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Avalon Hill and Advanced Squad Leader

A brief word on Avalon Hill and Advanced Squad Leader, the "trunk" of your Tree of Life.

Marc Michalik, Blogger

May 6, 2016

8 Min Read

After having written the initial articles about Stephen V. Cole and the influence of his Star Fleet Universe I decided to finish the "primary story arc", the Tree of Life, of the old hobbyist game industry with two more articles.  And then I've decided to continue this blog with weekly articles that I like to call "Tiny Little Branches".  But more on that later, let's talk about the trunk of your Tree of Life.  Where it all started.  Where all games more complex than Monopoly & Risk actually come from.

I am among what I would imagine is a very small group of people who actually know how to play both Star Fleet Battles and Advanced Squad Leader (but not D&D).  My focus here until now has been on the SFU, but I thought I would add one more "thick branch" article about Avalon Hill and ASL, since you already know about D&D (well, mostly anyway, it's just a lot bigger than most of you imagine).  I am not an ASL expert, but have played many of Avalon Hill's games including ASL.  I am a decent ASL player, and have read it's rulebook a few times over the years, but know ASL better through it's predecessors like Panzer Blitz and the original Squad Leader (which was nothing like the massive ASL, it was more of a precursor just like Panzer Blitz).  Anyone who makes RTS games should definitely at least learn how to play Advanced Squad Leader, if not become good at it.  Here's why...

Avalon Hill began in the late 1940's.  Their first game is often credited as being "Tactics", but the "old men" of Avalon Hill who were there in the beginning and still attending conventions in the 1980's would tell stories of a few different "prototype" games that had been released only in their local area prior to Tactics and the formation of AH.  Avalon Hill made many other games as well, like the classically elegant and simple Acquire (the ultimate lesson of minimalism in game design other than game design miracle of Chess), but much of Avalon Hill's history is the story of what started out as "Tactics" undergoing 50 years of evolution through dozens of games to eventually arrive at the ultimate evolution of "the classic Avalon Hill game"... that you know as an RTS game.  Some high points along the way include Blitzkrieg! (awesome WWII tech on an "alternate world", the need to "fight the map" and conquer "minor nations" between you over the first few turns results in a different starting position every game), and Panzer Blitz (the first time it finally all came together into one game).  Then the original Squad Leader is best described as "Panzer Blitz II" and was a refinement of that first game that had all of the basic components of the AH tactical combat system that had evolved over the years.  And, finally, Advanced Squad Leader...  the ultimate evolution of 50 years of trial-and-error development.  It is the ultimate "RTS game" and the modern game industry is still a long, long way from coming anywhere near it.  The vast majority of it is still very relevant to RTS games today, if viewed conceptually and applied in different ways.

If you are making RTS games, and you don't know how Advanced Squad Leader works... then you are doing it wrong.  In learning ASL you will learn that many elements of RTS games that you consider "recent and modern" additions to the genre were, forget about ASL, already in Panzer Blitz.  You will find that Avalon Hill was way, way ahead of you guys on how to make this kind of game and you still have much to learn from them.  You really will be stunned by how detailed, complete, and complex Advanced Squad Leader actually is.  Which shouldn't really come as a surprise when you think about it, considering that the ASL design process was begun by people who actually fought in World War II.  It then evolved over a period 50 years through dozens of different "experiment games" before finally arriving at the final conclusion, from the experiments of hundreds of designers over a period of 50 years, of exactly how to do this kind of thing right.  Much like the Star Fleet Universe, the modern game industry has never come anywhere near Advanced Squad Leader with their RTS games.  Not even close.  Nobody would expect you too, you only have a few dozen people and a few years to make your game.  Nobody expects you to ever rival any of The Big Three games... only that you might learn from them.  Who knows, it might speed the process of the evolution of your comparative "mini-games" considerably.  And maybe in 30 years or so you may actually evolve a way of making something that does rival The Big Three games... that would be a computer game that I would love to play!!!

Your "great granduncle" is just as important to the modern game industry as great grandma D&D and great grandpa SFB are, but hasn't been as influential within it's own genre because it was quickly forgotten after planting it's initial seeds.  ASL's long line of earlier experimental prototype games, and the rest of AH's games, had influenced The Big Three and all of the other "golden age" games.  Avalon Hill is the trunk of the Tree of Life of your industry.  The full 3-way interlocked Star Fleet Universe is the "refuses to be categorized" and "more modern" game of The Big Three era and, unlike D&D and ASL, has a broad influence across most genres whereas D&D and ASL are more the oldest relatives of their specific genres.  So, from the perspective of an old hobbyist industry game guy like me, if you are making RTS games and you don't know anything about Advanced Squad Leader... then you've never read your own bible.  Ancient and outdated in a few ways, still very relevant in most others... and containing more wisdom than any single generation can possibly accumulate.  Don't take ASL so literally.  This is the RTS maker's bible, and you should probably at least read it if you want to make those types of games.

Don't take ASL so literally.  As just one example of many, of course a real-time RTS game would bog down if the player had to make all of those decisions for each unit.  Instead, look at how it works, what in hobbyist games is called the "sequence of play".  Look at how units move, when opporunties to fire occur for each side and why, what the "sequence of play" for all of this is and why.  Now think about how the AI and player controlled unit movement rules work for the RTS you are making right now... are you anywhere in the same neighborhood as ASL?  I feel pretty confident in saying that you aren't.  And this is only one example of the lessons it has to teach.  And also keep in mind that just because ASL has everything doesn't mean that you have to use all of it in any given game.  In fact, it is best to use only what works well with what you are already doing... unless you are trying to make an actual real-time ASL computer game (you can sign me up, I'll even pay double).  And it's not just RTS games that owe their heritage to Avalon Hill either.  Turn-based tactical games like Breach, X-Com, or the old "Panzer Leader" series are also ultimately based on AH games.  Those are all "Avalon Hill rules".

You forgot about Avalon Hill, the ultimate source of everything you do, because in your earliest days they represented everything that you wanted to avoid... "Whatever you do, don't look like an Avalon Hill game" was a mantra of your early days.  But Advanced Squad Leader was still a major inspiration behind the earliest RTS computer games.  Dan "Danni" Bunton loved Avalon Hill games, and yet his games never showed it... even though they were the basis.  I know, I was a big fan of Command HQ and Conquest and his other early games and I saw him at many game conventions during the 1980's and early '90's...  he was always easy to find, you'd just go to the Avalon Hill room.  Just because everything is there (and it is) doesn't mean you have to use all of it in your game.  The "genetic line" that ended in Advanced Squad Leader was were the earliest RTS computer games came from.  But then, rather than continuing to improve the "ASL computer games" you quickly forgot about ASL because "hexes are bad" and started re-inventing the wheel all over again on your own.  So a good estimate might be that you are still about 25 years behind Avalon Hill.  Maybe more, since Avalon Hill was so focused on the goal and got a pretty good head start with those real war veterans... and they didn't have to worry about things like writing code or creating 3D models.

Maybe you should learn to play ASL at least decently, then make an RTS game, and maybe see what happens.  That's how Dan Bunton did it... except that he was really, really good at ASL, but then forced to work with primitive interfaces and computers.  You would have an advantage.  It's just a thought.




Next Week:  The "Lost Fourth Genre" of the hobbyist game industry...  You forgot about Tre...


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