Friday, May 07, 2004

Lookin' Good So Far 

Well-deserved congratulations go out to MMP for the success of the ASL Starter Kit. I have already reviewed this product, but it's interesting now to look back on how it has been received in its first four to six weeks of existence.

There's no question that the release of the Starter Kit has succeeded in getting Advanced Squad Leader into the public eye again. There has been more "buzz" about this release than just about anything else I can remember related to ASL. If the first step in increasing or maintaining the popularity of something is getting people to notice and talk about it, the Starter Kit has been a resounding success. The next stage though is to actually get new players to try it. ASL players have generally been considered a community of their own, a very specialized subset of the larger wargaming community, with those outside that small community considering ASL players to be a breed apart, made up mostly of seriously obsessive-compulsive personality types. What's been impressive while reading the various online ASL and wargaming forums over the last several weeks however is that it's not just the usual suspects writing about this latest release. A number of players (especially at Consimworld) are clearly people who have either avoided ASL in the past or have not played it since the Squad Leader days. So far, the Starter Kit seems to be doing everything MMP hoped it would do.

The "controversy" starting to surface now, though, concerns exactly what the Starter Kit should develop into in the future. As planned, the next two Starter Kits will introduce Ordnance followed by Vehicles, with the idea that a player who has completed those kits will be ready to move on to ASL. As I've said before, once a new player has assimilated all three Kits, I expect the step up to "full" ASL will be much smaller than many think it will be. However, already some players, for several different reasons, are clamoring for more Starter Kits to be released, including PTO and Desert. Whether those should get made or not depends on what MMP (and the rest of us) want to ASLSK to be.

Three or four years ago, I recall the members of MMP outlining future plans for ASL. At one point, the plan included development of two products. One was Introductory ASL (iASL), a stripped down (but fully compatible) version of ASL intended to be a stepping stone to ASL for the new player. The other was Basic ASL (BASL), intended to be "ASL Lite," using a simpler version of the ASL system, but apparently intended to remain a system unto itself, essentially a replacement for the original Squad Leader, a game still played by some stalwarts who've either not wanted to take the apparent leap in complexity required to take on ASL, or, in some cases, never forgiven Don Greenwood for turning their beloved system into the "monster" ASL had become in their eyes. Based on online postings, work was reportedly done on the iASL product for a while before MMP announced several months ago that the Starter Kit would be coming out. It hasn't been clear what the relationship was between the Starter Kit and iASL, and indeed some of the earliest postings by MMP about the ASLSK implied that iASL might still be a separate product. Clearly, based on the early success so far, there seems to be no need for another introductory product at this point. But what about BASL?

There has been little if any mention of this product over the last couple of years that I can recall, and I have to assume that there is no current plan to develop it. The real issue now is whether the ASLSK should develop into BASL, and this is in large part the focus of the current discussions online regarding the future of this product. Clearly, some players who've started using the ASLSK are interested in continuing at that level of complexity. These are (mostly) the ones advocating further "expansion packs" for the Starter Kit series, providing additional nationalities and even introducing simplified versions of the more involved ASL rules, such as PTO and the Japanese, thus providing the greater breadth of ASL without the large investment in money and time needed to fully embrace the existing system.

I can especially empathize with the latter wish. PTO has always been the area of greatest interest for me when it comes to the Second World War. My earliest WWII reading involved books such as Walter Lord's "Day of Infamy" and "Incredible Victory" along with Leon Uris' "Battle Cry." My first wargame (bought in about 1977) was Avalon Hill's classic "Midway" and another early game (along with Squad Leader) was "Victory in the Pacific." Once I was in college, my interest waned and I sold or (gasp) threw out a large part of my game collection. In 1993, I found the Victory Games title "Tokyo Express" in a store, which led to my resubscribing to The General for the first time in about eight years. With my subscription came the latest AH catalog, and there in full-color glory was the entire ASL system (up through Croix de Guerre). What really made me salivate was reading the descriptions of Code of Bushido and Gung Ho! It also helped that my first issue of The General with my new subscription contained the ASL scenario "Alligator Creek," depicting the action at the Ilu River during the Guadalcanal campaign. I was hooked.

