Monday, July 27, 2009

ASL: It's ours, guys... it lives and dies with us

Note to readers: This post won't make a lick of sense to anyone who isn't familiar with the Advanced Squad Leader game system.

Not just a game... an identity!
Boy, I'll tell ya, that ol' river just keeps on rollin'.

Just the other night, Friday night, Dave Hauth and I quit --that's right, up and quit --a game of Sowchos 79 just as the scenario was at its crux.  Dave had his Germans halfway into the board 3 village and his armor on the hills drawing a bead on my machine-gun nest, but my big KV tanks were lumbering onto the board to try to salvage the situation. And then, midway into Dave's player turn 5, right after his Prep Fire Phase, we just quit.

To repeat:  we stood down from a contest with the issue still in doubt.  Can you believe it?

Granted it was 2am, and we were both dog tired after each having had a full work day. Still, there was a time, say 15 years ago, when we would have powered on through 'til dawn or beyond 'til one or the other abandoned all hope.

Getting old, I suppose.

Got me to thinkin'.

Jeff DeBraal and Dave Hauth at Wild West Fest '99
Advanced Squad Leader came out, when? Back in '87 or '88? Twenty-odd years, now.

Remember the old Avalon Hill Game Company? There is a certain demographic of men, age range roughly 35 to 65, for which the Avalon Hill Game Company was the fount of boundless hours of entertainment.

That's us. That is we. We're those men. All of us amateur historians who probably lacked the discipline to be really good at chess, but who loved to play games. History geeks who could spend hours speculating about how the entire flow of human events, all its grandeur and squalor, might have been altered into something entirely different if only, say, Napoleon had opted to commit the Old Guard at Borodino, or if Von Paulus had disregarded Hitler's order and pulled the Sixth Army back from the banks of the icy Volga.

Over the years, we've formed a community, an identity.

Tom Repetti awards Andre Danielson the Horse's Ass Trophy for going 0-6 at Wild West Fest '99
When ASL came out I was all over it. I took the rulebook to class with me in college, held it in my lap, beneath the desk, and read while my professor lectured about something not nearly so important. (You know? Sociology or electronic theory or some such.) As I read, I knew that I had found a system that fulfilled all my desires as a complete and comprehensive game. A game that could recreate the mythic historic period that had occurred roughly 20 years before I was born. The great global conflict that we, in the United States, call World War II.

Bob Oppen takes on Tim Hundsdorfer at Wild West Fest '95
In college, my friend Mark Hoyt and I spent --not just hours --days playing the game. Neglecting our studies, ignoring our friends. Mark Hoyt, who, had it not been for this game, I would probably never have befriended, he being a conservative and a Christian, and me being a godless liberal. Engineering students that we were, toward the end of our senior year, Mark and I calculated that, in aggregate, we had spent a full month of 24-hour days over the previous two years of college playing ASL.

After I graduated, I moved from my hometown in southern Oregon up to the (relatively) big city of Portland and met many more guys who, just like me, loved to play the game. In fact, ASL has introduced me to some of my very best friends. Andre Danielson, Dave Hauth, Stewart King, Sonny Hayes-Eberts... the list goes on and on. In Portland, we eventually formed our own club, the Berserk Commissars that, in its heyday had a dozen dedicated ASL players. But we were more than a club of game-playing geeks. We were a community of friends. We saw each other through marriages and divorces, growing families, aging parents.

Berserk Commissars at Wild West Fest '97
Front seat: Bruce Billett, Stewart King (driving)
Back seat: Carey Cardon, Andre Danielson, yours truly
And nationwide, of course, there is an ASL community. I have been to Maryland exactly once in my life: when I went to Bowie to participate in the Winter Offensive tournament back in 1996. I have good friends from all over the country. Hell, from all over the world! When I went to Sweden in 1999, I took a train ride from Stockholm to Gävle with the express purpose of getting in a game or two with Patrik Manlig.

Well, I guess I'm straying pretty far into my reverie, but the point is this: Boys, we're a dying breed.

The kids these days, they're all into their PS-2's and their Wii's and their first-person shooters. Try getting a teenager to sit down at a hexagonal-grid geomorphic board map and explaining "This little cardboard square represents a PAK38. If you place it with the depiction thusly, it's covered arc is defined to be thus-and-so." Said teenager's mind is far, far away, fighting World of Warcraft Forest Trolls before you can finish the sentence.

Mark (Snave) Evans, myself, and Timbo Wilson at WildWest Fest '98
There's no future in games that have you sitting hunched over a table for 3 to 10 hours, mumbling cryptic phrases to each other, then dropping dice into a tower and discerning an outcome from the result. Take a look around, the next time you go to an ASL tournament. How many young faces, say people under 30, do you see? There aren't any new recruits, boys. It's just us.

And we're getting old.

We've had a few casualties already. Remember Carey Cardon? Or Kent Smoak?

Well, it's inevitable. But I like to look at it this way: ASL is ours. It belongs uniquely to us. It's our thing. When the last ASL player rolls his last MC, ASL will have passed into the foggy ruins of time with him. But, if we're lucky, there'll be a well-lighted game room up there in the celestial other-world, with dice towers and well-organized counter storage systems.

When we get there, I wanna play Pleva.


"Six up two."

"Roll it."

The dice drop. Clack, clack.

"That's a one check."

"And my sniper... (clack) Pin. (clack) Break. (clack) Break. (clack) Heat of battle!"

"Roll it."

Again, the clacking.

"Minus 1, elite. Plus 2, Russian. Berserk!"

"Sucks. Don't forget your sniper roll."

"Gotta love this game, man."

"Yeah. Gotta love it."


Unknown said...

Only hope is VASL. Even then, it will be hard to get kids to go for it.

Santino the Bull said...

Amen brutha!

I wonder when MMP will start issuing large print counters...

Brandon said...

Hi there! I just recently came across ASL and I would like to learn how to play. I'm 32, live in downtown Portland and I would love to come to watch a game session if you and your friends are still meeting up regularly.

Thanks for your time,

Brandon said...

PS: my email is:

Chris G said...

it's been 8 years since your post, just thought i'd mention, 28 y/o here and managing my way through the starter kit content eagerly. i think ASL has a generation more to go I think :) i've gotten two random people pick up starter kits from seeing me play it ftf in a cafe. it's not that there is no interest in ww2 tactical board games, and it's so old-school that i don't think people realise its old (so old its new kinda deal?) so with the right marketing and old timers always being up to help us new timers, ASL will survive and thrive