SASL is not ASL

Many think SASL is not as good as ASL since it's different. The difference is the point.

This article was published in the ASL Journal #2.

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Table of Contents [top]

Solitaire Game Mechanics
Changes in Strategy


Introduction [top]

By some measures it seems Solitaire Advance Squad Leader (SASL) needs no introduction. Since its 1995 debut, everyone “knows” this is a solitaire version of our beloved game and that it does not need any explanation. This quick dismissal of the module allows players to make too causal of assumptions. In fact, so many assumptions are made it polarizes the ASL community. While not the hotly contested issue that the IFT/IIFT debate or various so-called sleazes are, it still manages to create rifts among players. SASL may be the most overlooked and underplayed module in the series.

The rift is not completely understandable. No other module is excused as readily. We accept desert or PTO scenarios, for instances, even though we do not all play them. No one forces PTO on others and likewise, no one advocates SASL replacing face-to-face (FtF) play. Yet, many players do not like SASL, perhaps seeing a series of clunky, automated formulas as not providing any fun. Many look at it only superficially and see it sharing rules, counters, and map boards and give no further thought. True, it can be played like ASL but to do so overlooks the beauty of the game. Nevertheless many have formed opinions while not having even tried the game. To complicate matters, their assumptions have been bolstered by several attempts at solitaire games in general. The best-known solitaire ASL version was by Mike O’Leary. He published guidelines attempting to translate FtF scenarios. It was an excellent idea but while it never caught on, many players read it. That article formed a lasting impression about what solitaire play is supposed to be and is the basis of many popularly held assumptions.

And therein are the misconceptions. In truth, SASL is really its own game, different and distinct from ASL. The introduction to SASL’s Chapter S attempts to point this out: SASL is a unique gaming experience. If a player tries SASL as if it were ASL, or expects it to be the same as an FtF game, he will certainly be disappointed. A good analogy focuses on the differences between Japanese infantry and more conventional ones such as the British. You could play Japanese infantry the same way as British units and you might even win too. However, you would be completely missing the point. Most likely you would lose and walk away feeling the Japanese are pretty disappointing. The trick is you have to think and play differently as the Japanese. This is hard for some people, at least at first, since all their experience had been with conventional infantry tactics. The same holds true here. With SASL, we are faced with new scenarios and a new kind of opponent. Both require a new style of play. This article will examine some of the unique aspects of the SASL system and differences of playing styles. It is hoped you will gain a new insight for the game and maybe try it, or try it again.

Solitaire Game Mechanics [top]

Of course, the challenge with solitaire games is producing a useable artificial intelligence (AI). Too simple of one does not produce a good opponent and too burdensome of one become unplayable. SASL accomplishes the AI with four main game mechanisms: Suspect Counters, Activation Tables, Action Tables, and Hierarchy Lists. Regardless of the AI, the solitaire system must compromise. Players trade knowledge of the AI’s behavior with the uncertainty of the opposing forces. Because of these, solitaire play is not same as FtF. Fortunately, the designers did not intend for it to be. This fact does not make the game better or worst, only different than ASL. Players are encouraged to see SASL in this new light.

Suspect Counters

To introduce an uncertainty, opposing forces are marked initially only by Suspect counters, represented by S? markers. In practice they are similar to cloaking counters: you know where they are but not how many units they represent, if any at all, or even if they are 5/8” or 1/2” counters. Their actual composition will not be revealed until an attempt is made to activate them. The scenario describes their initial placement and combat attitude. Hold attitude, as the name implies, represents a holding or defensive posture while Advance attitude has the opponent moving and attacking. A side may have Suspect counters in either attitude at the same time.

Activation Tables

Activation is the way Suspect counters are turned into actual units. It is a two-step process. First, an Activation attempt is made in response to friendly units moving or firing. This is dependent on the range, the DRM of the moving unit, and the solitaire enemy’s nationality. The scenario defines the Activation number and a dr is made. An unsuccessful activation removes the Suspect counter, in essence a dummy stack. Otherwise, the exact contents of the stack are then generated. Generation Tables are provided for each solitaire nationality. SASL includes German, American, Russian and partisan tables. Additional tables will be available in subsequent SASL releases. These tables cover the range of possible units for the scenario’s time and theater. They are weighted so that historically rare vehicles remain uncommon. The tables appearing in the SASL module are the most comprehensive and the most general while tables for solitaire HASL (S/HASL) are much more restrictive and represent only units present for that battle.

Action Tables

Every PFPh, active enemy units roll for their activity. This determines if they fire, move or panic. By rolling against their current combat attitude their action is determined. Panic is unique to SASL. The effects of panic are the same as being TI (may not move, advance, fire, etc.). The unit is also considered to have Final Fired but must use FPF whenever possible. A panicked vehicle stops. Enemy units may also panic during DF.

