INTRODUCTIONWhen it first hit game stores in 1977, SQUAD LEADER — John Hill’s game of World War II small unit combat — rocked the wargaming community as no war game had done since PANZERBLITZ seven years before. Admittedly, the introduction of John Prados’ THIRD REICH in 1974 had created a great deal of buzz within the hobby, but that excitement was nothing compared to the enthusiastic attention that John Hill’s new design received when it first burst on the scene. SQUAD LEADER’s ground-breaking design blended elements of board war games with those of miniatures, but then took this innovative small-unit design architecture to a whole new level. Instead of companies, players now controlled infantry squads, individual support weapons and their crews, and individual vehicles. Not surprisingly, it was an immediate hit with a large segment in the wargaming community and its sales soared. The management at Avalon Hill, realizing that they had a veritable "cash-cow" on their hands, moved to capitalize on this wide-spread enthusiasm by publishing a series of SQUAD LEADER GAMETTES over the next few years, starting with CROSS OF IRON. Each of these follow-up GAMETTES added new rules, new vehicles, additional nationalities, and new map boards to the basic SQUAD LEADER package; however, players still needed to own the original game in order to play them. This steady process of periodic new releases continued for several years. Then, in 1985, the boys in Baltimore broke with this successful retail program and, instead of introducing yet another SQUAD LEADER GAMETTE, launched a completely redesigned, and much more detailed version of the SQUAD LEADER Game System, ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER (ASL). The rest, as they say, is history.
SQUAD LEADER (2nd Edition) is a small unit, squad-level game of World War II combat on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, 1941-45. One player commands the German forces and the other player controls either Red Army units or American formations. The game is played in turns, and each turn is divided into two player turns: a German and an Allied turn. During each player turn, the phasing (acting) player will perform the following game operations in exactly this order: Rally Phase (during this phase the phasing player will, among other things, attempt to repair malfunctioning AFVs and support weapons, and rally broken units) ; Prep Fire Phase (the phasing player fires on enemy units and conducts several other secondary game operations); Movement Phase (the phasing player moves any units that did not fire during the Prep Fire Phase) ; Defensive Fire Phase; Advancing Fire Phase (moving units fire at half strength); Rout Phase (broken units rout to cover); Advance Phase (the attacking player may advance any still unbroken units one hex into that of the defenders); and the Close Combat Phase (the attacking player conducts all close combat attacks against defending units in the same hexes as attackers). Once this series of player operations is completed, the defending player becomes the phasing player, and the sequence is repeated. At the conclusion of the second player’s turn, the current game turn ends and the turn marker is advanced one space on the Turn Record Track. Fire and movement are important, but morale and leadership are the real keys to John Hill’s vision of small unit combat. Prospective players should take this lesson to heart: units with good morale and excellent leadership almost always have a pronounced advantage over enemy troops with inferior morale — even when those enemy troops have superior numbers and good leaders — whatever the combat situation.
Not surprisingly, because of the limited scale of the game, units do not possess zones of control, and there are no supply rules. Stacking is limited to four units per hex, only three of which may be squads. Like other modern-era tactical games, SQUAD LEADER — despite the importance it assigns to Close Combat — is primarily a “fire” oriented combat system. For this reason, blocking terrain, concealing terrain, elevation, and line of sight are critical factors in determining which units may fire and be fired on in any given combat phase. Armored Fighting Vehicles are a special case both in stacking and in line of sight (LOS): only one AFV may occupy a hex and, unlike squads which are removed from the map when eliminated, AFVs are inverted to show a wreck counter, and, upon placement, continue to count against stacking and to block LOS through their hex. Finally, because of the tactical detail represented in the game system, SQUAD LEADER (2nd Ed.) offers a variety of specialized rules to cover different combat situations. Thus, there are rules for, among other things: multi-level buildings; smoke; barbed wire; vehicle and equipment malfunctions; mines; entrenchments; fixed fortifications; artillery spotting; off-board artillery support; and even night combat operations.
SQUAD LEADER is played using a scenario or “mini-game” format. Six back-printed Scenario Cards are included with the game; these cards provide the specific orders of battle, set-ups, and victory conditions for twelve different East and West Front battlefield situations. Each scenario typically attempts to reproduce a different, but common type of small-unit engagement between German and Russian, and German and American forces during the years 1941-45.
SQUAD LEADER (2nd Ed.) also offers additional rules for those players who want to experiment further with the game system. There is a subset of “advanced” rules that permit players to design and balance their own scenarios; and there is even a provision for an “extended” SQUAD LEADER campaign that ties multiple scenarios together into one long game
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONFirst, I have a confession: I am, it would seem, just not a SQUAD LEADER kind of guy. I don’t know why, but I personally don’t care much for the SQUAD LEADER Game System. Perhaps it is the small-unit aspect of the game, or maybe I prefer a different level of abstraction when it comes to wargames, but whatever the reason, I just can’t get excited about SQUAD LEADER, ground-breaking tactical design or no. And it has always been so.
