Squad Leader

Squad Leader is a tactical level board war game originally published by Avalon Hill in 1977. It was designed by John Hill and focuses on infantry combat in Europe during World War II. One of the most complex war games of its time, Squad Leader is the natural extension of the trend towards greater realism initiated by several earlier games, including Avalon Hill's own PanzerBlitz and Panzer Leader. Those two earlier games were slightly larger in scope, with counters representing platoons and map hexes measuring 250 metres across, compared to Squad Leader's 40 meter hexes and squad sized units.
The original Squad Leader was produced in time to debut at Origins 1977. Avalon Hill sold well in excess of 100,000 games of Squad Leader, making it one of the most successful war games ever made. Combined with the sales of Advanced Squad Leader, its sales totaled over 1 million copies by 1997.


Pieces in Squad Leader represent regular squads, weapon and vehicle crews, elite squads, individual leaders, support weapons, and vehicles.
The original game contains counters representing the German, Russian and American armies. Russian troops are portrayed as poorly armed and with relatively fewer leaders, but with the capacity to become "berserk" in combat. US troops are shown as having unusually high firepower, but with slightly lower base morale than German or Soviet troops, representing the supposed greater tendency of more individualistic Americans to break from their orders or the group under fire - however, American troops are easier to rally under fire, as they were exempt from the usual penalty paid by broken squads in these circumstances. British troops, when eventually added to the game system, are shown as largely similar to the Germans, albeit with somewhat inferior equipment.
The mapboards are divided into hexagonal grids with each hex said to represent 40 metres of terrain, the result of the designer being asked what the ground scale was, rolling a die and it coming up 'four'. In reality, European village streets are not 40 meters across, for example. Time was said to be two minutes per turn, though the developer admits that this is also inexact and that each game turn should be considered a "module of time, such that the events can occur and interact with one another." As well, by being geomorphic mapboards, increased flexibility is given to scenario designers as well as "design your own" players.
The semi-simultaneous system of play developed in the mid-1970s can be seen in Squad Leaders sequence of play. Each turn consists of two player turns, each of which have eight "phases":
  • Rally phase
  • Prep fire phase
  • Movement phase
  • Defensive fire phase
  • Advancing fire phase
  • Rout phase
  • Advance phase, and the close combat phase
The name of the game is actually a misnomer, as in most ways the player assumes the role of a company commander. The squad leaders in
Squad Leader are actually "factored in" to the squad counters, and only exceptional leaders - officers and NCOs - are portrayed separately, by their own counters. Leaders can exert a favorable influence on the firing of support weapons, or the morale rolls of squads with whom they are stacked, although if a leader fails a morale check the squads stacked with it must check for morale a second time. Most scenarios give each player, generally speaking, enough simulated men to make up a company, though order of battle is not precise and most scenarios only give a flavor of what the real life battles were like rather than a direct simulation.
One aspect of the game that adds greatly to its popularity are the generic "geomorphic" mapboards, each of which can be aligned to any edge of the same length to any other mapboard. This allows for an almost unlimited number of combinations to create any terrain situation, including player designed scenarios. Printed overlays, first introduced in the gamette
', also provide additional terrain types to mapboards.
Line of sight is determined by sighting between the dots in the center of each hex. String can be used to check LOS, and the printed terrain depictions on the photo-realistic maps are used to determine blockages. These LOS rules were innovative for board games when introduced in the 1970s.
The original game contains mapboards mounted on heavy durable cardboard, which was expensive but a design feature long associated with Avalon Hill games. Each mapboard measures 10 columns of hexes high by 32 hexes wide, numbered from hex A1 in the top left corner to hex GG10 in the lower right.
The design philosophy that John Hill brought to
Squad Leader was "design for effect". He hypothesized that no matter what kind of fire might be brought on a squad of infantry, be it a flame weapon, a grenade, a machine gun, or an artillery shell, there could only be three outcomes; the squad would be eliminated by killing or wounding the men in it; the squad would be "discomfited" to some degree ; or there would be no effect. Using this principle, he was able to employ a single table to create combat results of the various weapons systems used in the game. A similar principle is employed in dealing with support weapons - rolling a certain number might cause a weapon to be put out of action, after which a player must roll again each turn until the weapon is either restored to use or lost altogether; there is no need to determine whether the weapon was broken, jammed, or was simply reloading with fresh ammunition.
Squad Leader is a game system by design rather than just one game. The game itself comes with 12 different scenarios, each one introducing more complicated rules in a system called "programmed instruction". Each scenario card includes historical information, victory conditions and play balancers for each side. However, Squad Leader also has a "design your own" system where forces are selected by drawing playing cards from a standard 52 card deck and comparing the result to a table where different forces were described. There is also a point purchase system for "buying" opposing forces. New scenarios were published in Avalon Hill's gaming magazine, The General'', as well as additional scenario packs. Third parties also produced scores of SL scenarios.


