Updated: Oct 9
Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1
Bottom Line Up Front
Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 is a highly realistic tactical wargame, simulating squad through company-level operations during World War II. It’s unique for its ability to model suppression and maneuver simultaneously, making it an excellent tool for refining the decision-making skills of noncommissioned officers and company-grade officers. Due to its steep learning curve, however, it’s best suited for leaders willing and able to devote multiple sessions to learning and playing.
Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) is a series of World War II tactical-level wargames that traces its lineage to the venerable Squad Leader series introduced by Avalon Hill in 1977. Due to the depth and complexity of the Advanced Squad Leader rulebook, its publishers created a parallel series of Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit (ASLSK) games featuring streamlined rules that minimize the learning curve for new players. Though some players view ASLSK as an “on-ramp” to learning to play “full” ASL, ASLSK is an inherently rewarding and sophisticated game by itself. The first starter kit, ASLSK1, deals with infantry units and company-level combined arms.
ASLSK1 contains a 12-page rulebook; two mapboards; one sheet of counters representing US Army, German, and Russian infantry units; six scenario cards; dice; and a Quick Reference Chart for players. Each scenario card includes setup instructions and victory conditions for a different company-level engagement from World War II. Because each scenario features different combatants, terrain, attachments, and objectives, ASLSK1 has the replay value of six games in one.
What's in the box? Components of ASLSK1
A game begins with players picking a scenario card. These cards provide the historical background for each engagement, the mapboard to be used, the forces allotted to each player, and their respective objectives. Units depicted include fire teams, squads, and small-unit leaders. Players can also employ machine guns, flamethrowers, demolition charges, and smoke grenades.
Scenario cards spell out the forces available to each player, their victory conditions, and historical background for the engagement depicted.
The player designated the “scenario defender” usually sets up first, followed by the “scenario attacker.” The attacker then designates which of their units will fire and which will maneuver that turn. After the effects of the attacker’s suppression are resolved through dice rolls, (the game makes heavy use of dice rolls and various modifier tables), the attacker maneuvers their forces. Each time an attacking unit enters a new hex, defending units that are combat effective that turn may fire on the attacking unit. The strength of the defender’s attack fire is modified by two things: the terrain occupied by the attacker (e.g. defensive fire will be stronger against attackers in the open than against those in forests or buildings) and the manner in which the attacker moves. Units that fire and move through terrain will cover less ground than their counterparts that take advantage of their full movement allowance, but they will be considerably less vulnerable as they do so. At the end of the turn, attackers that have successfully closed on an enemy position have the opportunity to engage in close combat. When this sequence ends, the roles reverse and the sequence starts over with the scenario defender now deciding how to suppress, maneuver on, and close with the enemy. Victory conditions and game length vary depending on the scenario chosen, and games can range from 1 to 5 hours.
American GIs supported by flamethrowers close on German strongpoints in Aachen, Germany, 1944.
Considerations for Leaders
ASLSK1’s unique treatment of fire and maneuver forces players to grapple with tactical decisions realistic to modern combat: Do they place more assets with the maneuver element or the support-by-fire element? With a fixed number of turns to seize an objective, how do they balance speed against security? Where does a defender best employ their machine guns, and how do they make the best use of the terrain when constructing a defense-in-depth? ASLSK1’s ability to model these dilemmas makes it an exceptional training tool for small unit leaders seeking to enhance their tactical decision-making skills.
Suppression, however, can sometimes be unrealistically difficult to achieve with direct fire weapons due to the high defensive modifiers given to defending units inside buildings. Leaders should therefore ensure that subordinates do not derive unrealistic lessons from a game that is not intended to be a scientific representation of war. To that end, leaders should end gaming sessions with after action reviews that focus not on quantities of units lost or killed, but on lessons learned from the following questions: Where did players choose to accept risk and why? How did players assess enemy vulnerabilities and intentions, and did their exploitation plan match that assessment? With limited forces available, what tradeoffs did players decide to accept in employing their units the way they did? Leaders should also be aware that, despite the streamlined rules of the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit series, ASLSK1 still comes with a steep learning curve relative to most wargames. If a training or professional military education schedule only permits a single session devoted to wargaming, ASLSK1 would be a poor choice for that purpose. It would be better employed over multiple sittings in a group of noncommissioned officers and above, or between interested individuals for personal development.
Advanced Squad Leader as a System
This review has focused on ASLSK1 due to its low price ($28.00) and high accessibility. However, a review of an ASL series game would be incomplete without a brief explanation of the ASL system. Three other starter kits are available, each including more elements of the “full” ASL than the last. None is necessary to own before purchasing or playing another. Starter Kit 2 includes all the infantry and combined arms mechanics of Starter Kit 1, with the addition of direct fire artillery and antitank weapons. Starter Kit 3 adds tanks and armored fighting vehicles, and Starter Kit 4 introduces US Marine and Japanese forces, as well as Pacific Theater scenarios.
ASLSK rules are upwardly compatible with the “full” Advanced Squad Leader, meaning players who want to plunge into ASL will not have to unlearn any of the rules they learned via ASLSK. The full ASL expands the depth of realism available to players, incorporating mortars, artillery, close air support, night operations, amphibious landings, and more. The price of entry to ASL is a copy of the rulebook (sold separately) and the introductory module Beyond Valor, containing the full sets of German and Russian counters. Other “core” modules provide more scenarios and counters for additional nations’ forces, while “historical” modules provide historically-accurate maps and scenarios depicting specific battles of World War II and the Korean War such as Stalingrad, Tarawa, the Battle of the Bulge, Seoul, and the Chosin Reservoir.
What This Game Taught Me
This is one of my favorite wargames I’ve ever played. First, it’s immense fun. Second, no other game so far has matched the realism and immersion of ASL. To have a game system this nuanced allows me to think about my enemy and objectives in terms of a realistic METT-T analysis and parts-based scheme of maneuver. The chance to then "fight" that plan against a thinking opponent, who’s similarly fighting their own plan, holds me to account for my decisions and planning process in a way that almost nothing other than force-on-force freeplay training can replicate. I love infantry tactics, and as one of the many officers in the Marine Corps who wishes they had more opportunities to practice tactical employment of a unit, Advanced Squad Leader offers me and my fellow peer players the best sets and reps I can find on my own time. I can’t recommend ASL more highly to those with a vested interest in ground combat tactics and a willingness to invest the time and attention to learn the game.
Author’s Bio: First Lieutenant Allred is a company executive officer at Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry-East. Before that, he was a rifle platoon commander in 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines. He started playing wargames with his brothers when he was a child and credits Axis and Allies: D-Day with sparking the interest in military history that led him to the Marine Corps.