31 March 2013

No Laughing Matter

I have owned four motorcycles. My favourite remains the FJ600, the predecessor of the 600 super-sports of today. The FJ600 was born in 1984. At the time, it could outpace any 550 cubic centimetre motorbike on the road. It was the first in-line four power plant with a 600cc capacity, and it challenged many 750s of the day. One night, I recklessly ramped my FJ600 up to 215 kph. A fellow rider on a Honda 750 Interceptor wanted to see how a bike fared against a car with a nitrous oxide system. The nitro kit boosted the performance of the car considerably. However, my companion was not afraid to throttle his bike beyond 225 “klicks,” or 140 mph. 
In retrospect, I am glad that I did not push my bike harder. In sixth gear, the engine had horsepower to spare before it red-lined. But as it was, I had less than a second to react to anything that appeared in my hi-beams. On that dark and deserted stretch of pavement behind the airport, I throttled back and let the Honda have the glory. Fortunately, only the pride of the car owner was hurt during the encounter.
When I began writing this piece, my intention was to draw a (weak) link between my fave motorbike and the winners of our latest Sitrep contest. Before I do that, I would like to share a bit of trivia that I stumbled upon today. Nitrous oxide and airports have a relationship that predates my flirtation with death by four decades. During the Second World War, the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe pioneered the use of nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” in aircraft designed to operate at high-altitudes. Aside from calming patients before surgery, and adding a little silliness to office parties, nitrous oxide allows an engine to burn more fuel by adding more oxygen to the mixture. The gas therefore boosts engine horsepower. Nitrous oxide also enables aircraft to fly at higher altitudes where oxygen is less concentrated. 
Jagdgeschwader 50
Today, nitrous oxide is a common food additive (E942). You can find it in cooking sprays, canisters of whipped cream, and bags of potato chips. It is extremely soluble in fatty compounds. And that is no laughing matter.
Business end of a Jäger

What’s in an acronym?
The “FJ” in FJ600 is apparently Yamaha’s designation for a sport bike with an in-line, four-cylinder engine and a chain drive.1 FJ is also a common abbreviation for Fallschirmjäger, the parachute arm of the Wehrmacht.
During the Second World War, German paratroopers were part of the Luftwaffe, not the army (Heer). The German aviation service also included anti-aircraft formations (FlaK), and Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisionen. All used distinctive air force rank insignia, which included a least one pair of gull’s wings. The lowest enlisted rank was Flieger (airman), or Jäger (rifleman) for a paratrooper.2 FlaK troops wore red collar tabs, while Field Divisions sported dark-green tabs. Interestingly, Fallschirmjäger wore gold, the same colour worn by Luftwaffe aircrew. 
The Luftwaffe collar tab and shoulder board (at left) happens to be the avatar of an ASL player from Lodi, Italy. He goes by the handle “FJ_MD.” I was stumped by “MD.” So I asked him. Turns out the letters have no military (or medical) connotation whatsoever. Rather, MD is the abbreviation of his first Internet name, randomly-generated in 1999. Melted_Dock did not play ASL in the last century. He had yet to learn that such a game existed. He was, however, an avid student of military history, particularly World War II. 
More than 220 Squad Leaders took part in our latest contest. Helen used five dice. There were no straight sixes, and no “perfect” scores. Two followers tied with a low roll of seven. A cardboard-pushing Jäger from Italy was one of them. Here is his story.

Toy story
My first “wargames” were played with toy soldiers (and knights). When I was about eleven, a neighbour and I created a rudimentary game system using 1/32 scale figures. A measuring tape (purloined from our parent’s sewing drawers or toolboxes) and mismatched dice were our only game accessories. A large room, or occasionally a backyard, was our battleground. “Britains,” such as the Canadian figures above, were highly prized, but due to their expense made up only a fraction of our plastic armies.3 We had few vehicles or guns, so our games were largely infantry skirmishes. I may well have grown up playing miniatures, if Squad Leader had not intervened a few years later. Or was Michael Richards to blame for my change of heart?

