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Becoming a VASSAL

posted Aug 15, 2012, 11:28 PM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: April 30, 2009

As part of my new-found involvement in revising the rules for GMT Games’ Fields of Fire, I finally downloaded the VASSAL engine so I could check out Joel Toppen’s FoF Normandy module.... Yeah, I know; sometimes I’m just not an early adopter. So sue me.... I’ve started tooling around with it, and I have set up Mission 1 of the Normandy campaign, but haven’t actually started playing. Still getting used to the commands, and so it’s a little early for me to judge the usefulness of VASSAL. 

Gene Billingsley says that he can play an FoF scenario in half of the time it takes him using the physical game components because you don’t have to write out the mission log by hand, and there’s less fiddling with the counters; we’ll see if that’s my experience as well. I may have more to say on the functionality of VASSAL later.

For now, I do have some thoughts on VASSAL and its effect on the business of publishing games. For those of you who are not familiar with it, VASSAL is a software engine (the first of its kind, I believe) meant to allow playing tabletop games by email or remote person-to-person over their server. You could probably also play solitaire in most cases, assuming you have the rules but lack the table space to set up the components. Users create modules for individual games, which they make available through VASSAL’s website. Everything is freeware.

In short, VASSAL is meant to be a digital player’s aid, not a substitute for actually owning a copy of the game that has been VASSAL-ized. However, in my experience, most publishers regard VASSAL and other such software (like Cyberboard and Sun Tzu) with deep suspicion at best. In theory, you could get a copy of the rules to a game for free (GMT Games, for instance, provides updated .pdfs of the rules to many of their games on their website), grab the VASSAL module for free, and essentially get the functionality of having a copy without having to buy it. But concerns also extend to using graphic elements from the game without permission, and the copyright owners simply not having prior say over how their intellectual property is used. 

GMT Games is the only publisher I’ve encountered who has a wholly positive view of VASSAL. As a friendly outsider who has talked business with Gene Billingsley over the years, I know that he has long been interested in ways of getting around the old ‘opponents wanted’ problem that has always dogged the niche hobby of historical wargaming. Allowing gamers to connect with each other by remote is something devoutly to be wished, then, and is good for publishers in that it promotes interest in the hobby and (presumably) consumer desire for more games. VASSAL in this view is an important evolutionary leap that will help keep the hobby vital, as is GMT’s new Ventrilo server — particularly if you could link up with a webcam powerful enough to take in an entire board with fine resolution.

As to whether or not VASSAL essentially allows piracy by enabling people to make use of a game’s components without someone somewhere along the line paying for a copy, Gene made two points this weekend: 1) that anyone who goes to such lengths to avoid paying for a game wasn’t going to buy a copy anyway; and 2) he trusts to the honesty and goodwill of his customer base. Both of these sound like rationalizations. I’m sure that some of his brother publishers would accuse him of being in denial. 

But I think Gene is mostly correct. He’s probably right in his first point, in that the problem is not so much people who would pay for a physical copy of the game if VASSAL didn’t exist, but freetards (to use Fake Steve Jobs’ term) who don’t think they should have to pay for intellectual property at all. However, the existence of such people is a very real issue for game publishers (especially roleplaying game publishers, whose products are more easily turned into functional but unauthorized .pdfs than boardgame publishers). It just happens to be a societal problem that no single game publisher can tackle by itself.

As to Gene’s second point, I suspect that he really can trust his audience more than a lot of other game publishers can trust theirs. The demographics for historical wargaming tend to skew older and (at least from what I’ve been able to observe) more upscale than other categories. Older buyers are more able to put the cost of games into perspective; $65 for the latest from GMT doesn’t seem like very much once you’ve had to deal with mortgage payments, tuition payments or even buying your kid an iPod. Combine that with the fact that many of them are too old to have grown up believing that “information desires to be free” and there just aren’t as many freetards among them as you will find in the audiences for other types of games.

So what will VASSAL mean to me personally? Hard to say, at this point. Once I get a game or two under my belt using Joel Toppen’s FoF module, I may have an answer.