If you’re reading this post, you probably already know what ASL is. For those not very much in the know, it’s Advanced Squad Leader, probably the most famous of hex-and-chit wargames, which involve pushing around small cardboard counters (chits) representing units on a map split into hexagons (hex). In ASL, you do that to recreate World War 2 by using some fairly complicated rules. In Second Front, we have the next best thing to a full ASL adaptation for the PC.
Why does some ancient game for grogs matter when talking about a video game released in 2023? Because to me, ASL always seemed like the penultimate physical WW2 game. It had depth down to machinegun breakdown chance and vehicle turret facings. The years saw uncountable modules expanding its scope to all theaters and battlefield weirdness of WW2 (and beyond). And while it is scenario-driven, nothing is stopping you from developing your own scenarios.
Almost a decade ago, I wanted to try ASL so bad, I printed the chit sheets from ASL Starter Kit#1, glued them to cardboard and cut them up to make a version I could play.
Breaking out into hives for games
But I never did. ASL is rated 4.75/5 for complexity on Board Game Geek, and it’s not a lie. You, the player, are the the one who has to keep track of all the Preparatory Fire Phases, hero generation rules, and so on. And from my experience from trying to play such good games like 1985: Under an Iron Sky (only 4.20 blaze it/5), I know that the stresses of keeping he rules straight would lead to me bleeding from all my pores before turn two. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for fun.
Second Front offloads all the hard work on the PC. I move my Soviet (though the game insist on calling them Russian – it’s old-fashioned like that) squad to a building beyond some bushes without having to count the movement point expenditure. I order it to shoot at some Nazis across the street and the game calculates the penalties to accuracy for me. The Nazis fire back during the Enemy Fire Phase, and I don’t have to know anything about the Morale roll my squad will take.
Squads wipe each other out in melee. A gun malfunctions on the AT emplacement and the crew inadvertently destroys it while trying to fix it. A squad breaks, panics, and is gunned down while trying to run away. A flame-throwing PzII immediately pushes out a Soviet platoon out of a building. A sniper fails to hit anyone in any scenario I played. A hit on the turret shocks a T-26. It then explodes in the rally phase, simulating the crew having died.
None of that battlefield chaos is reliant on me remembering that these things can happen. It’s bliss!
Second Front: the friendliest WW2 experience
The tutorials, even if they’re not that great, are enough to introduce me to the Second Front basics. The rest I can extrapolate myself, without having to consider and remember a ponderous amount of rules. If a unit moving into view can promote enemy overwatch fire and if fire hits everyone in a hex, then I can assume that scouting is best done with a single squad. Heck, Second Front is courteous enough to show that positive accuracy modifiers the enemy will have if I order it to step into the enemy’s sights.
That’s the other thing: while Second Front is like an adaptation of a grog game for grogs with failing eyesights/attention spans, released in a massively grog niche by a publisher grogs have nostalgia for, it’s very friendly. Hover over the target, and you’ll get the odds of inflicting harm to them. Mouse over an icon, and it’s going to tell you why you’re getting this modifier (though not the precise numerical value, which I appreciate). You can access the manual from the “esc” menu, but it the games comes both the tutorials, flawed as they are in presentation, and teaching vids.
Plus, just like ASL Starter Kit#1, Second Front features Soviets, Germans, and the Americans. It does offer quite a few more scenarios – 48, to be exact. The armory features vehicles and guns from September 1939 to December 1945. Quite a few of the scenarios take place in 1941 – most tactical games would love to forget the years of Dumb Tanks and No Yanks. And all of that is presented at your fingertips in oh-so-easy-to-use map builder and scenario editor – heck, you can even do CAMPAIGNS.
And I just like how the game looks. The interface could use some love to make it look less like an MS Paint imitation of the Team Fortress 2 menus, but the stylized, minimalistic soldiers and tanks look great. I’ll much sooner complain about German vehicles not having a dunkelgelb toggle than anything else about the visuals.
That said, Second Front could really use a multiplayer option. The devs both praise their AI and admit its limitations (like not really knowing how transports work), but a human player is likely to have far fewer issues than that. And a living, breathing player is much more fun to beat mercilessly into pulp in the scenarios.
Now, having read this review, it’s your civic duty to buy Second Front and spread the word wide and far. Commercial success is what I believe would be the main driver for DLCs that would add fitting opponents for the 1939 gear, more zany beautepanzers that aren’t (t), and terrain variety for depicting climes other than “Europe, Central”. Get to it!