Smaller than life Alpini

For Davide Bendazzi, Advanced Squad Leader presented a similar opportunity. As a child, he had a collection of ESCI 1/72 scale soldiers. Like many boys his age, he was fascinated by war, and battle in particular. While on vacation in Amsterdam during the 1990s, Davide came upon a shop in the city centre. His teenage eyes were drawn irresistibly to a box with a tank on the cover. Davide had yet to play a wargame. He bought MBT (Main Battle Tank) out of curiosity. Detailed as it may have been in certain respects, it was not an overly complex game. Nevertheless, Davide could not find anyone willing to fight World War III from the turret of a cardboard tank. 
MBT was released in 1989. It was based on a hypothetical clash between Soviet forces and two Nato forces (American and West German) in Europe, during the later part of the Cold War.4 The Avalon Hill title was Davide’s first exposure to a bona fide wargame. How cool would it be, he wondered, if someone were to create a similar game, one set in World War II. But like star shells at night, Davide’s musings burned briefly before falling from sight.
In 1999, Davide unwittingly drew closer to the world of ASL. He had discovered Close Combat 2: A Bridge Too Far. He played the real-time tactical computer simulation “to death” online. “Thinking about it now,” Davide reflected, “it has nearly all the aspects of ASL.” Funny he should say that. Atomic Games had developed a couple of computer games for Avalon Hill (AH). In its original incarnation, the game eventually branded as Close Combat was intended to be an electronic version of ASL. However, at the time, the future of AH (and ASL) was uncertain.5 So Atomic pitched its work elsewhere, and found Microsoft receptive. Close Combat, released in 1996, broke ground with its command and control, fog of war, and interdependent physical and mental state mechanisms. The result was not ASL, but one could be forgiven for seeing a great many similarities. 
In Close Combat soldiers panic, a concept familiar to players of Solitaire ASL
Fast forward to 2005. Davide is play testing the latest iteration of Steel Panthers—a video game involving post World War II combined-arms combat—when he learns of ASL. Here is his chance to command, once again, the individual soldiers, guns, and tanks of his childhood—a dream realized at last. He taps into the online ASL community in Italia and abroad. He has seen the light, and is blind to virtually anything beyond his newly illuminated world. His appetite grows as he samples different aspects of ASL. He lands and crashes gliders. He fights in the jungle, and at night. He embarks on campaigns. And when opponents are not forthcoming, he plays solitaire. Four years later Davide puts down his dice. He has married.
No such thing as a dull day playing ASL 
Davide returned to the fold in 2011. He decided to take it slow, savour the experience, and concentrate on the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). He embraced virtual ASL (VASL) in a new way. A Kiwi (New Zealander) taught him how to play ASL by email (PBEM). VASL had always been an important component of Davide’s ASL hobby; he had no local opponents. Today, he routinely finds opponents on Mark Humphries’ popular Global ASL Ladder. Six years ago, however, he had resorted to solitaire play for an 18-month period until work overtook play. Davide had participated in another of those unique ASL experiences—Group Solitaire ASL (GSASL). “It was a spectacular way of playing ASL,” he recalled. Locotenent Bendazzi commanded a company of the Batalionul Vanatori Moto 1. The motorized infantry battalion was one of two such battalions within the 1st Romanian Armored Division. Together with 12 other “Romanian” officers, he took part in a GSASL campaign to liberate a portion of Bessarabia from the Soviet 176th Rifle Division.
Romanian soldiers on the attack in Bessarabia - July 1941
There is no ASL club in or near Lodi, a city of roughly 50,000 in Lombardy, Italy. In fact, Italy is not known for a concentration of ASL players in any one region. Rather, ASL players are sprinkled, like so many olives, from one end of the peninsula to the other. One of the more prominent Italian players, does not even live on the mainland. The Strait of Messina is hardly a barrier for Sicily’s Enrico Catanzaro, however. He has been running the worldwide VASLeague for seven years.
Click to enlarge
Davide has attended a few ASL gatherings, including a regional tournament. He lives only an hour’s drive by car from Carimate, Italy. This small, picturesque town lies less than 15 kilometres south of the famous Lago di Como. Lake Como has long been the playground of millionaires. However, nearby Carimate is fast becoming the playground of jet-setting ASL players. It tops my list of European tourneys to attend. First prize this year includes an overnight stay for two in this 12th century castle turned hotel.
One for the bucket list - attending an ASL tourney in a castle
About a year ago, Davide met a new player at an ASL gathering. The fellow had learned of the event through the Internet. Davide credits the Internet with bringing more and more ASL players together. I have to agree. Each year, more players surface. In Davide’s case there was a bonus. His new acquaintance lived near Lodi. Davide now enjoys two or three face-to-face games each month. “This is a gift!” he gushed. ASL “survives only if there is a community,” Davide continued. “The community of players is also so huge,” he emphasized, that you have the chance to play with someone new every day of the year!”
