Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fighting Formations Cage Match, Round 1 - Vs ASL

Laaaaaadiiiiieeees and Geeeeentlemeeeeeen!!!!!

I've always wanted to say that in print.

Today, I played my very first ASL game. Sure, it was the starter kit and sure, it had nothing but leaders and infantry, but it was ASL. And thank the gods of wargaming that my opponent was someone who'd played the game before, if ten years before.

Let's make no mistake, this is not a trivial game to learn, even using the Starter Kits. Perhaps *specifically* using the starter kits, which have some awkward language when compared with the actual ASL rules, which we had copies of. There were a few things that weren't allowed under the SK ruleset, such as combining half squads into full squads, some wacky things that happen when you roll 2's, and voluntary breaking, but otherwise it was pretty much ASL at this level.

Note that I have played Squad Leader (about a billion years ago) and Up Front, as well as hacking my way through about half a turn of the scenario we played today, S1 from ASLSK#1. This is not what you would call a huge amount of ASL, but I think it's enough for me to be able to make some judgement-free generalizations about the two game systems. While we didn't use a lot of the ASL play aids, we did use a few, including the sequence of play aid that is very handy (and there is no SK equivalent, at least that I had handy).

I plan to continue this series with at least a couple of other "cage matches" so I'll try to stick to a set series of comparisons. If I don't think of something, by all means pipe up and I'll try to include it in the future.

Comprehensiveness - ASL wins this in a landslide, but really there are few if any systems that even come close to the amount of gaming you can do with ASL, especially after nearly 30 years. From maps to units to scenarios, ASL has it all. FF doesn't even cover all of the actions that the Grossdeutchland unit took part in, or even all of the periods, as the unit was seeing action from 1940 onward. This is not to say that FF doesn't have a lot to offer, only that even this box only covers a small part of the war and the unit's "exploits". For what is effectively a proof of concept game, that's not a problem, but that narrow focus will turn off some gamers for now.

Historical Accuracy - By this I mean that you fight the battle with the units present over the terrain that the original armies fought. FF, by it's very design, does this when it comes to the terrain. ASL, with the exception of the Historical Modules, uses generic maps that are primarily intended to provide a wide variety of representative terrain. ASL does include overlays that can bring a map closer to it's real-world counterpart, so in maps I have to give this a tie.

Units are a different matter. If you want to have every variant of every T-34 tank that the Soviets used, including the wacky ones that had flamethrowers or could clear minefields, ASL is your pick. The units in FF are fairly generic and representative. At the same time, they are not intended to simulate battles at that level of detail. How fast does one tank's turret turn compared to another? Which ones were open turret and which ones were closed? What kind of MGs did a variant sport? All of these things are abstracted into a handful of factors in FF, whereas in ASL the amount of information that is present on a vehicle counter is a wonder to behold. And a wonder if you'll remember it all.

This one is probably too close to call at this point unless war gear is your thing.

Game Flow - ASL uses an interactive but rigid sequence of play that roughly follows a Yugo-Igo format. There are ample opportunities to opportunity fire at your opponent as he moves, but in the end your opponent is going to go through his steps before you go through yours. And it's a fairly detailed sequence of play, too, with two chances to move, two chances to fire (for the active player). The makers, brilliantly, made it a little easier by color coding the markers to the various phases so that you know when to remove all the markers that end up on the board! OK, they did it for ASL and completely left it out for ASLSK. WTF? Dudes, that's where you *need* it - for new players!

By comparison, FF has a much more interactive system based on Initiative costs due to complexity of orders chosen, what command you have on the board, and what units you activate. During a turn, you may activate the same units over and over. In fact, the concept of a "turn" between the two games is so fluid that it is probably impossible to compare them to each other, much less to two turns in the game itself. Both games give units multiple OpFire chances in a turn/order, which I like a lot, and both can result in a quasi-random number of opportunities, at least once you start getting into the weaponry in ASL.

In the end, this comes down to personal preference, although I believe that at this scale a more fluid interaction between players is better and leads to more interesting endgames and more cinematic storytelling effects. I give this a very grudging nod to FF.

Originality - At 30 years old, ASL is probably not what anyone would call "original" but at the time it (and Squad Leader before it) were very original in a lot of ways. There were very few board tactical level games at the time, certainly few that modeled morale directly. Games like Tobruk (which later morphed into Advanced Tobruk System) were simulating the firing of individual shells, but that level of detail was the sort of thing that became extremely difficult to enjoy once you got into larger scenarios.

