In defence of VASSAL: A primer on digital tabletop gaming

By John McArdle 03 Sep 2018 0

Recently. one of our new contributors wrote a guide to Tabletop Simulator, an up-and-coming digital table-top platform that could prove an interesting alternative for wargamers to VASSAL. This week, another new contributor making his debut posts about why he still loves VASSAL, and why it's still got legs.

I cut my teeth on digital wargames before dipping my toes into the world of board wargames a few years back and always took for granted having an artificial intelligence to square off against. But as I fell deeper down the rabbit hole of physical wargames, I found myself with a pile of these bespoke games and no human beings to play against. Eventually, the pile of games turned into a mountain of games and, probably to justify my adding to the mountain, I resigned myself to the title of 'wargame collector'. And so, this grognard consumerism continued unabated until about a year ago, when I discovered the means by which I could finally enjoy my mountain.

Enter VASSAL. A wargame-centric, Java-based program, home to literally thousands of titles and growing. Not to mention it’s free and could run on a potato, so unless you have no access to a computer, there is very little in the way preventing you from enjoying a real-time game of Upfront! with someone the next continent over. The games themselves come in the form of user-made modules available from the VASSAL engine website, whose quality varies from module to module. Some game modules feature amenities not included in the physical incarnation, such as GMT Games’ MBT, which includes an option for more naturalistic components than the default cardboard chits.

Conjoin

Did I mention all this is free? Well sort of anyway. VASSAL’s vast repository of modules may be free, but the digital modules very rarely come with manuals, playbooks, or any other of a game’s essential literature. So, if you want to chuck dice and check combat resolution tables with virtual friends, odds are you're going to need to own at least one physical copy of those tables (VASSAL has free virtual dice, don’t worry). If you approach VASSAL as akin to a supplement for when you just can't find anyone to play your game with, rather than a way of 'pirating' the game for free, then this is a non-issue. Finding opponents is done outside of VASSAL, and websites like BoardGameGeek or Reddit’s r/hexandcounter are always replete with people looking for a game on VASSAL. Once an opponent has been found and a game decided on, the two (or more) of you download the respective module, rendezvous on VASSAL—via a fairly straightforward server browser—and you’re ready to go. As an added bonus, most modules come already set-up, so you can get right to playing. VASSAL modules also don’t have a box to go back into, making cleaning up and sorting back into baggies/Plano boxes a non-existent hassle.

Should you want to play a game for which there is no module available—be it something especially new, like a freshly gotten Kickstarter game, or something especially obscure—fret not! As mentioned above, every module available on the VASSAL engine site is user-made, which means those inclined can replicate their game using the tools provided by the engine. It should be noted, however, that a module is subject to being pulled from the site at any time, and some due diligence regarding the publisher and their attitude towards VASSAL is generally a good idea. As of writing this, VASSAL has 52 'banned' modules including Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 and Blood Bowl, and Steve Jackson Games’ Munchkin. Even making a module for 'personal use' and not publishing it to the module database is a tenuous proposition, as VASSAL’s FAQ states, “Theoretically, if you create the module for your own use and for distribution to only people who you know also own the game, then you possibly do not need permission. This point of view is open to argument.” Some publishers, however, have embraced VASSAL engine, most notably GMT Games. Not only does GMT provide direct links to modules via their company store page, the venerable publisher has also, in the past, provided live demos of upcoming titles via VASSAL engine.

demonstrate GMT

Of course, there isn't a substitute for face-to-face play. Watching your opponent’s contortions as your cardboard Wehrmacht surround Moscow. The tactile pleasure of moving wooden blocks around the table. These are part and parcel of the physical side of the hobby. However, VASSAL’s benefits to the isolated grognard cannot be overstated. A game played in tandem with something to facilitate communication, such as Discord or Google Voice, is as near as you’re going to get to the 'real' thing. If it’s a busy schedule, as opposed to geography, imposing on your ability to wargame, it should be noted VASSAL engine allows users to save their game, or play via email. The former feature is a huge boon not just for those strapped for time, but also for those hankering to play a monster game, such as Case Blue or World in Flames, that live without the requisite Ping-Pong table at home. Another nice thing about VASSAL is its relative simplicity. Downloading VASSAL engine and familiarizing myself with the Command and Colors: Napoleonics module took me less than an hour before I was playing with someone. The learning curve for playing with VASSAL is on a module to module basis; some are very straightforward and intuitive, such as the aforementioned Command and Colors: Napoleonics; others are slightly more complicated endeavours, such as Advanced Squad Leader (shocker, right?). 'Complicated' in this instance being relative, as what made ASL more of a bear than Napoleonics was simply a matter of having to manually download the game boards.

At bottom, whether you’re strapped for time, lacking real life opponents, or simply devoid of the space needed for the large-scale games you crave, VASSAL is your friend. A luddite-friendly installation process combined with a handy FAQ also ensures you spend more time playing than you do fiddling with the engine itself. So, the next time you find yourself lamenting how lonely the physical side of this hobby can be, remember: we’re out there, and we’re probably playing your favorite game on VASSAL right now.

John McArdle is one of Wargamer's new contributors - passionate readers and wargaming community members who want to share their experiences and stories in their favourite hobby.

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