Squad Leader attempted to simulate many types of battlefield phenomena not addressed before in a tactical board game, and enjoyed a cosmetic treatment unmatched then and afterwards. Some of these strengths include:
Some of the weaknesses that keep Squad Leader from being a true simulation of the decisions that a World War II commander would make are well known and attempts have been made to address them; others were simply ignored for the sake of "playability". Some of these include the following:
Nick Stasnopolis, writing in Fire & Movement magazine made the following comparison:
Few tactical games during this period are comparable to Squad Leader,...which is quite popular and is of a similar scale, but has a needlessly complex combat system, leadership rules that would be more appropriate for 18th century combat and ridiculously simplistic casualty rules. It also displays the typical American fascination with gadgets while ignoring war's social, political, and logistical aspects. The war-game industry has basically ignored the more accurate portrayal of company level combat in for the more glamorous version portrayed in Squad Leader.


Three expansions were produced, Cross of Iron, Crescendo of Doom and .

Cross of Iron

COI expands the German and Soviet orders of battle, including also Axis Minor infantry types. The original handful of vehicle and ordnance types in Squad Leader are expanded to include just about every type that saw service on the Eastern Front. Even before Squad Leader debuted, plans were being made to expand the initial release; these expansions would be called "gamettes" and concentrate on particular eras or theatres, all the while developing the basic game system with additional rules, new weapons types, and different terrain. Cross of Iron expands the armor and artillery systems considerably. The "design for effect" philosophy that had guided Squad Leader's development gave way in the case of tank combat to "actual data" taking priority over "effect data." An initial intention to simply provide a few extras not contained in Squad Leader, such as Waffen-SS troops, the Tiger tank, and the T-34/85, gave way in the face of requests by playtesters to what amounted to a complete order of battle for both nationalities for the entire war, including dozens of different models of Sd.Kfz. 250 and 251 halftracks and PzKpfw I through VI tanks. John Hill and Don Greenwood admitted afterwards that the project got away from them, Hill sensing that he was too easily persuaded by playtesters who probably had a higher threshold for complexity than average gamers, and Greenwood saying that had he known from the beginning that the gamette would end up so large, he would "have broken it into two expansion kits - it simply is too much for one."
Also Series 100 was released in 1979 consisting of 10 additional scenarios for Cross of Iron, direct from Avalon Hill.
Despite the additional complexity, armor buffs were pleased. Armor researcher Lorrin Bird described the impact that C.O.I. had on the war-gaming community in Special Issue #2 of Campaign Magazine:
After wading through the infantry-oriented scenarios of Squad Leader, where the occasional rare appearance of one of the really bland and nondescript tank types was widely cherished,...Cross of Iron...has changed the value of the game system immensely. Now, instead of being a good infantry game, particularly with regard to support weapons and leadership effects, the system represents one of the best combined arms representations available from either a boardgame or miniatures approach.
In comparison with the SL system, the new game mechanics for tanks are both terribly involved and interesting, since the degree of tank trivia has both exceeded the infantry and approached a level that only Tractics has previously attempted in the field of miniature armor rules...fter suffering through the rather simplistic armor rules of Squad Leader, the publication of Cross of Iron has not only made up for the inane simplicities of its parent game but has brought into the field of armor miniatures design a host of innovative and highly sophisticated concepts.

