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If You Don’t Want to Be a VASSAL...

posted Aug 15, 2012, 11:33 PM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: May 5, 2009

The idea of using VASSAL as a placeholder to record a game-in-progress played with your print copy was just a spur of the moment thing. Literally, I thought of it as I was writing that particular paragraph of that post from the other day. It only occurred to me afterward to look into doing exactly that.

You see, I’ve been fascinated by Highway to the Reich, Eric Goldberg’s old SPI game about Operation Market-Garden, every since it was first published. I fiddled around with it some solitaire, but the problem was that I never had enough table space to fit all of the maps together, nor enough time to play the campaign all the way through. I hit on the expedient of breaking the campaign up into manageable chunks, playing a certain number of turns on one map, then recording the positions of all the units at the point at which I’d left off and putting everything away, then shifting to the action on another map, and so on. It worked reasonably well in the early going, since each map corresponds neatly to a different aspect of the battle — 1st Airborne’s drop on Map A, 82nd Airborne’s drop on Map B, 101st Airborne’s drop on Map C, and 30XX’s attempt to break through the line on Map D. Trouble was, the record-keeping, done by hand, was a bitch-and-a-half, especially as the game went on and there were more and more units on the map. VASSAL would have been fairly handy back then.

30 years on, and I still don’t have enough table space to set up those four maps in their proper, end-to-end configuration. And I sure don’t have time for a continuous orgy of solitaire gaming such as I would need to finish the entire campaign in one go. By any chance, would there be a VASSAL module for Highway to the Reich that I could use to keep my place?

Well, if you go to the VASSAL site and search for Highway to the Reich, you get this. In short, no dice, because Decision Games ain’t playin‘ — or rather, they won’t let you play for free because they’re trying to monetize some of their old SPI licenses through the Hex Wars online pay-for-play venture.

On the one hand, I fully support Decision’s right to use their control of the old SPI properties however they like, and to monetize them according to their perception of their own best interest. The IP rights are theirs and fairly gained, and outside of that, they don’t owe nothin’ to nobody. I understand why they would regard freeware VASSAL modules for those games that are being made available through Hex Wars would conflict with their commercial interests.

But on the other hand, I’m annoyed that Decision’s exercise of their rights effectively prevents me from trying out something that has no effect whatsoever on their interests. I simply want to use VASSAL to add functionality to my old copy of Highway to the Reich, and that has no impact on whether or not I would ever pay to use Hex Wars — especially since Hex Wars doesn’t currently offer Highway to the Reich anyway, and there don’t seem to be any plans on the horizon for it to do so.

Besides, Hex Wars seems to offer value that VASSAL doesn’t have, in that Hex Wars has artificial intelligence, so that you can play against a computer opponent. VASSAL is strictly a tool that allows people to connect with each other, and it doesn’t provide you with an opponent any more than Ventrilo can give you a conversation without another person hooked up to you on the server. Getting a VASSAL module for free doesn’t necessarily preclude you from wanting to pay for Hex Wars.

An argument against VASSAL that I’ve heard publishers make is that the IP holders have no effective control over the quality with which their work is reproduced by the module-makers. Crappy reproductions hurt your brand because when someone makes your work look bad, it reflects on you. Fair enough.

But I have to say that the VASSAL modules of GMT Games that I’ve seen look pretty good. The module for Thirty Years War, for instance, features a high-res scan of the map that looks gorgeous, just like the real thing. By comparison, the graphics for Hex Wars, judging by the samples that they put up on Decision’s site, look distinctly mediocre, pixilated in a way that might have been passable a decade ago, but seem antiquated now. Ironically, the amateurs working with VASSAL would probably make those old SPI games look a lot better than Decision’s authorized partners are doing right now.

Don’t know if there’s any changing Doc Cummings’ mind on this. Oh well. I’ve waited 30 years to make it all the way through Highway to the Reich; here’s hoping that I’ll have another 30 years to find a way.