For the ASL Scenario Archive that I host, I wrote a review for the ‘89 Annual, the first that was developed by Avalon Hill, god rest their soul.
It’s a it wordy, but in case you don’t frequent the archive, and happen to want to know all about it, here it is:
A Closer look at: ASL Annual ‘89
Published: 1989 by Avalon Hill, this 64 page magazine was the first of its kind for ASL. It retailed for $10 and although now it can be tricky to find on ebay it commands very modest prices - the most recent one sold, went for just $6.50.
The cover features the same moody American squad as on the box of Paratrooper. They’re still walking through the dusty forest road and they’re still looking mean.
So, what can we expect to find inside, bags of action featuring the paratrooping Americans mooching through the woods? Not quite - we do get an article about logistics and statistics for the American Infantry and its modelling in ASL and an article about the Russians too. The focus is of the scenarios is split between Gliders, American/British/Russian vs. German combined arms, a smattering of deluxe and some oh-so-out-of-place-now Squad Leader action too.
We shouldn’t forget ASL in this year was still a teenager. Not in the “I’m now a gothic/i hate you dad/life’s not fair” teenager way; but the “I’m still growing up and finding my feet stage”. 18 years was a long time ago. I was starting out life with a new girlfriend, unaware of the 10 years of struggle to follow and eventual replacement-to-a-nicer-model, leading to marriage and happiness. Sorry, I’m lost there between SL and ASL analogies again.
So, back to the Annual.
We kick off with a special mention to a contents page that features an Italian officer(?) in the most camp gun firing posture possible. You know the one where you hold a pistol up a bit too close to your eye, to get a *really* good shot. A bit like the way a child might hold a ruler taped to a pencil pretending it’s a gun. They generally squint with the wrong eye too and it wouldn’t surprise me if this chap’s doing it too. Seriously, I know it’s only clip art, but it looks weird to me. Of course, perhaps it is military doctrine, to prevent over stretching or something. Or maybe it just fits in better with the shape of the image cut-out.
Skipping past the adverts for Hollow legions (oh for the days where a product only has a required module ownership list that fits on the back of a postcard) we have “A Nation of Workers” a six page (small font, no pictures, some tables) study of ‘Utilization of American Manpower and Material in ASL’. If ever an editor set the desire for things to come, this article’s placement says it all. To me, despite its well written, researched and interesting subject matter, to have this article as the first piece in the first annual speaks volumes for the direction the guys at AH wanted to take the publication. The article is so prominent and so detailed that I feel almost bad that I want to skip it and get to the scenarios. It is relevant to ASL and it does merit a read, so I shouldn’t be too harsh on it.
I wasn’t playing ASL in ‘89, so it’s unfair of me to criticise this decision and perhaps with the release of Yanks, 2 years earlier, maybe there was still a hankering for details about just how the US did fit into the grand design of all things ASL, but it’s all just a bit dry. Knowing that the American troop had 1 SW every 1.69 squads, compared to that of the German figure of 2.13 and Soviet value of 3.06 is interesting, but I’m unlikely going to change my tactics for this, or even think about scenarios differently. Sadly, I’m not likely to ever read the article again.
My idea of a good articles for this type of publication are ones that I’ll come back to every year or so (”Smoke gets in your eyes”: Journal 1, “What to do if you have a tin can” again from J1), scenarios that I can play at some time perhaps with an esoteric theme- much like the cavalry ones that would appear later on in the ‘97 Annual, series replays that I can learn from and some good old fashion rules explanation/detailed breakdowns. If I wanted to know the relative merits of the 7-4-7 vs. the 8-3-8 I’d…, hmm, well, really, I’ve not ever thought about it. It’s kind of like trying to decide the difference between the French and Swedish Olympic hurdling teams. I’m sure there are differences, but let’s just race them and see who comes first.
There’s a nice intro from Rex Martin who tells us the purpose for the Annual and then finally we get to some scenarios!