Hierarchy Lists

These lay at the heart SASL’s artificial intelligence (AI). After deciding which action the units takes, these lists determine the actual target or destination of the unit. For either movement or fire, the unit rolls on the appropriate chart and is presented a set of options in a hierarchical form. The unit must attempt to follow this sequence in the order listed. If no target meets that criterion or if multiple targets are available then the next condition is used. For example, in Prep Fire an enemy infantry unit with LOS to some of your units is ordered to fire. It rolls a five on the appropriate table (Enemy Attack Table A3a): Fire all FP at closest target in VPO (Victory Point Objective) hex; at closest Known target; etc. Among the potential targets in a VPO hex, it would fire at the closest one. If there were more than one eligible target or if none were available, then it would fire at the closest Known unit regardless of VPO proximity. Again, if this did not produce a single target, the next command is used as a tiebreaker, and so on. A similar procedure occurs with movement but with destinations.

For combat alone, there are four charts: IFT vs. Infantry, LATW vs. Vehicle, Ordnance vs. Infantry and Ordnance vs. Vehicle. Taken as a whole, an impressive array of options develops. First, it is not possible to second-guess the AI. While it could be narrowed down to a few generalities (the closest, the most units or the least TEM), even within a given type there are just too many variations. There are several kinds of “closest” target. They may be closest in simple range, closest in VPO hex, closest PRC; closest Known, and the list goes on. In the end, this is still pretty close to an FtF game anyhow. You suspect your opponent is going to fire at either the closest, the most, the highest FP, or the lowest TEM, for instance. Second, because the tables are well considered and designed, it reduces the apparent randomness. Assuming a unit is going to fire, for example, it selects targets logically; certainly not finding them the same way snipers do.

Command Control

Just as the solitaire opponent rolls for panic, your troops too have the ability to panic. For units to function properly they must be in Command Control. A simplified version of the rule is that the unit must be within two hexes and LOS of a superior leader who has passed a TC, also called a Command (CMD) DR. For example, if a 10-3 leader passes a CMD DR, all units and other leaders within two are considered in command; that is, they may move and fire normally. In the same manner this might put a subordinate leader in command and he, in turn, provides command to all units within two and so on. If the original 10-3 leader fails his check, the next highest leader attempts a CMD DR. Last in the sequence would be units outside of any command whether because its leader fails the CMD DR or outside any leader’s range. Naturally, you expect a CMD DR of 12 to be automatic panic.

Many players, including those not partial to SASL, like this rule and have tried informally to use it in their own games. Occasionally this topic even shows up on the ASL mailing list. However, the implications are tricky and it forces three new considerations for the players.

First, leaders get a new role. ASL leaders already have too much to do during battle. The good ones lead fire groups, the bad ones are relegated to radio operations or assisting with movement, and mediocre ones usually up near the front rallying. Rarely does a side ever have enough leaders. However, this rule effectively requires leaders to be the center of battle group. This role will be more important than their regular functions. Taken to an extreme, if you only have one leader, it is going to be in command role. Second, since the leaders will not be directing fire as often, players will have to develop new fire philosophies. The effectiveness of the fire is going to decrease. Leaders are going to be up front but not on the front. They are less likely to stay back unless forming an outstanding kill stack. Third, forces are not going to be spread out as much. It is common in FtF games to have a line across map, maybe with units in flanking positions. Players may still attempt do so, but it actually becomes problematic now because of panic. In-depth defenses are also at risk. Players will find themselves with a stronger up-front position and will have less ability to fall back in an organized manner. For this reason command control has to be a consideration. If a player has keeps too many leaders from the front, many troops will panic each turn. Attackers will discover they have no troops moving forward. Likewise, unprepared Defenders will get quickly overrun.

Random Events

SASL also introduces random events into play. The scenario will set each side’s random event (RE) as two consecutive numbers, from a low of 2/3 to a maximum of 6/7. During the ATTACKER’s Rally Phase, the Wind Change roll doubles as the RE check. If the DR is either one of the numbers, a random event occurs. Another DR is then made on the nationalities’ corresponding RE table.

Random events range from the innocuous to the drastic although like other tables in SASL, it is weighted, making the more influential affects less probable. Some events may not even be applicable and will have no effect. These events may be categorized in three ways. First, it may be the appearance of new troops, including partisans, assault engineers, or elite troops. It may also bring on various 5/8” counters such as a platoon of field guns, assault guns, tanks or half-tracks loaded with infantry. Second, it may be a limited event or one time occurrence such as certain squads going berserk, a new round of ammo shortage, an immediate activation check of select Suspect counters, or a change for the RE values for better or worst. Lastly, it may be an event changing the scenario itself. This includes a change of the victory point schedule or having the solitaire opponent suddenly go on the attack. The most drastic one forces an immediate withdrawal of friendly units and changes the victory condition.

In terms of play, there is not much that can be done to anticipate these. They occur randomly and the severity, while varied, is likewise difficult to predicate. However, you always have to be aware that enemy units could enter at any moment. The concern is similar to a sniper picking off your best leader. You cannot guard against it really but players generally protect them by stacking them with other units, having others nearby, and rarely having the leader on the outside of his security circle.

