Squad Leader is a tactical level board wargame originally published by The Avalon Hill Game Company in 1977.
Board wargaming as a modern, commercial hobby began in the late 1950s when Charles S. Roberts created a new game called Tactics and eventually a company to sell his new game, The Avalon Hill Game Company. The product line expanded in the 1960s to include realistic games at the operational and strategic level. By the late 1960s, Avalon Hill began to see competition from several sources, including Strategy & Tactics, a magazine that in 1967 began including wargames with every issue. S&T also developed the first modern commercial board wargame at the tactical level, Tac Game 3, which was further developed by Avalon Hill in 1970 and sold as PanzerBlitz.
By 1977, there had been a number of tactical-level titles published by various game companies (that is to say, game pieces represented squads of approximately ten men, weapons crews of approximately half a dozen men, or individual soldiers). PanzerBlitz remained the most popular (according to James F. Dunnigan's Guide to Wargaming, the title eventually sold 250,000 copies), but an expanding market led Avalon Hill to believe additional titles would be of interest to consumers. To that date, no breakout successes had been published which depicted Second World War combat at the infantry company level, using the squad as the basic game piece.
John Hill, a game designer with a reputation for innovative designs, developed Squad Leader in consultation with Don Greenwood. Hill's most famous design at the time was Bar Lev and he had penned several articles for Moves magazine.
Competitor Simulations Publications, Inc. had concentrated its efforts in the field on publishing magazine games (also distributing them in boxed editions through mail order and hobby stores) with folded paper maps, limited counter-sets, and a belief that rules would evolve only to be replaced by another game. In this way, Combat Command, a tactical-level sequel to TacGame 3 was published in 1972, to be replaced by Panzer '44 later on. SPI wrestled with the best means of simulating the interactive nature of warfare at the tactical level, introducing such concepts as "Si-Move" and pre-plotted turns.
Squad Leader, however, was introduced with a multi-phase sequential turn system, with each player turn having eight phases in which both players were permitted to take some actions. Reaction fire against moving units was permitted, and rules to simulate the advantages of machine guns were also part of the game, with MGs given "penetration" values and permitted to attack multiple moving targets within their field of fire.
The game was produced in time to debut at the Origins '77 game convention, and the original print run of 2,500 copies were produced with purple coloured box tops that are today collector's items.
Pieces in Squad Leader represent regular squads (rated for firepower, range and morale), weapon and vehicle crews, elite squads (with high firepower and morale but shorter range - used to represent paratroops or combat engineers armed with sub-machine guns), individual leaders, support weapons (mortars, machine-guns, flamethrowers, demolition charges and anti-tank guns), and a mix of vehicles representative of both mechanical transport and armoured fighting vehicles common on the 1944-45 era battlefield. The nationalities depicted in the game were American, German and "Russian" (depicting all armies of the Soviet Union).
Much of the game's flavour came from its depiction of national characteristics; Russian troops were portrayed as poorly armed and near-leaderless mobs with hard to control artillery support and a tendency to go "berserk" under fire. U.S. troops were depicted as heavily armed, quick to break under fire, quicker than any to rally again, and with a high degree of proficiency with weapons and vehicles. The Germans were depicted as well-led soldiers with generally good morale and an extensive array of machine gun support.
John Hill's designer notes make much of the intent to "Design For Effect" rather than tie the game down to literal interpretations. The hex scale of 40 metres is not compatible with the depiction of streets being a two-hex travel for infantry, nor is the four-hex movement limit for leaderless infantry in open ground consistent with a stated turn length of two minutes. The Designer's Notes in the rulebook, however, ask the player to consider that each game turn should be considered a "module of time, such that the (game's) events can occur and interact with one another."
The Semi-Simultaneous system of play evolved by SPI in the mid-1970s can be seen in Squad Leader's sequence of play, where each turn consists of two player turns, each of which is further divied into eight "phases":
- Rally Phase (in which "broken" units attempt to rally and malfunctioning weapons are repaired)
- Prep Fire Phase (in which the player whose turn it is may fire on enemy units; any units that Prep Fire cannot move or fire again for the rest of the player turn)
- Movement Phase (in which the player may move his units on the board)
- Defensive Fire Phase (in which the other player may fire on units that just moved)
- Advancing Fire Phase (in which any units that moved may fire)
- Rout Phase (in which any "broken" units must flee for cover)
- Advance Phase (in which the player whose turn it is may move every unit one hex)
- Close Combat phase (in which any units from opposite sides that end the turn in the same hex engage in close combat).
John Hill further explained "designing for effect" by explaining in the designer's notes that no matter what kind of fire might be brought to bear 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/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.
Squad Leader is a game system rather than just a game, further setting it apart from the SPI games that preceded it. The game itself came with 12 different scenarios, each one intended as a stepping stone through the Programmed Instruction method of learning the rules. Squad Leader also had two Design Your Own systems; the first let players select forces by drawing from a standard deck of playing cards and comparing the result to a table where different forces were described, and the second was a simple point purchase system for "buying" opposing forces.
Nick Stasnopolis, writing in Fire & Movement Magazine (Number 73, May/June 1991) made the following comparison:
Few tactical games during this period (mid 1970s) are comparable to Squad Leader,...which is quite popular and is of a similar scale (to Search & Destroy (SPI, 1975) and Firefight (SPI, 1976)), 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 wargame industry has basically ignored the more accurate portrayal of company level combat in (Search & Destroy) for the more glamorous version portrayed in Squad Leader.
Three expansions (called gamettes by the publisher) were produced, Cross of Iron, Crescendo of Doom and GI: Anvil of Victory.