Board Games from the Attic: Squad Leader


Historical gaming is where my roots begin for tabletop gaming.  While most kids at six were swatting baseballs, riding bikes, or playing with action figures in a sandbox, I was the nerd that started learning about troop movements on the Eastern Front during World War II, the differences between a tank and an armored fighting vehicle, and what was needed to operate various crew served weapons.  Sure, I played my fair share of G.I. Joes and Atari games, but I will never forget the moment that Panzer Blitz was laid out on the kitchen counter, and I was introduced to the game.  There was something magical about those cardboard counters and scenario cards.  And don’t even get me started on the board artwork with a superimposed hex grid map.  So cool.  But where Panzer Blitz pulled from the company through regimental level of armored units, what really drew my attention were the experiences and stories of individual soldiers, squads, and platoons in infantry units.  So while I’d like to talk more about Panzer Blitz the star of the article this time is a game called Squad Leader.

Examples of Avalon Hill bookcase games.


Squad Leader is a game that was produced by Avalon Hill and first introduced in 1977. It’s one of many in their bookcase series of games. What’s interesting is that bookcase games were a complete game in the same packaging style that allowed people to uniformly display games without any of them looking out of place. Other games in the series were Panzer Blitz, Panzer Leader, Feudal, Luftwaffe, and Third Reich to name just a few. I plan on covering a few of these games at later points, but I digress.

Up front the game is a bit of a misnomer.  Players take on the role of an infantry company commander versus an actual squad leader.  Pieces used in Squad Leader are cardboard counters that represent regular squads, elite squads, vehicle crews, vehicle units, support weapons/equipment, and individual leaders.  Commanders rely primarily on squads to complete scenario objectives in a certain number of turns.  Squad counters have three ratings printed on them that represent their firepower, range, and morale.  Elite squads, such as combat engineers or paratroopers, will have increased firepower and morale (representing better weapons/equipment and specialized training), but have shorter range (such as extensive use of submachineguns).  Exceptional officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) are represented by their own counters.  Leaders can influence unit morale, rally broken squads, and increase potential success when a squad utilizes a support weapon but rely on the support of nearby units to provide firepower.  Most leaders have a negative modifier that assists with morale rolls and helps to relieve the stress of combat from those around them.  However, as in life in general, there are also those leaders that have either a 0 modifier, or in some rare cases a positive modifier.

Squad Leader Map Board 1.  One of the things that started it all.

Armies represented in the core game are Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States, each with their own unique abilities.  With the Soviets players tend to see fewer leaders, lower quality equipment, and the inability to call in accurate supporting fire from artillery.  However, they more than make up for this in manpower resources and ability of squads to go berserk in combat.  The United States has good equipment and slightly higher firepower ratings but tend to have lower morale than the other two nations.  However, they make up for this by rallying broken squads more easily under fire and not being as susceptible to negative morale modifiers.  With the Germans players tend to see a blending of both the Soviet and US forces, with squads having good morale, moderate firepower, and quality equipment.

Example of Squad Leader counters.

Expansions, or gamettes as the publisher called them, were introduced starting in 1979.  The first was Cross of Iron which expanded German and Soviet orders of battle on the Eastern Front, included minor Axis forces, and a wide array of vehicles, equipment, and infantry units.  Crescendo of Doom(COD) came next and was set in early war 1939 to 1941.  COD introduced players to French and British vehicles, equipment, and infantry units, and included minor Allied forces, such as Belgium and the Netherlands.  The last expansion, GI: Anvil of Victory was released in 1983 and was bigger than even the core game of Squad Leader.  Each expansion also contained new scenarios and map boards for players to experience.

Squad Leader and some of its expansions.


Squad Leader is divided into eight phases during a player turn and two player turns for each game turn.  Below is a quick synopsis of each phase:

  • Rally Phase: where “broken” units attempt to rally and malfunctioning weapons are repaired
  • Prep Fire Phase: where the player whose turn it is may fire on enemy units, however any units that prep fire cannot move or fire again for the rest of that player’s turn
  • Movement Phase: where the controlling player may move their units on the board
  • Defensive Fire Phase: where the other player may fire on units that just moved
  • Advancing Fire Phase: where any units that moved may fire but at reduced strength
  • Rout Phase: where any “broken” units must flee for cover
  • Advance Phase: where the controlling player may move every unit one hex
  • Close Combat Phase: where any units from opposite sides that begin that phase in the same hex engage in melee

Once the controlling player completes their turn, control switches to the other player and the phases begin again.  As you can probably tell, both players take part in their opponent’s turn to one degree or another.  This helps to keep both players engaged and focused, versus a simpler you go-I go approach.  Action resolutions are determined by a 2D6 die roll, and in the instances of combat the die roll is used in conjunction with a ratio table to determine the result.  In extreme cases success and failure are ‘automatic’ and really don’t have to be rolled for, other than determining how crushing the result is, e.g. don’t roll an 8+ and those units are wiped out.  One last note on combat in particular is that damage happens to every unit in the hex, so it’s important to keep units somewhat spread out and force your opponent to spread their fire around making it potentially less effective.

