Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Retrospective: Squad Leader

When I think of the word "wargame," one of the images that immediately pops into my head is the cover to Avalon Hill's Squad Leader, designed by John Hill and first published in 1977. I never owned a copy of the game and can't recall ever actually having played it myself, but I often watched others play. That's the extent of my direct involvement with this simulation of squad-level tactics during World War II. Given that, it might seem strange that it looms so large in my memory, but, thinking back on it, it makes a great deal of sense.

If you've ever seen a copy of Squad Leader, you'll remember the high quality of its components. Its counters, for example, were very attractive and, to my neophyte's eye, quite easy to read. I envied the wargamers I knew, who could look at the morass of tiny numbers and symbols on a counter and understand their mysteries. This was a talent I did not possess, which probably contributed greatly to my never having gotten into wargames, despite my interest in them. But Squad Leader made me think I could develop this talent; its counters weren't nearly as intimidating and they were attractive too -- a shallow judgment, to be sure, and yet an honest one by my young mind.

Moreso than the counters, it was Squad Leader's geomorphic hex maps that really caught my attention. The game made use a large number of sturdy maps that used a top-down projection to represent the terrain on which its action took place. I adored these maps, so much so that I eventually acquired them -- they were available for purchase separately -- for use in my various RPG campaigns. They were, to me, what the map of Outdoor Survival was to Gygax and Arneson. I distinctly recall using them in several wilderness-based D&D adventures, as well as in Gamma World, because many of these maps included ruined buildings that seemed well suited to a post-apocalyptic game. I'm pretty sure I used them in my Twilight: 2000 campaign too, but then that's only appropriate.

Being geomorphic, the maps could be re-arranged in many ways in order to produce a wide variety of areas for use in play. The reason for this was that Squad Leader, though it had pre-written scenarios, was designed to allow players to create their own scenarios easily, something that, as I recall anyway, wasn't common (or possible, in some cases) among other wargames of the era, which were designed to simulate a single specific battle or theater of war from history. Again, speaking as a non-wargamer, this really appealed to me and I remember listening to some of the guys I knew talk about the scenarios they'd created. I sensed in these discussions a remaining thread of connection between roleplaying games and the wargames out of which they grew, something I didn't feel when I listened to wargamers talk about other such games.

Every so often, I feel the urge to search out a cheap copy of the game on eBay, purely out of nostalgia. Unfortunately, I've found it hard to locate one that's complete and in reasonable shape without paying an arm and a leg for it, something I can't justify given the unlikelihood of my ever playing it. Still, I recall this game very fondly. It's a reminder of a specific time in my life and of a time in the hobby when a complex World War II simulation with hundreds of cardboard counters could be found on the shelves of Toys "R" Us and similar stores. To me, that's probably the biggest indication of the fact that things have changed a great deal since my youth and I can't help feeling a little melancholy about that.


  1. I used to play this a bunch. I'm not sure I was ever any good at it, but it was fun.

  2. My brother was/is a huge Squad Leader fan. He bought many, many extension modules.

    You can play it online, somehow - I don't know the details.

  3. You guys might want to check out Valor and Victory, a print-and-play game similar to ASL. Its not clone, but captures the same scope and feel, or so I'm told (I never got a chance to play SL/ASL....was willing, but it didn't pan out.)


  4. ASL is awesome and a living game to this day. Don't bother with getting the old version of the game-- pick up the (newish) Starter Kit #1 from Multiman Publishing. I'm not a hex and counter sort of guy but I find ASL's rules to be super elegant, very playable and really fun. Sure sure, tanks and artillery are complicated, but the basic units have 3 numbers and a letter (if you don't count smoke exponent) and the leader counters two numbers.

  5. My local gaming groups were huge fans of the Squad Leader series. We were all hardcore history geeks, and loved reading about World War II since it was so accessible. The rules, will extremely detailed, were pretty easy to grasp after a few starter scenarios.