Crescendo of Doom

COD provides blanket coverage to the Western Front of 1939–1941, including French and British infantry, vehicles and ordnance as well as infantry for Finland - elite troops who had the rare ability to rally themselves without the presence of a leader - and the "Allied Minors" including Belgium, Norway, Poland and the Netherlands. Like COI, a complete order of battle of British and French armor and ordnance is included, though American built vehicles in British service are not included. Whereas COI expands the armor and artillery rules, COD gives more nuanced rules regarding the infantry and other foot soldiers, including such things as cowering and pinning, while introducing Scouts and morale disadvantages for early war infantry facing off against tanks. Additionally, many new terrain types are introduced on the two new mapboards, including marsh, river, large bridges, and orchards, as well as no less than three kinds of boats to cross a river with - Scenario 27 covers the crossing of the Meuse at Dinant by parts of the German 7th Panzer Division, with a highly-rated leader counter deemed to represent Erwin Rommel himself taking personal command.
Just as COD was finalizing its playtesting, plans were made for two further gamettes; the September–October 1979 issue of The General Magazine announced that GI: Anvil of Victory would include both American and Italian forces, and that a fifth and final gamette covering the Japanese would be released a year after that.
Lorrin Bird described the current state of the armor game after COD's release in an article printed in Special Issue #2 of Campaign Magazine:
While the original Squad Leader game was a work of art with regard to its fine balance of playability and detail...the gamettes are coming to represent the "masterpieces" of wargamedom due to the unbelievable trivia that is included. From radioless AFV's to the benefits/handicaps of having the commander exposed, the expanding Squad Leader system is investigating and providing rules for many features of WWII armored combat that were previously overlooked in other boardgames and even miniature systems...The end result of the amazing efforts being made to make the SL system as complete as possible is that one is presented with tanks which act pretty much like they did in real life...

GI: Anvil of Victory

This gamette provides expanded coverage to American forces, as well as US-manufactured equipment as used by the British in the last half of the war, as well as certain British equipment like the PIAT that was not included in COD. The rulebook for Crescendo of Doom suggested that this game would not be available before February 1981; Squad Leader fans still recall awaiting this next game, which was finally released in 1983.
The "gamette" was actually bigger than Squad Leader itself, with 856 more counters and five more mapboards, as well as three more scenarios than the original SL. As well, two sheets of terrain overlays were included in the box. The modelling of infantry was again increased in level of detail, with squads now able to "break to green", or be replaced by lower quality units when morale checks didn't measure up to their Experience Level Rating. Many players were upset that the ELR restrictions were almost always applied to American forces and not to other nationalities as a rule. . Point values for US forces were also omitted from the game, restricting DYO scenarios to non-American forces. Other restrictions on US troops not present in the earlier SL game also angered some players And the Italian forces promised as early as autumn 1979 did not materialize
Nonetheless, the game system did go forward in many ways; according to James Collier in his history of Squad Leader printed in Issue 34 of The Grenadier:

Like before it, GI brought mostly rules changes, including some rather drastic revisions of some of the most fundamental system mechanics. For example, in COD a provision was made to allow whole squads to be deployed into half-squads, but without providing special half-squad counters...GI brought a profusion of half-squad counters and also provided a mechanism where a squad could take half-squad casualties...
Some of these changes required a reissue of many of the original infantry counters with new parameters. Many AFVs had to be retrofitted with new parameters, but without counters. Many of the parameters chosen for US components proved to be controversial.
The outcome was that GI was a very disorganized game, difficult to play "correctly". Trying to synthesize all the many rules into a coherent whole was virtually impossible, a fact tacitly conceded by in that the GI index was not cumulative and did not cross-reference with the previous rules manuals.

The end result was that German AFV counters did not represent some of the new changes, such as inferior turret armor, and German squad counters did not have accurate representations for such things as smoke making capability or other abilities introduced in GI. As far as the game system had come, it was clear that much of the foundation on which it was resting had to be redone and/or reorganized. In fact, GI: Anvil of Victory had already reached a point where most of the counters from the original Squad Leader game had been made obsolete, as German, British, French and American infantry counters were redone with new information for smoke-making capability, and special weapons and morale characteristics

Additional Products

Additional products by John Hill include and Johnny Reb.
Many third-party products were produced for Squad Leader, and it is probable that privately made scenarios number in the hundreds if not thousands. Avalon Hill also released "official" additions to the Squad Leader system.

