infantry and their support weapons, while some other game systems might be showing their entire system including tanks, guns and artillery in just 12 to 16 pages. However, in terms of a single module, starter kit #1 is fully self contained and contains some excellent play, which will fully immerse players in subtle and intricate play. It is therefore an excellent product in its own right and deserves to be on the game shelf of everyone who has an interest in WWII tactical gaming.
The question for the player will be what will they want to do next? The three options are to 1) just stay with this base game and enjoy it, 2) step up into the other starter kit modules to get guns, tanks and the campaign game with an associated increase in 'managed' complexity, or 3) Go for full ASL. The whole point of the ASL starter kits is that you do (2) first and are then ready to naturally progress to (3).
This is just a personal choice, does the base game scratch the tactical itch, or do you want a wider range of possibilities and access to more substantial Orders of Battle. Each of us has a point at which the trade off with complexity against simulation and reward is perfectly balanced and so the player just needs to think at what place on the complexity curve they want to sit.
You really need to play set #1 to make the best judgement of that. The product has been well thought out in terms of making you want to go to the next level. I would suggest that at its price and for what it gives in terms of game play and what it potentially offers for future wargaming interests, all tactical gamers would benefit from giving this base module a go.