    I kept up with SL through all the expansions and into the Advanced Squad Leader era. Amusingly, one of the last ASL games I played was at Schofield Barracks, HI, where I kicked my company commander's butt all over the map.

  6. My favorite AH game! I spent a whole lot of hours in Stalingrad watching my units break and run! Panzerfaust ftw ;)

  7. We use to love this game when we were younger. I have no idea what happened to my version of the game. I've been looking into playing online with my old SL buddies:

  8. I loved SL. A great wargame I used to play a lot in the early 80's. I've always thought this game stood half way between a true wargame and a role playing game. Leaders even had names! Losing Lt. Sthaler at the begining of a battle was like losing your best friend. With luck, even a lone soldier hidden in an abandoned house could destroy a Tiger. Doing it was like rolling a "20" with your vorpal sword on a mortal foe :)
    Somehow, playing SL with true wargamers was a pain. Those guys could play without even looking at the maps: they KNEW the line of sight was clear between hex 2256 and hex 5562.
    My interest in that wargame faded with the countless rules and "gamettes". Then came ASL and it was over for me.
    I do agree with you, James: the geomorphic maps and the wonderful counters were really amazing, at the time...

  9. I recommend getting the game and playing it. If you can't find old Squad Leader, the new Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kits are really good. I do not recommend full ASL though, that's way too much.

  10. I loved AH games (Especially Panzerblitz, Wooden Ships & Iron Men, and Luftwaffe), but never could get into Squad Leader, or maybe I could never find anyone to mentor me so I could get into it.

  11. I have an intact copy that I can let go for cheap. If you're interested I can email you.

  12. Inspired an essay in Hobby Games: The 100 Best, I recently acquired a copy of the original Squad Leader. The essay in the book specifically warned that Advanced went too far and is responsible for the perception that Squad Leader was too complex for normal people, which is why I sought the original out. I haven't finished reading the rules yet, but so far I've found them to be very readable and clear, far better than my teenaged dabbling in wargames when I found rules for other games to be as fun and easy as reading legal contracts. I don't know if it's that my teenaged self was unlucky and picked games with poorly written rules, or if I just wasn't ready for them.

  13. I'll second the recommendation for Valor and Victory - having played both Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader BITD, V&V is a game that captures the "feel" but is very accessible to the casual gamer. It also has the great advantage of being free.

  14. The nice story behind this game is Curt Schilling, the major league baseball player. He enjoyed ASL so much that he started a game company and bought the rights from Hasbro to keep the game alive. It can be expensive to purchase but the game seems excellent.

  15. In high school I used manila folders to make dungeon-tiles, and Squad Leader counters for orcs and goblins.

    If you get the chance, play ASL the way we did once - with an experienced "referee" to handle all the rules stuff. It's a very detailed and rewarding system.

  16. The essay in the book specifically warned that Advanced went too far and is responsible for the perception that Squad Leader was too complex for normal people, which is why I sought the original out.

    I have even less experience of ASL than I did of Squad Leader. It came out well after I had any regular contact with wargamers and everything I heard about it suggested that I'd not find it to my liking. From what little I know, it seems like a very "decadent" game, which is to say, appealing primarily to people deep enough into the original that they see flaws and problems that casual players never would. ASL doesn't appear to have been written for guys like me.

  17. I'm a hard-core wargamer, and SL is one of my all-time favorites. When ASL came out, my brother and I picked it up and quickly sold it back as nigh-unreadable. (I also play Star Fleet Battles, that should say something.)

    What it reminds me of most is the summers that we took the boxes of this on our family vacation. I am sure we played far more games of it in our own house, but I cannot pick up the "Crescendo of Doom" expansion without seeing my Aunt Bee's basement.

    I know several ASL gamers in my board-game club, and I have sat down with them a few times. The tactics I picked up from SL are still valid, and I could lean on their rules-knowledge to sort it all out.

    I was at a monster-wargame convention just last week and brought my old SL set, and sure enough, two guys borrowed it to storm Hill 621 one more time.