Additional Official Scenarios

Three sets of "official" scenarios were released by Avalon Hill directly. Series 100 was designed for Cross of Iron and released Series in 1979, consisting of ten new scenarios designed by Courtney Allen. Series 200 was designed for Crescendo of Doom, and Series 300 for GI: Anvil of Victory.
A rare case of third-party scenarios being done by license as an "official" product was the scenario pack released by World Wide Wargamers in 1982, offered by The Wargamer Magazine, containing Scenarios 81-90 for Crescendo of Doom and released in 1982. The artwork published by WWW is poorly done on this offering, which was also printed on flimsy paper, in booklet style, rather than the separate card stock scenarios normally associated with Avalon Hill SL products. A second set was released for G.I.: Anvil of Victory.
The Rogue Scenarios were available only by direct mail-order to Avalon Hill, and were so called because they required ownership of three non-standard boards. The artwork on these boards initially was of low quality. For example, the low hill mass on Board 11 in the earlier version was actually rendered in bright red, indicating it could be simulating either a Level One height, or possibly some other type of terrain such as ground level mud, wheatfield, etc. However, the boards later were redone for ASL products to the high standards previously established. Most of these scenarios require only single copies of the three new boards along with the Squad Leader series boards, but Scenario R220 requires access to two copies each of boards 4 and 6-10.

ASL Annual

Aside from regular features in the house organ of Avalon Hill, The General, AH also produced a series of magazines focused on Advanced Squad Leader called ASL Annual beginning in 1989; these contained some original SL content also. When Multiman Publishing took over publication of ASL components, they started to produce ASL Journal on an irregular basis. Both magazines were in the same format as The General, with no outside advertising, and full of articles, variants, and scenarios for all incarnations of ASL. SL-themed content seems to have disappeared from the MMP-produced ASL Journal. Other third party offerings have also declined in the years since the release of ASL.

Advanced Squad Leader and VASL

By 1983 and the release of GI, there were four separate rulebooks with sometimes contradictory or poorly integrated rules. For example, US forces with lower morale were penalized by the fact that morale ratings were used to determine at random the ability to push ordnance through snow or mud. Logically, morale should not have an effect on such an effort.
James Collier, in a piece entitled "Glass Anvil: A Dissenting View of GI: Anvil of Victory", presented in Volume 20, Number 1 of The General, described the situation:
By now it should be recognized that the Squad Leader series is virtually unique among WWII board games by being a game in evolution. The succeeding gamettes have not been mere additions to the original, but instead have introduced substantial revisions to the original parameters. This is even more true with GI where the bulk of both components and rules represent revisions rather than new material. There are, for example, only 300 more counters than provided with CRESCENDO OF DOOM, and well over half the GI counters represent replacements for counters previously introduced...
Though one must pay the price of forfeiting obsolete materials above and beyond the purchase price, the loss can be accepted as the cost of progress. There are few who would quibble with the appropriateness of the added dimensions of the revised vehicle and ordnance counters presented in CROSS OF IRON. That process is, of course, carried forward in COD and GI to include the relevant nationalities. Now GI introduces a similar order of revision for the infantry counters in addition to a number of new maneuvers and capabilities. As this evolution continues, one is eventually compelled to ask where it is going and why?