Tavrontis Bridge. A1
Despite the appearance of Gliders, this scenario is just plain dull. It’s set in Crete, during some kind of bizarre weather which makes it impossible to tell if there’s a dust storm, a snow storm or small nuclear explosion ahead based on the scenario graphic. 5 British squads, a handful of foxholes and presumably good books to read, face off against 9 elite German squads arriving generally everywhere except where they want to be in their Gliders. It has a strangely worded SSR that even now I don’t actually understand the English of (”… may make one 4-FP attack at each of two Arial gliders during the first turn…) Each of two? Er, ok. Now, I know I’m being harsh on this scenario, it’s deemed good enough to be reprinted in the newly reprinted For King and Country, and it receives high praise. It wasn’t really my cup of tea when I played it though.
Bofors Bashing. A2
A little more adventurous for those insomniacs who stayed awake throughout the playing of A1, we’re treated to a completely new and wonderful scenario. Oh, except it’s in Crete again, and it’s the British, obviously still fighting those Germans, attacking in Gliders, again. Still, at least it’s on two different boards. And those AA guns we pretended we had in the last scenario have turned up now. I like the Victory conditions that tell us to win the German must eliminate the AA guns, adding a helpful hint: “by any means”. The Germans don’t have a lot of interesting equipments to achieve many means, so it looks like they’ll be capturing guns, and destroying them the same way squad leaders have been doing for years without demo charges, AT/HE of any type (save for the tried and tested “roll low with the mortar”)
Descent from Hell. A3
You’ve played through A1, you used each and every means possible when tackling A2. You didn’t even sneak a peek at A3 because you knew it had to get better. You took a look at the scenario. It got bigger, but somehow there was a feeling of deja vu. Was it the same boards as the last two scenarios, just bolted together. Wait a minute! These counters are still warm, we’ve only just put them away… That’s right. Take everything you loved about the last two and stitch them together. They called it “Descent into Hell”, I call it “More of the Same!”. Oh, hang on, that’s what they meant to do. It is actually supposed to be like that. Well, permission to skip this one if you’ve played A1 and A2 already - and sorry to all those OCD types that wanted to play these all in order. Again, I’m being harsh. This scenario does make an excellent team based game and was a pretty clever way of joining two previous scenarios together.
L’Ecole Normale. Deluxe Scenario A1
so, spot the weird naming convention here. It’s as if they never wanted the wife and the mistress to meet each other. It’s (D)ASL at its most anarchic - a victory condition that wants you to start fires! 10 Molotov cocktail toting Partisan squads search a couple of deluxe boards for a match, over 7 turns in and amongst concealment counters that occasionally reveal a well equipped 2nd line German squad. It’s not that thrilling, more tense, but I think that When ASL is televised, this one won’t be Pay-Per-View.
We take a break from the scenarios and have an interesting look at two separate viewpoints from playtesters of “To the Square”. They both contradict each other in their analysis of where the balance lies, but the article doesn’t go on to say whether any changes were made, or in anyway try to dispute the reasoning given. So, whilst it’s an interesting read, I kind of shrug it off and wonder why they didn’t just fly out both play testing teams to the Avalon Hill towers to duke it out until they figured out the real answer.
A quick topology list. Perhaps unnecessary then, and more so now, lists the first 33 boards - telling you what map board comes from what set, (quick test: What board from that bunch can be described as”Village; rowhouses, path, pond” - and for a bonus point what module was it from? - Answer later on.)
Last Act in Lorraine. Deluxe Scenario A2
Deluxe Scenarios are at their best on big boards with plenty of space to give yourself some elbow room for the high-density scenarios that the boards attract. VASL is at its worst with really high density battles that all the action seems to take place on the board joins. It’s a nice scenario, medium tanks bottlenecked and attacking some heavy German armour along with some conscripts who frankly can’t be trusted to do anything except disrupt. Great scenario, but play this one ftf if you get a chance.
Beyond the Blue Beach. A4
1943, 10 turn US vs. German, in Italy. Interesting situation, featuring towed guns coming on as reinforcements and a quirky SSR that forces the German tanks to regroup on a board should an AFV be destroyed.
Holding the Rear. A5
1943, 9 turn US vs. German, in Italy. Large German force (20 squads, 4 Pz IVH’s) attempt to run past 15 US squads over 3 boards. Popular enough to feature in an analysis in a later publication and a cross-fire series replay too. Possibly a little pro-German.