Of course, I quickly was slapped in the face with reality. To get to PTO in the ASL system required investing in the Rulebook, Beyond Valor, Yanks, and West of Alamein, at a minimum. After buying the Rulebook and BV, my interest in continuing farther in the system quickly dissipated, and for the next five or six years, I rarely touched them except to occasionally flip through the Rulebook. It wasn't until discovering Solitaire ASL in 1999, several months after the demise of Avalon Hill, that I finally took the plunge and embraced ASL in all its glory. Even then, I never played a PTO scenario until a couple of years ago, over eight years after originally setting out to do so.

So, PTO is a terrific experience in ASL, but one that requires a huge expenditure in time and money to attain. Should there be an easier way to do this? That's the big question. A PTO expansion pack for the ASLSK as some have advocated would be nice. I question how easily the Chapter G rules could be stripped down to the level of complexity required for a Starter Kit, but certainly the rules as presented in Starter Kit #1 exceeded any expectations I had for a reduced rules set, so I wouldn't discount the possibility. But should they do it?

Whether such expansions to the originally planned three-volume Starter Kit should be created ultimately depends on MMP's plans for the product line. As it stands now, the plan is to use the three modules as a Programmed Instruction introduction to ASL. It allows a new player to gradually learn the rules in a low-impact way, with ultimately only a short step-up to the full system. It also allows a player who is unsure about making the full commitment to test the waters with a fairly minimal outlay of money. If he decides not to pursue ASL further, he hasn't wasted much money in the process. That's all fine, and again the early returns indicate that the Starter Kit is doing just what was intended. But should it be expanded further? Currently there are no publicly released plans to expand the line, beyond comments that Starter Kit-level scenarios might be welcome for publication in future issues of the ASL Journal. However, if the expansion pack idea were to take hold, this would almost certainly lead to a new game system, existing in parallel with ASL.

Certainly an easier introduction to ASL-level PTO would be nice. However, this simply doesn't seem to work well as a Starter Kit. Given the current construction of the ASL system, a new player who really likes the PTO Starter Kit still has a huge investment in products in front of him to be able to play PTO using the full ASL system. This seems to go against the whole point of the ASLSK, which in part is to shorten the steps needed to play ASL. For this reason, I think MMP has taken the correct approach with the introductory modules.

But what about BASL? Should this parallel system be developed? This is really the question at hand in all of my meandering in the above paragraphs. As I stated (much) earlier, there is a group of players who would like to have access to the ASL experience, including all nationalities and theatres, along with such gems as Red Barricades, without having to fully embrace the entire Rulebook. For these players, a parallel ASL system continuing the stripped down approach of the Starter Kit would be ideal, essentially completing the original Squad Leader system as was promised but never done before it morphed into ASL. There's no question that there would be a market for such a system. The two problems I see (as an ASL player) are that it could reduce the impact of bringing new blood into the full system and that it would divert time and resources from MMP's continuing efforts to produce new ASL materials. Personally I don't see either of these as fatal complications. Even if only a small number of new players continue on to the full ASL system, that's likely to be more than would otherwise have done so in the absence of the Starter Kit. Also, as much as I like buying new products, I already have far more ASL material than I will ever tire of playing in my foreseeable lifetime. Not everyone agrees, especially with the latter point, as the amount of hand-wringing over the oft delayed release of Armies of Oblivion would indicate. But in my not-so-humble opinion, ASL (and MMP) is in fine shape regardless of which approach is taken.

It's a win-win situation from my perspective either way. If the Starter Kits as planned are carried out, it raises the awareness of ASL among the gaming public, with a lot of players who would have never even considered the game giving it a try, and certainly some sticking with their newfound addiction. If the BASL system were to take on a life of its own, the ultimate growth of ASL might be lessened, both in numbers of players and numbers of products, but in the meantime MMP would be sitting on another successful product which would keep them around to produce more material, and the greater number of players gaming with ASL in one form or the other should continue to keep both systems alive for many years to come. This would also allow restructuring of the traditional hierarchical system for obtaining ASL materials, permitting (for example) a BASL player who wants to do PTO to possibly do so without the severe entry requirements of ASL. With this approach, a PTO Starter Kit becomes a workable reality.

Ultimately, I don't have strong feelings either way, and being a glass-is-half-full person, I see good things regardless of how ASL and the Starter Kits evolve. I do think MMP has clearly hit a home run with the Starter Kit, and that this may be the most significant product created for the system since Red Barricades broke the mold. Good job all around.

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