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I’ve Been a VASSAL

posted Aug 15, 2012, 11:31 PM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: May 4, 2009

Okay, so I’ve finished playing through an entire mission using Joel Toppen’s Fields of Fire Normandy VASSAL module. This marks the first time I’ve used the VASSAL engine at all, and I kind of feel like I’m writing an automotive review here: Having driven it to work and back once, what do I think of the car?

Well, I can see why Gene Billingsley said that he could play through an FoF mission in half the time it takes using the boardgame. But I think Joel Toppen deserves as much credit for that as VASSAL itself, because he really did work a lot of useful shortcuts into his module. I’m not sure that it cut my playing time so drastically, but once I got used to all of the commands (and re-memorized the sequence of play), things went pretty smoothly and reasonably quickly.

But the phrase, “once I got used to all of the commands” is key here. That part took me a while, as they are not part of the VASSAL engine menu (and cannot be, as they are pretty much specific to individual modules). Accessing key commands by right-clicking on individual counters is elegant and ingenious, but it wasn’t entirely intuitive to me. Neither was using click-shift to enter text in the Mission Log, as double-click seems more instinctive to me. But that may just be crazy talk from an old Macintosh head.

It would help if the documentation was more thorough-going and easier to access. But VASSAL’s own help files are fairly rudimentary — again, by necessity, as most of the stuff you need to know will be specific to individual modules. And not every module creator is thorough in compiling a guide to his work. All entirely forgivable in that you can understand how that’s the case, but not helpful when you’re yelling at the screen, “Just tell me how the hell I’m supposed to separate the 1st/2nd Platoon counter from the rest of the damn stack!”

Turns out, you just have to double-click the stack, and you can click-and-grab individual counters from within the stack. But the point is, I had to go through some aggravating trial-and-error to find that out.

Basically, VASSAL is a wonderful tool if you have two things: a mouse with a functioning right-click button and a large display. The commands seem to be driven largely by right-clicking on counters, and for Mac laptop users who have to deal with the whole control-click thing to simulate right-click, it’s not as elegant a way of doing things. A large display is especially important for Fields of Fire because screen clutter is almost always an issue; FoF has no on-map charts, the Command Display and the Mission Log are both pretty large, and the Action Deck takes up a fair amount of room, too. This caused a lot of annoyance on my 15.4” MacBook Pro screen, and not even my 22” monitor solved it entirely.

That being said, I can see that VASSAL is probably very good at doing what it is mainly intended to do — giving players a digital tool to allow them to connect over a game by remote. I can even see it as a viable tool for in-person or solitaire gaming if you’re in a pinch and don’t have enough table space to spread out a print copy. You could probably use it to create a digital placeholder if you have to clean up a game in progress and want to resume it later.

But — and you can call me an analog Luddite who wants to hold back the tide of history, if you wish — I do not consider it a suitable replacement for tabletop gaming. I should take back a bit of what I said in my previous post about GMT being the only publisher I know who has embraced VASSAL; it looks like Mark Walker of Lock ‘n Load fame is putting up his own modules, and Dan Verssen Games is selling VASSAL-based products consisting of modules and .pdf rules files. I can see an argument that VASSAL could represent the future of boardgame publishing — or at least historical board wargames, which have always relied mostly on flat game maps and flat cardboard playing pieces and are in that sense two-dimensional anyway. A VASSAL module would be cheaper to produce and could be sold at a lower price point, and yet it would offer a suitable level of graphical quality and the same freedom to manipulate the playing pieces that you get with a print copy.

But I won’t go for it. It’s not so much that I enjoy the tactile feel material components; I do, but I can live without it. I cannot live without being able to take in the entire board at a glance, however. Display size and screen clutter are the decisive issues for me. David Levy once wrote that analyzing situations in chess is all about pattern recognition, and for me, seeing the spatial relationships between the pieces are as important to wargaming as they are to playing chess. It really messes with my chi when I can only see part of the board, then have to scroll to see the rest of it.

Get around that problem, and I’d probably be okay with digital wargaming. Maybe if you could use VASSAL with your computer hooked up to one of those 108” TVs that Panasonic showed off at CES a couple of years ago, that would work well.

Anyone want to buy me one so I can try it out?