While some players do not use RE, it is strongly recommended with solitaire S/HASL. The difference is S/HASL becomes more specialized and the scope of the fighting is usually much more restrictive so that friendly units need the additional reinforcements. For example, in solitaire RB, attackers require assault guns which generally are not available, or available in sufficient numbers, by OB alone.

Fog of War

As a result of all these changes, there is a definite fog of war. You no longer can count on the knowing the opposing forces or when new ones, enemy or friendly, will enter. While this seemingly erratic behavior may appear too much of a wild card, many players make the case it actually enhances the game. For example, most HASL campaign games have variable scenario lengths. When that concept was first introduced, player’s reactions varied. Some viewed it with apprehension since they were familiar with fixed length scenarios. It is now a proven mechanism that players have come to like, if not expect. Few make any criticisms of it even though it clearly introduces uncertainty or usually favors one side or the other. By using variable length scenarios, players voluntarily and willing accept new challenges. They change their strategy and tactics, altering them for this new feature. For example, do you risk an attack on KGP’s sanitarium late in the scenario knowing failure would put you in a very bad position for the next scenario? Obviously, introducing uncertainty can make the game better.

If the variable scenario length creates one set of challenges, then not knowing the other side's forces creates an additional set. However, to view unit activation as completely random sleights the game unfairly. The opposing side is not pulling units out a bucket containing all the counters. The activation charts are well designed. While it may be possible to activate an unstoppable behemoth, it is probable the Suspect counter is a squad or two. It also addresses the problem of scenarios presenting fair challenges; that is, both sides have the means to win. In truth, not all engagements were this even handed. Tasked with your victory conditions, you will be equipped with what you need but not much more. It is likely you will encounter a stronger force. Part of the strategy is utilizing your forces in ways you might not have thought of before. In some instances, you may meet a force you cannot defeat. Another part of the strategy is knowing when to withdraw. This is something rarely encountered in standalone scenarios. It becomes more important during SASL CGs, where you risk losing a sizable portion of your experienced troops. One philosophy states “play balance is for wimps.”

By the same token, SASL has a high replay value. Given Suspect counters activate differently and the terrain is generated anew for each scenario, it is easy to see how each playing is different. In addition, changing the opposing nationality will introduce even more challenges. Just as with FtF games, fighting SASL’s Germans is dissimilar than fighting Russians in otherwise the same situation.

Changes in Strategy [top]

After accepting new tactics, there are additional changes players should make. Generalities are hard to make in ASL and the same is true for SASL. Naturally each situation is different. However, SASL tends to make more use of sacrificial HSs. On the attack, someone is going to have to risk activating Suspect counters. Afterwards, there needs be a firebase nearby to respond to newly appearing units. Also, the attack tends to be more localized, so Suspect counters are activated in smaller, manageable numbers. The terrain does not always accommodate this approach but in general while attacking, the fewer Suspect counters activated at a time is better. On the defense the opposite is true. You want to activate as many as possible so you can better deal with the forces. Again, the sacrificial HS is important. This unit needs to be placed with the best LOS to the most areas. Several might be needed to cover the battlefield.

It is likely you will stack more in SASL. This is needed to form more effective FGs, especially if a good leader is available, or to move quickly to a new position. In some ways stacking is less risky too. The solitaire opponent is more predicable in DFF. As long as the stack does not meet the movement-based activation requirements, they can actually move around the battlefield more freely than FtF play. Except by RE, there are no HIP units to suddenly appear.

You also have more leisurely pace. Since there is no opponent to prod you on, and since games do not have to over by the end of the evening, players can take more time to think about the moves. They are free to better evaluate each move and option. It is this feature many players enjoy. This comes closest to practice for ASL since new options may be explored, even retracted afterwards. It is similar to learning chess by replaying old games and, more instructively, playing alternatives the author proposes.

In the same way, the lack of opponent may distract players. The situation is no longer truly adversarial. Even though players have more time to look up rules, they are not required to and lose the motivation. In this sense SASL falls short as a training tool. Some of the rules need the interaction of other players to learn it correctly.

Conclusion [top]

For the reasons outline above, it becomes difficult to categorize SASL. Clearly, it is ASL. It uses the same maps, counters and rules. Players already familiar with ASL should be comfortable with SASL. The new material it introduces is only for the AI. That material is well designed, as you would expect, and please give it that assumption. It gives the solitaire opponent reasonable behavior and just random enough to keep you from getting complacent. Players can do well for themselves by following the AI in their own games. It sets up rules of engagement in a consistent and logical manner.

However, it was never intended for SASL to be a replacement for a live opponent. It may not even be good practice for playing ASL. It brings up common rules questions, which allows players to better learn some situations. On the other hand, those situations may not be representative a live game. The designers were aware of these differences and made it a distinctively new game. Many players go one step further and will change the enemy’s actions to make it better or more logical. Since the goal of the game is have one that is fun and challenging, there is nothing wrong with viewing the AI as only a framework from which play may be deviated. If the enemy does something obviously illogical, change it. You may find you are doing this a lot less often, however, than you expected.