In comparison, FF has several tactical systems to compare itself to. Even so, the Order/Initiative/Command complex is unique, as is the amazingly simple yet detailed Melee and Barrage systems. Melee in particular has been a difficult concept to work into wargames, primarily becaose most designers simply make it an extension of direct fire, using the same combat values with occasional modifications based on type. FF solves that problem by simply ignoring direct fire as a predictor of success and goes with a completely different set of numbers based on attacking and defending unit types. Including higher echelon assets such as artillery and command decisions, which from the point of view of the battalion commander are effectively random, as cards is also brilliantly done, although not original (Combat Commander and Conflict of Heroes both do this).

I am going to give a very slight advantage to FF with this category, although it's a tough call. Is it easier to be original in the absence of other systems or in the presences of several? I can't say, but I can say that FF does it in such an elegant way, both in terms of how the rules are explained and how they play out during a game, that I have to give it the nod here. By a nose.

Complexity - And here is the great differentiator. If you are going to learn ASL, even with the SKs, you are going to need to put some time and effort into learning the rules. You can pick them up a little bit at a time, but if you want the full experience with guns and vehicles, it's going to take some time. While rules are generally very clear (in the ASL book, less so in the ASLSK books, despite several examples), there are a lot of them. The basic infantry rules, barring terrain, cover 64 pages. You can probably play after reading about 40 of them. FF has 24, in large type, with lots of illustrations and white space, the equivalent of about 10 pages of ASL. You can't do a lot of things in FF that you can in ASL, but if you don't need that level of accuracy (or don't want it) then FF wins here.

The really great thing is that while ASL has tons of little subtle (and possibly gamey) things that you might do during play based on having certain types of units in certain types of terrain with certain weapons against certain nationalities, both games require you to use appropriate tactics to achieve your goals. Covering fire, combined arms, forces that are spread out to minimize damage but still staying close in to get the benefits of leadership, setting up firing lanes, taking advantage of the terrain - both games feel very similar at a high level. Of course, using mortars in FF is going to feel more generic than using a 57mm Soviet mortar in ASL.

Game Length - I'm not really able to give this a good estimate, but it seems to me that both games have a wide range of scenarios with a wide range of units and the more you have and the bigger the map and the more turns the game takes to play, the longer the game will be on both sides. Both certainly are playable in an evening or even an hour or two given a small enough scenario and familiarity with the rules and how best to prosecute your strategy. A tie.

Solitairability - You can do solitaire with FF, but some scenarios are going to be better at it than others. In comparison, ASL has a huge number of solitaireable scenarios that don't have secret information. That said, I am not anywhere near ready to play ASL solitaire without being willing to make all sorts of rules mistakes. For now, it's going to be a two-player game for me, as is FF. This goes to ASL by a length.

Dramatic Elements - One of the truly great things about a good tactical-level WW2 game is it's ability to let you feel like you are part of a movie - I don't know very many people who want to actually have someone shooting at them, and I am certainly not that guy. Personally I think that war should be a last resort, although I am also aware that I'm fighting biology when I say that. Nevertheless, war brings out the best and the worst in our species, and it is when a tactical game demonstrates the best qualities of humanity - sacrifice, bravery, heroism, and often plain amazing luck - that the game stays with me and I tell other people about how the scenario unfolded.

And I can tell you, from just one ASL scenario and just one FF scenario, that both of these games provide that dramatic sense. From things going really right to suddenly not being able to hit a single rally roll or fire roll, to units dodging bullets right up to the building they're rushing, to a human wave assault on the flank of a German position, my ASL game today was a hoot, with the outcome being in question right up to the very last player turn. While my FF game did not have those elements, largely because the addition of vehicles was not something I was really ready to take on from a tactical perspective (as opposed to rules complexity), at the same time I can see it present in the design, especially once I have a better sense of how to exploit the OIC complex. Especially because of the way the game flows, with big pushes by your opponent leaving the door open to lots of activity on your side.

Again, I think this is a tie, although for now FF allows me not to worry so much about the ruleset and instead worry on the game (which I will need).

Conclusion - I guess in the end the winner comes down to three things - how much detail you want in your order of battle, what level of granularity and flexibility you want in selecting your operations, and how complex of a ruleset you are willing (and able) to tolerate. After today, I can see ASL as being a particularly cool game to learn to play, even the full game. I may not get to vehicles in the next four years, but I greatly enjoyed the game. At the same time, I love the elegance of the FF design, even while I would wish for a slightly more varied OoB and will wait patiently for a wider range of campaigns and situations. North Africa in particular, especially in areas with a little more terrain, would be awesome (FF - Afrika Korps!) I'll certainly have more opponents at my disposal with FF, although I suspect I can find a lot of ASL folks around with just a little poking around. I certainly couldn't teach ASL at this time, and wouldn't be able to for at least a few more games.