The Price of Impatience. A6
1944, 6 poorly equipped but hidden Partisan squads try to stop a highly scripted German convoy going about their business, on a village board with rowhouses and a pond. Board 10, of course (from Partisan). Only 7 turns - this one was the “play in an evening”’s scenario that Rex Martin probably eluded to in his introduction. To me these scenarios often become “Advanced Driving school instructor” - where often the convoy owner can forsake Prep fire and advancing fire, and just put the pedal down to try to get off the board. Sure, they help themselves by scoring some VP, but when you can win a game of ASL without firing a shot, you can be entitled to wonder what’s the point.
I’m going to ignore the evil SL scenarios and Historical Commentary of Squad Leader, as this stuff is a bit like the boring blurb underneath the cool dinosaur skeletons in the museums. Sure, I should read all about it, but really, I just want to look at those teeth! Move on..
Piper’s Lament, a new SMC for ASL.
Now, here’s another mini-rant. This stuff just isn’t funny. It’s kind of funny, if your only world is ASL and there is no other possibility for comedy in your life. Really though, it’s just stupid. I don’t mind the fact it only takes up less than half a page, it’s the fact that it’s laying the ground for Mine Dogs and Feline OBA. I’d have preferred a half page cartoon or caption competition, anything other than high-brow humour where I’m supposed to giggle at a “piper”, legs in the air, because he’s failed his MC.
The Letters page is cool enough - I love the comment from one guy that he’s an average player, playing 14-16 hours a week, requests for an official Play-by-Mail system - and deep in there there’s even a thought around how to go about creating an introductory module to get new players involved. Heh, who knew it’d be with us in only 15 years’ time…
Mark Nixon turns his hand to humour and writes a great “adventure” about West of Alamein - still as good a read now as it was then. I’d love to see more Series Replays written in this style. Mark has a great way with words and a keen sense of humour that really seems to come across in the article. It was also printed in the General, so real enthusiasts might have been disappointed to see the same article appear there too though.
Two more scenarios, “Slamming of the Door”, a fairly non-descript German/Russian medium size scenario and then “The Agony of Doom”, the infamously unbalanced scenario which holds the dubious honour of being the most unbalanced scenario (with more than 50 playings) logged on Roar. Still, it looks cool and I do want to play it regardless.
Men of Company A is an interesting filler; a list of people who are potential players in your state or country. Flicking through the names you still see some familiar ones pop up: Vic Provost, the late Gordon Reid, Scott Holst, Scott Romanoski… Hats off gentlemen, although you probably caused a few strange phone calls throughout the 90’s to your poor namesakes, you can say you were there from the start!
Midnight Massacre. A9
A night attack on a pretty much set defence on half of boards 17 and 18. Mildly pro American and you can see why. 9 German squads and a couple of half tracks must take over 3 pillboxes defended by 7 1st line US squads.
Man and Superman: Utilization of Russian Manpower and material in ASL. If you liked the American article earlier on, you were probably ready for the Russian version. If you grumbled at it 30 pages back, you’ll be forgiven for flicking through it and maybe coming back to it later. Once. Maybe.
We’ll whiz past another Squad Leader scenario, even if it was a night one, and then to add insult to injury they put the Comprehensive Squad Leader index in our Annual. Well strictly speaking the Annual was subtitled “For Squad Leader enthusiasts” - so probably the SL players were more aggrieved than the ASL players, to be fair. Let’s skip past the lip service of keeping up support for the SL series too and quickly past another dirty SL scenario.
“How to Win an ASL tournament” didn’t recommend paying Mark Nixon to play on your behalf, but actually reading all the rules, playing some scenarios and finishing in the top 4. Oh and play some DYO. Sigh. That’s my chances of the ASLOK gone for another year.