    Introductory ASL appears to be very popular, but I'm using Memoir '44 to introduce my son to wargames-- the plastic pieces add a nice visual. I'll hit him with SL in a year or two.

    Combat Commander is a card-driven game at the Squad Leader level, and Tide of Iron is another with plastic minis. All seem to have sold well.

    FWIW, I'm told the original leader counters were named for the playtesters at the Purdue Univ. game club.

  18. Squad Leader was (and is) my goto war game. Highly recommended for those who like tiny, square bits of cardboard.

  19. I still have my copy of SL. I have fond memories of Russian squads and their propensity to go beserk, killing their officers in a frenzy; the bazooka where nobody remembered to bring the ammunition; and a Brummbar that resisted all attempts to kill it ...

  20. I think I have both a copy of SL and PanzerBlitz to sell, in fact. I'll check.

  21. Yeah, I loved the game very much too. Reminds me much of the Moldvay Basic set, which I acquired around the same time.

    @Le Baron: I agree very much. SL is halfway between role playing and wargaming, with its distinct leader characters and a more impressionistic approach to showing what happens on the battlefield.

    The Up Front! card game (based on SL) is even closer to role playing, with individual soldiers on each card. It's also easier than SL, instead of harder, like ASL. I still play Up Front! every once in a while.

  22. Lee said:"FWIW, I'm told the original leader counters were named for the playtesters at the Purdue Univ. game club. "

    I work for Purdue, and I've heard this too. Dunno if it has been verified. Anyway, the creator of the game (John Hill) is certainly from Lafayette, IN (right across the river from Purdue), and used to run the only gamestore in town, called The Scale. (I got this info from Jeff Grub, who is a Purdue alum and was here in the late 70s - about 10 years before I came to Purdue.) I'll see if I can contact Mr. Grubb about it, or see if I can turn up any old grognards from back in the day here in town.

  23. Squad Leader was great, and indeed much simpler than ASL, although Squad Leader itself started to drift quite a bit as AH released their expansion packs for them (do I really need rules for 12 different kinds of German halftracks? Really?)

    "a time in the hobby when a complex World War II simulation with hundreds of cardboard counters could be found on the shelves of Toys "R" Us and similar stores."

    I was just thinking this the other day as I was walking through our local hobby store. It wasn't even that long ago (my college years) that they had at least one wall full of AH and other similar products. Now it seems to be reduced to a shelf of card games and "Axis and Allies" (itself a fine product, but not quite the same).

    Computer gaming (like Steel Panthers) and platforms have taken their toll on tabletop wargames. It's just so much easier to rely on a computer to keep track of the many ridiculous details that you can stuff into a "realistic" the ability to simulate "Fog of War" and not seeing the whole tabletop (and hence units) at once is very attractive to gamers.

  24. The computer can handle enormous amounts of data and brings something to the game that would be unmanageable otherwise, but all computer games lack one of the things are love about wargames. That's the feel of the pieces in my hands, the joy of sliding them around on the board and sifting through the stacks and counting movement with my finger. There's a real connection to a paper-and-cardboard wargame you'll never get with an electronic one. Like others here, I played the heck out of both SL and ASL, and yeah, it was always an RPG to me (but then, most wargames were).

  25. Wow, that boxtop instantly filled me with memories. Every game or hobby store I walked into between '79 and '89 had that prominently displayed. I saw it every single time I shopped for anything related to DnD. I 'almost' bought it over a dozen times, but never did, just because I knew I didn't have a group that would want to play it.

  26. but all computer games lack one of the things are love about wargames. That's the feel of the pieces in my hands, the joy of sliding them around on the board and sifting through the stacks and counting movement with my finger. There's a real connection to a paper-and-cardboard wargame you'll never get with an electronic one.

    I often think that people underestimate the tactile pleasure of using physical objects to play a game. I love rolling my own dice, putting down a map on a table, and cracking out miniatures when needed. There's something very pleasurable about these things that no electronic game, no matter how well done, can replicate (and I say this as someone who regularly plays many video games).