Perhaps the biggest problem with ASL for me is that I'm not willing to be exclusive with it. Many people who play make it the sole wargame they play, and I can understand why. You could play every published scenario at one a day and take years to get through them all, and every one will give you a different challenge. Unfortunately, that's not me - I like variety, and I like to play a lot of different games, even if I don't play most of them at all well. Fortunately, that means I can slowly add in ASL while retaining a lot of the rules, assuming I can get in a game every month or two. As I'm being more aggressive about getting in games on the weekends, and as I'm finding more and more opponents who are willing to play ASL, that won't be terribly difficult. Also fortunately, I think I'll be able to find FF opponents to play that once a month as well.

For this cage match, you get to be the judge of who wins. My vote is for people who like playing tactical WW2 wargames, because you have a lot of good choices and these are two of them.


Anonymous said...


Many thanks for a very interesting comparison. I'm an ASL devotee, having nursed a two decade old ambition to learn to play ASL and having finally thrown myself at the game a couple of years ago.

I'm happy to say that I'm fairly conversant with the ASL rules set now, leaving aside some of the more esoteric aspects (amphibious assaults, caves etc.) That said, it wasn't easy. By way of comparison, I was completing an MSc in Economics at the same time as I began learning ASL and I'm absolutely sure that price theory and competition policy don't hold a candle to ASL's surender rules!

I do play some other wargames, and am very interested in other tactical systems - I had noticed FF:GD on BGG, so many thanks for the comparison. I may very well be picking this up as a light alternative to ASL.

I hope that your efforts to learn ASL are successful. The Starter Kits are an excellent route to take. Looking forward to hearing more.

All the best,

Eoin Corrigan

Anonymous said...

Hi Dug,

Thank you for this great comparison. I do appreciate your neutral point of view.
I am on the verge of buying FF.. Friends who play ASL say that it is the only way to go.. (ASL) which I am not sure. I also like to play other games. Moreover I am afraid too much detail kills the game.
Anyway, are other comparisons coming? I do not have any of the games but want one.. CC is in top ten on BGG but I am not sure about that one. On one hand you have many scenarios but on the other I heard that the card system can make you upset.. When the right cards are not coming and you cannot do what you need. I know, CC is probably lighter and shorter with more interesting background (battles in Europe etc)..
I am eager to read your other observations and comments!

Dug said...

More comparisons are coming. The biggest issue for me is having a good grip on the other system, so I want to try to get in at least a short play of whatever game I'm comparing it to. Right now, my table has been full of Great Battles of History games that I'm going to put up for sale, and breaking out the expansions has been much more work than I'd anticipated.

I'm an engineer by training (and proclivity - engineers look at the world differently from the rest of humanity, at least it sure seems like it to me), so taking a neutral position makes a lot of sense. I get emotional about things from time to time, but when I'm analyzing a system neutrality is the only place to start from (unless you're selling something).

I'm a big fan of Combat Commander, but I think that there are many who aren't. CC does a great job of making you feel like your men aren't all willing to run across that open fire lane when you'd like them too, and while I'm not sure that the card system does a great job of simulating fog of war, it definitely drives behavior, and most people play it in a way that will encourage frustration (you have to be willing to go digging for the cards you need, not just fire every chance you get, which just eats up time). That said, I always recommend people try CC before they buy CC as it's just not for everyone. Same goes for ASL, for that matter, which is why the SKs are so great.

For me, I have space for multiple tac games in my collection. I'm not sure that ASL will stick with me, largely because I play a *lot* of games and it's probably going to be one too many systems for me to internalize, but the rest are all very accessible. Which game I play is determined by several factors: time available, complexity desired, scale desired, opponent's preference. Fortunately, a good friend has ASL experience and most of the ruleset internalized, so that helps me learn that game by quite a bit (we are playing a fairly loose version of the SK rules with some ASL rules mixed in, like Heat of Battle and Voluntary Breaking). Probably not great for scenario balance, but then a lot of those scenarios aren't all that balanced anyway. We certainly aren't playing optimally!

Expect a comparison of FF to CC in the fairly near future, probably one to White Star Rising not long after that, and to Conflict of Heroes not long after that.

Anonymous said...

Interesting remarks... I read few more comments and now.. I am not so convinced about FF.
I am not the geek who would play the game for whole day. So that leaves me even less scenarios.
Combat Commander seems to fit to my needs more and more - 4h max of playtime, scenario generator.. Many extensions, attractive locations.
Reasons I did not want to consider CC are those cards. But as you say.. it is not that big deal. Even the "more random feel" of it makes it better for occasional playing.
Unfortunately I do not have opportunity to try the CC.
From what I understood, the FF is more tactical, lite-ASL some say.. But with few scenarios.
While the CC is even lighter, shorter, less serious game, but with as many scenarios as you want. Am I correct? Also, the massive support of GMT cannot be overlooked.

My friend told me CC is a crap because you do not have control over the units' actions. Without the proper card you will not shoot Hitler standing in front of you.. But there must be something in the game :)