Next is a little optional chart that people in a parallel universe probably skipped past without a second glance. If Rex wanted to ensure world peace and happy ASL players everywhere he might even have dropped the piece all together. Perhaps he only put it in there because it was a nice filler “The Incremental Infantry Fire Table”. Is it another one of those humour pieces? Ha - We should be so lucky! Step forward one of the most controversial (internet forums/mailing list only - I’ve never actually seen anyone display the slightest animosity to either table in real life) components of the ASL system. The IIFT arrived in ‘89 and perhaps oblivious to the flames it will spread begins its life, sits smugly towards the end of the first Annual. It is to be modified a couple of times and subsequently discussed ever onwards, to the consternation of forum moderators and mail readers everywhere. Not a month will go by without someone getting all emotional over their favourite table. Anyway, it began here, on page 48.
Back to school, Deluxe scenario A3
This is a very short (4.5 turns) smallish scenario featuring flame throwing Germans running past a concentrated deployment of top drawer Russian defenders. One of the most played scenarios in the publication, it comes with a strong Russian bias, allegedly due to the Russians can form a strong hedgehog defence for a last-stand.
The Borders are Burning. A10
The Finns arrive back on the scene after debuting in ASL1/Fighting Withdrawal. This time the tough Scandinavians are asked to stop over twice their number of first line Russian squads and 5 AFVs. The Finns don’t need any Guns to do the job, and the Russians only get 14 turns to cross the two boards. Only the Finns could manage this one, and still have the scenario favour them. Which it does, 60-40 for the Finnish.
“Updating the Oldies” a 3 page article which is more interesting if you know the 3 scenarios they discuss back from SL. Nowadays this article is less relevant, but still an ok read.
Silent Death. A11
If there’s a scenario featuring the Finns, my advice is don’t go against them. This time they’re kicking the Russians around over 6 turns of a snow covered board 3. 15 hopelessly outclassed first line squads Russian are wishing they weren’t having to take on the stealthy, Sledging Finnish skiers - and who won’t take prisoners. The Russians start this scenario asleep and with a pro 75% pro-Finnish outcome, they wish they never woke up.
Can you say quirky? Italians, cavalry, desert boards, cavalry charges, steppe terrain vs Russians in foxholes. It all adds up to a nicelty balanced 10 turn game, fighting over what little protection the scenario offers. If there’s one stand-out scenario for uniqueness in the bunch - it’s this one. It doesn’t get much play but it’s not for the want of trying.
Closing out there is a number heavy article on mortars and it really highlights the change in analysis and discussion that I perceive over the history of ASL publications. Early on it seems there was much in the way of statistical based articles, highlighting an author’s point around the various uses of the components of the game. As time goes by we see more and more tactical advice and analysis with practical examples. It makes this article feel a little old and dry, but the great thing is it as relevant now as it was almost two decades ago.
Rex then says goodbye for a couple of columns and we have a cute chronology of war, with a list of scenarios that almost reads like a tournament play list for some players these days. 117 scenarios made up that first Chronology. Highlighting the game’s infancy, the Germans feature in more than 100 of them.
The journals and annuals should form part of any ASL player’s library. There is something here for everyone, and with the exception of the SL stuff, almost everything for everyone at some point of your ASL ‘career’.
The scenarios don’t stand out, and there aren’t many classics in here, Back to School is a little unfashionable these days although there have been 3 reprints of these scenarios in reprinted core modules, so they will see some more play.
The Crete scenarios, although I’m harsh on them earlier on, do stand out as good scenarios and receive favourable comments from many players. They are certainly recommended and will suit different requirements based on your own ability and time available to play.
The articles are too stats heavy and due to the immaturity of the system, the scenarios are a little constrained - again solely to do with really what the system had to offer at the time I think.
It should be noted that often the attacker is seen to be favoured in these early published scenarios. Newer publications containing the Schwerpunkt style scenarios encourage swifter, more aggressive tactics which has honed players attacking instincts. It is often the case when players revisit these older scenarios that the attacker has the luxury of time, which given his improved tactical armory will suit a bolder player. Defenders beware!
All in all, despite its average collection of scenarios, its minor space concession to Squad Leader and its wordy articles it was a good first attempt at a periodical publication and undoubtedly paved the way for further Annuals, Journals and third party imitations. For this it should be given adequate recognition.
I score the ‘89 Annual 7/10.
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