Scenario 1 – The Guards Counterattack turn 1.

Rules are driven through each scenario in a mode the designers called programmed instruction.  Simply put this is a building block fashion of rules learning with the first scenario obviously containing the most rules.  Each subsequent scenario contains only those rules introduced in that scenario.  A good example would be players learning all the game core mechanics in the first scenario.  In scenario two, however, players will then add on rules for sewer movement, be introduced to combat engineers, and learn the mechanics for satchel charges and flamethrowers.  At no time is a game mechanic introduced in a scenario and not used.  For example, support vehicles are introduced in scenario three and rules are not covered until then.  To me this is a great approach for new players as they are not bogged down with learning anything additional until that time comes.  Each scenario is also part of a larger campaign and once each scenario is mastered players are encouraged to replay through each game and see how the flow happens.  The rules themselves can be difficult to learn and players are encouraged to replay each scenario completely several times before moving to the next one.  Another nice thing is that it gives players something to look forward to.  If radios and calling in fire support are your jam it’s covered in a future scenario.

A game of Squad Leader in action.

Scenario Cards

Each scenario is contained on either individual and in the case of Squad Leader this is a double-sided stock card that is 8-1/2” x 11” inches.  Each card contains the following information:

  • Title
  • Scenario Number
  • Rules Introduced Section
  • Historical Vignette
  • Victory Conditions
  • Board Configuration
  • Turn Record Chart
  • Order of Battle for each force
  • Special Rules
  • Variations

Special rules were included as a type of rules limiter and fell outside of the original rules packet.  Both players, however, are required to agree to use these rules before starting play.  In later scenarios there was an Aftermath section included at the end.  The Aftermath section gave a brief synopsis of what happened during the fight and wider follow-on results.

Scenario 1 Game Card from the Squad Leader box.

General Thoughts and Reactions

Not going to sugar-coat it: rules for this game are tough and require some effort and time investment to learn.  I’ve done the start-stop-restart dance with this game more than I’d like to admit.  Couple that with the rules being a perishable skill, it can be difficult to learn.  Players need to stick with the system and should probably play on at least a semi-regular basis to know everything required.  Another point is the level of realism that was trying to be achieved.  In some spots players are exposed to a lot of details concerning mechanics and in others not so much.  Some areas, such as equipment failure and squad effectiveness, are kind of weird.  Machine-guns, for example, simply malfunction when something goes wrong.  Malfunctions can range from the weapon jamming or the barrel needing to be changed out, to the weapon being destroyed.  Units are another example.  Squads either operate at full effectiveness or are broken and cannot be used; there are no rules for attrition and as a unit takes damage it never degrades in firepower, range, or morale.  My point being that there isn’t much of an in-between.  However, I do see where designers drew a line where if you included that level of detail the game would be impossible to play as players would be so mired in logistical work keeping track of things.

Squad Leader back case art.

But with that being said the detail is pretty amazing. Players are exposed to a myriad of game mechanics such as sewer movement, blind/hidden movement, night combat, multiple storied buildings, buildings catching fire, the list just goes on and on. Players learn quickly that support weapons become a critical piece of equipment. Machine-guns, for example, have the potential to fire multiple times during a turn and provide penetration firepower. Penetration allows directed fire to not only affect the hex targeted, but successive hexes in a straight line behind it to varying degrees. Players are also encouraged to use a combined arms approach and basic infantry tactics to achieve victory. You’ll quickly learn that assaulting a machine-gun nest is a difficult and potential costly endeavor with no forward planning. And speaking of hexes, the maps are simply beautiful. These are quality boards and counters the likes of which are seldom repeated to this high of a degree. The boards are completely modular and interchangeable offering players a great number of combinations. Finally, scenarios are broad and can cover a myriad of different encounters including assaulting fixed positions, convoy escorts, parachute and glider attacks, ambushes, and even withdrawing under fire.


Despite being a complex game to learn and play, Squad Leader can be worth your time.  This is especially true if you’re into historical gaming and/or looking for something different than say miniatures to scratch that gaming itch.  However, it can be a time sink to get the most out of it.  What’s also nice is that Squad Leader and all its follow-on expansions feel like and are a gaming system rather than individual board games.  The rules remain consistent across every box and players keep getting more of what they want and what drew them to the game in the first place.  I would encourage anyone to try at least the first scenario and broaden their gaming horizons.

[This post was originally published at Otherverse Games & Hobbies]


A New England transplant that originated from parts westward, Ryan is a bit of a nerd that knows a little bit about a lot of things, all while claiming to know nothing about anything.  Seemingly part Khajit a logistician by trade, he’s the kind of guy that can get you virtually anything if there’s coin to be had a problem to solve.  Ryan began to learn the scrounging arts while serving time in parts east as a Loggie and has been perfecting them steadily over several decades.  He has a problem with continually purchasing models, paints, and terrain that he doesn’t really need but his wife doesn’t seem to mind.

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