Despite concerns about the well-known complexity of any version of Advanced Squad Leader, I convinced a friend of mine to dive into Starter Kit #1 with me. I spent about 5 hours with the 12 page rule book, which is incredibly dense and loaded with cryptic acronyms and abbreviations, though most of what it represents is logical, if not easy to recall in the heat of battle.
The first thing that hit me was how much of this game is based on morale. A LOT of this very complicated system revolves around the motivations and mental state of your soldiers, both broken or unbroken. As an author and screenwriter who always thinks about motivations for characters, this continual focus on the mental well being of the soldiers immediately distinguished this system from some of the others I’ve played.
Also compelling is how risky offensive gambles can turn disastrously wrong—defenders are not limited to a single action if the attacker is aggressive enough, so the system almost never settles down and becomes “safe” for an opponent the way that it does in something like Conflict of Heroes nor is it locked by activation cards as it is in something like Battle Cry. Even better is how unclear the Line of Sight can be to the player---a shot can be blocked by less than millimeter and you won’t know it until you’ve stretched thread across the board and sent the lead to no avail.
A few bits of chrome stand out as a little clunky to me at this stage. In particular, it seems like most of the time soldiers will not move via Assault Movement, so instead of very, very, very regularly applying a -1 for First Fire Non Assault Movement, it would be simpler to rebalance the statistic and just add a +1 for the few times that AM is used. Maybe the experienced grognard uses Assault Movement all the time, but it wasn’t so in my limited experience thus far.
Other than FFNAM and a couple of other things, this incredibly sophisticated system details the tactics and mindset of squad level combat and is a more “ground level experience” than most of the other war games that I’ve enjoyed because of its complexity. The fluid and shifting interplay of the combat in this system, the casualty reduction of the units, cowering, residual fire, low crawling, and especially the leader promotion system are great details that put you down in the dirt.
This Starter Kit is worth the effort, but requires a lot of time to absorb—not because it is unclear, but because there are exceptions piled on top of exceptions that exist within exceptions and such a sophisticated interplay in things like Defensive First Fire phase. Oxymoronic terms like Subsequent First Fire don't make things any easier.
I expect to play this iteration for a while, but have already ordered Starter Kit #2, downloaded a guide on transitioning from ASLSK to full ASL, and purchased the full rules for when I want to add more to a game that is already complex, vivid, and engrossing in its simplest incarnation.