A Diversion

A Slight Return

The local gaming club had a game day this past Saturday, and I had scheduled to play Avalon Hill’s 1978 (I think) board game of squad level infantry tactics, Squad Leader with my friend, Brendon. Now, Squad Leader is a game that I played solitaire (or at least set up) a hundred times when I was a young teenager, but the few times that I actually got to play the game back then invariably involved a cheating opponent. I won’t go into why that was the case, but, as you can imagine, it led to some very unsatisfying play. As I found out about girls, rock and roll, and other diversions my interest in super complicated war games waned, and even when I returned to geeky hobbies in my early 30s, my friends were more interested in RPGs and Eurogames than such manly forms of entertainment as Squad Leader.

Suffice it to say, I was stoked to get to return to a game I was once thoroughly obsessed with. This time I would even get to play with an experienced, non-cheating, opponent!

The Guards Counterattack

The classic Squad Leader scenario, The Guards Counterattack

The above photo was lifted from Boardgamegeek, as I forgot to take my camera to our game. Brendon may do a write-up with his photos at a later date, and if he gets around to it, I will link here.

You’re looking at the first scenario from Squad Leader, The Guards Counterattack, which uses a half-board of a semi-urban nature. I believe the scenario is set in Stalingrad, though the board doesn’t much match the photos I’ve seen. The Germans (in blue) are on the defense, and, as you might suspect from the title, the Russians are on offense, with the goal of taking control of at least two of the stone buildings occupied by the Germans at the beginning of play. I believe the scenario is 5 (or maybe 7) turns long.

On the German left flank are stacks of PPSh-bearing Russian Guards units who are the most effective Reds on the board. The Guards have great morale and good firepower, but, being submachine-gun armed, don’t have a great range (2 hexes). There is one medium machine gun on the Soviet side. The standard Russian units that make up the rest of the force are inferior to their German counterparts, and the Russian leadership isn’t quite up to snuff with the Germans, either.

The German units are all standard infantry counters, though they are quite well outfitted with light machine guns, and even have a heavy and a medium MG in their order of battle. The Germans are, of course, quite well fortified in their multi-story stone buildings.

Learning the Rules

Squad Leader has complicated rules. Not as bad as Advanced Squad Leader, but, in their own right, they are complicated enough to make grown men weep. Thankfully, the rules are written so that they are learned in stages. You only have to read and digest a couple of pages of rules to play the first scenario (Guards Counterattack), and if you play that scenario a couple of times you will internalize the basics. As you move on through the rule books, new aspects of the game are addressed, and you play a scenario that allows you to put the new rules to use. I have to say, it’s an excellent way to go about digesting a complex and dense set of rules, and if you follow the written process, rules comprehension is quite manageable.

Of course, when I was 15, I really, really, really wanted to be using tanks, smoke, and starshells from the get-go. This made the process of learning Squad Leader near impossible.

Who Won, Already?

Guards Counterattack seems to be a well-balanced scenario. Our first game, I played the Germans and won quite handily. I spread out my German counters, and used the copious amount of LMGs to great effect. My opponent favors large stacks of troops for their combined firepower, but I think that concentrating your troops in that way is a dangerous strategy.

In Squad Leader an attack roll affects the entire target hex, and the combat table involves some insta-kill results. So, a lucky roll can eliminate a large number of your enemy if they’re bunched up. Spreading out your forces has a few drawbacks (particularly in close combat), but if you have good leadership and can maintain good lines, you can still combine firepower without the danger of losing a mega-stack to an unfortunate roll. To my great benefit, there were several instances were I rolled well and eliminated large stacks of Russians in the first game. In fact, I don’t think they ever made it into any of the objective buildings.

The second game, we switched sides, and I lost as the Russians. I was extremely aggressive with my Guards troops, which worked very well early in the scenario. I was able to storm into one of the objective buildings in the first turn, and after considerable close combat, I cleared it of German troops, taking a couple of valuable elite German leaders out in the process.

Unfortunately, I somewhat ignored my advice about large stacks, and pressed on, crossing an open street with my storm troops, all in the face of Wehrmacht MGs. In Squad Leader, MGs have this little thing called penetration, that allows them to affect multiple hexes in a continuous line of sight. I’ll just say that machine gun penetration is an easy way to lose five squads of elite Guards and the momentum and leave it at that.

Even with these casualties, the game went down to the wire, with a couple of key rolls in the last turn being the deciding factors. It was truly a tense and exciting bit of gaming, and I was thoroughly engaged the entire time.

In Conclusion

Now that my appetite has been whetted by our two games of SL, I’ve decided to buy into the game’s younger (and still in print) cousin, Advanced Squad Leader. I’ve ordered the ASL Starter Kit Three, and plan on using the game as a sort of stop-gap for my miniatures wargaming. I think it will be a good way to get some WW2 flavored tactical gaming in until I can find/make the time to actually get some miniatures painted. Who knows, perhaps the cultivating of ASL opponents will bear fruit for my miniatures gaming down the road.

!!UPDATE!!

Brendon was cool enough to do a photo-report of our Squad Leader game. You can find the AAR at his blog, What Am I Playing At.

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Comments

  • Anibal Invictus  On 02/26/2012 at 3:17 pm

    Brave man! My interest in these complex games grows in reverse relation to my age… so now that I’m 49 I’d probably aim to play ludo at best!

  • arkiegamer  On 02/26/2012 at 3:24 pm

    You know, I went through a decade-long phase of hating complicated games, but now I’m finding something enjoyable about diving into a complex set of rules. I think it’s possible to enjoy something simple and elegant like, say, Command & Colors AND something byzantinely complicated (yet elegant) like Squad Leader.

    Then again, I’m only 41, so maybe I just have the superior gaming stamina of a ‘young’ man. I kid!

  • Brendon  On 02/27/2012 at 1:26 am

    Great review ! I spent today working to get some of the photos I took ready for web-display, the lighting @ CHG and my camera’s auto-focus were not optimal but I think I’ll still be able to give a good overview of our games. 41 Ha!, definitely a kid ! (says the 46 year old) ;-) ~ Brendon

  • arkiegamer  On 02/27/2012 at 7:06 am

    Cool! I’ll look forward to the AAR, and will definitely link it up over here.

  • Brendon  On 02/28/2012 at 10:04 pm

    Hey Tim, I put the pictures up at my site, hope they’re useful or at least interesting.

  • arkiegamer  On 02/28/2012 at 10:15 pm

    Thanks, man. Here’s a link to the AAR, for those who are interested:

    http://whatplay.blogspot.com/2012/02/squad-leader-game-day.html#comment-form

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