When the game first appeared in 1977 and most of my regular opponents ran out and immediately bought copies of the new title; I didn’t. The more people raved about the game, the more I stubbornly dug my heels in; when my enthusiastic friends unanimously praised John Hill’s latest creation, I adamantly refused to buy a copy of the new gaming sensation for myself. Perhaps even more frustrating to my long-time opponents was the fact that, not only did I not want to own a copy of the game, I didn’t have any interest in playing it either. Of course, this could only go on for so long. In the final analysis, gaming is very much a quid pro quo type of pastime, so after resisting the imprecations of my friends for months, I finally buckled and bought my own copy of what was, by then, the 2nd Edition of the game. Unfortunately, by the time I did, the first of the SQUAD LEADER GAMETTES, CROSS OF IRON, had already been released, so, at the fevered insistence of my friends, I bought that too.
Of course, now that I was stuck for the price of both the game and the GAMETTE, I did what most people would do: I resignedly unwrapped my copy, punched out a number of the counters, and sat down to learn the game system. Three hours later, I had come to two conclusions: first, I had decided that Hill’s tactical combat system was innovative and really quite clever; second, clever or not, I found that my fairly benign lack of interest had turned into an active dislike. I’m not positive, but I think that it was the abstract uniformity of the infantry squads that turned me off the game. Larger units, because of their sheer size and standardized organizations tend to lend themselves fairly easily to abstract quantification. Having personally served in the Army, however, I knew that infantry squads all tended to evidence unique qualities — personalities, if you like — that made each one of them more analogous to an individual athletic team than to some standardized abstract military asset. In the end, the uniformity of the infantry squads and the absolute dependence that the game system placed on differences in leadership just didn’t feel right to me. This is not to say that I didn’t finally play a couple of the short introductory scenarios with a friend (that quid pro quo thing, again), but my heart simply wasn’t in it. Although I am competitive by nature and play wargames to win, in the case of SQUAD LEADER, I just wanted the games to be over with. I genuinely didn’t care who won or lost. For me, that was it; I never opened the game box again until I got ready to sell my old copy on eBay a little while back.
So get to the point of all this, already, you say! The moral of this sorry little tale of mine, I suppose, is that when buying games, each player should go with his own gut instinct. If you think that you’ll like a game, you probably will; if you have your doubts, then chances are that you won’t. The fact that I personally don’t like SQUAD LEADER is really quite unimportant. Other players whose opinions I value like the game a lot. And based on the long-term retail sales figures for the game and its many offspring: if I was to hold a convention of all the gamers who share my distaste for the game, I suspect that we could probably all fit into a phone booth. All this puts me in an awkward spot: although I don’t want to play it myself, I still feel obliged to recommend SQUAD LEADER for those players with an interest in a highly-detailed, tactical game system. My rationale for making this recommendation is simple: it has just been far too popular for far too long not to have a lot going for it. The facts, as they say, speak for themselves.
Even after thirty-one years, SQUAD LEADER is still a perennial favorite among many experienced gamers and a fixture at most of the major wargaming conventions. In that sense, it has, to put it mildly, aged extremely well. Until the arrival of its perpetually-growing, mutant offspring, ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER, no other title had ever had more articles, rules variations, or scenarios printed in the various hobby magazines than had John Hill’s ground-breaking creation. Today, SQUAD LEADER players occupy an interesting place in the hobby: they are typically players who enjoy the richness of the basic SQUAD LEADER Game System, but who, unlike their ASL brethren, draw the line at permitting a single game to become a virtual way of life. Given my own feelings about the game system, I can’t really say that I blame them.
- Time Scale: 2 minutes per game turn
- Map Scale: 40 meters per hex
- Unit Size: squad/individual support weapon/single vehicle
- Unit Types: various types of German, American, and Soviet Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), leader, infantry squad, (Soviet) berserker, light/medium/heavy machine gun, light/medium anti-tank gun, (German) panzerfaust, (American) bazooka, mortar, flame thrower, satchel charge, radio, (American) jeep, truck, halftrack, entrenchment, fortification, barbed wire, mine, road block, and information markers
- Number of Players: two
- Complexity: above average
- Solitaire Suitability: below average
- Average Playing Time: 2-4 + hours (depending on scenario)
- Four 8” x 22” geomorphic hexagonal grid Map Boards
- 520 ½” back-printed cardboard Counters
- 192 ⅝” back-printed cardboard Counters
- One 8” x 11” Rules Booklet (with LOS Chart, Random Selection Chart, Point Selection Chart, and Terrain Effects Chart incorporated)
- Two 8” x 11” back-printed Quick Reference Data Cards
- Six 8” x 11” back-printed Scenario Cards (12 scenarios total)
- Two six-sided Die
- One 5½” x 8½” Avalon Hill Game & Parts Order Form
- One 5½” x 6½” Customer Response Card
- One 8½” x 11½” x 2” bookcase style cardboard Game Box