ATS Infantry Basic Game
I played Squad Leader in the 1980s, and have even picked up (and then put down) a few ASL modules at the local gaming shops. I also picked up a copy of Panzer Grenadier: Airborne, and did not put it down, it was my first new wargame purchase in decades. When I started reading the heated discussions between the ASL and ATS, I was intrigued. You never see discussions between the merits of Axis and Allies vs. Third Reich, or Battleship vs. Victory in the Pacific. I decided an ATS game would be my next acquisition.
My first thought was the Basic Game 1A, the introductory module based on the Airborne parts of D-Day. But then a search of ebay revealed D-Day Rangers, a complete ATS game, was available or nearly half price. D-Day Rangers it was, they're not quite as overexposed as the paras.
A stereotype of ATS is a bloodier, streamlined version of SL/ASL. Someone familiar only with Eurogames might have a hard time understanding how a game with a 60 page manual of 8 point text can be called streamlined (to be honest, much of the manual is taken up by rules different terrain types and weapons, which may not be in any given scenario), in D-Day Rangers (and the other games apparently) they include a smaller version of the game, with 4 pages of 8 point rules, a black and white 11x17 page generic map with four kinds of terrain, and squads, leaders and machine guns (roughly analogous to the scenario 1 of the original Squad Leader, which takes 7 pages). This review is of the Infantry Basic Game.
The Infantry Basic Game distills the 60 page rule book into 4 pages including charts, by only including the rules needed for squads, leaders, machine guns and four basic types of terrain (plain, woods, hills and buildings). No offboard artillery, no other heavy weapons, no vehicles, and no huge variety of desert terrain. The scenario is a little contrived, two roughly equal sides of 6-9 squads with MGs and leaders start on opposite sides of the board, trying to take important terrain, eliminate the enemy, and exit off the opposite side.
While the map is just a plain printed 11x17, you use the regular ATS counters. Squads are flipped to be half squads, with the usual fire power-range-morale values (8-5-9 for Rangers), NCOs and Officers all have the same value, 1-1-7 for NCOs and 1-1-8 for officers (I miss the range of abilities in Squad Leader and Panzer General, it's more fun to decide where to put the 10 -3, or the 6 +1), and Machine Guns get multiple fires per turn, the MG42 gets 3, the rest 2. There are other counters for movement state, casaulty state, broken and fire state.
The turn sequence for the basic game involves four phases; Direct Fire, Movement/Opportunity Fire, Close Assault, and Rally. Within each phase, the players take turns, low roller moving first.
Direct Fire involves firing at other squads or stacks. Combat is on a d10 CRT, low rolls being more lethal, with column shifts towards increasing firepower or decreasing firepower based on the movement state of the target, the terrain the target occupies, and whether or not the fire is being directed by an NCO or officer. Each stack that has fired is marked with a Fired counter.
Results on the CRT are nothing, or casualty results. Any morale checks that happen are a result of casualties. The Squad Leader player who expects a stack of squads to take fire from a few squads with a machine gun and pass the resulting Morale Checks with no other effects is in for a rude awakening.
Squads have a four step reduction, denoted with casualty counters and flipping the counter over. The first casualty is noted with a casualty marker on the full squad, the next one is shown by flipping the squad over to a half squad, the third one is the half squad with one casualty marker, the fourth is the squad being eliminated. Each step reduces the gunfire and morale factor by one. Leaders have a two step reduction, first wounded, then dead.
Squads that take casualties have to pass a morale check by rolling their morale or less, with bonuses due to stacked or adjacent squads or leaders. Units that fail are broken, and can only be rallied by leaders.
The movement/opportunity fire phase has the unusual mechanism that the movement state is determined before moving the unit. Running units get 7 MPs and are very vulnerable to opportunity fire, assault moving units get 4 MPs and are vulnerable to fire, and crawling units get 1 MP and no affects on being fired on. Arrow counters are used to indicate the movement state.
Opportunity fire is much like other games, you can fire on moving targets, but only if you haven't moved, or fired in the Direct Fire phase.
The close Assault phase allows units to move one hex, and move into an oponents hex for Melee combat. Melee combat is done by ratios, attacker to defender.
The rally phase is where broken units can be rallied by a leader. Broken units stranded far from leaders are useless.
My first time playing the basic game, I had each side race through the nearest buildings and to the hills. The Germans and Americans ended up 3 hexes from each other, at which point I was surprised by the lethality of ATS combat. On the north side of the board, the Americans slowly gave way, allowing the Germans to exist one squad and officer off the mapboard, letting them win despite taking far more losses (7 squads and an NCO to 3 squads, an NCO and an officer).
The second time playing went quicker, and the Americans and Germans played less agressively. Unfortunately for the Americans, the incredible firepower of the MG42's tore apart their units. The MG42 has nearly 2 1/2 times the firepower of the American's Browning (8 firepower with a 3 Rate of Fire vs 5 firepower with a 2 ROF). The lesson is to not assault an MG42 directed by an officer.
You can call ATS a streamlined more lethal SL, but that doesn't give credit to it's unique movement mechanism and more interactive phases. the identical leaders and step reductions over endless morale checks do make for a quicker game. It's a different game, with different tactics needed, and I can't wait to unleash the Rangers with their BAR men at Ponte Du Hoc.
ATS and orignal SL are easier to pick up and play vs ASL. SL can be played PBEM vis VASSAL and ATS is more of a real time games via VASSAL (called VATS or virtual ATS using VASSAL). ATS out comes are more spontaneous because of the system, and some find this to be a more realistic simulation of battle. Those who like to "see" the results three and four moves ahead and refine strategy as one would in a classic chess match may like SL better.