  27. The computer can handle enormous amounts of data and brings something to the game that would be unmanageable otherwise, but all computer games lack one of the things are love about wargames.

    Believe it or not, there are a lot of people in the computer game space who understand and appreciate this fact. It is just that, for a long time, there was nothing to be done about it.

    Ideally you want this "best of both worlds" system where the computer handles the complex adjudication, but the player still moves the pieces about. No one ever did this, because the technology to do this was prohibitively expensive. However, computer vision is so good these days that you do see people toying around with this. Point a camera from several different angles at the board, make sure the pieces have a nicely colored flag on them, and go.

    You still have the problem with house rules. Computers don't handle on-the-fly house rules very well. But there will always be trade-offs.

  28. Been playing ASL for some years now. Their is a pod cast out their. It's

    They are a great group of guys and they go though a lot of the rules, maps and new products. In northern Ind. their are afew of us and we still get together.

  29. Someone did in fact try to combine the two worlds. The company Simulations Canada Inc did a few titles for the Apple II which had both a floppy and counters and map, unless I'm totally misremembering.

  30. Brilliant game. I played a lot of wargames in the 70s and 80s but SL (and Cross of Iron - but no so much Crescendo of Doom or GI:Anvil of Victory) got played the most. Hill 621 updated with the CoI armour rules remains my favourite all time wargame scenario.

    I must admit though that the original title for CoD - A Rising Crescendo - was a much better option. And the GI title was just waaaay too parochial.

  31. I have nothing significant to add other than to thank you for the smile that lit my face as soons as I saw the picture of the box.

    Favourite memory: My opponent conceding a game because "It'd be useless to send my guys into that withering hail of fire!".

  32. As a young person in the seventies, I was introduced to gaming via wargames from SPI and Avalon Hill. As I moved into my teen years, my attention shifted to RPGs like D&D and Gamma World because they provided a more direct experience and were much more in tune with my fantasy and SF-fueled imagination. I had pretty much left wargaming behind, until in my late twenties I discovered Squad Leader for the first time.

    Here was a game that was an easy reach for my role-playing sensibilities. It was focused on small unit tactics with 4-5 man squads and individual leaders with actual names. Once you understood the sequence of play it moved quickly and engagements were filled with unpredictable moments of drama (and comedy!). It even had a rudimentary campaign system that allowed you carry units over from scenario to scenario, lending its world an RPG-style permanence. Perhaps most importantly, while striving for historical accuracy, Squad Leader did not try to recreate actual historical battles. Instead, every engagement was a blank slate that could play out in completely unique patterns that reflected the personalities of the players. Squad Leader was a narrative generator and a session report from one of its games could read very much like an RPG session.

    It’s important to note that Advanced Squad Leader was not written by John Hill. While ASL was intended to be an evolution of Squad Leader, I tend to think of it as a separate branch with only a few surface qualities in common. It is infinitely more rules-heavy and as result, I think it misses Hill’s central idea, which was to employ a relatively simple and abstract rule set to simulate the complex mechanics of the real world. The rules for Squad Leader were very “gamey” but the results “felt” real. ASL on the other hand, seems to want to simulate reality on a very systematic and granular level.

  33. I agree with groakes, SL was great, and I think it's best incarnation was with Cross of Iron added, but COD and beyond had too much complexity.

    Another game I loved was Panzer Leader. I thought it was better than Panzer Blitz and Arab Israeli Wars.

  34. I have Panzer Leader as well, and don't I agree. It's as bad as Panzer Blitz. :)

    Am I the only one here with some love for ASL?

  35. I have never played SL or ASL, but I have fond memories of the Bug Hunter: Sniper! game. It's an Alien game, and it had two sets of maps. We played with a referee, and it was very fun.

    For some reason, we didn't get the 'real' versions of Sniper!, but played just that scifi-version. We did play large scale strategy games, though.