VASL has done much to encourage an international network of ASL players. It is, as Davide reminded me, “a powerful tool.” Along with numerous ASL forums, the online game interface has permitted play between players who may never meet in person. Davide hopes that this will not remain the case with him. But while work and life in general are not conducive to international travel at present, Davide has made some modest contributions to the domestic and international ASL scenes.
Wargames journal [sic] is a relatively recent blog devoted to what is arguably the most challenging, and possibly the most rewarding, tactical wargame of the past three decades. I have been playing the darn game since 1985. Yet, I invariably discover that I have misinterpreted some rule or another along the way. Such is the case with Intensive Fire (IF, C5.6). As Davide pointed out in a post on his blog last December, IF during the Defensive Fire Phase (DFPh) is not the free-for-all that I once presumed it was.
For instance, a Gun marked with a Final Fire counter may not use IF during the DFPh (A8.4). Moreover, a Gun marked with a First Fire counter at the beginning of the DFPh may only use IF versus an adjacent or same-hex target. Bear in mind that a Gun that maintained Rate of Fire (ROF) during Defensive First Fire (DFF) would not be marked with a First Fire counter. Therefore, the Gun would be to free to fire at any target until it has exhausted its ROF. However, once marked with a Final Fire counter, the same Gun cannot attempt an IF shot (A8.41). No doubt I have been guilty of the occasional “misfire” in the past. 
Another post on Wargames journal offers “official” house rules for the Italian 3-4-6 squad—not to be confused with the American 3-4-6 half-squad. There has been an ongoing debate regarding the Strength Factors (A1.2) of Italian squads since the release of Hollow Legions in 1989. Marco Lombardi first presented his case to Avalon Hill in 1990, but never received a response. Today, Marco has the support of some of his countrymen, many of whom view the current Italian Strength Factors as an unfair characterization of Italian tactical competence during the Second World War. The house rules that Davide disseminated are an attempt to redress a couple of perceived incongruities related to the firepower and the broken morale of the most common Italian squad. I suspect that similar house rules would apply to the Bersaglieri (literally “marksmen”), represented in ASL by the First Line 3-4-7 squad.
His beef with Italian Strength Factors aside, Davide is enamoured with ASL. The ability of ASL to bring battles to life at the tactical level is unparalleled in board gaming. Davide partly attributes this to the fact that “players are never passive” in ASL. Many wargames, in contrast, are the epitome of passive play. Rock of the Marne, an operational level game that I tried twice, is a good example. I remember waiting 20-30 minutes for my opponent to complete his turn, during which time the only thing that I did was remove or step reduce my zombie-like formations. Then the poor wretch had to wait while I bumbled my way through a turn. The experience nonetheless gave me a better appreciation for ASL. The Movement Phase in ASL is highly interactive, the most fluid and dynamic phase of the game. Regardless of whose turn it is, each player may be forced to react to a particular move, fire attack, or random event. This dynamism is what makes ASL so exciting to play.
Band on the Run - Bersaglieri bandsmen play on the run, to emphasize the high-mobility of these light-infantrymen
The mechanics of the game certainly make for exciting play. However, Davide also insists that the sheer variety within the ASL system is a huge draw. Thousands of scenarios, heaps of campaign games, the ability to play solo, and the ability to design your own engagements provide players with an abundance of choice. “The universe of play is nearly infinite,” Davide gushed. Infinite, that is, if you keep an open mind. Davide is quick to point out that too many players dismiss certain aspects of the system out of hand. It is easier, he observed, to simply ignore night scenarios, for example. Davide believes that this is a mistake. “Maybe I don’t play some aspects of the game,” he admitted, “because I still have to learn that part!” How can you possibly know what you are missing until you give each aspect of the system a test drive? ASL is rich in what it has to offer even the most seasoned gamer. It may be a while before Davide makes his first “pizza delivery” to a Japanese cave at night.6 He nevertheless dreams of the day “when all the dark will disappear about all the aspects of the game.” Davide wonders if the day will come when players are open to sampling all the bounty of ASL. But of this he is certain: “ASL is the best tactical WW2 wargame out there, with the best community, and the best rewards!” 
Capture Luga comrades!
Davide’s rewards are many. For following Sitrep since February 2012, his reward is a set of Axis and Allies BattleDice, and a matching Baby Rate of Fire die.7
Congratulazioni Davide!
to be continued...