Monday, December 20, 2010

I am a Vassal

I've been aware of the Vassal online game engine for some years, but my initial foray into its use didn't impress me. It seemed flaky on the Mac, which was the only computer I had back then, and I was somewhat confused by it all. I immediately gave up. However, I gave it another try today using my PC and I've been having quite a time downloading modules and playing a few solo games—even though Vassal is ideal for playing a board game with an online opponent.

The engine supports modules that someone has designed and uploaded to the Vassal web site. Creating these modules no doubt requires developer/coding skills I lack, but I am curious. Many thanks to the guys who create these modules for no remuneration. They are heroes in the hobby—although I suspect that if I had skills, I would create modules a) for bragging rights and b) so I could play my favorite board game on Vassal.

The number of modules available is pretty impressive. The quality varies and several modules have multiple versions that are either incremental improvements or creations by different designers.

The first module I downloaded was, of course, PanzerBlitz/Panzer Leader. I'm pretty impressed at how well this module works. The graphics are great and all the charts and situation cards are available.

Initial Russian attack: Lots of wrecks.
I played a solo game using the Vassal engine, Situation 6.

Russians get past the hill defense and prepare to push onto board 3
The Germans squeaked out a tactical victory, but it was close. The challenge for the Russians is to get from Board 1 to Board 3 by way of Board 2, which is lousy with Germans. It was a nice solo game. I avoid solo board games at Chez Dave because les chats vilains tend to fiddle with the pieces even when I'm right there; to leave the game unguarded is inviting disaster. But with Vassal, the cats are reduced to merely walking back and forth in front of the computer, or sitting on the laptop.

Save your sorry panzer division or feed me. Choose wisely.
Vassal also has a module for The Arab-Israeli Wars, so you get the Avalon Hill trifecta. I hope someone does the Panzer Leader 1940 variant...

Another online game is the fairly recent Nations at War: White Star Rising, which is my new favorite board game. The graphics quality for this module is excellent:

S.Pz.Abt. 501 heading into disaster.
I fiddled around with this solo as well, although I didn't play a full scenario game. My friend Rick and I played WSR scenario 1 yesterday and we debated and alternate approach for the Germans. I tried that approach using even better units that were in the scenario and I think that my avoidance tactics of yesterday was the better course. In the few turns I played, the Tiger were burning, the other panzers were burning, and the SS detachment was cowering in the woods and town to avoid getting shot to bits.

Vassal has modules for several GMT games, such as Men of Iron and Nothing Gained but Glory. There are modules for the World at War series from Lock N Load Publishing (an earlier released system similar to WSR for hypothetical tactical combat circa 1985 in western Europe). I have these games on order, so I look forward to playing them on Vassal.

The Vassal module provides all the graphical elements you need (map, counters, etc.) and provides the dice-rolling mechanisms. It does not provide the rules of play or, in most cases, the game scenarios. You need to buy the games to get those. In some cases, however, you can download game rules for very old games. I downloaded the 1965 and 1975 versions of the Avalon Hill Blitzkrieg game.

I'm not sure how much I'll play with online opponents. For a while, I'll just fiddle with the engine doing solo games and getting to know the ropes. The Vassal modules have no controls that limit your actions. They play just like a board game except that the board, pieces, and die roll results are online. I fear that I'll screw up so badly when playing a live opponent that they'll interpret my stupidty as deviousness.

One sad note about Vassal is that there is a very small number of copyright owners who won't allow Vassal modules for their games. One of these is SPI. That's a shame. I don't know who actually owns the SPI copyrights. Most of these games are 30-40+ years old. I see no intellectual property that they are protecting. None of the old SPI games are available for sale—nor have been for many, many years. Maybe I should start a campaign to get the SI copyright owners to unclench and let those of us who own decaying copies of their board games to play them online. Heck, I'd even pay to get a Vassal module of games like Armageddon or Musket & Pike.

The mystery of SPI's exclusion from Vassal is solved. Decision Games, who holds the copyright on SPI, has it's own online server called HexWar. SPI games will only be available there. HexWar is subscription based and currently offers only 41 games—none of which are the ones I want to play. However, HexWar, unlike Vassal, provides rules and has the game constraints built into the engine. Users don't need to have the game to play it online because everything is provided.

After fiddling with the PanzerBlitz/Panzer Leader module, I've discovered that the module designer included a large number of counters for variants. Even though the Panzer Leader 1940 scenarios aren't included as preset games, you can easily play them using the scenarios from the variant that appeared in The General. You can also create new situations for either game using counters that extend PanzerBlitz back to 1941 with Panzer IIs, Panzer IIIs, Russian KVs, T-26s, T-28s, T-35s, etc. I'm very impressed with that module.


  1. I've never tried Vassel but your post got me to download it. Now I just need to install it later today.

    I worry about messing up as well when playing an online opponent, so I have yet to play anything online. I'd be willing to play some games via Vassel with you. We can both fumble our way though them! LOL! All my gaming is solo right now, so it would be a nice change of pace. LMK

    I have WaW: Blood & Bridges and love it. I was looking at WSR but heard a lot of negatives about the production quality.

    I am lucky that I live in Orlando and have a major game discounter as my local store (coolstuffinc). I might pick up WSR. Playing via Vassel is no problem, since the rules are online.

    Keep up the good work on the blog. I like it!

  2. I'll be getting WaW after Chrustmas, so I'll be able to play after that.

    I recommend WSR. I don't know what the production issues were that you heard about, but I think they did a great job. There's one formation chit that got flubbed (one left out, one duplicated), but it's easy to fix.