  36. The evolution of Squad Leader to Advanced Squad Leader is very, very much the evolution of original D&D to Advanced D&D.

    First you had Squad Leader, a relatively simple set of rules. Then you had the four gamettes, each of which added new rule upon new rule. (Especially the last, G.I.) Then, with so many competing and contradictory rules, ASL came out to pull it all together.

    The core of ASL is far more coherent than Squad Leader; however, ASL has so much chrome on it that it crushes the unprepared. I got into ASL through the Starter Kits a few years ago, and they provide a very good, playable game in their own right.

    Reading Don Greenwood's introduction to the original ASL rules really puts me in mind of Gygax's prose: "While it is true that ASL in all its depth may well be more detailed in many respects than the original basic game, it is our belief that it is far simpler in application than the whole of all its predecessor's parts. To the purist, ASL should play far more smoothly than even basic SQUAD LEADER..."

    I was able to pick up an original Squad Leader set on ebay not that long ago for not that very much; there were over 200,000 copies sold of them, so there are quite a few floating about!

  37. Like you, I too played Squad Leader when I was younger, and a number of other wargames, but never really became a hex-and-counter guy myself: I far prefer the crunchier end of "german style" boardgames or classic non-war-sim games like "Civilization", "Cosmic Encounter", and so on. However, a while back I wanted to add a WWII sim game to my collection, so I did some research to settle on one (I didn't want to a buy a bunch). Candidates were:

    - Used copies of classic SL, with supplements
    - ASL starter kits (Multiman)
    - Conflict of Heroes (Academy Games/Phalanx)
    - Combat Commander (GMT)

    In the end, I settled on Combat Commander, in some ways because it seems the least traditional hex-and-counter sim. On simplicity and ease and speed of play, Conflict of Heroes gave strong consideration, but in the end, the reviews I read of how Combat Commander plays worked to convince me it was the one to buy.

    It's a really fun game, and accessible to people who can play and enjoy the heavier/crunchier examples of german-style boardgames. The components are visually excellent: the maps are paper-stock, but a sheet of plexi works quite well to protect them. The hexes are nice and big, as are the counters, so there's very little in the way of counter-fiddling.

    You get lots of maps and scenarios, and several add on packs are available at reasonable cost, so there's lots of replayability, too.

    Anyone looking to add "just one WWII game" to their collection, with a taste more for non-war-sim boardgames, might want to consider Combat Commander as the one to choose.

  38. @SisterWitch777 I might also add that Combat Commander, as with the original SL, has a strong emphasis on simple, more abstract rules that are flexible and give the feel of the thing, without a heavy concentration on finicky simulation. It is precisely for this reason that I leaned more heavily towards it (and Conflict of Heroes) than towards the ASL starter kits. It was this simple-rules-plus-feel aspect I remembered fondly of SL and wanted to re-present in my collection.

  39. SL and its first gamette Cross of Iron was the last days of my hex and chit gaming before RPGs took over. Although I've bought hex and chit games since about the time the second gamette came out I'd reversed rank of hex games and RPGs.

    That said, SL has its roots in Tobruk, concentrating on improving the very simplistic infantry rules of that game. Since MMP started putting out ASL, Advanced Tobruk has come out as a simpler game along the same lines. V&V mentioned above looks even simpler but I've enjoyed the ATS I've played.

  40. I'l chime in as a fan of Conflict of Heroes. It combines some truly gorgeous components (mounted geomorphic maps, big colorful counters) with a very elegant ruleset, that does lean to the game side of the force, but feels right, and gives you plenty of interesting tactical challenges to solve. I did try Combat Commander but found it to be an overchromed collision between Up Front and Ambush without the charm of either.

  41. SL was a revolution and ASL is still unmatched. I came back the hobby through the use of LnL which is a very good and easy game to learn but after a while the unsustainable appeal of ASL overhelmed my poor soul...
    Godamn, I's a hit... and a snake eyes...