As improbable as it may seem in retrospect, there was a time when Squad Battles looked like it could be the future of tactical wargaming.
In 2001, when Squad Battles first came out, we may have finally moved past that quest for the holy grail of a computer version of Advanced Squad Leader. 1996’s Close Combat began its development path as an explicit attempt to create such a beastie. 2000’s Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord was an attempt to get right what Close Combat did not and, once again, was first conceived as a direct conversion. Neither actually wound up as computer versions of ASL in any sense beyond the obvious overlap in scale, scope, and content. 2000 also finally saw a release of a licensed version* of Squad Leader – apparently thoroughly forgettable. So while the dream was still alive, it was just no longer on the front burner.
Close Combat shifted the playing field to a “real time” focus for grognard-level tactical gaming. This seemed a more natural fit for a computer platform, solving some of the development difficulties for both AI and UI. Combat Mission saw the real time and raised its own 3D representation, if nothing else**, using the power of the computer platform to solve the “line of sight” conceptual problem. It’s worth recognizing that both of these franchises are going strong, even after all this time.
Squad Battles, by contrast, was not (as far as I can recall) marketed as an ASL conversion, but it certainly looked the part. No 3D and no real-time here, just hexes and counters. Close Combat and Combat Mission notwithstanding, sharing the look of a classic, numbers-heavy board game was, at that time, strongly indicative of authenticity.
Remember, too, there was little else by way of competition. Steel Panthers was out there, but side-by-side, Squad Battles looked like the future while Steel Panthers was looking more and more like the past. While I recall complaints about aspects of the HPS series that weren’t open to modding (relative to Steel Panthers, I suppose), the game was intended to accommodate the needs of modders and scenario builders. On top of that, Tiller is nothing if not prolific, so once he released a pair of Squad Battles, we all anticipated many follow-ons.
These days, with the scenarios that were created slowly disappearing, it may be hard to imagine the time when enthusiasm and optimism reigned. In my earlier article, I mentioned a website maintaining links to older scenarios. Today I try one of those scenarios, created back when this world was new – a user-made scenario for Squad Battles: Tour of Duty called 3 Down River by long-time series contributor Frank Harmon.
This scenario is a hypothetical encounter set near the Marine combat outpost in the area of Khe Sanh. Date-wise, it precedes the the “Hill Fights” of April, 1967 by a couple of days. It images a platoon on a sweep operation that is redirected to a crash site to secure the area until a rescue helicopter can arrive for the downed crew. Unfortunately for everyone involved, a company (?) -sized unit of NVA are also moving in toward the crash site, intent on capturing or killing the pilot and crew.
What makes this special is evident in the above screenshot, if you know what you’re looking for. As I said, this is a platoon on patrol – but just look at all those units! This scenario was created to have each “counter” represent, not a squad but a (four man) fire team. I’d like to detail all of the implications of this, but it looks to me that some of the documentation is lost to the interwebs. I believe this may have been part of a larger project with an accompanying web page but, even if that once existed, I can no longer access it. From inspection, I see two major changes – the four man “fire team” counters, of course, plus a lower level of leaders; corporals and sergeants, availabe to help organize the platoon and squad structure.
In his notes, the author says that his goal was to temper the lethality of the Squad Battles scenarios, an issue I mentioned briefly in my previous article and before. It also creates a little more “game” for a platoon-sized encounter, as you have the maneuver units and leader availability of a much larger scenario. It does not appear that anything was changed with the scale or the map design. It’s just more and smaller units.
It’s an interesting variation and, like many user-made scenarios, a more difficult one. Victory points are awarded purely on casualties, although, to win, the U.S. must additionally “rescue” at least one of the one of the downed crew. I find it difficult to give as good as I get, much less have the kind of kill ratio necessary to claim a victory. Of course, I don’t think I’ve quite figured out the “trick” to this game. Every scenario I play seems either to be a cake walk or impossible. If I experience an impossible scenario, that might just mean it is well designed.
*Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader itself was probably less faithful to the board game original than the two that didn’t make the name licensing cut. It went down some of the same paths as Close Combat and Combat Mission, but perhaps would be best thought of as an X-Com or Jagged Alliance, pitting the player’s squad management skills against scripted challenges. This is not what we ASL fans wanted. No, not at all.
**Let’s face it. At least half of us got into computer wargaming as an extension of the desire to push toy tanks and tin soldiers around the basement. Watching 3D models respond to our orders is hugely appealing.