It was clear that the system had grown in ways never dreamed of in 1977; large amounts of "nutmail" arriving at Avalon Hill convinced the developers of the need to streamline the rules. Originally this was anticipated as being a simple compilation of the rules in existence, possibly redoing the "To Hit/To Kill" system used to simulate armour protection and penetration in tank combat. In the March–April 1983 issue of Fire & Movement, developer Don Greenwood stated that he saw the next project as being a hardcover or loose-leaf version of the rules, with the "entire game system... rewritten and revised where necessary" to make one combined "advanced" version. Greenwood also, in one of the replies to Collier in the Volume 20, Number 1 issue of The General, described this project as "...a rewritten, succinct and complete compilation of the entire game system in one rulebook."
Greenwood envisioned the new rulebook as not being available before 1985, and thought it would be followed by a gamette featuring the fighting in North Africa, followed by a Russian Front gamette redoing the Russians, and a final gamette featuring the Far East, with Chinese and Japanese troops. After that, it was expected to release historical offerings with maps modelled after actual locations. In Volume 20, Number 1 of The General, he also anticipated "the Advanced SQUAD LEADER Rulebook will be a major publishing event greater than any of the previous gamette releases."
Greenwood's prediction was correct as far as time frame; in 1985 the Advanced Squad Leader system debuted. Greenwood had stated the following in the Introduction to the GI: Anvil of Victory rulebook:
During the past two years in which G.I. has been under design, I have been simultaneously making copious notes for the project which must ultimately follow it: THE ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER RULEBOOK. Don't let the title fool you. It will not be an even more complex version of what you already have, bound together between two covers. Rather it will improve the final game system by simplifying, cutting, and rewriting. The end result will be both a more comprehensive and a much shorter set of rules.

However, the Advanced Squad Leader Rulebook became much more than just a simple rewrite of the rules, it in fact became a complete replacement of the games of the original SL series. Some fans were much taken aback by the need to replace the four modules they had spent so much money on; only the mapboards of the earlier series would be compatible to play the new games. Squad Leader alone has counters and counters rendered obsolete by the new system. GI: Anvil of Victory has 1568 counters all of which are rendered useless by anyone wishing to continue on with the Advanced version. Greenwood's predictions on future gamettes were also inaccurate given the need to redo every counter in the system from scratch; twelve "core" modules would be needed to introduce the wide range of nationalities. The historical gamettes did evolve as predicted.
The new game is also a minimum purchase of two components, the Advanced Squad Leader Rulebook, and an initial module, either Beyond Valor, which contains a brand new counter mix for the German, Russian and Finnish armies, as well as all necessary system counters, or else Paratrooper, which contains a limited counter mix for system markers, US paratrooper units and their German opponents in Normandy. Either initial module also requires ownership of boards from SL in order to play the included scenarios. Future modules also make use of mapboards previously released only with SL.
The new game does not feature Programmed Instruction, requiring a thorough reading of at least four chapters of the ASL Rulebook in order to play a game with ordnance and/or vehicles in it. Even the most basic ASL components are no longer introductory in nature, though Paratrooper, masquerades as such. . Avalon Hill actually suggested that anyone wishing to play ASL also purchase the original Squad Leader and gain experience with that system first, and kept the original SL and three gamettes in print. The necessity of owning boards from these modules in order to play printed scenarios in the core modules of ASL may also have been a factor in this decision. So while ASL was intended to replace SL, there was a certain ambiguity for many years about the status of SL's replacement; the original game was still necessary as a stepping stone to learning ASL, and a source for needed mapboards.
However, the original Squad Leader went out of print after Hasbro purchased Avalon Hill. Nonetheless, there are still many aficionadoes of the original SL system, who prefer the simplicity of the earlier design to its much more complicated offspring. There are also projects similar to Virtual Advanced Squad Leader for the original game system, which allow for live online play of Squad Leader in a virtual environment, like Virtual Squad Leader for the VASAL game engine. At least one programmer is working on an Artificial Intelligence for the virtual version of SL. As home publishing software and hardware get more sophisticated, it is possible to produce high quality "unofficial" game components from scenario cards to custom sized mapboard to personalized leader counters.


comments: "Hill's design recreates World War II combat in the same way that a great caricaturist recreates a face — by exaggerating the important bits and abstracting everything else. Many of the game's individual concepts are decidedly 'unrealistic.' Players possess almost omniscient knowledge of the battlefield, cardboard soldiers are all too eager to fight to the last man, key weapon systems and environmental effects are vastly oversimplified. Yet, added together, these details produce an end result that somehow feels real. By exaggerating, oversimplifying, and abstracting, Hill provides a decent primer on World War II infantry tactics — the importance of covering fire and maneuver, the use of machine guns to prevent movement across open spaces, the key differences between German and Russian combatants, and so forth."